On Wilcox Pass, Alberta, Canada

SUMMER, 2010

     We stopped at McDonalds for breakfast; the Egg McMuffins didn't hold a candle to Lois's cooking.  We were on the road back to Jasper by 8:15.  It was another lovely sunny day, and the scenery was stunning.  When we passed this way five days earlier it had been late evening and starting to get dark; now we stopped at many of the same overlooks to photograph the mountains and lakes in the morning light. 

We saw a big buck by the side of the road, and a couple of swans taking off from a lake.  We stopped at Horseshoe Lake and walked along a path beside the water.  We climbed up onto a rock outcropping above the narrow U-shaped lake and admired it's brilliant blue-green color.  There were minnows in the water near the shore.
Further on, we saw a sign indicating a lookout where mountain goats might be spotted.  We stopped at the overlook, which had a beautiful view of the river below, and the steep mountain slopes beyond it were rocky and barren, perfect habitat for mountain goats.  We searched the slopes with our binoculars, but to no avail. 

     Shortly after noon, we reached the Wilcox Pass carpark; the small lot was full, so we parked on the side of the road behind several camper vans.  Once again we had chosen a hike that Don't Waste Your Time in the Canadian Rockies  had rated as Premiere - but it seemed that quite a few others had the same idea.    
We followed a path up through a mature forest of large pine and fir trees.  The path was fairly steep, and crisscrossed by a weave of roots.  Walking quietly and watching for wildlife, we saw several chipmunks, a ptarmigan, and a gray jay, scolding us from a treetop.  There were small signs along the way to discourage people from hiking off the trail and damaging the fragile ecosystem; a circle with a slash through it was superimposed over a drawing of a booted foot coming down on wildflowers.

Heading up Wilcox Pass

     Before long we came out to openings in the trees where we could see the mountains, crowned by icefields and glaciers.  Below us stretched the highway, and we could see the buildings of the Columbia Icefield Center.  Looking across the valley, we had a great view of the Athabasca Glacier. 
     The higher we climbed the more expansive the views became; soon we had a panorama of snowy peaks surrounding us.  We hiked up a steep slope past a gulch where a stream leapt down the mountainside, and then the path leveled out to a more gentle grade.  We passed a fair number of other hikers on the trail, but more of them were coming down than going up.  

Athabasca Glacier from Wilcox Pass

     We were nearing the top of the slope and had just started across the broad pass when we saw the sheep.  Half a dozen bighorn rams were grazing on the mountainside across the big gulch.  Their brown coats blended in with the rocks, but their lighter hindquarters stood out, spoiling their camouflage.  Further up the mountainside we could see several older rams, their huge horns curling full circle.  They stood regally, watching over their domain.


     We watched the sheep through binoculars as they slowly moved down toward the gulch.  Furtively, trying to avoid the attention of other hikers, we left the trail and made our way across the tundra, trying to get closer to the sheep without alarming them.  Hiding behind rock outcroppings, we crept out to a knoll with a good vantage point.  We waited, and before long the sheep came quite close, traversing the side of the cliff above the gulch.  They became aware of our presence, but seemed undisturbed by it.  Three of the younger rams climbed up and down the rocky ledges, playfully butting heads, practicing for the rut when they would fight in earnest.  After a while they came down to the stream directly below us to drink, then wandered back up the gully to the higher slopes.  We marveled at our good fortune.



     We continued on through the wide mountain pass, past the rock cairn that marked the summit.  There most of the other hikers had turned back, so from then on we had the mountain pretty much to ourselves.  We went on for several miles across an open expanse of tundra and rock, flanked on either side by high ridges.  We followed a tiny footpath that meandered among the rocks and small streams.  A Columbian ground squirrel marked our passage, sitting up by his hole like a prairie dog and watching us curiously.  
We sat on a rock outcropping on the top of a large knoll and ate trail mix and apricots for lunch.  It was a very serene and peaceful spot, and totally isolated .  Moving on, we crossed a snow field, where we stopped briefly for an impromptu snowball fight.  The sheer ridges rose high on either side of us as the pass narrowed.  We lingered, taking our time, exploring the tundra.  Eventually the trail headed steeply downhill toward the other end of the pass; it was time to turn around.  The only other person we encountered was a lone hiker, a young man from England who easily outpaced us.  After stopping to chat a few minutes, he headed back across the pass at a brisk purposeful pace, but we wandered slowly, taking our time, talking to the squirrels and examining the wildflowers.  When next we saw our British friend, he was far up a path that climbed the steep mountainside off to our right.

Wilcox Pass

     It was after 6:30 p.m. by the time we started down the mountain, and the trail was pretty much deserted.  We glimpsed the sheep again, now far in the distance.  We saw a marmot among the rocks, and a red squirrel scolded us soundly for coming too near his tree.  
As we stood looking across the valley at the glacier on the opposite side, we were startled by a sudden loud rumble of thunder.  But then to our delight we realized it wasn't thunder at all, but the sound of a huge chunk breaking off of the glacier!  We watched in awe as an avalanche of ice and snow cascaded down the mountainside like a waterfall.  
I had the sudden sensation of being watched.  Turning, we looked up to the high ridge behind us; silhouetted against the skyline stood a single bighorn ram, still as a statue, looking straight down at us as if to bid us farewell.  After a long moment that seemed frozen in time, he turned and silently disappeared over the horizon.  It felt like something from a western movie; the refrain from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly  played in my head.


     Following the path back down through the woods toward the trailhead, we again passed the small graphic signs exhorting us to not tread on the wildflowers.  Jineen decided she must have one of these signs for her flower garden at home - she proceeded to pull one up, stake and all.   
When we returned to the carpark, it was completely empty except for our car, parked rather incongruously in the road all by itself - the campers that had been in front of it were long gone.  As we stowed our gear we heard an eerie raucous cawing; looking up we saw half a dozen ravens watching us from a nearby pine tree.  Two of them came down in search of handouts, boldly approaching the car in a shuffling sideways gait, demanding food.  They were really quite creepy.  Jineen fed them crackers, which was strictly against the law.  
Having finished illegally feeding the wildlife and with Jineen's stolen contraband safely stowed away, we pulled out of the parking lot, sipping wine from the last bottle of Stoneleigh while driving without seatbelts, musing on how many laws we could break at one time.  We were probably speeding, too.  

     We headed south on the Icefields Parkway.  Unwilling to waste a single daylight hour, we planned to drive around until dark, exploring and scouting for wildlife - but we decided to locate our lodging for the night first.  We drove past the Columbia Icefields Center; remembering our $4 cokes on day two, we gladly passed it by this time.  
We had a room booked at the Glacier View Inn, but we couldn't seem to find it.  Our directions said the inn was on the parkway just north of the border between Banff and Jasper parks, but we couldn't locate the border, much less the inn.  When we got to The Crossing (where we had stayed earlier in the trip), we knew we must have missed it.  We turned around and went all the way back past the Columbia Icefields Center, but there was still no sign of our inn.  Our directions just didn't compute!  According to Googlemap we should already be at the Glacier View Inn, but we had passed no side roads, no driveways, no buildings at all, other than the Icefields Center itself.  
A horrible thought dawned on us.  When we had hiked up Wilcox Pass earlier, we had seen a monstrosity of a building just across from the Columbia Icefields Center.  At the time we had thought it was part of the center itself, but now we realized that the building we saw from the ridge might have been the Glacier View Inn.  We were somewhat horrified to think we would be staying so close to the Icefields Tourist Trap; the only thing that could be worse would be staying at the Icefields Center itself!  We turned the car around again and went searching for the building.  
But when we found it, there was a sign stating Restricted Area: Employee Housing.  Whew, so this wasn't the inn after all; but then where the hell was it?  We decided our only option was to go to the Icefields Center itself and ask directions.   
We pulled into the car park and gazed up at the main building, reading the lettering on the outer wall; then we realized the ugly truth.  The Glacier View Inn was the Icefields Center, or at least the upper floor of it.  We were appalled.  We remembered pitying the poor schmucks who stayed here when we passed by earlier in the trip; now those schmucks were us.  I suppose the name, Glacier View, should have been a hint, but somehow when I had booked the room on the internet I had envisioned a cozy little inn by a lake, with a nice view of the mountains.  
We dragged our tired bodies up about 200 stairs, past the various tourist gift shops and displays to the check-in desk.  The rather inefficient girl at the desk finally found our reservation, but our room key was not ready.  She also informed us that the cafeteria was closed.  The fancy dining room was still open, but considering the cost of the cokes, we decided to drive down to The Crossing for dinner.  This was the stretch of road where we had seen the bear; maybe we would see another.  But The Crossing proved to be further than we had thought, and by the time we got there it was well after nine  o'clock.  We had a really bad pasta dinner in the cafeteria, and then headed back to the Glacier View.  No animals along the way.  We finally made it to our room around eleven o'clock, and fell exhausted into our beds.

~ Continued on next page ~


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