As last month’s trip to the prairies drew to a close, we turned westwards. The prairies began to be replaced by forests of aspen, pine, spruce, and tamarack – a small corner of the boreal forest that covers most of the northernmost Northern Hemisphere south of the Arctic tundra. The landscape became hillier. As we drove out of the last large town, the highway seemed mostly deserted. Larger hills began to rise up – and not even hills now, but mountains. At first the mountains seemed far off to the sides and ahead of us, getting no closer even as we drove towards them. Then I looked again and they had drawn up right beside us. The highway became more winding. I looked back and now the mountains were behind us as well. The prairies were gone.
Sometimes I try to imagine what it must be like for someone who has never seen mountains before to see them for the first time. But I cannot imagine that. I grew up with mountains. I believe that – in some way – landscapes are internal as well as external, and I know that if you could peel back the layers and peer into my mind and soul, you would find a landscape that looks a lot like this: Towering rocky mountains with hanging glaciers, turquoise blue lakes, dense conifer forests, flat valley plains of grasses and creeping junipers and lichens, groves of twisted aspens, blue skies, white clouds, and crisp cool breezes. It would probably be sometime in early autumn, when the leaves are just starting to turn colour but not have not started falling, and the first heavy frost has not yet come.
The next day we turned south again, heading down through the mountains on the highway known as the Icefields Parkway. This highway winds through Banff and Jasper National Parks and some of Canada’s most beautiful scenery. Not surprisingly, this region is very popular with tourists. When we stopped at Peyto Lake (above photo), one of the most well-known sites along the highway, the parking lot was spilling over with vehicles, and the trail that led to the lookout over the lake was thronged with tourists. Although the beauty of this landscape is what draws so many people here, I find it difficult to appreciate that beauty when surrounded by strangers. And I suspect many tourists probably spend only a few minutes in each location, snapping a few requisite photos, and never take the time to explore the land itself. The air was hazy that day, blurring the mountains in the distance, but I took a photo anyway, even though I felt awkward knowing that so many others were taking photos almost identical to mine.
We stopped at a quieter rest area further down the road for lunch, and – determined to take at least one photo that was different from those of most other tourists – I walked a short distance down the hill from the parking lot and discovered these brilliant orange and red lichens growing on a rock:
Lichens are one of my favourite groups of organisms. They are not single living beings, but rather the result of a symbiotic relationship between fungi and algae (or sometimes cyanobacteria). This relationship allows them to grow in harsh environments where many plants cannot. Lichens such as these, which grow directly over rocks, likely only grow a few millimetres every year. I have no idea what species these lichens are, but their colours are beautiful. Although most people would probably overlook them, to me they are no less amazing and worthy of respect than the mountain landscapes most tourists come to photograph.