Banff Part Two: “Red in Tooth and Claw”

Chateau Lake Louise

In the previous post, Banff Part One: Gothic in the Mountains, I referred to the area around Banff as a “wilderness”. And a wilderness it is: this is a landscape of 2,000-plus meter mountains,  glacier-silted rivers, aquamarine lakes, and pine forests – and the big-game wildlife that inhabits them. All this wildness is visible from town, and from the thin ribbons of asphalt that head west, into the heart of the mountains. Take a step or two off the highway shoulder, and all signs of civilization disappear. You feel like you are deep in the backcountry. I can only imagine what it’s like to actually go beyond those wildlife fences, into the wild…

The chance to get up close and personal with Big Nature, brings visitors from around the world: in the three days we stayed in town, we heard French, German, Russian, lots of Spanish, Norwegian (really? not in the WordPress spellchecker?!?), Chinese, and a south Asian language we couldn’t identify (Vietnamese?). But the Japanese were first, and apparently came to stay. Three of the waitresses at our hotel were Japanese, as was the cashier at Safeway. And several shops lining the main street had “owned by Japanese” signs in the windows.

Elk! from the Icefleld Parkway
Elk! from the Icefleld Parkway

And despite the deep wildness of the place, it IS possible to get face to face, or nearly so, with some of those big animals. For our part, we only had two sightings this trip, both from the Icefields Parkway: a herd of elk along a treeline several hundred yards away, and a mother black bear and cub who dodged into the bush before we could get a camera ready.

Others, apparently, have been having much more intense experiences. Back in June, a motorcyclist photographed a wolf chasing him along the Icefields Parkway (though I think he was actually in BC at the time); in July, weeks before our arrival, a cougar took to stalking tourists around Lake Louise – the trail was still posted with a cougar warning when we hiked it at the end of July. And this spring, Parks Canada officials are claiming the first verifiable pictures of Bigfoot, or was it a Sasquatch?

... on the Upper Bankhead Trail, near Lake Minnewanka
… on the Upper Bankhead Trail, near Lake Minnewanka

I guess it’s the price you pay to maintain a natural ecosystem which is still readily accessible to visitors, aka invasive species such as tourists. There are, in fact, fences and — really rather quaint — wildlife crossings along this part of the Trans-Canada Highway. In town and out, garbage cans are bear-proofed. And sections of the park are closed whenever the rangers are concerned about animal activity, especially grizzlies, in an area.

On the Icefields Parkway
On the Icefields Parkway

So there you have it: a picturesque tourist town and scenic highways along which a constant stream of tourists travel from picture-postcard viewpoint to… you get the idea. Meanwhile, all around, for the truly adventurous, an alpine wilderness with a few trails barely scratched into the antediluvian surface awaits on the other side of those wildlife fences…

Read Part One of the Banff blog, ‘Gothic in the Mountains.’

BTW, I have been updating my portfolio of pictures from the Banff trip for Getty Images on flickr. Check ’em out!

Road Closed: grizzly activity

Banff Part One: Gothic in the Mountains

Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, from Sulphur Mountain

As part of our regular summer trips to Canada, R. and I usually take time to visit someplace other than my old hometown of Toronto. Over the years, we’ve hit Montreal, Algonquin Provincial Park, and Vancouver. This summer, on our return trip back Tokyo, we stopped over in Alberta to spend a few days in Banff.

The town of Banff sits snug in the rain shadow of the eastern Rockies, an outpost of caramel apples, handmade soaps, and tiled hot springs in the wilderness. I use the word “snug” not just because that’s the same word used in the Banff Design Guidelines, but because even on the town’s main drag, Banff Street, houses, stores, and other buildings, even the Clock Tower and Cascade shopping malls, are built of materials and in styles which harmonize with the natural surroundings. In this way Banff reminds me of Wychwood Park in Toronto, a community inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement in England. William Morris and Frank Lloyd Wright would approve of Banff, though Wright’s picnic pavilion was apparently quite controversial (locals wanted a hockey rink).

The one questionable exception to the Guidelines is also the town’s most notable building: the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. The American architect Bruce Price, who also designed landmark buildings for the Canadian Pacific Railway including Gare (Station) Windsor and Viger in Montreal, and the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City, founded the Railway Gothic school of architecture – Canada’s first attempt at a distinctive architectural style – by looking back to Victorian Gothic Revival and French chateaux of the Loire Valley.

I dunno. What works in old cities like Montreal and Quebec seems out of place to me in the mountains. Price apparently though his style organic; critics have called it “archaeological“. The medieval style would have worked wonders for my Dungeons & Dragons fuelled-imagination as a kid; even now I dig turrets and drawbridges in, like, the Lord of the Rings movies. But out here in the wilderness, I agree with the writers of the Guidelines in their specifications for a Rocky Mountain Style: especially when it comes to keeping things on a “human scale”. That said, the hotel does look good from a distance; from say, the top of Sulphur Mountain where this picture was taken.

Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, from Sulphur Mountain
Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, from Sulphur Mountain

(For the record, we didn’t stay at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, though I would have considered it if R. had taken an interest. Guess I’ve still got a little D&D left in me…)