A heat dome parked over Western Canada inmate June, a mass of hot air circulating within itself. Like a sauna in the sky guarded all round by strong-armed bouncers forbidding cooler air to enter. Because of our dry spring, the air had little moisture, so it was easier for solar energy to make the hot air even hotter. Omega blocks, wavy patterns in the jet stream, caused temperatures to soar in the same location day after day. Like in Lytton, BC, which on June 27 smashed the record for the highest temperature in Canada when the mercury climbed to 46.6º, soared to 47.9º the next day and reached a hypnagogic 49.6º on June 29.
Hiking in Banff National Park, that’s where Magellan and I were. Where the temperature on Monday, June 28, sizzled to a new high: 36.6º! Scorching the previous high of 34.4º set on June 17, 1941.
Hiking? In that heat? “What were you thinking?” I can hear you ask.
For jubilados, being outside in that sort of molten heat for even an hour or two can lead to edema, elevated heart rate, lower blood pressure and the deleterious effects of heat stroke—dizziness, headache, weakness and trouble thinking.
Worse still, should I tell you that we began the hike when the sun was clocking westward in the afternoon? Magellan’s tiny “safety” thermometer (it has a whistle) read 33º.
Earlier in the day, the cool air inside Rove-Inn shielded us from the baking heat as we drove through Rocky Mountain House and Nordegg on the David Thompson Highway. At our lunch spot I picked up a brochure with a list of hikes. (The Miner’s Café in Nordegg, famous for its pies—we loved the banana cream pie and strawberry/rhubarb—and the cabbage roll soup, oddly enough, was delicious, too). We were surprised that despite nearly three decades of living in Calgary and hiking in Banff, we didn’t know anything about Cirque Lake and were especially attracted to the hike’s description: “heavily forested,” “easy,” “150 metre elevation,” “classic, and seldom visited” and “often muddy.” Plus, it started so near our camp spot at Silverhorn Creek in Banff National Park.
A single car was parked in the hiking lot when Rove-Inn took her place in the shade.
How we miss thorough trail descriptions and waymarking signage. Only an info kiosk loomed at the trailhead. The distances were wrong: the trail to Cirque Lake was listed as 3.5 km measured from where the trail used to begin at the Waterfowl Lakes campsite. The toilets were locked. Makes us wonder: do Canada’s National Parks staff want visitors on hiking trails? Cell phones rarely work in this park and descriptions on sites like All Trails read as if written by robots. Is this why we encounter few people hiking and many campers just sit inside their giant-sized air-conditioned RVs, satellite dishes slanted toward America?
To lighten our packs, we removed sunglass cases, Kleenexes, my notepad before weighing them down with more than three litres of water and a little trail mix for quick energy.
After half a kilometre of walking on a smooth gravel path in the shade of a spruce forest with peek-a-boo views of campsites at Waterfowl Lakes, we reached a T-intersection.
Were it not for the advice of other tourists, we may not have turned right toward the old beginning of the trail, across the bridge over a roaring river, the Mistaya, Cree for “great bear” (grizzly).
As the two-sentence description in the brochure I’d picked up promised, the trail is in a thick old-growth forest. There’s lots of deadfall as the area hasn’t burned for 160 years. It’s an easy uphill incline for 1.3 km until you reach the junction, marked with an unreadable National Park sign and a rustic waymark someone carved about the time the Beatles first sang “She Loves You.”
Cirque Lake spurs 2.9 km southwest to the left in the sub-alpine forest. Chephren Lake (pronounced Kefren), via a shorter and less steep trail, is to the right. Howse Peak (3,296m) makes a statement, projecting formidably on the west side of the valley parallel to the Banff-Jasper Highway.
On an ordinary day, you might choose to hike to both lakes. Not on June 28, 2021, or you might be reading an obituary for one, or both of us.
The forest was quiet. Crepuscular rays of scattered light filtered through the trees. The birds were dozing. Ditto for the red squirrels nestled in their “pine” homes of pine needles, pine scales and pinecones.
We saw only seven other hikers on the trail. A heavy-set woman our age who had wisely started before the blistering heat arrived. A young couple who forewarned us of muddy patches on the trail, then looked at our boots and poles and told us we’d have no trouble. A middle-aged couple who started early and spent most of the day lounging at the lake. A woman in a khaki hat and shirt at a distance as we were leaving, hiking quickly on her own, headed farther down the lake. And on our way out, a guy in a red-plaid lumberjack shirt, dungarees and rubber boots carrying a hefty pack. “Nice camera,” he said to me, pointing to the same one around his neck. Was he camping overnight? He said he was going to be hiking at Yoho the next day…
Tree roots test your footsteps as the trail angles gently downhill for about a kilometre before skirting around a wet meadow. There are a few old boardwalks but even with the dry heat, the trail was still submerged in water in a dozen or more places, forcing us to balance on stones over puddles, squeeze up to bits of grass at the edges or long jump over the muck.
This flat, damp section is a haven for bears, moose, smaller creatures like spruce grouse, moisture-loving wildflowers like orchids and yellow columbines and wild mushrooms. All hiding from the stifling heat when we were there.
A welcome surprise—did we hear flowing water? Yes! On the left parallel to the trail, racing down the hillside is a wide creek! The trail becomes a step rougher as it swings uphill alongside the “outlet stream of Cirque Lake.” Someone please, give this cascading body of water a proper name! It wouldn’t hurt for Cirque Lake to be renamed either. Calling it Cirque, a bowl-like amphitheatre formed by glacial erosion, is like naming your child “Girl.” It’s also confusing as the C-Level Cirque Hiking Trail is not far away.
Most of the elevation gain happens in two short sections that climb a forested moraine. Just when you start thinking “we must be getting close by now,” the trail levels out, the canopy opens up ahead and you get your first glimpse of the headwall at the end of Cirque Lake. Don’t get too excited though; it’s still another kilometre to the lake.
At the base of the rugged mountain peaks of the Continental Divide sits Cirque Lake, startlingly blue on an avalanche slope on the shoulder of Mt Synge (2,972m). Two glaciers have its back, a small one hanging at the south end on Mount Midway between Aries Peak (3,012m) and Stairway Peak (3,000m) and a larger valley glacier sitting at the base of the cliffs. The ridgeline looms more than a kilometre above the lake amidst numerous moraines where other glaciers once hung on the mountainsides.
Boulder strewn with Cambrian quartzite rocks, the lake, we guessed, is difficult to walk around.
Tempting though it was to plunge in, the biting sting of glacial water nipping our bare feet confirmed it would be foolish to do more than plitter near the bouldered shoreline. “You’d be lucky to last a minute,” Magellan warned. Who wants to be in the news under the heading: “Seniors Drown in Heat Wave.”
A hike in Banff National Park, easy, a round trip of 10.6 km, old-growth forest, views, varied terrain, a stream coursing over creekstones, wildflowers, birds, mushrooms, a cirque lake—we rate it 4.5.* With better names than Cirque Lake and the outlet stream of Cirque Lake, it could be 5*. Here are two ideas. Repine Lake/Repine Stream “to long for something” (coolness in our case) plus its unintended reference to pine trees? Blithe Lake/Blithe Stream? What names do you suggest?
10 Adventures description of the hikes to Cirque Lake and Chephren Lake.
All Trails description of Cirque Lake.
Baird, D. M. Banff National Park: How Nature Carved its Splendour. Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1968.
Baum, Kathryn Blaze. “Western Canada’s Deadly Heat Wave is Driven by Climate Change. Will it be a Wake-Up Call?” The Globe and Mail. July 3, 2021.
Patton, Brian. The Canadian Rockies Trail Guide. Canada: Summerthought Publishing, 2011. First published in 1971, this was the original guidebook with accurate distances and detailed descriptions to the trails of the Canadian Rockies, a valued resource that we used for years.