We’re into a good groove when we spot him. Sssss, ssssss, crunch, crunch, our waxless cross-country skis slip through the sticky powder as our poles punch through gleaming mounds of fresh spring snow. We’re weaving through the forest in Banff National Park, AB. The sky is blue, the sun is hot and the only other sound is the occasional whump of snow tumbling off a branch—‘til one of us breaks the reverie. “Ooooo! He’s so cute!”
A pointy-nosed, foxy face twists around a spruce trunk and peers at us through a beard of dark lichen. It’s a pine marten, an elusive and nocturnal cousin of the weasel. What he’s doing up at this hour—I don’t know. But we all stop and stare. It’s one of those moments when you appreciate the simple wonders of life—a gentle breeze, a wisp of cloud hanging on a glacial peak, a day of heart-pumping uphill skiing with a sauna, pork roast and glass of merlot waiting at the top.
“This is my new spoooort!” I yell to the trees blurring past as my snowplow spins out of control and I face-plant into a heap of granular powder, perilously close to rushing Paradise Creek, which emerges intermittently between sparkling sugar domes.
Did you ever climb up on the roof to think things through when you were a kid, and everything suddenly seemed not so bad? There’s something about seeing things from a new perspective that makes familiar terrain look new and shiny (a leisurely tour on bicycle, a view from the water, a horseback sojourn, an old-fashioned road trip). Though the Canadian Rockies are far from ordinary.
Today, we’ve joined an elite tribe, Canada’s 873,000 Nordic skiers*. These folks have figured out there’s no better way to commune with nature, cut fresh tracks and mix the thrill of downhill with a butt-kicking workout. “Many ski for the lyrical quality—the taste of clean air, sighing wind, hardwood forests, frozen waterfalls, weathered barns, open prairie, sandstone canyons, alpenglow on snow-mantled peaks and the miracle of skiing beneath the full moon,” observes the US-based Cross Country Ski Areas Association.
“Nordic” means any kind of free-heel skiing—classic XC, skate skiing, telemarking, randonnée, ski touring and the like. “Backcountry,” our guide says, is essentially anything off-track. Various kinds of goopy wax are involved for glide, kick and klister (grip), though new waxless skis work wonderfully for casual skiers (read: me). Layers are essential as XC uses every major muscle group and incinerates around 700 calories an hour.
It’s cheap (from CAN $15 a day to free), easy to learn and doesn’t require endless awkward lugging of paraphernalia. Grandpa can do it and so can your five-year-old. Norwegians exported it to North Americans; both Euros and Canadians embraced it. And now the sport’s popularity is on the rise in both Canada and the US, according to the Cross Country Ski Areas Association, which calls XC “natural Viagra.”
Soon an image of future frolics forms in my mind. Forget long lines, tedious lessons and expensive lift tickets! We’ll click in and glide. I picture me, my hubby and the kids taking in pristine, winter-wonderland Canada on touring skis. We’re deep in the backcountry. Of course we’re all wearing colourful, hand-knit wool sweaters and pompom-ed toques, laughing and zipping along with rosy cheeks like fresh-faced Norwegians….
Five hours, 14 km and 457 vertical m later, guide Gord Stermann of White Mountain Adventures leads our sweaty, scraggly group out of the woods and into a pretty alpine valley of snow-dusted fir. We’ve been rained on, had near-misses with trees, fallen into under-snow air pockets, suffered blisters and steep icy inclines (“Time to walk”). We’ve learned about varying grades of ski wax in fickle temperatures (“It’s hard to get off your BlackBerry,” Stermann notes). I’m thinking the honeymoon may be over.
But then, the mist clears and majestic Mount Ball, straddling the Continental Divide and British Columbia border, appears behind Shadow Lake. An old 1930s Canadian Pacific Railroad log cabin puffs smoke from its chimney. A hearty dinner is cooking inside the cabin next door. My cozy shack even has a rack to hang my wet clothes and a goose-down comforter that feels like a cloud.
“It’s different when you have to work to get here, isn’t it?” says Stermann, grinning in the glow of the fire. We’ve got Hudson’s Bay blankets, glasses of wine and Canadian Geographics from 10 years ago. “You have this sense of privilege, a sense of being away from the rest of the world and what everyone else is doing. All of a sudden, you’re in a special place.”
* That’s according to the Canadian Ski Council in Mississauga, ON, www.skicanada.org. There are an estimated two million Nordic skiers in the US, according to the Winchester, NH (US)-based Cross Country Ski Areas Association, www.xcski.org.
www.whitemountainadventures.com www.shadowlakelodge.com www.banffnationalpark.com www.banfflakelouise.com www.pc.gc.ca/pn-np/ab/banff/index_e.asp www.travelalberta.com
White Mountain Adventures www.whitemountainadventures.com “With the spectacular white peaks, gorgeous blue sky and nice, dry snow, we’re all going, ahhhh!” says Gordon Stermann, 49, president and owner of Banff, AB-based White Mountain Adventures, recounting trips past. “There’s really nothing like this. And Banff is situated better than anywhere—you could spend the week and wouldn’t do the same thing twice.”
White Mountain Adventures has been leading day-long and multi-day guided hikes, heli-hikes, walks and backpacking trips in summer, and winter cross-country ski tours, walks and snow shoeing, since 1987. The outfitter also offers shuttle bus service to Sunshine Meadows, AB. Guides take clients through the Alberta Rockies from Waterton to Jasper, through southern Alberta and anywhere in British Columbia (multi-day adventures).
For cross-country ski tours (max. eight people) in the Banff, Canmore and Lake Louise area, no experience is necessary, though a little ski know-how will help. If you can snowplow, you’re on your way. The season is December to March.
“Our customers like the safety of knowing you’ll get where you want to go and in a way that doesn’t push you to an extreme you can’t handle,” says the personable Stermann. “We’ve got knowledge, and we’ll help get you through the tight spots. Actually, I think some people just want to meet a local person.”
White Mountain Advenures has two new ’07 packages: a six-day program with two nights at ski-in backcountry lodges, one day of dogsledding and one day of snowshoeing and ice walking into Johnston Canyon, AB; and a 14-day summertime round-trip hiking circuit of the southern Rockies (AB and BC), hitting the Kananaskis, Canmore, Radium Hot Springs, Fernie and Waterton.
Brewster’s Shadow Lake Lodge www.shadowlakelodge.com
Near Shadow Lake. Cozy cabins are perfectly rustic, the scenery is Rocky Mountain High on steroids, the folks friendly and the food hearty. Bryan and Alison Niehaus create a comfy-as-home ambiance. Ski (or hike in summer) 14 km up to this historic lodge, a crescent of 12 propane-heated log cabins, including a Canadian Pacific Railroad cabin that serves as the communal living room. There are self-composting toilets, hot showers and a wood-fired sauna. Enjoy tea before you ski back or better yet, spend the night and wake up to the sun illuminating the glaciers.
Baker Creek Chalets www.bakercreek.com On Bow Valley Parkway along Baker Creek. A celebration of Canadiana—a circa-1949 bungalow camp for Canadian Pacific Railroad workers reinvented as log cabins decked out with custom log furniture, elk antler chandeliers, bedside wrought-iron moose-motif lamps and Pendleton Native-print blankets. With hanging flower baskets and a bright red roof, the chalet-style lodge is tidy and cheery. Guests have donated old skis and vintage snowshoes that deck the peeled ‘n polished blond-log walls. Ernie, a large moosehead over the stone hearth, keeps watch over the lounging guests in the library. Chad and Shannon Cavanagh and their two little ones supply a warm welcome. Enjoy creature comforts after a day of outdoor rec: in-room double whirlpool Jacuzzi, cushy leather sofa and fireplace, and gourmet fare at the bistro next door.
Baker Creek Bistro www.bakercreek.com/dining.html Adjacent to Baker Creek Chalets on Bow Valley Parkway, in the original 1949 lodge. After a day of alpine hiking or skiing, you’ve earned a five-star meal—and voilà!—it appears. Don’t expect ho-hum roadside mystery meat and rubber chicken here. This is “Canadian comfort cuisine” starring simple, stellar, fresh local ingredients that hit all the haute notes: beer-brined pork loin with tangy pear jus, organic greens with wild BC mushrooms, Marsala-braised veal cheeks, salmon cakes. Wash it down with a glass of Red Rooster Vineyards Pinot Noir. The lull of the crackling fire and log cabin gemütlichkeit will tip you and your sated belly toward slumber. Don’t resist. Glide back to your chalet where a log bed as big as the Alberta sky beckons.
Lake Louise Historic Railway Station and Restaurant www.lakelouisestation.com Near Lake Louise village between the original main Canadian Pacific Railroad line (still in use) and the Bow River. Tuck into a brandy-peppercorn-enhanced Alberta strip-loin or a roasted chicken, add a Caesar salad and time travel to another era via the historic dining car, where railroad tycoons noshed in 1920s opulence. The handsome, rambling 1909 station sports dark wood, 5-m-high leaded windows, period artifacts, historic black-and-white photographs, old signaling lanterns and a huge original brick fireplace that roars in winter. (Reserve ahead for the dining car, open seasonally with varying availability.)