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The ice blue water runs and heaves over its bed of boulders and rocks. It’s drawn over a pinched-in ledge and forced into a powerful plunge down a chute carved through outcropping from a bombardment, throughout the millennia, of its own raw power.

A Painted Horizon

Tessi and I took off fairly early in the morning to visit this remote destination, called Elbow Falls, which is located within an hour’s drive of the thriving metropolis of Calgary.

As we cleared the city limits, a backdrop of the snow-capped Rocky Mountain range emerged like a painting on the horizon. I delighted in this vision—so unique to someone from flat farmland country—while keeping an eye on the morning-rushed traffic around us. The vision grew in size, until it started repeatedly appearing and disappearing as we moved in and out of the foothills. We finally lost it altogether when the depths of forests overtook any open terrain left. In the meantime, the traffic had dwindled almost to nothing; the highway narrowed and grew isolated. We started encountering more deer than vehicles.


I first spotted two deer beside the road. I eased off the gas pedal and briefly pulled over in hopes of discouraging any thoughts they may have of crossing. They quickly fled into the protection of the trees. After that, I kept my speed down. As I crested a small hill, I came upon another deer standing in the middle of the road. My cautious approach gave it enough time to run off.

Noticing the Elbow Falls Visitor Centre, which is still a bit of a drive from the falls themselves, I turned in, only to be greeted by a fourth deer crossing the dirt driveway. Once it dashed off, I continued on, only to find the centre closed; however, I stopped to talk to a ranger, who happened to be in the parking area. I was concerned on how far the walk would be to reach the falls. A longer hike could mean more chances of grizzly bear encounters, which terrifies me. The ranger assured me that the falls are close to the parking lot.

We ended up chatting about bears. Though she couldn’t foresee a problem, she said it couldn’t hurt to carry my bear spray, since I mentioned I had some. I just hoped it was amongst the mess in my car and not back in the bedroom in Calgary—I hadn’t felt the need to include it since our hike at Spruce Woods Provincial Park in Manitoba.

Vulnerable Solitude

...the roaring river’s immense power gradually extinguished the silence.

We left the ranger to continue her outdoorsy workday. A few minutes later, we pulled into a vast, empty paved lot. While my vehicle sat by its lonesome self, I geared us up for the vulnerable walk to the river—with my found bear spray at hand. Relief filled me when a van pulled in and children poured out of it. They took longer to organize themselves so we headed on leaving them behind. At least, I was able to enjoy a sense of peace without feeling totally alone.

During the short walk, the roaring river’s immense power gradually extinguished the silence. When we arrived at the water’s side, we followed the pathway hugging its length and continued up steps overlooking the cataract. The waterfall’s drop can vary from 3 to 6 m (10 to 20 ft), depending on the time of year.

We turned and sauntered back upstream. A wall of needle-pointed evergreens stands as a backdrop in one direction, but then, as I scanned the horizon, I discovered it dips down to reveal evergreen-covered mountains behind it.

Tessi, my picky water drinker, pulled me over to one of the more placid sections so she could lap up the fresh, glacial offering. The rocks lining the shore were a perfect size for sitting, so I chose one to relax on, though picnic tables and benches are staggered alongside the river.

In the meantime, more and more visitors were showing up. Quite a few were accompanied by dogs. With the possibility of bears and Tessi’s tendency to chase, in general, I kept her leashed. The signs request it and I heeded them—with no hesitation. All the other dogs were leashed, too.

We probably spent a couple of hours there, wandering back and forth within the immediate area. I put my cameras through a rigorous workout. I had no interest in walking the trails leading away from the river; I was there to enjoy it, not bear-inhabited forests.

I was delaying my final moment in this heaven and my return to the city, as it’d be my last day to delight in such gorgeous nature. I reveled in the air so fresh and sky such an amazingly intense blue. Standing closer to the trees, my nose detected the scent of cedars, accented with a sweet smell similar to the one I’ve encountered in Iroquois Falls in Ontario.

Taking the Plunge

At one point, I spotted a kayaker weaving his way amongst the rapids. Was he actually going to plummet down the chute?

Just short of doing so, he managed to pull up to shore and disappeared behind some rocks. He reappeared, camera in hand, having climbed up on an adjacent ledge, which protrudes enough over the water to give him a vantage point for photographing his comrades, who were now headed downstream.

Meanwhile, I rushed back up the steps to find my own vantage point for my chance of pictures. I’m rusty with taking action shots; yet, I was excited to rediscover my once favourite type of photography. A small group of us crowded the narrow path and tiny lookouts overlooking the falls.

Catching Up

After snapping assorted pictures of the daredevils while chatting with a family, who had just relocated from Montana, and meeting their two Bernese mountain dogs, named Tessie—easy to remember—and Wyatt, my Tessi and I returned to the car—now in the company of many others of its kind. I ate a sandwich from the cooler in my trunk, while enjoying the surrounding tree-covered hills and the upper edge of a rocky mountain revealed in a dip in the distance.

I couldn’t convince myself to leave yet. I grabbed my journal and we headed back to a picnic table. While I caught up on my writings, Tessi spotted a squirrel scampering up a tree behind us. Her leash, which I had extended out for her so she could maneuver around a little, allowed her to run and sit under the squirrel’s sanctuary in wait.

Two little blue butterflies fluttered around me as I kept stopping in my writing to absorb as much of my surroundings as possible.

Finally, I pushed myself to go. I had soaked up what I could of nature’s offerings. My senses were full. As I drove away, I watched through my rearview mirror, the snow-capped mountain painting on the horizon eventually appear and disappear and grow smaller.

For More Info

A week later, while driving our final leg home in Ontario, I heard on the radio about the devastating flood covering parts of that region of Alberta, including Elbow Falls. I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that the vibrant ice blue river we had just visited had turned into a brown, broiling mess—obliterating anything along its path. The picnic table I had sat at was gone. The water level was so high a waterfall barely existed.

This piece is dedicated to those who suffered in that flood.

 (c) Cheryl Smyth, 2014

Check out my TC Dog Travels Facebook page for more pictures of our visit.


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