I had been out to photograph the Canadian Rockies on three prior trips, but I must admit to feeling a bit nervous about going back in the middle of winter. After all, New England is cold enough at this time of year — why in the world travel to the opposite side of North America where temperatures are known to be unforgivingly brutal?
But my concerns evaporated on the first day of the trip after witnessing dazzling conditions that are rarely witnessed elsewhere. Just a few hours off the plane and I not only knew why I had come in January, but was already convinced that winter is the absolute best time of year to photograph the Canadian Rockies. And I still feel that way after my return.
Before delving into the trip itself, let me comment on the weather. There’s no denying that the Canadian Rockies can be very cold in winter. The day we arrived in Calgary, the thermometer read -31 Celsius. I stood at the airport waiting for the hotel shuttle as the wind penetrated every fiber of my clothes. But one thing I quickly learned is that the air is not only thinner at high altitudes — it’s also dryer. And without that humidity, cold temperatures are much easier to tolerate. A temperature reading of -31 in New England would cause alarms to sound over the airwaves because it’s a real threat to survival. But in the Canadian Rockies, it’s just a normal day. With proper clothing, I actually found it quite easy to cope with the sub-zero temperatures.
Our trip involved multi-night stays at Lake Louise, Banff, and Jasper. This gave us an opportunity to explore a great number of scenic areas within an hour or so from our base, across Banff National Park, Jasper National Park, Yoho National Park, and Kootenay Plains. Compared to the summer months, there are relatively few people here in winter. We did run into a handful of photographers at the more popular spots, but their small numbers had little impact on our mobility.
One of the uniquely stunning features of the Canadian Rockies is that several of the lakes contain natural hot springs. This means that it remains possible to capture water reflections even in winter. And for me, a mirror reflection of a snow-capped mountain at the edge of day, framed by a natural sheet of ice, is about as good as landscape photography gets! In extreme cold temperatures, the vapor from the hot springs transforms the surrounding flora into frosted sculptures that add to the breathtaking beauty of these lakes.
Another feature of the Canadian Rockies is that the extreme temperatures seem to keep the snow clinging to tree branches longer than usual. In New England, snow typically falls off the branches within a day after snowfall. But here, we saw snow-covered trees everywhere we went, adding to the photogenic appeal.
In addition to the pristine snow, the Canadian Rockies are also known to have some of finest ice anywhere. Ice-covered waterfalls turn into playgrounds for ice climbers, the edges of rivers become nirvana for photographers in search of intimate landscapes, and then there’s Abraham Lake that’s in a category all its own.
Abraham Lake is an artificial lake on the North Saskatchewan River in western Alberta. It was created in 1927 with the construction of the Bighorn Dam. In winter, the decaying plants on the lake bed release methane gas, trapping bubbles just below the surface of the frozen lake. Strong crosswinds prevent snow from building up on the lake, keeping its entire surface clear for those brave souls who are willing to face the cold and wind while shuffling around the lake with grippers on their feet.
I would go back to the Canadian Rockies in winter in a heartbeat, but I would advise against going alone. Cell service is poor or non-existent throughout much of the mountains, so there’s little room for human error in such challenging climate. Joining a small group is always best under these changeable conditions.
There are few photography tours to the Canadian Rockies in winter, but a good professional photographer friend of mine, Tom Mackie, has been conducting a winter tour of these mountains for the last several years. I highly recommend joining him if you’re up for an exciting winter adventure in these unforgettable Canadian Rockies.