Memories of the Mountains

Story & photos Beth Bower

When I was a little kid the build up of excitement before a big camping trip was almost as good as Christmas Eve. There was the tent to pack, sleeping bags to stuff, and fleece pants to dig out of the very back of the closet. There were rogue pairs of Wigwam socks to track down and a mountain of peanut butter sandwiches to spread, slice, and wrap. And no matter how our gear collection grew, there always seemed to be time for one more trip to MEC to pick up the latest gadget my Dad had suddenly deemed essential.


But behind all this excitement there was also a little anxiety. After all, on Christmas Day I knew I could lie on my belly and have tea and chocolate for breakfast. But a camping trip was different. I knew I would have to hike for hours, carry my own pack without complaint, and maybe even face down a grizzly or two.


More often than not, a big camping trip meant my family was headed for Lake O’Hara. Tucked just inside the eastern B.C. border, O’Hara is only ten minutes down the highway from the world famous Lake Louise. But those extra ten minutes make all the difference in the world. Unlike her flashy sister, the only way to access O’Hara is to travel up an old fire road. This can be done either by making a reservation on a wonderfully bumpy old school bus or by travelling on foot. Parks Canada limits the number of bus trips that go up each day so you’ll never see the throngs that choke the shores of Lake Louise up at O’Hara. The number of hikers entering on foot isn’t limited, but the 11 km uphill slog through a dense lodgepole pine forest deters all but the most dedicated dog lovers (dogs are allowed at the campground, but not on the bus).


However you get there, once you arrive there are two main options for staying overnight. The more ritzy choice is to stay at the Lake O’Hara Lodge. These days they’re charging between $516-$746 per night for a couple. Alternatively, you can hike a short ways back from the lake and choose to stay at the campground. A reservation in the campground costs $11.70 plus an additional $9.80 per night for each person over 16. A round trip bus ticket will cost $14.70. It’s definitely pricier than your average campsite, but it’s also not $516 a night. My sharp mother once pointed out to me that you could pick out the lodge guests on the bus just by looking at their socks. They were the only ones with white ones.


Now in all fairness I have no right to make the following comparison, as I’ve never actually set foot in the Lodge. Nevertheless, I’ll resolutely declare to anyone and everyone that the campsite is by far the best. You get access to all the same trails, but don’t have to worry about prettying up for dinner. And if you feel so inclined, you can join in the camaraderie around the communal fire pit where, it must be admitted, talk occasionally turns to making fun of the lodge guests.


I was always sent off to my sleeping bag before the gossip became really good, but one of my all time favourite stories was related to me the next morning by my parents.


Apparently, to the greatly shared amusement of the other campers, a woman told the story of how her and her friends were surprised on the Odaray Highline trail by a large group of people racing down in the opposite direction. The woman was surprised by their rush, as it was only early afternoon, so she stopped one of the members to make sure nothing was wrong. It turned out they had turned around before the top because they didn’t want to miss afternoon tea at the lodge! Even at eleven I could recognize that somebody didn’t have their priorities straight.

Lake O’Hara had a way of doing that for me – getting my priorities straight. It was as if on that bus ride up my mind would grow blurry and homework, school, and all my other little day to day anxieties would fade away. Then, in the clear alpine air, my head would refocus and I would realize that only two things were really important: food and my family.


Oh the food. There’s some sort of magical chemistry that occurs between the alpine air and the tastebuds. The simplest, humble foods – like toasted almonds or a crisp apple – suddenly become completely gourmet. Some of the best meals of my life have been on the trail. And at O’Hara, one treat in particular was essential to the experience. The carrot cake.


It was homemade and trucked up the fire road by someone who worked at Le Relais, a cozy day shelter that has been the saviour many times over of cold, hungry hikers. Not too sweet, full of spice, and generous with the cream cheese icing, the Le Relais carrot cake was a mandatory snack stop at the start of the biggest hike of the weekend. A piece of that spicy goodness in my tummy and there’d be no whining for at least two hours (although my mother will probably wish to refute this statement).

Then there was the time we smuggled up an entire homemade plum pie in the lid of my Dad’s backpack. . .but I digress into delicious memories. I still want to mention that other most important thing – my family.

Because to me, that’s what I remember most when I think of any wilderness experience. I love the freedom too of course, am awestruck by the austere beauty, feel concerned about how it’s disappearing, and wonder what happens to our humanity if there aren’t bears in the woods to scare us. I feel all those things, but secondarily. Because when I was ten and out in the woods I had no real understanding of the environmental concerns facing us. I wasn’t really appreciating the biological diversity that surrounded me, or concerned with the effect of global warming on the alpine meadow I was playing in. Instead, I was having a fabulous time with my family. Especially as I got a little older, the mountains became the one place where peer pressure didn’t exist. Suddenly Dad could be hysterical again, and I could giggle at fart jokes in the tent. Nobody was going to know.

When I think of the wilderness, I think of how my little sister could power up Wiwaxy Pass (500 m elevation gain in 2.4 km) when she was six. I think about the time we had the only tent left standing in the O’Hara campsite when a freak August snow storm hit over night. Huddling for warmth in the picnic shelter the next morning, I learnt the only reason that I got to sleep through the night was that my dad had been out in the storm at one in the morning digging a run off trench behind the tent for all the sleet. I remember being shown up time and time again at stone skipping by my little brother. And I remember the impossible number of mornings my mum was up earliest of all, making sure there was hot tea and warm food ready when we woke up a little chilly.

That’s how I experienced the wilderness as a little kid – a big adventure with my family. And it’s this unabashedly anthropocentric love of the mountains that has planted the strongest desire to conserve the wilderness in me. The facts about the situation - such as the way the forests act as carbon sinks and the value of preserving biodiversity - motivate me intellectually to conserve. But it’s those memories from my childhood that motivate my heart.


Now, I realize that some may not count Lake O’Hara as “true wilderness.” But hey, for a kid from the Calgary suburbs, it counted. The next valley over was always closed for a grizzly, if I tripped on the Huber ledges I would really fall to my death, and when the last bus rolled down the hill for the night that was it. I wasn’t going anywhere fast. And that anxiety I mentioned showing up before a big trip? It was always replaced by a glowing sense of pride at my own strength as I fell asleep in the backseat on the long drive home.