Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 18, 2017
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Snow secrets

From a hidden hotel to snow biking, everything you didn't know about winter in Lake Louise

My wife Yvette and I must have driven the Icefields Parkway 15 times, and we had never noticed the round, red-roofed building tucked among the trees on the north shore of Bow Lake. The flags and its coloured roof make it look like a Parks Canada outpost. But it isn't.

This is Num-Ti-Jah Lodge, a retro slice of 1950s vacation life. Picture the beauty of Lake Louise — same soaring mountains, same glacial views — without the crowds. The spot is something of a local secret, especially in winter.

The lodge rooms have no TVs, no phones, not even an alarm clock — let alone Internet or cell-phone reception. But despite all that, you can drive right up to the front door, enjoy gourmet meals, tuck yourself into a bed with fluffy duvets and feather pillows, and curl up to read by a huge fireplace.

Over a century ago, Jimmy Simpson, the second son of a wealthy British family, set off to make his own way in the world. He wound up in the Rockies, becoming a famous mountain man and outfitter.

When he first found himself on the shores of Bow Lake, it's said he vowed to build himself a shack there some day. And so he did, a few decades later in 1938, when the highway finally reached the lake. Over the years, he added and expanded and, by the 1950s, had a cosy lodge with 25 rooms and a reputation that lured outdoorsfolk from around the world.

Num-Ti-Jah (Stoney Indian for "pine marten") had closed for 10 years during the winters when the Simpson family sold the place. The new owners promptly opened it to cross-country skiers and it has become quite the hangout — not only for novices like us who thrash their way across the frozen lake for a glimpse of dripping ice falls, but for serious backcountry types who return to the lodge and its hot showers after three or four days on the Wapta Icefield.

The place looks like you'd expect a mid-20th century inn to look: peeled log walls covered with mounted game heads, wood floors with area rugs, and huge fireplaces. Above the common rooms are 25 rustic guest rooms. Rustic means plain wood furniture, antique window blinds that may or may not work, and exposed pipes in the bathrooms.

Manager Lee O'Donnell has a philosophy about that: guest rooms are for sleeping. Period. The rest of the time, folks are downstairs reading in the library, chatting with fellow guests or outside enjoying the wilderness.

Lee is responsible for the lodge's progressive dining experience. Appetizers are served in the library around the huge fireplace, then it's into the dining room for the main course (the likes of duck à l'orange and rack of pork) and back to the library for dessert. "We do dinner this way because we want our guests to get to know one another," O'Donnell said.

Sure enough, after a chat with Calgary pediatrician Della Ho and her friend Roger, we wound up having dinner with them. And that's the way this place is: you meet over a pre-dinner drink, bond over coffee and maybe wind up skiing to the neighbourhood glacier together the next day.

The rest of the time you're on your own. This isn't a chateau where activities can be guided every step. You bring your own cross-country skis (though snowshoes are available for rent). You pore over the lodge maps and plan your own routes to a nearby waterfall a remote pioneer cabin or the edge of Bow Lake.

 

For us, the lake seemed like a natural destination. We set out around its edge, following tracks that hugged the base of the mountains. At the end, we went up a short canyon, ducked into woods and made our way up a steepish trail through the trees.

We went over one last ridge, and before us lay a glacial valley and Bow Lake Falls, frozen solid into a rippling blue ribbon of ice. Mountains of gold sandstone rose around us, their layers outlined with snow and monster ice drips.

Skiing with a Handlebar
Part of our plan for the trip was to steer clear of the usual downhill skiing. So when we headed to Sunshine Village the next day, it wasn't to ski — it was to try some snow bikes.

The contraptions looked like chopper-style bicycles, set low, with banana seats and outsize handlebars. They have a ski in front, one in back, and you clip ski blades to your boots. You steer using your feet and the handlebar, and brake using your feet (and a lot of praying). It's not really that scary, but it sure seemed that way during the first half of the first run.

"Turn right, turn right!" the instructor kept urging. Not on your life, I thought. But eventually, I made a right and left turn, and realized I had figured it out. The learning curve is amazingly fast, helped by the mandatory hour-long lesson with a special instructor. By the second run, we were swooping and leaning over like dirt-bike racers and having a blast.

Next on our list of adventures was dogsledding. Surrounded by pine and spruce, with Mount Bosworth looming before us, we discovered it was a beautiful way to see the countryside. The two-hour ride was just far enough for us to get a feel for the trail. On the way out, we snuggled together in a down sled bag and, on the way back, our guide Shawna let us try mushing.

Running a team was more physically demanding than we thought. We had to lean to guide the sled, throw our weight onto the giant metal claw of a brake to slow the dogs down, bend our knees to absorb the bumps, and sometimes hop a bit to recentre the sled on the trail. The dogs clearly loved it. They yipped and howled and actually seemed to grin at one point.

Star Struck
You don't have to be a guest at the Chateau Lake Louise to sign up for a bit of stargazing with naturalist and heritage guide Bruce Bembridge. Nights on Lake Louise, especially when the moon is full, are truly special. The snow on surrounding mountains picks up the moonlight and turns an ethereal silver, bright enough to read by. You can see every rockband and snowy ridgeline as they shimmer and glow. The stars gleam as well. Orion's belt to your left, the slightly oval shape of Saturn and the "w" of Cassiopeia hang over the hotel. The moon is big and bright enough to make out individual craters.

Also on our list for the weekend was a wildlife tour around Banff. As it turned out, we didn't see any wildlife (unless you count the deer we passed on the road), but we certainly learned a lot.

For instance, the reason you don't see piles of shed antlers from the 300 elk who hang around town is that the cast-offs get eaten — fast. "Antlers are full of minerals and vitamins," said guide Rose Maunder. "It's like winning the lottery for the lucky critter that finds one."

Also, if you see a park warden running down the street with a plastic bag tied to the end of a hockey stick, he hasn't lost it; he's just scaring the elk away. Elk used to come into town to escape the wolves, but the balance of nature got out of whack to the point that the wolves were starving. Now the elk stay out and the wolves are, frankly, better fed.

After driving to viewpoints and visiting two very pretty lakes, we took a brief tour of Cave and Basin National Historic Site. The site of Banff's original hot springs is now closed to swimming to protect one of the area's rarest bits of wildlife: the extremely tiny Banff snail. The original spring is dark but beautiful, and when we bent down and looked hard, we could actually see the snails.

On our last night at Num-Ti-Jah, after the pistachio-crusted halibut but before the chocolate fondue, we walked a few hundred metres onto the frozen lake. Above us, on this crystal-clear night, the stars spread in a glittering blanket. Directly over our heads, the Milky Way stretched in a glowing band. Even without the moon, there was enough reflected light to see the mountains folding and leaning around us, their slanted lines of black and silver shimmering in the starlight.

 

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