Alberta: The Promise of Snow

  • By:  Janis Turk

My mother and I are people of snow. 

We come from a place of deep winters. Both of us were born in the North, and Mom’s was a childhood heavy with scarves, galoshes, overcoats and mittens, inhabited by snowmen. We moved west when I was little—so mine was warmer—but my January birth in the North left a breath cloud on the cold winter window of my memory. In the deep recesses of my childhood rests a remembrance of snowflakes and drifts of a white winter wonder I barely knew. 

We’re both still drawn to such climes, and so we journeyed north last spring to Alberta, Canada, for a mother-daughter adventure. We hoped for snow.

Alberta held other tugs to my childhood, too. My father took me to a John Denver concert when I was young, and I hear a song that began: “Up in a meadow in Jasper, Alberta…” Years later, I met a man from Jasper, who knew the high meadow where that song was born. He described it as a place dotted with tiny yellow wildflowers and purple-blue columbine. I longed to see that, so when I was sent to Canada on business, I decided to add on a trek to Alberta. I brought my mom along because I wanted to share this adventure with her. But no one could promise there would be snow. 

EDMONTON

We flew into Edmonton—the capital of Alberta. A university town flanking both sides of the North Saskatchewan River, Edmonton was neither snowy nor cold, but it was bustling with youthful vitality, a vibrant art and culinary scene, and myriad cultural offerings. We checked into the Metterra Hotel on Whyte, a small boutique hotel situated among a strip of stylish restaurants, spas, and locally owned boutiques. We dined downtown at Tavern 1903 at the new Alberta Hotel and then afterward enjoyed a drink in the lobby of The Fairmount Hotel Mcdonald, housed in what once was a Baroque train station set on a high bank overlooking the North Saskatchewan River Valley. 

One of Edmonton’s greatest attractions, the River Valley park system provides a natural corridor for all-season recreation, so the next day we took a Segway tour along its paths. The river valley is the longest expanse of urban parkland in North America—22 times the size of New York’s Central Park—with golf courses, 22 parks, and over 100 miles of maintained multi-use trails.

In the morning we took a drive through Elk National Park just outside the city and spent the afternoon exploring the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village, a provincial historic site showcasing the story of the early Ukrainian settlers of East Central Alberta. With more than 30 historic buildings, the village is staffed by hard-working young people, many of whom are interns from the local university. Walking the large property and visiting with costumed guides, we felt as though we had stepped back in time and came to know Alberta through this living history lesson.

The next day, we set off for Jasper where we heard we might see snow.

JASPER

If we were searching for the mythical childhoods of memory, we surely found it in Jasper National Park—with frost-tipped Rocky Mountains edging its wind-swept corners and canyons. Before exploring the park and the nearby town of Jasper, we checked into The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge and were soon taken to our own Lakeview Suite, a large cedar cabin with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Lac Beauvert, a glistening teal-colored lake. The cottages are like new—clean and well appointed—but were actually built during the early 1940s and 1950s. My mother said the place filled her with fond memories of cabins she visited as a child on the Great Lakes. For me, there was something so charming and delightfully retro—so “Dirty Dancing”—about the resort property, and it was fun to find such places actually exist.

Situated in Alberta’s Jasper National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge is home to more than just pine-tree-lined paths and a mountain lake. It also has a large swimming pool, spa, fitness center, and it is surrounded by wildlife. Activities include horseback riding, tennis, and kayaking, and there are shops, restaurants, and lounges on the property. Our favorite meal was at Cavell’s Restaurant and Terrace, a gourmet eatery in a bright casual setting offering views of Mount Edith Cavell, Lac Beauvert, and Whistlers Mountain.

Though we didn’t want to leave the inviting hotel, we journeyed into nearby Jasper. Patches of snow on the pine-needles blanketed the shoulder of the road where deer and elk grazed. The white tail of a winter wind still darted across the Jasper wilderness.

Jasper is a little mountain hamlet, a magical village reminiscent of a scene on a Swiss cuckoo-clock—a doll-house style town decorated with colorful Alpine-style architecture, sweet little candy shops, handy mountain outfitters, cozy cafes and dark bars with stout beers, and people in woolly sweaters. A self-described “little town in a big park,” this historic settlement strikes a balance between conservation and development, ecology and economics and is a gateway to outdoor adventure within the largest and most northerly Rocky Mountain park. 

Still in search of snow, Mom and I took the Jasper Skytram up the mountain. It’s Canada’s longest and highest aerial tramway, rising over 3000 feet, reaching Jasper National Park’s alpine tundra. Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, the Skytram lifted us to the winter wonderland we longed to find.

But the best part of our trip began back in town. At the motorcycle outfitter shop of Jasper Motorcycle Tours, we were dressed in leather, helmets, and gloves and saddled up for a motorcycle tour of Maligne Canyon and Medicine Lake. I never thought I’d see my 70-something mom on the back of a Harley Davidson or wearing a “do-rag,” but then I never saw myself riding in a motorcycle sidecar either. 

But there we were with our guide driving us, rolling through the Canadian Rockies, seeking out the high country where Rocky Mountain big horn sheep, elk, mountain goats, mule deer, whitetail deer, and black bear roam. We stopped to see a waterfall and watch eagles in their high nests. Medicine Lake left me breathless, grateful, and hopeful—such beauty is restorative. The wild, bare, untamed beauty of the Canadian wilderness and wildlife is magical and deeply moving. 

ICEFIELDS & LAKES

Leaving Jasper the next morning, we headed along what many have called the world’s most scenic drive— the Jasper Icefields Parkway. Wending past one hundred visible glaciers, turquoise lakes, rushing waterfalls, hiking trails, picnic spots, and campgrounds, the Icefields Parkway is a stunning place to see Canada’s emerald lakes, alpine meadows, and snowy peaks. For 142 miles, from the Jasper town site to Lake Louise, it drapes itself like a white shawl along the shoulders of the Great Divide and passes the Eastern Main Ranges of the Canadian Rockies, following the headwaters of three major rivers and crossing two mountain passes. Although the area is green and wild in summer and early fall, springtime hadn’t yet hit the Great Divide, so we beheld clear blue-ice glaciers, tree-lined canyons, and deep quiet snow. 

After stopping to visit the newly opened Glacier Skywalk, a glass walkway jutting out over the canyons offering unparalleled views of the Icefields, we rode a giant Ice Explorer bus out on the Columbia Icefield glacier before heading on to Lake Louise.

Surrounded by mountain peaks, the Victoria Glacier, and an emerald lake, The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise hotel is located in Alberta’s Banff National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is recognized worldwide for its progressive environmental stewardship and responsible tourism. 

Originally built over 100 years ago as a base for outdoor enthusiasts and alpinists, The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise is a year-round, five-star mountain resort offering guided tours, skiing in the winter, scenic hikes and canoe activities in the summer, a world-class spa, and fine dining experiences. This is truly a grand hotel with high-coffered ceilings, pillared lobbies, oversized ballrooms, a dark basement pub, and long lobbies with massive chandeliers and picture windows overlooking Lake Louise. The hotel is so elegant and restful, and our rooms were so spacious and welcoming, we never wanted to leave. In the fireplace-lit lobbies, we sat on overstuffed chairs, gazing upon the frozen lake and cold trees. 

As we dined on the warm signature fondues of the Walliser Stube Restaurant and Wine Bar, a heavy silent snow began to fall in broad feathery flakes—like those soundless snowfall denouement moments in movies when magic things happen, lovers kiss, everything changes, and from that moment on you know it’s going to be all right.

The next morning we buckled on snowshoes, joined a friendly in-house nature guide, and hiked for an hour in the snow along the frosted edge of Lake Louise. As Robert Frost writes, the woods were “lovely, dark and deep,” and there, in a magic snow-globe moment, my mother and I became little children again—bundled in snowsuits and gloves, scarves and ski-caps, wrapped in the nostalgia of our northern childhood. 

And there we played until the adults made us go back inside. 

• For more information on visiting Alberta, Canada, go to www.travelalberta.com

• For more information about luxury lodgings at Fairmont properties throughout North America, visit www.fairmont.com

Janis Turk is an award-winning travel writer and photographer and lives in Seguin, Texas. Visit www.janisturk.com 

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