The cougar always attacks from behind. If you see one, try to make yourself bigger,’ our guide says, making Deely Boppers out of her poles by way of demonstration. ‘But don’t worry, cougars almost never attack humans. If they do, it’s because the humans threatened them first. Same goes for bears and wolves’. We are snowshoeing in Banff National Park, in Alberta, Canada – famous for its hot springs. It is mid-April and the local fauna is stretching and yawning after its long winter snooze. It’s just another spring to the locals, but to me, a girl from the comparatively crowded French mountains, it’s a thrilling, dramatically different winter experience, an immensity of raw nature blanketed in an annual nine metres of some of the best snow on the planet.
I’d landed in Calgary with my partner in early April to find the snow holding strong, and a world away from the starved slopes across much of Europe last season. We drove to Kananaskis, a pretty village just an hour west of Calgary famous for cross-country skiing, and the downhill area of Nakiska, host to the 1988 Winter Olympics. Although it’s quite a modest area, beautifully groomed intermediate slopes and an abundance of flattering snow break us in gently. It’s the last day this place is open though, ‘because the female grizzlies starts waking up and can go down the slopes’ our ski guide tells us.
Next stop Canmore, an old coal-mining town at the border of the park. On the deserted road, and to the strains of country music (there’s nothing else on the radio!) we drink in vast views of towering pines cloaked in snow and majestic mountains behind.
Even if the centre of Canmore still has a far west, small-town feel, it is expanding rapidly, a popular access point for the park. A 20-minute drive from Banff’s downhill areas, Canmore also does a brisk trade in dog-sledding and snowshoeing. Its cross-country credentials were set when it hosted the Nordic events during 1988’s Winter Olympics.
We hook up with musher Laura for a spot of dog-sledding. To our surprise, the Alaskan racing huskies are small, and spookily quiet. But as soon as she attaches them to the sledge, they start barking and tugging like it’s in their genes. We cruise an enjoyable flat course before we start to climb. The musher and another guide have to get off and run and push the sledge (I am reclining comfortably!), while the dogs constantly look back to make sure the bipeds are pulling their weight.
Next day, we check in at the park proper. Established in 1885, Banff was Canada’s first national park and is one of Alberta’s five UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Its pedigree is plain to see, from unblemished panoramic mountain views to the utterly unbothered elk which stroll out from time to time in front of your car. While Banff village is tastefully pretty and has a stunning setting, the hand of tourism is blatantly apparent, reflecting Banff’s success as both a summer and winter destination for American, European and Japanese visitors. Tacky shops and cheesy themed restaurants abound on the main drags, while a little exploration reveals some good, less touristy bars, cafés and restaurants – in any case, you’ve got to like the great package and accommodation deals generated by the lively competition here, especially in winter, Banff’s low season.
Moving on, we sample a very different atmosphere at our next stop, Baker Creek Chalets, a small resort of log cabins and chalets surrounded by trees, 10 minutes drive from Lake Louise. Our ‘Deluxe Suite’ is a two-floor beauty with a super-comfy king-size bed and a jumbo Jacuzzi upstairs, all wrapped up in perfect peace. Downstairs, the snug living room and a fully fitted kitchen allow for cosy fireside dinners. And just in case you fancy neither cooking nor the drive to Lake Louise village, the resort also has a gastro restaurant, Le Bistro.
Although it’s tempting and easy here to ski or board every available moment, extra-curricular activities are well worth your time. We choose more snowshoeing and ice-walking through frozen river canyons equipped with poles and ice cleats, and thanks to Christie, our guide from White Mountain Adventure, get some fascinating insights into this awe-inspiring environment, and how natives through the centuries have survived and learned in its tough surroundings. And, to melt the chill from your bones at the end of the day, the outdoor pool at the Banff Upper Hot Springs (www.hotsprings.ca), the original reason for the area’s Park status, is a seriously civilised way to drink in the magnificent mountain views. Those in need of more intense relaxation will find therapy rooms on hand here too.
Slope-bound, you’re spoilt for choice. Banff National Park includes three ski resorts – Norquay has the smallest area, with gentle slopes suited to beginners and intermediates, and some tougher terrain at one end. Sunshine and Lake Louise both have very large and diverse ski areas, with enough heart-stoppingly beautiful terrain to keep even excellent riders supplied with fresh runs daily for over a week, especially thanks to the North American culture of preparing the whole in-bounds area, and not just a network of defined pistes, for skiers and boarders to explore. Having gorged all week long on monumental landscapes, the views from the runs above Lake Louise remain my defining memory of an unforgettable trip.
Nadine Carle travelled to Calgary with Zoom Airlines (www.flyzoom.com), whose returns from Gatwick or Manchester start at £350, and hired a car through Hertz (www.hertz.com). Accommodation was provided by www.executivehotels.net in Kananaskis, Falcon Crest Lodge in Canmore, www.brewstermountainlodge.com in Banff Village and www.bakercreek.com in Lake Louise. Dog-sledding was hosted by www.howlingdogtours.com, snowshoeing and ice walking by www.whitemountainadventures.com
www.travelalberta.com, www.skibig3.com, www.banffnorquay.com, www.skinakiska.com
Getting there: As well as Zoom (www.flyzoom.com), Flyglobespan (www.flyglobespan.com) and Thomas Cook (www.flythomascook.com) fly to Calgary from London and Manchester, and, except Thomas Cook, from Glasgow. Air Canada (www.aircanada.com), British Airways (www.britishairways.com) Air Transat (www.airtransat.com), also fly from London.
Ski Independence (www.ski-i.com)
Lake Louise ( www.skilouise.com)
Season dates: 10 Nov-mid-May
Vertical drop: 2,637m-1,646m
Terrain: 4,200 acres
Snowmaking: 40% of main pistes are covered
Mountain munchies: The Lodge of the Ten Peaks is a fab restaurant at the base, with self-service option as well
Banff – Sunshine Village ( www.sunshinevillage.com)
Season dates: 15 Nov-mid-May
Vertical drop: 2,730m-1,660m
Terrain: 3,358 acres
Mountain munchies: the Sunshine Inn, Banff’s only ski-in ski-out accommodation, has a good restaurant