Judge John Holmes leads the troops along a precipitous ledge overlooking Lake O’Hara.

Hiking the mind-blowing vistas of Lake O’Hara

Karen H (her surname has been abbreviated so you won’t know it’s Horsley) told me Lake O’Hara Lodge in Yoho National Park, B.C., was the most beautiful place she’d ever been. Florence and I have done our share of travel to exotic and wonderful places so my expectations for our three-day visit to O’Hara in early July were tempered with a grain of salt.

Karen H (her surname has been abbreviated so you won’t know it’s Horsley) told me Lake O’Hara Lodge in Yoho National Park, B.C., was the most beautiful place she’d ever been.

Florence and I have done our share of travel to exotic and wonderful places so my expectations for our three-day visit to O’Hara in early July were tempered with a grain of salt.

The lodge, accessible only by bus up a dusty gravel road, is tucked in the mountains west of Lake Louise. We were fortunate to secure a stay. Demand during the short summer season necessitates booking a year in advance — and priority is given to repeat clients, many of whom travel from all over the globe to enjoy the natural beauty of this unique Rocky Mountain destination.

Our trip had an inauspicious beginning. The O’Hara bus departs daily for the lodge at 9 a.m. sharp from a parking lot near the TransCanada Hwy.

Rather than arise at 5 a.m. and drive from Red Deer to the O’Hara pickup spot (you will recall from my previous missives that I’m not a morning guy), we elected to spend a night in Field, B.C. It was record-breaking hot that evening. Dinner was excellent — rainbow trout on a bed of wild rice — but the moment we turned in for the night, the hotel power quit. No lights, no TV, no air conditioning — just darkness and heat.

A young woman came round with a flashlight in the pitch-black offering solace. “Wow, this happened last week too. No power for 47 hours. We had to throw out most of our food.” I tossed and turned through the night’s sultry darkness, wondering whether my supper had endured the earlier blackout and was considering a fishy re-appearance.

Miraculously the power returned moments before our 8 a.m. checkout, in time for the hotel’s Visa machine to accept my full undiscounted payment.

The drive into O’Hara was unimpressive: a bumpy ride on a school bus with six of our friends — Horsleys, Holmes and McClintocks — plus a bunch of sociable strangers, all of us overburdened for the short stay with luggage, backpacks, hiking poles and superfluous personal items (in my case, ineffective fishing gear). Eleven km later we turned the last dusty corner. The lodge and lake appeared in timeless splendour. Smiles erupted at the sight of rough-hewn timbers meeting cerulean waters.

While the staff discreetly unloaded our bags, we were briefed in the rustic lobby and offered a pack lunch for our first day hike. Bottles filled, our best lederhosen donned, off we went a-wandering.

John Holmes is not renowned for his hiking prowess — he’s usually found meting out justice in a Red Deer courtroom. But as a veteran of Lake O’Hara — and the one who was able to finagle rooms for four couples during peak season — he was the natural choice to lead our troop up the steep paths and along the precipitous ledges of O’Hara’s vast trail network.

We skirted the lake’s north shore and began the climb up Oesa Lake Trail. After an hour, we reached an alpine meadow painted with delicate yellow columbine, fiery-red Indian paintbrush and shaggy green anemones — hippies on a stick. As we gained elevation, the summer air became cooler. Lake Oesa was still dotted with orphaned chunks of white ice sailing randomly in the mountain wind. Spruce pollen weaved intricate patterns along the lake’s frigid shore.

At every turn, a mind-blowing vista opened before us. But always far below lay Lake O’Hara, shaped like an artist’s aquamarine palette, the Lodge a tiny wooden appendage hugging its edge.

Although he performed admirably as pack leader, the Judge was noticeably absent when our damsels fell behind and needed a chivalrous hand fording the hazardous creeks.

After tackling 16 km of the toughest O’Hara could throw at us, in late afternoon we descended steeply to her cobalt shores and the luxury of a hot shower, a cold beer and one of the better meals I’ve had the pleasure of sticking a knife and fork into.

Following dinner the sated guests retired to the great room. Giant logs crackled in the open fireplace. Camaraderie ensued. I uncased my trusty ukulele. My buddy Carl grabbed his guitar. Carl isn’t usually shy about sharing his musical talents but on this occasion I had to cajole him into playing. His reticence vanished after our first tune, when the whole lodge clapped approval and the requests started.

Eventually the accolades turned to yawns. It had been a long day.

The Feehans were bunked in the rustic main lodge — with (how quaint) shared bath. Two of our snootier friends were booked into a private cabin on the lake’s edge. We selflessly included them in the group by appropriating their lakefront deck for cocktails each evening.

O’Hara provides plenty of recreational options: one can tackle an oxygen-depriving climb along an alpine ridge, saunter slowly around the lake’s pristine perimeter, or just sit in the lodge and knit — admiring a view that evokes a Group of Seven painting.

Knitting is not my forté — having dropped a stitch or two in time, I’ve now cast off that pursuit. I was here for the outdoors, to experience the handiwork of Lawrence Grassi, park warden at Lake O’Hara during the 1950s. He designed, built and for many years singlehandedly maintained the Alpine Circuit Trail. Generations of hikers have enjoyed his skillfully arranged rockwork.

An elaborate staircase of stone skirting the gushing Victoria Falls is one of his masterful works. A simple plaque on the rock face beneath the falls honours his remarkable achievements.

On our second day, we tackled another longish ramble but one involving less climbing. As we descended into a lush valley and neared a narrow bridge, a rumble of distant thunder surrounded us. I looked up, puzzled by the sky’s uniform blue. Near the summit above us a torrent of meltwater and ice was pouring into the watershed. The Odaray Glacier was calving. A fresh blue gash scarred its frozen grey mass. We hustled across the flimsy log bridge and safely upward into the forest.

We stopped for lunch on a rocky ledge overlooking Lake McArthur. The others sat and rested their tired feet. I remained vigilant, acutely attuned to the surroundings. I was intent on photographing the rare hoary marmot. This elusive mammal lives a solitary life tucked amongst craggy alpine rocks.

As I scanned the distant horizon Karen quietly shouted, “Gerry, look out for your trail mix.”

I turned my binoculars and was confronted with a nostril-hair close-up of a large blond rodent. The critter was within arm’s reach and marching my way. His long marmot claws suggested this was a business meeting. I grabbed my pack and scrambled to safety — behind my wife.

For the balance of the day I remained at the back of the group — to ensure we weren’t attacked from the flank by a malicious herbivore.

A few years ago, Florence and I bought all the gear required for serious backcountry camping: lightweight sleeping bags, thinsulate mattresses, tiny gas cooker — the whole outdoor shebang.

Then we discovered places like Lake O’Hara Lodge, where mountain air and comfort co-mingle; filet mignon, a glass of quality red goof and a soft bed are the reward for a grueling day in the alpine.

The holiday we now prefer?

Would you be interested in a slightly used water filter kit? Cheap.

As for Mrs. H’s assessment of Lake O’Hara? I still respect her opinion. I had better. She’s taking us to the Kingdom of Bhutan this fall. She says it’s the happiest place on earth. I’ll let you know.

Gerry Feehan, QC, is a retired lawyer, avid traveller and photographer. He lives in Red Deer. For more of Gerry’s travel adventures, please visit www.gnfeehan.blogspot.com.

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