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Lake Louise a treasure in Alberta's back yard

If there was ever a time to enjoy a 'stay-cation', this year is it. At the normally crowded Lake Louise, a lack of international tourists means Canadian visitors can feel they have the place to themselves; a rarity for this world-renowned site.

I hadn't been in a canoe in over 30 years, but on a glorious early July morning I felt invigorated; even strong as I paddled the tranquil blue-green waters of Lake Louise. (Well, it helped to have company manning the stern). That view--THAT view--of undulating mountains and the Victoria Glacier meeting the still, turquoise lake --I was part of it, quietly pulling my oar through the cold, clear mountain water from my position at the bow.

Among a handful of other canoes navigating the roughly 5 kilometre round-trip from the boathouse to where lake meets glacier and then back again, the journey was a 'pinch myself' moment. Even more, it was a peaceful hour of being one with the natural beauty that is Lake Louise, and guess what? It's something Albertans can take advantage of anytime, (when the lake isn't in its usual frozen state for seven months a year--at those times, downhill skiers take over the area.)

I felt happily small that sunny day, nestled within the soothing panorama of 45-degree angles and parallel lines of mountain, glacier and lake. And what a lake. The water's deep aqua hue is mesmerizing, created by how the sunlight interprets the particles of rock flour carried into the lake by melt water from the overlooking glaciers. Lake Louise's colour and glass-like surface, mirroring the mountains above, is a sight that draws an average 15,000 visitors a day (pre-pandemic) to grab a photo and say they've been here. 

"There's nothing else like it. There's a reason the world comes here," said Jeff Douglas, Heritage Interpretive Guide at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, which lays claim to just about the best vantage point of one of the world's most photographed views. "It's not just special for Alberta and Canada; it's special for the planet." 

As the country's borders are slow to open (usually, up to 80 per cent of tourists to Banff National Park are international travelers) Douglas says this summer's visitors to Lake Louise will feel they have the place to themselves. And anyone who's tried to drive in for a quick stop at Lake Louise will appreciate that. As park-and-ride becomes commonplace, encouraged and even a required way to get through the area in peak times, a less-crowded summer visit in an added appeal.

I'm grateful to have this iconic site in Alberta's back yard, and to get the chance to linger for a couple of nights at the luxurious Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise--a true oasis after the lengthy heat wave that recently blanketed the province.  At 1,540 metres at Lake Louise Village, and 1,731 metres around Chateau Lake Louise, the alpine location is crisp and refreshing in all conditions, rain or shine.

Like its sister property, the Banff Springs Hotel (about 50 kilometres down the road), the Chateau Lake Louise was built in the 1880s by the Canadian Pacific Railway, designed as a mountain getaway for the well-to-do. But while the castle-like Banff Springs has a Great Gatsby-type vibe; de rigueur for the affluent who would spend months at a time there, Chateau Lake Louise was always meant more as an elegant yet relaxed retreat for mountain guides and outdoor enthusiasts to explore the surrounding splendour. And it's retained some of that rustic charm. Like the nearby village, smaller and simpler than Banff's well-trod tourist area, Chateau Lake Louise is classy but cozy; a place to rejuvenate--in style-- after a day in the great outdoors.

Douglas, who regularly ventures out on some of the 200 kilometres of linking trails accessible around Lake Louise (he's even seen a grizzly and bull moose swim across the one kilometre-wide, 70-metre-deep lake), says it's easy to find solitude within minutes of the hotel, if that's what a visitor seeks. "You can hike the trails and not see another person for hours. But believe it or not, today's average visit to Lake Louise is 22 minutes. We call it the pee, postcard and photo stop," he said, referring to what most visitors are after:  a quick walk along the promenade and an updated snapshot for the social media account. Somehow, I don't think the grizzlies, mountain goats, lynx, hare, squirrels and ptarmigan that call the area home would be impressed with that statistic.

I was still thinking about why most visitors hurry through the area the next day, when we took in the hotel's Moraine Lake at Sunrise Experience. After a 4:45 a.m. half hour shuttle ride along winding roads, we joined a convoy of visitors trekking up the Rockpile Trail to watch the day break over another iconic view; this time the chain of mountains over the blue waters of Moraine Lake known as Valley of the Ten Peaks. As dawn turned to day, I thought, 'You can't rush the sunrise, or whether fog descends across the view. You have to embrace what is."

In the end, Mother Nature did allow a fleeting glimpse of the impressive wall of jagged mountains, known as the "20-dollar view" because it's featured on the back of the 1969 to 1979 Canadian 20-dollar notes. Though it's not the easiest climb to catch that view (I've got old knees, after all) it's still worth the early wake up, and the bagged breakfast that comes with doesn't hurt either. Once the sun is up, there's ample time to sit by the rushing waters of Moraine Lake, snack in hand, and Just. Be.

I reminded myself that a couple of summers back, we stopped at Lake Louise for a night of camping on the way home from the Okanagan. The sites were large, free firewood was abundant and it felt...quiet and isolated. There's something to the idea that if you get away from the treasured lakeside photo spot, you'll find all the tranquility you want or need at Lake Louise.