Photograph by Jenn Ackerman and Tim Gruber
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Conner Born lies in a hammock as the sun rises on Moraine Lake and the Valley of the Ten Peaks in Banff, Banff National Park.

Photograph by Jenn Ackerman and Tim Gruber

Banff: Escape to the Rugged Beauty of Canada's First National Park

A traveler finds peace—and herself—in Alberta's wilderness.

The maple leaves are everywhere: red ones on white T-shirts, white ones on red T-shirts. They’re screen-printed on bunting, chalked onto sidewalks, painted on faces, emblazoned on dog collars.

It is July 1 in Banff, Alberta, and residents are celebrating Canada Day as the country readies for the big bash in 2017, when Canada marks its 150th anniversary as a nation. The food stalls offer bison jerky and stone-fruit juices and vegetable samosas. Performers are attired in costumes from many lands. Singers belt out a universal message of love and harmony in many tongues.

A stranger hands me a paper Canadian flag and we make our way to the parade route along Banff Avenue. Many of us are from the U.S. or China or India, and we know only two words in the lyrics of the national anthem. But we all gamely chime in with “O Canada” at the right spots.

From the red and the white all around me I look up and see blue and green. Banff is no ordinary small town. It sits in the middle of Canada’s first and arguably best national park, 2,500 square miles of Rocky Mountain splendor carpeted with pine and spruce trees and riddled with glaciers bleeding blue into clear lakes—a space big and bold enough to support huge numbers of wildlife, including such so-called megafauna as wolves, elk, cougars, moose, black bears, and grizzlies. A thought strikes me: People are puny; nature is the grand marshal of this parade.

A few months ago I had an anxiety attack. Racing heart, tight chest, cold hands. My doctor said my cortisol levels were elevated. He prescribed vitamins and supplements to counteract the effects of a limbic hijacking and urged me to “meditate and eat dark chocolate.” So, besides popping chill pills, I’m biting into a Godiva daily and listening to a playlist of nouveau spiritualism by pop sages of the modern age. Had somebody close to me died? Was I experiencing some newly surfaced childhood trauma? Did my husband leave me for his secretary? No, no, and well, yes, but that was 20 years ago. So what was going on? Something embarrassingly trivial: I’m a recent empty-nester trying to write her next chapter.

If that diagnosis is clear, the remedy is not. Our bodies have minds of their own. I felt as if I’d pushed off from one shore and hadn’t quite reached the other. So I escaped, to Canada, like a late-in-life runaway. I’m not unhappy. In fact, I had long anticipated this period after the kids went to college. But I live with a nagging question: What on Earth do I want?

Right now I want to be in Banff. To be outdoors, hike, make new friends, and try to lose the thoughts that cobweb my brain in my suburban home-office outside Washington, D.C. This corner of the Rockies seems to me exactly what my meditation podcasts were telling me to visualize, but here I don’t have to close my eyes. I can open them.

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Elk can be seen throughout Banff National Park, often causing tourists to stop on the side of the road to watch and photograph wildlife along Lake Minnewanka Scenic Drive.

I join my new Banff friends Sally and Alison one morning for their daily stroll with their dogs up 5,500-foot-high Tunnel Mountain, just east of downtown. We’re three 50-somethings in cropped yoga pants talking about nothing and everything. From an overlook we can see the turrets and dormers of the area’s oldest and most famous lodging, the castle-on-a-hill Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. Near the summit, Sally and Alison touch the trunk of a fir tree, its gnarled bark worn smooth by other hands. They touch for sick friends, for dogs long gone, for the fallen. I touch too, “for sisterhood,” I say.

I had a short unhappy marriage and a long unhappy divorce. It was a slog, marked by custody battles for our two sons, tears, and trips to the therapist. I marvel at those who do it without family and friends—I had both. Looking back on those turbulent years, I realize I had an enviable clarity of purpose. My goal was the well-being of my sons; everything else was secondary. Now I miss the focus that gave me such direction.

After the hike, I meet up with Alexia McKinnon at the Banff Center, an “arts and creativity incubator” at the base of Tunnel Mountain. McKinnon manages indigenous leadership programs. Hailing from the First Nations tribe of Champagne and Aishihik, up in Yukon Province, she tells me that Tunnel Mountain is also called Sleeping Buffalo Mountain. And, she adds, “according to the elders, it is a place of healing, especially for women.” Really? The mountain I just climbed with the gals and touched wood—that mountain? “No doubt you felt its energy,” she says.

The town of Banff, at the convergence of three valleys and two rivers, was a place of gathering and trade for native nations, including those of the Stoney Nakoda, the Blackfoot, and the Tsuut’ina. Their influence continues to resonate. When I ask McKinnon what wisdom today’s elders offer, she smiles.

“They ask us to be mindful every day, to listen to our ancestors, to the trees that give us air, to the rocks that clean the water, to the animals that give us food. They remind us that we are here as part of the continuum. We are here to honor those who came before and represent those who come after.” This mountain has a song, she tells me, “and I was called to the mountain by that song.”

Canada is calling me. Twice this summer I’ve found myself north of the 48, first in Quebec and now in Banff. This land clears
my head. From the mountains here in the Rockies to the prairies of Manitoba to the Atlantic coasts of Newfoundland, our neighbor feels more spacious, more accepting. To this American, Canada is what we might be if we got outside more.

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The Bridger Ski Foundation ski team takes a chilly swim after a training run at Lake Louise in Banff National Park.

My iPhone is dead. My Fitbit too. The camera still works but it’s packed in the saddlebag and out of reach. I’m not even halfway into a two-day horse-packing excursion through the dense backcountry of Lake Louise, following the trails of early pioneers and their First Nations guides, and my fingers already seek something to tap, press, or swipe. Everywhere I turn I see Instagrammable moments, as the piney woods, glacier-fed lakes, snow-covered passes, and pointed peaks assemble themselves in countless permutations of perfect.

The cowboy leading our group of four is Paul Peyto. Born in Banff, he and his wife, Sue, run Timberline Tours. Peyto has the bona fides. His great uncle Bill Peyto was one of the first wardens of Banff National Park, which was established in 1885. For his exploits, his name was attached to a lake, a glacier, a mountain, a creek, and a café.

At camp the next morning, Peyto motions me over to his “weather station,” really a gap in the trees with a clear view of the creek below and Molar Mountain in the distance (which looks just like its name). If a storm develops, he can see it coming. We sip coffee, boiled with the grounds. No latte foam art here. Peyto doesn’t have children but he knows what ails today’s youth. “We were always outside, always working, always doing something—fishing, hiking, riding, skiing in wintertime. These kids now, they don’t want to do anything; that’s why they’re all four axe handles wide. And all the rivets and lock washers and stuff hanging off them, all them tattoos, I just shake my head.”

The guy could give his own TED talk: Head outside, do chores. It’s a simple version of the “forest bathing” and digital detox that today’s parenting experts advocate for nature deficit disorder and our culture of consumerism.

After the horsepacking trip I check into the log-and-stone Num-Ti-Jah Lodge, on the blue lip of Bow Lake. Built in the 1940s by another Banff pioneer and mountain man, Jimmy Simpson, the lodge is now in the hands of Tim Whyte, who despite initial drops of rain, takes me on a hike to Bow Glacier Falls, across the lake. Raindrops soon turn into horizontal precipitation, and thunderclaps follow lightning.

“I love this,” Whyte says. “I don’t do it enough.” Twenty years ago he gave up the executive suite for an innkeeper’s life following a bout of thyroid cancer. The work was harder, but he relished it. “Every now and then everyone needs to do a head check. Ask ourselves: Am I doing what I should be doing?”

Hiking in a tempest—is this what I should be doing? In a word, yes.

I’m itching to see a bear. Preferably in the company of Amar Anthwal, a ranger at the Cave and Basin National Historic Site, centered around a series of hot springs on the outskirts of downtown. The popular area, bounded on one side by Sulfur Mountain, abuts a wildlife corridor, so it’s a good place to spot the world’s largest omnivore. Anthwal, however, takes me to see snails. Barely the size of a pea, Banff spring snails are endangered, found nowhere else in the world but in the site’s sulfurous spring waters.

“See, there’s one,” he says, pointing to a dark, slimy corner of one pool. “My job is to protect both the bears and the snails. We’ve come a long way as humans that this park is here to do both.” I get it. You can’t just save the good-looking creatures. But I must not be as highly evolved because I can’t muster much zest for the green blobs.

During the construction of the transcontinental railway in the 1880s, workers found these hot springs, long known to First Nations people. To protect them, a reserve was established in 1885. Next came a marketer’s idea to build fancy lodges and encourage travelers to take the train West. This marked the birth of both tourism and the national parks system in Canada. At that time, protected reserves were dedicated more to the interests of tourism than to the ideals of conservation. First Nations peoples were evicted, big-game trophy hunting was promoted, lakes were stocked with non-native species for anglers, and the hot springs were “enhanced” with swimming pools and bathhouses. Today, Banff National Park is placing priority on environmental protection and redressing wrongs done to the original inhabitants. Wildlife overpasses and underpasses cross both the Trans-Canada Highway and the Icefields Parkway, allowing safe passage to fauna, from gangly moose to elusive wolverines. Footage from hidden cameras on YouTube shows plenty of traffic on these animal highways.

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The exterior of Lake Agnes Tea House in Banff National Park.

The bison, too, are returning: Parks Canada has plans to reintroduce a herd of about 30 next year. More significantly, First Nations peoples have been active participants in the process. According to Karsten Heuer, the park’s bison-reintroduction project manager, “Bison are to the plains and foothills culture what salmon are to coastal cultures and caribou are to northern ones. Daily life revolved around the bisons’ movements and rhythms, and from that, entire spiritual practices were born. Bringing bison back to Banff will help provide strength to those cultures. It’s a renewal.”

Nice, but where’s my bear?

“Be patient and present.” Anthwal sounds like one of my meditation podcasts. “The most difficult thing we need to give nature is time. Nature will not show you everything at once. But she will give you enough.”

Back to where I started. I am standing along the Canada Day parade route with Hernan Argana, his wife, and their two daughters, some of the 2,000 immigrants from countries such as the Philippines (where the Arganas—and my parents—hail from) who form the bedrock of this resort town’s economy.

“I love Canada,” says Hernan. “The people here have been so
good to us. The teacher saw my children walking to school in the cold and organized a visit to the thrift shop where we could have anything we needed for free.” The family’s immigrant journey was difficult. He worked in Banff alone for seven long years to get his permanent residency, wiring most of his income to pay for his youngest daughter’s heart surgery in the Philippines. The Banff Western Union staff witnessed his weekly visits and took up a secret collection for his daughter’s medical costs. His family reunited with him in Canada four years ago.

We watch the parade. The mayor, civic groups, and marching bands file past, followed by floats celebrating the ethnic groups that form the tapestry of Banff, and Canada—Filipinos, Japanese, Poles, Indians, Chinese, Scottish, Irish. About 20 percent of Canada’s population is foreign-born (compared to 13 percent in the U.S.). I think of my own family’s immigrant story. In the 1960s, my parents traveled to the U.S. to study and later raised their three children in Washington, D.C. My sisters and I, their husbands, and our blended-race offspring are a thoroughly American melting pot.

This land isn’t my land, but it is a product of the same ideals. In large tracts of wilderness and small acts of kindness, Canada turns out to be the perfect place to escape without losing myself. To ask questions that I discover I already know the answers to. To give my better self room to grow. And to wait for the bear.

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Devaan Ingraham paddles in his fishing canoe on Johnson Lake in Banff National Park.

Follow Editor at Large Norie Quintos on Instagram and Twitter. Wife-and-husband photographers Jenn Ackerman and Tim Gruber live in Minneapolis.