Roadtrip

Icefields Parkway

Winter in the Rocky Mountains

I've always wondered what winter in the Rockies might be like. Big frozen lakes, thin dry fluffy snow, waterfalls made of sculpted ice, the air cold and crisp and the sky a clear crystal blue. While I grew up in the Kootenays with long snowy winters, it was generally a winter of a different sort: short dark grey days, a heavier wetter snow, temperatures more often hovering around freezing then plunging deep below. And then I went ahead and spent the last 15 years down on the coast, where we get maybe 2 days of winter a year, max.

This past December we were invited out to be models for a national campaign some friends were shooting. They offered to fly us out from Vancouver but, planning on being in the Kootenays (halfway there already), we opted to take the slower more scenic route and drive. Little did we know how soft the coast had made us.

FORT STEELE

It was only the beginning of December but it was already promising to be a pretty good snow year. There weren't record amounts or anything, but the landscape was covered in a nice fluffy white. It looked really pretty, and we were excited to drive into the mountains where it would look all the more prettier still. We took the Crowsnest Highway to Cranbrook, some hardpacked ice over Kootenay Pass, veering north on Hwy 93 to Radium then east into Kootenay National Park. Stops were relatively few, but Fort Steele was on our radar. We love old tumbled-down towns, and even though Fort Steele was more heritage tourist site than actual ghost town, when we saw the old pioneer buildings and horse paddocks there was no turning away.

Once a thriving and booming gold rush town, Fort Steele was quite the up-and-comer, and well on its way to becoming the East Kootenay's principal town. But when the local MLA bribed and blackmailed the new railroad to bypass the town in favour of his nearby ranch, and then sell it off parcel by parcel to found the city of Cranbrook, the fate of Fort Steele was sealed. The population fell in steep decline as businesses moved to be nearer the railroad and the flow of people and commerce it brought, and before long Fort Steele was abandoned and slowly disintegrating. But by the 1950s locals began petitioning government to preserve and protect the town, until it was listed as a National Historic Site in the late 1960s. In the years since it has become a veritable tourist industry in itself with a working farm, steam locomotive rides, old-timey theatre productions, and displays of traditional turn-of-the-century crafts like leatherworking and smithing.

But come winter it becomes once again the ghost town it almost was, and we had the place to ourselves. The houses and shops and displays were all boarded up so we couldn't go poking around into the buildings at all, but seeing an old abandoned pioneer town deserted just felt right and natural. We did however meet one resident wandering the buried snow-drift streets: a friendly black farm cat. He came running out from a barn and jumped up on my shoulders, smelling of horses and hay.

Banff

We arrived in Banff by 8pm, having driven the previous several hours through Kootenay National Park in the dark. Our friends had booked three cabins at the wonderfully picturesque Storm Mountain Lodge, and as we pulled up it felt as though we were stepping through the looking glass into a fantasy wonderland of perfect little gingerbread houses.

Built in 1922, Storm Mountain Lodge has been a Rocky Mountain mainstay for generations. Far removed from the restrained pomp of the lakeside chateaus, the lodge follows more in the tradition of a rustic old world mountain chalet or hunting lodge. Nestled into the trees just east of Castle Junction, the outlying log cabins come with cozy fireplaces, clawfoot soaker bathtubs, and access to snowshoes and trails through the forest. The lodge itself cinches the deal, drawing heavily on National Park history and Canadian heritage, lined with dark wood, a big blazing stone fireplace, and decorated with antlers and animal heads and pioneer paraphernalia. But this wasn't some forgotten off-the-track throwback; there was a luxurious comfort in its homage to tradition, an unfussy elegance to the service and decor. Plus it boasted a fantastically delicious breakfast. Everything well thought out and cared for, it was the perfect base for a stay in the mountains.

Over the next couple days we goofed around in the snow, went tobogganing, had snowball fights, and generally acted all cool like real life models. We were too busy to take many photos ourselves, but it was a real good time. Cold feet and all.

Icefields Parkway

It's not every day you find yourself in a faraway place as magnificent as the Rockies, so we decided to stick around a bit after the shoot and get some proper sightseeing in. This was Megan's first trip to Banff, so we had some things to see. First being the frozen white field under which Lake Louise lay. It was -20˚C and so clear and cold that the air was sparkling with tiny ice crystals in the low slanted sunlight. It felt truly magical. I would've loved to see Moraine as well, but with the winter road closure that would have required renting skies, and who has the time for that?

We had other plans. We were hitting the road north to Jasper.

It's about a 4hr drive up to Jasper at the best of times, but with a couple cameras in hand it can easily take double that. The Icefields Parkway is an almost stupidly pretty route with picturesque mountain vistas the entire way. Add to that winter driving conditions and limited daylight and you just know you'll be doing the last half of it in the dark. But our tires handled the compacted snow and ice with aplomb, and we managed (surprisingly) to drive at posted speed limits almost the whole way. We'd often have no idea just how slippery the road was until we got out to take photos and could barely stand upright.

I had driven the Parkway in summer, but in winter it is something else entirely. We saw almost no one else along the way, and the quiet snowy stillness was palpable.

Pulling into town just as the last blue light was leeched from the landscape, we went to a pub for some warm food and a beer then quietly slinked off to bed for an early morning start. We had a sunrise to catch on Pyramid Lake.

One of the winter features we were most looking forward to was Athabasca Glacier. The whole area around the Columbia Icefield feels barren and desolate and inhospitable even in the warm summer months, so we were certain that it would be positively otherworldly in the howling winter wind. Which is a really neat feeling! Although really we were just there to see the ice cave.

You see it almost straight away, a bright ice-blue beckoning in a field and wind-blown white. A little off to the right of the main summer trail waits an exposed section of the toe of the glacier, deep and blue and almost glowing. The hike in is about a kilometer longer in winter than it is in summer, but everyone comes here for one reason so the snow-packed trail heads straight for the ice. We met a couple coming up who were just unstrapping snowshoes and who told us not to take the route to the right due to knee-deep drifts. We were like heck yeah! Snow drifts! And struggled up the hill in an exhausting regretful sweat.

But this place is a site of wonder, a site of awe. The ice was such a beautiful and dazzling blue that it was almost hypnotic. We lay our hands on it, touched it, and I was immediately struck by how smooth it felt, how dry it was. This didn't feel at all like the icicle we had been playing with earlier at Athabasca Falls. This felt like an entirely different category of ice, huge and old beyond human scale. It's hard to describe, really.

HEADING HOME

We returned to the town of Lake Louise for the night, then back up to the lake for an early frozen toe sunrise, watching the mountains turn slowly pink, then peach, then dirty orange. After one last Rocky Mountain coffee we were back on the road, taking a different route home, west on the TransCanada towards Golden. Crossing the border back into BC, the clear blue skies immediately disappeared as we drove into a wall of fog and shredded low-lying clouds. Ahhh it was good to be back.

We stopped in at our favourite little mountain town of Field, then popped in at Emerald Lake, but stops wouldn't hold us for long. We had a long ways to go yet.