Banff & Yoho - pratyush

My first views of mountains was as a kid, of the famous Kalinga Ghats (part of the scattered Eastern Ghats mountain range of India) of Phulbani. My father’s engineering projects often took him on multi-days trips to exotic interiors of the state of Odisha (Ghumurugiri Udaygiri, Ramagiri Udaygiri, et al) and we accompanied him sometimes on these heart-stopping, exhilarating road trips. During those times, Kalinga Ghat road was a dangerous, barely two lane, winding mountain road with hardly any signage and no cliff-side safety barriers. Perhaps that was the time I got permanently infected with the ‘nature road-tripping’ bug. The next trip to a major mountain range was to the middle Himalayas of Northern India, the highest mountain ranges in the world…to Badrinath from Rishikesh, a harrowing journey (so even more exciting!) through sharply winding roads constructed by the Border Roads Organization of India. It was more of a pilgrimage trip to one of Hinduism’s holiest shrines. There were a few other trips to hills and mountains across Maharashtra and Karnataka states in India during college times.

And then I immigrated to Canada and via work (in Calgary) made it to the Canadian Rockies, 2-3 times early on in my career. From Canadian Rockies, headed to New Zealand’s South-Western mountain ranges early this year for a photo trip with a friend before finally ending up in the Rockies again, on this particular short visit to Banff (Alberta side) and Yoho (British Columbia side) National Parks, for my first photo trip there. All my previous trips to the Rockies were non-photography trips.

Each trip to the mountains was a unique experience. They were all different in character and invoked different feelings. The Kalinga Ghats invoked fear and awe as they appeared to come up quite suddenly in the landscape and perhaps because that was the first time I was experiencing travelling through mountains among dense forested roads. The Himalayas, because of their constant association with myths, legends and temples from Hindu folklore (that we actively read through our childhood), invoked a sense of peace and sacredness as we drove through them on a passenger bus. As if giants whose bowels were the abode of our protectors and benefactors, the myriad gods of the Hindu pantheon. New Zealand’s South Western ranges, around Milford Sound, Haast and other nearby places, were a mind-bending experience…the continuous thick fog on the mountain roads make you feel like the mountains are trying to intimately envelope you in their leviathan arms and whisk you away to oblivion. In contrast, the Rockies appear distant, willing to give you your space at most times but constantly keeping you aware of their gigantic stature. The snow-covered peaks with wisps of blowing snow make for an awe-inspiring magical scene, imprinting themselves firmly in your sub-conscious mind.

This particular trip was mostly un-scheduled, dependent upon a job at home being accomplished or not. The job didn’t get done, which freed up time, and I picked up my camera gear and tripod for a decidedly low-key, unhurried trip to the Canadian Rockies. In terms of gear, only took two lenses with me, a wide angle one and the ‘nifty-fifty’ (50mm fixed focal). Plan was not to touch as many spots as possible, but to go to pre-decided limited number of spots multiple times at different times of the day, to see what I get. In this respect I was trying to follow some expert advice from the well known Vancouver area photographer, Adam Gibbs. One of his key advices is to ‘slow down’. A very difficult advice to follow in real life nature photography, especially when you are not a local and have limitations on time. But I thought, it was worth a try, to the extent possible. It was a 3 days trip, but I timed the flights in such a way that I got another full day’s worth of photography time. My base was a place called Baker Creek on the Bow valley parkway. Equidistant from Banff and Lake Louise townships, this little place in the middle of a forest, had been having some big furry guests (grizzlies and black bears) wandering around lately looking for food, as per the hotel front desk. So I was told to be careful and keep an eye out on hotel grounds (no fencing/barriers by the way, at the hotel, to keep the ambience as close to natural as possible). Luckily didn’t come across any in the three days I stayed there and took small walks after lunches. 

The weather also was a factor…it was late fall season and temperatures were touching 0 and below, so time for the bears to retreat into their hibernating pods. During my trips to Banff in 2007-2009’s, I always used to go during summers (mid or late) and often saw grizzly families foraging on berries along the road to Lake Louise and to Moraine Lake. The cub bears frolicking around nearby stopped cars while mama bear kept a close yet generally relaxed look over her cubs and over the pesky humans driving by. On this trip the only big wildlife I came across were a pair of deer in Waterton National Park’s town centre, on the last day of my visit.

My first photography site was Emerald Lake in Yoho National Park. Yoho being a native (Cree tribe) expression for awe and wonder. Quite appropriate actually, I must say…of the three, Banff, Jasper and Yoho, this park seemed to be one that was closer and deeper into the wilds of the Rockies, though much smaller in size. Travelling straight from Calgary airport on a late afternoon, I checked into my hotel in Baker Creek, dumped my stuff in the room and then headed off to Emerald Lake across the border from Banff, on the BC side. Yoho along with 6 other parks across Alberta and BC form the ‘Rocky Mountain World Heritage’ site. My destination was Emerald Lake Lodge, perched daintily on the banks of beautiful Emerald Lake. Blue hour is the best time to catch the magical atmosphere of a warmly glowing hut reflecting in the clear waters of the lake, with thick low clouds floating across the mountains in the background (refer header picture at top). My attempts to get to Yoho’s few other attractions in next two days were thwarted by weather, as Parks authorities closed down several roads leading unto them after a dollop of rain and snow.

Next day weather forecast was for overcast skies with a few flurries and rain. So I decided to take a long drive to two major waterfalls on my itinerary, both on the spectacular Icefield Parkway, within Jasper National Park’s boundaries. 2008 ~Aug-Sept was the last time I was on this highway, with my mom, both of us absolutely gobsmacked with the scenery, as we drove up and down this roadway. My pre-dawn drive started out fine but I soon ran into mildly blowing snow midway through to my first destination, Athabasca Falls. Temperatures were well below zero, hovering around -6 to -10 degrees Celsius. It was after a few years I was driving in snowy conditions, but there was zero traffic to contend with and I was in no hurry at all…so went slow and easy and finally made it to the falls. It’s quite a voluminous and powerful little falls on the upper Athabasca river and very photogenic with mountains and pine trees framing it nicely. Waterfalls photography is best done on overcast flat light days. Because that allows you maximum control over exposure times to bring out the movement and power of the falling water. Almost every nature photo trip I do, involves a waterfall or two, my favorite topic of focus. 

After Athabasca Falls, headed back south on Icefields Parkway, to Sunwapta Falls, probably the prettiest falls in Banff and Jasper regions. The Sunwapta river, bringing waters from the Athabasca glacier, neatly splits into two around a tiny island of pine trees and then joins back and falls as the Upper Sunwapta Falls. A truly breathtaking sight. On the way back, took a few shots of Bow lake and the splendid Rockies as they peered out at every bend and every opportunity, to show their mighty and gorgeous form. Was back in Baker Creek late afternoon. After a sumptuous vegan meal (since there was no other vegetarian option) at the in-house Bistro, went for a small walk by the woods. The CP (Canadian Pacific) rail tracks behind the hotel grounds reminding me to fix up my timing for next day’s photo session to CP rail’s most iconic photo site in the entire Rockies…

There was a slight chance of light in the morning, but my expectations of a good sunrise weren’t so high. Headed to Vermillion Lakes on the outskirts of Banff town. It’s a series of small interconnected lakes framed by the majestic Mt Rundle. A favourite watering hole for most types of mammals & birds around Banff during the mornings and evenings, but I didn’t see anything beyond a few eagles. There was a dash of colour as the sun rose but nothing spectacular. From there I turned back on the Bow Valley Parkway to Morant’s Curve, a 10 min drive from Baker Creek. The most stunning site to catch a sight of CP railway trains making their way across the Rockies. It is named after the legendary photographer Nicholas Morant, who in his 50+ years of employment with CP, made CP trains and the Rockies world-famous with his exemplary photographs…sometimes in dangerous circumstances. On one occasion, he and his assistant were attacked by a grizzly bear near Lake Louise, while on the job. His assistant succumbed to his injuries while Nicholas was hospitalized with serious injuries for several weeks.

‘Milepost 113 on Laggan Subdivision’ (or Morant’s Curve), as Kevin Keefe (the noted Trains columnist) writes (1), is one of railroading’s hallowed places, a must-see. Similar to Sullivan’s Curve in Cajun Pass (BNSF and Union Pacific trains) and Horseshoe in Pennsylvania (Norfolk Southern & Amtrak trains). The view looking out west at the bend is epic. As the Bow river curves, the track bends and then disappears into a pine forest, with massive snow-covered mountains providing the perfect backdrop. But the downside of it all is the luck factor. Of catching sight of a train passing through the point, during the time you are there. Some photogs say they catch one every time they stay for at least 30 mins. But I waited patiently in sub-zero temperatures, for 1.5 hrs (1st day) and ½ hr (2nd day) and managed to catch just one train. But the wait was certainly worth it.

The hour+ long freezing temp exposure ensured I was back at my hotel in Baker Creek immediately after the photo session and only went out around evening time, to Lake Louise. Until then spent time doing some reading of an interesting article in an annual magazine about Banff by local authors. A rather alarming and sad statistic of one Canadian icon (CP Rail) being the biggest killer of another Canadian icon (the grizzly bear). The problem became so acute that Parks Canada and CP Rail signed a 5 year joint action plan in 2010 to reduce grizzly bear mortality along CP’s tracks in Banff and Yoho. The multi-year research project was headed by teams from universities in Alberta and BC, to study and find out why the grizzlies got attracted to the tracks, why they couldn’t move out of harm’s way fast enough and what steps could be taken to prevent such deaths. Grains falling off freight trains were the major attractant for the grizzlies. And because of the low noise profile of electric engines, they cannot get out of tracks quick enough from the path of on-coming trains. Several solutions were proposed and some implemented over the years.

My evening trip to Lake Louise was to take some blue hour shots there. With snow on the ground, Lake Louise definitely looked magical. The V-shaped mountains with Lake Louise in the foreground is the most commonly photographed scene there, but if you turn slightly left and face the left bank, there’s a little boat shed that glows warm yellow in the bluish evening light, creating an ethereal atmosphere.

Final day, checked out an hour before sunrise and left Baker Creek for good, towards Two Jack Lake, for some sunrise shots. The morning was crisp and chilly with a thin layer of snow on the roads from overnight. As I mentioned earlier, I was driving in snowy conditions after several years.

Bow Valley Parkway falls low in priority vs the main highways criss-crossing Banff, as far as snow removal is concerned, so it was quite slippery. At a particular bend, my car’s tires slipped and skidded. Luckily all the emergency common sense rules of driving in snow, came back from memory in an instant…’do-not-panic, gentle on the brakes and look & steer to where you want to be rather than where you are skidding towards”. After a couple of seconds of doing S-curves on the road, finally managed to bring it back under control. Missed the ditches by inches. Not that it would have been anything serious, just could have been a big headache/mess, trying to get help getting out of the low ditch, in such a remote region and odd time. After that initial scare, I was back on track and landed up at Two Jacks Lake. Although again there was not much colour in the sky, still the scene of a mountain reflected in the clear lake, was a beautiful shot to start the day off. My flight out of Calgary was midnight that day, so I decided to do a quick pass (of ½ hr) of Morant’s Curve once again before heading down south into another National Park in southern Alberta.

Didn’t catch any train but got into some quick & delightful 2 min chats with some visitors who stopped by the Curve to have a look. One, an elderly couple from Texas. The gentleman, in a thick southerly accent excitedly saying how gorgeous this scenery was, but not before putting in a qualifier that they too had beautiful places in Texas but they are different! Then another couple from Alberta itself…saying how he (and later his wife) had been coming to Banff every year for the last 50 years and had never caught sight of a train at the curve (one reason could be they never waited!), then proceeded to narrate a bit of history about CP rail and the Morant’s Curve, that was quite interesting.


That was end of my trip to Banff region as I headed to Waterton Lakes National Park (on the border of Canada and the US). Waterton is about 4-4.5 hours drive south from Banff and is most famous for the beautiful Prince of Wales Hotel that overlooks upper Waterton Lakes from top of a cliff. The wind-gusts that day were especially strong, so took a few quick shots of the hotel and drove into the town centre for lunch. It almost looked like a ghost town, with hardly any people outside (and just a couple of deer foraging around houses in the town) and most restaurants closed (the tourist season was probably over). Finally found just one eatery (attached to a local hotel) in the middle of town. From there, it was a straight and easy drive to Calgary, to catch my late-night flight. My 1st time photo-trip to Western Canada, coming to an end.

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