Late afternoon on Monday, September 22 I boarded a flight at Chicago’s O’Hare airport destined for Calgary, Alberta. The flight didn’t arrive until 8 PM local time and after going through customs, a delayed delivery of luggage and picking up a rental car, I didn’t clear the airport until well after 9 PM. After staying overnight at an airport hotel, I hit the road shortly before sunrise the following morning (Tuesday, Sept. 23) for the 2 1/2 to 3 hour drive to Lake Louise Village. Thus began my nearly two-week-long adventure in the Canadian Rockies.
I’ve wanted to visit the Canadian Rockies, camera gear in tow, for as long as I can remember. I wasn’t sure if it would ever happen, but a series of events made it possible this autumn. I began seriously planning the trip in May–four months in advance of departure. I timed the visit to coincide with the fall color season–essentially, aspens and golden larch–and I wanted to make the most of my time on site. Two weeks (parts of 13 days, to be exact) sounds like a lot of time for a photographic location, and in a sense it is, but when you’re in a place as sizable and rich in photographic potential as the Canadian Rockies, it’s remarkable how brief a period it really is.
It was a mostly cloudy day as I drove west from Calgary toward the town of Banff. Just as I entered the southern perimeter of Banff National Park, it started to rain–hard. But as I kept driving, the rain stopped in short order and the skies partially cleared.
Just north of Banff, the southern terminus of the Bow Valley Parkway intersects the Trans-Canada Highway. The parkway essentially connects Banff and Lake Louise Village on a low speed (60 kmh) two-lane road that provides direct access to numerous scenic locations and trails. My plan was to scout/shoot along the parkway, as conditions permitted, the rest of the morning and first part of the afternoon. I couldn’t check in at my motel at Lake Louise Village until at least 3 PM, but I did want to scout Lake Louise, Morraine Lake and a few other locations before dark that day, due to my pre-planned itinerary. I was to stay in the Lake Louise area through the morning of Friday, Sept. 26, but one of those days had already been earmarked for Lake O’Hara, at nearby Yoho National Park, across the border in British Columbia. (Much more on Lake O’Hara in a future installment.) So, there wasn’t a lot of time to experience all the richness of the Lake Louise area; I was determined to do as much as I could along the Bow Valley Parkway. My main guide was Darwin Wiggett’s e-book, How to Photograph the Canadian Rockies: Banff National Park. (I purchased and made heavy use of four of Darwin’s destination e-books and I highly recommend them if you’re planning on photographing in the region.)
My first stop was less than a mile down the parkway (which runs approximately 30 miles in all)–the Fireside Picnic Area. I shot along a creek that was just steps from the picnic parking area and then wandered perhaps 1/2 mile down a trail, and photographed a bit in the forest along the path before returning to the parking area and moseyed a few miles down the parkway to the Muleshoe Picnic Area. I spent more time here–both shooting in the forest alongside the picnic area and then on the seldom used Muleshoe Trail, which begins across the parkway from the picnic area of the same name.
The main attraction to the picnic area itself, in my view, is the beautiful aspen forest that surrounds it. and with mostly cloudy skies still the order of the day, I had the perfect soft light with which to photograph it.
The Muleshoe Trail runs through an old forest burn area and then up a fairly steep slope. Eventually, it reaches the foot of an open meadow and runs straight up a very steep, uncluttered slope–and I do mean straight up; there isn’t even the hint of a switchback. I forced myself up this extremely precarious trail because I could see that there would be some terrific views of the Bow Valley–including the muleshoe of the Bow River–below. Despite the difficult footing and what felt like a 45-degree slope I kept pushing myself to climb higher, because it promised a better perspective with each step. Finally, I reached a spot that allowed me to formulate the composition I wanted. It was difficult just to put my backpack on the ground and keep it from rolling all the way down the slope. Propping up the tripod–and myself–on the steep slope to produce the shot was even more difficult, but I managed to do it.
When I descended to flatter ground, I found some areas where I could use a telephoto lens to produce some patterned shots of the mixed aspen-coniferous forest in the river valley below.
After returning to the parking area I headed back down the road for the location along the parkway I had been most intrigued by after reading the e-book–Hillsdale Meadows. This open meadow with stands of golden aspen and mountain peak backdrops with the now-partly cloudy sky accent was postcard perfect and I wandered in with my backpack and tripod and set up shop for awhile.
From here, I made the trek to my last planned location along the parkway this afternoon–Castle Mountain. I wanted to at least scout the location–along the Bow River, with the distinctive mountain peak as a backdrop–and shoot it if conditions allowed. Unfortunately, the weather was deteriorating a bit and there was no light on the peak at all. I did shoot, briefly, along a tributary to the Bow River, just downstream from the bridge that abuts the main shooting location for the mountain itself, but it started to rain while I was there, so I just managed a single shot and then trudged back to the car. It was now pushing 4 PM, so I decided to check in to the motel and, if it stopped raining, do the rest of my scouting.
By the time I got to the motel at Lake Louise Village it had indeed stopped raining, so after checking in I went back to the car and drove straight to Lake Louise itself, about five miles away. This had been one of the iconic locations I had really wanted to see and, while the lake itself was quite pretty, the atmosphere there isn’t the best. The place was just inundated with tourists, many of whom were undoubtedly staying at the Chateau Lake Louise, a huge hotel just steps away from the lake itself. I wandered around a bit and made a few images, a couple of which I’ve included here, but on balance I was disappointed. It was just too touristy for me, and after less than an hour I headed off to Morraine Lake for a quick scout. I still needed to make my way over to Yoho National Park to locate the Lake O’Hara parking area, where I’d have to be early the next morning (more on this next time).
I did check out Morraine Lake, but didn’t do any shooting. It was now completely overcast and the point of my visit was to scout the location for a probable morning shoot on either Thursday or Friday (or both). I immediately saw why the place is so widely acclaimed. It’s difficult to describe the experience of seeing Morraine Lake for the first time and I’ll let some images in future installments do the talking for me. Suffice to say that I was seriously impressed.
I then rushed back to the access road. It was less than an hour until sunset (or dark–there would be no real sunset on this cloudy day) as I made my way back to the Trans-Canada and drove approximately 10 miles, across the provincial line into British Columbia to the Lake O’Hara parking area–which was easily found. Having located the following morning’s destination, I quickly headed to the Yoho Valley Road to try to make a couple of quick images along the Kicking Horse River before I lost the light completely. And so I did, donning my rubber boots and descending to the edge of the raging river, to produce the below shot, which I like best in black and white. The shutter was clicked just moments before it was so dark that I could no longer see to focus.
That brought to an end the first day I experienced in the Canadian Rockies. Day 2 was to be spent at Lake O’Hara back in Yoho National Park. This was something I had been looking forward to for months. Now if only the weather would cooperate…