MountainTime

25 years later, a couple returns to an old friend, the Canadian Rockies.

Cover Story

August 08, 2004|By TOM LINTHICUM | TOM LINTHICUM,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It had been 25 years since my wife and I had visited the Canadian Rockies. Yet our memories were still as sharp and clear as a blast of cold Canadian air. Somehow, those mountains seemed more majestic, the skies more crystalline blue, the lakes more brilliantly turquoise than any other we had experienced.

And so when Dorothy and I were planning a summer vacation to mark our 30th wedding anniversary, our thoughts turned toward Canada. As usual, different considerations drove us. I noted the favorable exchange rate and saw a great trip at a great bargain. Dorothy expressed her yearning to return to this lovely place for more aesthetic reasons. As usual, our minds ended up in the same place.

Our first visit had been our last big vacation before the birth of our first child. This visit would be our first big trip as empty nesters. As travelers, some things hadn't changed for us. We were still strictly day hikers. Our definition of roughing it is to eat a hearty breakfast, take a vigorous hike of 5 to 7 miles with a leisurely lunch break and return to civilization for a hot shower, dinner and a good night's sleep in a real bed.

But there were differences, too. Our 30 years together had taught us to savor the small stuff. Usually, we'll still visit the must-see attractions, even if it means joining a herd of tourists. But now we find our greatest pleasures far from the herd. We love solitary hikes on woodsy trails and simple picnics on the shores of pristine lakes.

We went to the Canadian Rockies the first time determined to see and do as much as we possibly could, thinking we might never return. This time felt more like visiting an old friend. We knew what we wanted to see and do and -- just as important -- what we didn't want to see and do.

First impressions

Although they are side by side, Banff and Jasper national parks are two immense, separate parks. The crown jewels of Parks Canada, they comprise more than 6,700 square miles in the heart of the Canadian Rockies. Within the parks are the towns of Banff, Jasper and Lake Louise.

We headed first to Jasper. We went there last on our earlier trip after spending time at more popular tourist destinations. But Jasper had captured our hearts with its laid-back ambience, less-crowded hiking trails and superb food. So we went there first this time, hoping it had not been gentrified beyond recognition.

Setting out from Calgary, we took the Trans-Canada Highway across the wheat belt into Banff National Park, then turned our rental car north toward Jasper on the Icefields Parkway through rugged, snow-capped mountains.

When we rounded the bend and saw Becker's Chalets (they were Becker's Bungalows on our first visit), we exclaimed, "There it is!" Pulling into the parking lot felt like pulling into the driveway of a favorite aunt's house. Everything looked familiar.

Becker's nestles among the trees along a gentle bend of the Athabasca River. There are lush lawns with benches along the river, where you can watch whitewater rafters navigate the roiling waters and gaze upon Mount Kerkeslin.

Dorothy had reserved a riverside chalet, as we had done on our first visit. The view from our window was worthy of a picture postcard, and when we opened the front window at night, the sound of the rushing river lulled us to sleep. The rooms had been handsomely modernized and now boasted gas fireplaces, cable television and kitchenettes with microwave ovens. We noted thankfully that there were still no telephones.

Becker's gourmet restaurant was still excellent and its signature dessert, which we had craved for a quarter century, was still chocolate mousse. Alas, it had morphed into a sort of chocolate pie -- good but not good enough to remember for the next 25 years.

Dominic Venchiarutti, 24, one of four current owners, was proud of the improvements his family had made to 34-year-old establishment but disappointed that plans to become a conference center had been denied.

Dorothy and I were delighted. We didn't want to share our restful vacation spot with laptop luggers chirping into their cell phones and having breakout sessions on the lawns, even if we did come here only once every quarter century.

We asked Venchiarutti if the town itself had changed much since our last visit.

He shook his head. "In Jasper," he said ruefully, "whatever is is, and whatever isn't won't be."

We tried to look disappointed.

Jasper scene

A short drive into Jasper confirmed Venchiarutti's characterization. On the left as we entered town was a faded row of small shops, restaurants and an open-air produce stand tucked in an alley.

Across the street were parking lots and my favorite Jasper landmarks -- a classic totem pole next to the wonderful period piece of a railroad station, built by the Canadian National Railway in 1925 and restored a decade ago. Mountains provided a perfect backdrop. The scene seemed frozen in time since our last visit.

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