An article about Canada's Banff National Park in the Sunday Travel section was adapted by Michael Kernan from his article in the spring issue of Traveler magazine.
At first it looks like a backdrop in a low-budget movie: the Canadian Rockies impossibly jutting straight up from the Calgary plain, without foothills, without any sort of preliminaries. You drive toward them and they get bigger and bigger, higher and higher, until suddenly you are actually among them and you begin to get vertigo just from looking at them.
Some peaks are so high they have their own private clouds.
Banff -- Canada's oldest national park, strung along the Continental Divide just 150 miles north of the Montana border -- is celebrating its centennial this summer, and the activities, the pageants and rodeos and races and unveilings will be going on all year. As though there weren't enough to do already.
You could spend a couple of weeks just gasping at the scenery.
Imagine a mirror-smooth jade lake surrounded by great snow-streaked mountains backed by towering white clouds. Imagine a glacier 2,000 feet thick creeping imperceptibly down the slopes, scattering its debris of tree trunks, black boulders and millions of tons of slate in a vast slag heap, awesome in its mere suggestion of the tremendous forces at work. Imagine air so clear that a lip of snow hanging from a seemingly nearby peak looks 30 feet thick but is in fact more than 300 feet thick -- and miles away.
Imagine startling waterfalls, brilliant in the sun. And spruce forests and mossy trails and alpine meadows dancing with wildflowers. And, if you're lucky, bear and moose and elk and eagles and bighorn sheep. Watching for animals is the local pastime, and every third person you meet has a tip on the best places to cruise, and every evening the cars and campers slowly roam the forest roads, yawing across the center line as the drivers peer into the underbrush hoping for that startling glimpse of a stately plump buck elk half-hidden among the leaves. Two bighorns clambering around the rocks on a highway cut can cause a traffic jam.
Wild animals are on everyone's mind here. The streets are named after them. A herd of bison lives in a corral just outside of town. At St. Mary's Catholic Church (on Squirrel Street) a moose lurks in the stained-glass window depicting the Nativity.
When you get tired of watching animals, there is hiking, fishing, rafting, skiing (major international events are held here in the winter), canoeing and wind-surfing, not to mention lake cruises, gondola rides, horseback trips and heli-tours.
Or you could visit the Cave and Basin, renovated for the centennial: the bubbling hot spring where Banff was born in 1883 as Siding 29 on the Canadian Pacific line. Three railroad workers more or less fell into the place through a hole in the ground and set up a hot-bath business, but in 1885 they were bought out by the railroad and the government (for $675 each, it is said). It is now a public hot spring bathing pool.
Over the years the park was expanded until now it covers almost 2,600 square miles along the east flank of the Continental Divide, ranging northwest from Banff village 35 miles to picturebook Lake Louise and another 65 miles up the long valley to the Columbia Icefield, where Jasper National Park begins.
We spent a month in the park, and it wasn't long enough. One day I hiked along Lake Louise and up to a perfect little teardrop in the mountains, Lake Agnes, where walkers were having homemade soup at a teahouse perched beside a thundering waterfall. Another time we rented horses for a half day and plodded up switchbacks to the tongue of the Six Glaciers, a vast basin of ancient ice. Above us the rock towers loomed, and as I watched, a thick snow overhang broke off, exploding into powder as it fell. The roar reached me 15 seconds later.
One day we took a hair-raising 20-minute gondola ride above the 100-foot pines and spruce to the Sunshine Village ski area. It was late June, but what had been light rain in Banff (after a week of cloudless days in the 80s) turned into a bona-fide snowstorm at 7,200 feet. The snow dusted all the neighboring peaks, a dramatic white topping that made them seem, more than ever, remote, romantic, unconquerable.
Another day I took a rather tame 12-mile raft trip down the Bow River, past the stark, slanting hatchet-blade of Mount Rundle, the trademark mountain of Banff village.
There are other raft trips available -- a broad range to suit any appetite for adventure. And there are three-day and six-day horseback pack trips with guides and equipment provided.
For a pleasant day-long excursion there is a bus tour of the Columbia Icefield, where giant snow-cats with tires five feet high crawl onto the glacier, the biggest ice cap south of the Arctic Circle (120 square miles, half a mile thick). The ice is rough, in needle-sharp crystals that refuse to crumble in the hand; the water is purer than double-distilled.
Banff itself, nestled among three overwhelming mountains, is a quirky, perhaps even charming mixture of Wild West and old-fashioned tourist trap. All summer it swarms with people in T-shirts eating ice cream cones. Most of the stores are lined up in a few blocks on the main street. There is one movie house. Banff is the kind of place where fudgemakers in the window of Ye Olde Fudgery draw such a crowd that you have to step into the street to pass.
Once this was a roaring frontier settlement whose streets got paved only when the leading citizen lost his boots in the mud. One can still meet, at the national parks visitors center, a veteran woodsman like Veijo Tiesmaki, a Finn who remembers working with a slash crew in the forest north of Louise when there were no chainsaws, just axes.
"It was good exercise," he insists, "but the mosquitoes were fierce. One summer they drove the guests right out of the hotels. We got rid of them the mosquitoes, presumably with DDT, but we also got rid of the bluebirds and robins. The robins have come back, but the bluebirds are still pretty rare."
Today the mosquitoes aren't bad at all. There are, however, more mosquitoes than bluebirds.
In the midst of all this wildlife is a surprise: the Banff Centre and its School of Fine Arts, probably the most important source for avant-garde art in western Canada. An advanced conservatory for many arts, from dance to writing, from fibers to video, it offers frequent public events year-round. Last year we attended a brilliantly staged version of Benjamin Britten's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" with a break-dancing Puck and a black countertenor Oberon, a ballet world premiere, a jazz workshop. Composer John Cage, painter Eric Fischl, performance artist Laurie Anderson and filmmaker Michael Snow were among the visiting lecturers.
All is not shorts and hiking boots in Banff by any means. Le Beaujolais is an elegant French restaurant just off the main street where dinner comes to about $30 per person with wine, the lights are low and the service quietly competent. (If you can handle macho desserts, try the coupe danois, which comes with a gravy boat of extra chocolate sauce.)
There are many restaurants in town, from Near Eastern to Far Eastern, plus salad bars, ice cream bars and sawdust-and-peanut bars. Several places, such as Melissa's and the Magpie and Stump, are lively with young people who came to ski and never left. The fare tends to be Mexican and hearty; the drink is beer, very big in Canada. Cigarette smoking, by the way, is still rampant here.
To my mind, the finest restaurant in the whole park is the one connected to the Post Hotel in Lake Louise village. Don't let the log-cabin decor put you off: The menu is continental, the service Swiss. No more need be said.
Lake Louise has its famous old railway-poster hotel, but the showplace of Banff is definitely the 98-year-old, 850-room Banff Springs Hotel, commonly called "The Springs," a marvelous turreted ark with room rates up to $400, a variety of restaurants, tennis courts, a pool, an apocalyptic view, a golf course with signs written in Japanese for the many Oriental trippers, a kilted piper and a ghost on the ninth floor. The place is such a fantasy of corridors and towers that one room was mislaid permanently during a renovation. The builders walled up its door, and now no one can remember where it is.
At the other end of the scale, working your way down through the $90-a-day cottages, the motels and family-run tourist cabins, the trailer parks and campgrounds, is the Spray River Hostel two miles from "The Springs" on a dirt road lined with wild roses, with dorms for 47 people at $5.50 or less, a community kitchen and a bucket showerbath. Youth Hostel members come there from all over the world.
Bears: There are bears. One treats them with every courtesy. Occasionally a bear gets too interested in tourists and has to be drugged and deported by helicopter, a furry bundle in a net wafting high over the valley. Park official Don R. Sears says the "bear management program" in which all garbage is trucked clear out of the park has virtually ended unpleasant incidents. Overnight campsites, from primitive to elaborate, have been touched up for the centennial.
I didn't see any bears. I didn't take a cruise boat on Lake Minnewanka, either. I missed a couple of the museums, I'm sure. What I remember best is sitting on the porch of our cabin listening to the distant keening of the diesel train far below and watching the evening sun cast vast hazy shafts of light down the contours of Cascade Mountain just across the valley, beyond the douglas firs and larches and aspens and lodgepole pines.
I tried to climb it last year but didn't get to the top. One day I'm going back and try again. I can still see it in my mind, waiting for me.