The battle was joined over the environmental impact of teal.
On one side: the management of British Columbia's Yoho National Park, guardians of environmental purity.
On the other: Patrick O'Connor and Canadian Rocky Mountain Resorts, developers who wanted to reopen and restore the Emerald Lake Lodge, once the crown jewel in the Canadian Pacific Railway's chain of renowned mountain lodges, to its former glory.
The debate: What color to paint the roofs of the newly constructed cabins along the shore of the lake, which lies 10 miles west of the Continental Divide in the splendid midst of the Canadian Rockies.
Emerald Lake is the kind of place where you stop to catch your breath and find that it has been taken away. Snow-covered peaks intrude upon your peripheral vision, peering out from among the clouds and trees. The mountains form a natural amphitheater around the lake, which is fed by glacial runoff and snow. Sunlight scattered from fine glacial silt in the water yields its distinctive blue-green color. Unlike nearby Lake Louise, whose shores are in part bare and rugged rock, Emerald Lake is completely embraced by the forest that surrounds it. It is smaller, too, more intimate. The 507-square-mile national park takes its name from a Cree word expressing awe. "Yoho!" the Indians said when they saw the beauty of the land, and it's easy to understand why.
It is so beautiful, in fact, that you can almost understand why grown-ups would have a full-scale battle over the color of cabin roofs.
The park wanted brown roofs and brown sidings. To blend with the environment. The builders wanted teal roofs and gray siding. To blend with the environment. "It was a monumental battle," O'Connor says. "We were under construction. The parks gave the stop-work order. They set up a special arbitration committee, which was appointed by the parks. So I knew I would lose that."
The park was determined to commission surveys to determine public sentiment on the environmental impact of the roofs. Government officials in Ottawa got involved. Negotiations dragged on for four months. Finally, O'Connor decided to take the law into his own hands. He painted the roofs teal and never heard another word about it.
"Now I can laugh about it," he says, "though I always take Parks Canada seriously."
The delicate balance between commercial interests and environmental ones is hardly new to the pristine wilderness of British Columbia, just west of Lake Louise and Banff. As Stephen Suddes, spokesman for Yoho National Park, says, "The early history of the national parks is very closely linked to the Canadian Pacific Railway," which laid the track and helped discover the natural wonders of the region in the 1880s.
A century later, the balancing act between those interests continues. The result, in this case, is an upscale retreat for those who relish the outdoors but not the Winnebagos. The Emerald Lake Lodge and Conference Centre offers elegance in sublime isolation, all the advantages of the Rockies without roughing it.
There are no clocks, no radios, no televisions, a conscious choice on the part of the owners to enhance the sense of being a world apart. Instead of television, there are stone hearths in every room and a woodman on staff who will come and light a fire for you. Instead of room service, there are mini-bars and duvet breakfasts under down comforters. Instead of the predictable hotel-pool singles scene, there is a hot tub overlooking the mountains. Instead of game rooms, tour guides, lessons, organized festivities, there is solitude and the need for self-motivation.
"Oftentimes, places just give people what they have at home," O'Connor says. "We tried to break away from that. We're looking for the people who appreciate the mountains, who want to spend time in the mountains and not just see them. We want people who want to be outside all day but don't want to come home to a pup tent."
The dining room is ambitious, a bit too ambitious for its own good. Last spring, Alistair Barnes, the Swiss-trained chef, needed to be reminded that a little fennel goes a long way, especially in combination with pasta and smoked salmon. But, as a rule, the food was far superior to anything one might have expected out in the middle of nowhere.
"It all speaks to letting go of what's going on around you and trying to slow down," said one recent guest.
It is both the virtue and the handicap of the place that it is hard to reach. Emerald Lake is 2 1/2 hours west of Calgary, an hour west of Banff and 30 minutes west of Lake Louise. Hiking, canoeing, fishing and riding facilities are available near or at the lodge. Takakkaw Falls, the third highest waterfall in Canada, is 30 minutes away by car. The famous Cambrian-age Burgess fossil beds are a very strenuous two-hour hike away.
In winter, you can cross-country ski around the lake or circle it in style by dog sled. But as for nightlife, downhill skiing, restaurants, shops -- the only alternative is to hitch a ride by shuttle bus to the parking lot and drive to Lake Louise. Emerald Lake hearkens back to an age when vacationers were content to sit by the fire, and contemplation was enough activity. "It's definitely not for the Club Med set," says one recent visitor.
The lodge is 1 1/2 hours from the closest Olympic venue in Canmore, the site of the Nordic events. O'Connor does not expect to attract many of those visitors with tickets to the games in Calgary but hopes that some of those people who decide to stay on in the Rockies will find their way to Emerald Lake.
The place has never been easy to find. The first expedition in search of a trans-Canadian transportation route began in 1857. Dr. James Hector, a geologist and surgeon, discovered and named the pass that would later become the Canadian Pacific Railway's route through the Rockies on Aug. 29, 1858, when he was kicked by his horse while trying to retrieve him from the wild waters of the river that would come to be known as the Kicking Horse River.
In 1882, Kicking Horse Pass was chosen by the Canadian Pacific Railway as its route through the Rockies. Tom Wilson, a guide working for the railroad, discovered Emerald Lake one morning that year while tracking stray horses. Wilson was in charge of the horse train that carried the railroad's surveyors through the mountains. Legend has it that one of the horses belonged to the native Shuswap and Kootenai Indians and had returned to the pastures where it had once grazed.
History has since disproved the story. The lake, at least, was not apocryphal. And Wilson, who had previously discovered and given the name Emerald Lake to what is now Lake Louise, was prompted to rewrite history when he saw how much greener Emerald Lake was.
In 1884, the track was laid through Kicking Horse Pass and two years after that the Canadian government established the Mount Stephen Reserve, the forerunner of Yoho National Park, and the Canadian Pacific Railway began building lodges "to bring people out on the railway they spent so much money building," says former manager John Savard.
The Emerald Lake Chalet opened in 1903. Over the years, it was eclipsed in size and reputation by the Cha~teau Lake Louise and the Banff Springs Hotel. But in the beginning, O'Connor says, "it was the cre`me de la cre`me," the queen of the railway's bungalow camps.
It even had a full orchestra to entertain the guests who paid the exorbitant rate of $5 a night for electricity, hardwood floors and wood stoves in every room. Then, as now, Emerald Lake catered to an upwardly mobile crowd who, Suddes says, "wanted to spend a week in an exotic lodge overlooking the lake."
Travelers were enticed to come experience "quaint Swiss-style charm" in "America's alpine playground." Guests disembarked in Field, a mining town seven miles from Emerald Lake, and made the trip by carriage up Snowpeak Avenue, a forest road lined on either side by towering spruce and pine.
But partly because of the climate (it is more humid and cloudy on this side of the Divide) and partly because of the surrounding industrial economy, Lake Louise and Banff became the places to be in the Canadian Rockies. Eventually, the Emerald Lake Chalet fell into disuse and disrepair. It was sold by the railway in 1959 and several times more before O'Connor bought the property in 1980. It took six years to secure funding and park permissions and rebuild the facilities, including new power and sanitation systems. "I would never have dreamed of anything so difficult," he says.
The lodge was restored to its original rustic grandeur -- the hand-hewn timber beams and two massive fieldstone fireplaces remain. The building was gutted, the drop ceiling and interior walls removed to open the space to the original log walls. The lodge has been filled with period antiques and period antlers, and an 1882 oak bar salvaged from a Yukon saloon. The turquoise teal color of the lake is reflected everywhere in the furnishings, as well as the much-debated roofs.
"Emerald Lake is a good example of developers who were sensitive to the visual integrity of the environment," Suddes says.
There are 24 cabin-style units, with 85 guest rooms that can accommodate as many as 200 people. The cabins, each with its own balcony overlooking the lake, are spread over three hills that dominate the shoreline. They are built on piles 25 feet off the ground, which allows for a regeneration of the surrounding vegetation and also creates a feeling of floating among the trees.
Emerald Lake Chalet cost $10,000 to build in 1902. The renovation cost $8.5 million in 1986, according to Savard, or $150,000 a unit. The developers received a $1.2 million grant from the Canadian government, which stipulated that the work had to be finished by the summer of 1986, the 100th anniversary of the national park. Last year was the first time in its history that the lodge was open during the winter season.
In its initial formulation, the renovation plan included a major hotel structure with an indoor pool. O'Connor says the plan was jettisoned because the developers decided it was incompatible with the environment. Suddes says, "It was scaled down, not because of our concern of hordes of people but more because of our concern about the massive size of the building and more forest being removed, more visual intrusion."
Suddes says he does not foresee expansion at Emerald Lake, that the lodge has already reached what the park considers the desirable capacity. The park must approve all aspects of the operation: from sleigh rides to light bulbs over the entrance sign. "It's always a conflict with the interests of Parks Canada in that they're trying to stop commercialism and we as private investors are trying to make money," says Andrew Smith, manager of Emerald Lake.
"If we didn't have guidelines at Emerald Lake, we might have something like Banff Avenue," Suddes says. "We do have a vision. It's pretty clear we will hold at this level of development. We do not want the busy-ness we have in Banff."
Historically, Yoho has been an underutilized resource, Suddes says, but projections show a 100 percent increase in visitors over the next 25 years and Emerald Lake may be part of the attraction. "The presence of the lodge is doing something positive for the park," he says. "We want to preserve the park for people but we also want to draw them to it. Everybody can't be a wilderness backpacker."