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To Banff and Back

Postcards from Canada

Story by Light July 31st, 2017

by shaun welsh

I've had my eye on Banff for years. Ever since I got into landscape photography, this place kept popping up in my feed, in the books I read, and in the websites I somehow landed on. The mountains were telling me I needed to go.

When my girlfriend, Emily, and I found out we had a few days off, we didn't hesitate: We were going to Banff. For me, traveling isn't as much about experiencing a place firsthand as it is about doing the things I love with the person I love. We made our Banff bucket list together the night before we left—and spent the following days exploring Canada's rugged wilderness together. It was an adventure, to say the least.

An elk herd spotted from our car

July 19, 2017

6 a.m. The alarm went off, but I was already awake. My mind had been racing for hours. Travel jitters. I always get them before big trips…and this one was especially big. We even named it, Emily and I: Our "Big 'ol Canadian Adventure."

9 a.m. My giant duffle, roller carry on, and backpack were bursting at the seams, but somehow they let us on the plane. Emily always laughs at how much stuff I bring on trips like these... Her backpack was half empty. I like to think I’m packing for the two of us.

12 p.m. Landed in Calgary, picked up the rental car, and took care of the essentials: food and provisions (A.K.A fancy beer).


3 p.m. We finally got on the road to Banff. Within minutes, we were surrounded by rolling hills and farmland.

5 p.m. Made it to Two Jack Lake before sunset. After unloading our gear, Emily and I passed out for a nap, completely exhausted from our travels. We woke up a couple hours later to catch the tail end of the sunset making its warm reflection in the lake. That night, with a home-cooked meal of quesadillas, I tried my first Canadian beer, Big Rock. It was pretty good, but it mostly made me miss Lagunitas.

Sunrise on Vermillion Lake

July 20, 2017

5 a.m. Sometimes sleep is what you sacrifice in order to catch the perfect light on Vermillion Lake.

6 a.m. When we arrived, the water was calm, but the wildlife was not. It must’ve been feeding time because it seemed as though every kind of bird—loons, ducks, geese—was out on the water. A little scramble to the lake’s edge gave me the perfect unobstructed view of the peaks in the distance. After a few shots, we headed back to camp for a short nap before getting back on the road.

11 a.m. We figured it would just be a short drive into town, but a herd of elk had different plans. A whole family decided to hang out for 20 minutes in the middle of the highway, blocking our path. Eventually, they moved off the road to continue grazing—at which point, I rolled down the window to snap a shot.

The view from Surprise Corner

12 p.m. When Emily and I arrived at in town, our first mission was to find "Surprise Corner"—the infamous viewpoint that offers majestic views of the Banff Springs Hotel. I’d already seen hundreds of pictures of the Castle of the Rockies, but there’s still something magical about capturing such an iconic destination yourself.

3 p.m. By the time we got to Johnston Canyon, it was pouring rain. We slugged through a short, mostly uphill hike to the first waterfall, then went in search of the caves. After several dead ends, I saw it: a huge, towering rock standing alone in the canyon. My heart started racing. I couldn’t stop smiling. Since it was raining, we had the whole thing to ourselves…which meant I could get some rad long exposures of Emily staring up at the rock.

Sunrise on Moraine Lake

July 21, 2017

4 a.m. An extremely early wake up call! I’m a sucker for the amazing colors some skies will give you for just a few minutes. That’s why I always aim to shoot at peak times: sunrise and sunset. This morning, we an hour drive to our sunrise location, Moraine Lake.

5:30 a.m. When we arrived, we put on every piece of clothing we had and hiked up this giant rock pile to get the best view. Unfortunately, we weren’t the only early birds with sunrise plans. There were already at least ten others set up on the rocks when we made it to the top. I snapped a few shots, but by the time I was all set up, the clouds had rolled in, making the sky all moody. We decided to move on the next lake on our list.

Tourists canoeing on Lake Louise

8 a.m. By the time we reached Lake Louise, park officials were already starting to limit the number of cars. We just barely made it in!

9 a.m. Tourists make Emily and I anxious. We took a stroll around the perimeter of the lake to get away from what seemed like the paparazzi. But by the looks of this picture, I guess you could say we turned into the paparazzi ourselves. I couldn't help myself. The lake's teal-blue color was just too unique not to capture it!

1 p.m. From Lake Louise, we made our way to Peyto Lake—which must not have been in the tourist guides because somehow we had it all to ourselves. After a picnic lunch, we roamed the hillsides in search of the best overlooks.

Emily found a lookout over Peyto Lake

July 22, 2017

5 a.m. Got up and drove 45 minutes to Emerald Lake Lodge, a historic hotel known for its pristine location in the heart of the Canadian Rockies. It was still dark when we arrived, and the lodge lit up among the trees was quite the sight.

9 a.m. Our mission that day was to see the Natural Bridge and Takakkaw Falls. Not in the plan: the two giant tour buses that greeted us at the bridge. It was uncanny site—dozens of tourists swarming such a natural spot. Luckily, they were gone within a few minutes.

2 p.m. After Takakkaw Falls, we came upon the most epic boarding hill. The road wound down through the trees, and in the background, the mountains plunged high up into the clouds. I knew I had to bomb it on my skateboard.

Shaun bombing down Route 1 on his board

July 23, 2017

6 a.m. A few other photographers were already waiting for the train at Morant’s Curve when we arrived. We waited more than an hour to catch one… but all that came around the bend was a passenger train in the wrong direction.

8 a.m. Everyone else had given up at this point. I was nearly there too, but had an inkling the right one would make its way around the bend soon.

9 a.m. It did, finally. And the wait was well worth it!

1 p.m. Sunwapta Falls was calling. Emily was a little nervous about venturing out on such a precarious ledge, so we swapped places and I scrambled over the slippery rocks. Hazardous location: confirmed.

Sunwapta Falls

2 p.m. The rain was following us everywhere we went...and we didn't exactly want to set up camp in the wet mud, so we kept driving. Athabasca Falls was next on the list. The waterfall itself was beautiful, but not as inspiring as the infamous overhang. With adrenaline pumping through my veins, I ran out to this little ledge overlooking the glacial water (see below).

5 p.m. The canyon was most definitely my favorite spot in the park. We were sad to leave, but we knew we still had to find camp.

7 p.m. On our way to Maligne Lake, we spotted a black bear! It was probably 10-feet from our car, rumbling through the bushes for berries. There’s nothing quite like the feeling—or nerves?—you get from seeing wildlife in the backcountry. It’s a crazy rush that I found difficult to contain. Part of me wanted to get the perfect shot; the other part of me couldn’t keep my hands still; and yet another part of me wanted to see it with my own two eyes, not the camera I was holding. Needless to say, the shot didn’t turn out.

Looking out over Athabasca falls

July 24, 2017

6 a.m. Woke up to orange hues in the sky. Went back to bed :)

10 a.m. Started a lazy day of retracing our steps and making sure we didn’t miss anything too epic.

5 p.m. We were taking it easy all day to rest up for our last night—the first clear one we would have all trip. I was planning to stay up all evening and shoot the stars at Vermillion Lake. About two hours into shooting (and watching Sponge Bob and Disney movies), I decided I needed to shoot Moraine Lake at night, too. (You should’ve seen the look Emily gave me when I announced my grand idea.)

A perfect sunrise on Moraine Lake

July 25, 2017

2:30 a.m. I filled up the gas tank and drove 45 minutes north. Best decision I ever made. The lake's surface was lit up with the reflection of the Milky Way. I shot short and long exposures till sunrise.

5 a.m. After a busy night, the sunrise at Moraine Lake was refreshingly peaceful. The water was calm. The mountains were sporting an orange glow. The sky turned robin’s egg blue. It was exactly what I was hoping to capture the entire week.

9 a.m. A quick nap in the car and we were back on the road again—this time, headed home.

Goodbye, Banff! Till next time...

I knew Banff would be beautiful—there’s a reason those Instagram posts get liked thousands of times—but I didn't expect the trip to be such a moving experience for me. The places we visited were some of the most awe-inspiring places in the world, and yet I saw so many people picking flowers, feeding wild animals, destroying our environment’s natural beauty. It reminded me how fragile our ecosystem is and how vital it is that we, as stewards of the land, take care of these wild spaces.

Photographer Shaun Welsh hails from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. When he’s not out adventuring with his camera, you can probably find him skating, surfing, or road tripping with his husky.

Footnote: All photos captured by the Light L16.
Banff, AB, Canada