On one of my days-off from skiing I fastened snowshoes on my pack and headed out northwards from Banff along the Bow River, then along its tributary Echo Creek, crossed the Trans Canada Railway at the point where a Canadian Pacific Train de-railed on Boxing Day 2014 (an area still closed for environmental restoration work) before turning west towards the frozen Vermilion Lakes.
At this point I leave the Fenlands Loop Trail and the snow trapped by vegetation at the lake margins gets deeper, the going more difficult so the snowshoes come into their own.
Once onto the frozen lake wind has scoured and sculpted the snow to only a few inches deep on the thick ice. It’s a huge expanse of white, flat into the distance, interrupted by dense thickets of dogwood and stands of pine trees, many of them starkly dead. Mountains tower all around: most dramatically the saw-toothed Mount Rundle, the long Fairholme Range, Cascade Mountain and the closest, Mount Norquay.
I had picked up a whisper in the town that a pack of wolves had been seen in the Vermilion Lakes area and was hopeful of spotting them. I knew it unlikely but I stayed alert, monitored all-round.
Ploughing through the deep snow towards the lake I had come across an area between the dogwood scrub and pine forest and the smooth covering over the ice, which was trampled over and dug up. I guessed that deer of some kind had scented the dried grass beneath and turned over the snow to get at it.
Soon afterwards, cutting across a broad section of snow-over-ice (much easier on the leg muscles) I spotted a herd of elk way off to my right on another area fringing the frozen lake. I headed over in that direction but my pace slowed on reaching the deeper snow. Many were sitting contetedly. Most of the hinds (known locally as cows) stood up as I approached, having seen or scented me. But the dominant stag, (known locally as a bull), sat impassively, magnificently, looking straight at me. The cows all ambled off slowly into the trees showing the distinctive and eponymous large pale rumps of elk, their alternative name ‘wapiti’ from the Shawnee/Cree ‘waapiti ‘– white rump. When they had all gone the stag stood and ambled slowly after them.
I cut across the deep snow on a spur of land stretching into the lake, progress slowed by fallen trees, and reappeared on the next section of lake just as the herd came from the right hand lake margin and started to cross the snow-covered ice. They weren’t panicked but clearly uneasy at being ‘stalked’, even if unintentionally. I stood and watched as they crossed the whole width of the lake, the dominant stag bringing up the rear, pausing once in a while to look at me as if to say “Just be careful. These are all mine” .
Sadly I saw no wolves. They may have homed in on the scent of the elk but looked elsewhere for a meal given the alertness of the dominant stag.
Though most of the surface area of the Vermilion Lakes is frozen solid at this time of year, thermal springs flowing out of the mountain create ponds and flows of open water. As long as you recognise where these are the ice can be crossed safely. But they create micro-habitats with water vegetation, birds and fish clearly visible surrounded by the encroaching ice as temperatures fall and accumulating snow.
Taking a close look at the fringing snow and ice is fascinating. There are large deposits of snow on seemingly small objects like stones and twigs. Razorblade thin, fan-shaped ice crystals form over sheets of clear ice. The thermal springs flowing into the lake steam in the bright sun under a cloudless sky. This water vapour is what freezes into such amazing crystals I guess.
It is this extra dimension to winter in the Rockies which makes Banff unique, which makes me want to return.