Hiking: Johnston Canyon

During the summer of 2021 we took a pair of casual family vacations to the mountains. The first and more southern of these was a trip to the proximity of Banff National Park. Four nights in Canmore, Alberta a mountain town just outside of the national park boundary served as the staging point for a number of family hiking days in Canada’s keynote wilderness area.

for whatever one photo is worth:

The effort it required us to reach the trailhead of this meandering family hike belied the apparent popularity of this mountain attraction.

Johnston Canyon is among the original generation of tourist hikes in this part of the National Park. Where most hikes in the area are marked by a small parking lot and a wooden sign at the trailhead, Johnston Canyon had a large paved parking lot, a tourist information kiosk, a plumbed bathroom facility, a teahouse, an ice cream shack, a restaurant with a balcony, and sat across the road from a medium-sized hotel. All this roughly thirty kilometers outside of Banff, down a secondary highway (which happened to also be partially closed to accommodate pedestrians and cyclists during the pandemic) requiring a lengthy (but very scenic) drive to reach.

The canyon itself is the showcase of the hike.

A small river with a series of small waterfalls has spent millions of years cutting a jagged gash across the face of the mountain, and the multitude of family hikers walk alongside, into, and over said canyon in an effort to reach the epic upper falls (or further for more adventurous sorts with more time on their hands to complete the extra four kilometers in each direction.)

To assist with the experience of closely encountering the scenery (and likely to avoid losing tourists to off-trail tumbles over cliffs, et cetera) a large stretch of the path is composed of suspended walkways clinging to the cliffs, concrete and steel spiked into the granite and welcoming tourists to explore nature in a kind of sanitized yet surreal safety mode.

We strolled up to the various waterfalls, took many photos, and found ourselves carrying the dog along most of these steel walkways (thank goodness she’s only four kilograms) because the gaps and the noise were a little too overwhelming for her little puppy brain.

On the way up we seemed to be ahead of the bulk of the crowd, only meeting a handful of descending adventurers. But on our own descent we passed literally hundreds of people, usually in groups of two, three or four, often want to meet our dog as they passed, and all slowly making their way to bear witness to and snap a selfie with the marvel of nature.

I find that it is a conflicted sort of thing for me to visit these places.

On the one hand they are popular because they are amazing and accessible and worth visiting, and have been that way for a long time, allowing many people to experience something awesome and inspiring.

On the other hand, the Disneyland-style crowds one can encounter in a popular hiking area spoils the very thing that one goes there to see, the majesty of nature and the tranquility of such an epic space.

Maybe if it wasn’t so hard to reach, it would be more of these all of things, and probably both better and worse for it.

Half Ha Ling

This month marks a year and a half since our local area got caught up in the global pandemic that, among many other things, made world travelling near impossible.

We’ve made up for this by trying to find some room between the bad news, ever-shifting-work-life, and many cancelled plans to get away on some local escapes.

This summer was no exception, and over my blogging break we found ourselves in Canmore, a small town nestled into the Eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains, where numerous small adventures were had, including a certain last minute attempt to climb a very tall mountain.

for whatever one photo is worth:

Stand on the main street of Canmore, Alberta and look towards the towering range of mountains standing to the south of town and you wont help but see a prominent jag of rock protruding high into the sky, standing with a sentry-like pride over the valley below.

That peak had borne many names over the years and stirred it’s share of controversy for the same, but locals now almost uniformly refer to it as Ha Ling Peak.

We spent the better part of a full week in Canmore in July.

We’d rented a small hotel room near the center of town.

We wandered on foot to grab groceries or breakfasts or beer or silly thing tourists buy when they visit small towns on vacation.

We loaded up the car to drive into the wilderness to tackle family-friendly hikes with the puppy and the teenager.

We hiked, relaxed, and ate, avoiding the heat and smoke as much as possible, while trying to make the best out of a local vacation in an admittedly beautiful place to be trapped during a global lockdown.

On the last night of our trip, sitting on a patio eating an early dinner, looking down that same main street, my wife asked me if I’d done everything I’d wanted to on our little family getaway.

”I’d like to climb Ha Ling … someday.” I replied. “But I guess we’re out of time.”

Most people set aside a full day, starting early to climb to the eight hundred meter saddle, and a further slog up to the summit and peak. It was just after five pm and we had at best four hours or daylight left.

“How far could we get tonight?” She asked.

”I’m staying at the hotel with the dog.” The teenager objected.

”We could go up as high as we can and give ourselves an hour to come back down before sunset.” I suggested.

Shortly after six my wife and I were standing at the trailhead in our hiking boots.

There are inherent risks in trying a new trail of moderate difficulty outside of the normally travelled hours. If something goes wrong while you are up and alone on a mountain with an encroaching night… well, that’s bad news.

We knew we wouldn’t reach the summit, but being fit and adventurous we gave ourselves two hours to go up as far as we could then come back down. We agreed: we’d hike until my GPS watch read exactly one hour then we’d turn around and hike back down leaving a good thirty to forty-five minutes of cushion for the sun to set behind the mountains.

And off we went.

About thirty minutes in we’d reached the first viewpoint.

At exactly an hour I could see the second a hundred meters or so ahead on the path.

We reached the half way point up the mountain and a few minutes over the half way point of our agreed time. We took a blurry selfie with light failing on the the smoky vista behind us. And we hiked back down along the slippy path, found the car, and were back at the hotel before the last sliver of sun had vanished behind the rocky crags in the distance.

It may have only been half a goal but it was easily a full adventure.

Reminder: Blogs are not a replacement for professional advice. Please read my note on safety and safe participation.

(Sub)urban Sketching

It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that I take a lot of photos while travelling.

Often with multiple cameras in hand or slung over a shoulder or stuffed in a pocket, it has become a slight obsession to try for an amazing photo while out and about on a the local adventure or far-away excursion.

But this summer I’ve put my camera down a few times and have been honing my artist skillset as I dabble in a travel trend known as urban sketching.

It would be fair to say that my interest in sketchy art was renewed about two years ago when I spent a week in Dublin. Having travelled a few days in advance of my family (who were nearby in Scotland) to participate in a half marathon in Ireland, I travelled light and left most of my camera equipment with my wife. I had naught but an iPhone.

I arrived, picked up my race kit, and was left with two days to wander around the city.

I happened to wander into an art store and before rational reminders of my limited talent could creep into my brain and dissuade me, I had bought a sketch book and a pack of art markers.

I spent the rest of those days and the week following settling into cozy situations to attempt some urban sketching around the amazingly sketchable city of Dublin.

All that said, I wasn’t new to art.

Over the summer I found that Dublin sketchbook amongst a pile of other old art supplies. Since the mid-90s when I was in college I have been dabbling in pencil and ink drawing and have collected a small stack of coiled paper books stuffed with a lifetime of mediocre art. I don’t abound with any particular talent, but some of the work I rediscovered over the last month wasn’t half bad, and was often brought back more fluid memories than any photograph ever could.

Urban sketching is a catchall term for a kind of situational, in sutu art. It’s the slow version of a travel snapshot. A moment, a scene, a building, a space, a crowd, or anything memorable is captured by pencil and ink, colour and shadow, in the same way a photographer might snap a pic. Much more deliberately. Much more slowly. Sitting on a bench or a cafe table, just drawing the scene rather than that microsecond of thought to photograph it. It is vastly different in approach but with identical sentiment.

I set myself the goal of sketching daily about a month ago.

I spend some time each day drawing something, even if that just means pausing for fifteen minutes to rough out a scribble of my car keys or some other random item from around the house. But that same goal has prompted me to read up on some techniques, to dabble in experimenting with media and subjects I haven’t sketched before, and think more seriously about putting away the camera more often and honing my sketching plans for some future vacation to be captured in ink and watercolour.

Or like today, to sit in the sunny backyard and bring my apple tree to life on a blank page of a sketchbook.

That’s less urban sketching and more suburban sketching.

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.