I wasn’t sure what to expect as I rounded the corner from the parking lot with my husband, Charlie, and his coworker, Michael, toward Chateau Lake Louise, located in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada during June, 2001. I had heard about this must-see destination from friends in Florida, but truthfully, I thought it was going to be just another overcrowded tourist trap that would not compete with the pristine, beauty of the numerous mountains and glacial lakes I had already seen along Bow Valley Parkway, as well as Yoho and Kootenay National Parks. And to me, a geologist with a love for the untouched, natural world, there was nothing worse than taking a glacial lake and slapping a hotel on the edge of it. I was sure there would be milk cartons floating along the shoreline and muddied waters that would hide the lake’s emerald/blue glow. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. If anything, this hotel offers the opportunity for visitors to experience and appreciate Lake Louise, Mount Victoria, Victoria Glacier, and Fairview Mountain while keeping the natural beauty intact.
Since we were only visiting for the evening, my priority was not to see the hotel, but to spend time along the lake directly behind it. Though I had seen numerous glacial lakes during my visit, I hadn’t walked along the edge of one yet, so my stride grew quicker as I walked past the multi-story building and toward the back lawn. Within seconds, the pure grandness of the view slowed my pace as the rich blue glacial lake with snow-capped mountain backdrop blocked out everything else in existence. There didn’t even seem to be a sky. It was as if the arms of a long-lost friend were reaching out and welcoming me in to share this world like no other. And as I stood there, I only heard the whisper of a cool breeze coming off the lake, despite several visitors walking by. We were so small, compared to the peacefulness of the place, it drowned out any human interruption.
At that point, I had the overwhelming desire to go to the other side of the lake. There was a lakeside path, but with limited daylight, I knew there was only one option available — the canoes. So, we headed over to the wooden dock and put on our life jackets. The attendant asked, “You do know how to canoe, right?” We paused before answering, but said, “Yes.” I had gone canoeing once, but Charlie grew up canoeing on a river. I wasn’t sure about his coworker, but surely we could handle a little jaunt across this lake. Then, the attendant said, “Well, you do know that if you fall in, you must get out of the water within two minutes — otherwise, you will die. Hypothermia is quick, you know.” Okay, so maybe I wasn’t quite so confident, as I tightened the straps on a life jacket that would probably do nothing to keep me alive. It didn’t matter though, I was going.
My husband was having difficulties in getting his life jacket secured, as we tried to head across the lake with short, awkward paddling from Michael and me that seemed to cause more splashing than actual movement. It was pretty slow (and pathetic), but I figured we’d get there eventually. Charlie was sitting behind me (and probably laughing), but hey, I was trying. Within a couple of minutes, my arms were on fire. We probably gained about a hundred feet when a sharp push suddenly catapulted us forwarded. Then another deep push. Then another. It was like a perfectly synchronized pattern that churned the water in just the right way so that we were gliding across the lake swiftly. I had a Norseman for a husband and never knew it. Mike and I tried to assist further with the paddling, but only ended up adding more drag, so we retreated the oars into the canoe after my husband’s prodding to just sit back and enjoy the ride. And it was a ride I would never forget.
As we headed toward the back side of the lake, the arms of two, tree-covered mountains opened up and revealed the patchy sunlit and shaded snow that settled on the mountain tops and sprinkled the rock faces beyond, looking like a chocolate cake’s white icing was partially exposing its layers. The sun was coming in from the left and a splattering of grayish white clouds blocked out the blue sky behind Mt. Victoria, making it hard to distinguish where the mountain top ended. When we reached the other side, there actually wasn’t much to see along the shoreline other than a low-lying vegetated area with a stream running through it. I could see Victoria Glacier in the distance, but it had receded well beyond the lake. We were getting caught up in the silt and could not get close to the shoreline, so we turned around. The view across the lake to the Chateau was also breathtaking with the u-shaped valley and another mountain range beyond it.
I think it was then that I noticed a multi-colored rock face of mostly purples that was so gorgeous I had to see it closer. Luckily, I have a patient husband who paddled us over to some loose rocks that had fallen from the rock face along the shoreline. I think his patience waned though, when I leaned over the side a bit, so I could take a closer look. It was quartzite (metamorphic quartz sandstone that was converted to quartzite through immense heating and pressure during plate tectonic and mountain-building activities) of the Gog Group which is one of the oldest known rock formations at Banff National Park (Lower Cambrian age – approximately 540 million years ago) (Hein and McMechan, 1994). The quartzite was a variation of purples, pinks, yellows and grays with rounded quartz grains cemented by silica. Keep in mind that the original rock was formed 540 million years ago, but the complex mountain building occurred later (two events when plates collided approximately 80 and 200 million years ago) when sheets of these sedimentary rocks that were deposited along the continent margin were thrusted upward (Patton, 1995). I tried to explain all this to my co-canoers, but I don’t think they were quite as enthusiastic and seemed to want nothing more than to get off this frigid lake before we ended up in it. After exploring some boulders along the adjacent shoreline, we returned safely to the dock with no casualties.
Afterwards, I had time to explore the Chateau and a bit of its history. Turns out that the hotel was originally a small chalet that was built in 1890 and later partly destroyed by fire in 1924. After reconstruction, it was re-opened on June 1,1925, under the name of Chateau Lake Louise. It was interesting to see the old pictures and explorers back then. One picture showed an explorer along the pathway along the lake during the early 1900s. So, I had to get my picture there too from the early 2000s.
Hats off to Canada and their preservation of beautiful places such as Lake Louise. These treasures are priceless. One day, I plan on going back and spending more time there. I’ll be sure to bring my Norseman, too!
I keep my geologic explanations simplistic, but if you would like more in-depth information on the rock formations and tectonic processes at Lake Louise and surrounding Canadian Rockies, see the following links:
Alberta Geological Survey website: www.ags.gov.ab.ca.html
Hein, F. J. and McMechan, M.E. Geological Atlas of the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin. Chapter 6: Proterozoic and Lower Cambrian Strata of the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin. 1994, www.ags.gov.ab.ca/publications/wcsb_atlas/a_ch06/ch_06.html.
Patton, Brian. Parkways of the Canadian Rockies: A Road Guide of Banff, Jasper, Kootenay and Yoho National Park. Fourth Edition. Summerthought, Ltd. 1995.
Yorath, C. J. How Old is That Mountain? A Visitor’s Guide to the Geology of Banff and Yoho National Parks. Orca Book Publishers. 1997.