Wilcox Pass: The Landscape of Dreams

We recently took a trip to Alberta and British Columbia to visit friends and family, and to hike in the mountains. I took along my Fujifilm X-T2, amassing a trove of RAW files that I now need to edit. This is the first post of several from this trip.

We hiked the entire Rockwall trail in Kootenay National Park, which took five days and four nights. Our original plan was to head to Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park after that hike, but forest fires have been very bad in that area, so we headed north to Jasper National Park. As much as I would love to see Assiniboine, I am thankful to have seen Jasper!

One popular hike in Jasper is the Wilcox Pass trail. It overlooks the Columbia Icefield, giving you a rather overwhelming view of the glaciers.

 © 2017 Jonathan Abresch

© 2017 Jonathan Abresch

On the day I was feeling salty. You see, this trail is very popular, which in the dry climate of Jasper means the trail has been trampled wide and is very dusty. It was hot and the plants along the trail were more advanced than other places we'd hiked, meaning that there were fewer flowers for me to look at as I hiked. On top of that, most of the short hike up to the pass you overlook the Icefield Parkway, hearing the cars rush by and watching the buses roll over the dirty tongue of the Athabasca Glacier across from the tacky Icefield Centre. As amazing as the view is, and it really is incredible, I wasn't feeling it.

Then we reached the top of the Wilcox Pass hike and we found ourselves in a wide alpine valley that looks like something out of my dreams.

 © 2017 Jonathan Abresch

© 2017 Jonathan Abresch

There is a well-used though unmaintained trail that leads through the valley, while the main trail takes you up a ridge where you get an even better view of the glaciers. A group of elderly hikers from New England were at the pass with me at one point and I overheard an old lady dismiss the valley as "not much compared to that," that being the glacier of course. When I was there, the glaciers didn't interest me.

The glaciers are a postcard, pretty and inert. The valley is a story.

 © 2017 Jonathan Abresch

© 2017 Jonathan Abresch

It's also a miserable landscape for capturing in photos. You can't capture in a photo the enormity, the desolation, and the isolation of this valley. It is an absolutely incredible landscape, an ecosystem known as alpine tundra.

While my family walked up the ridge, I walked along the valley, desperate to see it in spite of their assurances that we would do both walks. In the end, my desperation was undeserved: I walked in the valley by myself, walked back to meet up with my family, walked much farther in the valley with everyone, then walked back when the trail turned down a steep slope into a forest and our knowledge of where we were gave out. (We later learned that if we would have walked on, we would've hit the highway in another few kilometres.)

I didn't mind the repetition one bit.

 © 2017 Jonathan Abresch

© 2017 Jonathan Abresch

On my solo walk I was the only person in this enormous valley. You can see for a very long way, surrounded only by incessant horseflies, thick forests of stunted willows no more than three feet tall, tiny wild vetches and forget-me-nots and gentians and locoweeds and coltsfoots and saxifrages. There are numerous small streams shimmering as they dribble through the slowly rolling hills covered in shattered rocks and tough plants. There was an occasional ground squirrel but no other mammals that I could see.

There's little for the wind to catch up there, rather little the wind hasn't already caught and removed, so even though a breeze was ever present, there were times when it was almost perfectly silent. The sky was almost cloudless that day. It was stillness in a vast space unlike anything I can remember experiencing.

 © 2017 Jonathan Abresch

© 2017 Jonathan Abresch

The Canadian Rockies are distinguished from the American Rockies by featuring more sedimentary rock and a greater degree of glaciation, leading to these wide, flat valleys.

The mountains of Jasper are massive, strongly striated, and have been thrust up by tectonic forces so all the layers lie aslant. The sloping leads to huge collapses of rock as whole sections of rock give way. A future post will have images from the amazing Upper Brazeau Canyon, which is a smaller valley full of geological rubble. The most notable collapse in this valley was this vast section of a ridge that looks like it's fallen into a hole.

 © 2017 Jonathan Abresch

© 2017 Jonathan Abresch

It's very difficult for me to express how beautiful this landscape is to me. My subconscious is not original. It always gives me natural landscapes that are variations on a few themes: meadows where picnics take place, oceanside expanses where there is death, forests where there is mystery, and steppes where there is journeying.

There are thousands of stories in this valley.

 © 2017 Jonathan Abresch

© 2017 Jonathan Abresch