With just 30 million people in a landmass twice the size of India, Canada is what you’d fantasise as being unexplored, uninhabited and next to heaven, especially Alberta, home to the Canadian Rockies, with its innumerable rivers and lakes. And true to your belief, it is as close as one can get.
Waiting to be discovered, Banff lost its virginity a couple of centuries ago to intrepid adventurers and an enthusiastic government. Originally built as a railroad station named Siding 29 during the late 19th century, Stephen Cohen, the then Scottish president of Canadian Pacific Railway, renamed it Banff from his birthplace Banffshire in Scotland. The railroad station has now grown into a global resort town that wraps itself around Tunnel mountain as the Bow river meanders through it offering picturesque spots for picnics, angling and biking. The Fairmont hotels at Banff Springs and Lake Louis are testimony to this. Both have been around for over a century amidst pristine forests and snow-capped mountains. The Banff Springs, constructed in Scottish Baronial style, has a twist to its tale, when its American architect Bruce Price, on a visit to its construction site, discovered to his utter dismay that it was built backwards with the million dollar view of the mountains, valleys and the Bow river going to the kitchen and dormitories. Obviously, this is corrected when I check in.
My bags are packed with ample woolens and full sleeves, but the weather in the Rockies is a damp squib. It is the hottest week of this summer, and the hottest summer in memorable history. My idea of Canada being perpetually frozen in snow is shattered. The sun is harsh and almost everyone we meet is profusely apologetic about the unusual temperatures and the swarm of mosquitoes we encounter. It’s the humidity says one, global warming, says another. I believe both.
A scant 10 minute bus ride from Banff takes us to the Gondola tourist centre, from where rise a long pair of cables transporting tourists to a height of over one kilometre in under eight minutes. The excitement is palpable as we glide up the slope on Sulpher Mountain, every minute bringing forth new panoramas of the surrounding mountainscape. The town of Banff recedes to a set of lego toys, the Bow river is now a silver string, and Tunnel mountain, just a lump of mud on the earth. Ubiquitous towering cliffs, snow-capped mountains and tall coniferous trees stretch into the distance. We need to take a leaf from how Canada preserves its national parks.
That evening, we dine at Masala, the only authentic Indian restaurant in town. Over dinner, I probe for what it takes to settle down here. This is the sort of town where people, attracted by its pristine beauty, come to intern in one of its hotels for a season but end up staying back several winters, such is its allure, charm and beauty, I am told.
With a cap on its population at 10,000 people, in summer tourists routinely outnumber locals. And the government has found a unique method to control rampant construction, where one only owns the structure, the land still belongs to the government.
Next day, I decide to explore Banff on my own and realise how extremely pedestrian-friendly it is. I immediately rent a bicycle from Blue Canoe and ride the trail along Bow river. People lie on the grass in the park along the river, reading books, nodding their heads to music or just gazing into the flowing water. Kids spill out of motor homes parked alongside as elders set up barbecues. I spend the afternoon nosing around Banff avenue, impressed by beautiful flower pots adorning its sidewalks and cute signboards on its shops.
When at the Banff Springs hotel, don’t miss out on a guided tour with Dave, their local historian. He’s spent five decades here and besides enriching you with its history, he will delight you with narratives bound to make you smile, laugh and gawk. He willingly disclosed how in the 1970s, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s visit here almost brought about his divorce. And if ghosts are your thing, he’ll tell you about the phantom of the bride. Both true stories, mind you. After filling yourself on these chronicles, go down to Bow Falls and spend a lazy afternoon soaking your feet in cold water. The view of the hotel from here, against the backdrop of the mountains, is spectacular.
A stone’s throw from Banff is Lake Minnewanka, a perfect location to lay out a yoga mat and work on your meditation. Its crystal clear and absolutely still water blissfully reflects the majestic mountains around it.
We are promised three thrilling halts enroute Jasper. The first is Lake Louis, famous for mountain climbing due to ease of access to various peaks, and climbers from all over the world invade this place to scale its heights.
As if what we saw till now is just the trailer of an exciting movie, we reach the Columbian Ice fields which blows us away completely. A snow bus with massive tires takes us to the middle of the toe of a glacier. The driver fills us in; an Icefield is a collection of several glaciers, and when its snow spills over into a valley, it’s called the toe of the glacier. The toe we are about to set foot on is over a thousand feet deep and several hundred years old. Three rivers originate here and end up in three different oceans. Test it out by peeing here and see it merge with the Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific oceans, adds the guide with a smile. Moving on from there, we spot elks and bears on our way to Sunwapta Falls. Hidden behind tall pine trees and rocks, the water on the Sunwapta river falls down two levels. At the first drop, it sprays water high up in the air, and with the sun burning down brightly, we are treated to a lovely rainbow within arm’s reach.
Jasper Park Lodge, another Fairmont property, is spread over umpteen acres and boasts a lake and Canada’s number one golf course in its premises. It’s been a long day and I plunge into their pool right away and am crying for sleep by the time I am back in my room.
Well rested, next morning, I am ready for rafting on the Athabasca river. The rafting guide walks us through the safety drill as we slip into our life jackets. It’s a slow drift for most of the stretch. The guide asks if we are ready for some fun and takes us down a couple of slopes as we scream in unison. As a testament to their professional service and personal gesture, at the end of the trip, I am pleasantly surprised on receiving a framed picture of us on the raft. And then I suddenly remember the lady on the bridge with the camera, she wasn’t an idling tourist after all.
Finally, kissing goodbye to the Rocky Mountains, we descend into Edmonton, the mall capital of North America. But that should be left for another story.