When I retired from academe, we decided that a celebratory holiday was in order and, since retirement would leave more time for photographic practice, that we should visit somewhere with appropriate visual potential. After some humming and hawing, we decided on a journey through the Canadian Rockies by car, train and seaplane. We arrived in Calgary in August 2010 and travelled for two weeks through some of the most dramatic landscapes that we had ever seen. This part of the world is relatively unpolluted so the scenery is normally bright, sharp and vibrantly colourful: unfortunately, at the time of our visit, forest fires were raging through parts of British Columbia and their smoke covered hundreds of square miles. Such impact did this have that, when staying in Jasper – a town surrounded by huge mountains – we saw only a few local hills and had no sense at all of the longer perspective. However, the smoke duly cleared and we made our way through mountain passes, deserts and river valleys to Vancouver, an urbane and civilised city not unlike another of my favourite cities – Sydney. A seaplane flight to Vancouver Island completed our trip: it showed us just a little of the extraordinarily diverse geography of Canada from the ice-strewn arctic coast via the almost impossibly extensive prairies and finally the spectacle of the Rockies and the Pacific coast with the Olympic mountains of Washington state on the far horizon.
Even the mountains of Scotland – huge though they are by English standards – do little to prepare one for this extraordinary area: certainly everything is on a massive scale quite beyond anything we had ever seen before and it proved difficult to do the scenery justice. The Rockies were thrust up by the forces of plate tectonics and were once far larger that now: erosion has reduced their size quite substantially. This is a slow process by human timescales but there remains somehow a sense of newness to the area. Scotland has always seemed to me to be an “old” landscape (indeed it does contain some rocks of very great age) but the Rockies seem somehow younger: even after millions of years of erosion they are still more vertical, sheer and jagged – and, of course, bigger. Above all, however, there is a sense of a dynamic to the land. There are still glaciers here actively grinding out lakes and valleys and the forests are often regarded not as being made up of millions of individual trees but as being single huge collective organisms. The landscape is, therefore, in a very real sense, alive.
The presence of wildlife and its proximity to humanity reinforces this view further: cars stop on the main highways not just to avoid bears, elk, mouflon and so on but to allow their occupants to admire them. It’s no surprise, therefore that the major traffic problem on rural roads is is known as a “bear jam”. On several occasions, we were advised to travel in groups since bears were known to be in the vicinity; elk wandered round the grounds of our hotel in Banff, a pair of mouflons ambled casually across the Icefield Parkway and grizzly bears rooted around beneath a ski lift at Lake Louise. One acquires the strong sense that, unlike most of the western world, no-one could ever own this area in any meaningful sense and that man is no more than a somewhat unimportant visitor in the landscape.