Banff is a tourist town. There’s no way around it. The streets are sardined with over-bundled crowds toting cameras and rented skis, several different languages echo haphazardly off the pavement, and most of the shops will cheerfully command 10 bucks for a fridge magnet. Still, though, I can’t really be bitter about it. Every time we round that familiar curve on the Trans-Canada and the road opens up into the first blue valley of the Rockies, I think to myself – oh, of course. Of course people flock from all corners of the planet to see this place. Of course.
I never tire of the mountains. When I was younger, I’d imagine the white-capped ridges were the spines of great sleeping dragons, or visualize the thousands of wolves and bears and moose hidden in their dense, forested skirts. As I got older, mountains taught me of my own smallness. They taught me reverence. To this day, every time I visit them, I feel like I’m coming home. The dramatic slope of Mount Rundle, the rippled bulk of Cascade Mountain, the almost comical peaks of the Three Sisters – these are the faces of old friends. Heading to the mountains felt like a good way to start 2017.
Once we got settled, we did the cursory walk through town, visited the shops (our personal trinity of stationary, fossils, and fudge) and had a pint at St. James’ Gate. The next morning, we braced ourselves against the ominous cold and drove out to the Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary.
Yamnuska is an incredible experience. When we arrived (45 minutes early, to the great disdain of my long-suffering husband), it was morning, and the air was still, in the solemn way that winter air tends to be. While we waited for our guide, we were allowed to walk the path between the birch-forested enclosures.The only sounds, at first, were the soft crush of snow under boots and paw pads, the heavy sweep of raven’s wings as they dipped into the sanctuary to scavenge, and the distant crackling of campfire. Then, unprompted, a young grey tilted her head to the sky and began a low, mournful keening. In a melodic rush that very much reminded me of an orchestra tuning, the others joined in, and we found ourselves in the heart of a howling pack of wolves.
Living in wolf territory, I’ve heard distant howling quite a few times, and it always tugs at some primal place buried between my ribs. But, oh… there is absolutely nothing in this world that compares to the feeling of being surrounded by that soulful, liquid-silver sound. All I could do was close my eyes and ride the wave.
Once the call faded into the frost, the only other person near us, a long-bearded, leather-clad metalhead in his mid-20s, turned to us with tears in his eyes and summed up the experience far better than I could ever hope to – “Holy freaking shit.”
As if that experience wasn’t awesome enough, we were also taken into the enclosures to interact with both high-content and low-content wolfdogs, the former wary and wildish, the latter excitable and sweet. I was so enchanted that I didn’t even notice the cold seeping into my fingers until they started to burn on the drive back to the town.
Afterwards, still high on howling, we explored the notoriously haunted Banff Springs Hotel. No matter how crowded the lobby or main halls tend to get, there are always little places to escape to, empty hallways with fires crackling merrily in their grates, grand, dark public ballrooms to set your imagination loose into. There are hundreds of oil paintings lining the walls, coffin-shaped doors in low-roofed wings, buffalo heads peering down at you as you wander through the common rooms. Everyone from the Queen to Marilyn Monroe has slept here, and I can’t help but wonder if the ghosts of the doomed Bride or the Bellman ever appeared to them. I’m a romantic, I can’t help but want to believe.
The Grizzly House was next, a former swinger’s bar turned exotic-meat fondue restaurant – a staple on every single Banff trip we make. Every table has a phone installed so you can chat up the delicious redhead in the corner without leaving your seat. Their slogan? The very apropos“For Lovers and Hedonists”. Instead of the alligator and rattlesnake, we opted for the stuffed mushroom fondue, smoked trout, and a surprisingly delicious house shiraz – and despite a few calls to our table (my husband’s quite a looker, if I do say so myself), we made it back to the hotel without any extra guests.
The next morning, we found ourselves at the cosmic ray station at the top of Sulpher Mountain. The boardwalks are usually insanely crowded, but the day was already viciously cold, and we were quite possibly the first ones up there. It’s truly breathtaking, seeing the mountains from such a height – usually a privilege reserved for hard-legged adventurers and some of the more tenacious birds – but what always strikes me most is the impossibly crisp, clean air. I suck it in greedily, relishing the cold, crystal sting of it in my lungs. It tastes of clean ice and pine, and makes you feel new. We descended in the little metal box of the gondola, the plexi frosting over with our breath, and dipped into my favourite hidden gem – the Marsh Loop boardwalk, just below the Cave and Basin. A small natural hot spring trickles down into an expanse of marshlands here, leaving brimstone-scented mist frozen in the winter air. There are tiny, black tropical fish that live here year-round, an experiment by Banff’s early inhabitants, and green algae blooms through the frost.
That night honestly felt like a dream. As the three-quarter moon silhouetted the mountain peaks and Venus winked brightly down at us, we huddled under the thick hide of a buffalo in a two-person horse-drawn sleigh. She was a gorgeous creature, a rescue, heavy-hooved and muscular, her eyelashes tipped with frost. We sipped nearly-frozen champagne under the stars as she bore us through the dark forest, the savage bite of the air drawing us closer together under the fur. Afterwards, to warm our ice-brittle bones, we went for a dip in the upper hot springs.
I’ve been to the hot springs so many times, but never late into the night, and never in such dire temperatures. It was otherworldly – dim, shadowy figures emerging from thick steam, damp hair made into crackling nests of frost by the unrelenting night air, condensation icing onto the tips of my ears and the bridge of my nose. The whole world a faded, painterly dream, the glittering black of the sky obscured by plumes of turquoise-grey. The frostburn was worth it.
Banff is a tourist town, yes. But I’ve been here probably twenty times, and every visit is different, every visit gives me something I didn’t have before. And just in case you didn’t know, Parks Canada is celebrating 150 years by offering a free year-round pass to all national parks, historic sites, and conservation areas from coast to coast.
It’s enough to make a girl feel downright patriotic.