There’s something unholy about waking up at 3 a.m. Waking up at 4 is acceptable–a hard-working businessperson might wake up at 4 to get a workout in before their commute. But 3 is just plain the middle of the night. The birds aren’t singing and there’s no hint of the sun on the horizon for at least a couple of hours.
One day this summer though, my two friends and I woke up at 3 a.m. to catch our 5:30 flight to Canada. And boy, was it worth it.
Usually I try to blog my trips while they’re happening, but due to an unfortunate sequence of events, including a broken laptop with a nine-days-expired warranty and a severe lack of wifi, this one is a post-trip recount.
When we hopped off our flight in Calgary at noon, we felt the weight of our already 9-hour day pressing down on us, but we shouldered it along with our luggage and made our way to the rental car building.
The landscape in Canada was a dream from the start. Pulling out of the airport I watched the lush green grass blowing in the wind, shining like glossy silken ribbons. As we drove closer to the mountains, we marveled at the clearness of the air–i felt like I could see for miles and miles, and everything appeared crisp and sharp. I guess I hadn’t realized how the Texas scenery is often dulled by airborne dust.
The town of Banff itself was one of those typical hyper-planned tourist towns: it looked really cute, but felt fake, like it was putting up a facade for us. Which I guess it was, literally. Each storefront on the picturesque main street boasted signs for several stores within, and upon entering, several proved to be underground malls with 10 or more shops and pubs below ground level.
Our roommate in the hostel was from South Korea and a hopeless romantic. In halting English, he asked why we traveled to Canada, and we replied that we were just vacationing, drawn to the country by the scenery and climate. When we asked him the same question, he answered that he had first heard of Lake Louise when he listened to a song of the same name by Japanese pianist Yuhki Kuramoto. The flowing melodies and shimmering arpeggios had stirred something in him, and he planned a pilgrimage to the lake that had inspired the music. He played the song for us and it was complicated and beautiful and calm all at the same time.
When we woke the next morning at 7, the sun had been up for two hours already. That’s just how summers are up north–more light than you know how to take advantage of. The sun set close to 10 p.m., and rose a little after 5 in the morning.
In the bright daylight, we ate breakfast outside on the stained-cedar balcony of the hostel cafe, then set off on the drive to Lake Louise. The lake was partially frozen, so it wasn’t the turquoise vista in the Google image photos–at least not immediately. For our first hike, we climbed the mountain to the left of the visitor’s center on a trail called the Lake Agnes Teahouse trail. Unfortunately, the warm sun beating down on the mountain snow created prime conditions for avalanches, so we weren’t able to venture all the way to the tea house. We did, however, make it to Mirror Lake, which was so blindingly white with snow and ice that we looked anywhere but at the lake.
On the way up the mountain, we saw a glimpse of the thawing lake, which was now a brilliant blue. When we reached the bottom of the slope after the hike, we took off and walked half the perimeter of the lake to see the water, which was almost opaque from all the suspended rock flour in the water.
When we got home, we were exhausted, but ate some indian food at a cute restaurant called Masala (uninspired but accurate I guess) before passing out.
The next day was Friday, and we decided to stick closer to town. After asking around at the visitor’s center in town, we decided to hike the Surprise Corner to Hoodoos trail, which began right on the edge of Banff and ran parallel to the road out to our hostel.
This trail felt very different from yesterday’s snow-covered path–the trees were closer together, and the strong sunlight filtered through them, dappling the forest floor with green and yellow and brown. Moss grew thick on either side of the footpath and formed little mounds. After a while the moss gave way to tussocks of glossy grass along the banks of a teal-colored river. As we ate our lunch on some mossy rocks, we saw a group of mule deer wade chest-deep through the water to graze on the other side. The trail was out-and-back, but we never did see the hoodoos.
Back in town, we snacked on some grocery store falafel for supper and headed into Banff for a night out. In short, the night included at least 5 gin and tonics, a grimy “English pub,” new friends from France, Germany, Australia and more, and a bar called the Dancing Sasquatch (there really was a dancing sasquatch who posed for a picture with us).
Waking up was hard the next morning, and we spent the day hanging around town shopping and sight-seeing. That night, I went for a trail run and went far enough to actually see the hoodoos for which the Surprise Corner trail was named. As night fell, Evelyn and I took the car and drove into town and up Mount Norquay.
The road up the slope of the mountain was just a series of hairpin turns through thick forest, interspersed with grassy alpine meadows. Near the top, we got out and admired the view of the town, nestled cozily in the valley below. I proposed that we sit in the pair of giant red chairs (these are everywhere in Canada??) in the middle of the meadow, but we only got halfway across when we realized the spot was already taken by several huge, shadowy animals. Upon closer inspection–but not too close–they proved to be bighorn sheep trying to sleep. We startled them, and they turned and looked at us with luminous eyes. We backed away slowly to the car, and they turned and ran up to the road ahead of us. Once we were safe in the car, we drove along the road alongside the sheep, who would trot ahead and then stop and stare balefully back at us.