We’d had our doubts when our crew of six assembled three days prior in Calgary from distant corners of Washington, California, Utah and the Ottawa Valley. As we turned off the Trans-Can onto the Icefields Parkway, heavy smoke from wildfires burning hundreds of miles southwest of the park shrouded any and all views of the rugged Rocky Mountain backdrop that we’d flown in to experience. Our hope—to make the longest possible rental-canoe transit through the park—was met with skepticism at every turn. In late August there might not be enough water to float a canoe on the upper sections of the Bow River. The lake that we wanted to float into was not even marked on the park maps.
We had no idea if open canoes loaded with five days’ worth of gear could handle the rocky Class II-III whitewater ahead, or whether all of us were up to the task. Others groused about the apparent lack of whitewater on the back end of our 70-plus mile itinerary. As we lined our three loaded boats down the trickle of Mosquito Creek, we tried to avoid thinking about our Plan B should the river not float us: dragging the boats overland back to the Parkway.
Yet as we met the Bow, the smoke began to clear. With just enough glacial water to whisk us downstream, we started to wonder if we were on to something. Though there wasn’t much time to think. The shallow minefields presented nonstop challenges. We began to qualify rapids as Par 3 or 4, for the number of allowable rock scrapes. Through the cold clear water we could see the failings of previous canoe-duffers written in red and green Royalex on the shallow rocks.
As the river started to mellow, Alan took a breath, “that’s as much whitewater as I’ve ever done.” The action transitioned abruptly to tranquility as we drifted into the turquoise waters of Hector Lake. We were completely alone. Three boats paddling in silence. If the road, two kilometers east through thick pine brush, were closer, this world-class postcard of a lake would surely be covered with lodges.
“How is this not a classic run?” David, the restless photographer, turned from the front of our canoe to ask as we beached at a designated backcountry campsite. Exploring nearby, Jeff uncovered another surprise: a fourth canoe, weathered but serviceable. “What country other than Canada would you go digging around the woods and find a canoe?” he asked. As dusk settled and the lake turned to glass, we took to the boats to watch the sun set into the haze veiling the jagged peaks surrounding us. Unreal.
When we woke up we finally got the view of the glaciers that until now we’d seen only on our cans of Kokanee. With the wildfire smoke clearing, and blue skies above, we paddled onto the empty sheet of azure, dipping water from the lake and brewing our morning coffee in the canoes. We lingered on the lake, rafted up, nothing to do but enjoy the elements and share a few stories. Eventually we packed up and left one of Banff’s best-kept secrets behind us.
The volume of the Bow tripled at the outlet of the lake, and the rocky, continuous rapids gathered pace—what new friends would soon describe as “bony with a good bit o’ stick handling.” Shafts of light poked though a corridor of pines and glinted off the whitewater. As the gradient increased, we rounded a corner to an unobstructed taste of the park’s majestic down-valley views. The heads-up scenery distracted us from the river-reading task at hand, and we barely spotted the lonely scrap of surveyor’s tape marking the takeout trail—our last exit before the Class IV canyon section that would be too much for our open canoes. We clambered up the trail and hitched rides into the Lake Louise Campground.
Our next big surprise arrived early on Day 3 as we prepared to depart from Lake Louise.
Jim Buckingham (“call me Bucky”) met us riverside with an overflowing pack of Tim Hortons Timbits and a 1926 map of the Bow’s entire route through the park.
“I hope you guys can paddle,” Bucky began. “Because if you can’t you’re going to be swimmers.”
Having canoed the Bow Valley for the last 40 years, Bucky was eager to share his home river with other intrepid paddlers—roughly double as eager as anyone else in our group, still rousing after two full days of paddling. We stood in amazement as the wiry 74-year-old rattled off info so fast that he could barely down his Timbits. The frosted Funfetti doughnut-hole remnants spilled over the map on which he pointed to landmarks and highlighted the day’s rapids:
“Oh, yah, you can sneak it, but you have to be sneaky to sneak it ... you probably will take on a lot of water ... you got about a canoe width on either side, don’t get in trouble above there … and then where that creek there comes in, it’s a two-stage rapids, fast water with a real necksnapper of an eddy.”
It was hard to gauge from his enthusiasm just what we were in for. At end of the beta rundown we found out at that we’d already passed our most technical paddling. Yet after four decades of pulling hundreds of empty, usable, abandoned canoes from the Bow — four in the last month alone — not to mention countless vinyl “pool toy” rafts, Bucky had learned that he couldn’t be too careful with over-informing outsider canoeists.
“People lose their canoes here, or their canoes lose the people,” Bucky said. Paddlers used to the warm summer waters and the pool-drop characteristics of boreal rivers on the Canadian Shield get woken up fast to Rocky Mountain paddling, he explained. “The big difference here is that the river keeps going—you gotta think ahead.”
Sure enough, after Bucky saw us off for the day, we paddled headlong into the first wave-train rapid and swamped all of our rides—though no canoes were close to being abandoned and sacrificed. After bailing out and passing a few more of Bucky’s landmarks we started making miles toward the designated backcountry site at Johnston Creek. Carrying our drybags up to the meadow, we first spotted our bull elk friend. Soon after the walking trophy scampered off into the depths of the woods, Bucky emerged from it, ready to talk more canoeing.
As we prepared a giant mess of dinner stew, Bucky sipped chocolate milk and shared more about himself. A canoeist for 67 years, Bucky was happily retired after 30 years in ski area management and had just come off a remote 14-day canoe trip in Saskatchewan. Sore from a long 20-mile day, we absorbed the following hard-earned truths, in no particular order, from one of Banff’s living paddling legends.
“A couple of hard portages weed out the candy-ass paddlers.”
“Everyone west of Calgary pries … only eastern Canadians do that cross-bow stuff.”
“I only paddle on weekends. And weekdays.”
“I don’t care what color you are, I don’t care what language you speak, I don’t care where you were born or what your passport says. If you paddle a canoe you can be a Canadian.”
“North Americans spend far too much time watching other people do things—the boob tube, movies, the computer, sports events. Life is doing things, not watching. More power to the people that are doing things, developing the sports and getting that enjoyment. So keep paddling, or keep climbing or keep skiing, or keep doing whatever your thing is.”
“The way to be able to keep going, is to keep going. If you keep going, you can keep going. If you give up and quit, you have a hard time getting going again. So keep paddling.”
After the bull elk early wakeup, it doesn’t take much to get going the next day. Bucky joins us on the water with his longtime local partner in canoe instruction, Jim Olver, who matches his good friend’s enthusiasm for sharing their home river. “I never met a paddler I didn’t like,” he jovially explains. Jim and Jim, the two spry pry guys, chat us up as we continue cruising down the Bow. The Trans-Canada Highway, which parallels this stretch of river, comes in and out of view. At scenic overlooks, camera-toting tourists pop up to snap our photos, letting us know we’re getting closer to Banff.
“Keep going. Keep paddling.” I keep repeating the Bucky mantra as the Bow slows on our approach the resort town. Moments after we arrive at the canoe club dock in town, a heavy rain begins to fall, sending a wedding party scurrying for shelter. We pull on raingear and walk a few blocks to the Ptarmigan Inn, where we quietly deposit our dripping drybags in the lobby.
Within an hour the sky is clear again, and we’re digging into an artisanal feast far more satisfying than the sausage stew and warm Kokanee we’ve been subsisting on for days. Yet as we wander through the throngs of summer tourists, waiting for traffic to clear crosswalks, gazing into brightly lit window displays, the draw back to the silent simplicity of the river is stronger than ever.
Jim O. and his dog Lacey, the paddling puggle, are ready too. He picks us up bright and early to shuttle our canoes around Bow Falls. Bucky’s back with another three boats full of canoe friends eager to experience the best day-section of paddling near Banff—the 14-mile run to Canmore.
A tailwind whisks us past the hoodoo rock formations on the edge of town. Dark clouds billow over impossibly overhung walls on the immediate peaks. The otherworldly dream parallels jump back into every conversation. Mixed rain keeps the crew paddling.
“I never get tired of the scenery here because the mountains and the light changes all the time,” Bucky says. “With the seasons too, the scenery changes all the time, it’s a kaleidoscope.”
Before we get back to the tourist traffic in Canmore, the highway, the airport, the inbox, I take in the broad blue river skirting the base of granite grandeur. I can immediately fall back into the presence of mind that marked our first days on the Bow. It’s that one moment, just like this moment now: light piercing through clouds, cap flipped back, bracing up to look ahead, picking a line with our loaded sled, and only thinking about the task ahead—sliding down the alpine gauntlet, rushing water between the pines—knowing there’s nothing else I would rather be doing.
This is a feeling I can tap into later. This is living. This is definitely real.
Just keep paddling.