The plane takes off and before we know it, we’ve put several thousand feet of air between the fuselage and the ground.
I guess the reason that planes freak me out so much is that I’ve never piloted one and I have no idea how sturdy or flimsy they are or how much margin for error exists. If a column of air hits the plane in just the right way, I wonder, would it just cast us down from the sky?
Descents always scare the shit out of me because they seem like they’re always barely controlled. We list with the thermals rising up from the rye fields. And so I curse rye whiskey, hipster bread and everything rye is used for, because I’m thinking that I really don’t want to die in Calgary, Canada. I mean, that would be so random. If I had to choose, I’d much rather smack into a peak in the Andes, or plummet to my doom into a small island in Micronesia. Something distant and foreign and mysterious.
But we land without incident and the kindly flight attendant who re-seated us lets us know that two big planes landed at approximately the same time as us in Calgary and that it would be in our best interest to hustle to customs and get through before the lines stack up with a couple thousand people.
Fiona and I rush off the plane as fast as possible, but we get stuck behind a disembarking elderly person for five or so minutes which adds to our anxiety. But then we’re off again shooting around masses of people, ducking and weaving and practically sprinting down the mysterious, dimly-lit, back hallways of YYC to get to customs. And we get there ahead of everyone and triumphantly look back at the swarms gathering behind us.
The customs agent glances at us and asks us our business in Canada in an extremely flat tone. Very makes me wonder if he’s asking out of duty, some obscure training, or if he’s genuinely interested. We say we’re off to Banff to go trekking through the wilderness. He hands us back our passports without a word.
We shoot off again and collect our bags from the carousel decorated with bizarre trinkets which are supposed to advertise the Alberta Ballet. "Fumbling Towards Ecstasy," huh? Fiona and raise our eyebrows at one another.
We put on our backpacks and head over to the Budget Car Rental place, where we meet a bro-ish looking guy named Scott in line. He asks us if we're headed up to Banff and if we'd take him too if he gave us some cash. We welcomed the opportunity to subsidize our rental car, so we say sure.
We jet off to Banff with Scott in tow. We hit a Tim Hornton’s on the way out of Calgary though and go through what seems to be a ridiculously complex drive-thru ordering process involving many followup questions about sauces and sandwich customizations. The drive to Banff then goes without incident except that Fiona gets a speeding ticket from a hilariously polite, but stern, cop. We try to blame it on a conversion error from mph to kph. It doesn’t work.
Outside of this, we learn a lot about Scott’s bro life. He’s in finance, living in LA and single and 37, though he looks 25, and he‘s been a lot of places. He says ‘Machu Picchu’ in this strange way, like ‘maynu pitchu.’ He tells us that he isn’t in any kind of relationship, so he spends all his time off and all his money traveling the world.
We drop him off with his bro buddies at Two Jacks Campground. And in a remarkable display of gratitude, he flipped us another twenty to put toward the speeding ticket.
At this point, Fiona and I are time-crunched to reach our shuttle to the trailhead before 4pm at the Sunshine Village gondola station (which doesn’t run during the week, hence the shuttle bus). We quickly stop in Banff and grab two cans of bear spray, two cans of isobutane, and two fifths of whiskey and blast out of town again on the Trans-Canada highway up to the Sunshine Village Ski Resort. On the way up to the resort, we see a bunch of male big-horned sheep staring blankly at our car. A bachelor party, it seems.
We’re the only passengers on the shuttle bus. The driver lectures us on all the cool sights on the trek out to Mt. Assiniboine. He’s very excited for us and going on in his thick Alberta accent. I pick up about half of what he says over the roar of the engine. I hear ‘ya have aboot a 50–50 chance of seein’ a bear’.
He drops us off at the station at the top of the gondola. We go in and grab ice water from an Australian girl at the bar. It’s sort of awkward because she’s shooting the bar water gun into our Camelbaks and it takes a really long time, so we have to make conversation to get through the six liters.
After this, we head up the hill and roam across the four miles to Howard Douglas campground, stepping around the chirping ground squirrels, which inhabit the ancient glacial plain. The plain rolls green, covered with wildflowers and opal, glacial pools, into the distance until it reaches the mountain ranges, which shoot up in every direction, jagged and bluish.
We have a bit of trouble finding the actual campsite, but we meet a man who’s trekking 800 miles across the Great Divide trail. He’s an interesting fellow: solo, a resident of San Diego, a part-time accountant, and clearly not a huge fan of people. He split off from us as soon as we arrived at the campsite. It seems there are many people on this trail, solo, out to figure out something about themselves.
We settle, pitch the tent, and eat our freeze-dried meals by the lakeside, swatting off mosquitoes and gulping whiskey until the sun sets behind the mountain.
We wake up to the buzzing of mosquitoes. It’s the first time that I realize the bugs are going to be a real problem. We do our best to move quickly to prepare breakfast and pack up the tent, but the little fuckers follow in persistent clouds and settle on you to do their vampiric business if you stop moving for any length of time. Even the deet we brought doesn’t seem to deter them much. We have to walk around while munching our freeze-dried food.
After breakfast, we make our way out again on to the trail toward Assiniboine. The meadows yawn wide and green and rolling off into the distance once more and the ranges of the mountains jut upward like castle ramparts. We pass a mountain called The Citadel. Our pace is very quick and we descend, after crossing Citadel Pass, into the Valley of the Rocks. We’re on edge for a moment due to the fact that many trees are scraped up and de-barked and we think this is because of bear activity. I heard somewhere that bears like to scratch the bark off of trees and then use naked trees to scratch their assholes . When I offer this idea, Fiona laughs and thinks this theory is ridiculous. Either way, we’re on the lookout for bear danger during much of the day. But we never see anything.
Fiona checks her map and says, if we’re feeling up to it, we can push an extra 4.5 miles today to get to Lake Magog, at the foot of Mt. Assiniboine, which makes the whole distance from Howard Douglas about 15 miles. We decide to go for it.
By the time we reach Lake Og (which is on the way, 10.9 miles from Howard Douglas) though, we’re sore and tired. My feet start developing bad blisters just below the middle toe on both feet. These haunt me for the rest of the journey. We filter water and eat lunch at Og. I had the beef pho, which is okay. All the meals already start tasting the same, even though they’re supposed to be entirely different flavors. I dump the dregs on the rocks for the flies to feast on. We pack up again and proceed to Magog, passing a set of mysterious caves.
Luckily, these next 4.5 miles are relatively flat and fast. Still, we’re exhausted by the time we reach the next lake. We go for a beer (two actually) at the backcountry lodge . We're very pleased to discover that the Canadian Provincial Park flies out tourists and supplies by helicopter to this place deep in the backcountry!
We sit next to a couple from Calgary who tell us that they’re getting a civil union at the lodge the next day. Apparently, it’s easier to get married in British Columbia than Alberta, less bureaucracy or something. They’re kind of rednecky and talk loudly about guns and make jokes about Justin Trudeau. We politely nod until we depart to our campsite at Magog with a bottle of wine. At this point, we see the mighty Assiniboine rising upward, a jagged cone, covered with glaciers, with a massive, aquamarine lake at its base.
We set up camp and realize that we don’t have a wine opener. I borrow a knife from a fellow camper to peel off the foil and then use the butt of Fiona’s tooth brush to ram the cork inside of the bottle, spraying myself a bit in the process.
During this time, Fiona goes pee in the bushes behind our campsite and then gets back into our tent. She still has her shoes on. She smells something reeking and notices that there’s a clod of human feces attached to her boot. I scream and she tosses her boots out of the tent. We check and ensure there’s no more shit in the tent. Fortunately, there isn’t. The piece of poop remains just outside of the tent for the rest of our stay. Neither of us wants to even touch it with a stick. We’re also just exhausted to all hell.
We drink wine in the tent, make another fucking freeze-dried meal, and then go to sleep in the twilight.
We wake slowly. We sleep for 12 hours in total. 9pm to 9am. During the early morning, I briefly woke to hear the voices of some New Zealanders heading out of camp (probably to summit Assiniboine). While that would be a great achievement, I’m not envious in the slightest. When we get out of the tent, we see that the peak is locked in by storm clouds and it’s cold out. Conditions look really harsh up there. As I fetch water from the glacial lake, I take in the view once more. The mountain surging upward, carrying its glaciers.
We make more fucking freeze-dried breakfast (it’s really getting old, almost nauseating, at this point) and then hike up to The Nub. Fiona’s knee is stiff and beginning to really bother her. A remnant of our grueling day before. But we press on and make our ascent.
We summit and spread out the pack we brought on the ground, making coffee and taking photos of the abundant marmot population there. We even see a pair boxing one another. More often, they just sit and look at you or each other, and chirp.
The view from The Nub is jaw dropping, offering an expansive look at Assiniboine and its surrounding peaks, and the three bright blue glacial lakes beneath.
When we start our descent about an hour later to go back to camp, Fiona’s knee is almost unbearably sore. She has to hobble down in a manner that doesn’t cause her knee to bend. We lunch at Sunburst Lake, At this point, I’m straight up done with freeze-dried meals, but I choke down a Shepherd’s Pie.
Heading back down the trail 4.5 miles back to Lake Og, my blisters ache and squish badly. It’s like there are capri suns attached to the bottom of my feet.
We arrive at the camp and set up our test, filter water, and sip whiskey. We get told off by a condescending, but very polite Canadian mountaineer who’s disconcerted by the fact that we aren’t using the designated cooking area on the other side of camp and that we’re causing an unnecessary bear risk because of it.
So, we go over to the cooking area and strike up conversation with two guys who met in a Ju-Jitsu class and attempted to make Magog from Sunshine Village all in one day (20 miles), but couldn’t make it.
We get in our sleeping bags and I think I hear a bear, but turns out to be the flagging of the tent tarp in the breeze. I think I’m deliriously tired. After my freakout, I enter a dead, black sleep until the sun shines down on our tent and bakes us out.
Even in the morning we’re both imagining eating burgers, slurping down beer, and cooling our feet. We initially planned to just go back to Howard Douglas this day and to finish the last 4 miles to Sunshine the following morning. But I can’t even eat breakfast because I’m so sick of our backpacker food and a little hungover and headache-y. Fiona feels similarly ready to get back and to shower. So we decide to go for the whole 15 miles today.
Everything is great until we arrive at what I dub The Great Bitch-cline: The ascent back up to Citadel Pass. It’s approximately 1500–2000 feet of elevation gain, straight up (because the Canadians don’t seem to believe in switch backs). This ascent is by far the crux of the entire 50 mile trek. We’re forced to stop several times on the way up to catch our breath. But this sucks because the amount of sweat we’re pouring out washes away the deet we’d applied earlier, leaving us susceptible to the mosquitoes, who swarm and stab. But we make it to the top, totally beleaguered and depleted. Gulping water from our Camelbak hoses. I completely bonk on my blood sugar levels just before we reach Citadel mountain with no breakfast and just energy gels to keep me going. I wolf down one of Fiona’s meal bars.
The last few miles past Howard Douglas and to Sunshine Village are some of the most harsh and grueling (mostly psychologically as we’re so close to our destination and relaxation and food). With every step I feel pain shoot up my leg. My ankles feel weak and my blisters are pulsing. But by sheer force of will and desire for beer, we press on and finish our return to the Sunshine Village gondola station (the top) two hours before closing, way ahead of schedule. Victory.
I pay a ridiculous sum for two pale ales, but we drink and sweat and revel in our sore accomplishment on the patio for a solid hour. We end up booking a hotel on the main street of Banff— the Mount Royal — whose accommodations are decent, but a tad worn. Still, showering there is one of the most pleasurable experiences of my life.
We eat poutine and burgers at the Elk & Oarsman across the street. Our first proper meal in days is such a treat.
The Ice Field Parkway is an astonishingly long route from glacier to glacier pouring down the sides of the mountains that line the road.
We dine at Lake Louise in the Glacier Saloon , which is in the basement of the lakeside Fairmont Hotel. It’s a beautiful, mahogany-adorned place, with a killer view of the water. We're forced to pay the tourist levy, but our dinner is cheap because Fiona finds a mosquito cooked into in our poutine skillet — the little fuckers finally did us one solid. The waiter is so embarrassed that he comps our poutine and our beer.
Anyhow, after dinner we hike up to the observation deck that overlooks Lake Louise. The view is staggering, but we don’t remain there for very long on account of the mosquitoes, again.
We spend our last day in Lake Moraine admiring its unique bright, bright blue nature. We canoe, hike and then eat in the lodge on the side of the lake.
We rent canoes and paddle into the opal expanse.
Later, we decide to don bathrobes and walk down to the canoe dock. With an audience of tourists who just poured off a big bus, Fiona and I take a running start and leap into the lake (which never gets above 6 degrees Celsius). It’s a blast of profound cold. We immediately swim back to the dock and pull ourselves up, panting, shivering and laughing hysterically.
We dine at the lodge and then take a last round of pictures at the huge pile of rocks next to the lake, right as the sun is setting.