summer adventures, part 2: plain of six glaciers tea house hike
The night before our final full day in Banff, I found myself stressing out about the hike I’d planned for the following day. A dark, needling feeling of doubt had inserted itself into my mind, and that feeling grew stronger as the hike grew nearer.
I worried that the hike was going to be too far for us, and that I wasn’t fit enough to make it to the end. I worried that the kids would hate it, and I worried that I would hate it. I worried about bears. Actually, I worried quite a lot about bears.
But mostly, I worried that I wasn’t capable.
I kept these fears to myself. I didn’t want the kids to know that I had any doubts. I didn’t want them to have any reason to whine and complain any more than usual. If they started in on me about not going, I knew that I might back out. And I had no intention of backing out of this hike. As nervous as I was about it, I was committed to completing it.
There are two hikes in Banff, both out of the Lake Louise area, that lead to historic tea houses. The most popular one is to the Lake Agnes Tea House, a tea house has been serving customers since 1905, and it is a 4.5 mile round trip hike. Our guide book recommended it as an excellent hike for families. The other tea house hike is to the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House, built in 1924, and a 7 mile round trip hike.
We chose the Plain of Six Glaciers. It seemed less popular, thus would probably be less crowded. It also seemed like more of a challenge, given the distance, and I really wanted to challenge myself. Plus, the lure of chocolate cake at the completion of the uphill portion of the hike was strong, and I thought it would be a great incentive for the kids to stay motivated.
The hike started with an easy 2 km walk around Lake Louise to the trailhead. Once on the trailhead, it was a gradual uphill climb for the majority of the hike to the tea house. The gain in elevation was not tremendous, just 1380 feet (420 meters), but my ankles and calves felt every bit of that climb in elevation.
There were many moments on the hike where the only sounds were the chirping of ground squirrels from the rocks along the path, trickles of water down the sides of the mountain from the melting snow fields, and the rhythmic crunching of our feet on loose gravel. I would find myself lost in my own thoughts, and then I would remember: bears.
“Kids, start talking,” I’d say. “Talk loud.”
I wish I could say that the kids loved the hike. I know they look back on it fondly now, or at least Oliver does. For a lot of the hike, it was mostly the following, repeated over and over again:
I hate this.
How much longer?
Can we go back?
This is stupid.
I’m not doing any more stupid hikes on this trip.
The beach is so much better.
Most of this was from my daughter. My son’s sweet disposition hasn’t yet been tarnished by the evil pubertal hormones, and he is still blissfully unaware of how uncool, unreasonable, and stupid his parents are.
“We can do this. Keep going,” I would say. “We’re not turning back.”
Also, “There’s chocolate cake at the end.”
There was one point where steel cables were bolted into the side of a cliff. Oliver was a bit freaked out by this, but really, it didn’t feel terribly scary. As long as I didn’t look down, that is.
Looking back, Lake Louise appeared small in the distance. We could see the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, but it looked tiny and unimpressive from so far away and so high up.
We were only passed by a handful of hikers, in small groups of two to four at a time. Most of those who passed us were younger or obviously more fit. We were not passed by any parents with young children. I felt better and better about myself as we neared the top.
The last set of switchbacks were tough, but we knew we were nearing the end, so we pushed on, despite the grumbles from the tween. We rounded a final corner, and we were there. We’d done it. It had taken us about 2 hours and 15 minutes.
The Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House has no electricity or running water, but they serve plenty of wonderful treats that are baked on site using propane stoves. The kids ordered biscuits with jam and honey, we shared two slices of chocolate cake, and we all had lemonade.
As we sat on the balcony of the tea house enjoying our well-deserved treats, we heard only the occasional quiet conversations of the other hikers who’d made the trek, the chatter of Clark’s Nutcrackers in the trees above us, the murmur of a snowmelt-fed creek nearby, and the periodic rumble of avalanches echoing across the valley from the neighboring mountain.
It was heavenly.
After about an hour at the tea house – enough time to eat our packed lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on Wonder bread (the best PB&J I’ve ever eaten, by the way), use the outhouse, and let the kids play on the rocks in the nearby stream – we packed up our stuff, donned our backpacks, and headed down the trail that would lead us back to Lake Louise.
On the hike down, I caught myself gloating when I passed sweaty, exhausted-appearing but more fit younger people. I gloated more when a group or two of them turned around and headed back, without completing the hike.
That day was one of my favorites of our trip. I challenged myself — the whole family, really — to a 7 mile hike, and we did it. I proved to myself that I was capable. I was sore for a good two to three days afterward, but it was so incredibly worth it.
There is something so wonderful and awe-inspiring about seeing beautiful, hidden scenery that not everyone gets to see, and only getting to do so through physical exertion and will power.
I fell in love with hiking in the mountains that day. Which is a bit of a shame, since I live in one of the flattest places in the United States.