Waterlog 6: Lake Louise, Canada

WaterlogRoger Deakin’s original Waterlog was a diary of wild swims strictly taking place within the borders of the United Kingdom. To go swimming abroad is a more common thing; after all, and many people who wouldn’t dream of leaping in an English lake will plunge quite happily into a European one. This swim, no matter how far-flung it was, was spectacular enough to demand an entry of its own.

Lake Louise, Canada

Lake Louise, in the Canadian Rockies, was made world famous by the arrival of the Canadian Pacific railroad, which drew up at its doorstep. The magnificent art deco Chateau Lake Louise Hotel was built on the lakeshore for overnighting passengers. Looking out of the windows, they would see the azure-blue waters of the glacial lake framed on each side by the jagged peaks of Mount Whyte and Fairview Mountain, while lowering at the end of the lake and the plain that follows, the glaciers hung preciptiously on the sheer side of Mount Victoria, seeming both precarious and immeasurably powerful. This was also the view from my bedroom.

The view from the window

The view from the window

Thanks to a generous cousin, working in a hotel chain with very generous friends and family rates, I was booked for the night in one of the world’s most iconic hotels. No sooner had I thrown down my backpack and tested the bed, indeed, when room service came by with two of my favourite beers, courtesy of my cousin’s opposite number in Lake Louise. My parents had a bottle of white wine, my uncle a bottle of red, and we all met one of the hotel rooms a little later, to have a refreshing mid-afternoon drink and to plan how to make best use of our time. We only had three and a half hours until dinner, and had to leave for the airport early next morning. I decided to see as much as I could as fast as I could, travelling fast and light. Duly, I set off towards Lake Louise via a steep forest track, jogging through a light shower in t-shirt and shorts and relying purely on exertion to keep me warm. I was carrying only my room key, a towel, a swimming costume (in case the opportunity presented itself) and my iPod, shielded from the rain by a plastic bags that originally belonged to the in-room ice bucket. When I needed water, I drank from the glacial streams.

Alternating between jogging and power walking, I managed to cover twenty kilometres in three and a half hours, taking in both Mirror Lake and Lake Agnes, and the summit of the Big Beehive, the first mountain in the long chain stretching down the north side of Lake Louise. Coming down the mountain, there was just time for a detour to take in the Plain of Six Glaciers, which offered a spectacular panorama of many mountains that had been obscured behind each other from the lake’s end, including the terrifyingly vertiginous Mitre. I returned along the river, and the shores of Lake Louise, arriving exhausted just in time for tea.

Next morning I woke up early to find that every muscle in my legs had stiffened into rigidity, and I was moving like a man of eighty. With nothing but a long car journey and a long flight ahead of me, this was something that would obviously get worse before it got better. There was one thing I could do to limber myself up though – the one thing I hadn’t found time for during yesterday’s walk, the one part of the Lake Louise experience still unfulfilled. I rolled out of bed, and pulled on my swimming trunks.

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Looking back towards the hotel

Even at half past six, the occasional guest could be seen wandering by the shoreline, or sipping coffee on the steps. A couple of canoes were out as well. Even before this minimal audience, I was too nervous to walk straight out of the hotel and leap into the lake, which was right by its doorstep. What if I chickened out while everyone was watching? Instead, I walked a little way around the lake, to where a set of steps descended into the water and a stand of pines hid me from direct view of the hotel.

The lake bottom was a series of rounded boulders, and I was so absorbed in trying to keep my footing on them that I was in up to my waist before I’d really had a chance to take stock. From there, I took a moment to gaze out across the lake’s surface and up, to the incredible mountains beyond, before I took a deep breath and threw myself forward into a brisk breast stroke.

The water was cold enough to numb me instantly, but unlike the sea off Scotland in April, it didn’t give me instant pins and needles. The surprise how buoyant it was. I had an unusual sense of its physical presence all around me, and a confused notion of its being both a friend and an enemy at once, as it simultaneously held me up and snatched my body heat from me.

I managed twenty strokes out from shore and paused to tread water, the mountains yet more sublime and mighty from my shrunken perspective. There’s something about swimming that reduces us in nature’s scale. Birds that would have flapped away in fright ignore a head bobbing by, and the swans and the fishes cruise smoothly on without even deigning to notice us as we bob by. This sensation can often be peaceful, or even spiritual, but out here in the strange, pale blue waters, under the  shadow of Fairview mountain, it was distinctly unnerving. I was chilled by more than the cold when I turned out and struck for the shoreline.

My sense of awful sublimity was dispelled, though, by the wonderful sensation of emerging from the water into the sudden warmth of the air, and the vigourous buffeting of the plush hotel-room towel. It was fun too, to exchange knowing grins with those passers-by who were amused with my bravery or foolhardiness. My favourites were the three middle-aged men, lined up on the steps of the hotel like a Greek chorus, or the old men of the village in Asterix in Corsica.

‘You’ve got more balls than I have.’ said one of them. ‘Now go back and get them!’

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