DAY 5: 22 September
Headed south on a decent day but it soon deteriorated. In fact , it was snowing by the time we reached the Columbia Icefield and the ridges were covered in mist. No point in doing the Parker or Wilcox Ridge walks. Foiled once again!
Stopped at the Athabasca Falls for a last look at this mighty river.Very scenic area, well set out with viewing points over the falls , not the biggest but the most powerful in the Canadian Rockies.
It was great to drive back down the Icefields Parkway again, seeing it all from the opposite direction.You don’t get fed up backtracking, when the landscape is that good. The Rockies were now dusted with snow and the rough, quarry -like mountainsides now looked much lovelier. Of course, that’s what it was all like on my first visit in April when we were skiing. Then the sun came out and we stopped at the Peyto Lake car park for the short stroll through the pines to view this iconic lake. It was a winter wonderland and quite magical, with snow crystals falling lightly on our shoulders as walked along the track to the main overlook. The startling turquoise water lay a long , long way below us, inaccessible and remote.
Not too much further along the road and we reached Bow Lake again and couldn’t resist a quick stop to admire it for the last time.
Then it was onwards to Moraine Lake and our posh night in Break – the – Bank Moraine Lake Lodge.
I liked it immediately.
It was built by the Whytes, the artist husband and wife who featured a lot in my ‘Art in the Rockies’book. But it hadn’t begun life as it was now, with a dining room surrounded almost completely by glass walls and a cathedral like ceiling and bedrooms with viewing windows and balconies. It must be glorious in summer.The weather had turned very cold and grey now, quite forbidding.
The lad who took us to our ground floor room told us that a female grizzly and two cubs often trotted down early morning to feed in a meadow like area which some of the bedrooms looked onto. Wow! My mind went into overdrive and I made a mental note to set the alarm and sit out on the balcony to wait and watch. Then we noticed that our room didn’t HAVE the balcony we’d paid for. It had a beautiful fireplace and was a really lovely room but there was no sitting out area.
No problem….the lad told us immediately he had another room, an upgrade no less, a Superior Queen room on the 1st floor with a balcony. Excellent. (Little did we know what fools we were to turn our backs on that fireplace.)
We were led into another gorgeous room. Just delightful. HUGE bed. Native American Indian rugs and memorabilia as wall decoration. Beautiful bathroom. The member of staff left two very happy guests to get settled and sorted before our dinner reservation at 7pm.
In no time however, I noticed the room seemed on the cool side. Chris turned the radiators up full blast, thinking I was being overly sensitive. Poured ourselves a glass of the sparkly stuff and pulled the balcony door open for a peruse at the view. A Baltic chill enveloped us.Brrrrr….Even with my duvet jacket and hat on and Chris with his fleece, there was no way we could sit out here. The balcony door was rapidly pulled shut. But there was no warmth in the room either and I had to keep my jacket on just to stay cool. We were looney tunes to have imagined a balcony was possible this late in the season. Some wise member of staff must have thought our request was one to be ignored and allocated us a fireplace room instead. Very sensible, except it wasn’t ours any more. Minutes later, we saw a light go on as other guests claimed it.Even Chris, who can easily sit in shorts at home during the winter and is never cold, put on his light fleece and declared the place to be ‘a bit parky.’
If there is anywhere that we end up having a fall out then it always seems to be in our most expensive accommodation. Maybe the transition from our own self-catering place to a more formal set up sets us on edge a bit more. Whatever, true to form, we managed a tiff over some trivial matter (temperature I imagine) which put us both in a grump for the next couple of hours. Meanwhile, I was still absolutely frozen in the room and the thought of having to peel off my duvet jacket to dress up for dinner wasn’t appealing.
But at 7pm, seated we were in the cavernous dining ‘atrium’, a beautiful space but arctic cold now. I recall noticing stars through the ceiling, twinkling in the icy vastness of space and feeling that the temperature here couldn’t be far off that. I’ve never felt so cold indoors or certainly not in a hotel (I tried not to think of the £ we were paying for the privilege of all this.) We were one of the first couples down and managed at least to nab the only other table by an open fire. It must have had the warmest chimney however as its ability to send out any heat was non-existent. Everything was going up the lum.
In fact we had some very nice food there. Good nice scallops to start with (from Prince Edward Island),a juicy venison steak (from New Zealand) . I thought venison would come from Canada itself. Mind you, there had been such a dearth of wildlife, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised.It was all beautifully presented and we were served by a friendly young waitress who knew Scotland well and asked us lots of questions.
The only disappointment was dessert( I love dessert!) – Bread and Butter pudding, a big favourite. If it’s home made it is a real creamy unctuous treat but what arrived was a super stodgy, quite tasteless mass which I found barely edible. Chris never has dessert and was happy to enjoy more wine (very good stuff.)The waitress told me later that they make that pudding very differently here to at home. She ended up not charging us for it, though I never asked for that:you win some you lose some in restaurants re food ordering , tough luck if you don’t like something, but it was very good of her.
While we were eating, a number of other diners came in.It’s the first time I’ve ever seen people come in for a formal dinner dressed in woolly hats and scarves. It was an incredible sight.But the hotel clearly couldn’t do a thing about it; the heating system and relatively small fireplaces just couldn’t cope with the big modern redesign. I’m not surprised the place was staggering along towards closure for the season.
Still loved it overall though. We were edging towards being on talking terms as the meal finished…good food does raise the spirits….and perused the old photos and pioneer memorabilia in the public corridors and the main lounge. I love the history of the pioneers and trappers, the artists and explorers , although from what I’d read, they wouldn’t have got very far initially without native guides. It was all fascinating and so evocative. These hardy, driven people, many of them Scots. We both have ancestors who left a hard life in the Old Country for a no doubt harder life hacking out a new living here. But at least they had their own land…something which was denied to them in the Highlands. Many were victims of the notorious Clearances too, a shameful period which is still talked of today with both anger and great sadness.
There was a talk being delivered in the lounge (the only warm room in the whole place) at 8pm which really interested me , so we sat down and enjoyed a wonderful account of the lives of Catherine and Peter Whyte, founders of the Whyte Museum.How they had built the lodge and other dwellings in the wilderness for wealthy travellers. They were talented artists and painted ‘en plein air.’ I had admired a lot of their work before and of course had now visited these wonderful places too.They were spirited,wealthy people who opened up the area to tourists.
Thank goodness the temperature had thawed between us because when we got back to the icy room , I glanced at the two big queen size beds and realised what a close call I’d had on that front too. The thought of chittering through the night frozen to death because my better half was slumbering away in the other bed, didn’t bear thinking about. He is a human hot water bottle.
I’d set the alarm for 6am but I woke before it rang and decided to get up there and then. I couldn’t quite remember when dawn broke so better safe than sorry. Got up and dressed and wrapped myself in some spare blankets and pulled a chair over to the balcony window. Grizzly Watch had begun. Felt pretty tired after the initial buzz of expectation faded and the meadows stayed empty. In fact it was almost impossible to make out anything in the pre dawn gloom and a bear could easily have slipped past below without me seeing it. The balcony rail was also blocking my vision so I kept having to stand up every few minutes in case Mrs Grizzly was there but out of sight. It was a very unsatisfactory arrangement and poorly thought out on my part (I have earned a Gold Medal for that on many an occasion.)
Dawn seemed to take forever. Finally, some light appeared in the sky around 7.30am and it was then I realised that not only had I got up far too early, but I’d managed to misread the clock and had surfaced at 5am not 6am.I was also pretty chilled by now.
Luckily, Chris wakened just as I realised a mug of hot tea was now essential. However, we now realised that there was no kettle in the room.What a rubbish start to the day. It’s something that is standard at home in even the smallest, cheapest B and B. Then Chris came up with the cunning plan of dressing and bringing two nice hot mugs of tea from the dining room, where it was all laid out for breakfast. That at least gave us a wee boost ( and me a heat) and allowed us to relax in the room a bit longer. We were only yards from the main dining room, one advantage of being in the main building.
Headed along to the dining room around 8.30am.It held all the appeal of Siberia, given the temperature of the night before but our bodies were crying out for more tea – another four cups each at least.
Breakfast was ok, nothing special. Quite limited choices and the hot food was rubbery sausages and overly crisp bacon. Bread wasn’t great either. Not good, given the hotel’s rating and prices.
Still, as we packed up our suitcase and gear into the car again, I was glad we’d stayed here.There were problems at this time of year but there was so much else to like about it. The marketing blurb’s promised ‘lake views’ didn’t quite encompass the whole background of peaks – you saw it through the trees.
One of the big plus things was the stack of canoes available to guests for free.At 10am, with the lakeside deserted, we donned life jackets and paddled out across Moraine’s deep turquoise waters, not another soul around. All was quiet, apart from the gentle sound of our paddles in the calm , icy waters. The Wenkchemna peaks rose ahead of us, like fantastic fairytale mountains, the kind a child draws, all sharp spires and caked with snow. I scanned the shoreline for bears but all was quiet.We made it to near the Lake’s end, at a small waterfall where a stream enters the deep water. The mountains on the other side were visible now too, softer in outline lower down, very beautiful.
That hour we spent on the Lake was an unexpected highlight of our week. Just ourselves, the peace and the solitude. No crowds or chatter. Glorious.
Last day – a lesson in surviving a grizzly attack! Bear Meadows and Bow Valley