Sunday, July 15, 2007

High in the Rockies; the SAS and Madonna

In my new province of residence, Ontario, the middle and upper classes belong to cottage culture (which is quite different in meaning than the British term “cottaging”). On Friday afternoons there is a vast exodus to these rustic lake shore retreats. Myself, I enjoy nature when it is mediated by concrete—is there anything lovelier than a dandelion’s green and cheerful yellow against a gray pavement? Every once in a while, I forget this fundamental truth about myself and go hiking.

One fine July day, a friend and I set out on a blazingly sunny morning to climb the highest pass in Banff National Park and then spend a couple of nights camped at the shore of Fish Lake. Because it was July, we hadn’t bothered with snow gear. About six hours in our foolish optimism was rewarded with a blinding snowstorm that obliterated the trail and left us with a visibility of about 3 feet. A quick look at our guidebook indicated that pressing on made more sense. It’s actually easier to go up under slippery conditions that down. This is even truer when your footwear respectively consists of a pair of Teva sandals and sneakers.

Eight hours later, in near darkness and chilled to the point of hypothermia, we stumbled out of the storm. It was surreally beautiful; the last rays of sunlight broke through towering pillars of dark cloud to illuminate a mountain meadow in full bloom. We were lost in wonder at the exquisite tableau. Which was probably why we didn’t see the porcupine until we almost stepped on it.

We managed to quickly jump to the side of the trail while the porcupine waddled by. Unfortunately, I landed in a large pile of reasonably fresh bear scat. Did I mention that I was the one wearing the sandals? We trudged grimly down until we reached Fish Lake. I washed my feet in the glacier-fed lake and then warmed them at the fire before retiring for the night. The next two days were idyllic. Small day hikes, sketching, and epic bouts of backgammon.

Late the afternoon of our final day, we returned from a languid walk to a small lake known for its plentiful fish. We looked forward to a good dinner and a quiet night under the stars. Weirdly, I could hear what sounded like a faint chorus of “Poppa Don’t Preach”. As we got closer to the campsite, Madonna became more distinct.

I don’t know what we were expecting to see, but it certainly wasn’t two dozen British soldiers in fatigues, their guns and grenades leaning against tree trunks. They were a training group learning mountain survival techniques. An essential part of the survival supplies seemed to be 26 ounces of Rye Whiskey per man. All I can say about the rest of that night is that you haven’t fully experienced life’s rich pageant until you’ve watched (cautiously and from a safe distance) a troop of drunken soldiers dancing to “Like A Virgin” while singing along at a high pitch.

We left while it was still dark, stopping a few hours later to boil some oatmeal for breakfast. The return hike was pleasant, except for the horseflies, which swarmed around our heads, landing for an occasional brutal bite. We were both relieved when we finally saw the car. In only two hours we would be freshly showered, eating pizza, and laughing over our hellish trip. This happy reverie was shattered when the car wouldn’t start. The problem was easily diagnosed when we opened the hood. The engine had been stolen. Since then, I’ve made sure that all my hiking is done within hailing distance of a taxi fleet. I’m leaving the great outdoors to the bears and the SAS.