Urged on by intimations of winter’s early arrival (but hey, it’s alway early here) we set off on one last meander. We’ve put away our glamping tent for the year, made reservations at a hotel and a lodge, and with the canoe strapped on the car, we journey from our mountain town through Kootenay National Park and, some three hours later, arrive in Alberta’s famed Banff National Park. I wrote of Banff a few years ago and never take it for granted that this international destination is in our own backyard.
Banff National Park holds the distinction of not only being Canada’s oldest National Park, but the fourth oldest in the world after The Bogd Khan Uul in Mongolia – 1783, Yellowstone National Park USA – 1872, and the Royal National Park in Australia – 1879.
In 1885 Prime Minister John A. MacDonald set aside a small tract of land (while, sadly, removing the people of Stoney Nakoda First Nation between the years of 1890 to 1920’s) to establish the park. It soon attracted residents, tourists and sportsmen alike, in time becoming a playground for wealthy Europeans and American tourists. Today, the vibe along Banff Avenue, in the hotels, on the hiking, biking, skiing trails is a blend of nature and small town life… the highest town in Canada at just over 1300 metres.
We check into the Rimrock Hotel and it strikes us how strange it is to be in a hotel again, wonderful, but mildly disorienting during the ongoing pandemic. We welcome that masks are mandatory, inside and outside, and even as people socially distance, Banff bustles as always.
We hike a little, not far from the townsite, where Lake Minnewanka and its environs proclaim the wonder of autumn… russets, oranges and golds in a resplendent canvas. For more than one-hundred centuries, the First Nations hunted and camped along these shores of Mine-waki or Lake of the Spirits, both fearing and respecting its resident spirits. There are few remains of the summer village later established here in 1911, but then as now, boat cruises afforded the most spectacular views.
We choose to hike instead of taking to the water, conscious of and hoping not to encounter grizzly bears. This is the time of year when mamas and their cubs forage buffalo berries before hibernation…. the beauty surrounding us takes my mind (mostly) off their undoubted presence. The scenery is breathtaking and I’m reminded of our great fortune to have these National Parks; they are a gift to the people, to the earth.
Leaving Banff, we drive north through the hamlet of Lake Louise stopping at the glacial lake itself. Tourists pose briefly for photos but I take a while, gazing out towards Mount Leroy, Mount Victoria, Mount Whyte. They are already snowy-wrapped as they anchor the striking emerald lake and the renowned Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise.
Onward to our next destination, to another emerald-hued lake, aptly named Emerald Lake, which lies in Canada’s second oldest park. Yoho National Park in British Columbia was established in 1886 and in the local Cree language, yoho is an exclamation of awe, of wonder. It applies perfectly to the park’s expansive glaciers, impressive waterfalls, soaring peaks and ancient forests.
A few kilometres before the Emerald Lake turnoff, we pull into the small town of Field. Nestled at the foot of Mount Stephen, it is a gem, a gathering of history where mining preceded the settlement necessary for the advancement of the railway over the Kicking Horse Pass in 1883. A smattering of tents and timber shacks housed construction workers for the Canadian Pacific Railway; then eventually a name change to Field in the hope of wooing a would-be, but ultimately unrequited, American investor.
It’s a cold, misty afternoon as we enter the town. The deep rumbling of a CPR train echoes through the valley as it slowly grinds to a halt, stopping precisely in front of the old Telegraph building. The train seems like ‘a mile long’ but unlike the past, groups of tourists do not hasten off the train to dash-off a quick telegraph during their 20 minute stop.
Imagine it’s the late 1880’s. As in Banff and Lake Louise, the CPR has built yet another hotel to attract tourists and capitalise on the stunning scenery. Yet this smaller hotel in Field is initially designed as a simple meal stop between Banff and Golden – the steep grade of the ‘Big Hill’ at Kicking Horse Pass rendered dining cars too heavy to haul. By 1902 and with a major expansion, Mount Stephen House is as lavish as the outdoors is wild. Wealthy visitors ride the rails, soon stopping for the health, recreation and sheer pleasure of the mountains.
As I read about the Mount Stephen Hotel, I come across this fond endorsement:
“No intimation was given to me, that I should find Field a charming place and it has been a pleasant surprise to discover in the heart of the Rockies, as delightful a nook as any person may desire.” Edward Whymper 1901, First mountaineer to climb the Matterhorn.
His quote leads me deeper into the fascinating history of Swiss guides in the Canadian Rockies. It starts partly in Banff, in Golden, in Field, where to stimulate tourism, and to radiate confidence, experienced Swiss guides were brought in to escort amateur mountaineers. After a climbing accident of an American climber in 1896, the CPR realised the value of these seasoned experts and indeed when Englishman Edward Whymper, renowned for ascending the Matterhorn, promoted the Canadian Rockies as “50 Switzerlands in One“, the Rocky Mountains entered the world stage… waiting to be scaled and explored.
Swiss mountaineers were employed during the summers, returning home to Switzerland over the winter, though a number over-wintered working as caretakers for the seasonal CPR hotels. Of the fifty-six first ascents of mountains over 3000 metres prior to 1911, not less than 50 first ascents were made under the steady hand and sure foot of these experienced men. By 1925, CPR’s 35 Swiss Guides had led more than 250 first ascents in the mountains of western Canada. With no fatalities in their care, and perhaps basking in their reputation as gentlemen and colourful characters, many would bring their families to make Canada their home – especially in Golden at the purpose-built Edelweiss Village. A few striking houses still remain, high above the town on the eastern flank of the Rockies.
Today, Swiss guides are credited with laying the foundation for the birth of skiing and perhaps even shaping winter sports as a pastime in Canada. Their legacy also remains in the names of our mountains, our ‘Swiss chalets’ at ski hills, not to mention our propensity for Swiss fondues after a day on the slopes!
We meander onward from Field to our final destination, Emerald Lake, the darling of Yoho National Park. Although it’s our first time here, the lake’s image is iconic Canadian… and is as stunning in person as it is in photos. The lake derives its vivid colour from powdered limestone and nestles under Mount Burgess of the famed ‘Burgess Shale’ – the fortunate preservation of middle Cambrian (508 million years old) fossil beds, yielding species never before seen. The basin traps epic storms, and moisture, nurturing forests of western cedar and yew, hemlock and white pine.
We walk the five kilometre route around the lake, marvelling at the old growth, savouring the birdsong, glimpsing the shimmering lake through the thick forest. We stay in the Emerald Lake Lodge, remembering the first tourists and the Swiss guides. We chat with the staff, gathered from other parts of the world who are having their own unique experience in the Canadian Rockies.
And finally, we heave that red canoe off the car. It’s a cool but sunny, clear afternoon and we spend hours on the serene lake. It is simply spectacular in a way that can defy description – and so, abandoning my search for new descriptive adjectives, let’s simply call it ‘Canadian-National-Park-iconic’. In the middle of these emerald waters I spread my arms wide and yell –”Yoho!”
Throughout the long paddle, we gaze into the turquoise water, up to the looming mountains, and over to each other and agree… this is the perfect ending to the season.