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Water’s Wonders: Canadian Rockies Glaciers, Rivers, Falls and Lakes

Your summer playground

By Afton Aikens

For many visitors—and locals on a staycation—the Canadian Rockies are synonymous with big mountain skiing, hiking to pristine alpine lakes and countless other outdoor pursuits like canoeing and fishing on waterways surrounded by towering peaks.

Photo: Bow Lake, Banff Lake Louise Tourism / Paul Zizka Photography

Photo: Bow Lake, Banff Lake Louise Tourism / Paul Zizka Photography

While we’re far from the coast, much of the lifestyle here revolves around water. We glide on it, we climb its frozen form, and yes, we swim in it (for a short window during summer). We photograph and admire its beauty.

The Canadian Rockies boast North America’s three main watersheds and a copious fresh water supply. As a resource, water is both powerful and precious—it shapes mountains and valleys, and sustains life.

Water offers abundant opportunities for connection to our environment, from adrenaline-charged adventures like river rafting to quiet contemplation while gazing at glaciers that span miles and millennia. Water creates meaningful memories, and inspiration for artists who interpret it through their works.

David Thauberger, Maligne Lake, Courtesy of the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies

David Thauberger, Maligne Lake, Courtesy of the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies

Water as Muse

From June 14 to October 18, the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies in Banff features an ode to ‘eau’. Water is a visually stunning exhibit—a showcase of paintings, videos and installations from the mid 1800s to today.

Anne Ewen, the Whyte Museum’s curator of art and heritage, says there’s beauty and bleakness in the show. In our own backyard, environmental issues such as flooding and receding glaciers are highlighted through comparative art and imagery that may shock the eye.

Recent photographs of shrinking glaciers contrast with earlier shots taken over 100 years ago by Vaux family members. These juxtaposed images are the focus of another Whyte exhibit, Legacy in Time, which runs parallel to Water.

Peter Whyte, Mount Ringrose, Courtesy of the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies

Peter Whyte, Mount Ringrose, Oesa Falls, Courtesy of the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies

Other pieces in Water reflect the Canadian Rockies’ majesty, like an oil painting by museum founder Peter Whyte. His Mount Ringrose, Oesa Falls portrays a waterfall above breathtaking Lake O’Hara. Whyte and his wife (and museum co-founder) Catharine were avid hikers and painters of the region.

Ewen is also excited about an installation by artist Faye HeavyShield. “She’s created over 100 little paper and wax boats. The installation follows the flow of the river nearby you—in our case, the Bow River,” she explains. Another piece is Shelley Ouellet’s Johnston Falls from the collection of the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, which brings to life the popular canyon hiking destination through 80,000 beads that pour downward and spill onto the floor.

Water is integral to Canadian identity, Ewen says. “A lot of people, when they think about Canada, think about pristine waterways and the canoe. I hope this exhibition will help people recognize the preciousness of water, and think about how they’ll respect it when they’re out on it or in it,” she notes.

Photo: Brenda Favley, Courtesy of Parks Canada

Photo: Banff Upper Hot Springs, Brenda Favley, Courtesy of Parks Canada

World-Renowned Waters

Water is historically significant to this region—it led to the creation of Banff National Park. In 1883, three railway workers discovered thermal springs at what is now the Cave and Basin National Historic Site. An ownership dispute ensued, and in 1885 the federal government made the area Canada’s first national park.

Today, you can soak in the mineral-rich waters of the Banff Upper Hot Springs. At the Miette Hot Springs in Jasper (naturally the Canadian Rockies’ warmest), water is cooled from 54°C to 40°C before it enters the pool. The Kootenay Rockies boast several heavenly hot springs.

Photo: Banff Lake Louise Tourism / Paul Zizka Photography

Photo: Moraine Lake, Banff Lake Louise Tourism / Paul Zizka Photography

Visitors also come from afar to see iconic Canadian Rockies lakes, glaciers and falls. The aquamarine and brilliant blue waters of Lake Louise and Moraine Lake are bucket-list worthy. Rent a canoe or walk along the lakeshore to soak in the scenery.

Closer to the Banff townsite, explore Lake Minnewanka—the national park’s largest—by boat or on foot. Nearby are Two Jack and Johnson lakes. All three are great spots to spend a hot summer day (Lake Minnewanka has a café with drinks and snacks; Johnson Lake is ‘warmest’ for swimming). You’ll likely spot bighorn sheep out for a roadside stroll.

North of Lake Louise beside the Icefields Parkway are Bow and Peyto lakes. At Bow Lake, gaze up at Bow and Crowfoot glaciers that feed the Bow River, which runs southeast into the South Saskatchewan River and eventually Hudson’s Bay.

Photo: Athabasca Glacier Icewalks

Photo: Columbia Icefield, Courtesy of Athabasca Glacier Icewalks

The Icefields Parkway traces the spine of the Continental Divide. One hundred glaciers grace its western flank. The most famous is the Athabasca Glacier at the Columbia Icefield. The glacier makes up less than three per cent of the icefield, and over the past 125 years has lost half its volume and receded by 1.5 km/1 mi—a testament to water’s increasing preciousness.

The Columbia Icefield is a vast sight to behold; its melt waters feed the Pacific, Arctic and Atlantic oceans. Venture onto the icefield by Ice Explorer tour or guided ice walk, or soar above the 215-sq km/130-sq mi area on a helicopter tour.

Photo: Maligne Lake Cruise

Photo: Maligne Lake Cruise

South of the Jasper townsite is Maligne Lake, the Canadian Rockies’ largest glacially fed lake. You can cruise to iconic Spirit Island, rent a boat or walk the scenic shoreline. Fancy yourself an angler? Take a guided fishing excursion.

However you choose to dive into a Canadian Rockies experience this summer, our majestic glaciers, rivers, falls and lakes provide an outdoor playground like no other.

>> For more Canadian Rockies activities, shops, restaurants and entertainment, read our digital magazine.

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