Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Banff v. Jasper

Before we left for Canada, I consulted with a friend who knows the Canadian Rockies well, and regarding Banff Townsite, which is in the national park of the same name, he used the word, “nightmare.”

I’d already planned not to stay in the town of Banff, warned by other sources about crowds and the high cost of accommodation in summer. Instead, to explore Banff NP, we spent three nights at a motel, the Drake Inn, in Canmore, a town just outside the park’s boundary to the south. The Drake was decidedly plain, but had a delightful location along Policeman’s Creek, which runs through the town and which has a plank walkway on one of its banks—not a wilderness walk in any sense, but a pleasant morningtime stroll among pines and twittering birds and the gurgle of a creek.

Canmore had its shopping street, partly living off tourists, but it was still a fairly sedate place. Banff Township was not. “Nightmare” might be too strong of a word, but after an hour or so on the teeming sidewalks of Banff, a town saturated with retail space, I was ready to leave. Several streets in Banff not only feed off out-of-towners, but cater to the sort of person who considers shopping an essential part of any trip, or who might even travel just to shop someplace new. I won’t mock that sort of mindset (though I’m tempted), but I certainly don’t share it, and Yuriko doesn’t either, at least not much.

But there was something in Banff both Yuriko and I did want to see: the Banff Springs Hotel. You can’t very well come to Banff NP and not see it. That would be like going to Singapore and passing on the Raffles.

So we went into Banff Townsite and sought out the hotel, one of the grand old railroad hotels of Canada, and actually part of the reason Banff eventually became a national park. The railroad and its hotel were instrumental in bringing people to the area in the early days, many of whom no doubt help shape Canada’s parks policy in the early 1900s.

It’s an impressive pile o’ stones indeed, particularly the backside, which commands an extraordinary view. Canned histories of the hotel would have you believe that the builders got it backwards, and that the front should have faced the mountain vista, but I don’t think so. The entrance is the workaday side of a hotel like this. The back is where guests can lounge around and soak in the view.

Later, we spent time at Jasper Townsite, the main town in Jasper NP, a much more likable place than Banff. Both are ringed by forests and mountains, but Jasper feels more remote. Which it is, since it’s further from the Trans-Canadian Highway than Banff. It’s also smaller, less crowded and really has only two shopping streets, the main drag Connaught Dr. and the parallel Patricia St. Jasper reminded me of Flagstaff, Ariz., because both towns have a main street fronted by businesses on one side and by a rail line on the other, complete with a railroad station—a fine old restored station in the case of Jasper.

But Jasper had more going for it than a passing similarity to Flagstaff. You might ask, who needs a town in a wilderness national park, especially when you aren’t even staying there, but camping a few miles away? A family of four does. In Jasper we bought groceries and gas and ice cream, ate a few meals, did our laundry, bought and mailed a fair number of postcards, and let the kids play at a well-appointed municipal park a few blocks from the main street, something that often interested them more than the prospect of walking another couple of miles in the woods, no matter how promising the scenery.

We also spent a short while at the town’s log-cabin visitor center, sitting around on its front-porch benching looking out onto a pleasant lawn and beyond that to the train station. On other occasion, I had the chance to wander around the back streets of the town by myself, and enjoyed the sight of two churches, both little jewels of construction, each set at 45-degree angles to their street—which was the same street, the curiously named Geikie St. Two blocks apart, it was almost as if the two church buildings were facing off: one Anglican, the other Lutheran.

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