I’ve been in and among nature since I was born. Some of the earliest pictures of my family show my (most definitely sleep deprived) parents loaded to the brim with outdoor gear, with a backpack child carrier on each back. Having twins isn’t easy, but having twins and being outdoors requires a special form of organization and determination.
My childhood is populated with memories of huge trees, mountain hikes, and wooded camp sites. Living in Alberta, the Rocky Mountains are practically at your doorstep and I could navigate the many roads between my two worlds long before I was old enough to actually get behind the wheel. Lake Louise was a special favourite of ours year-round, and to me, the best part of Lake Louise was the pine trees.
Every summer, family would come visit from out east, where their generous definition of “mountains” encompasses what we would call a small rise or hill. And every summer we would excitedly take our family on new hikes, more adventurous than we had dared to show them the summer before, building up their ability by degrees. My twin and I were quiet children who preferred our “company of two” to anything else (a definition still applicable today), but we had boundless energy when it came to the outdoors—our mother went to great lengths to tie us down long enough for a snack or drink of water.
On these summer outings with family, we were beyond excitement: showing our world to newcomers—no matter how many times they returned, they were always “new” or inexperienced to us—and running laps, sometimes literally, around our family out of pure joy. To this day, one of my mother’s favourite stories is the time my twin and I climbed a mountain twice.
It goes something like this:
In Lake Louise, there are two hikes that end at teahouses: Lake Agnes and Plain of Six Glaciers. While both are difficult hikes, they present different challenges. Plain of Six Glaciers is considered the longer of the two hikes, while Lake Agnes is considered to have the steeper incline.
They are both wonderful hikes to take visitors on, because the view of Lake Louise simply gets more breathtaking the higher you climb, plus the teahouse at the end provides incentive (for those less keen on the idea of hiking solely for the sake of it) and a wonderful resting spot. Both hikes can take anywhere from half a day to a full day, and trail guidebooks frequently caution hikers to pace themselves against the difficult ascent.
This particular summer, a close family friend was visiting and off we went to hike Lake Agnes. It took us a better part of the morning to ascend, and while the adults dutifully kept pace, my sister and I raced ahead until we couldn’t see our group and then raced back to ensure they were still coming up behind us. Back and forth, back and forth. The only thing more enjoyable as a child than climbing up a hill, is turning around and racing down it. And so, in the time it took for our family to climb Agnes once, we climbed it twice, all while weaving in and out of pine trees, picking needles up from where they had fallen on the trail, and figuring out which trees had “human” expressions.
Most clear in my memory are the pine trees—beings so wonderful and yet so common in the Rockies. My young mind had never heard of the term “the sublime,” but that is precisely what it was. There is an awe mingled with grand terror at standing next to a pine that has lived longer than anyone you know, and that will keep on living long past you (if it has its way); in looking out onto a vast expanse and seeing nothing but trees. There are few things more breathtaking to me than a pine tree draped with snow—with snow stuck to its trunk as though the wind left an imprint of its kiss for the pine to remember.
The only thing my family never did was ski. Aside from the odd school ski trip, the world of chairlifts and trails made up of colours and shapes (blue, green, black; square, circle, diamond) remained foreign to me. One parent’s bad knees and a general dislike of crowds kept us clear of the famous lodges in Banff, Kananaskis, and even Lake Louise: we opted for other pleasures—winter trails, snow gardens, frozen lakes.
When you search “trees in Lake Louise” online, the first few hits to appear are articles about the illegal cutting that occurred at the Lake Louise ski resort a few years ago. One hundred and fifty trees were cleared to accommodate a new ski path, without the knowledge or consent of the community of Lake Louise. Around forty of those trees were whitebark pine.
The worst part?
Whitebark pine trees are an endangered species. Forty members of an already depleted population are simply gone and not even the subsequent lawsuit—which is incredibly important—can bring them back. “I knew those trees,” I want to scream. Even if I did not know those specific forty trees, I know those trees: their smell, their colour, their splendour. They are what my childhood self would have called the “fluffy pine trees,” long, broad needles radiating out in circles from the branches, as though the branches are all wearing warm sweaters.
Twenty years later I sold our backpack carriers to a family beginning their own excursions, their colours had dulled a bit and I could see a note of scepticism in the eyes of this young family. I wanted to tell them how these carriers had known all I knew, had seen all that I had seen; I wanted to sing to them the songs of birds these carriers had heard, the whisper of a melody passed among the pines. Instead, I encompassed all these revelations into one single truth: these products are made to last. And so are the memories they carry.
Author: Leah Van Dyk.. Leah Van Dyk is a graduate student in the Department of English at the University of Calgary.