Rocky Mountaineer

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The Fairmont Banff Springs hotel.

Last day in Banff. Tomorrow we have to get up at the crack of dawn for the long drive to Calgary and then flights home. To end the trip we had a farewell dinner at The Waldhaus, a somewhat kitchy Bavarian restaurant on the edge of the golf course (the Bavarian cottage that houses the restaurant was built in 1927 as the Banff Springs clubhouse).

The big thing at The Waldhaus is the fondue, although everyone at the hotel has been telling us we really had to go for the wiener schnitzel. I don’t know. Fondue? Schnitzel? I wasn’t feeling it. So while I spent my time trying to find something more interesting on the menu (venison baden-baden? Beer-braised lamb shank?) I ordered a Manhattan. It was huge. And quite appealing looking. So much so that three or four others at the table quickly changed their drink orders and ordered Manhattans as well.

I asked Michael, who was sitting across from me, what he was thinking of ordering. Salmon, he said. You can’t have the salmon, I told him. Why not? he said. I told him that restaurants loved it when people ordered salmon because they had some of their highest profit margins on the dish. “Besides,” I said, “anybody can cook up salmon. When you go out to eat, you should order something that you’d never make at home because it’s too difficult or you couldn’t get the ingredients.”

“Then I’ll have the fondue,” he said.

“You can’t get the fondue either.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s just melted cheese and crappy kirsch in a bowl. No fondue.”

“Then what do you think I should get?” he asked.

“Get the duck confit,” I said.

“I don’t know…”

“Come on,” I said. “Don’t be a wimp. Get the duck. You’ll love it.”

“How would you know?”

I shrugged. “I just do.”

When the waitress got to Michael and asked him what he wanted, he said, “I was going to order the salmon…”

“Oh, that’s lovely,” she interrupted.

“…but this guy”—and here he pointed his menu at me—“says I can’t have it, so I guess I’ll get the duck confit.”

“Are you sure?” she said.

“I suppose.”

So that’s what he got. But it wasn’t very good. A bit gamey and way too dry. However, I graciously gave him a bite of my wild salmon. It was delicious.

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Chelsea rubs it out

The spa pool at the Fairmont Banff Springs. Where the water cascades into small pools are the natural hot springs for soaking.

Yesterday afternoon we had several activities we could choose from. There was rock climbing, horseback riding, or a massage at the spa. Knowing that the others would most certainly want to go rock climbing or horseback riding, and that there was a limit on the number of people allowed for each activity, I was a martyr and quickly signed up for the massage.

Nice damn spa. I showed up about an hour early and hung out in the sauna room for about ten minutes before being chased out by two guys replaying each and every shot from their golf game this morning. Boring.

Then I wandered down to the indoor pool where they have a natural hot spring (the hot springs in the area were one of the main reasons Banff was established in the first place over a hundred years ago). Any warm pool is good but there’s nothing like a natural hot spring. Must be the minerals and such in the water that is so soothing.

Anyway, I eventually made it back up to the spa just in time for Chelsea to give me a 90 minute aromatherapy massage. Cute girl, Chelsea. Very strong hands.

She gave me three little brown bottles of oil to sniff and I chose something with lots of lavender in it that she said was the Soothing blend. Perfect. I felt in need of being soothed.

It’s boring telling people about your massage, so I won’t. It’s like telling people about a dream at the breakfast table. Let’s just say that Chelsea did a fine job and I felt as slick and relaxed as a seal sunning on rocks. Afterwards, I walked back to my room, reeking of lavender, still wearing my white bathrobe. In the lobby I passed by Erika and Rico, hobbling from their rock climbing class. I smiled, feeling quite happy, but they barely acknowledged me. You’d think I’d get more thanks than that for graciously giving them the opportunity to scramble up the frozen sides of cliffs all afternoon.

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Call of the wild

An elk on the edge of the Banff golf course, waiting for the ladies to show up.

I was so sore this morning from yesterdays forced march up Sulphur Mountain that I stayed in bed and ordered room service. A pot of coffee, English muffin and some marmalade was all I wanted. I was sitting propped up in bed when I heard a long, trumpety sound out over the golf course. Like someone blowing through a ram’s horn. It was the exact same sound I’d heard over and over since about four this morning.

I couldn’t figure out what it was so after I’d finished my breakfast, I got dressed and walked behind the hotel to where I kept hearing the sound. When I got near the edge of the golf course, the mystery was solved; it was a rutting elk. A big guy, by the looks of him. He was standing in the middle of a brown fairway, his head lifted, calling out for all his girlfriends to come and join him for a little nooky. What a lucky fellow.

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The view of Banff from the top of Sulphur Mountain. Photos by David Lansing.

After breakfast this morning we checked out of the Chateau Lake Louise and transferred on down the road to the Fairmont Banff Springs. Since it was early in the day, our rooms weren’t ready yet. Not a problem, said Michael, our outdoor geek freak. We’ll go on a hike.

Was I the only one who moaned at this unwanted piece of information? Probably.

An hour later we gathered at the base of the Banff Gondola where we were joined by Tanya Chamberland, a mountain guide for a Banff-based outfit called Brewster Travel Canada. I could tell just by looking at Tanya we were in trouble. Or, I was in trouble. Her thighs were the size of tree trunks and looked just as hard. Obviously she was a serious outdoor girl, and, in fact, she told me, she did the trail we were headed up at least three or four times a week, “Usually just for fun.”

“Is it difficult?” I asked her.

“Naw,” she said, leading the way. “Piece of cake.”

Of course, it was for her. She lives in town where the elevation is 4,537 feet, making it the highest town in Canada; I live at sea level, elevation zero feet. She breathes thin air like a fish; I prefer a little oxygen in my lungs. She climbs over two thousand feet a few times a week for fun; I don’t walk a dozen yards without a major incentive like a cocktail waiting for me.

Honestly, the hike up Sulphur Mountain wasn’t as bad as I’d imagined; it was worse. Much worse. At first I was afraid I was having a heart attack. Then I just wished I would so that I could get the hike over with. Since we were climbing up the side of Sulphur Mountain, the hike consisted of an endless series of switchbacks up a narrow, rocky trail. After about half an hour, I was far behind the main group and Tanya fell back to keep me company (or watch me fall down dead, I wasn’t sure which). To make me feel better, she told me a story about an old hiker called Cap’n Crunch who got his nickname when his crackling knee joints go so loud they became audible to others on the trail. “But he kept on hiking,” she said. At this point I thanked her for hanging back with me but told her I’d be more comfortable if she went on ahead. I told her that her company was only making me more acutely aware of how slow I was going and how often I needed to stop.

“Are you sure?” Tanya asked.

Positively, I told her. If I wasn’t at the summit an hour after she’d arrived, she should send for the rescue squad. Otherwise, I’d see her at the top.

The crazies continue hiking to the observation tower while I nurse a Molson.

Here’s the crazy thing: the trail zig-zagged directly beneath the Banff Gondola which was headed for the same place we were. When I had the strength to raise my head, I could see the amused gondola passengers zipping by above me, pointing at the hunched over man killing himself to walk up the mountain. No doubt they were saying to theirselves, What an idiot. He could have taken the gondola and been to the top in eight minutes.

That’s what I was saying to myself.

Eventually I made it to the top of Sulphur Mountain. I felt dead. My legs were shaking, my throat was raw from trying to suck air, and my head was pounding with a headache. Everybody else was sitting around a table at the little restaurant in the gondola building drinking a Molson. They hardly looked at me when I dragged myself in (I was expecting something of a hero’s welcome).

“Hey, you made it,” Drew said. “Just in time. We’re going to hike over to that weather observatory on the next mountain over…want to come?”

Truly they were determined to kill me. But I wasn’t going to play along. I told them to go on without me. I stayed in the restaurant where I took off my hiking boots and ordered a cold beer. And then another.

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Afternoon tea at Chateau Lake Louise. Photo by David Lansing.

This afternoon I was supposed to go canoeing on Lake Louise but I just couldn’t do it. Not because I was too tired or sore or anything like that. I just couldn’t get past the idea that one of my canoe mates may tip our little boat and I’d slip into the still blue waters of Lake Louise and slowly sink to the bottom like a fallen leaf.

This all goes back to my adventures on Vanuatu last year when I went canoeing with a writer from New York City who flipped our canoe and drowned my camera bag. That was traumatic enough. At least in Vanuatu the water was warm. Here 5,680 feet up in the Canadian Rockies, it’s just a hair above freezing. I asked the young kid who was bringing the canoes out of the boat house how long someone would last in Lake Louise. He snorted. “Maybe two or three minutes.”

Then when I found out that one of the other paddlers in my canoe was to be Erika, who is from New York City—well, that was that. I just couldn’t do it. So I stood on the dock of the boathouse and watched the canoes as they paddled oh-so-slowly and carefully away from shore. Good luck to them.

The alternative to drowning in the lake was afternoon tea at The Lakeview Lounge inside the Chateau. Which seemed like a good option. This is the sort of high tea Brits love although I don’t know why they even call it “tea” since nobody drinks the stuff—at least not in our group. Instead, we went for the champagne. Much more civilized than a pot of Darjeeling, don’t you think?

After we’d gone through a bottle of Moet Chandon (and ordered another), they brought out trays of little finger sandwiches and sweets—smoked salmon pinwheels and English cucumber and egg salad on toast; citrus meringue tarts and chocolate mousse pompoms. I sat there, enjoying the champagne immensely, letting the bubbles go straight to my head, looking out the big picture window across from me facing the lake. Out on the water, I could see a couple of canoes knifing through the milky blue water, hurrying to get back to the boathouse.

Rico, who was also enjoying his champagne, saw the same thing I did. “Weren’t there three canoes that went out?” he said.

“There were,” I said.

“Hmmm,” he said, nodding. “I wonder where the other one is?”

“I wonder,” I said. And then I poured him another glass of the Moet.

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