Beauty and Bliss in the Rocky Mountains – Banff Retreat

“They ask us to be mindful every day, to listen to our ancestors, to the trees that give us air, to the rocks that clean the water, to the animals that give us food. They remind us that we are here as part of the continuum. We are here to honor those who came before and represent those who come after.” This mountain has a song, she tells me, “and I was called to the mountain by that song.”

Canada is calling me. Twice this summer I’ve found myself north of the 48, first in Quebec and now in Banff. This land clears my head. From the mountains here in the Rockies to the prairies of Manitoba to the Atlantic coast of Newfoundland, our neighbor feels more spacious, more accepting. To this American, Canada is what we might be if we got outside more.

MY IPHONE IS DEAD. My Fitbit too. The camera still works, but it’s buried in the saddlebag and out of reach. I’m not even halfway into a two-day horse-packing excursion through the dense backcountry of Lake Louise, following the trails of early  pioneers and their First Nations guides, and my fingers already seek something to tap, press, or swipe. Everywhere I turn I see Instagrammable moments, as piney woods, glacier-fed lakes, snow-covered passes, and pointed peaks assemble themselves in countless permutations of perfect.

The cowboy leading our group of four is Paul Peyto. Born in Banff, he and his wife, Sue, run Timberline Tours. Peyto has the bona hdes. His great uncle Bill Peyto was one of the first wardens of Banff National Park, which was established in the late 1800s. For his contributions, his name was attached to a lake, a glacier, a mountain, a creek, and a cafe.

At camp the next morning, Peyto motions me over to his “weather station,” really a gap in the trees with a clear view of the creek below and Molar Mountain in the distance (which looks just like its name). If a storm develops, he can see it coming. We sip coffee, boiled with the grounds. No latte foam art here.

Peyto doesn’t have children, but he knows what ails today’s youth. “We were always outside, always doing something—fishing, hiking, riding, skiing in wintertime. These kids now, they don’t want to do anything; that’s why they’re all four axe-handles wide. And all the rivets and lock washers and stuff hanging off them, all them tattoos, I just shake my head.”

The guy could give his own TED Talk: Head outside, do chores. It’s a simple version of the “forest bathing” and digital detox that today’s parenting experts advocate for nature deficit disorder and our culture of  consumerism.

After the horse-packing trip I check into the log-and-stone Num-Ti-Jah Lodge, on the blue lip of Bow Lake. Built in the 1940s by another Banff pioneer and mountain man, Jimmy Simpson, the lodge is now in the hands of Tim Whyte, who despite initial drops of rain, takes me on a hike to Bow Glacier Falls, across the lake. Raindrops soon turn into horizontal precipitation, and thunderclaps follow lightning.

“I love this,” Whyte says. “I just don’t do it enough.” Twenty years ago he gave up the executive suite for an innkeeper’s life following a bout of thyroid cancer. The work was more difficult, but he relishes it.

“Every now and then everyone needs to do a head check. Ask ourselves: Am I doing what I should be doing?”

Hiking wilderness in a tempest—is this what I should be doing? In a word, yes.

I’M ITCHING TO SEE A BEAR. Preferably in the company of Amar Athwal, a ranger at the Cave and Basin National Historic Site, centered around a series of hot springs on the outskirts of downtown. The popular area, bounded on one side by Sulphur Mountain, abuts a wildlife corridor, so it’s a good place to spot one of the world’s largest omnivores.

Athwal, however, takes me to see snails. Barely the size of a pea, Banff spring snails are endangered, found nowhere else in the world but in the site’s sulfurous spring waters.

“See, there’s one,” he says, pointing to a dark, slimy corner of one pool. “My job is to protect both the bears and the snails. We’ve come a long way as humans that this park is here to do both.” I get it. You can’t just save the good-looking creatures. But I must not be as highly evolved because I can’t muster much zest for the green blobs.

During the construction of the transcontinental railway in the 1880s, workers found these hot springs, long known to First Nations people. To protect them, a reserve was established in 1885. Next came a marketer’s idea to build some fancy lodges and encourage travelers to board the train west. This marked the birth both of tourism and the national parks system in Canada. At that time protected lands were dedicated more to the interests of tourism than to the ideals of conservation. First Nations peoples were evicted, big-game trophy hunting was promoted, lakes were stocked with nonnative fish species for anglers, and the hot springs were “enhanced” with swimming pools and bathhouses. Today Banff National Park is placing a priority on environmental protection and redressing wrongs done to the original inhabitants. Wildlife overpasses and underpasses cross both the Trans-Canada Highway and the Icefields Parkway, allowing safe passage to fauna, from gangly moose to elusive wolverines. Footage from hidden cameras on YouTube shows plenty of traffic on these animal highways.

The bison too are returning: Parks Canada has plans to reintroduce a herd of about 30 next year. More significantly, First Nations peoples have been active participants in the process. According to Kars ten Heuer, the park’s bison-reintroduction project manager, “Bison are to the plains and foothills culture what salmon are to coastal cultures and caribou are to northern ones. Daily life revolved around the bison’s movements and rhythms, and from that, entire spiritual practices were born. Bringing bison back to Banff will help provide strength to those cultures. It’s a renewal.”

Nice, but where’s my bear?

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