It’s our last evening in Banff before we move onto Calgary (which then signals the end of our time together), and despite the cold, it’s been one of the most stunning places I’ve ever visited. We swapped hostels, choosing the HI over the Samesun which we’d been in previously, and knew almost instantly that we’d made the right decision (especially when we received free bus passes into town, and I shotgunned the dorm’s double-bed).
Over the last few days, we’ve probably managed to walk nearly every trail surrounding Banff, taking in the natural hot springs (and their stomach-turning smell of sulphur), the lakes and the valleys, all nestled at the bottom of the Rockies. The formation of ice and snow around the creeks of hot spring water is incredible: it hangs in shiny drops, constantly on the verge of melting and freezing.
As some of the Banff springs mark the beginning of National Parks across Canada, we decided to head to the museum dedicated to them: Cave & Basin, aptly named for the cave and the basin it contains. The cave is the site of the first hot spring discovery, while the basin marks the geothermal source where it all starts. Entry to the museum was just under $4, and with the amount of exhibitions it displays, is well worth it.
We wandered around the rest of the site, alternating between playing with webcams and watching cheesy Canadian films about the springs. There was a visiting exhibit from Buffalo National Park, which featured a planetarium, but after waiting in line with several large and loud families, decided it wasn’t the best move, especially as it looked so warm and dark, and we’d probably fall asleep.
Being the museum nerds that we are, we also planned to venture over to one of Banff’s many halls. However, one burnt down, and the other wasn’t open (nothing in Banff opens for half the week, and when it does, it’s only for the afternoon).
Next on our list was to climb Tunnel Mountain, an easy 1,600m high lump of rock and snow opposite our hostel. We set off in the best of intentions (or Sophie did at least), hiring hiking boots and cleats, and once we layered up, we set off for the mountain.
Or at least we tried. We followed several different sets of footprints, unable to find the signposted trail that would take you up to the summit. Soon enough the footprints petered out, and we ended up wading through knee deep snow (again, Sophie did at least. It was like watching a puppy in its first snowfall, though when half of her legs disappeared into whiteness, I did panic a bit). As the paths disappeared, I began to lose feeling in my foot, and couldn’t put any weight on it (limping up a mountain: not as easy as it sounds), and even with a boiling hot hand warmer in my sock, there was no feeling.
No one tells you how mentally hard it is to be outside doing something strenuous in below-freezing conditions. While it was warmer than Lake Louise, the temperature hadn’t risen above -20. The combination of being both physically and mentally unprepared (homesickness is a bitch of a thing), we ended up following a makeshift trail back down. However, we did end up on a ledge of sorts, and had some incredible views over the surrounding area.
Since being in Canada, I’ve learnt a LOT about bears, and come to realise that we’re oh so very similar in a number of ways: I’m not a fan of people scaring me, I don’t like it when people don’t share food with me, and I’m more than happy to curl up throughout the winter with a well-stocked supply of books (so not quite the same as a bear’s pile of food, but it’s all more or less the same thing). Seeing as Banff, being in the mountains, is prime bear territory, there are loads of leaflets telling you what to do if you see a bear, and what to do if a bear attacks (the best advice being ‘decide whether it’s a defensive or aggressive attack’, still unsure how you’d be able to distinguish this, especially while being mauled by a teddy bear with teeth).
Even though most sensible bears (and people) are tucked up somewhere warm during this weather, they still come out to hunt every now and again, and despite being in such an urban area, we made sure we were loud and as obvious as possible while we walked through the woods and up deserted trails (apparently if you see a bear, you have to speak to them in a ‘normal human voice’…). As we made our way up to Sundance Canyon, we spotted two very claw-like shapes on the path. A while later, we passed a sign forbidding people to follow certain tracks, due to wildlife. Slightly unnerved, we continued on, making a joint decision that they hadn’t been bear claws, but the foot of an elk. The subject of how the elk got separated from its foot remained unspoken about.
Our last close encounter came as we walked back from Vermilion Lakes (where we may or may not have walked on frozen lakes again, and may or may not have forgotten all phones and cameras in one of Banff’s most beautiful locations). As we cut through the last section of woodland, something behind us roared. We leapt together, my heart almost stopped beating, then continued at 300mph, until we realised it was a creaking tree. Pulling our hats slightly above our ears, we continued back to the road at a much quicker pace, only stalling when four black legs emerged from behind a tree (although these belonged to two hikers on closer inspection).
Despite wind burn and ice burn and mysterious bruises and the can’t-catch-your-breath-it’s-so-cold weather, Banff is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited, and it’s definitely on my list of where to visit in the summer (something which has absolutely nothing to do with raised chances of seeing a bear, obviously…)