The other day as I was out hiking the trails under clear blue skies, snow covered peaks and golden larches and it got me thinking and wondering what it is that makes Lake O’Hara so special for so many people. In fact just as I was thinking that I came across a couple walking and stopped to chat. Without any prompting they told me how privileged they were to be here and how they hope that their kids will continue to come when they no longer can. All said with a tear almost gracing her cheek. What is it about this place that has that kind of effect on people? If you are a religious person then maybe its a feeling of being closer to god or that it is some sort of holy place. That isn’t such a stretch as we gaze up at the surrounding peaks as if they were our own Cathedral (There is a Cathedral peak too if you want to be literal). If you are a spiritual person then maybe it has something to do with Power lines converging here as they apparently do in numerous places around the world. What if neither of those do it for you. It could be the solitude of the place and the zen garden like affect that the golden larches create as you wander the Opabin Prospect. It could be the sound of water which many people find calming. It could be the high mountain peaks or the incredible trail network. If you stay at the lodge it could be the people you meet at dinner each night or the young dynamic staff who work here. If you stay in the campground then maybe its the camaraderie you find around the fire pit each night or the banter in the cook shelters as you prepare a meal. The essence of it really is that it is many things to many people and we all come for different reasons. However the one common theme for all of us returning visitors is captured so eloquently in a quote I continually refer back to.
“Lake O’Hara has a presence. It is as if the mountains themselves are aware of the affect they have had on two generations of explorers, climbers, travelers, painters, and hikers…. For many people today, a trip to O’Hara is a pilgrimage, not merely a holiday…. The region is ripe with history, wonderful stories of first ascents and love and dedication and hard work …. It is impossible to visit O’Hara just once. Even if you never go back, O’Hara remains with you in your mind’s eye. O’Hara is truly one of the most distinct places in the Canadian Rockies.”
An excerpt from Lisa Christensen’s book on J.E.H. MacDonald and his paintings of Lake O’Hara.
I have had the privilege of visiting the area for over 40 years and calling it home for over 20 of those years. I see myself as being one of a long line of STEWARDS of the lodge and in a small way the area too. The lodge will celebrate its 90th birthday in a year and Birthdays are often a time to pause, reflect and also look forward. During that 90 years the lodge has really only had three sets of owners; the CPR, The Fords and Brewster’s and now our small family group. That is quite something in this day and age to have had a business pass through so few hands. It provides a certain continuity which often can be lacking in many businesses. As a steward it has been my task to welcome our guests either for the first time or thirtieth to this jewel in the Canadian Rockies, celebrate the heritage of Lake O’Hara and all those who have come before, preserve the historical ambience of the lodge, try and maintain as small of ecological footprint on our environment through embracing appropriate new technology while maintaining the more historical significant components of the lodge, mentor new staff to engage with our guests and the environment in a caring and sensitive way and also to lend a voice to advocate for keeping O’Hara as a special place within Parks Canada incredible network of Parks with its incredible network of trails.
O’Hara is not an easy place to visit. With limited capacity and a well thought out quota system in place to preserve the backcountry feeling people can become frustrated trying to gain a seat on a bus. However by comparison it is easy to see what unlimited access and services represent one valley over! The challenge and perseverance it takes to get into O’Hara; whether the campground, as a day user or to stay at the lodge, all will usually agree it is worth it! So coming full circle and thinking about what makes the place so special. I am not sure how to answer that. For our lodge guests it is multi-faceted. Sure the backdrop is stunning, the network of trails is second to none, the lakes a multitude of hues that seem unreal. For our guests though it is the people they meet, the food they are served, the engaging, dynamic and friendly staff, the welcoming atmosphere of the lodge, the historical ambiance in the cabins and the meals they are served in the dining room. Those are the most common themes we continuously hear. However I also know that there is something else; a magic of sorts which touches people in different ways and is often beyond words.
Come Experience the Magic!