Banff & Northern BC

Last minute panics are the best panics

Steph and I have a long-standing tradition of planning a trip each year for each other’s birthday. Some years we’ll treat ourselves to a save-up-all-year overseas trip, other years it’s just the town two hours away. Her trips for me are always super well planned with lists of restaurants to hit up and cool shops to hunt down.

Me though, I’m not the greatest planner in the world. I’m more of an ad-hoc kind of person. That fact combined with her birthday creeping up on me sooner than I thought meant that this year my turn was mostly a lot of last minute panic.

Her birthday was on a Saturday this year. I realized that fact on Wednesday, and it was one of those round-number birthdays that are pretty special, too. With only two to three days to plan a hopefully special trip, I wracked my brain for options. Anything within 5 or 6 hours of us was fair game. Edmonton? Too cold. Prince Edward Island? Too expensive. Cuba? No research. Venezuela? Too dangerous.

As my brain started to run in tiny circles of panic, inspiration hit me. Forget exotic cities and food and shopping, her favorite trips of the past few years have been the surreal landscapes of Iceland and Yosemite, yet she’d never been to Banff. Banff is only 8 hours away, let’s go to Banff!


Canada: trains, mountains, and ski hills

Because we could drive, all I needed to do was find a last minute hotel in Banff for the next day. Camping was out, because what girl wants to spend her birthday in a freezing cold tent? (note: she might) Banff in September was more popular than I expected, and pretty much everything was full. It was a toss up between a cabin on a river and a high end five star in Lake Louise. Tempted by the prospect of real wood burning fireplaces and free canoe rentals on Moraine Lake, I chose the cabin.

That night, we had dinner with our friend Minna and mentioned that we were off to Banff. Minna – who is ultra dramatic when she’s drunk – said she had been traumatized by the highway leading out to Banff not even the week prior by crazy curves and snow and rain and wind and imminent death. Steph, believing Minna, was braced for impact for most of the first hour of our drive, even it turned out to be as mundane and boring as I knew it would be.

Our first order of business was to check out Lake Louise. It was the first time Steph had seen the lake in person, and I think finally the I saw the northern lights so now nothing else in the world can ever impress me again veil lifted from her eyes.



Lake Louise

What makes the water so blue, she asked? Before I could confess to not knowing, we found an information sign. It turned out the reason glacial water is so otherworldly is something called Rock Flour, which is a super cute and genius marketing name for glacial silt, and totally resonated with the food blogger in Steph.

Our cabin was as awesome and warm and cozy as promised. Everything was made of wood and it smelled like the forest in a good way. There were little touches of Canada in every corner, little moose and bears and plaid everywhere. Every Canadian kid, by the way, has argued that the plural of moose should be meese. We ended the night with a warm bath surrounded by meese-embossed tiles.

The next morning we drove out to Moraine Lake with visions (in my mind, at least) of rowing our own canoe out on the glacial blue lake. What I failed to realize was that Steph was intensely afraid of sinking and didn’t remotely entertain the thought of being on the water and enjoying it. Who ever heard of a canoe sinking? The wind was intense though, so canoes were not possible, much to Steph’s relief.




Moraine Lake

A lot of people don’t realize that Steph is a really down home girl, so for her birthday dinner she didn’t want to go anywhere fancy. After a long deliberation between casual steakhouses, brew pubs, and places that served chicken strips, a picnic by the river won out.

It turned out to be a perfect decision, because years ago we tried a picnic on her birthday and it was a total failure, so redemption was at hand. That afternoon, well before sunset, we had obscure Canadian whisky and rotisserie chicken by the river, and a frozen mccains cake with candles back in the room, and no bears or serial killers attacked us.

The cabin was advertised with a wood burning fireplace, and the patio was stacked with as much wood as we could burn. The staff had set up the fireplace before we checked in so all I had to do was light it. It was fantastic. The fire crackled, popped, and burnt out ten minutes later. That’s not supposed to happen, I thought.

I checked to make sure the vents were open. Undaunted, I called up my vast experience of lighting campfires all year during our many camping trips. I started with a classic chimney fire: tinder followed by kindling followed by logs in a square formation. It was a work of art. 10 minutes later, it went out again.

Again and again I tried, using different setups and combinations. Finally, I caved and googled that the best fire in a fireplace is a counterintuitive upside down fire. Big logs on the bottom, followed by smaller logs followed by tinder. That could never work. But, always game, I tried it and to my surprise, it worked! We closed out the night with cake, Zootopia playing from the laptop, and a roaring fireplace.


Our rotisserie chicken picnic by the river


Kicking Horse River



The wrong way to build a fireplace fire (but it sure is pretty)



On our last day before we headed home, I was adamant that we try again for the canoe thing. We ended up getting out on the lake, and Steph’s worries of sinking were allayed by the attendant girl telling us that it was pretty rare for people to end up in the water. Pretty rare, Steph asked, like how many times a year?

It was as idyllic and tranquil as I had imagined. We stayed out until our fingers were too cold from the rocky mountain air to row any further. Our arms were sore the next day from rowing.


Our canoe on Moraine Lake

The plan afterwards was to drive up the Columbia Icefields Parkway. I had driven it in my 20s and remembered massive mountains, vivid blue lakes, crystalline glaciers, and a sign that said “Check your fuel, no service for 400km”.

We got into the car and blasted up the heat and made our way to the parkway. To be honest, the drive, and Jasper itself was a little disappointing. The town became civilized and somehow the mountains along the parkway all got smaller. We made the best of it with chicken and ribs for dinner and whiled away our time the next morning taking over Pokemon go gyms until it was time to go home.

Out of disappointment at the underwhelming ice fields parkway, I took what I thought was the fast scenically-ghetto highway home and ended up driving past Mount Robson and the Fraser River headwaters. It was gorgeous, everything the Columbia Ice Fields parkway was in my memories. As we drove home she said it was one of her best birthday trips ever. I gave us (because good trips take two) a pat on the back and thought, last minute panics can sometimes work out after all. ◆





6 thoughts on “Banff & Northern BC”

  1. Jenna says:

    Stunning! Can you divulge the cabin’s name?

    1. Mike says:

      Hi Jenna – it was the Cathedral Mountain Lodges

  2. Dana says:

    The Ice Fields are more impressive when you take the honking snow cat up there and get the geological back story as you’re standing on them. Nothing short of majestic up there, kinda ho hum just to drive by 😉

  3. Brandon Nolen says:

    Your pictures are amazing! How did you get those overhead river shots?

    I have my own fond memories of tracking down Meese while driving through Banff and Lake Louise as a young Canadian lad!

    1. Mike says:

      Thanks! Overhead shots were taken with a DJI Phantom 4

  4. Odessa says:

    Your photography is really stunning. Banff is pretty high up on my list and these pictures just encouraged it even more. Looks like you guys had a great time, those cabins sound amazing!

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