Canadian Rockies: what to do when you’re not skiing

Spring is on its way and I’ll soon be heading for Greece again, but before I get there, a last look back to winter and the Canadian Rockies.

One of the great things about Banff, apart from the skiing, is the opportunity for trekking winter trails and snowshoeing.  I generally avoid skiing at weekends because the slopes are busy with Calgarians who come up to Lake Louise or Sunshine Village for the day.  I don’t want to get in their way when I can enjoy the good snow for the rest of the week.

A forecast of heavy snow on a Friday is a guarantee that half of the one-and-a-quarter million population of Calgary will be on the road for the hour-and-a-half trip well before sunrise, having mysteriously developed some form of ill health overnight and phoned in sick.

When more than 70 cms of snow fell in 36 hours the Trans-Canada Highway must have been nose to tail, the car parks and approach roads blocked by cars desperate to offload their powder-hungry cargoes, the lift-lines snaking hundreds of metres long and the slopes a blur of Olympic wanabees and never-befores.

I’m told it was so.

Me?  I went snowshoeing up the frozen Bow River in snow varying between a foot and unknown depth because my snowshoes kept me floating on the upper layer. No sun, because it was snowing most of time but fabulous because there was obviously no-one ahead of me.  There is something magical about making ‘first tracks’ in virgin snow and I was doing that for over three miles upstream.

Not that there was any sign of a stream until I reached the confluence with Sundance Creek, three miles from where I set off.  There, a thermal spring keeps a narrow channel of water open, meandering from side to side.  I had to cross it at some point.  Back-tracking onto the Bow beyond the holes of open water, I picked out what I considered to be the best crossing point up the Creek.  Too far for a stride even of my long legs.  I had to jump.  Ever tried taking a run-up and jumping in deep snow in snowshoes?  My right heel crashed through the edge of the ice but the crampon-like grips at the front dug in.  I threw my weight forward onto my left foot  ….  and crossed dry and unscathed.

I was well pleased.

It had been tiring walking up the deep snow on the river, lifting feet high at every step. Great to be making fresh tracks but hard work.  So, I decided to return on the Sundance Trail, used by cross-country skiers and snowshoers and so hopefully a little more compacted and less strenuous.

But before that, I sat on the bank of the river, in the snow, and munched on a Kashi bar.  In front of me as I relaxed, was the pyramidal Mount Edith, nearly lost in the swirling snow.

The walk back was certainly less strenuous.  A few people were coming the other way on snowshoes, finding it hard work, trying to look bright and cheerful.  Then, looking nonchalant as another couple approached, I stepped off the trail into thigh-deep snow to explore a photo opportunity presented by an area of open water. One of my many non-appealing traits, I do sometimes, too often, feel and look smug.

Another couple stopped as I looked at the river below marked by only one set of tracks.  “I wonder who that was.”  they said.  “Me!”, I replied, a bit embarrassed by my hubris.  There were no-one else’s tracks on the river all the way back.

As I got back towards Banff, it stopped snowing and the lenticular clouds over Mount Rundle were dramatic. The scale of it reminds you of your insignificance.

Next day, Saturday, I walked the well-trodden path to Bow Falls.  There was less ice on the river than usual but the falls were largely frozen, water tumbling through the snow-covered ice. From there I took the trail along the bank of the Spray River, again fairly well trodden as far as the footbridge across.  Then, continuing up-river I was on virgin snow again but this time on a narrow path between the river on my right and the steep quarried rockface on my left.

A short distance further upstream and an even narrower trail climbs up the steep slope to join the higher level ‘Spray River Loop’, a broad trail flanked by trees and used by cross-country skiers as well as trekkers.  With periodic detours through the trees to the top of the cliff and views down to the river below, I headed back to the Bow Falls.

The car park was now nearly full.  Though in the shade from the low-angled winter sun, scores of people posed for photos with the frozen falls in the background or looking down the valley to the Fairholme Range still gleaming in the sunlight.

Sunday, I opted for an easy start by ambling along the main street, Banff Avenue, to the river bridge, then along the broad path flanked by expensive houses most of us can only dream about, to the new footbridge and back to the hotel.  That was enjoyable but not really enough.  So I went up Tunnel Mountain.

At 1,690metres, about 300 metres and two-and-a-half kilometres above the town, it’s a short but fairly strenuous walk.  A measure of the attitude of locals is that on Sunday afternoons there are scores if not hundreds of people on the trail.  This is an outdoor persons’ town.  All ages, most walking, many with dogs, some running.  In places the path is built up on the downhill side like a Greek kalderimi.  Well used, there is no need for snowshoes but cleats are a definite advantage, especially on the way down.

I sat on the slabs of rock at the top in sunshine, munched a Kashi bar and reminisced about a great three days trekking. Back to skiing on Monday.  Someone has to do it.

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