My home is Calgary, Alberta, which is about an hour east of the Canadian Rockies, some of the most beautiful mountains in the world. This past Sunday I woke up at 5:30 to hike the Memorial Lake trail with my two dogs. It’s a 17.4 km, out and back trail with 1022 m of elevation gain. It’s located in Kananaskis, a park system within the Rocky Mountains. There’s something about early morning that makes me feel life is full of possibility!
The plan was to be on the road by 6:45 and be on the trail as the sun was rising (Google said 8:05). I had to be back in town by 2 to take my kid to a birthday party but 17 km seemed easily achievable in 5 hours. At quarter after 7 I was finally off, after having to return home to retrieve a couple of essential forgotten items (map and coffee). The black of night was beginning to turn a dark inky blue in the east, with the ragged cut out of pine trees stamped into the lightening sky as I sped off towards the highway. By the time I had reached the cities edge at 7:45, I was disappointed that half the sky was daylight. There’s something very cathartic about highway driving in the night; Hurtling through darkness with nothing but the humming of the motor and the stars all winking down at you. It gives me a feeling of weightlessness. I’d been looking forward to that but was too late for it this weekend. Next time I’ll leave earlier.
There was one other car parked at the trail head when I arrived at 8:40. My dogs came barreling out of the car into the snow when I opened the door for them. As I got my snow pants on and made sure I had everything, they rolled and tumbled around in the snow, making me laugh. The sky had now been overtaken by that pale, hazy, morning time blue. Sheets of filmy clouds were moving fast and low like sails at sea. I had wanted to watch the sunrises flood of lemons, tangerines and crimsons from the trails, framed by the forest. Not this time though.
Winter in the mountains is beautiful. There is this soft, dream like quality to a forest covered in mounds of snow, with all the pine boughs dusted in white, shimmering in the sunlight. The trail started off wide with lots of footprints from the previous day. It winded up though the forest of pines at a gentle slope, with several bridges crossing back and forth across Ribbon Creek. The creek, bubbled and gurgled as it rushed along, frozen over at the edges with ice that shone green and blue. Pale green witches’ hair moss dangled from the blackened limbs of the trees adding pops of color to the largely monochrome world around me. Occasionally, there was a creak or crack that would emerge from the trees, breaking the silence. That lovely sharp, woodsy smell of a pine forest enveloped me as I made my way along the path breathing deep and feeling my shoulders loosen.
For about 4 km the trail continued like this, wide and well packed until I arrived a t a fork with a map mounted at it. After consulting the posted map and the map that I had brought along with me I headed off down the path that led west. After this point the trail got narrower, there were fewer footprints, and my dogs fell in behind me, staying close to my heel.
Another 2 km and I came upon a second fork, where a stake had been driven into the ground. The stake indicated one way to Ribbon Creek Falls and another way to Memorial Lakes. In the direction of the Ribbon Creek Falls there was a trail of footprints. In front of the stake there were a muddle of footprints and at a barely noticeable break in the trees, about a meter from the stake, I discovered a pair of footprints leading off into the trees. After walking around for a bit and finding no other indication of a path, I decided that set of footprints must be the way and set off tracking them.
Thank god for the footprints, I thought as I walked deeper and deeper into the forest. Without them it would have been impossible to find the pathway underneath the snow which was all the time getting deeper as I moved higher and higher. There were a few times when I doubted the footprints though. I found myself shimmying down steep banks and climbing over fallen tree limbs. At a point, I had to shuffle along a ledge about a foot wide back pressed against a rock face, with a steep incline leading down to the icy creek below, hoping to hell I didn’t slip on the snow. Every so often I’d see a piece of reflective tape tied in the trees though, so I figured the footsteps knew where they were going.
Then there was a creek crossing, at which a fallen tree had been used to cross. It was too wide to jump across, but the tree was narrow and there wasn’t much to hold onto for stability. Below the creek gurgled underneath the ice. I didn’t trust myself to balance along it and knew that if I fell I’d go through the ice. I walked up the creek to see if I could find a better crossing but eventually decided that it was the best I had. Heading back, I stood in front of that tree and weighed my options. What if I fell in and got wet and had to hike back out 8 km with icy wet feet? Then there were the dogs? How was I to get them across?
After some deliberating and thinking of the pictures I’d seen of the pristine blueish, green lake set against the jagged peak of Mount Sparrowhawk, I decided I had to give it a shot. So I picked up my dog, Anna and pitched her across the creek, then Guiness, one landing after another in a deep drift of snow before exploding back out with a wild surge of adrenalin. Now I had to get across!
I reached out and tried to get a hold of a pine limb to stabilize myself as I balanced along the log, but it cracked off when I gave it a yank. Finally, I got on my knees and stretched out placing my belly along the tree. Reaching forward I grabbed further up the tree and pulled myself forward, toes dangling onto the ice below. This maneuver was repeated twice more and I was over, standing in the snow drift with my two little dogs bounding around me! I smiled with satisfaction!
After this it begun to get treacherous. Below the snow the ground was becoming steeper and extremely irregular, covered in boulders and fallen trees. Several times I would step into the snow and find myself dropping down several feet further than I had anticipated. But I knew I was close, probably less than a km away and I wanted to eat lunch beside that pristine alpine lake and bask in the accomplishment of perseverance. And if those footprints could do it, well so could I, damnit!
Then I heard the faint sound of voices ahead and out from the trees emerged a woman and a man holding a map and saying they must have missed a turn.
“Hi!” I called out.
“Oh hey! We were just heading back that way. Have you done this trail before? We thought it was this way but we lost the trail up there and were just coming back,” said the man.
“No this is my first time up here. I was actually following your footprints!” I call back.
We approached each other and stood around in a circle consulting our maps together. We tried to remember how many creek crossings there were since the trail split off from Ribbon Creek but none of us could be sure. We all waded around in the snow for about 20 minutes coming to dead end after dead end. Eventually I looked at my phone and saw it was quarter after 11. My heart jumped as I realized the time. I had to be on the road by 1 pm at the latest to get my son, Jack, to his best friend’s birthday!
“Listen, I have to turn back, I have to be back in town for 2pm. I really hope you guys find it! I think you’re really close!” I bid the pair farewell and head off following the footprints back.
Back over the log, back pressed against the rock face, back up and down the steep banks, back twisting and twining my way up, over and around the trees until I got back to the well trodden path. Then I ran, dogs close behind me, flying through the trees. It took half the time to get back down than it did to make it up and I arrived at my SUV with my face flushed and my heart pumping. I stripped off my layers and pitched them in the back of the SUV, along with my dogs and then sped off, back to Calgary.
There is so much that I want out of this life! There are so many things I want to do and see. So many places I want to go. And there are times when it seems the things I want are constantly evading me. Never enough time. Never enough money. So many things competing for my attention.
As I grow older though, I’ve begun to realize that often, the best thing are slow in fruition. The best things often take more than one try. Sometimes many tries! I believe I’m capable of anything I choose to invest enough time into. I’ve learnt to be patient with myself and with others and with life. Not today doesn’t mean never, it means maybe next time! There are only so many resources available to me but I don’t view that as a limitation. Instead I see it as a challenge to my creativity, my ingenuity and my spirit. And if there’s one thing I’ve got, it’s spirit!
I’m coming again for you Memorial Lakes!