Anyone who’s seen Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man will understand the awe as well as the terror a grizzly bear in the wild can instill in measly man. I was lucky enough to witness this blood-chillingly beautiful creature on a visit to Canada recently. While the Alaskan grizzlies in Herzog’s doc may be larger than their Albertan siblings, thanks to their protein-rich salmon-dominant diet, the dandelion-chomping bear I spotted by the side of the highway in Banff National Park was no teddy. These grazers and foragers may be a few inches smaller than their coastal kin, but their speed and swipe are equally lethal.
Western Canada is home to two spectacular adjoining natural reserves. Both abut the Canadian Rockies, a magnificent cordillera of shale and limestone that snakes up from the country’s southerly neighbour. Banff is Canada’s oldest national park; Jasper, to its north, is the Canadian Rocky mountain range’s largest. Together, the UNESCO World Heritage sites cover an area of about 18,000 square kilometres. That’s a Kuwait-sized expanse of some of the most pristine preservations of mountains, trails, lakes, rivers, forests and wildlife one could ever aspire to explore.
I had arrived in darkness-shrouded Jasper town late at night. When I awoke early the next morning, at the luxe Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, I was unprepared for the shock of beauty that greeted me. As I sat with a steaming cuppa Joe in the icy air by a crystalline lake, presided over by a range of stunning frost-peaked mountains, I felt the last remnants of the 25-plus-hour journey ease out of my bones.
The majesty of the Canadian Rockies is nearly impossible to describe. The inadequacy of language prevailed when I rode the Jasper Skytram aerial cable car to its summit. Mountains have a way of crushing man’s ego without mercy. The imposing sentinels I beheld in the distance were not lenient, but they were comforting and inspiring. Jasper National Park is thick with natural beauty. And, wildlife. Within 20 minutes of my first outing, I was beyond kicked to spot a moose, a rarely sighted animal due to its shy and elusive nature. Grateful though I was for the sighting, my heart was set on a grizzly spotting. In the meantime, I had to satisfy myself
with a menagerie of other delights, including elk,
osprey, mountain goats and marmots.
Jasper’s waterbodies, including its largest and most famous river, the Athabasca, are fed by a collection of eight major glaciers, which themselves spawn off from the Columbia Icefield, a gargantuan body of ice that measures 325 sq km in area and runs as deep as 365 metres. But, here’s where humans get it wrong. A large transport and travel company thought it would be neat to acquire a fleet of rugged buses pimped up with ridiculously large tyres that can ferry people right onto the glacier. Just so you can say you walked on a glacier. Barely. Because you can’t get very far on that slippery surface. And, after a waddle or two, you get back on the bus and scoot to the next attraction. The busloads of tourists didn’t seem to share my skepticism, though. Certainly not the corpulent feller clad in a thin, tight tee, Bermuda shorts and flip-flops, sliding jauntily across the ice floe.
Another honey pot for the herds is the recently inaugurated and heavily promoted attraction called the Glacier Skywalk (another abomination by that travel company). Jutting out from the edge of a cliff, the man-made promontory boasts of a transparent floor that will likely induce a tingling sensation in your own protuberance the first time you look through the platform, and realise your feet are hovering 918 feet above the craggy, rock-strewn earth. But, after the thrill is gone, and it will leave soon, it could also leave you wondering what the point of all of this is. When you’re surrounded by nature’s inimitable glory, why ruin it with a gimmick?
But, there’s so much to see in this god-kissed land, and so, I hit the road. The Icefield Parkway, a 230-km-long highway that connects Jasper to Banff National Park, was voted by National Geographic readers as one of the world’s five best roads to ride. That drive alone, featuring a seemingly infinite view of the most exquisite beauty you could ever espy through a windshield, is worth a visit to the national parks.
The highway terminated at one of Banff’s most visited spots: Lake Louise, known to the Stony Natoka tribe as the Lake of Little Fishes (which sounds so much cooler. It is a waterbody of the most amazing emerald hue. The walkway around it, which leads to a finger of the Columbia Icefield, whose erosions give the lake its viridescent colour, is skirted by woods, and populated with tourists wielding selfie sticks and perfected poses. Not a long drive away, the less trafficked but equally stunning Moraine Lake is no poor cousin, flanked on all sides by looming grey mountains that look more like charcoal sketches than towering mounds of mineral, mud and stone.
Banff’s natural attractions complement its companion park. Johnston Canyon features a gentle, albeit people-filled, walk through a gorge, and the expansive Lake Minnewanka can be explored on a ferry that will stop close enough to the shore where a golden eagle is famously nesting and where bighorn sheep come to chow. Another popular uphill ride, the Lake Louise Gondola features closed cabins and open ski lifts that hover a few hundred metres above the ground as they head up the slopes. If you’re really, really lucky, you’ll dangle closely, and safely, above a passing bear as you make your way up.
There are a ton of attractions in both these exquisite havens of nature, including guided horse trips through trails of different lengths and scales; whitewater rafting (through mostly tame rapids, so don’t expect Zanskar-level thrills); canoe rides; and treks of varying grades of difficulty. The towns of Jasper and Banff are small and sweet enough to justify the use of the word ‘quaint’. I mean that in the best sense, and not in the way too many tourist towns in North America cultivate picture-postcard images with cookie-cutter replications of fudge shops, handmade soap outlets and hemp haberdasheries.
And, while you won’t find the gastronomic plethora that pervades the country’s eastern region — this is British Canada, after all —there’s enough good food to keep you sated between excursions. My most memorable food moments took place in little Banff. The first was at the Banff Ave. Brewing Co., which served a souped-up version of that celebrated Canadian cholesterol-in-a-bowl offering known as poutine. This one featured the usual cast of French fries, doused in beef gravy and cheese curds, but sexed up with lashings of cheddar, jack and brie. The pint of pristinely bitter Head Smashed IPA would have given Michelin pairings a run for their stars.
If you’re jonesing for some wildlife in a bun, the game burger at Papa George’s in Jasper town, featuring elk, bison and venison, will bring you some joy. The bison burger at the Lake Louise Station Restaurant, an old trading stop turned eatery, is a far more toothsome version. Vegetarians, fear not. The organic vegan fare at Banff restaurant Nourish is outstanding, attracting as many critter-chompers as plant-munchers. And, of course, no tourist town is complete without the customary Indian restaurant: Masala Banff’s rogan josh, meen moily and chicken dahiwala were nothing to scoff at.
If you’re man enough to do high tea, the historic Fairmont Banff Springs hotel, a grand structure of classical architecture, boasting some of the tastiest views of the neighbourhood, is the place to go. Along with a staggering range of hand-picked teas from estates across the world, expect a three-tiered assemblage of divine amuse-bouches and bonne bouches, featuring scones with jam and cream, beef pinwheels, mascarpone Key lime cakes, salmon cream cheese bruschettas and madeleines. But, the meal that remains with me was the one I had at The Keg Steakhouse in the Banff Caribou Lodge. The Albertan prime rib steak, prepared medium rare, with head-slamming horseradish, crisply toasted onion curls and spinach salad with goat cheese, strawberries and caramelised pecans opened the kundalini for a while.