In Banff

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My friend Robyn takes her son on a trip every summer. This year, she had booked a trip to Banff for the two of them. Unfortunately for him, and fortunately for me, Robyn's son procured summer employment and couldn't take the trip. I was happy to step into his vacant plane seat.

I had never seen Western Canada, and always longed to see the Rockies. I saw the Alps several years ago, which seems rather unjust now that I think about it, when we have perfectly good mountains right here in Canada.

We landed at the airport in Calgary, and took a shuttle out towards Banff. The landscape outside Calgary seemed quite flat and uninteresting. Off in the distance was a thin, rippled smudge line, which could have been mountains, I thought. As the bus continued on and the Rockies became closer, I was soon swinging my head in all directions. Mountains, jutting up from every angle and direction!

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The Rockies are magnificent, each mountain having its own shape and terrain. Some are slathered in pines, others have patchworks of green meadow, others look like pails of sand that have been overturned and are dissolving in rivulets, all fissured in rock. My favourite mountain in Banff was “Cascade,” a hulking tower of stone, which from certain views, looked as though a giant had bent to bite a chunk out of its upper peak.

Our hotel must have had the prettiest view in the entire town: a room with a balcony overlooking the iridescent, pearly green-blue waters of the Bow River, and beyond it, an apron of pines at the feet of Sulphur Mountain. A paved trail along the river afforded many delights. I decided to take a walk one morning, to see where the path would lead. I didn’t plan to go as far as I did, but the river kept inviting me further. A pedestrian bridge across the river offered panoramic views of the majestic mountains. I stood at the centre of that bridge and spun around and around; every angle was spectacular! As I followed the trail, the Bow became wider and more swiftly moving. Soon there were rapids, then a waterfall, and at the bottom of that, the famous Banff Springs Hotel, perched half-way up a mountain, overlooking the river from its shroud of pines. The falls were not high, but pounding and foaming and rushing and loud! On the way back, no one was around, so I sang “All Things Bright and Beautiful” with its “purple-headed mountains” and “rivers flowing by.” It seemed so very appropriate!

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The streets of Banff are crowded with tourists, especially on weekends. It is easy to replace the tourist views with the preferable views of the mountains. All one has to do is tilt the neck and lift the chin! Banff is a unique town. In order to preserve its beauty, no one has been able to build a house there since 1989. You must either work in Banff or own a business there in order to take up residence in the town.

One afternoon, while Robyn was off on a hiking excursion, I sat on one of the many benches along the river. In front of me, Sulphur Mountain scudded against the clouds, its slopes bristled with pines. On its far side spread a green slope, all grassy and lush. It made me think of Peter from “Heidi” and his goats, all of them bounding up to find the plants that made their milk taste so good. Near me, on another bench, a young fellow was playing some strange kind of chiming instrument. Farther up the river, the “Rocky Mountaineer” blew its horn, and the echo bounced off one mountain after another, until it was hard to discern where the sound had originated. Magpies hopped around near my feet–crow-like birds who looked like they’ve had their wings dipped in bleach and then got hit in random spots with blue paintballs. There were gulls floating in the shimmering green waters of the Bow. What kind of simpleton bird would choose the filthy waters of a Great Lake over a pristine river, flowing down a mountain from a glacier? I always thought south-western Ontario was so pretty–and it is…but this place was stunning.

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I elected several times over the six days to stay back and work on my novel (the days in Banff were the most productive for writing that I have ever known), but I did go on two excursions with Robyn: one to Kicking Horse, B.C. to ride the chair lift up to a grizzly refuge (there were other stops, including a tall waterfall spewing from a crack in the mountain) and to Lake Louise and Moraine Lake. The tour out to these lakes was brief, as it was crowded and congested. We had twenty minutes to enjoy Moraine Lake, and most of that time was spent rushing up the rock pile to see an upper view–and it was worth it.

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The section of the Trans-Canada Highway that runs through the enormous acreage of Banff National Park contains land bridges and tunnels for the wildlife, as well as fences on either side of the highway. I did not see one instance of road kill in Banff. It cost millions to put up these protective measures, and hidden cameras revealed that it took the animals five years to use the provisions that were put in place for them. Very, very cool! On the day we went to Kicking Horse, we had a lively French-Canadian guide named Mia, who educated us on all these details. She must have weighed a hundred pounds soaking wet, and she could back a bus up a mountain like nobody’s business–and the language she had reserved for drivers who didn’t understand the rules and got in her way was…colourful! This language was unequaled by the epithets that spewed forth when, while taking the chair lift down from the grizzly refuge with Robyn and I, her cell phone slipped from her pocket and fell somewhere in the tall weeds growing on the mountainside. (The phone was retrieved the next day, thanks to noting the pole number and the fact that the ringer of the phone was on).

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Both Robyn and I were sad to leave Banff. On our last morning, we took the river path up to the waterfall one more time, and on the way back, we were greeted by an elk who sauntered in front of us as we neared the hotel. He stopped to ravage some plants at the side of the river, and to give us the stink-eye before he plunged into the river. He had a buddy who hung back at a distance, but eventually, he waded in and joined his companion on the other side of the river. It was an awesome way to end our stay in Banff and an all too brief love affair with the Canadian Rockies.

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