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Kick and Glide in the Canadian Rockies

A cross-country ski expedition to sample the premier terrain and best lodges of Alberta’s Lake Louise area and Kananaskis Country
By Peter Potterfield - February 24th, 2009

It takes less than an hour to ski from historic Num-Ti-Jah Lodge on the north shore down to the south end of Bow Lake, but this is one easy round trip that can prove unforgettable. The snow-covered peaks forming the crest of the Canadian Rockies are lined up like brothers along the west shore of the lake, making a storybook backdrop to the mid-winter scene. The open, table-flat expanse of the frozen lake adds an airy, big-sky feel to the austere beauty of these iconic mountains. And, as our skis carry us quickly across the snowy surface of lake ice, the genuine solitude  found here serves as the finishing touch to a winter outing in this spectacular corner of the Rockies. 

In summer, the lake shore here can be full of tourists and their waiting buses, but winter is a different world. In February, the Banff Jasper Highway is virtually empty, and the historic lodge—just 20 minutes from Lake Louise—is transformed into a quiet oasis of casual comfort, standing utterly alone in the pristine winter landscape. As my companions and I neared the shore on our return trip to the lodge, we were both surprised to see two tiny figures emerge onto the ice at the far end of the lake, approaching on skis at a good clip. They turned out to be a Norwegian couple who, after a couple of days at the lodge, set off for the four-hour ski up to the Bow Hut on the famed Wapta Traverse (often called North America’s Haute Route). The European visitors were combining a few days of comfort at the stone-and-timber Num-Ti-Jah with a few days of deep wilderness splendor at the Canadian Alpine Club hut. That sort of variety is what makes the snow season here unique.
 
Not for nothing are Alberta’s Rockies considered one of the continent’s premier winter playgrounds. Truly, there’s something here for everyone: Downhill skiers and boarders have no less than five resorts to choose from (see GreatOutdoors.com correspondent Andrew McLean’s review of local downhill areas). Skilled backcountry skiers have multi-day routes such as the Wapta Traverse, replete with CAC huts, to test their mettle (see GreatOutdoors.com staff member Gordy Skoog’s story on the Wapta).  
 
To cover the middle ground, I came up in February to look at what cross country skiers can expect in the way of accommodations and groomed, track-set trails for classic Nordic kick and glide.  The mountains are just over an hour from Calgary’s busy airport, where local ski enthusiast Alasdair Fergusson met me for the run out on Route 1, the TransCanada Highway, into Canmore. First stop for us was the Num-Ti-Jah, the northern most lodge in the Banff-Lake Louise area, about an hour farther up the highway.
 
The first glimpse of the lodge is its distinctive red roof  just discernable at the base of the mountains across Bow Lake’s frozen surface. Outfitter Jimmy Simpson built a cabin here in 1900, but the current Num-Ti-Jah (the Stoney Plain Indian word for pine marten) dates from the ‘40s and ‘50s when Simpson’s children expanded the lodge. The 25 rooms here are simple but comfortable, featuring stunning views out across the lake. A full service dining room, and casual bar means that once you are here, you never have to leave. And even though there are no groomed or track-set trails at Bow Lake, a tour of the lake on cross country skis makes for an invigorating outing, suitable even for novices. Competent backcountry skiers can make the journey up to Bow Hut or sample untracked snow on dozens of nearby slopes. But the lodge itself is, in the end, a classic mountain retreat, encouraging a quiet read by the big fire after a day’s adventure in the wilderness just outside the door. I hated to leave.
 
From Num-Ti-Jah, it’s a short scenic drive on the Banff-Jasper Highway back to the village of Lake Louise. Here, accommodation options abound, from the Canadian Alpine Club hostel to the storied Post Hotel. We found the Lake Louise Inn, right in the middle of the village, comfortable and perfectly suited for a couple of days exploring the cross country trails nearby. Everything one needs is right here in the village. Wilson Sports is a well-equipped full-service ski and outdoor shop in the village, perfect for renting those skins you forgot to bring, and Laggans Bakery is the locals’ favorite place to stop in the morning for coffee, and to pick up a sandwich for lunch on the trail.
 
Venerable Deer Lodge and the tony Chateau Lake Louise are up by the lake itself, a mere ten minute drive from the village, where the two inns combine to make a community of their own. Some of the best track-set cross-country trails in the area start from the lake. Favorites include the Fairview, an 8 kilometer loop that incorporates part of the Moraine Lake road, and the Tramline, a 5 kilometer route that takes you from the lake right back down to the village. One trail rated for beginners, the Great Divide, follows the course of the old 1A Highway, and is unique in that skiers share the right of way with dog sledders. The Chateau actually sets tracks out across Lake Louise itself, where a two hour ski excursion on the frozen lake is a great way to take in the beauty of the mountain cirque that encloses the legendary body of water. At the far end, turn around for another imposing view: the chateau itself.
 
The Fairview Chateau Lake Louise has revived it’s legacy of Swiss mountain guiding  with its Mountain Heritage Program. The offerings include guided hikes in the summer and cross country ski lessons and tours in the winter, all lead by certified guides. Head guide and instructor Bruce Bembridge, an enthusiastic historian of the Chateau, its surrounding mountains and the legendary pioneers, proudly showed us his collection of hickory skis. Bembridge says these wooden skis go uphill even better than modern waxless skis, then, with a crooked grin, proceeded to demonstrate the truth of it. We spiced up a long day of skiing around the lake with lunch at the Chateau, and dinner at Deer Lodge, a good way to get the feel for these historic places even if you’re staying down in the village proper.
 
Across the highway from the village is the parking lot for the Pipestone Loops, five separate tracked trails, rated moderate, that complete the approximately 75 mile of track-set trails in the neighborhood. But before leaving Lake Louise, we had time to spend a night at the Baker Creek Chalets on four bucolic acres along its namesake creek. Located on the Bow Valley Highway, the big lodge here and its surrounding chalets offered splendid isolation after the busy scene at Lake Louise, and, best of all, boasts its own 12 kilometers of track-set trail literally out the front door.
 
On the way back to Calgary we took a couple of days to explore sprawling Kananaskis Country, or “K-Country” to the locals. I’d driven past the turnoff here a dozen times and often wondered what lay beyond.  What I discovered is a well-kept secret: A surprisingly robust mountain landscape miraculously set aside by local governments some 40 years ago in a pragmatic, mixed-use trade off of preservation vs. limited development.
 
There’s something for everyone in these mountains, and the place to set up your base is the Mount Engadine Lodge near Spray Lakes Provincial Park. This exclusive accommodation, a combination of a main lodge with rooms and private chalets, provides a centrally located venue, with all meals included, for days of skiing (or summer hiking) in the vicinity. When snow conditions permit, lodge manager Chris Williams actually sets tracks in the big meadow just below the lodge, but most of the skiing is done in the developed cross country ski areas of Kananaskis Country.
 
The Shark Mountain trails, closest to the lodge, are a collection of mostly strenuous routes developed for those who want a cross-country ski challenge. The exception here is the Watridge Lake Trail, often used for access into Banff National Park and Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park. But by far the most popular collection of trails is found at Pocatera, which has a day use lodge (the only one in Peter Loughheed Provincial Park) and more than 50 kilometers of track set trails. On a weekend, expect to see lots of local skiers from Canmore and Calgary, who one might rightly suspect of trying to keep this whole K-Country thing to themselves.
 
Back at the lodge at Mt. Engadine, it was time to sit by the fire with a glass of chardonnay and watch the snow come down. Meals are served family style here, so dinner time is an occasion to meet the other guests and enjoy the food and wine as well as the conversation. Cross country journalist Jonathan Weisel reminds me at dinner that another allure for skiers in the Rockies are the ski-in only  lodges, such as Skokie, Shadow Lake and Lake O’Hara. On a recent trip up to Lake O’Hara Lodge, Jonathan reported an honest three to four hours of work skiing in on the road (used for shuttle bus transport in summer), but an ample pay off in terms of unmatched scenery and comfortable accommodations once at the lodge.
 
 From the Engadine it’s only a couple of hours back to the airport at Calgary, but we were all a little reluctant to leave. The Rockies around Lake Louise clearly have a lot to offer cross-country ski enthusiasts, even in a low-snow winter like this one, when grooming and track-setting can be problematic. The provincial parks of Kananaskis Country came as a surprise, offering varied terrain in a half dozen locations. All week, we found it helpful to seek out local advice to find out when trails are track-set, and take advantage of that by being flexible about where you go.
 
 
Getting There
Calgary is the gateway to Lake Louise and Kananaskis Country, with convenient air connections to almost anywhere. A couple of hours in a rental car will get you up to the lodges mentioned here: Num-Ti-Jah, Baker Creek, the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, Deer Lodge and the Lake Louise Inn. It’s only an hour back down to Canmore and the turn off on the Smith Dorrien Highway for the Mount Engadine Lodge, and from there the big loop down to Highway 40 and back north to the Trans-Canada. The province of Alberta can help with information to make trip planning easier.
 
Gear
As for gear, you can rent or buy most anything you need at Wilson’s Sports in Lake Louise (but note they carry Salomon bindings, not NNN or NNN-BC). I brought  along a selection of skis for varying conditions, using the High Sierra Sport adjustable double ski and snowbard wheeled bag, new this year, into which we could easily fit three pairs of x-c skis, with poles. This is a robust bag that can accommodate snowboards, downhill skis or various combinations thereof in thickly padded safety. The bag can be extended (with zippered expanders), to accommodate 205 centimeter Nordic skis, and comes with in-line skate style wheels and plastic molded rub rails at the bottom. It's a very impressive all around ski bag into which we crammed a bunch of other stuff to keeps our duffle bags below max weight.
 
We used a variety of skis, mostly lightweight edgeless, waxless nordic skis, but my favorites turned out to be the Karhu Soltice XT. The partial edges made it easier  for a bad skier like me to climb and turn on the trails, and the XTs were wide enought to fit skins for the long uphill backcountry sections. Cross country skiing can really chew up your feet, so to avoid that I used a range of socks from Bridgedale specifically made for the sport.. The Cross Country Ski turned out to be the only sock I really needed, as it’s more than warm enough but is not bulky. I did put on a pair of Endurance Summit socks when temperatures dipped to 20 below one morning. The Cross Country Bjorndalen is a lightweight sock meant for Nordic racing and training, but it worked great on a short afternoon cruise of the Pipestone loops.
 
 
 

 


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Great

Great report!

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Posted on March 3, 2009 - 2:51pm
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