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Camping in the Canadian Rockies
Chapter III

Surroundings of the Lake—Position of Mountains and Valleys—The Spruce and Balsam Firs—The Lyall's Larch—Alpine Flowers—The Trail among the Cliffs—The Beehive, a Monument of the Fast—Lake Agnes, a Lake of Solitude—Summit of the Beehive—Lake Louise in the Distant Future.

AMONG the mountains on all sides of Lake Louise are many scenes of unusual beauty and grandeur. While the lake itself must be considered the focal point of this region, and is indeed wonderfully attractive by reason of its rare setting, the encircling mountains are so rough and high, the valleys separating them so deep and gloomy, yet withal- so beautiful, that the scenery approaches perfection. The forces of nature have here wrought to their utmost and thrown together in apparently wild confusion some of the highest mountains in Canada and carved out gloomy gorge and rocky precipice till the eye becomes lost in the complexity of it all. Lakes and waterfalls reveal themselves among the rich dark forests of the valleys, and afford beautiful foregrounds to the distant snow mountains which seem to tower ever higher as one ascends.

A brief description of the topography in the vicinity of Lake Louise would be now in place. Southwestward from the lake is a range of very high and rugged mountains covered with snow and glaciers. This range is the crest of the continent of North America, in fact the great water-shed which divides the Atlantic and Pacific drainage. In this range are many peaks over 11,000 feet above sea level, an altitude which is near the greatest that the Rocky Mountains attain in this latitude. While farther south in Colorado there are scores of mountains 13,000 or 14,000 feet high, it must be remembered that no mountains in Canada between the International boundary and the railroad have yet been discovered that reach 12,000 feet. Nevertheless, these mountains of lesser altitude are far more impressive and apparently much higher because of their steep sides and extensive fields of perpetual snow.

This great range, forming the continental water-shed runs parallel to the general trend of the Rocky Mountains of Canada, or about northwest and southeast. Several spur ranges branch off at right angles from the central mass and run northeast five or six miles. Between these spur ranges are short valleys which all enter into the wide valley of the Bow. Lake Louise occupies one of these lesser valleys.

The several lateral valleys are all comparatively near Lake Louise and differ remarkably in the character of the scenery and vegetation. One is beautiful and richly covered with forests; another desolate and fearfully wild. The valley of Lake Louise contains in all three lakes, of which the smallest is but a mere pool, some seventy-five yards across.

Far up on the mountain side to the north of Lake Louise two little lakes were discovered many years ago. They are now to the visitor who spends but one day, almost the chief point of interest in this region. The trail thither leads into the dense forest from near the chalet and proceeds forthwith to indicate its nature by rising steadily and constantly. The tall coniferous trees cast a deep cool shade even on a warm day. So closely do the trees grow one to another that' the climber is entirely shut out from the world of mountains and surrounded by a primeval forest as he follows the winding path. Among the forest giants there are two principal trees, the spruce and the balsam fir. Each is very tall and slender and at a distance the appearance of the two trees is closely similar. The spruce is the characteristic tree of the Rockies and is found everywhere. It reaches a height of 75 or 100 feet in a single tapering bole, closely beset with small short branches bent slightly downward, as though better to withstand the burden of snow in winter. In open places the lower branches spread out and touch the ground, but in forests they die and leave a free passage between the trees. The balsam tree is quite similar but may be discerned by its smoother bark which is raised from underneath by countless blisters each containing a drop of transparent balsam. Here and there are a few tall pines rivalling the spruces and firs in height but affording a strong contrast to them in their scattered branches and larger needles.

The ground is covered with underbrush tangled in a dense luxuriance of vegetable life and partly concealing the ancient trunks of fallen trees long since covered with moss and now slowly decaying into a red vegetable mold.

At length, after half an hour of constant climbing, a certain indefinable change takes place in the forest. The air is cooler, the trees grow wider apart, and the view is extended through long vistas of forest trees. Presently a new species of tree, like our Eastern tamarack, makes its appearance. It is the Lyall’s larch, a tree that endures the rigors of a subalpine climate better than the spruces and balsam firs, so that it soon becomes to the climber among these mountains an almost certain indication of proximity to the tree-line.

It is not far from the truth to say that the Lyall’s larch is the most characteristic tree of the Canadian Rockies. It is not found in the Selkirk Range just west of the main range, and while it has indeed been found as far south as the International boundary, it has not been discovered in the Peace River valley to the north. Restricted in latitude, it grows on the main range of the Rockies only at a great altitude. Here on the borderland between the vegetable and mineral kingdoms it forms a narrow fringe at the tree-line and in autumn its needles turn bright yellow and mark a conspicuous band around all the cliffs and mountain slopes at about 7000 feet above sea level. Its soft needles, gathered in scattered fascicles, are set along the rough and tortuous branches, affording a scanty shade but permitting of charming glimpses of distant mountains, clouds, and sky among its gray branches and light-green foliage. It seems incapable of sending up a tall slender stem but branches out irregularly and presents an infinite variety of forms. Possibly for this reason the larch cannot contest with the slender spruces and firs of the valley, where it would be crowded out of light and sun among its taller rivals.

Presently the trail leads from out the forest and crosses an open slope where some years ago a great snow-slide swept down and stripped the trees from the mountain side. Here, 1200 feet above Lake Louise, the air feels sensibly cooler and indicates an Alpine climate.

The mountains now *reveal themselves in far grander proportions than from below, as they burst suddenly on the view. Nature has already made compensation for the destroyed forest by clothing this slope with a profusion of wild flowers, though much different in character from those at Lake Louise. Alpine plants and several varieties of heather, in varying shades of red or pink and even white, cover the ground with their elegant coloring. One form of heath resembles almost perfectly the true heather of Scotland, and by its abundance recalls the rolling hills and flowery highlands of that historic land. The retreating snow-banks of June and July are closely followed by the advancing column of mountain flowers which must needs blossom, bear fruit, and die in the short summer of two months duration. One may thus often find plants in full blossom within a yard of some retreating- snow-drift.

On reaching the farther side of the bare track of the avalanche, the trail begins to lead along the face of craggy cliffs like some llama path of the Andes. The mossy ledges are in some places damp and glistening with trickling springs, where the. climber may quench his thirst with the purest and coldest water. Wherever there is the slightest possible foothold the trees have established themselves, sometimes on the very verge of the precipice so that their spreading branches lean out over the airy abyss while their bare roots are flattened in the joints and fractures of the cliff or knit around the rocky projections like writhing serpents.

More than four hundred feet below is a small circular pond of clear water, blue and brilliant like a sapphire crystal. Its calm surface, rarely disturbed by mountain breezes, reflects the surrounding trees and rocks sharp and distinct as it nestles in peace at the very base of a great rock tower—the Beehive. Carved out from flinty sandstone, this tapering cone, if such a thing there be, with horizontal strata clearly marked resembles indeed a giant beehive. Round its base are green forests and its summit is adorned by larches, while between are the smooth precipices of its sides too steep for any tree or clinging plant. What suggestions may not this ancient pile afford! Antiquity is of man; but these cliffs partake more of the eternal—existing forever. Their nearly horizontal strata were formed in the Cambrian Age, which geologists tell us was fifty or sixty millions of years ago. Far back in those dim ages when the sea swarmed with only the lower forms of life, the fine sand was slowly and constantly settling to the bottom of the ocean and building up vast deposits which now are represented by the strata of this mountain. Solidified and made into flinty rock, after the lapse of ages these deposits were lifted above the ocean level by the irresistible crushing force of the contracting earth crust. Rain and frost and moving ice have sculptured out from this vast block monuments of varied form and aspect which we call mountains.

Just to one side of the Beehive a graceful waterfall dashes over a series of ledges and in many a leap and cascade finds its way into Mirror Lake. This stream flows out from Lake Agnes, whither the trail leads by a short steep descent through the forest. Lake Agnes is a wild mountain tarn imprisoned between gloomy cliffs, bare and cheerless. Destitute of trees and nearly unrelieved by any vegetation whatsoever, these mountain walls present a stern monotony of color. The lake, however, affords one view that is more pleasant. One should walk down the right shore a few hundred feet and look to the north. Here the shores formed of large angular blocks of stone are pleasantly contrasted with the fringe of trees in the distance.

The solitary visitor to the lake is soon oppressed with a terrible sensat\on of .utter loneliness. Everything in the surroundings is gloomy and silent save for the sound

of a trickling rivulet which falls over some rocky ledges on the right of the lake. The faint pattering sound is echoed back by the opposite cliffs and seems to fill the air with a murmur so faint, and yet so distinct, that it suggests something supernatural. The occasional shrill whistle of a marmot breaks the silence in a startling and sudden manner. A visitor to this lake once cut short his stay most unexpectedly and hastened back to the chalet upon hearing one of these loud whistles which he thought was the signal of bandits or Indians who were about to attack him.

Lake Agnes is a narrow sheet of water said to be unfathomable, as indeed is the case with all lakes before they are sounded. It is about one third of a mile in length and occupies a typical rock basin, a kind of formation that has been the theme of heated discussion among geologists. The water is cold, of a green color, and so pellucid that the rough rocky bottom may be seen at great depths. The lake is most beautiful in early July before the snowbanks around its edge have disappeared. Then the double picture, made by the irregular patches of snow on the bare rocks and their reflected image in the water, gives most artistic effects.

From the lake shore one may ascend the Beehive in about a quarter of an hour. The pitch is very steep but the ascent is easy and exhilarating, for the outcropping ledges of sandstone seem to afford a natural staircase, though with irregular steps. Everywhere are bushes and smaller woody plants of various heaths, the tough strong branches of which, grasped in the hand, serve to assist the climber, while occasional trees with roots looped and knotted over the rocks still further facilitate the ascent.

Arrived on the flat summit, the climber is rewarded for his toil. One finds himself in a light grove of the characteristic Lyall’s larch, while underneath the trees, varipus ericaceous plants suggest the Alpine climate of the place.

Though the climber may come here unattended by friends, he never feels the loneliness as at Lake Agnes. There the gloomy mountains and dark cliffs seem to surround one and threaten some unseen danger, but here the broader prospect of mountains and the brilliancy of the light afford most excellent company. I have visited this little upland park very many times, sometimes with friends, sometimes with the occasional visitors to Lake Louise, and often alone. The temptation to select a soft heathery seat under a fine larch tree and admire the scenery is irresistible. One may remain here for hours in silent contemplation, till at length the rumble of an avalanche from the cliffs of Mount Lefroy awakens one from reverie.

The altitude is about 7350 feet above sea level and in general this is far above the tree line, and it is only that this place is unusually favorable to tree growth that such a fine little grove of larches exists here. Nevertheless, the summer is very brief—only half as long as at Lake Louise, 1700 feet below. The retreating snow-banks of winter disappear toward the end of July and new snow often covers the ground by the middle of September. How could we expect it to be otherwise at this great height and in the latitude of Southern Labrador? On the hottest days, when down in the valley of the Bow the thermometer may reach eighty degrees or more, the sun is here never oppressively hot, but rather genially warm, while the air is crisp and cool. Should a storm pass over and drench the lower valleys with rain, the air would be full of hail or snow at this altitude. The view is too grand to describe, for while there is a more extensive prospect than at Lake Louise the mountains appear to rise far higher than they do at that level. The valleys are deep as the mountains high, and in fact this altitude is the level of maximum grandeur. The often extolled glories of high mountain scenery is much overstated by climbers. What they gain in extent they lose in intent. The widened horizon and countless array of distant peaks are enjoyed at the expense of a much decreased interest in the details of the scene. In my opinion one obtains in general the best view in the Canadian Rockies at the tree line or slightly below. Nevertheless every one to his own taste.

The most thrilling experience to be had on the summit of the Beehive is to stand at the verge of the precipice on the east and north sides. One should approach cautiously, preferably on hands and knees, even if dizziness is unknown to the climber, for from the very edge the cliff drops sheer more than 600 feet. A stone may be tossed from this place into the placid waters of Mirror Lake, where after a long flight of 720 feet, its journey’s end is announced by a ring of ripples far below.

Lake Louise appears like a long milky-green sheet of water, with none of that purity which appears nearer at hand. The stream from the glacier has formed a fanshaped delta, and its muddy current may be seen extending far out into the lake, polluting its crystal water and helping to fill its basin with sand and gravel till in the course of ages a flat meadow only will mark the place of an ancient lake.

There are even now many level meadows and swampy tracts in these mountains which mark the filled-up bed of some old lake. These places are called “ muskegs,” and though they are usually safe to traverse, occasionally the whole surface trembles like a bowl of jelly and quakes under the tread of men and horses. In such places let the traveller beware the treacherous nature of these sloughs, for on many an occasion horses have been suddenly engulfed by breaking through the surface, below which deep water or oozy-mud offers no foothold to the struggling animal.

At the present rate of filling, however, the deep basin of Lake Louise will require a length of time to become obliterated that is measured by thousands of years rather than by centuries,—a conception that should relieve our anxiety in some measure.

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