Shadow Lake Lodge can be found in a mountain meadow at the end of a fairly easy hike along an old talc rock mining road in Banff National Park. Built in 1929 as part of Canadian Pacific Rail’s network to encourage rail travel in Canada, Shadow Lake Lodge has been part of the Brewster family since 1938. From the lodge, you have a great view of Mount Ball, which only becomes even more spectacular if you take the 1km hike to the lake.
Here, I heard avalanches that sounded like thunder, acknowledged the noise of my thoughts, fell in love with the colours surrounding me and met some very interesting people. We also got rained on a lot.
SETTING OUT FOR THE BACKCOUNTRY
Excited to finally set up a tent in the back-country after years of waiting and planning, I set out with a great friend named Devin and one of the only remaining bottles of my late grandfather’s bottles of home-made chokecherry wine.
Given the time of year, we were lucky to camp at Shadow Lake. When I called Parks Canada, I learned that Shadow Lake is usually still closed as the lake is ice-covered and the area is still under enough snow to be problematic. But after a warmer winter than normal, it was ready to go.
Three days of rain in the forecast didn’t deter us as we were determined to experience this together. We just packed a handful of $2 emergency ponchos and hoped the tent would hold.
Back-country camping for the first time was a different experience. Bear safety is serious business up there. We hung a backpack full of food from a cabling system about 100m from our tent site and cooked in a compact back-country stove that I have packed on a few other adventures.
Supper the first night was chicken stirfry with rice. We also carried up bacon and eggs, chili, pancake mix, chocolate-covered coffee beans. We ate like kings!
THE NOISE IN MY MIND
Devin fell asleep early the first night so I took the opportunity to find the lake and be alone with my thoughts. After over an hour by myself, I was hit with the realization of how noisy my mind was. The noise reminded being in Times Square. It was an overwhelming, distracting feeling that I realized I have been living with constantly for months or more.
The second I fully realized how noisy my mind was, the sound evaporated and I was finally able to fully experience my surroundings. I heard the birds. I heard the creek to my right. I felt the cool air off the lake. I could see the colour palette surrounding me.
It was the colours that really got me. The richest forest green, the deepest charcoal blue of the mountains and lake and a stunning steel white from the snow still clinging to the mountains across the lake. Of all the things I experienced at Shadow Lake, the realization and evaporation of the noise in my mind was the most meaningful.
Back at the tent, the rain fell all night. We stayed dry and heard what sounded like thunder. It would draw out for 20 seconds or more. In the middle of the night, Devin and I talked about what it was, coming to the conclusion that it had to be avalanches.
The next day, dressed in our cheap emergency ponchos, we walked the lakeshore in the direction of Mount Ball, trying to find a nearby waterfall. For a moment, the rain eased and we found ourself dipping our feet in the water of Shadow Lake as the sun fought to show itself. We spoke to each other and caught up on real things that we hadn’t talked about in years.
As another round of thunder rolled, we looked to the mountains, which were much closer now, and saw a stream of snow sliding down.
For two kids from the Saskatchewan prairie, avalanches are almost mythical events. To be sitting there barefoot, mere kilometers away took words right out of our mouths.
We watched for nearly an hour, spotting them all over the mountain and watching them crash to the rocks below as the sound rumbled the valley around us.
WINE AND GOOD COMPANY
Excited to have the back-country all to ourselves, we were excited to see people. Two Lodge staff were there our first night and offered us a pot of french press coffee we ever had. After a night under rain, it was a welcome gesture, even for two non-coffee drinkers.
The second night we met a couple who had hiked up while we were watching avalanches. This couple – Daryl from Hudson Bay, Saskatchewan (the town, not the bay) and Salla, from Finland – told us stories of hiking in arctic Finland and waking up among reindeer herds. We learned a Finn card game called either Arabia or Shitpile, depending on how polite you are. The game is essentially a version of Asshole, which shows you how polite I am.
We offered my grandpa’s chokecherry wine and finished the bottle as the sun set around us. I can’t imagine a better situation to enjoy that bottle.
The hike down was easy and went fast, Devin and I chatting nearly the whole way. Shadow Lake was a wonderful introduction to backcountry camping and has me hungry for more. There is a reason Banff is a global destination. The real gems are found when you finally slow down and let the world reveal itself to you.