I lay in the warmth of the thick wool blankets I’m cocooned between, hoping to prolong the moment. If I stay put, I can maintain the shield of body heat I’ve created during the night. I decide to take a peak outside, and let whatever is waiting for me determine my next move.
I roll onto my stomach and remove the blackout shade I tucked into the window the night before. The early morning rays have draped themselves over the snow-covered trees, creeping through every branch, and giving the world an orange glow.
Now I have to get up. I wiggle my way out of the blankets, careful not to disturb. A fury white head pops up, ears flopped over two curious black eyes.
“Hold on, let me get my coffee first,” I tell my dog Cagney, convinced he has begun to understand our morning routine.
He stares at me in agreement and nods, as he cannot bark loud anymore due to his debarking treatment last month.
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I crawl out of the bed and press the red power switch on my coffee maker. Then I sit on a stool while I wait for the caffeine to make its way into the glass pot. I pet Cagney, grateful that he understands- the world must wait until I have my coffee.
When the machine is done brewing, I thank both the sun that powers the electricity in my van and the coffee maker for allowing me this one vice.
I scoop some food into Cagney’s dish and we both indulge in our own treats. Cagney finishes first, so I open up the van doors and he hops out. As he sniffs out wildlife tracks and does his business, I let the coffee warm me from inside out.
Once I’ve finished, I begin to prepare a spinach omelet on my butane stove, which I’ve pulled out onto a picnic table next to the van. Cagney sits patiently examining my every move, in case a crumb finds its way onto the ground.
I had checked the weather forecast with the campground office yesterday, and they assured me that it would be cloudy, but that rain and snow should not interfere with our plans. I pull out the map of Banff National Park, and spread it across the table to choose a trail that seems manageable for both Cagney and I.
I land on a 6-mile roundtrip hike to a glacier waterfall. I brush my teeth, and wash my dishes in the sink with a few pulls on my hand pump faucet.
I cloak myself in layers and pack a rain jacket, just in case. I throw the map, some snacks, my camera, and water bottle into my backpack. Then I lace up my hiking boots and grab Cagney’s leash. I look at my watch astonished that somehow all of that took an hour.
The trailhead is quiet and people are scarce, which makes it all feel like an important quest. The kind of journey where you come across hikers who have an interesting story to tell- tidbits that will become part of your repertoire of travel stories.
As we make our way up the narrow path along the shoreline of Bow Lake, I soak up the rays that persist through the clouds. Cagney leaps ahead, hopping over boulders, stopping every once in a while, for a drink from the glassy still water.
The mountain peaks become absorbed in the lake’s surface, and I almost forget which way is up. The white, brown and green hues of the surrounding lakeshore appear in the mirror-like reflection.
We turn the corner and the tree line abruptly stops. In its place, grows a yellow grass that has been ravaged by frostbite from the previous evening. I let Cagney off the leash and he darts forward, then stops to check that I’m still behind him.
Soon the grass turns into pebbles and those grow into boulders as the creek quickens and the distinct sound of water diving off a cliff becomes audible. Little side streams branch off the creek like veins, until eventually, we are hopping from rock to rock to avoid getting wet.
Cagney slips, soaking his paws, but then hops back up and carries on. First, checking to see if anyone witnessed the fall.
By the time the boulders are as big as me, we begin to make out the shapeless water rushing off the melting glacier in the distance. The clouds cover the sky in a thick layer of white and the earth beneath takes on endless grey tones.
As we approach the falls, the wind picks up momentum and the chill starts setting in. I take a few photos, trying to be quick about it, with my now numb hands.
We turn to head back to the trail, and just then the sun pokes a hole in the grey pallet, letting in yellows and orange. I immediately reach for my camera not knowing how long the moment will last. I run back up to the falls, climbing over slippery rocks, and piles of snow. The falls seem more vibrant and lively with color contrasts surrounding them. The blue glacier ice glistens as it pushes white water over the edge, giving life to the stream that reengages with its natural tone of blue once it touches land.
Cagney awkwardly jumps from rock to rock, determined to be amongst the action. By the time we get there, the clouds shift and the light is gone. The image though, is seared in my mind, as all perfect moments are.
We sit for a few moments to appreciate the connectedness of all that we saw on the way here. Then we head back, following the trail, noticing new beauty around every corner. The tree line frames the lake, creating beachy coves that are perfect for admiring the mountainous reflections.
By the time we make it to the parking lot, the cold has numbed us. There is a picturesque wooden lodge with an open sign illuminated, so I wander in to talk to the cashier. The woman behind the counter, explains that the drive to Jasper is about an hour, then remarks about the beautiful day and adds a seemingly obligatory “ey.” I love her for it.
I head back to the van to regroup with Cagney and decide what to do next. We can head South to Oregon where I’m supposed to be volunteering on a farm in a few days, or we can head North to Jasper National Park where more potential adventure awaits. Last time I checked, Jasper’s forecast warned of a 70% chance of snowstorms, and Oregon was the plan. I look out the window of my van at the multifaceted beauty of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. I pause a moment to think about the 30% chance of clear skies, and then I choose the mountains.
We turn left onto Icefields Parkway road, and I allow the van’s speakers to project my music playlist on shuffle. Each acoustic melody becomes a part of the soundtrack to my adventure. The heat seeps through the vents radiating warmth, and simultaneously chasing away the clouds. Every direction I look, mountains too tall to fit into one photo, tower over the road. Each drizzled in a layer of white, with autumn leaves decorating the landscape below.
I see movement in the trees and notice a rack of antlers above a prominent brown figure in the distance. I pull over to photograph the elk, taking care to capture the contrasted changing red leaves with his brown fur and the yellow grass. Eventually, the creature decides to move on, tired of posing. So I jump back in my van, quickly becoming accustomed to the routine. Spot wildlife, pull over, jump out with camera (zoom lens already connected), take several photos, get back in the van, and carry on. Cagney gets it too, and he no longer feels the need to accompany me on every photo op.
The setting sun dances around, trailing pinks and purples that bounce off the mountains’ silhouettes. I pull over once more to take it all in, not even bothering with my camera. This moment is for me alone.
With no plan and darkness settling in, I start to look for turnoffs where I can park the van for the night. As I’m about to turn around to go back to a picnic area we had passed, I see a sign for a campground a few kilometers ahead. So I stay my course, slightly relieved.
We pull up nervously, “Do you still have any campsites available?”
“Yes, we sure do. Will you need any firewood?”
“No thank you,” I hand her my card as I try to convert $28 CAD to USD in my head. She returns it with a map directing me to my campsite.
I park the van in my designated spot and begin to settle in for the night. The tube lights that border the interior, veil the van in gold, as I prepare dinner on my stove.
I grab my towel and toiletry bag and with my headlamp projecting light from my forehead, I make my way to the showers. I take off layer by layer and slowly step under the showerhead, exposing my body to the warmth. I bask in the steam, as I recall the times I’ve wound up in peculiar bathrooms in new places, and how I awkwardly had to decipher the mechanics of an electrical box running wires into the stream of water to heat up, before continuing onto my body. I’m suddenly transported back to Kenya, the moment a ball of fire protruded from one of those electrical boxes and into my shower before it blew the circuit for the entire apartment’s electricity. Then I think about all the times I’ve stood under running water and taken it for granted.
As I lather up and clean off the doubts of days gone by, I leave only a fresh layer of skin behind. I step into my quick-dry towel, refreshed, rejuvenated, and rewarded. I dress in new layers, untainted by yesterdays struggle and debris. I stroll back to the van, where Cagney greets me as if I’ve been gone for days.
I sprawl out my laptop and cameras and upload photos from the day. After I’m satisfied with my edits, I shift gears. I eagerly open up the most coveted file on my computer, and work on my passion project for a few hours until exhaustion creeps in. Cagney is now snuggled into a blanket and fast asleep.
I turn off the lights and pull the covers over my head trying to block out the chill. A thick beam of light sneaks through the sunroof, and I look up at the moon that has succeeded in outshining the stars. As the warmth sets in, I smile, glad I chose North.