Northern exposure on the Continental Divide at Cirque Lake in Canada | SummitDaily.com

Northern exposure on the Continental Divide at Cirque Lake in Canada

Kim Fenske
Special to the Daily

After spending a night at a primitive riverside campground without drinking water on the Highwood River in Alberta, Canada, I hoped to drive through the Kananaskis Valley and reach Banff to find a campsite for the night. I drove through the vast, fertile grain fields of Alberta bordered by huge wind generators turning in the breeze. I passed through the foothills of the Rocky Mountains covered in stands of spruce and aspen broken by open meadows.

When I came upon a sign warning of bighorn sheep ahead, I found a herd pawing at the salt-drenched gravel at the side of the highway. (I was convinced that the Canadians trained their wildlife to stand beside the appropriate road signs.) With a background of sheer cliffs dropping into the valley, I saw a sign for a "Texas Gate," and wondered whether I had mistakenly passed south of the border as I rumbled over the bars guarding an open range.

I reached Canmore in early afternoon, paying more than $5 a gallon for gasoline since no electric charging stations existed for vehicles. Two hours later I entered Banff, a crowded tourist Mecca surrounded by prominent peaks. I exchanged currency in a jewelry shop and stopped for dinner at the Silver Dragon, paying 40 loonies for sweet and sour pork.

All of the campgrounds surrounding the town were already full and the herds of humans overwhelmed me, so I headed north and was trapped in traffic flowing into Lake Louise two hours later. Escaping from another over-crowded fish basket, I continued north through the Bow Valley until I discovered a quiet campsite amidst a dense, damp forest in Waterfowl Lakes Campground.

Cirque Lake approach

Next morning I prepared for a day hike to Cirque Lake, an arrowhead in the bowl formed between Midway Peak (9,420 feet), Stairway Peak (9,862 feet) and Aries Peak (9,830 feet) on the Continental Divide some 2,000 miles north of the Summit County divide.

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After a drive through the campground without finding a trailhead, I visited the campground host and asked where the Cirque Lake Trail began. He informed me that he had heard that the Cirque Lake Trail was the muddiest, steepest and most root-bound trail in all of Alberta. Though he had never pursued the lake, he was certain that the path was only worn out of the sphagnum-covered rainforest by the trampling of moose and bear. He told me that I would stumble on the trail if I hiked south along the Mistaya River.

Thrilled to be setting out on a journey taking me on a trail where no human footprint had been set that morning, I started upstream on the shore of the Mistaya River to a footbridge leading into the dark forest beyond. At the footbridge, the altitude being only 5,450 feet, I was below the rugged peaks that safely nest glaciers named Capricorn, Parapet, Barbette, Snowbird, Delta, Wapta and Crowfoot. I crossed over the rapids and hiked up to a junction, where roughly hewn branches marked "Cirque" and "Chephren" pointed in the direction of the lakes. I turned left and ascended through the boggy stands of fir and spruce beside a tumbling stream.

After 3.4 miles of hiking up a soft, well-established trail with a mere 500 feet of vertical gain, I sensed the pathway flattening onto a plateau. I saw the snow-coated mountains forming the amphitheater that housed Cirque Lake. Emerging from the forest, I began picking my foot placements on the boulders that surrounded the turquoise waters of this glacier-fed lake. The setting was silent, striking and spectacular.

How to get there

About 2,000 miles north of Copper Mountain, beyond Lake Louise and Kicking Horse Pass, the Bow River flows from Bow Lake, blending waters at Mistaya Lake, and tumbling along as a newborn Mistaya River into Waterfowl Lakes. There, at the base of Mount Chephren (10,850 feet) and Howse Peak (10,810 feet), highest of the Waputik Mountains, lies the loop of campsites forming Waterfowl Lakes Campground. Following the path beside the river west of the campground is a wooden bridge crossing the rapids that marks the trailhead for Chephren Lake and Cirque Lake.

Author Kim Fenske has written extensively on hiking trails throughout Colorado. His writing includes, "Greatest Hikes in Central Colorado: Summit and Eagle Counties," and "Hiking Colorado: Holy Cross Wilderness," available from Amazon Kindle Books.