Lake Louise, Alberta – The Canadian wilderness is magnificent, to be sure. Sometimes when you’re out in it, it seems to go on forever, unbroken by the slightest trace of civilization.
This can be a good thing—or not. For those who prefer that their wilderness hikes offer something by way of reward beyond just a spectacular view or a fine place to pitch a tent, let me recommend the trek to the Lake Agnes Teahouse.
More in keeping with the kind of mountain hiking you find in the European Alps, this two-hour ascent in the Canadian Rockies begins on the terrace of the Château Lake Louise, climbs about 400 metres through Engelmann spruce and golden larch, provides excellent views of emerald Lake Louise and the massive glaciers that feed it, and deposits you at the top of a waterfall. Here a pretty tarn, Lake Agnes, awaits your inspection, which you can do from the comfort of the teahouse.
If you’re so inclined you can continue around the lake and gain further elevation, ending atop a giant jutting thumb of rock called the Big Beehive, for even more panoramic views. Or you can watch, over a cup of hot tea, the tiny figures of others do it.
There’s been a teahouse here since 1901—part of the plan by Canadian Pacific Railway, which built Château Lake Louise, to Swiss-ify this part of the Rocky Mountains. The hike from the château was already popular back then: Lady Agnes, the gung-ho wife of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, had done it back in 1886. (The same year that she rode for 1,000 kilometres through the Rockies in a chair attached to the cowcatcher of a CPR steam engine.)
On the mid-September day I made the climb a steady drizzle was coming down and the mountains were swaddled in clouds. The teahouse was a warm and welcome sight. When I entered, its windows were misted over and Leonard Cohen’s “So Long, Marianne” was playing.
Despite the weather, the place was almost full. A chalkboard listed the dozens of teas available by the pot; another rhymed off the food menu: soup, sandwiches and baked treats, all made on the premises.
The current teahouse was built in 1981, a spacious log cabin atop a stone cellar. Its season runs from late May to mid-October. Provisions arrive by helicopter each spring; fresh produce is brought in by backpack by the staff as needed. The staff sleeps on the premises.
You can hike to the teahouse on your own, of course, but Château Lake Louise has guides who will fill the excursion with stories and nature lore. One of them is Bruce Bembridge, who seems able to answer just about any flora or fauna question visitors throw at him.
On my way down, as so often happens in the Rockies, the weather quickly changed. The rain stopped, the clouds parted. The sun shone. Whisky jacks and nutcracker jays flitted through the drying trees. Lake Louise glittered. It was almost as good a reward as the teahouse.
For more information visit the Banff Lake Louise Tourism website at www.banfflakelouise.com.
For information on travel in Alberta visit the Travel Alberta website at www.travelalberta.com.