Banff: A Rocky Mountain Treasure

January 1, 1997 by Peggy Weddell

This article kicks off a new series we’ve titled Celebrating Canada. The concept spun from the notion that we often take too much for granted. Thus, in words and photos, we will explore the nature of this grand land–its people and places, its business and industry. We don’t mean to be pretentious, but our ambition is to help make Canada better known to Canadians.–The Editor.

From the Pacific Ocean, Canada’s western mountain ranges rise and roll inland like a tidal wave of petrified rock. At their eastern brink, these stone monoliths plunge thousands of metres to meet sparse prairie grassland. This last crest, a spectacular 1,450-kilometre chain of jagged, snow-capped peaks, forms the Canadian Rockies, a mountain range that has fascinated, inspired and beckoned people for hundreds of years.

Creating the Continental Divide, the Rockies define the Alberta and British Columbia border. Most important, for the past century the Rockies have been home to Banff National Park, Canada’s first and the world’s third oldest such reserve.

Banff is now one of four mountain parks that together preserve 20,000 square kilometres of the Rocky Mountains, surpassing the width and breadth of the entire country of Switzerland. In celebration of Banff’s centennial in 1985, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, unveiled a monument at Lake Louise to commemorate the United Nations declaration of the Rocky Mountain parks as a World Heritage Site.

But it wasn’t the rugged scenery, the flora or the fauna that inspired the federal government to set aside the original Banff reserve of 10 square kilometres. It was hot springs on Sulphur Mountain. Natives from the Stoney Band had directed two American hunters, Peter Younge and Benjamin Pease, to the springs in 1875, but interest didn’t pick up until 1883 when Frank McCabe and the McCardell brothers, William and Tom, rediscovered the mineral rich springs.

These budding entrepreneurs applied unsuccessfully for a homestead lease, hoping to develop the area and attract wealthy patrons to partake of baths. The government also denied the trio’s subsequent application for a mineral lease. After much legal wrangling and quarrelling, the government bought them out.

The park soon followed, but development was already in progress. In fact, not even the indomitable William Cornelius Van Horne, head of the Canadian Pacific Railway, could have envisioned the impact when in 1886 he announced plans to build a hotel at Siding 29 that would attract people to the mountains and fill the passenger seats on the transcontinental railway. “If we can’t bring the mountains to the people, then we’ll bring the people to the mountains,” Van Horne thundered. His plan to build a grand hotel of 250 rooms for the astronomical cost of $250,000 was considered by many to be ambitious if not downright ludicrous because Siding 29 was nothing but a flimsy construction camp.

The ebullient and magnanimous Van Horne renamed the townsite Banff, after Banffshire, the Scottish birthplace of two of the original CPR investors. It is nestled along the Bow Valley corridor within the park boundary, and it’s still dominated by the baronial and historic Canadian Pacific Banff Springs Hotel that opened in June 1888.

The original building, a five-storey, log-frame structure was built in such a way that it gave the kitchen staff a better view than it gave the guests. It has undergone several renovations and was nearly destroyed by fire in 1927. A new era for the park was signalled in 1969 when the hotel began to accommodate guests year-round instead of just during the summer months.

Until then, the majority of visitors, like most of the park’s 265 species of birds, disappeared during the harsh winter months. In 1980, Skiing Louise hosted the first of several World Cup ski races. Foreign journalists and millions of television viewers around the world watched Italian downhill racer Hubert Plank beat home-town favorite Ken Read on the Lake Louise course. They also saw the incredible beauty of the Canadian Rockies in winter. But when Calgary hosted the 1988 Winter Olympic Games, organizers acquiesced to environmental concerns and none of the sporting events took place within the park.

With hotel business thriving during the winter and summer months, the push is on to attract more visitors during the other seasons. Recently the Banff Springs Hotel returned to its watery heritage with the completion of a luxurious $12-million European style spa. Catering to finicky nostrils, however, the artificially heated pools feature odorless mineral water imported from Hungary.

The Banff Upper Hot Springs is located on nearby Sulphur Mountain, while the Cave and Basin Centennial Centre is located at the end of Cave Avenue. The Cave and Basin Centennial Centre is the birthplace of the Banff National Park system. It’s a national historic site and museum, but there is no longer a pool for swimming.

Many of Banff’s attractions were developed before WW II. The park was a very popular honeymoon destination for veterans and their brides in the late 1940s and early ‘50s and it’s likely that a good many baby boomers were conceived in the Rockies. The prized souvenir was a snapshot of a bear being fed at the side of the road, a practice that eventually caused the shy, relatively harmless creatures to become dangerous scavengers whose numbers are threatened. The numbers of honeymooners, on the other hand, are increasing. In 1995, Alberta vital statistics recorded 499 marriages in Banff.

In 1995, more than eight million people passed through the park’s rustic gates, although five million actually stopped for a visit. Of these, almost 80 per cent were Canadian. Half the people who enter the park–located roughly 110 kilometres west of Calgary–are there to tour the park, partake in some outdoor pursuit or simply dine in a mountainous setting. The remainder are just passing through on the Trans-Canada Highway, usually stopping only for fuel.

The congestion will worsen according to The Banff Bow Valley Task Force Report, released last October by Canadian Heritage Minister Sheila Copps. The report predicts an increase of visitors to 19 million by the year 2020, jeopardizing the park’s future. Brad Pierce, spokesperson for the Association for Mountain Parks Protection and Enjoyment, AMPPE, scoffs at the growth predictions. The association represents various organizations and people who are committed to responsible human use and enjoyment of the park. “Their numbers are totally unrealistic based on the fact that growth will be limited on the availability of existing campgrounds and hotel facilities,” he says.

The task force made more than 500 recommendations that will be considered by the government. A key recommendation is that no new lands be released for commercial development. Another is that other sites, including the airstrip and bison paddock, be closed or relocated to re-establish a wildlife corridor north of town.

The report also recommends that the Banff National Army Cadet Camp be moved from the park. This has met with opposition from the Virden, Man., Cadet Instructors List Officers Association. In an open letter to Copps, the association states the camp has been a longtime fixture in the park. “The facilities blend into the park. There is no rifle range. There are no rifles. The camp provides just two courses, namely the leadership and challenge course and the senior pipe and drum course…. It is the goal of many… army cadets to attend Banff National Army Cadet Camp. It is the jewel in the army cadet summer training program.” The letter states that cadets also help build and maintain hiking trails under the supervision of wardens.

With the exception of three ski resorts and the Columbia Ice-fields, development in the park is located mainly on the valley floor within a few kilometres of the Trans-Canada Highway. This geographic area, known as the montane, accounts for only three per cent of the entire park. Forest lands from the montane to the treeline account for 55 per cent, only five per cent is alpine meadow and the remaining 37 per cent is rock and ice. However, the open forests and grasslands that distinguish the montane are crucial to wildlife habitat. Parks Canada is considering the adoption of quotas and/or reservations to limit traffic on certain environmentally sensitive areas.

Banff National Park is a wildlife haven. No hunting is allowed and some suggest that fishing should also be banned. The park is also a veritable cornucopia of flora and fauna. At the height of the flowering season, mid-July to mid-August, literally hundreds of wildflower species burst into bloom in the Rockies. There are trees of many different varieties, many surviving in tiny cracks and ledges on only inches of soil.

Banff is home to 57 mammal species, 90-odd species of butterflies, 19 fish species, three types of frogs, one lonesome type of toad and only one kind of snake. The elk, almost decimated in the ‘50s, have been especially prolific under park protection. There are now more than 3,000 of them in the park. Meanwhile, the bighorn sheep number about 2,600 and Parks Canada estimates fewer than 60 black bears. Fewer still are the grizzlies–estimates are between 50 and 60–but they are the most troublesome. Since 1971, some 73 grizzlies have been killed or removed from the park. Some are vexatious or dangerous and are disposed of by park wardens and many are hit by motor vehicles.

Even including the ski areas, more than 95 per cent of the park remains complete wilderness. Most summer visitors venture no further than the towns of Banff and Lake Louise, except for a quick look at Moraine Lake. The lake, framed by the Valley of Ten Peaks, is notable not only for its beauty, but for its memorable image on the old twenty dollar bill. Nor is any visit to the park considered complete without a stroll along the shores of Lake Louise where tourists can outnumber the profuse poppies.

The tourists seem to enjoy each other’s company. In 1996, the Chateau Lake Louise was named the number one romantic hotel in North America by the Harlequin Romance book publishers. Lake Louise Ski Resort, across the valley, was named the number one scenic ski resort and among the top cross-country ski resorts in North America by a leading ski magazine.

Banff townsite, which lies less than 30 kilometres west of the east park gate, envelopes a population of nearly 10,000 permanent residents. Glossy brochures in many languages promote Banff’s 27-hole golf course, three major ski resorts, 49 hotels, 14 campgrounds, more than 100 restaurants and 220 retail shops selling everything from exotic fur coats to sweatshirts to imitation plastic totem poles.

Tourists who miss sighting any of the wildlife that live under park protection can see stuffed species at one of Banff’s four museums. Both are veritable treasure troves of native and pioneering culture.

The town’s main avenue, with its upscale restaurants, boutiques, and souvenir shops seems to draw more tourists than some of the park’s more natural attractions. Tourism contributes more than $700 million annually to the local and regional economies and generates 18,000 jobs. As a federal property, Banff National Park is officially bilingual; however, more shopkeepers speak Japanese or German than they do French.

This prosperity comes with the risk of upsetting the balance of nature in Banff National Park. Business representatives, environmentalists and other concerned citizens are working together in an attempt to ensure that this does not happen.

Meanwhile, Banff National Park is a Canadian treasure to be enjoyed today and by future generations.

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