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Camping in the Canadian Rockies
Chapter II

Lake Louise—First Impressions—An Abode of Perpetual Winter— The Chalet— Visitors—Stirring Tales of Adventure—Primeval Forests— Forest Fires—Mosquitoes and Bull-Dog Flies—Mortal Combats between Wasps and Bull-Dogs— The Old Chalet—Morning on the Lake—Approach of a Storm—Sublimity of a Mountain Thunder-Storm—Cloud Effects— The Lake in October—A Magnificent Avalanche from Mt. Lefroy—A Warning of Approaching Winter.

LAKE LOUISE is one of the most beautiful sheets of water in the Canadian Rockies. Many who have travelled extensively say it is the most charming spot they have ever beheld. The lake is small, but there is a harmonious blending of grandeur and quiet beauty in the surrounding mountains which in some way makes a perfect picture out of lofty snow peaks in the distance and dark forested slopes near at hand.

The lake is a little more than a mile long and about one fourth of a mile wide. The outline is remarkably like that of the left human foot. Forests come down nearly to the water’s edge on all sides of the lake, but there is a narrow margin of rough angular stones where the ripples from the lake have washed out the soil and even undermined the trees in some places. The water is a blue-green color, so clear that the stones on the bottom and the old water-logged trunks of trees, long since wrested from the shores by storms and avalanches, may be discerned even in several fathoms of water. The lake is 230 feet deep in the centre, and the bottom slopes down very suddenly from the shores.

The west shore makes a gently sinuous or wavy line, forming little bays and capes. Ever new and artistic foregrounds are thus presented, with the forest' making a retreating line of vegetation down the shore. Nothing could be more beautiful than this border of the lake, rough and tangled though it is, with a strange mingling of sharp boulders and prostrate trees covered with moss and half concealed by copses of alder bushes and flowering shrubs.

I shall never forget my first view of Lake Louise. From the station, the old trail, constantly ascending as it approaches the lake, leads its irregular course through the forest. After a walk of nearly three miles, partial glimpses of the lake and surrounding mountains were obtained from among the tall spruce trees. A short rapid descent of a small ridge placed us on the borders of the lake.

It would be difficult indeed to give even a partial description of the scene. Imagine a cool morning with the rising sun just beginning to touch the surface of a mountain lake. The air is tranquil and calm so that the glassy surface of the water mirrors the sky and mountains perfectly. In the realm of sound, too, all is repose but for the call of birds near at hand among the balsam trees. From the shores of the lake on either side rise great mountains, showing cliffs and rocky ledges or long sweeping slopes of forest to the tree line. Higher still are bare slopes, crags, ledges, and scattered areas of snow. At the end of the lake a great notch in the nearer mountains reveals at a distance the wall-like, lofty mass of Mount Lefroy. This most imposing snowy mountain stands square across the gap, and with a sharp serrated cliff piercing the very vault of heaven, shuts off the view and forms the most conspicuous object of all. The lower part of the mountain is a vertical cliff or precipice where the longitudinal strata are distinctly visible. Above, rise alternating slopes covered with perpetual snow and hanging glaciers, the white-blue ice of which is splintered by deep rents and dark yawning crevasses. This mountain forms part of the continental water-shed, for on the other side the melting snows finally reach the Pacific Ocean, while on the near side the snows swept into the valleys by avalanches, and melted by the warmer air of lower altitudes, find their way at length into the Saskatchewan River and Hudson Bay.

There is something wonderfully attractive about this mountain. The pleasure grows as one continues to gaze at the immense mass ; harsh and stern and cold though it be, it excites awe and wonder as though here were the rocky foundation and substratum of the globe. This is the abode of perpetual winter, where ice and snow and

bleak rocks exist apart. Here all is grand but menacing, dangerous, and forbidding. And these high mountains and deep valleys, suggesting that some awful storm at sea had become petrified into colossal waves to stand at rest forever, have been carved out by rain and running water, frost and change of temperature, through the lapse of countless ages.

Our attention finally came to the quiet beauty of the surrounding vegetation, where among the scattered skirmishers of the forest are flowering shrubs, and in the more open grassy places forming the swampy borders of the lake, are many bright flowers. The white mountain anemones in several varieties, the familiar violets, the yellow columbine with beautiful pendent blossoms claiming relationship to its Eastern cousin with scarlet flowers, the fragrant spiranthes, and orchids with pale-green flowers, resembling insects on a leafy stem, may all be seen in profusion near the north side of the lake. These humble herbs, with their gaudy coloring, are the growth of a single season, but on all sides are copses of bushy plants which endure the long winter, some of them clad in a garb of evergreen and, like the annual plants, bearing elegant floral creations. The most conspicuous is the-sheep laurel, a small bush adorned with a profusion of crimson-red flowers, each saucer-shaped, hanging in corymbs among the small green leaves. Various shrubs with white flowers, some small and numerous, others large and scattered, make a contrast to the ever present laurel, while the most beautiful of all is a species of mountain rhododendron, a large bush, the most elegant among the mountain heaths, with large white flowers in clustered umbels. In early July this bush may be found, here and there, scattered sparingly in the forest in full blossom at the level of Lake Louise, but after this one must seek ever higher on the mountain side as the advancing summer creeps to altitudes where spring is later.

The early morning visitor turns with sharpened appetite to the hotel, if we may call it such,—a little Swiss chalet of picturesque architecture built on an eminence in full view of the lake. Here the tourist may live in rustic comfort for a day, or for weeks, should he desire to prolong his visit.

Tourists come sparingly to Lake Louise. Unlike Banff with its varied attractions, there is little here outside of nature, and few have the power to appreciate nature alone. Of those who do come, only a small number really see the lake with its forests and mountains combined in exquisite attractiveness. They see the outlines of mountains, but know not whether they are near or distant, nor whether their scale is measured in yards or miles ; they see the water of the lake, but not the reflections in it, the ever changing effects of light and shade, sun and shadow, ripple and calm. There are trees tall and slender, but whether they be spruce or pine, larch or hemlock, is all the same; and as to the flowers—some are differently colored from others.

A visitor to the lake once asked in good faith, apparently, if the mountains at the head of the lake were not white from chalk ; another, why the water of the stream - which leads out from the lake and rushes in roaring cascades over its rocky channel toward the Bow River— runs so fast down hill.

Fortunately, however, those who are not blessed with that ever present source of pleasure, a love for nature, at least to a slight degree, are exceptional. Nevertheless, that most people lose much pleasure from a lack of close observation is often painfully evident. I- have seen, altogether, several hundred tourists arrive at the lake, coming as they do in small parties, or singly, from day to day, and have found it a very interesting study to observe their first impressions as the lake bursts on their view. Some remain motionless studying the details of the scene, usually devoting their chief attention to the lake and forests, but less to the mountains, for mountains are the least appreciated of all the wonders of nature, and are not fully revealed except after years of experience. Others glance briefly and superficially towards the lake, and rush hastily into the chalet for breakfast, balancing their love for nature against hunger for material things in uneven scale. Some remain a week or ten days, but the great majority spend a single day and leave, feeling that they have exhausted the charms of the place in so short a time. A single day amid surroundings where there are such infinite possibilities of change in cloud and storm, heat and cold, the dazzling glare of noon, or the calm romantic light of a full moon, and the slow progress of the seasons, gives but one picture, a single mood from out a thousand, and it may perchance be the very worst of all.

Upon climbing the steps to the open porch of the chalet and entering the large spacious sitting-room, the eye falls at once on a fireplace of old-time proportions, and within its walls of brick, huge logs are burning, with more vigor indeed but hardly less constancy than the ancient fires of the Vestal Virgins. Round this spacious hearth visitors and guests gather, for the air at Lake Louise is always sharp at morning and evening. Indeed, frosts are not rare throughout the summer and inay occur any week even in July and August. The high altitude of the lake, which is a little more than 5600 feet above sea-level, is in great part the cause of this bracing weather. On the hottest day that I have ever seen at the lake in the course of three summers the thermometer registered only 78°

The visitors who come to Lake Louise are of the same cosmopolitan character and varied nationality as those at Banff. Often of a cold night have I sat by the large fire, our only source of light, and listened to tales of adventure told by those who have visited the most distant and unfrequented parts of the earth. Englishmen, who have spent the best years of their life in India, were among our entertainers, and while beverages varying in nature according to nationality or tastes of each were passed around, I have heard thrilling accounts of leopard and tiger hunts in the jungle, blood-curdling tales of treachery and massacre or daring exploits in the Indian wars, and rare experiences in unknown parts of Cashmere and Thibet.

Though the great majority of visitors to the lake are strangers, there are some half-dozen whose familiar faces reappear each successive season; like pilgrims they make this region the termination of a long annual journey, and here worship in “temples not built by human hands.” Among these lovers of nature, far distant England and Ceylon are represented no less than the nearer cities of the United States. The peculiar charms of this locality present an inexhaustible treasure house of delightful experiences that grow by familiarity. One’s impressions of the beauty of the lake increase year by year as the full meaning of each detail becomes more thoroughly appreciated.

A fact of great importance, which goes far to make up the ensemble of the surroundings of Lake Louise, is the perfect condition of the forests, which rise in uniform, swelling slopes of dark-green verdure from the rocky shores of the lake far up the mountain sides to those high altitudes where the cold air suggests an eternal winter and dwarfs the struggling trees into mere bushes. The frequent forest fires, which have wrought so much destruction throughout the entire Canadian Rockies, have not as yet swept through this valley. The great spruces and balsams of this primeval forest indicate by their size that for hundreds of years no fire has been through this region. Some large tree stumps near the chalet show hundreds of rings, and one that I counted started to grow in the year 1492, when Columbus set forth to discover the western world.

Nevertheless, on hot days after a long period of dry weather, when the air is laden with the fragrant odor of the dripping balsam and of the dry resin hardened in yellow tears on the scarred trunks of the trees, and when the dead lower branches hung with long gray moss seem to offer all the most combustible materials, one feels certain that the slightest spark would result in a terrible conflagration. Apparently, however, the past history of this valley has never recorded a fire, whether started by careless Indian hunters or that frequent cause, lightning. So far as I am aware, there are no layers of buried charcoal or reddened soil under the present forest which would indicate an ancient fire.

Some years ago—apparently more than twTenty,—a fire destroyed the forest near the station of Laggan, which is less than two miles from the lake in a straight line. The fire approached within a mile of the lake and then died out. There are two causes which will always tend to preserve these beautiful forests if the visitors are not careless and counteract them. The prevalent wind is out of the valley toward the Bow valley, so that a fire would naturally be swept away from the lake. Another cause is the natural moisture of this upland region. The very luxuriance of the vegetation indicates this, while in the early morning the whole forest often seems reeking with moisture, even when there has been no rain for weeks. The chill of night appears to condense a heavy dew under the trees and moistens all the vegetation, so that the forest rarely becomes so exceedingly dry as often happens in wide valleys at lower altitudes.

Though the scenery and climate at Lake Louise seem almost ideally perfect during the summer time, nature always renders compensation in some form or other, and never allows her creatures to enjoy complete happiness. The borders of the lake and the damp woods breed myriads of mosquitoes, which conspire to annoy and torture both man and beast. They appear early in spring and suddenly vanish about the 15th or 20th of August each year. The chill of night causes them to disappear about ten o’clock in the evening, not to be seen again until the atmosphere begins to grow warm in the morning sun.

Another insect pest is a species of fly called the “bulldog,” a name suggested by its ferocious bite. These large insects are about an inch in length and are armed with a formidable set of saws with which they can rapidly cut a considerable hole through the skin of a man or the hide of a horse. The bull-dogs frequent the valleys of the Canadian Rockies, varying locally in their numbers, and seem to prefer low altitudes and a considerable degree of heat, for they are always most voracious and numerous on hot dry days. These flies, when numerous, will almost make a horse frantic. Their bite feels like a fiery cinder slowly burning through the skin, but fortunately they do not cause much trouble to man, for they are led by instinct to seek the rough surfaces of animals and almost invariably light on the clothes instead of the hands or face. They have a most blood-thirsty and cruel enemy in the wasp, and if it were not for the inexhaustible supply of the bulldogs, the wasps would annihilate the species. Nothing in the habits of insects could be more interesting than the strange manner in which the wasps set out deliberately in pursuit of a bull-dog fly, to overtake and seize the clumsy victim in mid air. Both insects fall to the ground with a terrible buzzing and much circling about while the mad contest goes on. Meanwhile the wasp works with the rapidity of lightning, and with its sharp powerful jaws dissevers legs and wings, which fall scattered in the melee, till the bull-dog is rendered helpless and immovable. Last of all, the wasp cuts off the head of its victim, then leaves the lifeless and limbless body in order to continue the chase.

I have seen a wasp thus dismember and kill one of these large flies in less than thirty seconds. They seem to perform their murderous acts out of pure pleasure, as they do not linger over their prey after the victim is dead.

The water of Lake Louise is too cold to admit of bathing except in a very brief manner. The temperature of the water near the first of August is about 56°.

The old chalet, built in rustic fashion with unhewn logs, was placed near the lake shore much closer than the present building. One day in 1893, when every one was absent, the building caught fire and burned to the ground. Remarkably enough the forest did not take fire, though some of the trees were close to the building.

Usually in the early morning, before the sun has warmed the atmosphere and started the breezes of daytime into motion, the lake is tranquil and its surface resembles a great mirror. About nine o’clock, the first puffs of wind begin to make little cat’s-paws at the far end of the lake, which widen and extend until finally the whole water becomes rippled. A gentle breeze continues to sweep down the lake from the snow mountains toward the Bow valley all day long, and the water rarely becomes smooth till after sunset. This is the usual order of events in fair weather, a condition which may continue for several weeks without a drop of rain.

The approach and progress of a storm, the wonderful atmospheric changes attending it, and the ever moving clouds obscuring the mountain tops reveal the lake in the full grandeur of its surroundings. An approaching storm is first announced by scattered wisps of cirrus cloud, which move slowly and steadily from the west in an otherwise blue sky. In the course of twenty-four hours the cirrus clouds have become so thick that they often resemble a thin haze far above the highest mountains. The sun with paled light can no longer pierce this ever thickening hazy veil. The wind blows soft and warm from out the south or southwest, and generally brings up the smoke of forest fires from the Pacific coast, and renders the atmosphere still more obscure, till at length the sun appears like a great ball of brass set in a coppery sky. The trees and grass appear to change their color and assume a strange vivid shade of green in the weird light. Sometimes light feathery ashes are wafted over the high mountains south of the lake and settle down gently like flakes of snow. The falling barometer announces the coming storm, and presently another layer of clouds, the low-lying cumulus, form just above the highest peaks and settle gradually lower till they touch the mountain tops. Rain soon follows, the clouds settle till they almost rest on the water of the lake, and the wind increases in violence.

Sometimes thunder-storms of considerable fury sweep through the valley and among the mountains, one after another for several days. A violent thunder-storm at night among these lofty mountains is one of the grandest phenomena of nature. The battling of the elements, the unceasing roar of the wind in the forest, and the crash of thunder redoubled by echoes from the rocky cliffs,—all conspire to fill the imagination with a terrible picture of the majesty and sublimity of nature. From the lake there comes up a low, hoarse murmur, not the roar of ocean surf, but the lesser voice of a small mountain lake lashed to fury and beating with its small waves on a rocky shore. The noise of the forest, the sound of colliding branches as the tall trees sway to and fro in the furious wind, and the frequent crack and crash of dead forest giants overcome by the elements form the dull but fearful monotone, above which the loud rumble of thunder rises in awful grandeur. These are the sounds of a mountain storm.

The bright flashes of lightning reveal a companion picture, for in the momentary light succeeded by absolute darkness the lake is revealed covered with foamy white caps. The forests on the mountain side seem to yield to the blast like a field of wheat in a summer breeze, and the circling clouds sweep about the mountain slopes and conceal all but their bases.

Should the storm clear away during the daytime one may witness grand cloud effects. The low-hanging masses of clouds left behind by the battling elements slowly rise and occasionally reveal small areas of blue sky among the moving vapors. Gentle puffs of air sweep over the calm surface of the water, making little areas of ripples here and there, only to be succeeded by a tranquil calm, as if the storm spirit were sending forth his dying gasps intermittently. While the air is thus calm below, the circling wisps of vapor high up on the mountain, rising and descending, show that the battle between the sun and the clouds is still raging. From above the saturated forests, the rising vapors condense and increase in size till at length, caught in some counter-current, they are swept away or carried downward, while the dissolving cloud spreads out in wisps and streamers till suddenly it disappears into transparent air,—a veritable cloud ghost. At length the mountain 1 tops appear once more, white in a light covering of new snow, and, as the great masses of cumulus rise and disappear the sky appears of that deep blue-black color peculiar to mountain altitudes, while the sun shines out with dazzling brilliancy through the clear atmosphere.

The last visit I made to Lake Louise was toward the middle of October, 1895. A very snowy, disagreeable September had been followed by a long period of milder weather with much bright sunshine. The new snow, which had been quite deep near the lake, had altogether disappeared except high up on the mountain side. It was the true Indian summer, a season with a certain mellow charm peculiar to it alone, characterized by clear sunny weather, a calm atmosphere, a low, riding sun, and short days. Most of the flowers were withered. The deciduous bushes, lately brilliant from frost, were rapidly losing their foliage, and the larches were decked in pale yellow, far up near the tree line. However, the greater part of the vegetation is evergreen, and the spruces, balsams, and pines, the heaths, ericaceous plants, and the mosses contrive to set winter at nought by wearing the garb of a perpetual summer in a region where snow covers the ground three fourths of the year.

I could not resist the temptation as the morning train rolled up to the station at Laggan to get off for the day and make another visit to the lake. The sunrise had been unusually brilliant and there was every promise of a fine day. There is rarely much color at sunrise or sunset in the mountains. The dry clear atmosphere has little power to break up the white light into rainbow colors and give the brilliancy of coloring to be seen near the sea-coast or in the lowlands. The tints are like the air itself—pure, cold, and clear. .With more truth they might be called delicate shades or color suggestions. They recall those exquisite but faint hues seen in topaz or tourmaline crystals, or transparent quartz crystals, wherein the minutest trace of some foreign mineral has developed rare spectrum colors and imprisoned them forever. Oftimes the snow of the mountain tops is thus tinted a bright clear pink, beautifully contrasted against the intensely blue sky. I have never seen a deep red on the mountains or clouds at these altitudes. The effect of forest-fire smoke is to give muddy colors: the sun resembles a brazen globe, and the sky becomes coppery in appearance.

After breakfast at the station house, I set off over the hard frozen road toward the lake. I carried my camera and luncheon on my back, my only companion being a small dog which appeared ready for exercise. The air was frosty and cold; the low-riding sun had not as yet struck into the forest trees and removed the rime from the moss and leaves on the ground.

In somewhat less than an hour, I arrived at the lake. All was deserted; the chalet closed, the keeper gone, and the tents taken down.

Even the boats, which usually rested near the shore, had been put under cover.

The cold air was perfectly calm, and my vapory breath rose straight upwards. The mirror surface of the water was disturbed by some wild fowl—black ducks and divers—which swarm on the lake at this season. Their splashings, and the harsh cries of the divers came faintly over the water. It seemed strange that these familiar haunts could appear so fearfully wild and lonely merely because man had resigned his claim to the place and nature now ruled alone. All at once a wild unearthly wail from across the water, the cry of a loon, one of the most melancholy of all sounds, startled me, and gave warning that activity alone could counteract the effect of the imagination.

Accordingly I walked down the right shore of the lake with the intention of going several miles up the valley and taking some photographs of Mount Lefroy. The flat bushy meadows near the upper end of the lake were cold, and all the plants and reedy grass were white with the morning frost. The towering cliffs and castle-like battlements of the mountains on the south side of the valley shut out the sun, and promised to prevent its genial rays from warming this spot till late in the afternoon, if at all, for a period of several months. In the frozen ground, as I followed the trail, I saw the tracks of a bear, made probably the day before. Bruin had gone up the valley somewhere and had not returned as ..yet, so there was a possibility of making his acquaintance.

I was well repaid for my visit this day, as a magnificent avalanche fell from Mount Lefroy. Mount Lefroy is a rock mountain rising in vertical cliffs from between two branches of a glacier which sweep round its base. A hanging glacier rests on the highest slope of the mountain, and, ascending some distance, forms a vertical face of ice nearly three hundred feet thick at the top of a great precipice. The highest ridge of the mountain is covered with an overhanging cornice of snow, which the storm winds from the west have built out till it appears to reach full one hundred feet over the glacier below. At times, masses of ice break off from the hanging glacier and fall with thundering crashes to the valley far below.

I was standing at a point some two miles distant looking at this imposing mountain, when from the vertical ice wall a great fragment of the glacier, some three hundred feet thick and several times as long, broke away, and, slowly turning in mid-air, began to fall through the airy abyss. In a few seconds, amid continued silence, for the sound had not yet reached me, the great mass struck a projecting ledge of rock after a fall of some half thousand feet, and at the shock, as though by some inward explosion, the block was shivered into thousands of smaller fragments and clouds of white powdery ice. Simultaneously came the first thunder of the avalanche. The larger pieces led the way, some whirling around in mid-air, others gliding downward like meteors with long trains of snowy ice dust trailing behind. The finer powdered debris followed after, in a long succession of white streamers and curtains resembling cascades and waterfalls. The loud crash at the first great shock now developed into a prolonged thunder wherein were countless lesser sounds of the smaller pieces of ice. It was like the sound of a great battle in which the sharp crack of rifles mingles with the roar of artillery. Leaping from ledge to ledge with ever increasing velocity, the larger fragments at length reached the bottom of the precipice, while now a long white train extended nearly the whole height of the grand mountain wall 2500 feet from base to top.

Imagine a precipice sixteen times higher than Niagara, nearly perpendicular, and built out of hard flinty sandstone. At the top of this giant wall, picture a great glacier with blue ice three hundred feet thick, crevassed and rent into a thousand yawning caverns, and crowding downwards, ever threatening to launch masses of ice large as great buildings into the valley below. Such avalanches are among the most sublime and thrilling spectacles that nature affords. The eye alone is incapable of appreciating the vast scale of them. The long period of silence at first and the thunder of the falling ice reverberated among the mountain-walls produce a better impression of the distance and magnitude.

I arrived at the lower end of the lake toward one o’clock. The lake was only disturbed in one long narrow strip toward the middle by a gentle breeze while all the rest was perfectly calm. This was one of those rare days of which each year only affords two or three, when the lake is calm at midday under a clear sky. The mirror surface of the water presented an inverted image of the mountains, the trees on the shore, and the blue sky. The true water surface and the sunken logs on the bottom of the lake joined with the reflected objects in forming a puzzling composite picture.

The brilliant sun had taken away the chill of morning and coaxed forth a few forest birds, but there were no flowers or butterflies to recall real summer. It seemed as though this were the last expiring effort of autumn before the cold of winter should descend into the valley and with its finger on the lips of nature cover the landscape with a deep mantle of snow and bind the lake in a rigid layer of ice. Even at this warmest period of the day the sun’s rays seemed inefficient to heat the atmosphere, while from the cold shadows of the forest came a warning that winter was lurking near at hand, soon to sweep down and rule uninterrupted for a period of nine long months.

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