Travel

October 30, 2013 by  
Filed under Features

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S is for Snow

A Chilling Adventure in Canada

by Andrea Stroh

He shouted, “Gee” and “Haw,” to the dogs as he guided them through the Canadian Rockies; riding the sledlike, century-old, prospectors trekking through mountains searching for gold. The Canadian Rockies seem bigger, better and less traveled than Colorado’s Rocky Mountain Range, a must see for sportsmen and nature lovers. In the Banff/Lake Louise area, you’ll find an unexpected confluence of frontier and modern activities.

The Canadian alpine adventure begins at Bush Intercontinental Airport with a direct flight to Calgary, followed by an hour-long drive to the heart of Banff National Park. Our first “camp” is Deer Lodge, a historic, hand-hewn log lodge built in the 1920s as a teahouse. Its rambling layout and scattering of parlors and antique furniture mirror the character of the national park surrounding it.

Wayward travelers used to stop by Deer Lodge for a good meal in the 1920s; they still serve some of the best food in the area. Charcuterie trays with smoked and air-dried buffalo, peppered duck breast, game paté and elk salami, served with exquisite homemade mustard-melon pickles. Entrées include grilled buffalo rib eye, maple seared pork belly with roasted pepper spaetzle and slow-braised bison short ribs with blueberry port reduction and couscous. The culinary experience alone makes the trip worthwhile.

ADVENTURE

We are in rough, beautiful country; you can die seeing the sights, and many have. In the early twentieth century, the Chateau Lake Louise hired Swiss guides to help their guests safely enjoy the Canadian Rockies. The hotel closed during winters, but the guides stayed and soon introduced locals to skiing and ice climbing. By 1917, the Banff Ski Club was formed and the Banff/Lake Louise area became a year-round destination. The Chateau has continued the tradition and resident-guides take guests cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, hiking, ice-skating on the lake and stargazing.

Our resident Mountain Heritage Activities guide is Bruce. He is leading our small group on a snowshoeing expedition. It starts with an interesting and enjoyable tutorial on the origins of the snowshoe and how First Nations tribes shaped and sized them. We practice walking and turning. The biggest beginner mistakes are trying to walk bow-legged, or alter your gait. As long as you focus on keeping your center of gravity over the center of the shoes and keep the tips out of the snow, you will quickly become a snowshoe maven.

We venture through the trees, and along the lake’s edge. Under our snowshoes is 12 feet of snow, and yet there is never a feeling of falling through or losing your footing. Extraordinary views of the glacier, the Chateau and surrounding mountains greet us at every turn. Sounds of an avalanche reverberate through the valley, and we turn just in time to see the snow careening off the glacier’s face. Snowshoeing is excellent exercise and a magical way to experience pristine snowfall in the forest.

After our expedition, we enjoy a proper English tea in The Lakeview Lounge of the Chateau. Over sparkling wine and fruit salads drizzled with Cointreau, we choose from a dizzying array of teas and enjoy the extraordinary views of the frozen lake and glacier out of the mile-high windows.

Another form of frontier transportation is the dog sled. We hook up with the only dog sledding operator allowed within the Banff National Park, Kingmik Mushers. We opt for the Great Divide tour along a 16-kilometer trail through some of the park’s most stunning scenery to the Continental Divide and back.

These are not the fluffy dog teams of Disney movies; these are the real, working, Alaskan huskies of Iditarod and Yukon Quest fame. When we arrive, the dogs are having lunch, resting and rehydrating from their morning trek. We’re encouraged to interact with
them and the crew; we learn about the sport and the fascinating animals that are bred to pull sleds. When it’s time to go, our musher, Cody, buckles us in the sled and harnesses the team. The dogs bark, howl and downright squeal with delight. They hop straight into the air and strain against their tethers in anticipation of their turn to be harnessed. The dogs are so excited, it would be cruel to make them miss the trek.

When Cody releases the brake, the dogs spring forward at a full run. The barking ceases as they concentrate on keeping up and doing their part. The trip is eerily quiet except for the swishing of the sled rails and Cody’s succinct commands. We glide through the snow-covered forest amid mountain peaks, taking in the scenery all the way to the Great Divide. On the way back, we take turns riding on the back of the sled and controlling the dogs. It is the thrill of a lifetime.

For our next adventure, guides
from Discover Banff Tours hand out
ice spikes for our Johnston Canyon ice
walk. The path through the forest and along the rivers leads us past six Johnston Canyon waterfalls, which have frozen into magical formations. The trek is not for the faint of heart. Walking on sheer ice would be near impossible without the ice spikes, but the reward is 100-feet-tall, frozen waterfalls and a good dose of local lore from the guides. For a similar experience at an easier pace, the Columbia Icefield tour uses a specially designed bus they drive on the ice.

SKIING

Lake Louise is a world-class ski resort. With snow from November to May, it has 8,650-foot peaks, 4,200 acres of skiing area over four mountain faces, 139 marked trails and countless bowls. The longest run is five staggering miles long. My Ski Friend is Rob. (Ski Friends is the first volunteer, host program in North America; it provides free, guided, ski tours for skiers of all abilities.) Rob has been skiing these trails for years, which means I never had to dig out my trail map. He’s able to gauge my ability and guide me through trails matching my skill level. There are so many lifts and trails, there’s rarely a wait at the lift, ever. Our last stop is après ski in The Lodge of Ten Peaks, an imposing log cabin full of stuffed bears, cold beer and charming Ski Friends.

Sunshine Village was the area’s first downhill ski resort. You don’t see ski trails until you take the scenic gondola ride to a valley formed by three mountains. Here, trails run in every direction. It’s higher than Lake Louise at 9,300 feet and 12 lifts lead to more than 3,358 acres of skiable terrain. You can ski all day and not see the same run twice. In fact, you can go half a day and not run into another skier.

Sunshine Village has unique accommodations at the top of the gondola. If you are staying at the Sunshine Mountain Lodge ($150 per night also buys you two complimentary lift tickets), you check in at the parking lot, drop your luggage with the concierge, grab your ski gear and spend the day on the slopes. At the end of the day, you’ll find your luggage in your room and après ski by the stone-covered fireplace in the lodge. You’ll find reasonably priced, exceptionally good food and beverages in the saloon, sports bar and their fine-dining option. You can also stay at Buffalo Mountain Lodge, world-class ski lodge, set atop piles of snow from November to May—it has nine acres on Tunnel Mountain at the edge of Banff. Our room has a modern bathroom with a fabulous clawfoot tub and slate shower, a well-stocked fireplace and a breathtaking view of the mountains.

Mount Norquay is the closest ski resort to Banff and one of the oldest, established in 1926. The Cliff House at the peak of the mountain was built in the ‘50s; the beams had to be hoisted up one at a time on the chairlift. Along with the ski trails, Mount Norquay has a snow tubing park. Sliding down the mountain at shockingly quick speeds will get you in touch with your inner child!

I’ve never experienced one place that had so much to offer; the winter entertainment options are endless. Sleigh rides, skiing, ice climbing, snowmobiling, helicopter tours and the new sport of snowkiting are just some of the activities. Pack warmly, plan for adventure and don’t forget “gee” means right and “haw” means left.

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