A few weeks ago, we had snow at home. First time in 2 years. They had snow on Symi since we had any!! I woke up with 2 inches on the ground and still snowing heavily. I checked the forecast and, needless to say, dressed for the conditions and went straight out. After fuelling up on toast and coffee of course.
Big, wet flakes which didn’t portend well. I guessed the temperature was hovering around zero degrees, probably slightly above. Great walk up to The Folly Tower in falling snow, then down the ridge to The Grotto before dropping into Pontypool Park en route to buy bread in the supermarket. Nearly 300 metres lower, air temperature a couple of degrees higher and the panic buyers had churned up the car park into a dirty, grey slush. Bread shelves bare.
By next morning the snow had all but gone.
It made me nostalgic. I looked back a few weeks to days snowshoeing in the Canadian Rockies. One of the great things about Banff is that there are many winter trails for days when not skiing.
Follow the Bow River from the Town Bridge down to Bow Falls. Even though the temperature had gone up from the unusually cold spell before we arrived (minus 40-450C) it was still pleasantly well below freezing with good snow depth. Walking on the snow-covered ice at the right-angle bend in the river below the jarringly pseudo-gothic Banff Springs Hotel, showed the Falls to be more than usually frozen, just a narrow band of water bursting through. View downriver towards the Fairholme Range, of the confluence with the Spray River there was no sign as it joined the Bow. Completely frozen over and snow-covered. Even so, safer to cross the river at this point by the bridge between the hotel and the golf course.
The well-used Quarry Loop Trail follows the right bank of the river (by convention, the ‘handedness’ of a river is always taken facing downstream) to a footbridge for the loop back. Instead of crossing the bridge, keep following the river and the compacted trail is now only the width of a snowshoe. I find it easier in cleats. The river on the right, the old quarried face high on the left from which came the stone for the hotel. Soon the trail rises up to join the wide Spray River Trail, with well-grooved tracks of cross-country skis. I usually turn left and go back high above the river before re-joining at the confluence with the Bow.
Start this trek at the Banff Canoe Club Dock at the confluence of the Bow River with Forty Mile Creek. For obvious reasons closed in winter (you can’t canoe on ice), the Dock is a good place to strap on snowshoes after the walk through town. The Bow upstream of the town Bridge is well frozen and snow covered, though the Creek is not always so. Snow on the ice is of variable depth, in places stripped by the wind, in places a foot or more deep.
The river is broad, meandering widely, so I take the inside of bends crossing and re-crossing between the tree-lined banks. The major difference between the wildlife in the Rockies and in the UK is that here, it might eat you. Therefore, it’s prudent to keep eyes and ears alert and to take note of tracks as they cross the river. Rule of thumb, tracks which follow the river are human, those which cross it are animal. It’s common to see deer or caribou tracks crossing from one bank to the other. Occasionally I have seen what I think are Lynx tracks, smaller than the more worrying cougar whose tracks are apparently the size of my hand. Coyote tracks are not uncommon, more worrying than wolves whose tracks are again significantly larger, though I believe wolves are less likely to attack. This trip I saw the remains of a deer, the only part left, the bloodied backbone and skull being picked over by ravens.
Again begin at the Canoe Dock but this time don’t take to the river, follow the trail along Forty Mile Creek, crossing the railway line and then onto Fenland Loop. If there is a train coming you may be in for a long wait as they are two kilometres long, travel through the town at slow speed, and take a long time to pass. On Boxing Day 2014 a train derailed at this point, three trucks plunging into Forty Mile Creek and taking days to clear. I know, I was there.
At the furthest point leave Fenland Trail and cross a footbridge up to the Vermillion Lakes Road. After a few hundred metres drop down to the lakeside, strap on snowshoes and take to the vast area of the frozen lakes. It’s a huge area to explore.
Keep parallel with the road and come to a couple of areas of open water where thermal springs emerge into the lake. At the far side of the largest of these, on the Second Vermillion Lake, push through bushes and find a pond with fish and bird life. I suspect it never freezes over.
One of these days I’m going to trek to the far side of the lake and try to cross the railway track to get to the Bow River and follow that back. It’s a long way and a hard slog with uncertainty of battling through the trees. Not such hard work, but far more technically skilful is kite-skiing, which I saw on the lake for the first time this winter. I have done a lot of paragliding, a similar shaped wing, but I suspect kite-skiing is more difficult and not something I could master in a relatively short visit along with spending time skiing and snowshoeing.
For many, a half-day activity is to take the car up to Surprise Corner, on the opposite side of the Bow River to the Banff Springs Hotel and high above the Bow Falls. It’s certainly a great viewpoint.
It’s also the starting point of the Hoodoos Trail. A path drops down from the car park, to water level. The trail then follows the spectacular frozen swirls of the river as it splits and meanders, below first Mount Rundle and then the imposing crag of Tunnel Mountain. For some reason this section always seems to me to be more isolated than other treks, maybe because it’s rarely used in winter and there are no other trails nearby, but more probably because this is where a couple of years ago, I came across two coyotes howling mournfully at each other. Nose, eyes and ears are hyper-alert for danger.
Eventually, the trail rises up to join Tunnel Mountain Road near the Campground and a trail paralleling the road leading to The Hoodoos Viewpoint. A handful of cars use the car parks or travel past on the road. It’s comforting that there are others around but yet I’m left feeling somehow soiled that they have got here in hermetically sealed bubbles rather than by their own efforts and in the real world. Like getting to the top of Yr Wyddfa via the knife-edge of Grib Goch and finding the train disgorging passengers into the café.
A trail parallel with but not always in sight of the road, leads to Tunnel Mountain Resort. Here there is a choice. Wait for the regular bus service back to town, or walk along Tunnel Mountain Drive. Deep snow cover means the Drive is closed in winter. The sense of isolation is just as deep as on the other side of the mountain. But my nerves are jangling and senses even more alert. Cougars are ambush predators and the short cliff on the upslope side is a prime opportunity. There have been attacks along here, targeting people as well as deer. Periodically the area is closed by the National Park Authority to allow cougars to hunt – and move on.
Needless to say, I’ve got away with it so far.
That was all in December and January. It’s good to look back but it’s important to look ahead. Towards the end of May I head back to the Greek Islands. Mostly staying on Symi, the plan is also to return to the dramatic volcanic landscapes of Nisyros. There are many treks here, some distinctly off-piste. Even some sections of the old paths are becoming almost off-piste as they collapse down the steep mountain sides, a process accentuated by feral goats burrowing for plant roots.
One of my favourite routes is from the crater-rim village of Nikia around the crater and then back to Mandraki on the remains of a kalderimi, in part savaged by road construction to access a failed geothermal energy project.
Why not check out my book on travelling independently in Greece – ‘Greece Unpackaged’
Or a brief look at the past; ‘A small life in twenty memories’