Castle Mountain Sunrise

Headed North

This shot of Castle Mountain at sunrise is from my first trip to Canada in January 2019.  I've lived most of my life in fairly warm climates and had never really even travelled to particularly cold places until I took up photography.  When I made plans to go to Canada, I had already scheduled a trip to Iceland for the following month.

Ironically, the main reason that I wanted to go to Canada in January was to make sure the cold weather gear I had accumulated would be adequate for Iceland.  One boat trips were over (actually, after I was in Iceland for only a few days), I realized that Canadian winds are WAY colder than Icelandic winters.  Canadian winters don't play around.  It is beautiful up there in the winter, though, and definitely work  some numb fingers and toes!

The Park

Established in 1885, Banff National Park is Canada's oldest national park.  The park is located approximately 80 miles (130km) west of Calgary.  Banff encompasses 2,564 square miles (6,641 square kilometers) of mountainous terrain, glaciers and ice fields, dense forests, and alpine landscapes.

The park has a subarctic climate which means it is characterized by long, usually very cold winters (which I can definitely confirm!) and short, cool to mild summers.  The forests are primarily pine at lower elevations and spruce in the higher elevations, below the tree line. Above the tree line, the landscape is primarily rocks and ice, as you can see in the image above.  

First Nation

Archaeological evidence found in the park indicates that the first human activity in the Banff area dates back to approximately 10,300 years ago.  The area that is now Banff National Park was, at one time, home to many indigenous peoples, including the Stoney Nakoda, Ktunaxa, Tsuut'ina, Kainaiwa, Piikani, Siksika, and the Plains Cree.

There are numerous areas within the park that are still known by their Stoney Nakoda names such as Lake Minnewanka and the Waputik Range.  A natural thermal mineral spring, now known as the Cave and Basin National Historic Site of Canada, is an important cultural and spiritual site for the Stoney Nakoda.  

The Rockies

The Canadian Rockies consist of several northwest-southeast trending ranges.  There are two main mountain ranges that are within the park.  The eastern border of the park includes all of the Front Ranges consisting of, from north to south, the Palliser, Sawback, and Sundance Ranges.

The western border of the park follows the crest of the Main Ranges (sometimes knowns as the Park Ranges), which also form the Continental Divide.  From north to south, the Main Ranges in Banff National Park include the Waputik, Bow, and Blue Ranges.

Castle Mountain is the easternmost mountain of the Main Ranges in the Bow Valley.  It sits astride the Castle Mountain fault which has older rocks forming the upper part of the mountain over the younger rocks forming its base.

The Palliser Expedition, whose official name was the British North American Exploring Expedition, explored and surveyed the rugged wilderness of western Canada from 1857-1860.  James Hector, the expedition geologist, first encountered the mountain in 1858.  Seen from the valley floor, the layered, near vertical walls rise like medieval battlements.  Hector noted that it "....looks exactly like a giant castle" and renamed it Castle Mountain.

House of the Wind

I say "renamed." as Hector's Cree speaking guides already called the mountain atintat tasa kamik wachi, "Wind House Mountain," due to the Chinook winds that seem to flow from it.  Chinook winds develop when warm, moist air from the Pacific Ocean blows from the northwest region of North America toward the Rocky Mountain Range.  As the air mass claims the mountains, it bring rain or snow to the peaks.  The air mass, now dry after releasing its moisture in the mountains, warms as it moves down the eastern slopes.

Temperatures rise approximately 5.5 degrees Fahrenheit for every thousand feet the air mass descends down the mountain.  Chinook winds can be as much as 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius) warmer than the air they displace.  Although the term "Chinook" is more often used, the Blackfoot people called the wind "Snow Eater."

Origin Story

There are many legends about the origins of the Chinook Winds.  In one story, recorded by Ella E. Clark in Indian Legends of the Northern Rockies, Thunderbird punished the people who lived in her valley after a fire destroyed all life there.

In the very earliest times, the Creative High Mystery gave part of the canyon to Thunderbird.  It was in the canyon that she gave birth to her three daughters: Bluejay, Crow, and Magpie.

Thunderbird was happy to let her friends from the valley hunt and gather in the canyon.  If bad weather was approaching, Thunderbird would make deep growling noises to warn her friends away.  After many, many years of the friendly arrangement, a careless hunger neglected to put out his campfire and a huge fire destroyed all life in Thunderbird's beautiful canyon.

A Cold Wind

Thunderbird was extremely upset about this careless act and was determined to punish the people.  She invited the cold Northeast Wind to drive the people back and Northeast Wind set up permanent camp.  He blew his frosty breath for many endless winters.  The Great Lake froze to the bottom and all the animals were driven with the people to the valley, where they shivered with the cold.  Even Thunderbird's daughters followed the people to the south.

Finally, after many, many winters, the heart of Thunderbird was softened.  She grew lonely; she missed her daughters, the other animals, and even the people.  Thunderbird went to Northeast Wind and asked him to leave.  Thunderbird said, "The people have suffered enough now.  Perhaps if you leave, my daughters will come back to visit me."

Reluctantly, Northeast Wind left and returned to his home.  A wandering scout was startled by the sudden stillness to the north and rushed to his chief who was huddled with his people.  "Northeast Wind no longer blows and from the north one can hear a gentle rumbling as if Thunderbird were weeping."


The chief was very pleased and told his people to prepare to move to the north again.  He asked of a way to please Thunderbird so that she might hasten the warming of the old country.

Bluejay had always loved the people, and longing to see her mother, offered to help.  She flew to the west and asked her friend Chinook Wind to help her friends return to their old hunting grounds.  Chinook Wind, always warm and kind, readily agreed to go and warm the valley.  "Show me the way, my little friend," he whispered and away they flew.

A Warm Wind

When they finally arrived, Chinook Wind settled in for a long steady blow.  His warm, moist breath melted the thick ice and, as it receded, beautiful flowers and long grasses sprouted up along its margin.  Soon, there were trees once again in the valley.

Thunderbird was pleased and asked Bluejay what she could give her to show her gratitude. 

"In the future, dear mother," Bluejay said, "do not get so angry.  It is not right that the considerate people should suffer for the offenses of the careless."

Though Northeast Wind returns each winter to remind us to live a thoughtful life, he always returns to his home when Chinook Wind comes back to stay in the spring.  For that we can thank Bluejay and a mother's love.

I think we often look toward far-away places when we think of magic, myths, and legends.  There is just as much magic close to home, though.

You just have to look for it.