by Kimberly Damon
Mother-Daughter Hike in 1995
“I don’t know you.” My expertly outfitted mother frowned down at me from twenty feet ahead on the snow packed trail. “Because I certainly couldn’t have a daughter who can’t hike a mile…”
Bent over, hands on my knees, I smiled through the mist of my heaving breath. Who knew climbing at altitude in freezing weather could take so much out of gal? Me, the white-collar thirty-something career girl, and my Mom, twenty-five years my senior and the female equivalent of Marlon Perkins. It was April of 1995 and we’d set out late morning from the fortress-like Chateau Lake Louise, intent on making the 1.2 mile, 1200 foot uphill hike to the Lake Agnes Tea House. We knew it was closed, but being out of the country when the nation suffered the bombing tragedy at Oklahoma City had us both needing fresh air and vigorous exercise.
“S’okay Mom,” I grinned. “At least you know you can outrun me if we see a grizzly.”
She grinned back. “They better still be hibernating…I’m kind of attached to you, after
As adults, mom and I had traveled together a good bit. We couldn’t be more different – she all artist and outdoorsy, and me all career and indoor luxuries. One thing we shared easily, though, was the love of a cup of afternoon tea. It had started several years earlier during an auto trek through the Scottish Highlands, and now we rarely got together without celebrating over tea. We figured to have today’s cup in the cozy dark wood paneled pub at the hotel once we completed our excursion, since our teahouse goal wouldn’t open until summer.
Using ski poles as walking sticks, and following the well-marked trail, we got to the final fifty-plus steps leading up to the cottage. Treacherous, with hardened ice under snow, we picked and climbed our way up to valley and frozen lake. In the still frigid Canadian spring, the view back down to the Chateau was a miracle – the sand-colored building façade a beacon surrounded by the white ice-locked lake and snow covered pines. The quiet was deafening; that stillness created by snow and sleeping wildlife.
We rested for a while, and savored the goodness.
Lake Agnes Teahouse 1995
Just before we began our walk back, I clambered up onto the deck of the structure, and mom snapped a photograph for my scrapbook. “We should come back someday,” she mused. “And have tea.”
Flash forward to late August of 2008. In the intervening years, I had a couple kids, left the corporate world, and got a job working for an airline so we could travel. I suffered a severe back injury on the job, though, so I’m careful not to aggravate the condition. Mom’s still the nature lover, but sticks mostly to leading walks in the flat Carleton Preserve near her home. She’s seventy-three now and I worry time is running out for an ambitious hike in the Canadian Rockies. With a free week on my calendar, I call. “Hi Mom…how ‘bout a cup of tea?”
Four days later, rigged with panchos and hats for the heavy mist, layers of clothing for the bouncing temperatures, good shoes, and walking sticks, we pause at the foot of the path as it heads up the mountainside. It’s shoulder season in Banff National Park, so the crowds are minimal, but the weather is already getting a bit dicey.
There are actually two teahouses and we may try to visit both. Built at the turn of the 19th century as posts for workers on the Canadian National Railroad, the teahouses are only open from late spring until the first snow of fall. All supplies are brought in via pack horses or helicopter and the workers camp in rustic huts on the property. On their days off, they have to hike down to the Chateau if they want modern amenities or just a pizza.
The Beehive September 2008
We follow the same route we took in 1995, this time enjoying the wafting pine and moss and earth aroma from ground that isn’t covered in snow and ice. The climb is modest but steady, with switchbacks and small signs to keep hikers on track. We come around a corner and see the “beehive,” a rock formation that sits across from Lake Agnes and we know we’re getting close. The last quarter mile of this approach is the toughest, involving mostly stairs. Finally we reach the top and the tiny Lake Agnes shimmers flat splendor before us.
The teahouse is to our right and bustling with hikers. We head up to the deck, opting to sit outside for now and share a table with some college students from New Zealand. The menu is simple – tea, of course, several sandwiches, a soup of the day, and quiet a few tempting muffins and breads. We decide to share a pot of breakfast tea and a sweetbread and mostly sit conversation-free just admiring the view.
Lake Agnes Teahouse 2008
Entertainment is provided by fearless chipmunks which don’t hesitate to climb onto our table and attempt to make off with pieces of bread. The waiter tells us just to shoo them away, and they retire to a wooden railing to watch and wait for us to leave some crumbs when we move.
After moving inside the teahouse to warm up a bit, we converse for a few minutes with two elderly couples from France and England. The inside is charming, log cabin style with tables and chairs. The wait staff serves both inside and outside from a menu written on a chalkboard. All of the staff are foreign students here for the months while the teahouses are open.
Fortified, we decide we are up for heading to the second teahouse, on the Plain of Six Glaciers. It will add several miles to the hike, but it’s early and we aren’t ready to stop moving yet.
Here’s where we made our one mistake of the day. Rather than hike slightly more uphill then level to reach the second teahouse, we opted to descend from Lake Agnes by a
second path that met up with the original one heading toward the Plain. Unfortunately, this path was not nearly as well managed as the first and we found ourselves hanging onto trees and treading very carefully down earthen steps loaded with slippery stones and shifting pebbles.
Once we joined back up with the main path, we continued up a steady slow incline toward the second teahouse. About halfway this became mind over matter. As we headed up, other hikers were descending and always told us, “you’re almost there!” We sang a bit, pausing a few times to just breathe, or rest.
Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse
Finally, we reached the second teahouse. This one has both and upstairs and downstairs and is festooned with prayer flags like those seen on hikes in the Himalayas. Hungry, we order a sandwich and soup to share, and more tea. We are just savoring the rest and relaxation, when manager of the tea house announces that we’ll all have to stay a while as there’s a mama grizzly and two cubs making their way on the path at the moment.
Grizzlies? Seriously? Well, yes, it is a national park after all.
All the guests immediately gather on the side of the deck facing the area where the bears are spotted, and several are rewarded with a very distant view of them doing their level best not to come anywhere near us either. My small camera captures only a blob on the hillside, but I know it’s a bear!
Gentle Descent to Lake Louise in the Rain
Sated, we start back, with firm instructions to talk loudly, preferably sing, all the way back to the Chateau. Where there’s one bear….and these wild animals really aren’t interested in us. But, a mother bear will defend her cubs if she feels threatened, so speaking at high volumes and singing alerts them to OUR presence so they can move away without being startled. It’s a system that works, as teahouse trekkers very rarely encounter bears on the trail. Still we happily advise those we now pass on our descent, that they are “almost there! And should be singing or talking as there was bear sighting.”
It’s around 4PM when we make it back to the free parking area next to the Chateau designated for day-hikers and we’re exhausted. The entire hike is 9.2 miles long.
In retrospect, I’d take a different route, especially with an older person. My recommendation is to head first to the Plain of Six Glaciers teahouse staying on the path that curves around Lake Louise then gently rises to the Plain. From there, take the over the hill path around Lake Agnes to the second teahouse. Then, descend via the stairs and switchback path to lakeside.
It’s a splendid experience. For High Tea, you can’t get any higher or better than this in North America.
When to Go:
The teahouse opens late spring when the snow stops. Sometimes as early as May, most years it’s June. It closes when the snow starts in the fall. They’ve been open as late as
early October, but that is rare. To find out if they are open, contact either the Lake Louise Tourism Office or the Chateau Lake Louise.
Where to stay: Summer is peak season, so all the options are more crowded and expensive. Shoulder season in May and September do see significantly less traffic and better rates.
The Chateau is wonderful, with restaurants and many luxuries. It’s also very convenient.
If you are on a tighter budget there are several chain hotels in the village of Lake Louise, as well as an excellent hostel that takes all ages. The hostel has a particularly noteworthy and affordable restaurant. If you are staying there, the hotel across the street will let you use their pool and/or hot tub for a very small fee.
You’ll need it!