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The Superlatives of Banff

Andrea Gross | Aug 1, 2011, 10:35 a.m.

— I’m standing atop an expanse of ice that is as thick as the Eiffel Tower is tall. The cold penetrates the soles of my shoes, but I hardly notice as the guide tells me that this glacier, the mighty Athabasca, and the ones that surround it combine to make one of the largest icefields outside of the Arctic Circle. It’s also one of the major attractions of the Canadian Rockies.

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Moraine Lake gets its turquoise color from the “rock flour” produced by grinding glaciers.

During our week at Banff National Park, located in Alberta province, we discover many superlatives: the largest ice fields, the most grizzlies, the bluest lakes, the first national park in Canada and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We take a 14-minute gondola ride to Lake Louise Wildlife Interpretive Centre, which is perched on a mountaintop at an altitude of 6850 feet. “It’s a banner year for grizzlies,” the ranger tells us when we disembark the gondola. This, we soon discover, is both good and bad. We’re likely to see a grizzly, but the small museum a quarter mile downhill is temporarily off limits. In fact, a group of visitors is currently being held hostage in the museum as a papa grizzly prowls around its exterior.

We’re allowed to walk to a sightseeing platform where we spend the better part of an hour, sharing binoculars, whooping with delight as we spot one, then two, and finally four bears ambling through the trees. Then we’re told to go back to the gondola, walking quietly in groups of six so as not to disturb or incite the animals.

In addition to the ice and bears, it’s the turquoise blue lakes that most inspire visitors. As glaciers slowly grind the underlying rock, small particles called “rock flour” become suspended in the rivers and lakes. The interplay between light, rock flour and water produces the distinctive color.

We take a 90-minute cruise on Lake Minnewanka, the largest body of water in the area, during which we see, yes, another grizzly as well as cougar, elk and eagle. But for me the best part of the cruise is the narration. Guide Gary Doyle delights us with stories about the history of Banff — how First Nation people settled the land, how the railroad magnates developed it, and how today’s residents are conserving it.

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Banff Village is the “urban centre” of the Canadian Rockies.

To learn more about the history of the area, we go to Banff Village, the small town that anchors the National Park and provides tourists with ample restaurants, souvenir shops and places to stock up on hiking gear and insect repellant. The village has a number of museums, but we most enjoy learning about the past at the impressive Banff Springs Hotel.

Storyboards posted at convenient spots explain that the hotel was built as part of a grand marketing plan. William Cornelius Van Horne, general manager of Canadian Pacific Railway, wanted to increase company profits by enticing city folks from eastern Canada to visit the beautiful but rugged west. Realizing that his prospective passengers would demand luxury accommodations once they arrived at their destination, he began construction on the Banff Springs Hotel in 1887.

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