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A Rocky Romance

Photo by Alamy

Photo by Alamy

By Andrew McCarthy

The moaning, not too distant whistle of an approaching train, spills over downtown Banff. I stop in my tracks on Caribou Street. The sound surges, holds, then reluctantly echoes its retreat down the Bow Valley. It was train travel that first opened this land, first made it accessible. It’s because of trains like the one I just heard that anyone is here in this valley at all.

In 1883, in the northern Rockies of Alberta, the trans-continental line of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) was in its final stages of completion. Two restless railroad workers wandered off into the mountains searching for gold—they stumbled instead upon natural hot springs. Sensing opportunity, they filed a “claim” on the land. The government, alerted to the land’s potential, denied their claim, and opted instead to create Banff National Park, Canada’s first protected land.

With completion of the railway, the deep mountains were easily accessible for the first time. The CPR lured folks with the promise of romantic rail travel to rugged wilderness. The people flood in—eager to take the curative waters and mountain air. A town sprang up to meet their needs

In a lush valley on the banks of the Bow River, flanked by bald and jagged peaks of the Rocky Mountains, Banff (population 8,000) still caters to those looking for respite. I was eager to leave my city life behind for a while and take in some of that open air—as well as experience some of Banff’s world class skiing and hiking. I wasn’t the only one with the idea.

Banff National Park has grown into an international destination. “You can stand on the corner of any street in town and hear five, six, different languages being spoken,” Jeremy Bankes, a guide at Discover Banff Tours, tells me. “You have a German waiter, a Lithuanian fixing your ski bindings, an Australian bartender. Banff is a local town with a global community.” We strap crampons to our boots and begin hiking up into Johnston Canyon, a few miles out of town. The snow covered trail carves into a deep gorge cut by Johnston Creek. Black “witches beard” moss hangs from conifer trees, their branches heavy with snow. Beneath nearly vertical walls, a manmade catwalk juts us out over the frozen water, allowing deeper access to the narrowing canyon. We crouch down and make our way through a tunnel carved into the limestone and emerge at the base of a waterfall, frozen over. Rushing water, visible beneath the ice, crashes down. The canyon continues to narrow, the sedimentary rock towers above, and then the Upper Falls come into view—completely frozen over, a dripping chandelier of blue white ice nearly a hundred feet high.

Back in town, I make my way up Sulphur Mountain, toward the famous hot springs that were Banff’s first calling card. The wild springs have been harnessed into a steaming outdoor pool. Stepping out of the utilitarian changing facility into the 18 degree evening, I slip quickly into the 102 degree hot springs. The strong smell of sulfur stings my nose, the water tingles the way no chlorinated “hot-tub” can. Soaking beside a few dozen others, the sky goes purple over Mount Rundle—the bulk of my city stress begins to melt away.

The next morning, I’m a few miles deeper into the park, looking out over a sea of peaks. “I thought the Colorado Rockies were the end of the Rainbow,” Dave Riley tells me, “then I found Banff.” Mr. Riley recently moved up from Colorado to take over operations at one of Banff’s three major ski areas, Sunshine Village. Sunshine is unlike any ski resort I’ve known. It’s tucked deep into the mountains; a twenty-minute gondola is ride required to reach the base of the ski hill. On arrival, the sensation is of being embedded in wilderness, not a car or road in sight. Lift lines are nearly non-existent, and we disturb dry powder over three mountain faces, with much of the skiing over open, high alpine terrain.

Then I’m heading deeper into the park, along the two-lane Trans Canadian highway. Half an hour out of Banff, past a bull elk picking his way through the snow in Moose Meadow, flanked by a cathedral of jagged peaks, is Lake Louise. It’s a small settlement, with a few posh accommodations, including the famous Fairmont Hotel, towering over the glacier milk lake. And tucked down by the river is the Post Hotel, serving up local dishes like Caribou Carpaccio or bison fillet, with a wine cellar of 27,000 bottles. Then there’s Lake Louise Ski Area.

As with Sunshine Village, there is no “scene” here. It’s all about the skiing, and because we’re so far north, the season lasts from November into May. The snow (“Champagne powder,” the locals boast) is so reliable, the first event of the Word Cup skiing calendar is held here at Lake Louise each season.

“There’s a constant feeling of heritage swirling around the mountain,” Edmonton native, Conor McKeown, sums up the mood as we share a chairlift to the top. “This place is very in touch with where it came from.” The mountain retains a rugged, individual feel.

The man largely responsible for that feeling is Charlie Locke. The son of a dairy farmer from “just down the valley outside Calgary,” Mr. Locke is the result of a life out of doors. He’s climbed most of the nearby peaks—and bagged nearly fifty first assents. He bought into Lake Louise Ski Resort in 1974 and now controls the operation.

I disembark the Top of the World chairlift and find Mr. Locke, clipping into his bindings. He started skiing sixty years ago and still spends a few hours on the mountain most days, checking conditions, chatting with skiers. We stand silent and look out. The sky is a hard and empty blue, the Canadian Rockies show-off in the sun.

“You see that?” he asks finally.

“I don’t see anything,” I answer, “except mountains.”

“Exactly,” he says. “Here in the park you’re in unspoiled wilderness. Your kids will bring their kids here and see the same thing we’re seeing now.” He smiles and pushes off.

My eyes drift down into the valley. I see nothing remotely resembling the city I left behind, the only sign of man is the lone railway line that began all this more than a century ago. A train comes into view from the west, snaking through the pines, hugging the Bow River.

I take one last look, then chase down into the champagne powder.

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