By Greg Amos
Special to the Pioneer
As the nights get colder and traces of snowfall begin to accumulate, something special happens in the alpine environment exactly halfway between Invermere and Canmore. From the summit of Mount Queen Mary in Height of the Rockies Provincial Park, follow an imaginary straight line nine kilometres to the northwest. Fly over folded mountains and glaciers, over the Albert River, and past the stunning Sharkfin Peak a.k.a. Talon Peak to arrive at one of the most beautiful autumn displays possible in the Canadian Rockies: a stunning scene painted in bold strokes of golden-yellow alpine larch, glowing emerald lakes, and bleached white expanses of limestone.
This is the backyard of the Talus Lodge in the days leading up to the fall equinox, where the sun’s ever-lowering arc conspires with the conifer’s photosynthetic withdrawal to light up the larches’ needle-leaves in a way that makes Christmas trees pale in comparison.
The hardy, ancient Larix lyallii trees one of which, found in Alberta’s nearby Kananaskis Country, was dated at 1,917 years old in 2012 are a big part of what brings shoulder-season hikers up to the lodge. Built by Invermere’s Chris Espinel, a retired forester and experienced mountaineer, the Talus Lodge has been the base camp for eager alpine explorers to discover life on the 2,200 metre-plus plateau for more than a decade.
In a muted world of rock and snow, the fall larch display is a last big, bold burst of spectacular colour to relish before the trees, like the surrounding cirques and cols near the lodge are buried under more than 12 feet of snow.
The absurdly abundant larches are just one of the reasons why lodge co-owner Chris chose this location in 2003, just east of the continental divide on a high plateau between the Cross River and Albert River. But its not only about the spectacular alpine setting of Rocky Mountain peaks, age-old glaciers and tropic-like blue-green alpine lakes and tarns the site was also picked for its sheer inaccessibility.
A decade later, the area is as serene as ever. Only the occasional jet silently crossing the skyline from Calgary betrays any trace of civilization nearby.
For a group of seven adventurers exploring the limestone expanse in mid-September, the result was an alpine environment that took on a spectacular park-like setting one that dwarfed the larch needle displays seen each fall at tourist-trampelled destinations like Larch Valley at Moraine Lake and Lake OHara in Yoho National Park.
Trekking across the broad limestone plateau its all alpine route finding here, so all outings are always a choose-your-own-adventure experience one cant help noticing the only natural feature perhaps more abundant than the larches: huge holes left by grizzly bears digging for marmots on which to fatten up for the winter. Judging by the shear number of holes and overturned boulders, it takes a lot of attempts before each bear is rewarded with hoary marmot meal.
Other rodents of the rocks observed included picas, weasels, and Columbian ground squirrels. Much smaller prehistoric animals also made their presence known trilobites lurked in the limestone, extinct crinoids crunched underfoot, and on the microscopic end of things, oxygen-producing stromatolites clustered in colonies fossilized into rock. The interesting bulges and circular patterns, once explained to the group by Chris, were impossible not to see. And theyre worth our appreciation regardless we owe our atmosphere to the Precambrian cyanobacteria that bound sedimentary grains of rock into the structures we see today.
On this visit, our group consisted of a well-rounded cast of fifty-something professionals from B.C., Alberta and Ontario. After an initial dose of rain and cloud, the next two days offered nothing but brilliant T-shirt weather, an unexpected treat in the late summer alpine environment.
Our daily treks took us to the historic meeting ground of Rendezvous Point (a sub-summit in the vicinity of Mount Vavasour and Mount Leval, and above the gorgeous Leman Lake in the Spray Valley) and the mind-blowing larch forests en route to Waterfall Lake, a glacier-fed, stunningly cold (as verified by our swimmers) body of water that flows into the Albert River. In two full days of exploring, the group encountered seven lakes and large tarns, with varying shades of teal and emerald.
To the northwest of the lodge lays the 3,618 metre Mt. Assiniboine the sixth-highest peak in the Rockies. But wherever hikers or in the winter, backcountry and cross-country skiers choose to venture out from the lodge, the much closer Talon Peak towers above the lodge like a beacon. Its visible from many points on the plateau, providing an easy way back to the lodge for anyone on a self-guided adventure.
For the experienced, the plateau is an open book to explore. For those newer to hiking or less comfortable with the objective hazards that come with wilderness terrain, Chris proved a capable and captivating host. Encouraging his guests by the prospect of downhill hikes featuring flatish (read: uphill) return trips, and giving each person expert guidance on positioning feet on slopes and on the use of hiking poles, Chris guided guests of all abilities towards a sense of deep satisfaction.
Despite the remote location, visitors who are seeking more of a lodge lizard experience can find most of the creature comforts they might crave at the lodge. Odour-free outhouses and hot showers (rigged up with watering cans secured on pulleys above the showerers head) connect to the main lodge via a short wooden walkway, and the alpine cuisine is exemplary.
High-altitude night sky watching within a stones throw of the two-storey lodge offered a counterpoint to the sun-basked glory of the larches. Its enough to make one realize the whole notion of there being a special time of year at the lodge as though theres a time when its not so special is merely an abstraction.