Story by Jody Robbins
LAKE LOUISE, ALBERTA — “Well, pilgrim, you’ve come to the land of eight months of winter, and four months of poor sledding,” declares Bruce Bembridge when we meet outside a wooden hut that stands beside piles of snow drifting up to the windows. Continuing a tradition that dates more than a century, in a destination frequently featured on postcards, he’s one of three full-time winter guides at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. While modern luxury has been introduced here over the years, my family arrives with the aim to experience activities done in this valley for decades, like classic cross-country skiing.
The Chateau hired Swiss mountaineers in the early 20th century to show guests the off-the-beaten-track beauty of Lake Louise. Back then, the hotel was closed in winter so these Swiss sportsmen introduced locals to a new-fangled activity: skiing. It caught on, and grew to where events like a World Cup race are now hosted just down the road. In 1997, the Chateau reintroduced the guided treks through its Mountain Heritage Program, which helps guests get back to nature.
The program adds to the classic mountain scene that plays out at Lake Louise on any given winter day. Rosy-cheeked folks on skis pass by snowshoers (there are signs on how to properly share the trail), while horse-drawn sleds go along the shore of the lake, past open wood fires, skaters and hockey players. It would seem contrived, like in a movie scene, if it wasn’t so, well, authentic.
Sporting a newsboy cap and tweed breeches, Bembridge is the real deal — a modern mountain renaissance man, with a twinkle in his eye and a fondness for exclaiming, “Oh, jiggers!” whenever I fall (which happens frequently). I’m keen to find a new family winter activity, and after a disastrous attempt at skate skiing in Canmore, it’s clear I need to learn the basics of cross-country first. Bembridge thinks this is a capital idea.
“It’s a beautiful sport, that lets you take it at your own pace,” he assures me. “The theme here is to slow down. We got you off the highway, so now you can just relax.”
And I do. Especially after seeing how well Bembridge interacts with the kids (including my husband). His first order of business is briskly taking away my daughter’s poles so she can avoid bad habits.
“Kids under 10 shouldn’t use poles, it just interferes,” he says unapologetically.
She usually complains whenever she’s been singled out (being eight going on 18 and all), but doesn’t protest when she’s left pole-less. In fact, she’s surprisingly open to whatever our gracious guide suggests. I’m jealous.
Lake Louise Views Improve on Skis
With the towering Victoria Glacier to our left and the majestic Chateau to our right, we slide across the smooth surface of the lake in a series of invigorating drills each designed for our level of skill. Moving off the lake to proper trails, we practice the fluid, rhythmic motion, not dissimilar to working out on the elliptical machine.
Except this workout involves inhaling great gulps of fresh mountain air, and takes on a meditative quality, especially when rays of light peep through sections of open clearings, making the crisp snow sparkle. That’s something you won’t find at the gym.
With slower, purposeful actions, it’s easy to see why people take to gliding through the woods instead of barrelling down the mountains.
“Some say a free heel [as one has in classic skiing] means a free heart,” Bembridge confesses.
Guests can go old school, choosing between regular skis or old-fashioned wooden hickory skis and bamboo poles. And with the deep, dry snow Lake Louise receives (typically 8-12 feet more than Banff each year), traditional wooden snowshoes are often favoured when winter hiking.
“They’ve worked well for the past 10,000 years,” Bembridge notes.
We continue on after the lesson across the lake to Victoria Glacier. At the end of the lake we look back to see another postcard-worthy view of the Chateau before popping into the trees for a fun trip back on a roller coaster-esque trail.
Bembridge encourages us to go for it on the downhill. My daughter has no trouble bombing her way down (fear is learned), while her mother preferred to snowplough a safe distance behind.
Our efforts earn a round of après-ski hot chocolate, but not before we haul out toboggans and tackle the slopes that surround the hotel. After all, there’s only a few weeks left of sledding season.
More About the Mountain Heritage Program at Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise
Location: Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, 111 Lake Louise Drive, Lake Louise, Alberta
Contact: 403-522-3511 or 1-866-540-4413 (toll-free); email: firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information or to make a reservation, contact the hotel’s concierge desk.
Rates: $59 for adults or $29 for children 8-12 years for cross-country ski lessons. Ski rentals from $21-$25.