Thelma and Louise ice the Rockies

KATE MCCLYMONT
Last updated 05:00 07/11/2012
Canada mushing
FAST FORWARD: Mushing on a dogsled through the Canadian Rockies.

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It’s Thelma and Louise in the snow as Kate McClymont and her pal give their families the slip for an adventure in the Rockies.

"Oi Curly, be-have! No biting.’’

Curly is choosing to be hard of hearing and is behaving badly. His companions, Josie, Grace, Duff and Moo Shoo, aren’t much better – acting like a bunch of wayward toddlers who have been cooped up for too long and can see the lure of something magical in the distance. Then with a sudden lurch we are off, Curly and his Alaskan husky mates darting down a trail at an exhilarating pace, our sled skittling along through untrammelled snow.

We laugh, exhilarated and nervously astonished, as we hurtle through the whiteness, despite being safely wedged into the sled, wrapped in blankets and covered in a waterproof canvas outer layer. Only our heads are visible.
Standing behind us ‘‘mushing’’ the crew is dog whisperer Kylie Atkins, who works for Kingmik Dog Sled Tours at Alberta’s Lake Louise.

A backdrop of snow-covered trees and beyond them the craggy, majestic Canadian Rockies scroll by as we race along behind the nine-strong team of dogs.

We are still laughing when we do a face plant (albeit at a snail’s pace) at a slow turn under the Great Divide Arch, which marks the boundary of British Columbia and Alberta. Getting out of the sled, however, allows each of us to take turns at being chief musher as we head for home.

Dog sledding had not featured on my list of all-time must-dos, but the unexpected can sometimes turn out to be the most enjoyable. Although it is early spring, snow is bucketing down. I am on a girls’ own road trip through the Canadian Rockies with my friend Christine, for whom I was a bridesmaid what feels like a lifetime ago. Thelma and Louise, as we call ourselves, have left behind husbands and children and the tail-end of the Southern Hemisphere summer to shoot along Kicking Horse Pass in Banff National Park, taking turns at mastering the basics of mushing.

We have already spent great days at Lizard Creek Lodge, a ski-in-ski-out resort in nearby Fernie, itself a former mining town where the skiing is fantastic, and where the shops and restaurants are owned and run by locals who hang up signs saying ‘‘Gone skiing’’ when there is a big dump.

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Avalanche warnings are taken seriously here and we marvel at a sign outside a mountainside hut that says: ‘‘Please report if you find one of these explosive devices.’’ This is accompanied by a picture of what looks like a rocket launcher with a hand grenade attached.

After a hard day’s skiing, Thelma and Louise flop on couches by the blazing fire in the Lizard Creek Lodge, contemplating if it is too early for a drink. The bartender, hearing our accents, quips that it must be cocktail hour somewhere in the world and before we know it fabulous margaritas arrive.

For a Lake Louise jaunt, however, we are up at the crack of dawn, and after a beautiful drive through Alberta’s Bow Valley and parts of Banff National Park, it begins to snow as we arrive at the Lake Louise Chateau Fairmont. Walking into its foyer is like stepping back to the 1920s. Built on the lake shore as a sumptuous summer retreat for well-heeled east-coast Canadians at the turn of the 19th century, impressive antlers of caribou and elk are mounted on the walls and a photo gallery showcases the lake and landscapes through the seasons.

The hotel’s Lakeview Lounge serves great nibbles (try the tapas plate and the crab and salmons rolls) and a fortifying selection of cocktails, while guests enjoy floor-to-ceiling views of snow-capped mountains rising from the lake’s edge. Ice sculptures dot what must be the front lawn in summer and on the lake, skaters twirl and pirouette. In the distance are small specks – ice climbers – ascending the ice falls of Victoria Glacier.

We tear ourselves away from the views and tramp across the snow to a hut on the edge of lake, where we meet a snowshoe guide who takes us across the ice as snowflakes fall, then through the wonderful silence of a forest in winter. Our guide identifies conifers and animal tracks before stopping to lift home-baked biscuits and a flask of rum from his backpack to offer his guests.

The Lake Louise skifields are a 10-minute ride from the Fairmont, courtesy of the hotel’s shuttle bus. The fields are among the largest and most popular in Canada and it’s easy to see why – runs seem to go forever and the views are picture-postcard perfect.

It is still snowing later, when Christine and I set off for the nearby town of Banff. We drive cautiously along a narrow road leading away from the Fairmont, telling ourselves roads will be so much easier to drive when we meet up with the Trans-Canada Highway. Imagine our shock when we see that the highway is a blanket of white, too. It had been graded earlier in the day, but snow has covered it again. We keep to the slow lane, following the tracks of cars in front of us, and an hour’s journey passes uneventfully.

Banff is a hoot. The town has a population of about 8000 and its streets are named for Canadian animals: you can meet at the corner of Caribou and Beaver streets or Antelope Lane and Marmot. What Lake Louise and Fernie lack in nightlife is more than made up for in Banff.

The restaurants Saltlik Steakhouse and The Maple Leaf serve delicious Canadian dishes sourced from local produce. At Giorgio’s Trattoria, the chef’s pasta platter is highly recommended and at Beaver Tails, the fried doughnut-like creations are covered in chocolate as well as the more traditional cinnamon sugar.

About 10 minutes by road from Banff is Mount Norquay, a smallish ski resort favoured by locals. About 15 minutes from Banff are the larger Sunshine Village fields. A tri-area ski ticket covers Mount Norquay, Lake Louise and Sunshine Village – and a free bus is available from Banff to each resort.

When Christine and I decide to rest from skiing for a day, the Johnston Canyon walk in Banff National Park catches our imagination. We mistakenly assume it will be a brief walk to see a frozen waterfall, but it turns out to be a serious hike through a limestone canyon. We navigate our way along steel walkways anchored to the canyon walls, seeing grand vistas of icy river below and curious, seemingly snap-frozen formations of ice at waterfalls.

Later, as we tramp back to the car park for the return journey to our lodgings, I think fondly of Curly and his mates and wish we were still tucked up in that sled.

Kate McClymont travelled courtesy of Travel Alberta and Tourism British Columbia. More information at travelalberta.com; hellobc.com.

Fast facts 
Getting there:
Air New Zealand and Air Canada fly Auckland to Vancouver. See airnz.co.nz. Air Canada has connections from Vancouver to Calgary (1hr 25min), or Cranbrook (1hr 25min) See aircanada.com.

Banff is about a 90-minute drive from Calgary; Fernie is a 3½-hour drive. From Cranbrook to Fernie is about a 90-minute drive. Car hire or bus shuttles are available.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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