Fire and Water

11 September 2022 – It started with fire, on Friday the 9th, and the threat of more to come.

I’m passing through Hope, BC, with 10 other people — nine fellow tour members and one Discover Canada van driver. It is more specifically a caffeine stop, since we left Canada Place in downtown Vancouver at 7 a.m. and have been driving east since then.

A wonderful trip, two days into it I know I chose well. We will spend 11 days looping north-east through Kelowna to Banff; farther north but now west to Jasper; even farther north and even more west through Prince George to Prince Rupert back on the coast; then south (thank you BC Ferries) down the Inside Passage to Vancouver Island; yet more south down the island; and finally one more ferry loop and short drive home to Vancouver.

All those mountains, all that coast, it promises to be spectacular. For me, it means some new territory and lots of revisits to much-loved territory from decades back.

For all of us, whatever our background and experience, it means the sombre reality of travelling toward areas affected by wildfire.

And so, post-lattes, we stand on the banks of the Fraser River, looking across to the plumes of smoke from the wildfire discovered at 3 a.m. that very morning.

We watch three helicopters shuttling back and forth between the river and the fire, dropping their water buckets into the Fraser and then emptying them on the blaze. We’re in Banff, two days later, before we learn how viciously the fire continues to spread.

Saturday morning has us climbing through the arid landscape east of Kelowna. Below us, Kalamalka Lake in the Coldstream Valley. I wow at the big vista, but my heart loves the snake fence even more. (Memories of small childhood, and rural Quebec fields.)

On up, on east, a moment at the cairn for the Last Spike in Craigellachie, BC — the literal final spike that on 7 November 1885 “welded East to West” by joining the two concurrently built sections of the cross-country Canadian Pacific Railway. The human cost, we now acknowledge, was horrific (labour safety was unknown, and the dynamite teams of Chinese labourers imported for the purpose suffered most of all) — yet it is equally true that the engineering feat, given the terrain and the technology of the day, was extraordinary. Both true. And both now finally acknowledged.

And up some more. Another brief stop in the Rogers Pass (elevation 1,330 m.), an avalanche-prone area that now uses avalanche guns to trigger dangerous loads rather than wait for a potentially deadly surprise. I circle the avalanche guns on display at the Parks Canada site …

but spend longer contemplating the office windows full of red “restricted activity” notices. All because of wildfires.

And higher still. We’re now following the Kicking Horse River and somewhere in here cross both the BC/Alberta border and the Continental Divide. We’re at some 1,600 m. elevation and the river through the van window has the exaggerated winding loops of rivers at height of land.

It’s late afternoon by the time we reach Lake Louise, but it is also a sunny, abnormally warm Saturday afternoon, — and good grief, we might as well be jostling through the Louvre, straining for a glimpse of the Mona Lisa. All those decades ago when I lived in Calgary and could bop up to Lake Louise on a whim, I tell myself, it was not this crowded. And then I slap down my Old Fart tendencies, my Good Old Days tendences, and…

fall under the lake’s spell one more time. Because it is stunning. “Rock flour” created by glaciers grinding against bedrock hangs suspended in the water, reflecting the light and creating the glowing blues and turquoise.

I’m glad I saw it again, even if it did involve dodging & weaving along the pathways. It conjures not just summer memories, but also memories of being part of the media horde invited up to celebrate the winter reopening of Chateau Lake Louise. I’ve skated there, I think fondly to myself, as I turn to leave.

And then somewhere new: Moraine Lake. How could I have lived in Calgary, and never visited it? Doesn’t matter, I am here now. It is higher than Lake Louise, smaller, and, for me, more captivating. Perhaps because I’ve never seen it before? And the crowds are so much thinner?

I stand at one end, looking past the moraine (rock rubble deposited by glaciers) that gives it its name, and the equally trademark log jams, to the lake itself. Oh, that glowing blue water!

I have to read the signs, to learn about that log jam. Simple, once you know: winter avalanches sweep trees down onto ice-covered lakes; spring melt causes the logs to drift to the stream outlet and jam into place.

I walk farther down the lake, as I had done at Lake Louise, again marvelling at the colours. Perhaps because we are closer to sunset, everything seems to glow more intensely. I am caught both by the mountain reflections into the water, and by that final horizontal slash of intense turquoise, ‘way down there at the far end.

Which comes back to mind — though not immediately — the next day.

That’s today, Sunday, here in Banff.

I go for a nostalgic early-ish morning stroll along Banff Ave., eyeing past a wooden mother/cub carving to Mount Rundle, anchoring the village as it always has.

There is haze. We are aware of the Jasper wildfires to the north-west. So much water in our travels, these last few days, but, always, out there in the larger context, fire.

A morning tour: quick stop at the turreted and surreal splendour of the Banff Springs Hotel, a CPR hotel built in the 1880s in deliberate imitation of royal castles, in order to lure monied aristocratic visitors and start recouping some of the costs of railway construction. (“If we can’t export the scenery,” snapped Van Horne, entrepreneur behind the railway, “we will import the visitors.”)

And on to Bow Falls, tumbling water into Bow River that will make its way through Calgary and beyond. I climb to the lookout, listen to the glorious white noise of the rushing water and suddenly snap back from that near-meditative state to instead focus on the hard dynamics of rock and water. Great long spines of rock, vertebra upon vertebra, all laced together with water.

Another view of the Bow River a little later, looking down into the valley and picking out the Hoo Doos — the grey needles of harder rock exposed when the softer sedimentary layer is worn away.

There are the Hoo Doos, just mid-right in the photo, and, beyond that, the whole great sweep as the river courses on down through the valley.

I visit it yet again, this time on the section of the Bow Trail that follows its course within Banff itself.

I take this photo for all those iconic symbols smack on top of each other: turquoise water and trail bikes and canoes and, visible through the leaves, a Canadian flag. I don’t yet know that the canoes in this image — like my shot of Moraine Lake with its hard slash of turquoise — will soon take on extra meaning.

Very soon.

I follow a short-cut from the Trail to the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, and tumble in the door, eager for whatever they choose to show me. I loved this museum when I lived in Calgary, I loved it during a visit in my Toronto years, and I love the fact I am right now about to visit it again.

Along with the permanent exhibits, there is a special exhibit simply titled Canoe. It presents paintings and 3D objects that trace the history of the canoe over 200 years, right from an 1820 watercolour to a 2018 acrylic. (Visit it yourself, for 3 minutes, with a CBC reporter.)

I love lots of what I see in this show, including Inuit carvings and folk art and a superb small study by Alex Colville and works by a range of other significant artists. However, it is a 1923 oil (Against the Current, Thomas Wilberforce Mitchell) of two men poling a canoe through some rapids that suddenly makes this show not just canoe history, not just Canadian history, but my own history as well.

My father spent two university summers in the late 1920s on a small survey team that paddled the rivers of northern Saskatchewan for four months straight each year, their days in canoes and their nights in tents. My dad was proud of his ability to run rapids in a canoe, but (he wrote in his diary) he was awe-struck at the poling technique used by their Chippewa support team. They taught him, he practised, and he was as proud of that new skill as he was of his ability to handle the cumbersome survey equipment of the day.

That oil is my nostalgia moment; this acrylic is my right-now moment.

Summer Drift, 2018, by David Thauberger, has me jabbing my finger mid-air, the way we do when something really stops us in our tracks. Look! I breathe to myself. I see not just a canoe, an object of pure and perfect design… but, look, there are the horizontal slashes of turquoise water, bands of them in the distance, that I had seen at Moraine Lake.

So I come away from the show full of joy.

And I am subsequently sobered. A text from our tour guide advises us that yes, we will proceed to Jasper on Monday, despite continuing wildfires in the area. The town itself is safe, it largely once again has power, and the hotel wants us to come. But… they only have cold water. Be advised.

Nobody whines. Lack of hot water is nothing, compared to the devastation caused for others (human and wildlife). Had we been asked to stay away, we would have done so. Since we have been asked to honour the reservation, we will. It is their decision that our (and others’) arrival will help them recover, and that makes it the right thing to do.

Tomorrow, Jasper.

  • WALKING… & SEEING

    "Traveller, there is no path. Paths are made by walking" -- Antonio Machado (1875-1939)

    "The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes" -- Marcel Proust (1871-1922)

    "A city is a language, a repository of possibilities, and walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities" -- Rebecca Solnit, "Wanderlust: A History of Walking"

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