Saturday, 3 November 2012

Fifth Anniversary of Voyages Extraordinaires

At last there was nothing to do but go; and go we did, into that wondrous land of far-off valleys where the great rivers of a Continent come leaping down in little brooks and arching waterfalls from the ice-tongues; where rise, beyond the old horizon, the castellated crags and snowy spires we had read and dreamed of... We were not pioneers ourselves, but we journeyed over old trails that were new to us, and with hearts open. Who shall distinguish?
These words were penned by James Monroe Thorington in his 1925 travelogue The Glittering Mountains of Canada, and I think he beautifully encapsulates the spirit of the true Romantic in our modern age. Around the same time as Thorington wrote, G.K. Chesterton devised a simple methodology for telling the true Romantic from the false one: the false Romantic loves castles just as well as they love cathedrals. The distinction may appear strange at first, but it subtly recognizes the distinction between loving the past because it is dead and loving the romance because it is alive. “If the poet or the lover admires the ruins of a feudal fortress as much as the ruins of a religious house, then what he admires is ruins; and he is a ruin himself," he writes. "He likes medievalism because it is now dead, not because it was once alive; and his pleasure in the poetic past is as frivolous as a fancy-dress ball. For castles only bear witness to ambitions, to ambitions that are dead... But the cathedrals bear witness not to ambitions but to ideals; and to ideals that are still alive.”

Thorington captures the essence of this when he observes that any path untrod by one's own feet are a terra incognita waiting to be discovered anew. Some four years ago, on the occasion of this weblog's first anniversary, I quoted a poor, lost soul bedecked in gears and leather who bemoaned the fact that there were no longer blank spaces on the map for one to explore. That is the very lament of the false Romantic, who values the lack of discovery more than the act of discovery... The dead eyes that prefer old empty maps as opposed to glimmering eyes drinking in the mountain majesty.

The Romantic spirit testified and exemplified by Thorington is the real thing. It is the inexorable pull to see the places read about and dreamt of, the irresistible magnetism of a landscape that is sublime and wonderful because it exists regardless of who and how many have seen it before. This true spirit of Romance has been the chief aim of Voyages Extraordinaires: Scientific Romances in a Bygone Age since it's inception. In that same anniversary article I stated our ambition to “spend time winding our way through fictional stories of romantic past because they retune our minds to look at the present world in a new perspective.”

Our fifth anniversary is a due time to take stock of this mission and reaffirm the point. With a picture being worth a thousand words, especially considering that the very nature of the Sublime is to overpower the capacity for rude explanation, I propose to do it in the shape of my own travelogue of Canada's glittering mountains.

True summer is a brief respite in the True North Strong and Free, so as July wound to August and we could be assured of clear roads and clear trails, the lovely Miss Ashley and I took to the highline pathways of the Continental Divide. The Canadian Rockies are defined that that range of mountains flanking the Continental Divide that stretch from the Liard River of British Columbia in the north to the Marias Pass of Montana in the south. Geologically distinct from the American Rockies, the bulk of these ranges are composed of sedimentary limestones and shales, prompting the classic Canadian folk song Blue Canadian Rockies. These regions are well-known to us, being no more than an hour's drive due west of our home in Calgary, Alberta. Yet they are very large and we are very small, and so they could still furnish one with new vistas for a whole lifetime. It was our mission to open these scenic points for ourselves and have our souls uplifted by the very height of land.

First on the itinerary was the Plain of Six Glaciers in the area of Lake Louise. The lake is itself one of the most photographed, instantly recognizable natural attractions of Canada, if not the world, and the hike to the Plain of Six Glaciers is one of its most popular. Nevertheless, it was new to us and our hearts were open. Our journey began in the gardens of the Chateau Lake Louise, the historic Canadian Pacific Railway hotel dominating the eastern shoreline. Our destination was but a small pinprick at the distant foot of Mount Victoria.

The postcard view of Lake Louise, our beginning.

The Plain of Six Glaciers, our destination.

A frame of reference: the red dot marks our goal.

The golden poppies are bloomin' 'round the banks of Lake Louise...

Headwaters of the lake, looking back on the Chateau Lake Louise.

A golden mantled ground squirrel ready for it's close-up.

The Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse, built in the Twenties by
a family of Swiss Guides brought by the Canadian Pacific
Railroad to assist mountaineering tourists.

A clearer view of Mount Victoria
and the plain for which this area is named.

Not far from Lake Louise is another of the classic lakes of the Continental Divide: Moraine Lake. An attempt to see the autumn larches in late September were foiled, so we must content ourselves with a future journey. Nevertheless, even the consolation prizes of the Rocky Mountains are spectacular unto themselves.

Moraine Lake.

A peak called "The Tower of Babel."

Limbered up and spirits hungering for more literal peak experiences, we departed a week later for Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, straddling the 49th parallel and comprised of Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada and Glacier National Park in Montana. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the park stands as a testament to both the longest unprotected political border in the world and the irrelevance of political borders. Though the range is known as the Canadian Rocky Mountains, Glacier National Park contains their southernmost expression, sharing the same geology and ecology as Waterton Lakes. Quartzite, lapping waves and grizzly bears have no need of passports.

Dubbed “The Crown of the Continent,” this is a stunning region of tremendous peaks and shimmering lakes. A few glaciers eke out their lingering years, feeding rivers that part and flow into the Pacific Ocean, Gulf of Mexico and Hudson's Bay. On the eastern side, dry winds billow down canyon walls, permanently gnarling trees and threatening to carry off tourists. The centre of Waterton Lakes National Park is the eponymous lake, the far end of which lies in American territory. On the bluff above it perches the quaint Prince of Wales Hotel, built by the Great Northern Railway in 1927 as the last of its chain of chalets dotting the two parks. Named for the dashing Edward VIII, it underlines it faux-colonialism with afternoon tea served with a spectacular view of the lake.

Where the mountains meet the prairies,
at the entrance to Waterton Lakes Nat'l Park.

The eponymous lake.

The Prince of Wales Hotel.

High tea.

South of Waterton Lakes, just past the border, a nondescript turn-off takes one to Swiftcurrent Lake in the area considered the very heart of Glacier National Park. Unfortunately time prohibited us from undertaking the many hikes originating from this area, including Grinnell Glacier, Iceberg Lake and Ptarmigan Tunnel, but we were able to enjoy a lunch in the newly-restored grand dining hall of the Many Glaciers Hotel. Also constructed by the Great Northern Railway, this 1915 edifice reposes along the shore of the lake, not daring to compete with the mighty Mount Grinnell on the opposite shore. Instead, the Many Glaciers Hotel saves its energy for its soaring interiors.

Chief Mountain, a major landmark on the
border between the USA and Canada.

Many Glaciers Hotel and Switcurrent Lake.

Swiftcurrent Lake and Grinnell Mountain.

Lobby of the Many Glaciers Hotel.

Many Glaciers' monumental fireplace.

And its recently restored dining hall.

Further south yet is St. Mary's Lake, gateway to Glacier and the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Finished in 1932, the Going-to-the-Sun Road is a masterpiece of National Parks Rustic engineering and aesthetic. Masonry walls span rushing gorges, its roadbed carved from the living rock. At Logan Pass some 6,600' above sea level, the road crosses over the Continental Divide and descends along the cliffs down to Lake McDonald on the park's western edge.

St. Mary's Lake.

Going-to-the-Sun Mountain, flanking the lake.

Jackson Glacier, the only one visible
from Going-to-the-Sun Road.

Going-to-the-Sun Road.

Lake McDonald, looking back east
towards the mountain peaks.

Our prime accomplishment was the Highline Trail, notable as one of Glacier's most popular hikes. Beginning at Logan Pass it hugs the western side of the Continental Divide for 11.7 kilometres. Though as popular as it is picturesque, it is not a trail to be taken frivilously. It is very high indeed and not always in the best condition. The Highline Trail is parallel to the Going-to-the-Sun Road, and quite a few metres above it. As the road gradually descends to the valley bottom, the Highline Trail ascends to the very treeline, carrying the hiker into ever more perilous climes. Expressing the adage that no piece of film can truly capture the spirit of a place, the majority of videos and travel guides I found concerning this trail focused on the most scenic section, from Logan Pass to Haystack Butte, glossing over the remainder of the path between Haystack Butte and the vintage, rustic Granite Park Chalet. This gives a false impression of the trail's length: this section is only the first third of the trail. The second third just beyond Haystack Butte is also the worst, most ill-kept section of the trail for those of us with a perfectly rational fear of falling to our deaths. Hiking this route will take longer than you expect it to assuming you take any time to revel in your surroundings, and by the time we reached Granite Peak, we had approximately an hour and a half to make the 7km, 2,000' Loop Trail downhill to the Going-to-the-Sun Road, lest we miss the last free shuttle bus taking us back to our lodging in the town of West Glacier. Suffice it to say that we arrived just in time and lived to tell the tale, which is the true accomplishment. The larger part of the romance is the Sublime masterpiece of Creation's crown, and another is the mastering of oneself and one's own fears, even on well-trod paths.

Intrepid adventurers starting out...

And this is only the beginning!
Going-to-the-Sun Road can be seen below the trail.

Ashley provides the scale against which all else is measured...

Looking back to Logan Pass and where we've been.
The silver sliver along the cliff is the road.

View to a luncheon.
Where we stopped to dine.

Comforting giant rock falls.

The end in sight: Granite Park Chalet.

And here it is!

A creek along our rapid descent.

The Loop Trail passes through the site of a former forest fire.

A far less strenuous pleasure stroll was the boardwalk to Hidden Lake, nestled into a glacial cirque behind the Logan Pass Visitor Centre. Shimmering and jewel-like, no place has a right to be as beautiful as it is. Nevertheless there it lies, a true gift of Divine grace gratuitously offered by the Great Artist. John Muir promised of days spent in the region that “Thousands of God’s wild blessings will search you and soak you as if you were a sponge, and the big days will go uncounted…” George Bird Grinnell, considered the father of American conservationism and after whom so many mountains and glaciers are named, said “No words can describe the grandeur and majesty of these mountains, and even photographs seem hopelessly to dwarf and belittle the most impressive peaks.”

A hoary marmot greets the noonday sun.

Hidden Lake.

Another path untrod by us was the Trail of the Cedars on Glacier's western side. The last of the moist air blowing in from the Pacific traversed the Coast Mountains and the Selkirks, only to finally surrender at the Continental Divide. On the eastern side lie the desiccated prairies in the mountain rain-shadow, but on the western side in the vicinity of McDonald Creek and Lake McDonald are lush cedar-hemlock forests. The contrast suited us well: whereas I may imagine myself as a wanderer in the vein of Caspar David Friedrich, Ashley is very much the Pre-Raphaelite wood sprite.

Once again, Ashley provides some scale...

Wood sprite!

No lake of an appreciable size in this region is without its hotel, and Lake McDonald does have its own. Originally named the Lewis Glacier Hotel when it was completed in 1914, it was bought by Great Northern Railway in 1930 and renamed the Lake McDonald Lodge. In the same style as Many Glaciers, this lodge is of a much cozier scale. Ashley remarked that one might have their wedding at Many Glaciers but their honeymoon at Lake McDonald, which may or may not have been suggestive. Nevertheless, the great Western painter Charlie Russell had his summer cabin across the lake and spent his waning years regaling guests with stories of the Wild West. It is said that his own hand engraved some of the words and pictographs on the grand fireplace's mantel.

Lake McDonald.

Sunset on the mountains.

Lake McDonald Lodge.

The lobby.

I use antlers in all of my deeecoorrrraaating...

Another beloved institution in Glacier are the "Jammer" busses. Originally built by the White company in 1936, these touring busses served each of the American national parks, sporting their own unique colour patterns. The only ones still in service today are the yellow busses of Yellowstone and the red busses of Glacier. So-called "Jammers" because of the gear-jamming that drivers would have to manage to get them over the steep Going-to-the-Sun Road, the whole line was refurbished by Ford in the early 2000's. To see these crawling up the highway or parked out front of a rustic lodge is a picturesque throwback to that most romantic era of the parks.

Though to be found in any guidebook and online resource, and bearing the footprints of many preceding ourselves, there is nevertheless Romance to be found in these and many more places. The spirit of discovery – the true spirit unfettered by conventionalities like GPS – pulls ever more strongly at the heart in these environs as well. Each visit discloses yet more to be seen with one's own eyes, holding out a open invitation for many happy returns.

Every place we have not been ourselves is a terra incognita, emploring us to become our own Phileas Foggs and Professors Arronax. This is the highest purpose behind enculturating our souls with tales of Victorian adventure in pasts that never were. They encourage us to appreciate the past that was as a living tradition that carries on today. The paths may be old, but they are new to us, blazed by ancestors who wished for us to feel the same exhilaration that took their own breath and carried it to Heaven.


Norman Redington said...

Thank you for posting this, which
reminded me of two weeks I spent
at Glacier in 1975. I had then
recently (and to my great
surprise) converted to
Christianity, which I found quite
difficult to reconcile with my
scientific worldview. Somehow the
shock of the Sublime which I
received while hiking in the
Rockies convinced me that these
two seemingly disjoint worlds were
one. It was not so much the
mountains themselves which
impressed me as the multiplicity
of scales of size and time. I
particularly recall watching
spiders hatch and balloon away
into the air, beginning the
adventure of their short lives.
They were launching themselves
from chunks of Precambrian (!)
mudstone, which still preserved
the impact craters of ancient
raindrops and looked for all the
world like mud from the previous
day's storm ...

Norman Hugh Redington

Russell said...

Congrats on 5 years, and thanks for posting your vacation. It looks like you guys had a wonderful time!

Cory Gross said...

Thank you very much!

Norman, it does have that effect... The rock upon which Ashley was standing in the one photo was composed of 800 million year old stromatolites. The extremes of the environment - the depths of time and the vertical dimensions, the sheer size from largest to smallest, the switch from plains on one side to forests on the other - all conspire to lift one's mind to the greatest dimension of all, the Divine.