Rocky Mountain high

Posted on August 17, 2012


Baradwaj Rangan visits a couple of national parks in Canada and returns with tales of glacier walks, mountaintop sunrises, and a ghost in white.

Dave Moberg, Guest Relations Manager of the Fairmont Banff Springs, likes to tell the story of how Indira Gandhi’s visit to the hotel almost resulted in his divorce. “It was a huge contingent,” he says. “Over 600 people. They took up two floors.” And then, after the laundry had shut down for the day, came a request for the laundering of blouses. “I didn’t know what to do,” says Moberg dramatically. But of course he did. With no other option available, he took the blouses home and presented them to an indignant wife. Moberg tells this story with practiced flair. The flourishes in the telling are a little too perfect – and yet, who can blame him? In his fifty years at this hotel, a National Historic site, Moberg has seen Churchill set up an easel and paint, and Marilyn Monroe sprain a leg (a concerned Joe DiMaggio flew up a physiotherapist). Perhaps he is simply rehearsing for the celebrity tell-all he will likely write after his retirement next year.

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There’s another local celebrity you may not have heard of, a bride whose dress caught fire many decades ago. “We still see her here,” says Moberg, and pauses to acknowledge fits of nervous laughter. It’s entirely possible that this story is true, for this hotel, styled like a Scottish baronial castle, is just the sort of medieval establishment a wraith in white might make her home. A different kind of legend has it that when first constructed, in the nineteenth century, the hotel was built backwards, and its owner thundered that the kitchen staff ended up looking at the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Expensive restructuring ensured that the guests woke up to this majestic view. But in Banff National Park, you don’t have to be Churchill or Monroe to see the sun rising beyond these mountains, with their summer residues of snow like splotchy birthmarks. Even the more modest hotels in the resort town of Banff offer panoramas that still the breath. It’s just that you won’t have a ghost story to tell your grandkids.

When the people in Banff refer to gondolas, they speak not of narrow boats navigating canals as couples attempt to revivify a romance. These gondolas go up in the air, sliding back and forth a system of cables that take tourists to a viewing station that allows a 360-degree view of the Rockies. Were it not for the other visitors around, with their camera clicks and exclamations of amazement, you could be all alone on – as The Carpenters put it – top of the world, looking down on creation. About an hour away, the mountains dip down to ensconce Lake Louise, the name of both the water body where amateur oarsmen set out in small, cautious circles, looking up every other minute to marvel at the mountains, and the township, which our guide, a native of Banff, says has one of everything – one liquor store, one grocery store, one outdoor-clothing store. But there are two bakeries. “You can’t have enough pastry,” she laughs.

Follow the Rockies a few hours from Banff, and you land up at Jasper National Park, whose predominant sight is that of outstretched necks, with tourists straining to spot elusive wildlife descending from above. And the predominant attraction is the walk on Athabasca glacier, whose ice melts into blue rivulets, approximating an artist’s endeavour to offer relief amidst a blinding expanse of white. The sun above, wind around, ice below – it’s a near-definitive experience of the elemental. Some 100 kilometres away, while rafting on Athabasca River, bordered by lodgepole pines, the water from the glacier has turned a greyish green, a result of the rock salt picked up along a meandering 20-hour journey. These exertions haven’t warmed these waters. It’s still cold. You won’t want to get wet. Hold on tight and look up, and you may see an osprey nest in the pines, which the rafter claims is nine years old. There’s a hint of a childish boast in his voice, which keeps you from telling him that, in the midst of these mountains and these glaciers, that’s not all that long.

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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