- Written by Andrea Gross Andrea Gross
I’m standing atop an expanse of ice that’s as thick as the Eiffel Tower is tall.
The cold penetrates the soles of my shoes, but I hardly notice as the guide tells me that this glacier, the mighty Athabasca, and the ones that surround it combine to make one of the largest icefields outside of the Arctic Circle. It’s also one of the major attractions of the Canadian Rockies.
In our week in Banff National Park, located in Alberta province, we discover many superlatives: the largest ice fields, the most grizzlies, the bluest lakes, the first national park in Canada and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We take a 14-minute gondola ride to Lake Louise Wildlife Interpretive Centre, which is perched on a mountaintop at an altitude of 6,850 feet.
“It’s a banner year for grizzlies,” the ranger tells us when we disembark the gondola.
This, we soon discover, is both good and bad. We’re likely to see a grizzly, but the small museum a quarter mile downhill is temporarily off limits.
In fact, a group of visitors is currently being held hostage in the museum as a papa grizzly prowls around its exterior.
We’re allowed to walk to a sightseeing platform where we spend the better part of an hour, sharing binoculars and whooping with delight as we spot one, then two, and finally four bears ambling through the trees.
Then we’re told to go back to the gondola, walking quietly in groups of six so as not to disturb or incite the animals.
In addition to the ice and bears, it’s the turquoise-blue lakes that most inspire visitors. As glaciers slowly grind the underlying rock, small particles called “rock flour” become suspended in the rivers and lakes. The interplay between light, rock flour, and water produces the distinctive color.
We take a 90-minute cruise on Lake Minnewanka, the largest body of water in the area, during which we see, yes, another grizzly as well as cougar, elk, and eagle.
But for me the best part of the cruise is the narration. Guide Gary Doyle delights us with stories about the history of Banff — how First Nation people settled the land, how the railroad magnates developed it, and how today’s residents are conserving it.
To learn more about the history of the area, we go to Banff Village, the small town that anchors the national park and provides tourists with ample restaurants, souvenir shops, and places to stock up on hiking gear and insect repellant.
The village has a number of museums, but we most enjoy learning about the past at the impressive Banff Springs Hotel.
Storyboards posted at convenient spots explain that the hotel was built as part of a grand marketing plan. William Cornelius Van Horne, general manager of Canadian Pacific Railway, wanted to increase company profits by enticing city folks from eastern Canada to visit the beautiful but rugged west.
Realizing that his prospective passengers would demand luxury accommodations once they arrived at their destination, he began construction on the Banff Springs Hotel in 1887.
Three years later, Van Horne built a one-story log cabin a few miles away near Lake Louise. The small chalet served as another stop for railroad passengers but also as an adventurous getaway for people staying at the much grander Banff Springs.
The cabin morphed into a small chalet and eventually grew to become a grand chateau. Today, photos of Chateau Lake Louise poised near the gem-toned lake are an iconic image of the Canadian Rockies.
Although the two historic hotels are impressive, our hearts are captured by Moraine Lake Lodge, 9 miles outside the village and on the shore of a lake that is, if possible, even more beautiful than Lake Louise.
My only problem: I can’t decide if I’d prefer to stay in my room, admiring the scenery while enjoying the wood-burning fireplace and deep soaker tub, or if I’d rather be outside, where I can stroll around the lake, hike in the woods, and relish the brisk mountain air.
While the Canadian Rockies rise gradually from the plains on the west, they end abruptly on the east, flattening into a Kansas-like plain. We don’t want to leave, and our mood darkens as we head toward Calgary, 85 miles away.
But at the airport we find that eight airlines have direct flights from Calgary to the United States. No problem. We can come back soon, and we vow that we will!
Photos © Irv Green unless otherwise noted; story by Andrea Gross (www.andreagross.com).