Rockies Canada: It's not all downhill schussing in the Calgary-Banff area. There's much to see and do from museums and a luxurious castle to ice walks through some of North America's most spectacular scenery.

WINTER IN THE

December 15, 1996|By Jeff Miller | Jeff Miller,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Tourists are like Christopher Columbus," Peter Swan said with a smile. "When they leave home, they don't know where they're going; when they get there, they don't know where they are; and when they get home, they don't know where they've been."

As a guide for White Mountain Adventures, he was leading our group of ice walkers through snow-filled Johnston Canyon between Banff and Lake Louise in Canada's Alberta province. While we enjoyed his humor, it was his understanding of the outdoors that we really appreciated.

As he led us along the bottom of the canyon and across catwalks, he pointed out numerous things we never would have seen ourselves -- from animal tracks to delicate ice crystals clinging to gray canyon walls; from geological time in multicolored rock sediment to towering waterfalls frozen on the outside while flowing on the inside.

Besides showing us how to see our surroundings in more depth, Swan was teaching us that during the winter, the Canadian Rockies offer much more than just downhill skiing thrills.

In the Calgary-Banff-Lake Louise area, nonskiers can discover an "Olympic" city, explore one of Canada's finest national parks, and experience two luxury resorts built in the days of railroad barons. Along the way is truly dramatic winter scenery, the easy canyon ice walk and four museums that give insight into the region's natural history and native cultures.

A good starting point for exploring the area is Calgary, made famous when it was host to the 1988 Winter Olympics. Today, with an updated international airport and 800,000 residents, it is the second largest city in Alberta and a popular gateway to the Rockies.

Sitting on the plains, nestled against the banks of the Bow River, Calgary's compact downtown of chrome and glass has mountains as its western backdrop. With its open, airy feel, mountain/plains setting and friendly locals, Calgary reminds many of Denver.

Even in winter, the city is outdoors-conscious. When the sun is shining, residents fill the streets. Many stretch their legs at the Eau Claire Market and riverside walk, where a footbridge leads to the meandering paths of Prince's Island Park. Others window-shop on the pedestrian Stephens Avenue Mall. For those who want a bird's-eye view, the 630-foot-high Calgary Tower offers 360-degree views.

A definite stop for anyone visiting Calgary is the Glenbow Museum and Art Gallery. The founder, Eric Harvie, made a fortune during oil's heydays and used much of it to collect items from around the world. A man of broad interests -- and straightforward tongue -- he reportedly told his staff: "Go out and collect like a bunch of drunken sailors!" The result is a vast and fascinating museum that sprawls over four floors and includes everything from African drums to modern-day baseball caps, suits of armor to covered wagons.

A First Nations Advisory Council helps the museum with its extensive First Nations collection (words like "Indian" and "tribe" are no longer used). Exhibits include a mid-1800s Blackfoot bison "story robe" that depicts battles and hunts through extensive drawings on the skin.

A two-story tepee from the same time shows how well-designed they were. A comb of buffalo hide reflects how each kill was used fully.

The original landscape

For thousands of years, members of the Blackfoot, Sarcee and Stoney nations roamed the region, from the plains to deep within the Rockies. To see the landscape as they saw it takes only a short drive from Calgary into Banff National Park, where much of the wilderness has been preserved.

Banff National Park, established in 1885, was Canada's first national park and is today its most popular, attracting more than 3 million visitors a year. Covering 2,656 square miles, the park contains 25 peaks that soar higher than 9,900 feet. More than 750 miles of trails pass by glacial-cold lakes, natural hot springs, fast-moving rivers and peaceful valleys.

Towering above it all are huge saw-toothed mountains, skirted by alpine forests. The granite peaks look freshly cleaved as they rip jagged lines out of cobalt-blue skies. Lodgepole pines are etched against whipped-cream drifts. Clear mountain air adds a crispness and clarity to every scene.

Near the middle of the park, and only 75 miles northwest of Calgary, is the bustling resort town of Banff. On one end of its main street is towering Mount Rundle, and on the other a bridge over the Bow River. Tourist shops, cafes and eateries fill the two-story buildings that line the street.

For its small size, Banff has a surprising amount of interesting museums. Right on main street, a doorway marks the entrance to the free, privately owned Natural History Museum. Creative displays include a mining tunnel, dinosaur dig and an 8-foot-tall rendition of Sasquatch (Big Foot).

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