Four of us, along with our Outing Club guide Lance Young, flew from Seattle WA to Calgary AB for several days of cold but beautiful cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in Canada’s Banff National Park. We were all retirees (we’re the ones with the time for trips like this); Linda and Terry, originally from Ketchikan AK, had operated a seafood company specializing in the Asian market. Photographer Monica had worked at T-Mobile. And your humble reporter Paul formerly in IT at the City of Seattle.
Monday 2/5: My adventure started right after my wife Pat, daughter Alice and her partner Jenn dropped me off at Seattle’s airport. I’d had trouble packing because Lance said we’d be snowshoeing and my snowshoes didn’t fit in my suitcase. Also, Air Canada has strict rules against putting anything other than skis in a ski bag; and my stuff didn’t all fit in my suitcase. So I’d brought three bags. The agent at Canada Air’s checkin counter was horrified at what he’d have to charge me to check three bags. He implored me to carry one bag on board. So I hung onto the suitcase. But as Lance walked with me to TSA it dawned on me that I had a problem.
I hadn’t packed the suitcase to pass inspection as a carry-on, because I’d planned to check it. I found a quiet corner under a wall of Pearl Jam posters and opened it up. It was a simple matter to gather the liquids and stick them in a plastic bag; fortunately they were all small. (From now on I’m going to pack every bag this way; who knows what I might have to carry on board?) But the Swiss Army knife that I meant to put in my backpack while skiing certainly would be confiscated; Pat has lost two of them that way. Lance snatched it and headed out to the airport to meet my family and hand it off to them. For about 20 minutes they roamed around the airport looking for each other. Now and then my family would swing by to see if Lance was there; so I got bonus goodbye hugs.
TSA usually awards me pre-check, considering me harmless, which is convenient if a bit humiliating. I didn’t have to take off my shoes. I’d hit on the plan of putting all my pocket items in a vest that I could slip off. And I was wearing a plastic belt. So, with my hastily-edited suitcase in hand, I strolled quickly thru security. Then I turned my suitcase over to the gate attendant to check for free.
The flight to Vancouver BC was in a propellor plane too small to fit against a boarding ramp; so we were led onto the taxiway to climb up the plane’s own folding steps. We were seated in the mostly empty plane at widely spaced intervals, arranged I suppose to keep our weight balanced. A 25-minute hop brought us to the Vancouver airport. Here Lance led us thru Canadian Customs’ maze of corridors and security wickets that had been built into the ceiling of the terminal. Canada had no intention of considering me harmless; so I had to go thru another more rigorous security screening, shoes off. On a little shelf at the head of the conveyor belt I saw a row of abandoned water bottles and one can of mace. I drank all I could from a bottle of water I’d bought in Seattle and added it to the shelf. Later, Lance told us that Customs had once confiscated his ski wax because it resembled TNT.
The flight from Vancouver to Calgary AB was about 90 minutes, on a much larger and fuller plane. As the plane landed I saw a thick layer of snow blanketing Calgary; inland and at 4,000 feet, it has prairie weather. I’d worn flannel-lined pants and brought a goose down coat, and I was glad to have them as we wandered the rental car parking lot looking for our van. It was a large, comfortable Kia Sedona, “The worst car for snow that I’ve ever driven,” Lance concluded later. We overnighted at a Calgary motel.
Canmore Nordic Center
Tuesday 2/6: The forecast high for today was 10 F. / -12 C. Lance’s GPS wasn’t working, so Terry navigated us with a paper map to Highway 2 and Canmore’s Nordic Center. It had been constructed for the 1988 Winter Olympics, and had a good lodge and an outstanding trail system. It was quite cold, so I dropped two chemical heating pads into each mitten and put on all the layers I had.
The forest and the surrounding ridges were very beautiful. The snow had a peculiar dry, grainy consistency like the tiny styrofoam pellets in a bean bag chair. It wasn’t very fast, and I kept sliding sideways on any slope. I ventured off the groomed tracks into some woods, but soon gave up the idea. My skis were too narrow to stay on top of the snow, and wading in snow up to my shins wasn’t much fun. The sun lowered and a mist rose, and I couldn’t see the contours in the snow any more. So I quit at 2 PM and retreated to the fireplace with a mug of hot tea and a cookie.
We moved on to Banff, the biggest town inside Banff National Park, and checked into The Inns Of Banff, a large, rambling hotel whose buildings seemed to have been hooked together with sky-bridges and tunnels as an afterthought. We picked out a promising dinner restaurant, but it turned out that they only offered Mexican food. Monica wanted something else; so she and I walked on to the Maple Leaf Grill And Bar and had a nice dinner (seafood pasta for me).
Wednesday 2/7: Lance led us thru the labyrinthine hotel to breakfast. We went to the park information center, a grocery store, and touched the hotel again; the cold in town had persuaded me that I needed my heavy fleece. Then we drove up to Lake Louise. Cross-country skiing here is centered around the luxurious Fairmont Chateau hotel. (Downhill skiing is at a separate resort south of the highway.). It was warmer here, 28 F. / -2 C., and there were billows of fluffy snow. I skied up onto the wooded ridge above the hotel, imagining that I would get to a clearing with a sweeping view of the dramatic peaks; but I never found one. Several inches of snow had fallen since the trails had last been groomed; this gave a nice feeling of skiing on virgin snow while still having a definite route to follow. Previous skiers had skied very neatly, leaving a pair of perfect grooves; and snowshoers had kept to their own parallel trail. I practically had the place to myself; I met only two other skiers on the ridge.
After noon, overcast moved in and it began snowing in earnest. I skied down to Lake Louise; it was frozen and covered in snow, and there was a groomed ski trail on it. I figured that if the ice could hold a grooming snowcat it could hold me, so I headed up the lake. I met some friendly Canadians (really this is redundant to say, because they’re all friendly) who recommended a frozen waterfall halfway up the lake. They warned against proceeding any further, because they’d seen some footprints that had broken through the ice. Monica had been here earlier, and later she told me that she’d seen ice-climbers making their way up the waterfall. They weren’t up there when I was looking, but all the same, seeing the pale blue icefall made the long ski worthwhile.
I could hardly see the craggy ridges on each side of the lake thru the snow, there was no point in taking pictures. I followed the shore trail to the hotel. It turned out that horse-drawn sleighs complete with jingle bells use this trail for excursions to the icefall. I heard single bells and scrambled up onto the embankment; a two-horse sleigh full of heavily-muffled tourists glided past, taking up the whole width of the trail. The sleigh had bench seats furnished with red blankets. A blade attached to the rear of the sleigh smoothed out the hoof prints. This happened two more times. Monica said the same thing happened to her; she’d lost her balance and rolled down the hill to the edge of the lake in front of all the tourists.
At the hotel I stood my skis in a rack that the doormen pointed out and withdrew to the lobby. I took off, shook and packed away my layers; globs of snow lay on the thick carpet in an incriminating ring around my chair. The rest of the crew showed up, and we had supper in the lounge (a bison burger and a beet salad for me), watching the quickening snowstorm thru tall arched windows. Monica and I had “Glacier Warmers,” which were basically hot chocolate with booze in it. So good!
We drove back to Banff in heavy snow. We were passed by a snowplow and a semi that threw out a great wake of snow. I saw a car upside-down on the shoulder of the highway. At our much more modest hotel, Lance made a run at the ramp to the upper parking lot near our rooms but couldn’t make it. He concluded that the steering wheel must have been installed in the wrong end of the car, because it handled snow better driving backward. We had to walk from the front door thru the labyrinth to our rooms in our ski gear. Later I tried the Jacuzzi; it was piping hot. It could hold a dozen or so people, and it was.
Thursday 2/8: The forecast high today was 7 F. / -14 C. I couldn’t find my balaclava; I must have lost it when I took off my layers in front of the fireplace at Canmore. (A balaclava is a knitted tube that you pull over your head and neck, with a hole in the front to see thru. Not to be confused with a baclava, a pastry.) As we walked around downtown Banff, my face ached. Lance made a detour to a ski shop so I could buy another balaclava.
Due to yesterday’s snowstorm, the mountain highways were not in good shape. So a ranger at the park center recommended the Spray River trail at the south end of town; it’s in a valley and so is protected from the wind.
Lance drove us to the Fairmont Banff Springs hotel (as luxurious as its Lake Louise sibling) and the group broke up. Monica and I got a late start, plus bad directions from the doorman. We slithered down a steep, icy road to a picnic area at the foot of Spray Falls. Here was copious fluffy snow; and it snowed all day. Some people advised us to ski to a bridge, cross it, ski along the riverside fairway and take a footbridge across the river again. I didn’t know what a fairway was; Monica didn’t know either. It was achingly cold, my nose was running, and the balaclava was making my glasses fog up. I had to keep stopping to fiddle with my clothing and equipment. Monica paced me patiently. As we crossed the footbridge, we met Lance crossing from the other direction. He told us to ski up to the groomed Spray River trail the way he’d come down, and turn left to ski upstream or right to return to the hotel. And then, like Gandalf having dispensed advice to hobbits, he disappeared.
We followed his tracks to a hillside trail and started up it. But, beyond a curve in the trail, the tracks became faint. We worried that they might be somebody else’s old tracks covered in snow. So we went back to the bridge to look for other, fresher tracks Lance might have made. We found none, so we started up the hill again. But, a bit further on, the tracks were even fainter. (Of course it was snowing all the while.). Back we went to the bridge, examining the snow-covered picnic area at its foot like Holmes and Watson. There were some other tracks, but they had been made by snowshoes or boots. So we skied to the top of the hill and found the groomed trail, just as Lance had described it. Later Lance explained that he’d bombed down the hill so fast that his skis probably hadn’t made much of a mark. Truly, nobody out-skis that man.
Skiing up Spray River was quite nice; we were protected from the wind as the ranger had expected, and the sun came out. The recently-groomed trail had just a little fresh snow on it, fast but with enough structure to give good control. The forest and glimpses of the river and the opposite wall of the valley were pretty, and ups and downs in the trail kept us entertained. This trail goes all the way to Canmore’s Nordic Center, for those who have the time. We saw a few other skiers; and we soon met Terry and Linda, who were skiing to the hotel for lunch.
At one point one of Monica’s poles lost its snow-basket; she found it in her last pole-hole, and screwed it back on. Carrying an extra basket would probably be a good idea. We came to a wide opening in the trees close to the river. I could hear rapids out of sight behind a screen of trees. I decided to sidestep down the embankment and take a picture of them. This worked for about three steps; then the snow gave way and I rolled down the hill to the riverbank.
“Are you all right?” Monica called down. I told her I was fine. Then she took a picture of me wallowing in the snow.
I disentangled my skis from some bushes and checked out the rapids; as it turned out, they weren’t that great. I sidestepped back up the embankment, but got stuck in more bushes; so I took off my skis, tossed them up onto the road and scrambled after them. Happily, my ski bindings were in a good mood and let me clip them back on with no trouble.
We came to a clearing that might have been a campsite. It looked like I could get a good view of the river, so I went off the road again, skiing laboriously thru feathery snow up to my knees. I got some nice panoramas of the semi-frozen river, pale blue with “rock flour” — rock finely-ground by glaciers. Then it was time to head back.
Lance’s directions to the hotel worked much better than the doorman’s. The group gathered for supper in front of a fireplace in the upstairs lounge.
Friday 2/9: I didn’t feel quite right today, so I took the day off and hung out at our hotel. The rest of the group went snowshoeing up Johnson Canyon and then skiing on a trail they saw from the highway. I never used the snowshoes that I’d gone to so much trouble to bring along. I thought about exploring the town; but after some online research I decided not to. The park museum was closed, the movie house had nothing interesting, and there was nothing else to do but shop. It was too cold to just roam around. I had the jacuzzi to myself and read and napped. We had dinner at the Japanese restaurant in our hotel; hot sake, salmon teriyaki and California rolls for me.
Saturday 2/10: There had been some talk of skiing on the way back to the airport at Calgary. But we had an early afternoon flight and it had been snowing for days, so Lance wanted to allow extra time for the drive. Besides, once again it was very cold. As it turned out, much of the highway was bare pavement. And at the airport we discovered that our flight to Vancouver had been delayed.
I took my rolling suitcase to the carry-on security wicket as before. It failed its scan; an agent summoned me to witness as he went thru it. He started out by opening it upside-down; stuff fell out onto the table. He said he was looking for a “handle,” and he wouldn’t let me help. Was it the suitcase’s built-in telescoping handle? No. Was it my camera? No. He rummaged for a while and came up with my bathroom kit. Inside was the culprit, my folding brush-comb. Apparently it looked like a folding knife on the scanner. I won’t travel with that any more!