Every year thousands of visitors to Alberta, Canada, motor west from Calgary into the Rocky Mountains, heading for the high-profile destinations of Banff and Lake Louise. After traveling for 50 miles along the Trans-Canada Highway into the scenic splendor of the Bow River Valley, they come to the off-ramp for Canmore. They might wonder what the town has to offer but feel they can’t stop because they have their sights set on the posh resorts and palatial hotels ahead.
The fact is that there’s a world of difference between those two highly publicized destinations and Canmore, even though their setting and access to the awe-inspiring wilderness of the Rockies is totally comparable. The difference is that Canmore is a real community of schools and small privately owned shops, where the locals gather at their favorite wine bars and restaurants. You won’t find row after row of garishly lit shops selling kitschy souvenirs or one cookie-cutter chain store after another. And if you are seeking a wilderness experience — from backpacking or fly-fishing to dog-sledding and snowshoeing, there really isn’t a better jumping-off point than Canmore.
I admit that until recently I was one of those “Banff or bust” tourists. But a few gorgeous winter days — “Blue Bird Days” as the locals call them — in and around Canmore changed all that.
There are two landmarks on Main Street that tell a lot about Canmore’s history. One is the old North-West Mounted Police barracks built in the 1890s at the same time the “Stampeders” were heading for the gold fields of the Yukon. The other is the white, two-story clapboard Canmore Hotel, which has been providing rooms in the same location for 124 years.
The day I arrived, Canmore’s annual winter carnival was in full swing. Two blocks of Main Street had been blocked off and packed with snow so kids (along with their parents and dogs) could enjoy a little downtown cross-country skiing. Those looking for a more elevated level of activity were up at the Canmore Nordic Center, site of the 1988 Winter Olympics. In keeping with its Olympic heritage, a large screen had been set up just off Main Street so people could watch the most recent games while they warded off the chill with a steaming cup of hot chocolate.
As a kid I read Jack London and watched Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, so the lure of the Canadian Rockies, the barking of sled dogs and the cry of “On, you huskies” was already ingrained in my DNA. Having a chance to actually take a team of sled dogs into the wild (under the guidance of Howling Dog Tours) was a bucket-list event not to be missed.
Amazing as it sounds, a drive of just 30 minutes from Canmore took us deep into the spectacular backcountry of the Spray Lakes and the rising peaks of the Three Sisters range. Arriving to a cacophony of joyously barking sled dogs, I was introduced to my guide/musher and mentor, Jeff Forbes, who took me in hand and introduced me to the team.
“It’s kinda loud now,” he shouted over the barking, “but once we get them all harnessed up and onto the trail they’ll quiet down. They get excited when they know they’re about to go.”
Eager they were and oh so friendly, as we gave each of the five dogs a big pat on the head and harnessed them to the sled. Then it was time to head out. It was a perfect day with subzero temperatures but clear and with a bright sun reflecting off the snow-covered lakes and dappling through the pines.
For the next hour Jeff taught me how to brake the sled in order to keep the lines taut, how to give a helping push when we needed to ascend a hill, and how to steer by dragging one foot or the other.
“Come on, Martini,” Jeff would call out to our lead dog, and on we went, with the dogs straining at the leads, my head filled with fantasies of gold-rush days gone by.
Howling Dog Tours offers a wide variety of dog-sledding experiences, from short outings to a four-hour excursion that includes a fresh-cooked lunch deep in the mountains. That’s the one I highly recommend.
Another way to enjoy Canmore is to combine a stay in town with a visit to one of the most beautiful backcountry resorts imaginable, the Mount Engadine Lodge. Built in 1987 to resemble a European-style mountain hostel, it has evolved from a rustic dormitory for skiers, hikers and fishermen into a gracious, elegantly appointed resort that features excellent chef-prepared meals and a delicious tea service in the afternoon. A variety of rooms and suites in the lodge as well as a pair of cabins are available. A spacious deck surrounds the lodge, and from the dining room you get a panoramic view of the meadow below (where moose are common visitors) and the cloud-capped peaks beyond.
Two-night minimum bookings are required, though single nights may be available if you are booking less than two weeks in advance. Rates include a full buffet breakfast, build-it-yourself lunch, afternoon tea with baked goods, and dinner with fresh bread and homemade dessert. During my stay the main courses included a delicious loin of lamb in a red wine reduction sauce and Cornish game hens accompanied by delicious fresh-baked olive bread.
Comfortable as it is, the greatest thing about the Mount Engadine Lodge is the peaceful solitude of its setting and its unlimited access to the wilderness, whether you strap on a pair of cross-country skis or snowshoes in winter, or a daypack and fishing rod in summer.
Another popular way that visitors enjoy Canmore and the vast rugged landscape of the Kananaskis Country park system is by helicopter. For almost 50 years Alpine Helicopter Tours has been taking visitors aloft, soaring over the lakes, valleys, towering peaks and glacier-fed rivers of the region. The views are remarkable. In addition, the company also offers the unique experience of helicopter hiking.
Banff and Lake Louise are magnificent and certainly worth a visit. But next time you think about heading to Alberta, make some time for Canmore. Eh?
WHEN YOU GO
For excellent general information: www.tourismcamore.com
Howling Dog Tours: www.howlingdogtours.com or 877-DOGSLED (877-364-7533)
Mount Engadine Lodge: www.mountengadine.com or 403-678-4080
Alpine Helicopter Tours: www.alpinehelicopters.com or 403-678-4802