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Canada’s Icefields Parkway: Pure Backcountry Front Country
Photos by Ted Alvarez (except the one of him) and Rob Smith

Canada’s Icefields Parkway: Pure Backcountry Front Country

After driving almost 1,200 miles straight from Denver, CO to Lake Louise, Alberta on our way to the Icefields Parkway of Canada, a vicious snowstorm struck not ten miles from the entrance. Slush flooded the road and dove-sized flakes clogged our windshield wipers, and we saw car after car turn around — perhaps most disconcertingly of all, nearly all of them bore Alberta or B.C. plates. My compatriot and fellow road warrior Rob Smith whipped out the video camera just in time to catch my scholarly, erudite reaction to our sudden turn of fortune.

“Shit.”

When we stopped at a gas station in Lake Louise, the storm had broken but the roads still looked awful. I asked the rotund and bored-looking Esso attendant whether she thought the Parkway would be opened, and she replied with a nonplussed “yes” — as if I’d asked her whether Canadians liked Tim Horton’s. Briefly Rob and I considered that she might be trying to lead us to our frozen American doom. But to turn back would be defeat, and we hadn’t time to wait a day and attempt this again. Sure enough, Highway 93 was open for business its entire length, from Lake Louise to Jasper, Alberta. It was on.

The Icefields Parkway is a 143-mile trip through the largest collection of subpolar glaciers (including the massive 233-square-mile Columbia Icefield), and many of the Canadian Rockies tallest and most dramatic peaks sidle right up to the road. Though locally famous for entertaining busloads of elderly Canadian tourists in the summer, the Icefields Parkway (which straddles both Banff and Jasper National Parks) is nearly deserted throughout its long October — May winter season. Outside of temporary snowstorm closures, the highway stays open year-round — a rarity for deep mountain roads, even in the U.S. Adventurers need only push five hours or so past the Montana border to find a practically private glacier paradise with immaculate highway access. Just make sure you handle the two g’s — gas n’ granola — before you enter the parkway, as all facilities are closed in the winter. There are no accommodations for the length of the frozen parkway during snow months save one: Simpson’s Num-Ti-Jah Lodge, a historic backcountry outpost started by legendary Canadian trapper Jimmy Simpson. This would be the final destination on our first day on the Icefields Parkway.

The road, while open, wasn’t exactly clear asphalt; a season’s worth of snow had been packed down by snowplows and light traffic to form a relatively stable, if unpredictable, surface. We proceeded slowly, partially to gauge road stability, but also to gawk at the yawning chasms and mountain passes filled with smoke. As the sky cleared, the foggy shrouds retreated from the shoulders of the ridges, revealing row after row of gunmetal-gray rock parapets looming directly above us with regal foreboding. Though not even half as high, for all its frozen majesty this section of the Rockies might as well have been in Nepal. (Granted I’ve never been to Nepal…but still). The dramatic, multi-thousand-foot walls and elegant spires made the peaks look as if someone had chopped off the top of several unnamed Himalayan peaks and dropped them at 8,000 feet in the deep woods of Western Canada.

Stunned as we were by the vistas, we weren’t without a mission. Before arriving at the lodge and before sunset, I was determined to participate in the most adrenalized of all alpine sports: snowshoeing.

Shoes + Snow = Dorkus Malorkus

Snowshoes do not look cool. Sure, the modern ones look a little better than the tennis-rackets-strapped-to-your-feet designs of the past, but when compared to the sleek ergonomics of skis, snowboards, and even climbing equipment, their Rad Factor still can’t hope to compete. But we’d come to the Icefields Parkway on a whim, and tempted as I was to ski or climb onto the glaciers without a guide, I’d feel guilty telling Rob’s wife Jennie I’d lost him in a crevasse somewhere. (Rob (drummer for the excellent bands Traindodge and Riddle of Steel) would probably feel less guilty were the situation reversed — not much fazes that guy). Henceforth, a couple pairs of snowshoes borrowed from a friend would enable us to navigate trails long buried under six feet of snow.

The biggest struggle with snowshoes involved getting them on. Rob’s model had convenient pull cords (highly recommended!) in place of buckles and straps, and he shook his head and got a head start as I rolled around like a doof in the snow, wrestling with my own feet. After the initial struggle, though, it was amazing how well the shoes displaced our weight. Locomotion with ski poles was simple and painless, as long as you avoid the dreaded side and backwards steps, which can leave you struggling at the bottom of a drift if you bury an edge and lose your balance.

Our trail had already been stamped in the snow, probably days before by the looks of it. We continued down the path through stiflingly silent woods, occasionally catching glimpses through the trees of the two-pronged Crowfoot Glacier, the first glacier on the Parkway. When it was named, the Crowfoot had three toes like an actual crow, but one of them (surprise) has disappeared over the last century. After wandering for a while, we realized the trail went farther than we had enough sunlight for, so we inelegantly schussed back down the trail on our snowshoes, splooshing through the snow in big sliding steps. When we arrived back at the car, huffing and puffing, Rob (a skier and snowshoe skeptic) turned to me and said enthusiastically, “I think I’m going to have to get some of these.”

Simpson’s Num-Ti-Jah Lodge

Eager to rest after enduring nearly 24 hours of straight driving followed by a tromp through the snowy woods, we drove further into the Banff National Park segment of the Icefields Parkway to reach the storied Num-Ti-Jah lodge. Though the preview pics online looked gorgeous, this was the only game in town at this time of year, so they could’ve sold us rat’s nests for $200 a night and we’d be hard pressed to turn them down. But as soon as we rounded a corner and saw it, our fears evaporated. Situated at the end of frozen Bow Lake, we saw a beautiful amber-wood complex, with a quaint red roof flying the Canadian Flag. Smoke puffed invitingly from several chimneys. As we pulled in past the big wooden welcome sign proclaiming “Coffee Shop,” Rob dropped the bag of granola and whooped, “Ohhhh YEAH!”

Up close, the lodge only got more attractive: antlers adorned the eaves, and the windows projected a dark glow out into the regrouping gray flurries. Inside, everything felt warm and cozy — high, triangular ceilings with crisscrossing log beams rose above us, the requisite lodge trophy animals (elk, bear, etc.) hung on the walls, and a fire crackled nearby. Fantastic smells came in from the adjacent dining room, and a few guests in slippers were gathering in the library opposite. The overwhelming scent of glorious complimentary coffee and tea in the sitting room almost made check-in impossible. After coming in from the bleak cold, this place felt like Christmas. (See it for yourself. Click here for video from the lodge. Note: You’ll need Windows Media Player)

The Australian desk clerk gave us our keys, and after taking a few last-light pictures of the lodge and Bow Lake, we grabbed our gear from the Jeep and chugged up the grand staircase towards our room on the third floor. At the last minute, we’d been upgraded to a lake view room (maybe because the lodge was far from full and the lake was buried in snow), so our clean expansive double room had a fantastic view of both Bow Lake and the mountains ringing the lodge. The beds were enormous and comfortable, and after diving in to check the mattress, we headed downstairs to gorge on coffee. When we brought back our final cups to have with our PB n’ J sandwiches, we flicked on our computers on a lark and discovered the place had free WiFi service. It was a weak signal, but a welcome luxury in the bush.

We checked our email in the remote Canadian Rockies, ready to wash off our gorilla smell and mingle with the few other visitors downstairs. The next day, we’d head back out into the wild. “This is living,” said Rob. “And it’s right on time.”

The Clientele

Back downstairs, a couple speaking what sounded like a Scandinavian language shot pool, but several rugged folks, mostly guys between 25 and 45, streamed out of the library to their bunks. Eager to see who this unified group was, I managed to catch Brent Strand, 37, of Revelstoke, B.C. He was with the Canadian Avalanche Association, and he informed me they were using the lodge as a base of operations for their imposing-sounding “Avalanche Operations Level 2, Module 2″ course. “We cover everything from terrain evaluation to risk management,” he informed me, beer in hand. “The facility is great, and you can’t ask for a better office to work out of — we’re right outdoors.” Strand is a graphic designer for the Canadian Avalanche Association, but he enjoys participating in courses like this because “it kinda refreshes ya. I like to recreate in the bush, ya know, and learning about avalanche blast control is great too, eh? Good stuff.”

After a few minutes of listening to Strand and another attendee, John Wylie of Nelson, B.C., compare the relative pluses, minuses, and intricacies of Rockies snow versus Coastal Range snow, I spied a couple snuggling under a blanket by the fire. They each had a cup of something warm and possibly alcoholic, and their enormous slippers peeked out at the end table. Darcy and Kelly Tomyn have been coming to the parkway from Calgary for years, but they revel in their off-season visits. “In the summer there’s busloads of tourists, but around now and until June there’s nobody here,” says Kelly. “And if there is, walk for 5 minutes down the trail and you’ll never see another person.”

“This is one of the nicest places, simply because it’s technically front-country, but the experience is pure backcountry,” says Darcy. “And it’s the most strikingly beautiful because it’s right on one of Canada’s most classic drives.”

“Or you can just hang by the fireplace,” Kelly adds drowsily.

I asked them for recommendations for the next day’s snowshoeing, but they had an even better suggestion: Just beyond the Saskatchewan River Crossing was a pristine trail they just hiked, and the snow was so packed I wouldn’t even need snowshoes.

I thanked them for the tip, and as everyone was starting to shuffle back to bed, I followed suit and sank into the bed for a long, deep sleep.

Right after another free cup of coffee.

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series. Stay tuned for part two tomorrow.

About Ted Alvarez

Comments

  1. Jane Christ says:

    I feel as though I’m with you on the journey. Anxious to see what we do tomorrow. :-)

  2. Jan Novack says:

    I want to go!

  3. Sue says:

    Thanks for giving me something fun to read tonight — this is something I wuld never try n my own and I realy got the feeling I ws there!

  4. Ray Dunn says:

    Good timmes…good times!

  5. Lisa says:

    Sharp, witty, and informative — everything we’ve come to expect from Ted’s articles! Keep up the great writing!

  6. Brenda Bowers says:

    Yes It is a beautiful area. My husband and I were happy we decided to take that trip during our full time rving days. Sadly though they too are melting back.

  7. Horace says:

    Can’t wait to add this adventure to my trip list! Sounds fab. My husband is already starting to research this trip. Thanks Ted!

  8. Andree says:

    Sounds so nice it almost makes me want to attempt to brave the cold . . . who am I kidding, I’d spend all my time reading by the fire place at the Num-Ti-Ja lodge (maybe also checking out those avalanche guys).

    Seriously, though, great article, you make the place come alive . . .

  9. storm says:

    Great write up. I have only one minor correction. The rest area that you stopped at and saw the climbers looks to me like Tangle Falls, not stanley falls.
    Tangle has a rest area across the highway from it, with two outhouses. It’s about 7kms from the Columbia IceFields buildings.
    Stanley Falls is about 11kms up the road ( toward Jasper) and has a hostel across the highway from the trailhead. Stanley Falls is not on the highway, it’s about 1.4 kms up the trail

  10. mason says:

    hey was up this is cool