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This is my first sleigh ride. Horse hooves make a slightly crunching klop-klop-klop over inches of packed snow along the northern shoreline of Lake Louise. A slope of powdered evergreens gently rises to our right and across the frozen lake bed on our left is Fairview Mountain, its snowy peak nearly hidden in a cloud most of the day.
I can’t feel my face. My fingers are stinging as I pull the blanket a little higher over my lap. But the simple, nostalgic pleasure of this is knotted to a lifetime of Christmas carols and greeting card imagery that tows me gently along to the slow beat of the hooves. I have to know what this is. As much as I can. And somewhere beneath seven layers of clothing, I’m having a really good time.
It’s late January in Banff National Park, and the villages of Banff and Lake Louise that dwell within its borders are making merry for Snow Days, a month-long collection of outdoor activities and festivals.
The last time I was in Canada, I was in one province to the west and it was summertime. It might as well have been another hemisphere. The archipelago of British Columbia is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. The summer light lasts until 10 p.m. and orcas fish alongside you for a day’s fill of Chinook salmon.
Alberta in winter is a splendor less obvious. A beauty veiled in the cityscapes and rush hour traffic of Calgary and Edmonton, but understood and celebrated in the mountain villages. Like the Russians and Scandinavians, those living above certain latitudes in North America have learned how to embrace the winter in an adaptation that would have Darwin singing “Oh Canada” and swigging beer at a hockey game. The long, dark winters of the Canadian Rockies can be as gorgeous as they are fierce. But Albertans are prepared. Spirited, even. Fully aware of this icy white loveliness, and true to their northern form, happy to share it with anyone else who is.
Strangely, it wasn’t until the 1988 Winter Olympics in nearby Calgary, about 90 minutes south along the Trans-Canada Highway, that the Banff National Park area was considered a real winter wonderland by the outside world. Since then, skiers and snowboarders have made it a regular seasonal destination.
In the late 1880s, the two locations were founded as train stops for the Canadian Pacific Railway. They grew slowly over the last century as mostly summertime tourist towns. Banff’s population of 7,000 dwarfs Lake Louise, which is less than 1,000 most of the year. Snow can fall any day here, but the crowds flock when the hills are green, and the hiking, mountain biking and kayaking are some of the best in the country.
Snow Days was created a few years ago to break some of the seasonality and bring families and couples here to play in the cold. There is a ball hockey tournament, ice skating on the lake, a 20-foot ice climbing wall; you can learn to curl, snowshoe, or get in touch with the Canadian wilderness at eye level with astronomy, outdoor photography and wildlife tracking. Though it’s not officially part of Snow Days, even dog sledding is to be had for the adventurous. Of course, it has its limits. It was 40 degrees below zero a week before I arrived. Even locals say that’s too cold to do anything. For that, there is the great indoors of world-class hotels and several great restaurants.
This is my first time in ice cleats. They add an odd spring to my step as I wind slowly up Johnston Canyon in pursuit of another symbol of winter’s unique beauty, a frozen waterfall. Johnston Creek has flowed and frozen again and again for thousands of years as it cut steep limestone walls into this canyon on its way to the Bow River below. So steep that a metal walkway clinging to one cliff wall allows the only reasonable means of ascent much of the way.
The creek moves on, in trickles and surges, despite the weight of the chill from above. Walk around a corner and it reveals a new bit of itself to you. At the waterfall, a raven swoops in. It has learned that waiting for the lunchtime crumbs of visitors is extra protection against the lean season. A cup of hot chocolate does the trick for me and is a good excuse to stand back and ponder the movement of nature captured the way it is here. Competing for my attention are a couple of ice climbers on the other side of the canyon. On another day, I’d happily be climbing out of here with them, but today, after I finish the chocolate, I’ll walk out instead.
Back in Banff, the Fairmont Banff Springs is a time machine. A glorious Victorian castle masquerading as a hotel. It looks especially majestic in the snow. Though it’s certainly modern in amenities, it was built in 1888 with a brown brick exterior and an architecture that echoes the mountains surrounding it. After a hot shower and change of clothes, it feels like a lodge, as I stare out the window to a snow-covered hillside.
A little later, I’ve cozied up to The Bison, an upscale restaurant just across the Bow River from the Fairmont that makes Banff feel a bit like Park City or Vail. It renders haute cuisine out of the lumberjack tastes of Western Canada, something nice for locals and visitors alike. Yes, the bison was excellent, as a matter of fact. Not a spot friendly to the vegetarian though, but not hostile either. All the same, a few days in Banff National Park and you’re reminded why man starting eating meat in the first place. The streets all have animal names like Bear, Cougar, Lynx, Wolf, and Bighorn, as if by design of the tourist board, but walking to get a beer at a local pub near Caribou Street, I bump into a few searching for lunch in someone’s front yard. Another strolls regally down the middle of the street, as if he’s going to the opera. It’s better, I decide, not to explore Grizzly Street.
This is my first time snowshoeing. It’s about 17 degrees and a light but steady snow falls on a group of us making our way up what would be common hiking areas during the summer. I like the rhythm of it. We tramp a path up the hillside that starts at ankle-deep, but eventually becomes waist-deep snow. It’s left-right, left-right with trekking pole and snow shoe. It builds into a low-grade trance at points. It’s an excellent workout while being a highly effective means of transportation through snow. At the hut where we set out, the guides keep a selection of old-school and new-school snowshoes available for use. The old-school shoes hanging on the wall look like a collection of misshapen tennis rackets. I don’t know how well they work, but they certainly make better wall art than the ones I’m wearing.
A chainsaw spews out splinters of ice as “‘Nuff Said Johan” takes towering form over the grounds at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. I don’t know what the sculpture is called actually, but that’s what I’m calling him. It’s the crossed arms and firm jaw line. Big hat. The Ice Magic Festival is in full swing. It’s one of the events at the back end of Snow Days. Family-friendly and even dog-friendly today. There are ice carving demonstrations and international competitions. I don’t know how serious the stakes, but they are using chainsaws.
Honestly, they’re all impressive. How a mere mortal carves such impressive and detailed work from blocks of ice is beyond me. But I know there is no chance these statues are melting any time soon.
For all intents and purposes, what we think of as the town, the village, or the hamlet of Lake Louise is essentially the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. The hotel is the main employer and nowadays, it provides steady work for a lot of locals, because the hotel is huge. Though the Chateau is almost as old as the Fairmont in Banff an hour down the highway, the façade is much more modern, and overall, the experience feels more alpine by comparison.
I wake to the sight of Fairview Mountain each morning, but the overstuffed chair in the corner provides me a vista of lake, mountain and hotel grounds over which to reflect in the twilight. After a day outside, it’s a treat to warm up in one of the hotel’s restaurants. This is my first fondue. The Walliser Stube is the Chateau’s top place for dinner. Over some good scotch, I’m savoring the taste of bison again and learning about Canadian politics from locals.
The next morning, I’ve stuffed myself with a sumptuous breakfast feast at the hotel’s Poppy Brasserie. The buffet is accessible for broad tastes and big appetites, and I was able to satisfy every breakfast whim, but you can also order from the menu.
As I make my way back to Calgary for the plane home, I stop to hitch a ride on the Banff Gondola. Sulphur Mountain is a 7,500-foot peak that overlooks the town and gorgeous valley it lies in. An elevated boardwalk takes me along the ridgeline to the historic Cosmic Ray Station. Through a window on the rocky outcropping, I can see that the shack still contains the simple digs of scientists a century ago. It’s a stark example of what kind of people founded this area, and how they built a unique place that celebrates the natural world and puts life in a cold winter day. It just makes you feel all warm inside.