Not many places rub one’s own mortality in their face quite like mountains covered by glaciers – those millennia-old unbalanced masses of ice that have shaped peaks and carved valleys in the course of the earth’s history. And, in doing so, have secured themselves first place among the most powerful natural sources of erosion on the planet. Who are you in the face of these elemental forces that can move mountains?
Such questions almost force themselves on you in the Canadian Rockies. They appear like a silhouette on the horizon when you leave Calgary behind and loom up on you on the Trans-Canada Highway; an elongated massif, at first almost tiny, then suddenly huge. The highest peaks here reach just under 4,000 metres; not the stuff of world records, but they do make for some perpetual snow cover and extensive ice fields. The mountains stack up higher and higher in front of us, becoming steeper and more jagged, and suddenly we are in the middle of them all: with the snow-white EQE SUV under the whitegrey peaks of the Rockies, above us an admiral blue that only alpine regions can paint in the sky like this.
Only glacial lakes can shine like Two Jack Lake near Banff. Fine particles of pulverised rock in the water scatter the sunlight so that it looks blue-green. And as if Two Jack Lake wasn’t impressive enough in its own right, Mount Rundle looms on the opposite side, looking like a massive stone wave in all its dramatic sharpness.
Get up early and you will be treated to another spectacle here: alpenglow, an almost supernatural play of light in which the rising sun first colours the peaks violet, then amber and vermilion. The spectacle is an attraction – and no longer an insider tip either. Although we left really early (too early, according to our bodies), we are not the first ones at the lake: two photographers have set up their tripods, a sleepy family has pulled out four mobile phones at once, filling them with pictures of the mirror-smooth lake. Shortly before sunrise, everyone – like us, of course – wants to find the perfect photo spot while at the same time trying not to run into each other. Because even if the shore is slowly filling up, these photos are supposed to be showing Canadian seclusion, if you don’t mind.
After sunrise, a convoy of caravans turns into the car park, people with huge thermo mugs gaze at the lake. A canoe is unloaded and launched. The solitude is still there for the taking on the lake. We drive back to Banff, get a flat white at the Whitebark Café and a few extra kilometres of range at the fast-charging station somewhat tucked away in a car park. Then we make our way to Lake Louise, a good 45 minutes away. We want to know if Canadian seclusion really exists, or if it is just a figment of our imagination, a fairy tale we have succumbed to through the internet, social media and various travel guides.
Lake Louise answers the question about seclusion with a resounding “no”. Flashing signs indicate that the parking space is completely full and closed to other cars, so take the bus. Situated above the town of the same name, Lake Louise is one of the most beautiful lakes in the region and is also so popular because it offers the perfect photo motif: glaciers in the background, turquoise green colour in front and a signature boathouse. Those who arrive early – or take the bus – will get their reward. Several hiking trails lead around the lake and up into the mountains. You hardly notice the other travellers in the terrain. Experienced hikers can climb one of the many peaks, while the less experienced can hike to Lake Agnes Tea House in a good hour. The café is only accessible on foot – fresh produce is transported to the hut by backpack, and non-perishable goods are flown to the summit by helicopter once a year.
After we leave Lake Louise in the direction of the Icefields Parkway, we finally feel it, that first sense of Canadian remoteness. There are still cars in front of us, but first they become fewer and further between, and then a sign appears: “No cell service for 230 kilometres”. Shortly afterwards, another sign tells us that there are no more petrol stations either. The same applies to charging stations. Perhaps part of the beauty of the Icefields Parkway also lies in the fact that it is actually “off grid”.
The section of Alberta Highway 93 North owes its name to the Columbia Icefield, a gigantic mass of ice that measures more than 350 metres at its thickest point, feeds eight glaciers, and feeds rivers that carry water in all directions, some of which flow into the Pacific, others into the Atlantic. We stop at Bow Lake and the Crowfoot Glacier above it, at Peyto Lake with its distinctive wolf shape. We admire the Weeping Wall with its waterfalls, which ice climbers like to climb in winter, and the Big Bend, the only serious curve on the route.
The EQE SUV takes the 230 kilometre drive completely in its stride with its range of up to 515 kilometres (WLTP). What the route – and also Electric Intelligence, the intelligent route-planning system that monitors our range and gives us polite directions – does not reveal at first glance, however, is the many places where you can turn off. Stop, get out, marvel. A three-hour drive can spontaneously stretch into a whole day if you give in to every temptation to turn into another parking bay.
We get off at the Athabasca Glacier. Tourism has regained a foothold here; tourists can drive around the ice field in caterpillar-like buses and walk a few hundred metres further on the Columbia Icefield Skywalk. We choose to admire the glacier and breathe – “to take a breather”, as they say here – lost in thought.
A car door slams, a Sri Lankan couple gets out next to us and starts chatting. They are on a yearlong round-the-world trip, they tell us, have just come from the USA, but the beauty here is even more overwhelming: “It just hits differently!” The two pull out their cameras, take a photo, then they leave again. They spent all of five minutes in front of the Athabasca Glacier. Get out, take a photo, drive on. This is also the Icefields Parkway. The looming clouds almost look more dramatic in the smartphone photo than in reality. But can you also feel the mountain air and the wind of the glaciers that way? The glacier remains silent; what could it possibly say?
Suddenly a brown bear crosses the road right in front of us. We stop, stay in the car, hardly dare to breathe. It’s not unusual to see wildlife here, but we didn’t expect to get so close to the bear. Pugh is right. An encounter with a wild animal is unique, it resonates. Just like a trip through the Canadian Rockies. The bear doesn’t notice any of this; it doesn’t care about us, it’s not disturbed by any noise from us either. Slowly it trots on, not even looking at us. We put the indicator on, drive on. Full of anticipation of what might be waiting for us around the next bend.