The temperature read a “high” of -7C and my fingers, even inside my thick gloves, verified the fact. I clipped on ski boots for the first time in 10 years (not that you would even guess I’d ever skied before, if you were to watch me sliding down a mountain…), and joined my guide as we headed onto the gondola. The air was fresh, as it always is up this high in a country as naturally beautiful as Canada, and a fresh layer of snow – or “Champagne Powder” as the Albertans call it – coated the land as far as the eye could see. As we rode the chairlift to start skiing for the day, I realised something was missing. Only one thing though – the crowds of other people.
Not that I miss that, of course. This kind of space is perfect for beginners and seasoned pros alike, allowing you the freedom to make mistakes or zoom pretty much as fast as you want, without the fear of crashing into a gaggle of other snow worshipers further down the slopes. Wide, open runs, the equivalent of having a motorway all to yourself as you cruise down it, even affording you the luxury to soak in the stunning views from time to time. Sure, it was a weekday in mid-December, before the school holidays and the Christmas crowds arrived, but this was unlike any other ski resort I’d ever been to, and at one point I even questioned how it could remain profitable with so few people there. Although the majority of tourists come in the summer, it remains in the framework goals of Alberta Tourism to manage the destination in carefully planned steps – otherwise, they would risk ruining the natural splendor, the very thing people came from all over the world to see.
During my two skiing sessions (one in Lake Louise, with incredible views over to the famous lake of the same name; and one in Sunshine Village, the higher of the two, with one chairlift ending on the Alberta/British Columbia border), my guides explained some of the reasons why the two ski resorts, along with family-friendly Mount Norquay and the nearby town of Banff, hadn’t yet been entirely swallowed up by over-development and rampant chasing of tourism dollars. Banff was Canada’s first, and the world’s third, National Park. As the ski resorts are within the park, it means that anytime the owners want to install a new chairlift, they have to decommission an old one. Although in recent years there have been plans to expand parts of the Lake Louise resort, and also further north in Jasper, development still seems to be at a controlled, orderly pace.
Visitors who are used to lengthy queues for lifts at resorts in Vail or Aspen, can’t fail to be impressed by the extra space. Even Canada’s own Whistler Blackcomb, probably the most internationally famous resort in the country, may get the lion’s share of visitors but actually, the trio of resorts in Banff/Lake Louise actually have a combined skiing area greater than it’s more famous sibling. Other eco-friendly ventures like a public bus shuttling visitors from Banff to each of the “SkiBig3” destinations, or the ROAM bus around Banff itself, help reduce the need for more cars and traffic in the national park. So you can stay in one town and ski at 3 different resorts on one holiday.
Few would argue that Canada has, hands down, one of the most stunning natural landscapes on the planet. What is easier to overlook though, is how other equally beautiful parts of the world have slowly been destroyed, reduced, damaged or over-developed in the name of tourism, or big business like palm oil or logging – you name it, and somewhere it’s highly likely that a forest has gone, a glacier has receded, or a wildlife habitat has been threatened all in the name of human progress. The way that a place as precious as Banff is being managed is truly admirable – but if it ever feels too overwhelming you can always head 20 minutes away to Canmore, which is even less developed than Banff, and where a significant amount of local workers live.
During dinner at the Park Distillery (make sure you try their in-house local gin!), one of the locals asked me if I’d seen the “wildlife bridges”. Not even knowing what they were, I said I hadn’t, so she explained these amazing structures that allow humans and nature to co-exist peacefully and safely, by providing a way for the abundant local fauna to cross above busy sections of highways without having to risk crossing the tarmac. The bridges are out of bounds for humans and full to the brim with vegetation to encourage the animals. It’s an idea so good that other resorts in North America have borrowed the idea and begun to implement their own versions. The next day, I saw about 6 of the bridges (now that I knew what I was looking for) and they blend in harmoniously with the rest of the scenery. She also mentioned that so many people who leave Banff come back years later and find that little has changed, or at least that the town hasn’t exploded in size, allowing those nostalgic for the past to revel in a town that values nature over profit.
In an era where baby dolphins have died after too many selfie-craving tourists have chosen to take a photo rather than return it to the ocean, we can only hope that the idea of more responsible tourism gains more and more popularity. In Alberta, you can get your adrenaline kicks while minimising your environmental footprint. During my time exploring this breathtaking area, it wasn’t just refreshing to hear about the actions being taken around Banff to limit the flow of development, it was entirely heart-warming. And in a place where temperatures frequently get into the -20C or -30C range, anything to warm the heart is more than welcome!
All words and images by Lee Hubbard. This post was brought to you as a result of the Travel Alberta blog trip, created and managed by Captivate in partnership with Travel Alberta. GlobalGrasshopper maintains full editorial control of the content published on this site.