June Mountain Travel Runs

It’s the first day of June and as spring officially trickles into its waning days, I couldn’t help but flip through some old local travel photos and recall how June once… sometimes… began for me for a few consecutive years as the week of the most epic travel race I’ve ever run.

for whatever one photo is worth:

For four years in a row a small group of fourteen friends and I formed up a team and ran the epic Banff-Jasper Relay race.

One photo hardly does this endurance relay justice, but it can try,

Picture this instead: a ribbon of twisting, undulating highway follows a course northward through the Rocky Mountains for a distance of two hundred and sixty kilometers. On its way it passes through thick forests, expansive lakeside vistas set at the base of mountains, to the foot of a glacier, cresting at elevations many people will never experience let alone run, dodging wildlife and encountering unpredictable weather from fleeting snow to pounding sunshine. Runners tackle varying distances of as much as twenty kilometers each of asphalt highway shoulder, each section a unique challenge of solitude, terrain, or pacing as support vehicles leapfrog the highway providing water and nutrition and keeping tabs on each participant.

I took this photo in 2016 with a small camera I carried with me that year. I had hoped to document not just the spectacular views but the spirit of the race as hundreds of runners and support crew set up bases at transitions, cheered from the highway, and embodied an experience that would be impossible to replicate outside of sports like this.

We are so lucky to live so close to this.

Yet, I call this a travel photo because as much as these mountains are a mere four hours of by car away from my house, the effort to participate involves days of adventuresome driving.

The day before the race we would spend the day driving nearly five hours from home to the start line headquarters for the race in scenic Lake Louise, just North of Banff, Alberta.

The morning of the run our support vehicle would drop runner one off at the muster point for the very beginning leg of the South portion of the race. The race used to be run as one loooooooong day but due to concerns about running along a highway in the dark was later divided into a North and a South portion. The start line was about thirty kilometers out of town at the proper beginning of the highway.

For the bulk of the morning and early afternoon, each runner would run their leg of the mountain road while the others paced along the shoulder of the highway in the car. This meant driving slowly, parking, supporting, and repeating for upwards of six to eight hours.

As the South portion concluded, the North portion with three additional legs, was still in full swing, so the participants from the South portion would drive a hundred kilometers of long, cellular-service-free mountain road, the same stretch run by members of the team just hours prior, to catch up and try to find the remaining crew.

As those last still-racing runners completed their legs, the whole of the team would drive to the finish line in Jasper to cheer on the runner bringing in the fifteenth leg of the relay, followed by celebrating, food, and toasts all round.

The next day, for those who chose to make but a weekend adventure out of the race, yet another four to five hour drive back to the city awaited, completing a loop of nearly eleven hundred kilometers over about three days.

This year the race is purely virtual, but I’ll be thinking of those mountains as I continue training through the hills near my neighbourhood this June.

Moraine Lake Canoes in Pieces

In the summer of 2018 we spent a week backpacking in the Rocky Mountains near Lake Louise, Alberta, conquering a trail known as the route to Skoki Lodge. We roughed it, camping out of whatever we lugged on our backs up the nearly-twenty kilometer hike. Dehydrated food, lightweight gear, water filtered from a mountain stream, and a couple amazing day hikes.

It was also forest fire season, so at least two days of our time in the wilderness were socked in with a thick haze of sore-throat inducing smoke that blocked out nearly all the scenery while still somehow having zero effect on the mosquito population.

for whatever one photo is worth:

After we descended the mountain, tired, sore, and smelly, we spent an extra day in the small town of Lake Louise to recover before the long drive home.

Lake Louise is a place of epic beauty.

Many people come to Canada to see the mountains and find themselves in Banff.

Banff is also a gorgeous mountain town, but it is relatively big and full of people. Touristy, with kitschy souvenir shops and parking lots and traffic lights. Some of the people who visit Banff have done their research and drive an hour down the road to Lake Louise for a day or two where a grand hotel sits at the edge of a glacial lake a the foot of a picturesque mountain.

A subset of those folks who find their way to Lake Louise take yet another short side trip and discover Moraine Lake.

It was still smoky and the hint of sun that broke through was itself threatening to duck behind the mountains for the evening when we found our way to the shore of Moraine. Our legs were still achy and tired from the previous day’s descent down from the Skoki valley. And we were not keen on driving back the narrow mountain road through the dark. We walked around the edge of the lake for a few minutes, and I snapped about a dozen photos including one of the colourful rental canoes tethered to the dock for the evening.

We went home the next day.

Weeks went by and we shared stories of our hike with friends and family.

Summer turned into autumn and autumn into winter.

Snow. Routine. Work.

I had stopped for coffee in the break area of my office. As the holiday approached and people were feeling the need for some festive fun, someone had set up a jigsaw puzzle at one of the lunch tables. I meandered over to look, and picked up the box to see what the picture would become.

The sky in that photo was a little brighter, and the canoes were arranged a little differently, but I recognized the scene immediately: Moraine Lake …in five hundred tiny pieces.

The Snowy Drive Home

As I posted on Twitter less than an hour after we cleared this particular winter driving mess: The downside of a winter vacation is often the treacherous drive home!

After a quiet morning of wandering around our hotel in the ankle-deep winter snow of a mountain wonderland it was time to pack the car and start the drive home. But where on one side of the mountain it was sunny and magical, a few kilometers North on the same road, just around that big mountain there, a heavy cloud had settled into the valley and the wind was blowing.

All of this was making for a sketchy drive homeward.

Winter Roads and Mountains.

I was the passenger. This is sometimes the worse seat to be in.

All you can do as the passenger is sit quietly and try not to be a distraction. I accomplished this heavy task by pointing my phone camera out the front of the car windshield and taking in the rare view of a lonely winter drive down an empty mountain highway.

The video called “Winter Drive” is from part of our long, slow, snowy drive yesterday.

I include a second video for context, as “Kananaskis Cruising” was a short out-the-side-window clip of the same twenty-five kilometer stretch of highway we had driven inbound less than fourty-eight hours previous. Notice the lovely mountains that are barely ghostly shadows in the video taken a couple days later.

We’re hearty, snow-trained Canadians… eh.

We have high-quality winter tires on our four wheel drive SUV, emergency supplies in the back hatch, and have both driven our share of winter roads.

But.

There was no cell service anywhere along this road.

There was a kid and a puppy in the backseat.

The advanced driving features (lane detection, collision detection, etc) of the car had tapped out and were just flashing a yellow light apologetically from the dashboard.

And snow, ice, cold, and speed are never a trivial combination no matter who you are and what technology you are using.

Conclusion.

The worst of the drive (actually) was less impressive visually. As we turned up onto the main four-lane cutting vertically up the province and across the prairies, the one hundred kilometer per hour gusting winds had blown a number of large trucks off the road. The car shook for three hours and we had to stop to refill our windshield fluid because the asphalt couldn’t decide if it was wet, icy, or snowy, but all of it spattered on the glass obscuring the view. Passing these jackknifed in the ditch and watching them through a muddy, snow-streaked pane of glass as the road of gusting wind creaks and groans the seals of the car is a glaring reminder that the buffeting of the vehicle as it shakes is not exactly an amusement park ride.

But in the end… (spoiler alert) we made it home safely, if very slowly.

Mountain Winter Wonderland

I think I mentioned yesterday something-something about unpredictable weather in the mountains. It snowed all night here and we woke up to an ankle-deep blanket of fresh mountain powder.

Of course, the highways home are going to be terrible. Gah!

But as far as a morning walk went, the dog was over the moon to bound through the snow drifts and I took about a hundred beautiful photos from the panoramic vista near the hotel.

It’s a shame we didn’t bring any skis!