Trav­eller sur­prised by ‘small world’ en­counter in re­mote tea house


Trav­eller sur­prised by ‘small world’ en­counter in re­mote tea room

The turquoise wa­ters of Lake Louise sparkled be­low us as we hiked over steep ter­rain, fol­low­ing a sign for a tea house. We spot­ted wa­ter­falls and rock climbers as we added about six kilo­me­tres to our day’s out­ing. We chat­ted with other trav­ellers mak­ing their way up and down the Al­berta moun­tain. We saw a cow­boy and his pack­horse.

And then the world sud­denly got very small when we met a lo­cal woman work­ing in her dream job.

Danielle Palumbo grew up in Cam­bridge with her brother, Chris, and their par­ents, John and Bev Palumbo. The East­wood Col­le­giate grad­u­ate com­pleted a mas­ter’s de­gree in plan­ning and de­vel­op­ment at Ry­er­son Univer­sity in 2016. She was liv­ing in down­town Toronto but felt some­thing was miss­ing. A Cam­bridge friend told her about work­ing for a sum­mer at a tea house in Canada’s old­est na­tional park. Palumbo was hooked.

“I was crav­ing a real ad­ven­ture, a jour­ney re­ally full of new ex­pe­ri­ences and chal­lenges. (Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House) was a way to ex­pe­ri­ence the moun­tain life in the best, most au­then­tic way pos­si­ble, travel, and make great money at the same time,” Palumbo says.

To em­brace the job, you have to have an open mind, work hard and not mind get­ting dirty, she says. Staff at the tea house not only pre­pare meals and wait ta­bles, but they also clean out­houses, sweep up por­cu­pine drop­pings and make sure the crit­ters don’t gnaw on ev­ery­thing.

At an el­e­va­tion of 2,100 me­tres, the tea house is with­out elec­tric­ity and warm run­ning wa­ter.

Swiss guides work­ing for the Cana­dian

Pa­cific Rail­way built it out of stone and wood in 1924, to pro­vide a rest stop for hik­ers go­ing higher up the trail to the Ab­bot Pass. Martha Feuz was the first op­er­a­tor, wife of guide Ed­ward Feuz. Joy and Peter Kim­ball bought the tea house in 1959 and it re­mains in the same fam­ily.

My hus­band and I reached it in late May when it had just opened for the sea­son.

It’s a mod­er­ate hike to the tea house from Chateau Lake Louise, with steep stretches. Crowds swarm the chateau grounds but thin out as you climb the trail. Part of the nar­row rock face is em­bed­ded with steel ca­bles to guide you. We hiked through an­kle-deep snow and wet parts. The last sec­tion has steep switch­backs.

You can pack your own lunch and eat it on benches at a look­out. You can hike higher for an even bet­ter view of the glaciers.

We ar­rived at the tea house thirsty and hun­gry and found lots of ta­bles avail­able so early in the sea­son. The menu changes as sup­plies ebb and flow. Hot corn muffins and choco­late cake had just emerged from the kitchen. We en­joyed tea and a cup of soup. The wooden ve­randa of­fers a van­tage point with stun­ning views. The rum­ble of a far-off avalanche star­tled us, but ap­par­ently it hap­pens reg­u­larly.

We over­heard Palumbo men­tion Cam­bridge while serv­ing an­other guest and so I asked her: is that Cam­bridge in On­tario? Yes, it sure is a small world.

On her first shift at the tea house, Palumbo carted a back­pack weigh­ing more than 50 pounds. A he­li­copter drops off sup­plies dur­ing the sea­son, but staff must trans­port any per­sonal food or items they want. Palumbo was thrilled to par­tic­i­pate in “he­li­copter day.”

The he­li­copter loads in Lake Louise with bags of sup­plies weigh­ing 800 to 1,000 pounds. This in­cludes choco­late and wine and large propane tanks for the stoves.

“It was ab­so­lutely in­cred­i­ble see­ing the moun­tains, my new neigh­bours, from that van­tage point,” Palumbo says.

Staff live in a cabin be­side the tea house. Cosy sleep­ing con­di­tions in­clude bunk beds and a wood stove. You can hang a ham­mock and sleep out­doors when weather per­mits.

“I’ll never for­get what it felt like to see the smoke come out of the cabin, and then smell that fire on the way down from my evening hikes af­ter work – just glo­ri­ous,” Palumbo says.

On days off, the staff split rent in a Lake Louise apart­ment.

The job in­cludes car­ry­ing down all of the garbage that isn’t safe to burn. Em­ploy­ees call the treks the “garbage party” and are thrilled when tourists of­fer to help.

Por­cu­pines named Leonard, Scully and Mul­der chew on ev­ery­thing from boxes and pip­ing to fur­ni­ture left out­side. Other crit­ters steal shiny things such as alu­minum foil or watches.

Job perks in­clude savour­ing na­ture’s beauty found in a bird song, meadow flow­ers, the North­ern Lights and a vi­brant night sky. A se­cret meadow re­minded Palumbo of some­thing out of the Lord of the Rings.

She learned to en­joy show­er­ing in wa­ter­falls, just a fun hike away from the tea house, and soak­ing her sore feet in a hid­den nat­u­ral hot tub.

There’s no elec­tric­ity, which doesn’t stop visi­tors from ask­ing if they can bor­row phone charg­ers or use a mi­crowave. Palumbo’s cell­phone died on her sec­ond day at work.

“At first it felt strange. Then I loved the dis­con­nec­tion. I had time and space to think, dis­con­nect from the tech cloud and re­con­nect with my­self and oth­ers with my head lit­er­ally in the clouds,” she says.

Our visit to the tea house was just one high­light on our trip to Banff Na­tional Park. We also vis­ited nearby Lake Mo­raine. It too has in­cred­i­ble views and wa­ter of a spec­tac­u­lar hue I have never seen in na­ture. As gla­cial ice moves over the moun­tain, tiny shreds of rock flow to moun­tain lakes in spring and sum­mer. Light re­flects off this “rock flour” to make the wa­ter shim­mer in an un­usu­ally bright blue or emer­ald colour.

You can eas­ily visit Lake Mo­raine and Lake Louise in the same day. There are sev­eral trail op­tions at Lake Mo­raine, in­clud­ing a pile of rocks you can climb for a bet­ter van­tage point to take pho­to­graphs. It is vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble to take a bad pho­to­graph from that lo­ca­tion.

We vis­ited out­side ski sea­son, but you can still ride the lifts at Lake Louise Sight­see­ing Gon­dola (part of the ski re­sort) to ex­pe­ri­ence Rocky Moun­tain highs. You can choose an open chair or fully en­closed gon­dola. It takes 15 min­utes to reach an interpretive cen­tre and more trails to ex­plore.

We en­joyed the buf­fet break­fast (an ex­tra $4) to fuel up be­fore rid­ing the gon­dola. We opted for a $9 ini­ti­a­tion ses­sion on top of the moun­tain. This turned out to be a very good de­ci­sion. Our guide took us on a 45-minute walk, partly to gird us for un­ex­pected wildlife en­coun­ters and help keep us safe. A ba­sic rule is to talk loudly to ward off bears and to keep yelling this out loud while you hike: “Hey bear!”

We set off on our own af­ter the ses­sion and al­most im­me­di­ately came upon fresh bear drop­pings on the trail. We spoke loudly, moved cau­tiously, and sure enough spied two bears in the meadow be­low. We snapped pho­tos but kept our dis­tance. We saw the same bears from above on our gon­dola ride back down the moun­tain.

Visi­tors who don’t want to spend all their time on trails can head to the town of Banff for food, shop­ping and his­tory. You can be for­given if you feel like you are in Aus­tralia, hear­ing the ac­cents while wan­der­ing Banff’s charm­ing streets and in­side the stores and restau­rants. We met many Aus­tralians work­ing there on sum­mer jobs.

Take a stroll around the Banff Springs ho­tel grounds as well as Chateau Lake Louise. Both cas­tle-like prop­er­ties were built by the Cana­dian Pa­cific Rail­way and have shops and his­toric sights.

A statue of rail­way ex­ec­u­tive Wil­liam Cor­nelius Van Horne in Banff pays tribute to his vi­sion in lur­ing tourists to see the

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

A walk over the Banff pedes­trian bridge pro­vides yet an­other stun­ning view of the moun­tains, Bow River and sur­round­ing scenery.

The area was set­tled in the late 1800s and its his­tory is well cu­rated at the Whyte Mu­seum of the Cana­dian Rock­ies in Banff. Guided tours of the ex­hibits and his­toric cab­ins help ex­plain the early life of the area and the pi­o­neers who lived there.

Banff shop­ping ranges from high-end fash­ions at the Banff Springs ho­tel to main­street tourist stores with typ­i­cal trin­kets. Food choices are eclec­tic. We sam­pled ev­ery­thing from sushi and steak to ve­gan fare. One of our best meals was at Flour­ish Restau­rant on Bear Street.

We left Banff to ex­pe­ri­ence more western ad­ven­tures in Cal­gary and Ed­mon­ton, but our time in the moun­tains was the high­light of our trip. It’s al­ways said that Canada has many nat­u­ral won­ders. Vis­it­ing Banff Na­tional Park let us mar­vel at one of the best.

And now we have a new un­der­stand­ing of what it means to take high tea.


The Lake Louise Sight­see­ing Gon­dola of­fers bird’s-eye views even when it isn’t ski sea­son.

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