Hol­i­day on ice

Al­berta in win­ter is a white, bright play­ground for ad­ven­tur­ous vis­i­tors

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination - CATHER­INE MAR­SHALL

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.

PHOTOLIBRARY

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

SCENIC TOURS

An elk stag sur­veys his snow-laden do­main in Banff Na­tional Park

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