By David McKay Wilson
Yearning for a powder day can consume one’s thoughts while on a ski holiday. I said a prayer when I turned off my bedside lamp on the final night of our five-day sojourn in mid-December to ski Banff National Park’s Big Three: Norquay, Lake Louise and Sunshine Village.
We awoke at Sunshine Mountain Lodge to eight inches of light Canadian powder. The resort’s TeepeeTown lift, open for the first time in the 2013-14 season, brought us to trails on Lookout Mountain with snow up to our knees on the T.P. Main Chutes.
The powder day in the Canadian Rockies was a fitting culmination of our trip to western Alberta, two weeks before Christmas. I’d cashed in the remaining week of vacation I needed to use or lose, and my son, Luke, a high school senior, assured me he could miss a few days during his victory lap in secondary education. Skiing through the Sunshine powder on a trail called Schoolmarm seemed appropriate for a day of playing hooky.
Skiing has long been a family tradition, with our ski vacations dating back to Luke’s first turns at age three. Now it was one of those rare times for father and son to spend a week, alone together, cranking our turns from 9 am. to 4 p.m. each day, and then kicking back to sample the fine locally sourced cuisine for which Alberta is known.
In recent years, I’ve grown fond of our annual trips out west to American ski country at my favorite places like Jackson Hole, Telluride, and Alta. But my desire to ski Canada was piqued after hearing about the direct Air Canada flight from Newark International to Calgary, and the ease of the 90-minute drive on the Trans-Canadian Highway to Banff. It was early season, and rooms for two at Canadian Rocky Mountain Resorts lodges in Banff and Lake Louise were just $85 a night.
After landing, we drove directly to Norquay, the park’s first ski hill, just a few minutes up a twisting road from the town of Banff. It was our first outing of the season, and the 1,600-foot vertical at Norquay provided the perfect warm-up. My 60-year-old legs still had some pop, and Luke was already searching for rock outcroppings from which to launch.
We spent our first night in Banff, at the Buffalo Mountain Lodge – a quick drive up Tunnel Mountain. Downtown Banff was bustling in mid-December, with a snowboarder jam attracting hundreds of 20-somethings on Caribou Street while high-end winter apparel shops along Banff Avenue were decked out for the upcoming Christmas holiday surge.
We dined at the Bison Restaurant, where we discovered a flavorful stone flat bread with duck confit, caramelized onions, gorgonzola cheese and figs, and an oh-so tender rack of venison harvested in the nearby wilderness.
The next morning, we drove 45 minutes west on the four-lane Trans-Canadian Highway to reach Lake Louise, one of the North America’s largest ski resorts, and site of the World Cup women’s downhill a few days earlier. It was in Lake Louise that our yearnings for powder really kicked in. The early season snow Gods, which has covered the mountain by late November in 2012, had not looked kindly here in 2013.
Its famed bowls were closed, with some of the continent’s most extreme lift-served terrain looking more than a rock-strewn moonscape than double-black diamond trails. Nevertheless, Lake Louise’s vast snowmaking apparatus was blowing up a storm. The mountain crew had buffed up the groomers for spirited high-speed cruising, including on the downhill course, where I tucked a particularly steep section in my ragged imitation of Bode Miller, to see just how fast I could ski. On the backside, we found fresh snow on Raven and Ptarmigan, and skied top-to-bottom laps until the lift attendants informed us that our day was done.
What they didn’t know was that we’d signed up for that evening’s Torchlight Dinner, a good-time affair that starts at 4 p.m. with drinks and hors d’oeuvres, as well as a limbo contest led by two-man band. I watched while my limber son made it to the finals. When darkness had settled in, we gathered under a full moon at the Whitehorn Lodge atop the Glacier Chair, and skied down with headlamps, feeling the snow underfoot in an entirely new way, and thanking the mountain crew for laying down its well-grooved surface of fresh corduroy. Back at the lodge, the party proceeded apace, with a buffet dinner and a few cans of Keith’s Pale Ale, and plenty of time to socialize with some fellow travelers.
At Lake Louise, we stayed at the Deer Lodge, one of the park’s historic hostelries. After skiing one day, we soaked our sore legs in its rooftop hot tub as the moon rose over the nearby mountain cliffs. Refreshed, we walked a quarter mile up the road to the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, the imposing castle by the glacial lake with close to 1,000 rooms.
When the Canadians decided to build the resort along the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 1890s, they imported Swiss guides to lead tourists up into the mountains. That Swiss heritage remains strong at the Chateau. We dined in Walliser Stube, a wood-paneled dining room, where women strolled through with their finest furs, and the wine vault covers one entire wall. We chose for the Fuez Brothers Fondue dinner – bread dipped in Swiss cheeses for an appetizer; thinly sliced filet mignon and bison that we cooked in beef broth for an entrée; and fruit slathered in dark chocolate for dessert.
We skied on last two days at Sunshine Village. Like many American skiers, I’d never heard of the place, which was founded along the Continental Divide with a rope tow in the mid-1940s, and now has 3,300 skiable acres, making it one of North America’s biggest expanses. It’s just a 40-minute drive from Lake Louise, but enjoys a different weather pattern along the Continental Divide, which lets it capture the snow as the low pressure rolls in from the Pacific.
Sunshine’s six-month long season – from mid-November through mid-May – is testament to its prodigious snowfalls. It relies almost exclusively on natural snow, and has a system of what it calls “snow farming” in its vast above-timberline terrain to trap snow in webbed plastic fences, which later gets groomed out by Sunshine’s mountain crews.
At $238 a night, a room during the early season at the Sunshine Mountain Lodge is a bargain, when you consider that it comes with breakfast, two lift tickets – at $85 a pop – and a guarantee of fresh tracks if you are lucky enough awake to eight inches of fresh Canadian powder, as were we.
Our final day at Sunshine was one of those epic days of skiing that demands all that your quads can muster as you descend the steeps, and find your rhythm in the forgiving powder. It also left us yearning for more. Sunshine’s Goats Eye lift –with 1,900 feet of vertical elevation – was opening four days after we hopped our direct flight home.
Sunshine’s season extends to mid-May. Spring skiing in Banff sounds like a plan.
David McKay Wilson has written on travel over the past 30 years as a freelance journalist, with his travel stories appearing in The Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, Hartford Courant, New Haven Advocate, and Gannett News Service. An avid cyclist and skier, Wilson enjoys vacationing in the mountains and by the sea. His articles on public affairs have appeared regularly in The New York Times. He’s currently the nation’s top freelance writer for university alumni magazines, with his work appearing in publications at 81 colleges and universities, including Harvard, Columbia, Dartmouth, Brown and the University of Chicago.