I used to ask people what their favorite hikes are, in hopes of hearing about some wild and obscure place, untouched and pristine. In the mountain towns of Alberta this can be an ever-elusive goal, as we grow accustomed to elbowing our way up to the popular spots. So I ask people, “what’s your favorite hike around here?” A legitimate question, yet one that I can’t stand any more.
There are too many variables to quantify a hike (or anything, for that matter) in a one-to-five-star review, but we’re an impatient bunch, and we want the short version. How much bang for my buck?
So, the broader lesson I’ve taken from discussing my favorite hike of the summer (which I don’t recommended, by the way) is to stop rushing things. Tell your story the old-fashioned way, and remember: most of life is measured qualitatively.
With this effort in mind, I’ll try to put that day into words.
Memorial Lakes in Kananaskis Country got its name after a tragic spring in 1986. A small plane had crashed, and search teams immediately got to work when it was noticed missing. Two subsequent planes crashed over the following 8 days in efforts to find the first. Every passenger on all three planes had perished, amounting to 13 people in total and the greatest tragedy K-Country has ever seen. Memorial Lakes was not the site of any of the crashes, but was named so because it is a triad of lakes as homage for each accident, and a memorial plaque sits at the top near the third lake.
This story has fascinated me for years, and I’ve always wanted to pay tribute to the lost lives by hiking up to that plaque. But the circumstances of these crashes seem so unlikely, I’ve also been mystified – what are the odds of that!? We started calling it the Bermuda Triangle of the Rockies, already fueling the curiosity of an unexplained mystery.
Not extraordinarily challenging based on its numbers (690m gain and 16.8 km), the hike looks completely reasonable and within my limited abilities. Yet both the guidebook and a local blog forewarned it was strenuous and involved, all before the flood of 2013 further mangled it. Alberta Parks warned us it required a lot of routefinding, something my friend Justin and I weren’t too familiar with. Yet, when the perfect day came along we had to tackle it – uneasily.
On that morning we both had ‘bad feelings’ and tried to talk ourselves out of it while still sitting in the car. We thought it would rain all day. We encountered a section of trail so washed out, it was a dirt cliff edge – but a sketchy, thin rope attached to an equally sketchy and thin tree held our weight enough to cross. We struggled to ford a creek, both falling and banging up our legs, only to realize it was the wrong creek. Re-crossed it. Back through narrow, overgrown trail to sections where flood washout made us retrace our steps, countless times and endless distance doubled.
I was astounded when we made it to the first lake (and this was the easy part). A steep, dangerous scree field was the route to the second, and here we started to feel a little more confident. ‘The Emerald’, it’s called, is a blue not unusual to the Rockies but seems extra rewarding to find in such isolation. Finally, the encouraging feeling crept in that we might actually pull this day off.
Another scrambly rock wall – seemingly a breeze by then – led to a beautiful alpine meadow, still rich with flowers and grasses, and we could see a small moraine to cross before arriving at the third lake and the memorial. I couldn’t believe we were about to make it.
“Do you hear that?” asked Justin.
A gentle mewing, barely detectable, was carried through the wind down the valley. It sounded like a noise my cat would make, and we tried to imagine it as a bird, as a goat, as a bug – there’s no way. A feline creature was up there, though we didn’t see it, and I wasn’t willing to bump into a cougar even if it was young. I’d also heard that cougars make whimpering sounds (the jury’s still out on this one) to lure in prey, so my bear spray was out and I was booking it, convinced we were being stalked. Justin was a little more rational and wanted to wait there, but I had already cliffed out trying to run down the scramble we’d just ascended. ‘I knew it,’ I thought, ‘we shouldn’t have come up here.‘
And then, two people rounded the corner near the second lake.
This was our only human sighting in the last 4 hours. We waited for them to catch up to us, and decided to continue (much to my chagrin) as a group, since that’d deter a potential predator. A ptarmigan in the valley was chirping and the others attributed the sounds to it, but I’m still not convinced.
To round that moraine and descend to the third lake was better than I’d imagined. The water was high, the sun was radiant, and the memorial cairn was perched at the edge of the headwall overlooking the first lake.
At the memorial we bonded with our trail friends learning we were all from the same small city in Ontario, and if you know the place, it’s rare to find Windsorites in the backcountry. I offered them some wine, for which they promptly MacGyver-ed a plastic bag to drink from. We watched in awe, convinced they were our heroes, wondering why we don’t drink wine from bags more often.
The descent was less eventful, as I counted the number of times I was convinced of our demise, laughing. We agreed we’d never come back.
So, I can’t rate it a 1-5 and we’ll have to leave the mysterious part in William Shatner’s hands, but it was so satisfying to finally get there and commemorate the thirteen. The last line of the poem on the memorial plaque reads ‘Put out my hand and touched the face of God’ and – religious tones aside – there was a transcendental feeling that makes this quote a perfect encapsulation of a crazy, harebrained day.
For more information on the crashes and Memorial Lakes hike: