“Isn’t that basically a strenuous walk in the woods?”
I enjoy forest hikes, especially anywhere near magnificent Rocky Mountains, but I confess that was my first thought when told that I simply had to try snowshoeing with the Mountain Heritage Program guides at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. Chalk it up to my inner downhill-skier snob. At least I can admit when I’m wrong.
The Mountain Heritage Program is a remnant of a time, starting in 1899, when Swiss guides were imported by the chateau to lead mountaineers, hikers and skiers into the Rockies. While the Swiss may have preferred their long wooden skis to Canada’s native snowshoes, their far-reaching webs of trails and European alpine expertise opened Alberta’s mountains to every breed of adventurer. Skiing caught on and transformed the mountain culture of Canada. But as I found out myself, nothing challenges the efficiency of snowshoes for gaining big altitude in snowy climes.
As modern Mountain Heritage guide Mike Vincent leads his six newest charges to the lakeside equipment hut on the chateau property, he tells his own history: how in his early 20s he “heard the whisper,” and tried to hitchhike from his home in southern Ontario all the way to Vancouver. He was stopped by the Rockies — not because they presented an obstacle, but because he couldn’t bear to leave them behind. Now 52 and exuberant as ever, he can’t imagine a better calling. “Fairmont pays 600 people to work in there,” he says, pointing to the chateau, “and then there are three guides paid year-round not to be in there. Every mountain you can see from this building, I’ve been all over.”
At the hut Vincent reaches past stands of cross-country skis and picks up a pair of Algonquian snowshoes (the type you most often see tacked to lodge walls or leaning in garages) and compares them to the long, blunt Alaskan and the narrow, front-and-back-pointed Ojibwa designs. “They’re made differently, but they’re all ingenious weight distribution devices, all powder machines. But,” he says, holding up high-tech, orange aluminum-frame snowshoes with metal teeth, “it didn’t snow last night, and now we have dust on crust in many places. Today we take the work boot.”
Snowshoes strapped and walking poles in hand, we march the few metres to the toe of Fairview Mountain. Then we climb. It isn’t long before we’ve abandoned the hard-packed main trail and we’re tramping over piles of white, zigzagging up the wooded slope. “This is the beauty of snowshoeing,” says Vincent. “You’ve got to go looking for it, but there’s always untouched snow in these woods. That’s the point of this — you break your own trails.” In some places, fresh-fallen trees lie across our chosen path, snapped the week before by 130 kilometre-per-hour winds. Some of us fall scrambling over the trunks, then laugh as we extract ourselves from body-shaped hollows in the cushiony snow.
Every so often we stop, and Vincent tells of the natural history of the region, of Lake Louise’s claim to fame as the nation’s highest town (1,540 metres above sea level), of year-round wildlife sightings frequent (American martens and grizzlies) and rare (wolverines) and of the dramas that play out between predators and prey in these mountains.
The climax of the trek comes when it’s time to descend. Vincent has led us to a clearing overlooking the Bow Valley and Lake Louise, where only the tips of young evergreens poke out of two metres of rolling snow, and we’re floating above it all. “No need to follow me now,” Vincent says. “This is where you find your own way down. Just be careful as you pass between these treetops; each one will have a well around it, and if you step too close you might get stuck. But don’t be afraid to run!”
So we do. Loping and leaping down the mountainside, each at our own pace, we stomp fresh paths through unspoiled piles of powder, adding huge prints to the animal tracks that already criss-cross the surface. Drifts are excellent launch pads, and every landing is soft. And no one is swallowed up by a tree well.
Panting a little at the bottom, but more out of words than breath, I would scramble up again to do it all over. But Vincent is responsible for the group and we have to return to the chateau together. “That was fun, right?” he laughs. “And this is something else that I love about snowshoeing: there can be more than 6,000 people at the ski hill on a busy day. Skaters are all trapped in the rinks, cross-country skiers follow groomed trails made by a Ski-Doo and a setter. You want to get away from people? Those sports aren’t it. This is. We’re less than a kilometre away from one of the largest hotels in the country, and we haven’t seen anybody.”