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alberta trip report part 2: the glacial cold

2006-06-16 - 11:15 p.m.

2006 by Elaine Radford
detail, natural rock carving, mistaya canyon

You are reading Part 2 of my Alberta trip report. To start with Part 1, please click here.

2006 by Elaine Radford
they'll never say "but it's a dry heat" about this climate, ask any put-upon, rained-upon clark's nutcracker

Friday, June 9

On a chill, gloomy day, we checked out of our suite and headed north up the Icefields Parkway. Rain, bighorns, dramatic mountain scenery, and did I mention bighorns? You may have noticed in Part One that the lake water was a shocking turquoise blue. That isn't a PhotoShop. Apparently, the mineral "flour" created by glacier grinding on rock gives the water that color -- even under the grayest and gloomiest of skies. At times the clouds that alternately swallowed and revealed the mountains were quite dramatic. We stopped here and there to take little hikes and seek out scenic overlooks.

A funny thing happened at the Crowfoot Glacier overlook. A huge Common Raven was waiting for visitors, and he began to puff, shiver, and display in the universal baby-bird begging language for food. "Oh right, you're just a bitty baby," I said. But, secretly, I have to admit that he was so adorable that I couldn't help thinking: What would it hurt?

2005 by Elaine Radford
innocent-looking "baby" raven awaits his prospective marks on a bear-proof garbage bin at the crowfoot glacier overlook
But rules are rules, and I didn't bring out the pumpkin seeds we'd been munching all morning.

Aghast that we could deny him, the Raven hopped down and began to stroll around the car, checking carefully for any opening. After all, he'd seen food come out of those big tin cans before....

2006 by Elaine Radford
a bigger can opener would do the trick

Suddenly, I noticed something very big, very black, and very close -- and it wasn't a Raven! DH and I hopped in the car in a flash and observed the lurking Black Bear from way too close for any spotting scope. We hadn't seen it before because it was hunched down digging for food just below the drop-off, but it was only steps away.

And you can bet your bottom dollar that if I'd actually given in to the coaxings of the Raven and brought out treats, that bear would have been all over it in a shot. Whew. A little bit of adventure there.

2006 by Roger Williams
Peyto Lake from Bow Summit
We hiked up the Bow Summit overlooking Peyto Lake, which is supposedly the most turquoise blue of all the turquoise blue lakes. To be honest, they're all pretty garish. I worried that my photographs would look fake. I guess if you don't believe me about the color, you'll have to go and see for yourself.

As we turned to hike down into Mistaya Canyon, I looked back over the parking lot and across the street and what to my wondering eye did appear but a beautiful little dark falcon sitting in a bare tree across the highway. DH set up the spotting scope, and we appreciated the lovely little Merlin in all her splendor. The canyon itself was also a little gem with exquisitely sculpted rock carved by white and turquoise water.

2006 by Elaine Radford
mistaya canyon is where we also first noticed that the local red squirrel is an extremely noisy eater, he can't seem to enjoy his spruce cone unless he is making a huge racket to let everyone know that he's got one, he's eating one, and you're not

Eventually we arrived at Athabasca Glacier. The visitor center, across the street, is where the glacier was sometime in the later 1880s. As you drive down the road to the parking lot on the other side, you pass where it was in 1922, 1938, 1944. Then, at some point, you start walking. At 1982, you can't even see the glacier, both because of the steep hill but also because it has retreated so far. At 1992, you start to feel that the glacier is actually within reach, but it's still quite a little uphill stroll. "Why can't glaciers retreat downhill?" I asked. My little attempt at humor. Various grim signs threaten that it will be gone in a hundred years and that you will die of hypothermia before their highly trained rescue personnel can pull you out of the water, so don't even think of scrambling around outside of the roped-up part of the ice. But they do allow you to walk on the glacier for a little way. It was crunchy, slippery -- and still pointed uphill, so I only walked far enough to say that I had and that my feet were actually starting to get a little cold even though I was wearing two pairs of socks. DH was bolder and walked out further.

2006 by Elaine Radford
athabasca glacier walk

This walk is free of charge by the way. You could buy tickets for a tour bus and go further out on the glacier and not have to do any hiking, but it just didn't seem like it would be the same.

We were considering the short hike to the Dome Glacier nearby, but as far as we could tell, the road to the trailhead was blocked off -- perhaps for safety reasons. Even on Athabasca, we could pick out obvious thin spots.

A notable post-glacier stop was the remarkable, dramatic, and very loud Athabasca Falls.

Our country cabin turned out to be very nice, with two trees growing through the front porch, a hot tub, and even a heated swimming pool. There was just one thing that was very odd, which still bothers me a little. We had dinner at the restaurant, and when our meal came, I didn't get what I had ordered. The waitress brought me something else -- a smaller portion of something else. I'd ordered the apricot pork chops, and there was apparently only a three cheese one left. And not two of them like it said, just one of them. So...instead of telling me in the first place and asking me if I'd like to order something else, or instead of buying me a free drink, or even instead of knocking a few bucks off the price, she said that Roger's beer would be free. I mean, how rude. At first I couldn't even understand what she was saying because it was so nonsensical. I haven't run into that attitude of "well, you're not a real person, since you are only a woman" in years. Sure, I know a lot of people still think that way, but if they're working with the public, they usually at least try to hide it a little. I should have complained but instead I tried to laugh it off and suggested that she bring me a free beer. Ha. Wasn't going to happen. She just pretended that she didn't hear me and waltzed on off. She brought Roger another beer though just fine.

I mean, as they say on the fabulous internets, wtf? I really really should have said something, but it was my vacation, and I really didn't feel like I should have to participate in a confrontation. But, honestly, I should probably write a letter. Passive aggressive people suck.

DH and I soaked in the hot tub, and he even splashed in the heated swimming pool a little, although I just put my toe in. We then enjoyed hot buttered rum toddies whipped up with Captain Morgan's Spiced Rum, real butter, and Splenda -- and all of the chill was gone from our bones, even though we'd gone walking on a glacier that day.

2006 by Elaine Radford
our country cabin

Saturday, June 10

The guide book and tourist hand-outs suggested that the tram line to The Whistlers would be quite long, so we headed out early and found no one there except a guy working on a bird guide who said he'd been watching a pair of Yellow-Bellied Flycatchers. He also told me where the Cottonwood Slough was, which I hadn't been able to find on my map, but which was mentioned prominently in the trip reports I'd copied from the internet. After explaining how to get there, he told me of two or three other Empidonax he'd seen the day before at the Slough. Uh oh. I'd hoped for a little more excitement than Empidonax, since I still haven't learned the songs well enough to be able to distinguish them. If I did see one of his Yellow-bellieds, I'm surprised -- that bird was considerably yellower than I'd expected. But I'm not counting it, because all I saw was a yellow flash that could have been anything.

Eventually the tram opened, and up the mountain we went. I'll be honest. Going up the tram at The Whistlers is a costly and claustrophobic experience. If you have the energy and an entire day to devote to the project, you are allowed to hike up yourself without paying -- and you will have to hike down as well, since they do check tickets again before you ride down. It's very, very steep, so be sure you're in shape for it. But it could be the way to go, especially if you've got young knees. They actually have a hostel at the trailhead, so people can stay there, get a good night's sleep, and get an early start in the morning.

The main draw of The Whistlers is White-Tailed Ptarmigan and Gray-Crowned Rosy-Finch. Well, to make a long sad story short, the birds were not there. We climbed to the summit, kicked around on little side trails, photographed scenic overlooks, shared a healthy picnic lunch of low carb chocolate bars and beef jerky, and pretty much examined every lichen-covered speckled rock around to be sure that it wasn't a juicy fat speckled ptarmigan instead, but we had no luck. Ptarmigan pot pie! We did hear a songbird -- horned lark, maybe? -- but somehow could never locate the bird. It was always behind the next rock.

It was a beautiful clear cold day above the treeline, and we had spectacular views in a full 360 degrees around. The tourists had built impromptu spirit gates or torii just about everywhere. I'm not sure of the story behind that. Perhaps one day in the 1980s some Japanese tourist started the trend, and everyone has copycatted ever since? I've no idea.

2005 by Elaine Radford

In the afternoon we located the Cottonwood Slough, although it was the wrong time of day to find much in the way of birds. I didn't notice any Empidonax but I probably wasn't looking very hard. Then we did a part drive/part walk around Patricia and Pyramid Lakes. We even started to walk into the Valley of the Five Lakes, although we quickly realized that our guidebook was wrong and that the hike was considerably longer than 0.6 kilometers. Before we backed out of that one, we did encounter the Veery -- and quite close-up, which is fortunate, since I needed a long look to separate it from the other brown thrushes of the region.

On the drive back, at one point, I saw a Common Loon family with both parents and a little fluffy black chick. Closer to our cabin, we both saw, very clearly and not far away at all, a wolf crossing a small shallow stream. At first I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Aren't wolves supposed to be rare? But it was the right area, all right. Later, I would actually notice the signs asking you not to run over them.

Ptarmigan pie, doubled. No one wants to hear about the ptarmigan anyway. Wait until they hear that we saw an actual wolf!

2005 by Elaine Radford
a lonely wetland overlook

I have to say that dinner came out very well, especially considering the conditions. There was a sort of plug-in two-burner thingy. I made cheesy broccoli/cauliflower on one burner and chicken thighs in real butter, white wine, and chopped green onion on the other burner. Maybe it was hunger from hiking up and down The Whistlers summit, but I was ready to lick my plate. After dinner, I got a surge of energy and decided to locate the nearby waterfall. I could hear it, but I could never quite see it -- perhaps trees had grown up around it since the path was laid -- but I did find a wetland overlook and also a remarkable little field of wild orchids.

Now you know why I am not telling the name of our cabin or exactly where it was located. That's all I need, for the orchids to get dug up and find themselves on sale at the WalMart in Hinton the very next day.

2006 by Elaine Radford
don't go digging the orchids, remember what i said about wolves in the area?

You have just read Part 2 of my Alberta trip report. More coming soon.

2006 by Elaine Radford
a dark-eyed junco inspected us as we picnicked by one of the "p" lakes, but she didn't pester us unmercifully or anything for our food, i think she just enjoyed watching us watch her

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