Sunday, August 29, 2010


For our second anniversary, back in 1994, I surprised Audrey with a trip to the Banff Springs Hotel. It was still a CP hotel at the time and had a ridiculous "bed & breakfast" promotion that meant even I could afford a night there. We fully expected to be shuttled off to one of the much more recent annex wings and crammed into a shoebox room, which was fine, as we could still explore this majestic edifice in our sock feet as registered guests, but they magnanimously upgraded our rooms so we could look out our window and see the pine boughs piled over the statue of Van Horne in lieu of a Christmas tree. We supped at the Banff Grizzly House and ate all manner of exotic fare, and had a tremendous time, despite Audrey's suffering a terrible cold, and watched a candlelight Christmas parade through the halls of the hotel.

And that was pretty much the last time we were in Banff until last week.

The Banff Springs is now a Fairmont Hotel, and there are four of us now instead of two. We pitched our tent at Tunnel Mountain, in an RV spot, as I need electricity to power my CPAP machine. Power placement also necessitated my purchasing an 82' extension cord, but other than that, no complaints about our lodging. Well, maybe one: since we had to improvise a tent site in the trees next to an RV pull through, the ground was not particularly level, which usually left the four of us stacked to the starboard side of the tent come morning, which was not very restful. Still, sleep was had, despite the fact that it went as low as 3 degrees above zero one chilly evening. I will take cold weather over hot any time while camping, and it only rained once while we were there.

Mornings would usually see me up first, cooking breakfast on the Coleman stove because i) someone had to do it, ii) it's not like I could go back to sleep once I had gotten up to perform my ablutions anyways and iii) the stove provided a measure of warmth.

I have always preferred Jasper to Banff; the more northern town feels just a bit more rough hewn and authentic, while I feel Banff striving for some measure of cosmopolitan compromise between art galleries and ski shops in order to accommodate commuter tourists from Calgary. The townsite was incredibly busy on Sunday, despite the rain, so we toured the main street and went to the Whyte Museum to see their exhibit, Grizzly!, which was excellent. The girls most enjoyed the pictures from the park's earliest days featuring clueless tourists feeding bears by hand (or by mouth in once case).

Souvenir shopping can be fun enough, but it doesn't take too long to realize that there are only about 5 distinct stores on the whole strip and the remainder are variations on a fairly tired theme. Still, a store called Rock, Paper, Silver had a ton of interesting fossils and the like, including a fossilized cave bear skeleton in the front window, and I would recommend checking them out if you get the opportunity.

The Fenlands Trail is right next to the Trans-Canada Highway, but I was still impressed with the girls for not freaking out in a dark forest at night, even while inspecting an aspen tree for the claw marks of a bear.

We went to the Cascade Gardens behind the Park Administration Building for the first time ever and were all suitably impressed since we were there at pretty much the peak time for the 60,000 annuals planted throughout.

Our stroll through the Banff Springs Hotel was a bittersweet mix of intriguing and tantalizing; it turns out there is no easy way to explain to grade school offspring why staying in a $300 per night hotel is not a practical choice. Still, imagining what one could do while a guest there is a great way to spend imaginary lotto winnings. (I'm pretty sure my internal class struggle would manifest itself as a pie fight or some other form of Stoogery...)

We also met up with Island Mike and his family, as well as his sister and her family. We enjoyed a great evening out at the St. James' Gate pub, with the six children at one table and the parents at the other. I remember similar outings from my own childhood, and was happy that Fenya and Glory could experience something similar, and you could not ask for better company. Combine this with the fact that they had Smithwick's on tap and excellent food, follow up with a walk down to the Bow Falls and it was the highlight of the trip, at least for me.

The hot springs are a favourite part of any trip to the mountains, but by the time we got there, the sun had come out and warmed everything up, which took a lot of the novelty out of it. They are open year-round, so I just need to figure out how to arrange a trip there in the dead of winter.

We also rode the gondola up Sulphur Mountain and walked over to Mt. Sansa to see the old weather station and the historic site of the cosmic ray research station. One of the plaques there had this fantastic artwork next to a description of cosmic rays, which I tried to explain to the girls is the source of the Fantastic Four's powers. The art is so evocative and reminds a lot of the "Doodle Art" of the 1970s.

By the time we had to journey home, we were not only tired from striking camp (and sleeping on an incline), but I had chafed up badly from hiking in jeans throughout the week. We still took a small excursion at Moraine Lake (home of the landscape on the old $20 bill) and while walking along the shore, we came within 10 yards a doe feeding in the forest, which was very surprising since we had Nitti with us.

Audrey also indulged Fanyea and I by pulling over on the drive down from Moraine Lake and letting us fill our water bottles from a moutain stream.

There are now signposts showing how far Athabasca Glacier has receded every decade for the past century or so, and it is estimated that it will be completely gone in three generations. Spending ten minutes walking from the toe of the glacier to the point it stood at when I visited as a boy is pretty sobering stuff, and made quite an impression on the girls, as did the idea that their grandchildren may not get a chance to see it at all.

My favourite part of the trip came at the very end, when Glory insisted I move into the back seat for a cuddle with her. Fenya leapt at the chance to sightsee from the front seat, and Audrey, ever the trooper drove the entire way to Edmonton. The view from the backseat is a little limited if you are taller than 4'10", but having one daughter curled up under my arm while the other pointed out landmarks from the shotgun seat more than made up for it.

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