The grandeur amps up with the altitude as we as we reverse engineer the route of nineteenth-century explorers. We climb from wide-open agricultural lands outside Vancouver through the narrowing canyons of the Fraser Valley (clinching tight at Hell’s Gate), across desert and among strange rock spires known as hoodoos, until, in dramatic fashion toward the end of the second day, we plunge into the dark heart of two mountains via a pair of 1907 tunnels that spiral through granite. A stupendous engineering effort reduced the once-harrowing grade. On the other side, Banff National Park reveals its Rocky Mountain glory in twilight.
After a night of downy comfort at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise
and a morning watching the Victoria Glacier trade its dark mantle for purple, then pink, then white, we board the motor coach to Jasper. The promise of the famously picturesque Icefields Parkway – and a chance to walk on (and drink from) the Athabasca Glacier – mitigates some regrets over leaving the train and its charms behind. The coach takes us past a mammoth ice field that feeds three oceans, and among iridescent lakes and changeable rivers to deposit me, like glacial till, along the shores of Lac Beauvert at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge
Here, I join a group around a campfire set among cabins. Classic red-and-black plaid blankets keep off the evening chill. It’s a clear night, and the world’s second-largest Dark Sky Preserve offers a star packed view. Serenaded by bugling elks, we spy ghostly white forms in the sky. It’s the boundary of the northern lights. The full radiant spectrum of the aurora borealis doesn’t quite reach the lodge tonight (although it does on many others).
Before I can register disappointment, a six-point bull steps into the beam of my neighbor’s flashlight. Everyone takes a deep breath. For no good reason, except the example of the past three days and the excellent Okanagan Valley red we’ve been sipping all night, I wave at him.