We have fresh air in this room but sadly a very noisy, full-sized fridge. I am looking forward to getting back to the silence of home, interrupted only by the occasional baaing of sheep. The combination of the aftermath of my chilly day in Québec, lack of breakfast and general exhaustion is making me feel quite dizzy but I am looking forward to a trip round Banff National Park and today we take a turn in the front seats of the coach. An acronym for Banff is ‘be aware, nothing for free’. We shan’t be going to the similarly entitled ‘just another small place to earn revenue’ – Jasper.
One of the reasons why the Canadian Pacific was routed through Banff was because of the presence of the hot water springs and a tourist industry grew up in the 1880s. This surrounded what is now the enormous, prestigious Banff Springs Hotel, that has been rebuilt and enlarged over the years. It now contains 750 rooms that cost from $600-$1600 a night. The hotel reputedly trades on its name and fame, rather than its standard of service, which is poor. Tour groups are not allowed to sightsee in the hotel but individual tourists are. It is suggested that we saunter in in ones and twos, feigning ignorance and pretending that we have never seen the rest of our party before – this works.
Banff National Park is the oldest in Canada and the third oldest in the world, being established in 1885. It is one of four adjacent parks in this area, which together make up the Mountains’ National Parks, only 5% of which are accessible from the road. Logging, mining, hunting and fishing are no longer allowed in areas under their jurisdiction.
Our driver and guide are up for breaking the rules so we go to places no tour bus has gone before and find ourselves being driven round the golf course in search of wildlife and we are lucky enough to see a whole herd of wild elk. We are fortunate that we chose today to be in the front seats. The First Nations word for elk is wapiti, or ‘white backside’. It was introduced to the area from the US by transporting a hundred or so by train and letting them loose in the Banff and Jasper National Parks. The antlers are shed each spring and new ones grow at a rate of 1½ inches a day. A rack of antlers (i.e. one side) can weigh up to 40lbs.
We have a photo stop at Bow Falls. We learn that the stone cairns we have been seeing, that look like men, are Inuksuk, Inuit symbols that were originally intended as way marks. The next photo opportunity is at Surprise Corner. We are on Tunnel Mountain, or ‘the sleeping buffalo’. There is no tunnel through this mountain but one was planned. We see Hoodoos, sandstone stacks created by water and wind erosion, that were feared by the First Nations people as it was thought that they represented evil spirits. A final pause at Two Jacks Lake then back past Lake Minnewanka (lake of the water spirit), the largest in the park at 15 miles long. It is frozen for six months of the year. The lake was enlarged as a result of it being dammed for HEP and there are now submerged buildings in the lake that are a target for scuba divers.
Mike drops us off in the centre of Banff by which time I am feeling increasingly weird so we fall into the nearest café for an all day breakfast. Our choice wins no prizes for décor, with uncovered concrete floors and exposed wiring on the ceiling but the breakfast was remarkably good and cheap. We walk down to the Bow River to look round the Buffalo Nations’ Luxton Museum, dedicated to First Nations’ history. It was founded by journalist and eccentric Samuel Luxton. I am reminded of much from my ‘American West’ teaching, with travois, pemmican (dried meat), sweat lodges and sundances. Something that I was not aware of was the use of ‘sage sticks’ to ward off evil spirits. The museum contains some beautiful craftwork and enough stuffed animals to have kept a taxidermist busy for a lifetime. We even get a hot drink included in our entrance fee, although we do have to make this ourselves.
The river is a jewelled green colour and very beautiful but now I just want to lie down in a darkened room, well, lie down at least. So we walk back up to the hotel, collecting some provisions on the way – there has to be some benefit to the noisy fridge, so we ensure that we will make use of it. This hotel also has a guest laundry with very efficient free dryers, so we do some washing – would be rude not to.