2002: Caretakers of the North

Banff, Alberta

azing across the Spray River, over a pristine fairway and straight into the face of the regal Rocky Mountains, a realization comes to mind. These Canadians, great caretakers of the North, got it right.

They have proven that if nature is allowed to run its course, with as little disturbance as man can allow, it’s a course worth running. There is a collection of exquisite golf experiences in Canmore and Banff (about 11⁄2 hours west of Calgary on the Trans Canada Highway), and another gem in Jasper, 31⁄2 hours farther north. But in a land of waterfalls and snowcaps, elk and bears and coyotes and velvet-antlered deer, the golf courses are mere baubles on a landscape of wonder. Twenty-four carat baubles, to be sure, but baubles nonetheless.

“We understand the importance of what we have here,” says Doug Wood, director of golf at Banff Springs Golf Course, which is nestled in the mountains adjacent to the majestic, 114-year-old Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. “Our whole philosophy is based around blending in with the environment. It would be pretty ridiculous to think we could improve upon what was here long before we were.”

The Canadian Rockies formed 70 million years ago and have survived Ice Ages, for goodness sake. If man can just keep his hands off. . . .

Approximately 30,000 years ago, during a period of mild weather between the aforementioned cold snaps, tribes trekked from Asia to Alaska on a land bridge. These early North Americans lived and hunted throughout the Canadian Rockies long before they were called the Canadian Rockies. Then came another Ice Age about 20,000 years ago that wiped out those prehistoric inhabitants as well as most evidence of their existence. But with another break in the weather about 11,000 years ago, man returned to the region to hunt, fish, farm and live.

Strict preservation through a national park system allows visitors today to see the mountainous region much as it was thousands of years ago. Only those who work or have retired from jobs in Banff National Park or Jasper National Park – vast protected areas that include the cities of Banff and Jasper – can live here. Canadian law prohibits the population of Banff from exceeding 10,000, and Jasper has 4,400 residents. You must work here to live here. No summer homes allowed.

“We are blessed, and we know it,” Wood says. “The last thing anyone here wants to do is infringe on the very thing that makes us what we are.”

Wood speaks of avoiding the presumptuous, a task we also will try to accomplish in describing how to soak in the splendor of the Canadian Rockies. It would be folly to assume there is only one way to experience the great golf and also enjoy all there is to see and feel and smell. But there is a strategy to maximize the experience. Here, we simply offer a guideline or two.

First stop: Canmore⁄Banff

Flying into Calgary – “the big city,” according to the folks of Banff and Canmore – is the end of a plane trip, yet the beginning of a journey. Get that rental car (or U-Drive, as the Canadians like to say)and start looking for the Trans Canada Highway, heading west. It is Highway 1, a name as appropriate as it is unnecessary. There is only one way to get to the wonders of Canmore and Banff: You gotta take Highway 1.

Which isn’t really a highway at all until you get out of “the big city.” Stoplights and pet stores, the downtown skyline and parts of the Olympic Village left over from 1988 preclude speeds of more than 50 to 60 kilometers per hour. (We’ll leave the conversion up to you, but let’s just say it’s not exactly lettin’ the shaft out.) Things speed up to 80 to 110 kph after you escape the reaches of Calgary and the shadow of the former Olympic ski jump, which, sans snow, appears to be some sort of high-tech suicide machine.

When the mountains come into view, however, speed is your enemy. It is better to slow down and enjoy, a concept that makes sense throughout the visit. You shouldn’t rush when cruising through beauty, just as there is no hurry to find an errant golf ball in the heather (and they sure love their native grasses up here). Don’t dash trying to find your way through the vast halls and stairwells of the castle-like Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, either. Relax. That’s what you’re here for.

It isn’t always eas to stay patient, however. Especially when the mountains beckon and the golf gets closer.

The Big Five to play in the Canmore⁄Banff area (in the order you come to them on Highway 1) are the two 18s in Kananaskis Country, Stewart Creek Golf Course, The Golf Course at SilverTip and Banff Springs Golf Course. All are panoramic mountain courses, but each has its own personality.

Some say Banff Springs is the toughest of the group, others say it’s SilverTip. But if you’re having trouble hitting it straight, the knee-high native grasses in the rough also make Stewart Creek and Kananaskis tough layouts to tame.

“We’re competitors, but I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that all of the courses are great places to play,” says Greg Andrew, general manager at SilverTip. “We know if someone’s here for a week, they’re not going to play the same place over and over. They’re going to hit all of us.

“It’s the variety that makes it fun. We think we have the most memorable, striking views. Banff Springs is more traditional, and I think it’s the toughest in the area – and Stewart Creek is a combination of the both. And Kananaskis is a fine place to play, too.”

Andrew’s pick for the best in the area?

“What do you think I’m going to say?” he asks, and leaves it at that.Over at Banff Springs, Wood says golf is more than just a game in the Canadian Rockies. The original course was created by Stanley Thompson, a legend of Canadian golf. Thompson, who also designed Jasper Springs Golf Course, was famous for his wit and innovation, and for an uncanny ability to let a course’s surroundings become an integral part of the game.

“We tell our staff to celebrate golf with our guests, because they are here to celebrate,” Wood says. “If we join in the celebration, it can only make the experience better.”

And, finally, a word from a fellow named Steve, who is playing golf in the Banff area with his wife, Pat, for the third consecutive summer. The silver-haired Phoenix resident with a silky smooth swing offers a tip or two throughout a round at Stewart Creek. The “Keep your back shoulder tucked,” and “Slow your swing down,” have been heard a time or two. But one bit of wisdom from old Steve stands clear.

“You ever been up here before?” Steve asks.

When told that his playing partner is a first-timer to the Canadian Rockies, Steve offers a knowing smile and an on-the-money answer.

“You’ll be back, my friend. You’ll be back.”

The trek to Jasper

Part of the reason many visitors return to Alberta’s Rockies is that even the annoyances of real life can be beautiful events in the mountains.

Take a 15-minute thunderstorm during a round of golf. Yes, you must wait it out. But all that does is force you deeper into the woods to seek shelter, offering time to enjoy the beauty as mountain showers kick up the fresh smell of spruce and pine.

A better example still is a long drive between warm beds – usually a royal pain. But in the mountains of Alberta, the indescrible ride between the Banff Springs Hotel and the Jasper Park Lodge (Highway 1 West to 93 North) is an absolute must. It is a drive you can make in 31⁄2 hours, but if you do it in less than six, you’ve wasted your time.

It is unusual counsel to suggest that a golf trip include a day without golf, but there should be at least an entire day set aside for the nature-filled ride to Jasper. Wonderful golf is in your rear-view mirror, and more awaits in Jasper. But do yourself a favor: Forget about it for 24 hours.

“You’d be surprised how many people who’ve never been to these parts hear about that 31⁄2-hour drive and just refuse to make the trip,” says Alan Carter, director of golf at Jasper Park Golf Course. “Unless you’ve done it before, or have heard about it, people just don’t understand the experience.”

It’s a ride you will remember to the last day of your life. The two-lane road is wonderfully meshed with waterfalls, chutes, rivers and streams, winding from the tops of snow-covered mountains to the basements of stone-bedded valleys. The Columbian Icefields, Sunwapta Falls, Athabaska Falls, Mount Edith Cavell, Marmot Basin and the Jasper Tramway are just a few stops that allow you to see the world as it once was – and in these parts, thankfully, the way it still is.

There are impromptu stops, as well, when bears are spotted foraging for food. Visitors gaze with awe through binoculars and cameras at nature’s wonder. It is a splendid experience to be sure, but also a little sardonic. As war spreads like pollution, and garbage and violence litter their streets, travelers from throughout the world come here as if to say, “Hey, look, here’s a place we haven’t screwed up.”

But the moment of bitterness is just that. A moment, and then it is gone. Washed away by waters so pure that the faces of far-away mountains reflect majestically from the shimmering surface.

At the end of such a beautiful trek, it takes quite a course to be anything but anticlimactic. Jasper Park qualifies. The accommodations are separate cabins and chalets lining the banks of a crystal-clear lake. There is almost a summer camp ambience to the place, producing an extra bounce and a wider smile.

The thinking-players’ course is surrounded by mountains, and is a little softer touch than its counterparts to the south, mostly because the native grasses in the rough are left unirrigated. The grass is deep, but not nearly as thick as at the courses in and around Banff. At Jasper, not only can you find a ball in the rough, you can actually hit it.

“We want people to be able to enjoy their day,” Carter says with a smile. “After all, they’ve had a long trip.”

After a round of golf and an ice-cold Grasshopper Ale de Blé, it is time to settle in for a final blissful night of rest in the Canadian Rockies. Five hours from Calgary, rested, relaxed and at peace. The next morning, three-quarters through the return trip to civilization, you pass back through Banff on the way to Calgary’s airport. There, by the side of the road, is a wooden sign, almost lost amid the pines.

It reads: “You are leaving Banff. Thank You. Merci.”

Oh no, great caretakers of the North, you owe no thanks.

Merci beaucoup

We are in debt to you.

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