Carolynn Van de Vyvere
With the strike ongoing and nothing more pressing to command
his time, the stocky, young coal miner from Felmenta, Italy
succumbed to his passion. In 1924, while his brothers from the
Canmore mines crowded the local union hall, Lawrence Grassi
slung an axe over his shoulder and headed for the mountains to
build new paths.
"He was a true mountain man," said Bill Cherak, whose father
sold Grassi the cabin where he lived until just before he died
in 1980. Cherak, who was also Grassi's friend and the executor
of his estate, said Grassi left the cabin much as he'd found it
more than 50 years beforewith no plumbing or hot water and just
a coal-burning stove for heat.
"This modern society wasn't for him," said Cherak. "He lived
for the mountains"
The personal history of this industrious man reflects the
history of the industries that built Banff and Canmore. After
immigrating to Canada in 1912, Grassi worked for the
Pacific Railway. He then became a
coal miner, a mountain guide,
and finally a park warden at Lake O'Hara.
A seasoned mountaineer, Grassi completed several significant
first ascentsincluding a first solo climb of Mt Assiniboinewith
little fanfare, and guided everyone from politicians to the
Alpine Club of Canada through the Rockies. However, Grassi's
trail-making has been his greatest legacy.
Hikers can follow in his footsteps on the four km Grassi
Lakes Trail, just a few kilometres south of Canmore off the
Smith-Dorrien Spray Trail past the Nordic Centre. The trail
starts about 90 metres from the parking lot along the service
road. At the first fork, follow the sign for the more difficult
route leading to the left. Quite challenging, the route, chosen
by Grassi himself, is worth the effort.
"The trail makes it possible for you to follow Grassi into
the mountains, to see the views, the route, and the sights that
he picked for you," says Canmore historian and Grassi biographer
Building trails was a labour of love for Grassi, whose dogged
work ethic and romantic sense of aesthetics are imprinted on all
of his paths. His eye for beauty is clearly reflected on the
Grassi Lakes route. The first kilometre is a gentle ascent on a
well-defined path through woods speckled with wildflowers. This
contrasts with the drama of the last section, where the trail
climbs quickly over stone steps, but affords sweeping panoramas
of the Bow Valley and breathtaking views of the 300 metre
waterfalls under Ha Ling Peak. At the hike's summit are the
Upper and Lower Grassi Lakes, called the Twin Lakes until they
were renamed in Grassi's honour in 1938. The geology of the
location sets off the crystal clear Grassi pools, azure blue and
emerald green in colour. The lakes are situated on a petrified
coral reef and are underlined by a thermal sulphur spring that
feeds into the lakes via a fault line. The sulphur content of
the water keeps it clear, and the intense colours of the algae
and stone are created by the water's mineral content.
Historians speculate that Grassi's understanding of geology
from mining led to his interest in these lakes.
"He understood the mountains inside and out," says Sandford,
speaking literally of Grassi's experience as a mountaineer and a
A short scramble above the Upper Lake leads to a canyon where
Grassi's history meets prehistory. Millennium-old pictographs,
believed to be painted by Ktunaxa First Nation ancestors, are
visible on boulders.
For those who want to skip the extra scramble, the slope's
base affords a good view of the climbers often navigating the
porous cliffs above the lakes.
"Grassi Lakes Trail is one of the nicest places for an
afternoon hike because it's got everything," says Frank Gee,
coordinator of interpretative guiding for Discover Banff Tours.
"There's the history of Grassi, prehistory, sweeping views, and
Carolynn Van de Vyvere is a freelance writer in Calgary.
The article titled "Grassi Lakes and the Grassi Trail" by Carolynn Van de Vyvere is
reprinted from Legacy
Magazine Fall 2003 issue. The Heritage Community Foundation and
the Year of the Coal Miner Consortium would like to thank Carolynn Van de Vyvere and Barbara Dacks, the Publisher/Editor
of Legacy Magazine, for permission to reprint this material.