After a brief sojourn on Nisyros, back to Symi, revisiting familiar and looking for new places. There is great satisfaction in discovering new places. But that’s ‘discovering’ in the sense that Columbus discovered America. It was already there, complete with people, who Canadians call the ‘First Nation’. America was also already ‘discovered’ by the Vikings. And over the centuries the Inuit sometimes got blown off-course in their sea kayaks and ended up a lot further south than they planned.
So, just like Columbus, it is patently obvious that I didn’t ‘discover’ anywhere on Symi. The best I can claim is that I rediscovered them, though even that may be gilding the lily because the local farmer knows they are there and periodically visit. Empty cartridge cases also show that hunters regularly go (in the hunting season obviously) to off-piste parts of the island no-one else visits.
This is about a trek I do, partly on established paths and kalderimia, partly off-piste to rediscovered places.
Set out through the winding alleys of Horio and out of the village onto the kalderimi leading up to ‘The Viewpoint’ Walk 1 of Greek Island Walks. After stopping to take in the stunning view down to the main harbour and over Pedi Bay, continue upwards on the kalderimi towards the tiny church of Agia Paraskevi (Photograph 4 of Walk 2). Now that the damage of the November 2017 flood has been repaired, the church is open once again. Take a moment to pop in and look at the icons of the eponymous saint, she who plucked out her eyes because her great beauty got in the way of her devotion to God so she disfigured herself.
A short distance after the church is a ‘new’ house on the left. From here, the old kalderimi has been bulldozed and paved to provide vehicular access. After a few yards a dirt path goes off to the right, winding attractively if somewhat unevenly up to the tarmac road above the army base.
There are a couple of ways onwards from here depending on how much tarmac you want to walk, but those options are for another blog and maybe a route on Greek Island Walks. The route I follow (see the Relive video) avoids the tarmac for all except about 20 yards but is very rough and difficult to identify, especially after the flood. It winds its way down to an ancient stone olive press at GPS coordinate N36:36:57.3732, E27:48:38.4946.
A path leads via the top of the Nimborios gorge and then rises to the church of Agios Dimitris where all the options meet. Take a break here, it’s the last shade you will get for the rest of the trek.
From Ag. Dimitris the looping bends in the bulldozed track can be cut, joining the remains of the path down to Toli beach, before re-joining the track at a much lower level.
To this point It has been fairly tiring because of the terrain and the distance covered, especially in the heat of the day, but here is where the interesting stuff begins. If you hire a vehicle you can drive this far. You will have missed an interesting walk but conserved energy for the strenuous bit ahead.
Soon after joining the bulldozed track down to the beach there is a bench by a wooden electricity pole at N36:37:15.3552, E27:48:10.7812. Look carefully down and there is the unmistakeable outline of a large stone construction. It’s built from the stone of the immediate locality and so unless you look for it, it simply merges into the rock-and-scrub background. Once spotted, it’s unmistakeable. I spotted it a few years ago having passed it on numerous occasions previously, and scrambled down to check it out. In that narrow sense, I ‘discovered’ it.
To get to it, it’s necessary to first of all scramble down the loose rubble bulldozed over the edge. There is the thin remnant of a path just about discernible lower down the slope leading to one of the two entrances to the fortress at N36:37:13.9709, E27:48:04.2211.
The fortress, which I call Kato (Lower) Toli, is 36 metres by 20 metres and constructed of large stone blocks, once higher but now 2 metres high on the up-slope side, 3 metres on the lower side closest to the sea. The seaward wall is a retaining wall, levelling the site. It doesn’t command views of the sea because it’s deliberately located behind a small hillock which would have hidden it from view of approaching piratical craft. The main entrance to the fortification is part way along one of the shorter sides, flanked by large portal-stones, the right-hand side when facing the sea.
It’s a steep climb back up to the track by the bench but an alternative is to take the vestigial path a short distance until it intersects a well-trodden goat path going leftward. This traverses the slope, crossing a shallow dry gully which offers an easier route back to the track, if you prefer rock-scrambling rather than slithering up loose gravelly soil.
Turn downhill on the track again and soon reach a short ‘cul-de-sac’ on the right used for dumping stone. From here, N36:37:24.7887, E27:48:04.7649, pick a line going steeply up the slope towards the ridge-top.
One of the many lines through the vegetation is an old pathway judging by the terracotta shards on the way up. Getting closer to the top the pathway becomes clearer and leads directly to another fortification at N36:37:28.4059, E27:48:07.4381. I ‘discovered’ this one from Google Earth. Particularly when I go ‘off-piste’, I plot my routes using a tracker on my phone and then look at the line afterwards. On this occasion I noticed a feature which had straighter lines than was likely to occur naturally off to the side. Next day I went to check it out and found another fortification.
I call this one Pano (Upper) Toli. It’s also made from huge blocks of very local stone and so merges into surrounding rock. Knowing it’s there, it can be seen from a couple of points on the bulldozed track to Toli but at a casual glance it looks to be just a part to the limestone crags high above.
This one is also 36 metres by 20 metres with the main entrance along one of the shorter sides, again the right-hand side when facing the sea. Coincidence or significant? The right -hand corner of the fortification is nearly 2 metres high and there are many similarly large blocks nearby so presumably the wall was once a good bit higher.
There are hundreds of terracotta sherds within the site, best I leave all in situ against the faint possibility that at some point it may be examined by trained archaeologists rather than enthusiastic amateurs like me. It would be interesting to have them ‘aged’.
However, most strikingly within the fortification are two large ‘artefacts’. One is a very precisely cut stone about a metre long, half a meter wide and 25cms thick. There is a similar one built into the perimeter wall of a settlement below Agios Nikolaos Stenou near the Kokkinohoma area of the island but that one has a number sprayed on it in red so has obviously been recorded, presumably by or on behalf of the Greek Archaeological Service. This one is unmarked so presumably not recorded.
I have a theory that such stones were cherished by local communities, regarded as talismanic, a link to the glories of Greece’s Classical or Hellenistic past. I have found collections of them, distinctly different from everything else, in hidden and subterranean locations on Nisyros I’m sure archaeologists have a more scientific explanation.
The other large artefact I can locate rather more accurately. It’s a fragment of a stone basin carved out of basalt, deriving from Nisyros. I can be sure of this because there is no such geology on Symi and there are many similar pieces on Nisyros where the rock is found in abundance. Evidence of inter-island trading.
I moved the basin fragment closer to the large stone to make the ‘collection’ easier to locate. They are at N36:37:28.4579, E27:48:0.0276.
Continuing beyond the Pano Toli fortification is a hidden valley which has no obvious drainage outlet, unlike normal valleys. Investigation shows it draining into a cave at the lowest point. There are two areas of flat field within the valley which I guess were formed by channelling floodwater-borne-sediment. There are signs of an ancient dwelling.
A friend and I plan to explore the cave next year. It’s a fault-cave, caused by rock movement along a fault line. With limited amount of water flow there is little likelihood of water erosion passageway. In all probability, supported by comments from someone who lived in the area as a youngster, and exploration of the ‘Wendy Cave’ with a caving friend in 2014, I suspect that rock-fall has blocked it. But we have to look. There are two openings close together, either or neither of which may ‘go’.
The route I took back to Yialos is via this valley and the path around to Agios Nikolaos Stenou, then down onto Nimborio. It’s shown on the ‘Relive’ video but would tax readers’ tolerance beyond breaking point if I continued this blog post even further. So, I’ll describe that part of the trek another time.
Watch the video: https://www.relive.cc/view/vPOpWW1WGRv
But before I finish, a brief further word about the conceit of ‘discovering’ places. As I said in the introduction to this blog, it’s not really discovering because these places were already known. In the case of the fortifications they were built by people. There are genuine discoveries, most notably by cavers and divers who go where no-one has been before. I envy them.
But I envy more those few who ’undiscover’ places. Most notable and, the cause of great envy on my part, is the ‘undiscovery’ of Sandy Island by a team of Australian oceanographers which included a friend of my daughter and her husband. He actually stayed in our house!!!!! The island has been shown on admiralty charts for over a century. It was even shown on Google Earth. But it doesn’t exist. Never has. It’s supposed to be where there is nothing but deep ocean. It could never have been there.
Undiscovery, now that’s a real achievement. A challenge for my next visit to Greece. What can be undicovered on an island with millennia of history ‽‽
However, there may be an opportunity for genuine discovery. A friend has found the entrance to a large cave. We plan to go back next year and investigate that as well. Far more promising! That could be a real discovery. But not as unique and satisfying as an undiscovery.
There are great walks on many of the Greek islands I know. Symi, Tilos, Kalymnos, Amorgos, Hydra ……… However, I have often said, become a bit boring about it maybe, that the most spectacular walking/trekking I know is on Nisyros. Despite what a lot of people and websites say, it’s not an island with a volcano. The island IS a volcano.
And you can get up close and personal.
If you are staying on the island, rather than coming in on a day-trip, the early morning (08.00) bus to Nikia, one of the two villages perched on the caldera rim overlooking the still active craters, gives plenty of time to do precisely that, get up close and personal. If you know where to go.
Brief pause there. It is a mistake to think that the island has just one crater. OK, it’s great, more dramatic than most people have ever experienced, to drop down the path from the coach park and walk across the floor of the huge Stefanos crater, then climb back up and have a drink in the oasis which is the taverna. The day-trip coaches stop here so it’s an easy win. But there are at least another four craters, a bit more difficult and time consuming to access.
Drop down the old kalderimi from Nikia and as you get closer to the floor of the caldera the smell of sulphur gets stronger. In some years there are active fumaroles at the side of the path and the sulphur smell is even stronger. This year it’s wafting from elsewhere.
There are reminders that this is not a Disneyland but a living place. The earth is breathing. It has a long history of settlement. Many old abandoned stone-built houses have survived earthquakes because of their barrel-arch construction. But there are also many small things. A wooden gate into a homestead with a simple but very efficient wooden bolt across it. You won’t buy those in B&Q! A snake skin sloughed as it slithered into the thick stone wall of a long-abandoned house right on the floor of the caldera. People lived and farmed here into the 20th Century. Some on the island people still remember as children staying with grandparents in the caldera during the summer. It’s still farmed now: turkeys, chickens, cattle, pigs all roam free.
Reaching the bottom of the kalderimi from Nikia, turn left (westwards) close to the cliffed side and you are walking across desert. The western end of the caldera is the most active and the ground is hot not just from the scorching sun but from below. Sparse vegetation. An occasional stunted tree. Shiny white ‘soil’ washed down in winter rains. It’s another, alien world.
The low-angled morning sun starkly outlines where the ground is breathing out its sulphurous gases. Need to be careful not to get too close, the ground is hot underfoot even through thick-soled walking-sandals. I can only cope with the gases for a relatively short time before they make me feel unwell.
Get closer and there are myriad brightly coloured fumaroles. They look, and indeed are, very delicate with their thousands of bright yellow slivers of sulphur crystals. Put you hand over the top and you’ll withdraw it pretty quickly. The gases are painfully hot. Look inside the black interior: that narrow tube goes a long way down! You get the feeling that with a powerful enough torch you may be able to look all the way to the centre of the earth. Well, at least as far as the magma chamber.
Pull back and look at the bigger picture. The sides of the craters with white and red sulphur as well as yellow. A canyon cut by a river in winter rains. Dried and cracked seasonal lake-floor.
I know nowhere else remotely like this. It holds a pervading fascination. That’s why I keep coming back. It changes every year but the impact is still the same. I’m hooked.
TIP If you haven’t already, click on any image to enlarge it Continue reading
The temperature was pushing up to 40 degrees in the shade. The previous afternoon, a friend with a thermometer on his balcony had recorded 58.7 in the sun at 13.00 – hottest part of the day is a couple of hours later. My visitors had all gone back so I could get back to doing mad things.
I reckoned that the best place to be in that heat was up in the mountains, though in fact it’s the best place to be at any time. Up high there was likely to be a breeze so staying high for as long as possible seemed a good idea.
I settled on a route and about 09.30 set out. My body doesn’t function properly before 10.00 in the morning but I knew there was advantage in leaving as early as possible to get the hard work over with before the heat built up and to finish before it peaked in the afternoon. The first half hour would be through the narrow alleyways of Horio, the old village where I was staying, and would be more-or-less at a level as far as the hairpin bend on the main road at Lavinia. Much of it was in shade at that time in the morning which was a bonus.
A short distance on the road, keeping close to the side to avoid being mown down by scooters and cars zooming down with commuters anxious to get to work in the harbour before the trip boats start coming in. Not many of them but they travel fast, swing wide, and turn the engine off to conserve petrol. It’s not far though the heat is already beginning to tell on the uphill trudge. But it’s not for long.
At the next hairpin bend turn left onto a track at the Agia Marina Cemetery. A brief respite. Behind the cemetery the track bends rightwards to cross a bridge over a deep gulley. The bridge was damaged by the November floods in 2017 and is now being reinforced. The only way across is to walk on the framework of re-bars (network of reinforcing steel bars wired together, ready to receive ready-mix concrete …… at some point in the vague future, making sure your feet don’t go down the gaps, inconveniently foot-width apart.
Immediately after pussy-footing across the re-bars the path goes very steeply up on the right under trees. It was much damaged by the water cascading down in the flood but was a difficult start even before that.
The beginning of the path is steep and difficult underfoot but once up the first bit the problem is finding where to go among the numerous possible lines. A few years ago, I spent time sussing it out and marking it with stones. In fact, I marked the whole path as it zig-zags up to the ridge top. It’s a great path and every year I ‘refresh’ the markers. You’ll recognise them, stones set on edge in the direction of travel. When there is a change of direction there is a stone in line with the new line.
There are reminders that this is a very old routeway. A short flight of stone steps. Retaining walls on the downslope side. The occasional fading red paint spot shows it was subsequently marked as a walkers’ path but until I marked it with stones, I found it very difficult to follow.
As the path broaches the ridge-top, I veer off it to the right because when the thyme is in flower, as it was on the day, a couple of dozen beehives straddle it. The bees soon make it clear they don’t like you near their place, so I give them a wide berth. The views are dramatic, back down to Horio and Yiallos, with Nimos Island, the ridges above Nimborio and Turkey beyond.
It twists and turns but rises inexorably upwards for a thousand feet.
Just below the crest is the Panagia Hamon monastery, great place to cool off in the shade after the exertion of the climb. The week before I walked it with a friend, continuing on the track from Hamon and then cut up through the woods to the cliff-top Kokkimedes Monastery. Not today. Kokkimedes is well worth a visit but the route to and from it is mostly out of the wind and very hot.
I wanted to stay in the breeze as long as possible. Going back downslope a short way to skirt the beehives, I continued along the ridge-top. There are sections of goat paths though mostly it’s a matter of finding lines through the rocks and sparse vegetation. Even at this height there are signs of long-past settlement, including what were probably the occasional stone-built shepherd’s shelters and a small water-hole, dry now but with cracked sediment at the bottom indicating it had fairly recently held water. Amazing that people lived up here, at least some of the time.
At the end of the ridge, high above Pedi and Agios Nikolaos, are a couple of derelict buildings and a stone-built pillar. The pillar is not as high as it was when I first saw it in the year 2000 but is still a significant size. One of the buildings is large enough to have been a permanent dwelling. It’s a major vantage point to observe the approaches to the harbour from the north and east so there is a possibility it was part of the communication network at the time of the Crusader occupation, though there is no evidence from the structure that it was anything other than agricultural.
Form here it is a long descent to Gria, the abandoned village above, but not visible from, Pedi. The permanent pond there is always fascinating, with a variety of wildlife. Sit here long enough and in the past, I have seen and photographed three sorts of dragonfly, birds, bonking frogs and a 6-foot Black Whip Snake. Today, I didn’t stay long, it was too hot after dropping down from the cool breeze on the mountain top. I only photographed Red Darter dragonflies.
The descent from Gria to Pedi is first on a narrow, in places overgrown, path before reaching a deep gulley. Too grand to call it a gorge but it requires downclimbing waterfalls on bare rock. Reassuringly secure underfoot but requires good balance and confidence.
The closer you get to Pedi and sea-level, the less breeze there is and soon the heat begins to tell again. Quick change into a clean t-shirt before going to the Katsaras to sit in the shade with a beer before taking the valley path back up top Horio, and a longer recuperation at Lefteris’s Kafenion.
Take a look at the route:
While you’re here, why not take a look at my book, ‘Greece Unpackaged: travels in a foreign language’ available from Amazon on Kindle
The beach at Nanou is popular with visitors to Symi, not least because it is served by high-speed taxi boat and has a taverna under the shade of tamarisk trees. I don’t do beach-days, I get bored and end up climbing the cliffs (literally) but I have walked there from Horio a few times and met up with others for the ride back on the boat. I generally only do it if asked by friends to show them the way because the path down from the ridge top is not very pleasant – loose shale, insecure footing, slipping and sliding ….. not fun.
But this time, friends wanted to do it in reverse. Taxi-boat to Nanou and walk up. Then on up to the mountain-top monastery of Stavros Polemou.
An added incentive was that we would be passing the Skordhalos cave soon after starting out. Passing it on the way down and the incentive to get down to the taverna for a beer after 3 hours walking in the heat overcomes the desire to explore the cave.
The cool in the cave was a welcome respite from the hard toil uphill, the decision to resume the upward toil deferred as long as possible. It’s entirely in pine woods with no breeze, temperatures near 40 degrees ….. so quite draining.
After scrambling up and over the construction waste from the ridge-top road which has destroyed the path, a short rest and then through cypress woodland to link up to the path to the monastery of Panagia Panaiidi and the dramatic crag-top monastery of Stavros Polemou, once a defensive and signalling location used by the Crusaders.
Then back to Horio via the remnants of a stone-built kalderimi not destroyed by the ‘tarmac’.
Take a look at the route: https://www.relive.cc/view/e1342066981
While you’re here, why not take a look at my book, ‘Greece Unpackaged: travels in a foreign language’ available from Amazon on Kindle
Finally made it back to Greece. Two months later than planned but it was great to be back on Symi.
Up in the mountains, temperatures in the thirty’s, pushing up to 40, very pleasant breeze, minimum of 5 miles every day trekking around the piece of hot rock which is Symi.
The island has an ancient history, some periods of which attract more interest than others. There are remains on the ground which can only be guessed at in terms of what little is known about life in far-off days. It’s interesting to try to piece it together.
One interesting route is via Nimborio to what I think is a Neolithic platform high on a craggy ridge.
Nimborio, a corruption of ‘Emborio’, meaning trading place or market, (from which comes the English word ‘emporium’) is at the head of the next bay round from the main harbour of Yialos. Apparently, it was the main settlement in Roman times. Boats could beach there and a small quay was built. My guess is that the stone-paved quay at the northern end of the bay dates back to that time and may be the original construction.
Behind the bay at a slightly higher level is a mosaic floor, not as well preserved as those on Kos but the pictorial representations can still be clearly seen. Some of the stones and pebbles on the beach are not from local geology. Some are the black volcanic rock from Nisyros used to make basins, a fragment of one of which can be seen in the castle above Toli Bay a couple of miles away.
From the far end of the beach at Nimborio, a well-marked but rough path climbs, in places very steeply, up towards the tiny church and monastery of Agios Nikolaos Stenou. Before it reaches the monastery, it splits, the left-hand side continuing to the church, the right-hand fork winding around and following the ridge top. Narrow and unmarked, this path is clear and easy to follow because it’s used by the farmer from the col at the end of it to take his honey by donkey down to Nimborio.
Before dropping down to the farm in the col, in the crags above on the right, are the two features of interest. On top of the first of the two crags, reachable by scrambling, is a dolman-like structure, similar to but much smaller than the ones found in Wales. The second has a rock platform built into the teeth of the crag. The platform can be reached but involves a bit of mild rock-climbing.to reach the top.
Finally, a Symi sunset from the balcony
Sadly, I have been revisited by the misfiring which struck at Easter 2016 (see). It has now been sorted and I’m firing on all cylinders again. But it prevented my return to Greece for Easter this year ….. and then prevented my return early May. All being well, I hope to get back to Symi early June. But who knows? As I have so often quoted from the Book of Proverbs: “A man’s’ mind plans his way but the Lord directs his steps”.
In the meantime, rather than simply sitting on my London Derrière (well, South Wales derrière, I have no connexion whatever with London), I have been keeping as active as possible, albeit struggling to get up and down the garden.
The result is that I have been around for more of the Spring in the UK than usual. And how bizarre it has been.
Go back to last Autumn and the fabulous colours in the garden. The ground in my ‘Acer Glade’, planted ready for my decrepit old age, was a mass of colour.
In response to record breaking high temperatures for winter months (peaking in Mid Wales at over 20 degrees for the first time ever in February), daffodils and crocuses put on an early display, overlaying autumn leaves now a uniform, crisp brown.
Then on 4 April, the morning I was due to drive 200 miles north to see my daughter, I opened the bedroom curtains to the completely unexpected sight of snow. A few inches and still falling heavily. Not a huge amount like 1 March last year when The Beast from the East met Storm Emma, depositing 8-foot drifts on the ridge behind the house, or again two weeks later when Spring turned into Winter. But enough to delay my departure. The irony was that a few days earlier I had taken tender plants over-wintered in the Blue House and conservatory and set them in their summer positions outside. Pelargoniums and prickly pear cactus covered snow look all wrong.
Tulips, which had made an early start, were capped with snow.
A week later they were basking in warm sunshine.
There was no more snow after that but temperatures fluctuated every few days from shorts-and-sandals weather to back to winter-wear as chill winds caused havoc. Nevertheless, spring had arrived and plants and wildlife put up with the vagaries. A collar dove persisted in sitting on her nest while the male brought the occasional twig for the ramshackle construction. Dutch iris, rescued from my in-laws garden half a century ago still thrives.
May has continued much the same with plants flowering in the garden which I normally miss because by now I’m usually in Greece. So, here’s a sample of Spring flowers in the garden rather than a Greek island. Wild garlic covered an ever-bigger area. Aquilegia spreads further every year as I shake the rattling seed-heads around the garden.
…….. and I may even get to harvest some of the fruit before I leave.
Unfortunately my planned return to Greece has been delayed because of health issues. Not sure yet when I’ll be heading back as I’m resisting the urge to go back and become a health tourist again. The World Health Organisation puts the Greek health service a good few places above the UK which seems to be sinking deeper and deeper into the mire of over-management and inefficiency. The Greeks sorted out the issue for me at Easter 2016, the NHS came in on the tail end of that 3 months later. I have no idea why Brexiteers are fixated on stopping health tourists coming to the UK.
Anyway, enough of grumpiness. “Greece Unpackaged”, my book on independent travelling in Greece, is now on special offer with Amazon for a week. You can buy it for £0.99 until Saturday 20 April.
Spring is on its way and I’ll soon be heading for Greece again, but before I get there, a last look back to winter and the Canadian Rockies.
One of the great things about Banff, apart from the skiing, is the opportunity for trekking winter trails and snowshoeing. I generally avoid skiing at weekends because the slopes are busy with Calgarians who come up to Lake Louise or Sunshine Village for the day. I don’t want to get in their way when I can enjoy the good snow for the rest of the week.
A forecast of heavy snow on a Friday is a guarantee that half of the one-and-a-quarter million population of Calgary will be on the road for the hour-and-a-half trip well before sunrise, having mysteriously developed some form of ill health overnight and phoned in sick.
When more than 70 cms of snow fell in 36 hours the Trans-Canada Highway must have been nose to tail, the car parks and approach roads blocked by cars desperate to offload their powder-hungry cargoes, the lift-lines snaking hundreds of metres long and the slopes a blur of Olympic wanabees and never-befores.
I’m told it was so.
Me? I went snowshoeing up the frozen Bow River in snow varying between a foot and unknown depth because my snowshoes kept me floating on the upper layer. No sun, because it was snowing most of time but fabulous because there was obviously no-one ahead of me. There is something magical about making ‘first tracks’ in virgin snow and I was doing that for over three miles upstream.
Not that there was any sign of a stream until I reached the confluence with Sundance Creek, three miles from where I set off. There, a thermal spring keeps a narrow channel of water open, meandering from side to side. I had to cross it at some point. Back-tracking onto the Bow beyond the holes of open water, I picked out what I considered to be the best crossing point up the Creek. Too far for a stride even of my long legs. I had to jump. Ever tried taking a run-up and jumping in deep snow in snowshoes? My right heel crashed through the edge of the ice but the crampon-like grips at the front dug in. I threw my weight forward onto my left foot …. and crossed dry and unscathed.
I was well pleased.
It had been tiring walking up the deep snow on the river, lifting feet high at every step. Great to be making fresh tracks but hard work. So, I decided to return on the Sundance Trail, used by cross-country skiers and snowshoers and so hopefully a little more compacted and less strenuous.
But before that, I sat on the bank of the river, in the snow, and munched on a Kashi bar. In front of me as I relaxed, was the pyramidal Mount Edith, nearly lost in the swirling snow.
The walk back was certainly less strenuous. A few people were coming the other way on snowshoes, finding it hard work, trying to look bright and cheerful. Then, looking nonchalant as another couple approached, I stepped off the trail into thigh-deep snow to explore a photo opportunity presented by an area of open water. One of my many non-appealing traits, I do sometimes, too often, feel and look smug.
Another couple stopped as I looked at the river below marked by only one set of tracks. “I wonder who that was.” they said. “Me!”, I replied, a bit embarrassed by my hubris. There were no-one else’s tracks on the river all the way back.
As I got back towards Banff, it stopped snowing and the lenticular clouds over Mount Rundle were dramatic. The scale of it reminds you of your insignificance.
Next day, Saturday, I walked the well-trodden path to Bow Falls. There was less ice on the river than usual but the falls were largely frozen, water tumbling through the snow-covered ice. From there I took the trail along the bank of the Spray River, again fairly well trodden as far as the footbridge across. Then, continuing up-river I was on virgin snow again but this time on a narrow path between the river on my right and the steep quarried rockface on my left.
A short distance further upstream and an even narrower trail climbs up the steep slope to join the higher level ‘Spray River Loop’, a broad trail flanked by trees and used by cross-country skiers as well as trekkers. With periodic detours through the trees to the top of the cliff and views down to the river below, I headed back to the Bow Falls.
The car park was now nearly full. Though in the shade from the low-angled winter sun, scores of people posed for photos with the frozen falls in the background or looking down the valley to the Fairholme Range still gleaming in the sunlight.
Sunday, I opted for an easy start by ambling along the main street, Banff Avenue, to the river bridge, then along the broad path flanked by expensive houses most of us can only dream about, to the new footbridge and back to the hotel. That was enjoyable but not really enough. So I went up Tunnel Mountain.
At 1,690metres, about 300 metres and two-and-a-half kilometres above the town, it’s a short but fairly strenuous walk. A measure of the attitude of locals is that on Sunday afternoons there are scores if not hundreds of people on the trail. This is an outdoor persons’ town. All ages, most walking, many with dogs, some running. In places the path is built up on the downhill side like a Greek kalderimi. Well used, there is no need for snowshoes but cleats are a definite advantage, especially on the way down.
I sat on the slabs of rock at the top in sunshine, munched a Kashi bar and reminisced about a great three days trekking. Back to skiing on Monday. Someone has to do it.
Again, first the festive stuff: A belated New Year to all.
I’ve been doing more trekking than usual thanks to a bug which I picked up on the flight and which kept me hotel-bound for a while. However, unable to just sit around, I went out each day for longer and longer walks on some of the many winter trails, increasingly strenuous as the effects of the bug receded.
A nice easy walk is along the Bow River to the Canoe Basin (deserted now the river is frozen over) and then upstream on Forty Mile Creek on the ‘Fenland Trail’. The Bow is frozen across its whole width at this point but the faster flowing Creek has thinner ice where the two merge, with evidence of at least three people being overconfident and having fallen through.
The Creek still has stretches of open water with many trees fallen across it. It froze while the level was still high but now it has dropped there are sheets of ice suspended in the air and in the afternoon, when the temperature rises slightly, there are cracking sounds like rifle shots as another section succumbs to gravity under the weight of recent snowfall, followed by an unearthly shuddering sound as the remaining ice readjusts.
Another day, with more energy, I followed Forty Mile Creek and used the footbridge to cross it and turn left to walk on the frozen Vermillion Lakes. Shallow and with very little movement, the ice is always trustworthy on the lakes but following the unusually warm weather (temperatures up to minus 4) I was suspicious of it at first.
It turned out to be as reliable as usual. Under cloudless blue sky the views across the flat expanse of white to the mountains were cliché breath-taking. As always, close to the edge of the lake it was important to watch out for open water, for two reasons. First, near open water is where the ice is thinnest. Second, because that is where some of the best photo opportunities are.
The open water is from thermal springs which emerge from the mountains and flow into the lake. As they mix with the cold water their effect is diminished but close to the source they create a unique micro-habitat of both flora and fauna. On the surrounding vegetation the water vapour freezes in microscopic ice crystals.
The largest area of open water is towards the furthest end of the Second Vermillion Lake. I found it a number of years ago and at that time there was no sign of anyone having visited. Now there is evidence that a local tourist guide is driving visitors here along the Vermillion Lakes Scenic Drive and escorting them down to the photo opportunity. Which is pretty dramatic.
Push through vegetation beyond the edge of the lake and there is a large open pond directly fed by a thermal spring. Steam rises off the surface. Again, this is a unique habitat and I have seen fish and bird life, though on this visit it was too shy to submit to being photographed.