Holiday on ice
Alberta in winter is a white, bright playground for adventurous visitors
IT’S minus 30C and there’s a man half-submerged in a pond in Alberta’s Athabasca Valley, his body slumped across thick, bluewhite ice. Nearby, fresh cougar prints puncture a snowy embankment and a herd of bighorn sheep graze with oblivious intent.
Mt Colin rises sheer behind the creased hills that rim a broad valley floor. The valley, in turn, spreads out to the east, where dark brown sand dunes — the result of incessant wind activity — strike a jarring note in this sub-Arctic terrain. This scene — the inert man, the sheep with their enviable coats, the wildly beautiful but forbidding landscape — is backlit by a mocking blue sky.
‘ ‘ We’re having a cold snap,’’ retired park ranger Wes Bradford says, ignoring the man in the pond and pointing instead at the bighorns that, although the most common ungulate here in Jasper National Park, tend to keep to themselves up on the ridges of the Canadian Rockies.
‘‘They can’t outrun their predators, so that’s their escape mechanism,’’ Bradford says.
At the icy pond, someone has at last come to the aid of the stranded man: it’s an innocuous scene, after all, for as he’s pulled out of the water I see he’s wearing a thick red dry suit and is part of a rescue drill; as for the lurking cougar, in truth the animal is so elusive that many locals have never encountered one, and it’s already long gone, melting into the snow-clad forest as if it were a ghost.
This remains an untameable frontier almost a century after winter holiday-makers first began to congregate here. My journey confirms this impression, for I’ve come here from Banff and Lake Louise by way of the TransCanada Highway and the Icefields Parkway, a 230km stretch of road that traces the valleys carved out by glaciers eons ago.
The route throws up vistas heavy with beauty and abandonment. There are mountains shaped by exquisite geometry; forests rendered ashen-grey by the random fall of snowflakes; and ominous signboards warning of avalanches and back-country conditions. And that empty, ice-paved road perseveres northwards along the Continental Divide into a cold so intense that just one mouthful will set your lungs on fire.
‘‘The coldest we had was minus 54C in 1982,’’ Bradford says, pointing out the beaver houses that project above the frozen lid of Talbot Lake. ‘‘But winter’s too long to spend inside. You’ve got to enjoy those winter sports.’’
It’s an especially invigorating season in the Rockies, forcing people out of their summer stupor and igniting every last languid nerve cell. The weather is marginally warmer in Banff, but ice still plugs its waterways and snow settles on footpaths and windscreens and eaves in fluffy layers.
Holiday-makers and seasonal workers cram streets and restaurants and pubs, revelling in this white substance that falls from the heavens like manna.
They are here for nothing if not the cold and the snow.
High above the Bow Valley, at the elevated Sunshine Village Ski Resort, this joy is exemplified as people race down slopes on skis and snowboards, leaving powdery rills in their wake. There’s an infectious camaraderie here, a deep mining of the joy that’s to be found under extreme conditions.
‘‘Let’s slice up the gnar!’’ Dan Brideau shouts, piercing the snow with his ski poles and turning to face a slope swallowed, it seems, by a forested valley far below. Brideau is tanned and lean, a mobile advertisement for outdoor living. For the past 20 years he has taught cautious, hypothermia-prone people (such as me) the art of skiing, guiding them down seemingly vertiginous runs with forthright instruction and pop psychology.
‘‘It’s mind over matter!’’ he insists as I make feeble wedges and ploughs with my skis, terrified I might gain momentum and fly off the mountainside. ‘‘If you don’t master the slope, it will master you! Don’t let your fear control you!’’
At this elevation we are close to the Rockies’ spine; running from south to northwest, its limestone and shale vertebrae twist and snake back and forth between Alberta and the neighbouring province of British Columbia. It’s an intimidating range with its jagged peaks and thickly iced flanks.
My skiing is stiff and uninspired. I fall and pick myself up again and again. I watch resignedly as tiny skiers fly past, their airborne silhouettes illuminated by an aura of diamond-flecked snow.
As the sun sets, some of the skiers glide over to the ski-in, skiout Sunshine Mountain Lodge, where they will rest for the night; others make their way back down the mountain like a trail of unwilling ants, infiltrating the valley where fires crackle in hearths and pubs fill with the smell of beer and tales of bravery on the doubleblack diamond runs.
Across the Bow River, the Fair- mont Banff Springs Hotel is immersed like a princess’s castle in the mists of Brigadoon; but even this Scottish baronial-inspired pile can’t contain its guests. They spill outside to curl pucks on the ice or wallow in the steaming, spring-fed pool, easing the aches resulting from a day on the slopes.
The UNESCO-listed Banff National Park isn’t defined, though, by consistent snowfall and hectares of skiable terrain; there are also the ancient geological elements that infuse this landscape, the hot springs that bubble up to the surface, the limestone canyons carved out by thousands of consecutive winters.
I pull cleats over my boots and set off on the Johnston Canyon Icewalk, hiking along ice sheets and steel walkways embedded in the canyon walls. This chasm is filled with poplars and aspens and large pine trees. There are countless animal species living here: black bears and bobcats, lynxes and moose, and an elusive pack of
wolves that flits between Banff and Lake Louise.
The trailhead is marked by a waterfall, its curlicues blue with cold. They have been frozen midmovement, like Lot’s wife, and iceclimbers are trying to scale them before the spell is broken.
North of here, the deep, tealblue waters of Lake Louise are hidden beneath an impenetrable slab of ice and the translucent ice sculptures arranged on its surface. The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise sits regally beside the lake; in a little cabin off to the side, naturalist Bruce Bembridge points to a wall of Native American snowshoes, hewn from pliable wood and lashed with leather straps.
Bembridge is dressed in khaki knickerbockers and long woollen socks; he wears spectacles and sports a neatly trimmed moustache. ‘‘Some of us still do things the old-fashioned way,’’ he says.
I select the Ojibwe snowshoes, designed by the people of the Great Lakes region for ease of movement through heavy snow.
There’s at least 1m of it on Lake Louise and we must break tracks through this compacted downfall. Silence echoes off the mountainsides and the snow absorbs my exertion with barely a whisper. This is how unsuspecting holidaymakers are transformed into disciples. ‘‘The pilgrims come to the promised land,’’ Bembridge says, surveying his majestic, icesculpted realm. ‘‘And isn’t it?’’ Catherine Marshall was a guest of Travel Alberta.
In winter, walkers visit Johnston Canyon, near Banff and Lake Louise, to hike along ice sheets and steel walkways embedded in the canyon walls and to view this frozen waterfall
An elk stag surveys his snow-laden domain in Banff National Park