Warden Lake is a unique hiking opportunity along the Icefields Parkway in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada.
Parking for this hiking opportunity is on the west side of the Icefields Parkway a short distance south of the intersection of the David Thompson Highway (Hwy 11) with the Icefields Parkway (Hwy 93) across from the entrance to the Saskatchewan River Crossing Warden Station. Roadside trail signs may be removed but route finding is relatively intuitive and the trail is well defined.
This easy hike is only 4.4 KM (2¾ miles) round trip with an elevation gain of only 10m (30 ft). On this overcast day with light drizzle, an umbrella provides sufficient protection as the sun struggles to lift mist into gradually clearing skies. The unique opportunity on this day was actually created in July of 2014 when the Spreading Creek forest fire ravaged the area. The Warden Station was narrowly spared as a result of focused and valiant fire-fighting protection but several cottages and remote dwellings in the vicinity were less fortunate.
The trail skirts the south perimeter of the stable and corrals. There is little margin between grass and shrubbery border on the left and complete devastation to the right which creates two unique and surrealistic zones in close proximity. Good trail continues through forest alive and dead on a triangulation route to the south shoreline of the North Saskatchewan River.
Single track trail becomes dual track of a primitive road. Light rain shares fresh, damp air and distant mountain views dissipate into mist. Even in the haze, river water holds the turquoise hue influenced heavily by glacial melt upstream from the massive Columbia Icefield and a large number of independent glaciers.
Saturated tundra creates open spaces over river bound land to mountains on the north shore and river banks hint of 2013 flood erosion. This land hosts life that is influenced by events around it, much like ourselves. Serene and mystical beauty to the left is accompanied by an orchestra of sound created by rushing river water washing over and against stone.
The contrast to the fire-ravaged forest on the right is emotionally palpable. Strangely, one extreme seems no less fascinating or beautiful than the other. Although nature's recovery of the massive burn area is clearly underway, this unique opportunity to enjoy the contrast of the recovery will be available for many years to come.
Some short distance past a kilometer, the river-side trail swings to the right into the burn zone. A green wetland area on the left hosts an abundance of invisible but obviously audible amphibious life. The venture into the devastated burn area features the dramatic contrast between absolute devastation and the power and vibrancy of new growth struggling for reestablishment. The menagerie is uplifting and motivational. Survival against all odds.
Within a short distance, the fire-ravaged remains of the Warden Lake trail sign has been propped up on a burned out stump to reassure the route is correct and the lake is only 400 yards distance.
The hard and diligent work of the people who reopened this trail deserves honorable mention. It has been no small task to clear the trail of burned trees and to remove remaining potential hazards created by the forest fire. Parks personnel and volunteers deserve resounding applause for their substantial efforts to restore the trail.
The sky shows promise of clearing as blue patches begin to infiltrate the clouds. Heat from the sun is burning off the cloud tops and churning the air of upper atmosphere.
The final short access to Warden Lake is through a fire ravaged area punctuated by marshland to the left and subsequently a small lake on the right. The final section past this small lake is on rolling dunes which provide up close and personal examination of the fire damage, including the opportunity to carefully climb over charcoal timber corpses. The challenge is to be sufficiently adept and graceful to avoid staining of clothing. Even thought the fire occurred only a year prior, the bitter and pungent aroma of burned forest is completely gone.
Arrival at small, shallow Warden Lake is awe-inspiring. The image is a calm and beautiful oasis surrounded by total devastation with multiple-peaked Mount Murchison providing the backdrop. Mount Murchison is named in 1858 by James Hector in honor of Sir Roderick Murchison who helped secure Hector's appointment to the Palliser Expedition.
Brilliant wildflowers glowing in sunbeams near shoreline seem determined, like a dedicated housekeeper, to camouflage the damage. On a short diversion to the right a great clatter breaks the silence as amphibious life escapes into water to avoid detection by the invasion of their privacy. Warden Lake is shallow and no more than 3 meters (10 ft) deep at any point.
Prior to the fire, the picturesque lake was a favorite haunt for fisherpeople. The guess would be that, whatever impact the fire may have had on fish stock, the lake will be restored at some point. The large mountain looming above and behind Warden Lake is 3,333 m (10,936 ft) Mount Murchison.
On retreat from Warden Lake, there are countless opportunities to photograph images created by fire. Many are like artistic sculptures. There is great beauty in the devastation.
Back at the North Saskatchewan River the sky continues to clear and far side mountains take on new definition and detail. The return hike to the trail-head is a leisurely opportunity to experience the warmth and joy from an expanding sky and horizon. Smaller glaciers occupy surrounding peaks.
The sounds and sights along the river are mesmerizing and relaxing. Hiking becomes strolling. All the senses are paying attention to a unique opportunity seldom available within the confines of urban perimeter. The early day, slightly inclement weather has given me the entire area to myself. A great gift.
Back at the Warden Station, there are specific indicators of how close the facility came to total destruction. Fire is violent. Temperatures soar and self-created wind causes fire to leap substantial distances. The corral fence and a few trees in the distance illustrate the phenomena. One fence post is burned to destruction as others surrounding it appear unscathed. Single trees are burned while other remain untouched.
There is substantial infrastructure at the Warden Station which includes residential housing as well as significant and critical communication capability. To replace the resource would have been a very costly and lengthy exercise. It seems the horses may still be boarded elsewhere.
This short and easy, but immensely unique and rewarding Warden Lake hike ends a fascinating 12 day hiking mission of the loop from Calgary to Rocky Mountain House, to Nordegg, David Thompson Resort and Saskatchewan Crossing back to Calgary. More than two dozen day hikes were completed over a period of 12 days so the pace for this solo mission was reasonably aggressive. As always, this experience, like so many prior, has been life modifying. Perhaps there is no better medicine to renew the spirit than fresh air, rivers, forest and mountains.
Photographs for the Warden Lake hike were captured on the morning of Wednesday, July 29, 2015 near the shores of the mighty North Saskatchewan River just south of the junction of Icefields Parkway with the David Thompson Highway in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada.
All that remains is the return drive from The Crossing Resort at Saskatchewan Crossing to my home in West Calgary. The drive through alternating rain and sun is interrupted only once for refreshment at Laggan's Mountain Bakery in Lake Louise.
Hopefully these accounts will inspire you to visit some of these places. Perhaps an image or two has spoken to you and prompted you to stand in that place. Certainly I will come back here to recall the experience. There is great peace in the mountains. Not for everyone but for those who venture and persist, the possibility exists.