We wake up and grumble and shake off the effects of sleep. We run a bit behind schedule due to the fact that I want to make coffee. The Rwanda from Blue Copper in the Chemex.
So we grab our gear and head into the airport, Delta terminal. We check our bags with an older attendant guy, who becomes really chatty when we tell him that we’re headed to Banff. He tells us about all these different places we should visit, though I can’t remember any of these five minutes later. I just remember that his excitement is so great that he forgets to scan our passports into whatever system tracks the movements of the U.S. citizenry. Later, we’re called to the gate so another attendant gets our passports entered into the matrix.
We get on the plane and I discover that, for some reason, Delta upgraded my previous seat, 14B, to 7A without telling me. Well, they probably sent me an email about it that I ignored. Because of this we narrowly avoid a confrontation with some family of five. The flight attendant intervenes and we’re re-seated in “Economy Plus” up front. Either way, it’s fine and I’m glad to leave the father of that family behind. I sense that he’s a dick.
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 plans 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?
At cruising altitude I calm. Fiona and I cuddle and poke one another until the plane takes aim at the runway in Calgary. Descents always scare the shit out of me because they seem like they’re always barely controlled. We list and 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 lady 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. We triumphantly look back at the swarms gathering behind us. Success.
The customs agent glances at us and asks us our business in CA in a manner that is neither friendly nor unfriendly, so I 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. Okay.
We shoot off again and collect our bags from the carousel decorated with bizarre trinkets which are supposed to advertise the Alberta Ballet. They just look kind of tacky though.
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 ends up asking us for a ride to Banff in exchange for $50 and we say sure. Though it now means that we have to talk to him for an hour and a half or sit in awkward silence. Fiona and I have to restrain our weirdness for the ride.
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’ and I make sure he’s not talking about Huayna Picchu, the mountain behind the Incan settlement. He’s not. He just says the words all weird. 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. I respect the shit out of that. There are worse things to dump money into. I can tell from all the stories he tells us that he’s covered a lot of ground. My guess is that you find yourself with a lot of cash to burn if you work in finance and you don’t have any kind of relationship commitments.
We drop him off with his bro buddies at Two Jacks Campground. And in a remarkable display of gratitude, he flipped us another $20 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 babbling 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 water gun into our camelbaks and it takes a really long time, so we have to make conversation just to get through the ordeal of six liters.
After this, we head up the hill and roam across the 4 miles to Howard Douglas , stepping around the chirping ground squirrels (who are basically unafraid of humans), which inhabit the ancient glacial plain. The plain rolls green into the distance until it reaches the mountain ranges, which shoot off in every direction, jagged and dramatic and bluish into the distance. This landscape is also interspersed with wildflowers and opal glacial pools.
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 this 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 HD campsites. 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 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 in fact 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 that bears like to scratch the bark off of trees and then use naked trees to scratch their assholes by rubbing on them — Fiona thinks this theory is ridiculous and heard that the bark-scratching is a display of dominance, or to sharpen their claws. Either way, we’re on the lookout for bear danger during much of the day. But we never see anything. Later, I learn that it could’ve been elk who scratched up those trees. Apparently they like to use the trees to rub the fuzz off of their antlers, which just sounds hilariously cute.
Anyway, Fiona says that, 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. I’m up for the challenge, so I agree.
By the time we reach Lake Og (which is on the way, 10.9 miles from HD) 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. It’s 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 — the Canadian Provincial Park flies out tourists and supplies by helicopter to this place deep in the backcountry! To me, an American, it seems so strange for a government to go through all that effort.
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 hickish and talk loudly about how they like guns and conservatism and how they’re not huge fans of Justin Trudeau. In a strange role reversal, we, the Americans, just politely nod. We eventually bid them farewell and 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. It's an old fraternity trick.
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. My view is punctuated by a small, but real, paranoia about bear attack. It’s a ways from camp and I forgot my bear spray. But nothing happens.
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. It’s the cutest thing.
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.
After lunch, we head back to camp to pack up the tent and other supplies and head over to the lodge for another round of beers, fresh-baked cake, and to use the nicer outhouses there. Some asshole before me in the men’s bathroom rather missed the mark and left a shit streak on the side of the toilet seat. I held my breath and got out of there as quickly as possible. I want to tell the guy after me that the poo mark wasn’t my fault, but I didn’t and I see him later, we make eye contact, and it’s awkward.
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 drink whiskey — a lot. 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. They’re funny dudes.
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 and slurping down beer and generally vegging 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 The Great Bitch-cline, which is the title I dub it: 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 (no breakfast and just energy gels to keep me going) just before we reach Citadel mountain. I wolf down one of Fiona’s meal bars like a feral beast.
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 of money for two local beers — pale ales — and we drink and sweat and revel in our sore accomplishment on the patio for a solid half 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 in my recent memory.
We eat poutine and burgers at the Elk & Oarsman across the street — luxury.
Our last days in Banff consist of driving the Ice Field Parkway, and visiting Lake Louise, and Lake Moraine. Collectively, these places represent some of the most beautiful pieces of real estate I’ve yet seen in my life.
The Ice Field Parkway is an astonishingly long route that goes and goes and goes 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 establishment, with a killer view of the water. Everything is pricey — the tourist levy — but our dinner is cheap because Fiona finds a mosquito body in our poutine skillet — the little fuckers finally did us one solid. The waiter is so embarrassed that he comps our poutine and our big ass (32oz), pricey beer steins. It’s a homie move. He’s a nice guy named Parker who’s into American politics and very obviously educated and well-read on all of the subject matter. Fiona and I wonder why other country’s citizens are so intrigued by US politics. My theory is because our brand of horse-race, winner-take-all politics are juicy and acrimonious. And Donald Trump is one of those unforgettably repulsive/brash characters.
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. They turn out to be a remarkably common theme this trip.
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. Our cabin is situated such that it overlooks the canoe rental area. It’s real swanky.
We rent canoes and forge into the opal expanse, paddling over to the stream of glacial melt-off that feeds the lake and back.
Later, we decide to don bathrobes and walk down to the canoe dock. With an audience of Asian tourists, Fiona and I take a running start and leap into the lake (which never gets above 6 degrees Celsius). It’s a blast of cold that feels as though you’re being assaulted by millions of tiny daggers. We immediately swim back to the dock and pull ourselves up, panting, shivering and laughing hysterically. It’s worth it though: Bragging rights.
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.
Afterward, we head back to the room and sink into the couch next to the fireplace. We burn logs and drink red wine until sleep overcomes us.