“Promise me one thing,” I asked the Beast as we drove along the Trans-Canada highway from Calgary to Banff National Park, “You won’t make any of your adorable–but loud-and-distracting–little coos if you see wildlife.”
“Let me practise: There is a grizzly to your left,” he said in a subdued tone.
“That’s pretty good. I know it’s hard for you to hide your enthusiasm for Nature, but there’s black ice everywhere and I need to concentrate.”
“What are the top five animals you hope we see on this trip?” he asked. “I’d choose a lynx, then a grizzly, a wolf, a big horn and then an elk.”
“I guess number one would have to be a grizzly. Then maybe a moose?”
“You’d choose a moose over an elk?”
“What’s the difference?”
“Are you kidding me?” He yelled. “A moose is one of nature’s most ungainly creatures. Chocolate brown, clumsy, with ill-formed mossy antlers! An elk is majestic, with a supple rich honey-gold and silver coat and antlers that could only be described as nature’s most regal crown! What is the difference between a moose and an elk!?! Are you kidding me?”
“I’d love to see a children’s wildlife TV show where you were the host and you yelled at kids over the animals they liked.”
The weather was such that when we arrived in Banff, we knew we were surrounded by mountains, only we couldn’t make them out very clearly.
Still, it was magical to walk into town for dinner at The Bison. The Beast ordered the duck. I was going to have the cod but after the server gave me a stink eye–“You’re in Alberta,” she said, “have the venison”–I ordered the venison.
I was not disappointed.
After our lovely first meal, we settled into our room at the Buffalo Mountain Lodge and started a fire.
I became slightly obsessed, as I am prone to do these days, with wondering if there was a better room available, with more space and better vistas. I suspect it has something to do with my desire for control, for power, and for wanting to construct perfect vistas, all of which happens only when I’m on vacation, when I’m supposed to be relaxing. It’s exhausting. And annoying.
When we woke in the morning, I gasped. There, from the cozy bed in our tiny room that I still hadn’t warmed to because the sitting area was not like I’d seen in the photos, I could see blue sky and mountains. Actual mountains! And just past our front door, we were afforded more vistas. Then and there, I decided I liked our room, while never fully abandoning the idea that there were better rooms, higher up, with better vistas, that I would stay in next time.
After reading our books with coffee in front of three vistas I constructed myself–the mountains to my left, the Beast in the middle and the blazing fire to my right–we went for a walk along a road that was closed to vehicles during the winter. It felt like we were the only ones in the world.
We came across a trail that many other were ascending and descending. It led to the top of Tunnel Mountain. So we decided to climb. It was only an elevation of 1,600 metres. But we weren’t wearing proper hiking gear. We were wearing (obviously) heritage wool coats and LL Bean boots, which are warm but provide little traction. We took it slow. I complained often because my jeans, paired with the Beast’s long johns underneath, felt tight and restrictive with every step I took. I was hot from the physical exertion. I was annoyed that hikers in their 70s–and a young woman carrying a Longchamp bag delicately over her wrist–were passing us. I wanted to take off my fucking pants so bad. Instead, I took of my scarf, hats and mitts and unbuttoned my coat in order to feel free–and to take pictures. Many, many pictures.
The way down was much more fun: Our boots felt like we were on GT Racers. We slid down almost the whole way and blew by several MEC-outfitted hikers who’d also passed us on the way up.
We stopped, however, when we spotted a deer. It was wildlife right in front of us! The deer didn’t even seem to mind us staring at it. When more MEC-outfitted hikers with their little metal water bottles and their little power bars approached us, I motioned to them to be quiet. “It’s a deer!” I whispered-yelled to them. “Like, the animal!”
They didn’t even stop to take a photo. Then we looked around. There were three more deer. When we got to the bottom of the mountain and started walking into town, there were more deer. There were deer everywhere. We realized that our deer sighting on the mountain was like a tourist going apeshit over seeing a pigeon in Toronto.
We’d worked up an appetite. Even thought it was only 5:00 p.m., we decided to have dinner at The Grizzly House, which seems to be a very popular Banff spot. In fact, they only had one table available at such an early hour. We ordered cheese fondue followed by meat that you grill on some sort of hot stone. It was fun and amusing–and a great trick to make people pay money to cook their own dinner.
After dinner, I suggested we go to the Banff hot springs for a soak under the stars. “But we don’t have towels,” the Beast protested, “or bathing suits!”
“Oh you can rent them!” I said. “They even have these old-fashioned bathing suits that look to die for! And the vistas look incredible. It will be so relaxing.”
In line, which snaked up the stairs, I began to realize that taking the Beast to the Banff hot springs was a terrible idea. He has a fear of public pools. And this was essentially a giant public pool. The idea of taking a bath with 200 people was making his face contort.
“Let’s leave,” I suggested. “This is too much to ask of you.”
“No, it’s fine,” he said, as he stared at the countless children with runny noses.
“Well, just so you know,” I said, while pointing to information I’d Googled on my phone, “they wash their towels and suits according to hospital standards.”
The attendant handed us two towels and a pair of old-fashioned bathing suits and we separated to change. I worried that my suit, which was a women’s extra-large, would hang off my tiny frame. Luckily, it fit like a glove. I couldn’t stop laughing in the crowded change room, where you had to walk around on a cold and wet floor, barefoot. He is going to die, I thought.
I made my way to the pool and tried to spot the Beast in the packed pool that steamed in the night cold. Luckily, we were the only two who chose the smart old-fashioned suits so he stood out like an old-timey bather. Also, he was the only one not frolicking. Or smiling. He stood there, his suit–a men’s extra-large–hanging off his tiny frame. It may be the funniest vista I’ve ever seen in my life.
We soaked for seven minutes and left, not before other bathers said–ironically, I presume–“nice suits.”
The next morning, clear and crisp as the first, we drove to Lake Louise. The trees looked like they were carefully frosted with white icing. Japanese tourists were more enamoured than I was with all the vistas. They even took photos of the public shitter, I think because it was shaped like a log cabin.
Tea at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise was everything I hoped it to be. The Beast enjoyed it, too–even after he realized it wasn’t an all-you-can-eat buffet. We have already started planning a trip back in the spring, so we can hike to the glacier. Our outfits will be decidedly different–neckerchiefs, shorts and knee-socks, button-up shirts with the collars popped, and maybe vests.
We returned to Banff and had dinner at the lodge’s cozy restaurant, The Sleeping Buffalo. There was braised elk, bison-barley soup, Alberta ribeye and more elk.
We talked late into the night. After dessert, we took the long way back to our room because there was a vista where we could look at the stars. I cried, for no reason, other than I was slightly drunk on a a beautiful Okanagan pinot noir and because whenever I see a night sky like this one, I tend towards melancholy thinking of all those before me who’ve looked at the very same stars, and all those who will do so after I’m gone.
In the morning, we lit another fire and read until checkout. Then we fuelled up at Melissa’s Missteak, our last (and perfect) meal before we got back to Toronto at 11:30 p.m.
We were in a cab when the clock struck midnight and on the couch–with A&W that the Beast suggested we pick up from YYZ Terminal 1, and a bottle of Champagne–by 12:15 a.m., 2016.
Banff was beautiful. And although we didn’t see all the animals on the Beast’s list, we were able to cross off one the night before we left during a scenic drive around the Vermillion Lakes.
“Look!” the Beast yelled. “Out there, on the lake! Wolves!”
A twenty-something man wearing pyjama bottoms and a hoodie–and an Aussie, like nearly everyone else we met in Banff–joined us outside of our car. He started taking photographs of the animals. “Yeah, they’re wolves,” he said. “My mate telephoned me. There are apparently three more back there, which makes six.”
We stood in the cold, looking at the wolves.
“This doesn’t happen very often,” the Aussie said. “You’re lucky to see this.”