KANANASKIS VILLAGE, Alberta — Less than an hour’s drive from Calgary, the serrated ridges of the Canadian Rockies started to take shape. We took the turn-off for Kananaskis Country, “the playground of the locals,” said our guide, Marcy Lee McLellan, and peered up at snow-capped Mount Kidd and Mount Allen. Around another bend the rapids of the Kananaskis River appeared through the thicket of lodgepole pines. After spotting a sign that read, “Highwood Pass, the highest drivable pass in Canada, at 7,239 feet,” we veered into a parking lot and started our ascent by foot.
The trail wound slowly through a shaded forest of sweet-smelling pines, tamaracks, and aspens. On the mountain floor, a variety of wildflowers were in bloom: red Indian paintbrush, yellow alpine buttercups, and purple forget-me-nots. The path soon rose above treeline, rewarding us with a stupendous vista of snowcapped peaks surrounding a glacial cirque. On the opposite slopes, a waterfall careened down the canyon walls. Colorful meadows contrasted with the steely granite of the peaks. My son, Jake, ran off to make a snowball from a small patch of wintery remains while my wife and I stared in awe at this alpine wonderland.
Josh Fried, 13, from Pacific Palisades, Calif., summed it up best when he blurted, “I love nature.”
This was the vision I dreamed of when I booked a pricey six-day family adventure trip with high-end outfitter Austin-Lehman Adventures. Sure, we could have come here on our own, but most likely we would have gone with the masses, straight to Banff and Lake Louise to take far more populated treks. I hoped to see as much of the region as possible in a short time and wanted my teenagers to sample new sports like white-water rafting and rock climbing.
I knew we had made the right decision when we arrived in Calgary and the taxi driver told us there was an outbreak of cougars in the region and he didn’t mean older women on the prowl. Far more likely, we would run into grizzlies, as evidenced by a huge yellow banner across our bike trail the first afternoon warning bikers to go no farther or face the consequences of running into bears down a narrow corridor. We took to the streets and soon were sweeping downhill, past the panoply of peaks.
I had chosen Austin-Lehman because its home base is in Billings, Mont., so I figured they knew this neck of the woods. I was proven right when my guide Marcy noted that she had been leading trips to the Canadian Rockies since 1994. Yet, even with this level of expertise, Austin-Lehman went out of its way to hire local guides with more refined specialties.
The next morning our group of 10 went on a two-hour whitewater rafting jaunt down the Kananaskis River with outfitter Rainbow Riders. We were cruising down the rapids of the teal-colored river and I quickly realized I didn’t need a cup of coffee to wake me up. One splash of these icy waters did the trick.
“They call it a Canadian kiss,” said our rafting guide, after the waters drenched me. We went through an adrenaline-pumping series of rapids and Josh, letting out a whoop, said, “This is a better rush than Xbox.”
Perhaps it was too much of a rush. After paddling back to one rapid to surf atop the wave and be showered by the water, I suddenly heard my wife screaming, “Jake, Jake!” I looked to my right and saw my son outside the raft, floating to the opposite bank. We threw him a rope and quickly had him back in the raft, but he received something far more valuable than any souvenir. Spontaneous mishaps while traveling often lead to the most vivid memories years down the road.
That afternoon, we were led by another reputable guide, Dave Stark, to the base of Mount Yamnuska, a serious spot for avid mountaineers. When we reached the sandstone cliffs where we would be rock climbing, we were met by a troop from the Canadian Army training on the same rock face.
I looked below at the U-shaped Kananaskis Valley and then across at the snowcapped peak of Mount Baldy, feeling a bit apprehensive about this next sport. Climbing up a slab of rock hundreds of feet in the air is not exactly my idea of a good time. But Stark’s quiet confidence made me feel at ease. We started slowly, learning to find our foot and toe holds on the boulders that sat beside the cliff face.
Once attached to a belay, I wasn’t surprised to see Jake climb the cliff like Spider-Man. One of his favorite activities at camp is the climbing wall. Yet, it was my daughter, Melanie, 13, who really impressed me. She went up twice, doing the far more challenging climb on the second circuit. I was ready to quit halfway through that climb before I took a deep breath, overcame my initial panic, and made it to the top.
“This is the first time I ever rafted or rock climbed,” said a beaming Melanie as she wiggled out of the climbing harness. And it was only the end of day two.
The following day we made it to Banff National Park and walked under a light rain to the raging waterfalls that are the highlight of the popular Johnson Canyon Walk. For lunch, we picnicked at another glorious spot, Cascade Pond, where the lofty peaks reflected off the placid waters. Here, we celebrated Jake’s 15th birthday with a cake as our second guide, Anne, presented him with a life-size helium balloon of Mr. Incredible.
We made Jake attach the balloon to the back of his bike as we pedaled in the rain along the shoreline of Lake Minnewanka, which was shaded by the dramatically sculpted massif of the Fairholme Range. On a riveting downhill ride by Two Jack Lake, we zipped past a group of bighorn sheep grazing on the side of the road before completing the loop back at Cascade Pond.
The sun returned along with the crowds the next morning at Moraine Lake, yet we didn’t mind sharing this sight with others. A canoe glided through the turquoise waters, ringed by a crown of thorny peaks. After posing for the holiday card shot, we followed Marcy and Anne through an emerald forest of moss-covered ground, tall Engelmann spruce trees, and glimpsed the craggy mountain peaks once the forest opened up. Surprisingly we passed no other hikers even though we left a parking lot full of buses.
“Ninety percent of people visiting Banff don’t get more than 2 kilometers from the trailhead,” said Marcy.
That’s a shame, I thought, because they would miss the quiet waters of Consolation Lake, backed by a hanging glacier, that Jake said “looked like the marshmallow topping on a sundae.” All by our lonesome, we grabbed the front-row seats atop big boulders, had our picnic lunch, and watched small furry critters with rounded ears called pikas scurry in and out of the rocks.
That night we dined at a local landmark, the Lake Louise Station. Built in 1909, the former railroad station is now a popular restaurant. We sat around a circular table and sampled hot baked rolls, juicy cuts of Alberta prime rib, fish and chips, and stuffed chicken. The room had a nostalgic feel, with old lamps illuminating the wooden paneling, and black-and-white photos on the walls.
Our last full day, we drove on what many call the most scenic mountain pass in North America, the Icefields Parkway. The 143-mile roadway gave us a last dose of alpine splendor.
We arrived at Athabasca Glacier, where a sheet of snow and ice appeared to drop from the high ridge all the way down to the road. It had seemed silly donning winter parkas, gloves, wool hats, and snow boots at the height of summer, but we needed every bit of clothing for a hike atop the glacier. We were led by another local guide, Bernard, who mentioned that the glacier was melting 20 meters (about 65 feet) a year.
The ground crunched underneath as we walked over small rivulets of blue water flowing downhill. “Drink,” Bernard said. “Drink the 10,000-year-old water.”
I dipped my cup into the flowing water, took a big gulp, and sighed. For one magical moment, I wished time would stand still as I took in the majestic scenery and my family as they drank the icy water, smiling ear to ear.
Price of the six-day tour is $2,898 per adult, $2,318 per child, including all activities, food, and lodging.