Category Archives: Banff

Autumn meanders… National Parks and Swiss Mountain Guides

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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.

Gazing out to 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!

Swiss Guides and their namesake mountains

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.

Poster-perfect Banff… a century of allure in the Canadian Rockies

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Still vibrant, these classic posters leap out, drawing you into their spectacular mountain scenes and alluring pastimes; skating, skiing, hiking, or just feeling glorious as a pampered world traveller… and all in the splendour of the great Canadian outdoors. These advertisements weren’t created by happenstance. They spoke of the promise of luxury travel to the Canadian West and no place better epitomised this than Banff in the Canadian Rockies.

I admit that a few years ago, I found it impossible to resist acquiring a limited reproduction of one of these treasured posters. They evoke a distinctive time and place, and also represent one of the best advertising campaigns of the late 19th and 20th centuries – Canadian Pacific Railway decided who their market was, and captured it well. The exacting quality and style that they sought, often called for prominent artists, creating posters by the thousands in different languages, to be distributed globally. They portrayed a dream, a lifestyle and on a recent trip to Banff, I wanted to get a little more ‘into the ink of it all’. How did it come about? How did this once obscure settlement, once known as ‘Siding 29’ with little more than a house and a small log store, become world renowned Banff?

It’s quite simple. Without the Canadian Pacific Railway, there would have been no unified Canada and, without the railway, Banff would never have achieved renown, nor would that splendid ‘castle in the mountains’, the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, exist. The railroad helped catapult Banff from obscurity and it all began with one man’s vision.

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His name was Cornelius Van Horne and he had a flair for railway ventures. Under his leadership, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) was completed in 1885 and Canada had achieved its dream of becoming a united country; connected from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The Government of Canada was a mere eighteen years old. How would the CPR recover the enormous costs of building this ribbon of steel across thousands of acres of wilderness? They now had a railway and 25 million acres of land, an area larger than Ireland, granted to them by the government. Beyond the myriad small settlements that sprouted up close to the newly laid rails and the few burgeoning settlements such as Vancouver and Calgary, the vast tract of land was largely unsettled. But Van Horne soon realised there was an opportunity to attract tourists to Canada’s western frontier. In a moment of inspiration, he was reported to have exclaimed:

“Since we can’t export the scenery, we’ll have to import the tourists.”

Van Horne realised the potential of tourism and he executed the next phase. The CPR began building luxury lodgings such as the Banff Springs Hotel, the Empress Hotel in Victoria, the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City. They would cater to wealthy visitors from Europe and the United States and the posters would become Canada’s ‘calling cards,’… but mostly for the privileged few.

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Banff had it all from the outset. Health-giving natural hot springs, spectacular scenery, legendary mountains, all rooted along and backdropped by the Bow River. Older than the mountains themselves, the Bow is a place where as long as 11,000 years ago, the First Nations people gathered wood for their bows along the banks… hence the name. They camped and fished the rivers, replete in trout: brook, cutthroat, and Dolly Varden. They lived in what could be a harsh, but spiritual environment which they deeply revered. It was a place of seven-hundred year Douglas Firs, a landscape shared with grizzly and black bears, bison, moose, lynx, cougars and wolves.

Few Europeans had yet passed through the region: Simpson from the Hudson’s Bay Company, a few military detachments, one Reverend T. Rundle in 1847 and explorer J. Hector in 1858. But in the autumn of 1883, the first tracks made steady progress up the Bow Valley passing and in 1886, through what would become Banff. This pristine wilderness was now part of the important link in the nation’s transportation and commercial corridor. Railway workers had noticed a natural hot springs and eventually Van Horne would convince the Government to reserve 26 square kilometres of land around the springs – the beginning of Canada’s national park system.

 

We spend our few days in Banff feeling as if we’re tourists. I’ve been coming here since ‘forever’, but this time we’re hosting family from The Netherlands and we savour the experience as a small holiday. We stay in a woodsy lodge where a roaring fireplace and a  colossal stuffed bison head presides over the grand room watching tourists from around the world come and go. We stroll the streets of the small town, the prominent Cascade Mountain aligned perfectly on the axis of the bustling Banff Avenue. We admire a cluster of small cabins, some of the first homes of the original settlers, now part of the excellent Whyte Museum. People like David MacIntosh White, who in 1886 followed the adage to ‘Go West, Young Man’ first working for the CPR before becoming one of Banff’s founding businessmen. More brothers followed David from Eastern Canada and the White (later Whyte) family would become naturalists, poets, painters, park wardens, mountain guides, ski adventurers; they and the mountain community thrived.

Enthusiasm abounded and by the end of 1887, settlers had applied for almost 180 lots, both for home ownership and for businesses. There were six hotels, nine stores, two churches, a school and a post office. Along came a log railway station, roads were built. An impressive new hotel was under construction and, anticipating what would follow, access to the Cave and Basin and the Upper Hot Springs was improved.

We luxuriate in those same Upper Hot Springs one evening. It’s -5 degrees below outside and under a waxing gibbous moon, steeped in curative minerals, vapours steaming around us through the frigid mountain air, it is nothing short of breathtaking. In that idyllic setting, we all understand the long-attraction of these health giving waters. We return to our lodge room and gather around a crackling fire – it’s a winter getaway to perfection!

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The next day, I’m determined to explore a little more of Van Horne’s iconic creation. Van Horne himself, occupies a commanding position near the entrance to his Banff Springs Hotel, his statue presiding over the arrivals and departures of guests. Testament that  without his vision of bringing the people to the mountains, none of this might be here. When the hotel opened in 1888, its architect Bruce Price of New York, described it as a ‘bastion of luxury’. And bastion it was – with 250 rooms that opened seasonally from mid May 15 to early October. CPR’s advertising strategies soon paid off and they continued building their chateau inspired masterpieces. Even as round-the-world tours began in  association with P&O, CPR also acquired their own steamships, bringing the international set from afar to the Canadian Rockies.

The increasing popularity of the hotel as an international mountain destination (assisted by a fire) cried out for the need to replace the original wooden structure. Soon an eleven storey tower was added, then more wings, and in 1928 new styling was unveiled ‘in the spirt of a Scottish baronial castle’. Little expense appears to have been spared as stone-cutters from Italy and masons from Scotland were brought in to render this masterpiece!

As I wander through the sprawling hotel, it is rich with carvings, tartan carpets, soaring fireplaces, ballrooms that seem to beg for bagpipes, and million-dollar views. I easily imagine global travellers arriving at the station and being whisked to the ‘castle’ in a ‘tally-ho’s, the original Brewster carriages. Many arrived for their four-month stay, with stacks of luggage and a $50,000 letter of credit in hand to see them through the season. Their’s was a life of luxury… just as the evocative posters had promised.

 

 

I peer out to the Bow River beyond. It’s always been a multi-use kind of river – perhaps a curling sheet, a hockey rink, a backdrop for one of Marilyn Monroe’s movies, or a royal visit by King George VI, Queen Elizabeth, Theodore Roosevelt and William Lyon Mackenzie King.

Yet as I gaze a little longer, I’m also reminded of those who laboured to bring the tracks to this setting. Those like the legendary Swedes, who they say handled the railway ties as though they were mere toothpicks. And the mixes of other ethnicities who contributed to unifying this country; Italians, Norwegians, Irish, Germans, Japanese, Chinese, British, Americans and Canadians. Most suffered hardship, many lost their lives, some stayed to settle this vast land. Their perseverance enabled more than two million settlers from Europe and the United States to pour into the west between 1886 and 1914 – the first and greatest wave of immigration in Canadian history. By 1901, this new country would have a population of five million, some 700,000 born overseas. Many would acquire plots from the CPR, choosing to homestead, our first farmers and ranchers. All of them welcomed, and needed in the new cultural mosaic of Canada.

For me, Banff is much more than the opulence of a beautiful hotel, the lure of stupendous scenery or world-class ski hills. It is about the stories that still echo around these grand peaks.

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If you go, allow me my suggestions:

Stay at the Buffalo Mountain Lodge, besides the lobby, fireplaces are also in individual rooms.

Stop, or stay, at the Fairmont Banff Springs. Take the stairs to the second level and wander!

Be sure to luxuriate at the Upper Hot Springs. Eat at the casual and fun Magpie and Stump. Don’t miss the iconic Hudson’s Bay store on Banff Avenue. Visit the Whyte Museum. Stop on your way, or afterwards in nearby Canmore, stroll the shops and the the beautiful scenery along the river.