Guest Writer Lawrence J Burpee
“A lake carries you into recesses of feeling otherwise impenetrable.”
THIRTY-FIVE miles west of Banff on the Canadian Pacific Railway, and still in the Rocky Mountains Park, is the village of Laggan. You may make the journey by train or motor, in either case enjoying a succession of magnificent views of mountain peaks on either side, culminating in the majestic Mount Temple. From Laggan a tramway or a somewhat dusty ride or drive of two or three miles up the mountain side brings you to the Chalet, on the shores of Lake Louise; but if you are wise you will take the woodland trail and walk. The trail winds up through the woods, cool and fragrant, with wildflowers about you on every side, charming glimpses of forest glades and mountain torrents, and far above the æolian music of the breeze in the tree tops. The trail ends at the Chalet, a rambling, picturesque, and thoroughly comfortable hotel, crowded with tourists from the ends of the earth. Your thoughts are not, however, of hotel or tourists as you look beyond the trees, and get your first vivid impression of what is probably the most perfect bit of scenery in the known world. A lake of the deepest and most exquisite colouring, ever changing, defying analysis, mirroring in its wonderful depths the sombre forests and cliffs that rise from its shores on either side, the gleaming white glacier and tremendous, snow-crowned peaks that fill the background of the picture, and the blue sky and fleecy cloud overhead. Year after year you may revisit Lake Louise, and wander about its shores through all kinds of weather; you will never exhaust the variety of its charms. It changes from day to day, from hour to hour, from moment to moment. It responds instantly to every subtle change of cloud, wind or atmosphere; it has one glory of the sunrise and another of sunset; it offers you one picture under the brilliant noonday sun, another under heavy clouds, another through driving mists, or rain, or snow; but always incomparably beautiful, and always indescribable.
Let us see how it has appealed to different men, who have visited it at different times and under varied conditions. As long ago as 1888 William Spotswood Green, of the British Alpine Club, climbed up to the shores of Lake Louise on his way back from a season’s mountain-climbing in the Selkirks. “I was,” he says, “quite unprepared for the full beauty of the scene. Nothing of the kind could possibly surpass it. I was somewhat reminded of the Oeschinen See in Switzerland, but Lake Louise is about twice as long, the forests surrounding it are far richer, and the grouping of the mountains is simply perfection.”
“Lake Louise,” says Walter Dwight Wilcox, “is a realisation of the perfect beauty of nature beyond the power of imagination.”
Sir James Outram quotes the final verdict of one whom he describes as “a close observer of nature and enthusiastic lover of the picturesque,” to this effect: “I have travelled in almost every country under heaven, yet I have never seen so perfect a picture in the vast gallery of Nature’s masterpieces.” And Outram himself writes:
“As a gem of composition and of colouring it is perhaps unrivalled anywhere. To those who have not seen it words must fail to conjure up the glories of that ‘Haunted Lake among the pine-clad mountains, forever smiling upward to the skies.’ A master’s hand indeed has painted all its beauties; the turquoise surface, quivering with fleeting ripples, beyond the flower-strewn sweep of grassy shore; the darkening mass of tapering spruce and pine trees, mantling heavily the swiftly rising slopes that culminate in rugged steeps and beetling precipices, soaring aloft into the sun-kissed air on either side; and there, beyond the painted portals of the narrowing valley, rich with the hues of royal purple and of sunset reds, the enraptured gaze is lifted to a climax of superb effects, and the black walls of Mount Lefroy, surrounded by their dazzling canopy of hanging glaciers, and the wide gable-sweep of Mount Victoria, resplendent with its spotless covering of eternal snow, crown the matchless scene. The azure dome of heaven, flecked with bright, fleecy clouds like angel’s wings, completes the picture.”
Tom Wilson seems to have been the first white man to visit the shores of Lake Louise. At least his is the first visit of which there is any record. According to Wilcox, he camped with a pack train near the mouth of the Pipestone in 1882, when some Stony Indians came along and placed their tepees near him. “Not long after, a heavy snow-slide or avalanche was heard among the mountains to the south, and in reply to inquiry one of the Indians named Edwin, the Gold Seeker, said that the thunder came from a ‘big snow mountain above the lake of little fishes’. The next day Wilson and Edwin rode through the forests to the lake of little fishes, which was named subsequently for the Princess Louise,” then in Canada as the wife of the Governor General, the late Duke of Argyll.
Professor A P Coleman, of Toronto University, who has spent many summers in the Canadian Rockies, and to whom we are indebted for one of the most comprehensive and entertaining narratives of exploration in this fascinating field, visited Lake Louise two years after Tom Wilson. “I scrambled along its shores,” he says, “then unnamed and without marks of human habitation where the comfortable chalet now rises.” Many of us would give a good deal to treasure in our memory a picture of Lake Louise sans chalet and sans tourists.
About a quarter of a century ago the Canadian Pacific Railway built an unpretentious log inn on the shores of the lake, with accommodation for a few guests. This was destroyed by fire in 1893. It was rebuilt the following year, and has been repeatedly enlarged to meet the demands of an ever-growing stream of tourists, the last addition costing somewhere in the neighbourhood of half a million dollars. The railway has also provided a good road and trail from Laggan up to the Chalet, and opened several trails to points of interest about the lake. These have since been improved and extended in every direction by the Canadian government.
It is doubtful if any other spot in the mountains accommodates itself so generously to all tastes and capacities as does Lake Louise. If you are hopelessly indolent, you may stroll down to the shore, over a carpet of wildflowers, and lazily enjoy the matchless picture of Lefroy and Victoria with the gem of a lake in the foreground. Or a half-mile’s walk along the excellent trail that skirts the right-hand side of the lake will prove a revelation of ever-changing and always superb views. The walk may be extended to the farther end of the lake, and back by the other side where the path climbs along the steep slope of Fairview Mountain. An alternative trip, and a particularly delightful one in the early morning or the evening twilight, is to take one of the boats at the Chalet and row to the end of the lake and back. The distance is extraordinarily deceptive. It looks but a stone’s-throw, yet when you have rowed three-quarters of a mile you find that you are not much more than half-way. You look up on either side to the towering cliffs, and feel like a water beetle in the bottom of a gigantic cup. And what a wonderful liquid is contained in this cup; so clear that you grow dizzy as you gaze down and down into its unfathomable depths, and so marvellously steeped in colour that it is impossible to believe as you dip into it that your hand will not come up the same deep turquoise.
From the end of the lake a trail leads to the foot of Victoria Glacier, opening up an ever-changing panorama of dazzling snow-fields and terrific precipices. This way lies the road of the experienced mountaineers who with skill and daring win their way to the summits of these giants far up amid the clouds. It was by this road and the Lefroy Glacier that Wilcox some years ago unexpectedly discovered Paradise Valley.
A good trail now leads from the Chalet around Saddle Mountain to Paradise Valley, but one of the finest views of the valley with dainty Lake Annette and the gigantic guardian peaks that tower above, Temple, Aberdeen, Sheol and the Mitre, can be obtained from Saddle Mountain, reached by an easy trail. One does not readily forget the exquisite view that rewards the climber as he reaches the summit of the Saddle and stands on the edge of a thousand-foot precipice that drops sheer to the valley, and yet seems insignificant when the eye goes up and up to the glittering peak of Temple Mountain soaring thousands of feet above. The very contrast of the frowning walls that shut it in on every side lends an additional charm to the fairyland that lies at their feet, a perfect picture of green meadows, blue lake and silvery streams, most appropriately named Paradise Valley.
From the Saddle a zigzag trail leads to the summit of Fairview Mountain, from which one may look down upon Lake Louise whose ever-shifting shades of blue and green seem even deeper and richer than seen from the shore.
From the Chalet again a ride or climb up the trail that branches off on the right-hand side of the lake brings one to Mirror Lake and Lake Agnes. The distance to the former is about two miles, and a little more to Lake Agnes. Mirror Lake lies at the foot of a curious rock called the Beehive, and Lake Agnes is reached by a short climb up the slope of the mountain. The lakes themselves are well worth the climb, but one is rewarded as well with entirely new views of the encircling peaks, and tramps through a bewildering garden of Alpine flowers among which one finds the antennaria and bryanthus, which so curiously resemble edelweiss and purple heather.
A short distance north of Lake Agnes is the Little Beehive, a mere knob on the mountain, from which, however, a magnificent view is obtained of a far-flung panorama of tremendous, snow-clad mountains, blue lakes, green forest slopes and sparkling glaciers. “I have never,” says Wilcox, “seen this glorious ensemble of forests, lakes and snow fields surpassed in an experience on the summits of more than forty peaks and the middle slopes of as many more in the Canadian Rockies.” And, as he adds, the viewpoint is accessible to even the most indifferent climbers, or may be managed on horseback.
From the Chalet, also, a trail of ten miles leads to the Valley of the Ten Peaks and Moraine Lake, or the valley may be reached by a carriage road which extends to the foot of the lake. Another trail runs from Moraine Lake around an imposing cliff known as the Tower of Babel to Consolation Valley, and still another leads in the opposite direction to Wenkchemna Glacier.
A somewhat longer expedition from Lake Louise is by trail west to the height of land at Stephen, then down the picturesque Valley of the Kicking Horse, and up Cataract Creek on the western side of Mount Victoria, to Lake O’Hara. This, however, takes one into Yoho Park, of which something will be said in the next chapter.
“A lake is a landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is Earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.” ~Henry David Thoreau
Copyright © 2012 Alexandra Lee
* Chapter 5 “Incomparable Lake Louise” from Lawrence J Burpee, Among the Canadian Alps (Norwood, MA: Plimpton Press, 1914). Photos, quotes added.