Slipping on my backpack and back-country skis, I set off in bright morning sunshine through fresh powder snow toward remote Skoki, one of the oldest ski lodges in the Canadian Rockies. It was the 23rd of December last year as I left behind the bustling downhill slopes of the Lake Louise ski area and began the gradual ascent on a well-packed trail toward 8,120-foot Deception Pass. The pass, situated about 5 1/2 miles into the 6 1/2-mile trip to Skoki, is the highest point on the route.
In winter, the only way in to the lodge, nestled in the middle of the wilderness in Banff National Park, is on skis; the nearest town, the scenic village of Lake Louise, is more than 15 miles away.
I had hiked in to Skoki three years ago in summer. But this time the mountains were snow-draped, and I was on my way to spend a traditional Christmas in a log lodge with neither electricity nor running water, deep within the park. It would be an old-fashioned holiday like those my grandmother used to tell me about, when she was young in Germany. I thought of the gifts I had wrapped and packed in my backpack for my traveling companion, Philip, who charged up the trail ahead of me.
Back-country lodges are, by definition, secluded places that often require some effort to reach. Most of them don't have telephones; some don't have electricity. Stepping into them is a return to a simpler past, accompanied by the sensation of living in the wilderness (yet in relative luxury), nestled beneath white peaks and surrounded by deep snow.
There are about a dozen of these isolated lodges in the Canadian Rockies, but very few are open during the Christmas and New Year's season. Most open for winter skiing in late January or early February. Besides Skoki (which opens briefly for Christmas from Dec. 22 to Jan. 4, then reopens Jan. 24), two other lodges in the Banff region share Christmas with their guests. One, Shadow Lake Lodge, is 12 miles west of the town of Banff and requires a nine-mile ski in. Mt. Engadine Lodge, just south of Banff National Park, can easily be reached by car.
After two hours of gentle uphill climbing, Philip and I reached the summit of Boulder Pass (7,035 feet); from there we could see the climb we would have to make to Deception Pass. We stripped off a layer of clothing as we steamed in the cold air from the climb.
Although it's a bit of a climb from the trail head to Skoki Lodge, anyone with moderate cross-country and downhill ski experience should be able to make it to the lodge without too much trouble; even kids tackle the trip. En route we met a couple of 12-year-olds who, though inexperienced, easily passed us on the uphill stretch.
Although I had skied cross-country for three years, this was my first back-country trip. I was using back-country skis and boots rather than the conventional cross-country gear since the former have a metal edge that allows more control on the descents, much like downhill skis. I also bought extra-large baskets for my ski poles to keep them from disappearing into the deep powder on the sides of the packed trail. And they were especially good for support when the inevitable spill sent me tumbling into waist-deep drifts. (Back-country ski gear is available for rent at nearby Lake Louise and in the town of Banff.)
During lunch on a flat stretch that was the frozen surface of Ptarmigan Lake, I strapped on climbing skins--snakeskin-like strips that adhere to the undersides of skis to keep you from slipping backward as you stomp up steep inclines. Then we set off to tackle Deception Pass, a bit of a hike but well worth it for the spectacular view of a zigzag skyline of snow-covered summits. Then it was a short, thrilling downhill ski into Skoki Valley.
After a leisurely four hours of skiing, we spotted a veil of lazy smoke curling from the chimney of the rustic old retreat nestled at the base of the valley. Lodge manager Blake O'Brian welcomed us with a bowl of hot homemade soup at the long, wooden table in the dining room and a mug of coffee from a big enamel pot that is always brewing atop the wood stove. He and his wife, Jennifer, have made Skoki their second home (their first is in Banff), and this would be their eighth Christmas at the lodge. It would also be their first with their 6-month-old daughter, Rowan.
Skoki Lodge looks like something out of "Heidi's" Switzerland--built in 1932 of ax-hewn pine logs for enthusiasts who came (according to a stack of old guest books) from as far afield as Australia, Venezuela and England for the extraordinary skiing in the Canadian Rockies. In those days, eight hardy pioneers and two dog teams carried 3,300 pounds of provisions, bedding and four wood-burning stoves over two passes. Later an old piano was airlifted in by helicopter; it now occupies a place of honor beside the stone fireplace. These days, supplies are brought in--and laundry sent out--by horse in summer, snowmobile in winter.
Next to the fireplace, hung with Christmas stockings, stood a tall tree that Blake felled outside the national park boundary. It was decorated, as was the entire lodge, in red and green--bulbs and European wooden ornaments; beneath lay the gifts guests had brought to exchange on Christmas morning. The lodge had varnished log walls, braided scatter rugs and deep couches; Christmas cards were strung across the beamed ceiling. From the kitchen came waves of delicious aromas, the alternating smells of shortbread and gingerbread baking for the upcoming Christmas dinner.
Although just a few miles from the teeming ski slopes of the Ski Lake Louise downhill resort, Skoki feels like the middle of nowhere; it is the quintessential get-away-from-it-all Rockies back-country lodge.
The kitchen, dining room and living room are on the main floor of the lodge; yellowed photos of skiers past line the stairwell to the second floor. Upstairs are tidy homespun nooks such as the Fossil Room--the only room in the main lodge that has a double bed--that looks across at Fossil Mountain. A pitcher and basin on the dressing table serves as the sink, and cozy heat wafts up through a grate in the floorboards from the huge wood-burning stove on the floor below.
Skoki can accommodate only 22 people at a time, 11 in the lodge and 11 in the three cabins. "You're in the Honeymoon Cabin," Blake said as he handed a hurricane lamp to Philip and me. Honeymoon is tucked into the trees behind the main lodge and heated with a propane stove. There is a huge king-size bed with a homemade wooden headboard and down comforter. Red chintz curtains and bentwood chairs create a homey cabin atmosphere. At Skoki, the toilets are located in outhouses a short dash in back of the lodge--a good incentive for making sure you don't have to get up in the middle of the night! It was something I wouldn't want to do all the time, but a novelty and great fun for a week. (It's a good idea to bring along moccasins or sneakers and possibly warm flannel night wear.)
By late afternoon, guests ranging from children to seniors began to gather in front of the hearth after a day's skiing or snowshoeing. Bottles of wine appeared from backpacks (the lodge is not licensed to serve liquor) to accompany four hearty and delicious courses (with seconds, even thirds, for everyone). On our first night we had Moroccan soup, Caesar salad with pecans and orange slices, lamb chops with rosemary potatoes and cumin carrots, and blackberry crumble, all served by candlelight. Meals were cooked on a huge wood-burning stove in the kitchen by our chef, Kim Purdy.
The following morning after a help-yourself breakfast, we made our lunch sandwiches from the buffet table. Tiny Kim, originally from New Brunswick, stood on an empty milk crate kneading the dough for the next day's six-grain bread. She hummed along to folk tunes on the ghetto blaster that was busy dawn to dusk, powered by a single solar panel. "Otherwise, we'd go broke paying for batteries," Blake quipped.
He briefed us on the dozen or so cross-country ski trails leading from the lodge, everything from easy trips through the rolling landscapes and forests circling the base of Skoki Mountain to the climb up Merlin Ridge alongside the daunting peak called Merlin Castle. The challenging climb uphill is matched by a downhill best suited to those with some downhill or telemark skiing experience.
Taking a break on a hillside during lunch at midday, we spotted Blake approaching, skiing behind a small Norwegian-made sled towed by Colours, the O'Brians' dog, a Labrador and German shepherd cross. Inside the clear-plastic-covered sled was a snoozing Rowan.
That evening, famished after a day of skiing, we all sat down to a Christmas Eve dinner of roast chicken, herbed rice, candied yams and steaming-hot deep-dish apple pie with ice cream. Blake lighted the real candles on the tree while Jake, a geologist from Seattle, played Yuletide tunes on the piano. Jake and his wife, Alice, had made the trip to Skoki to celebrate their third wedding anniversary. Another couple, Calgary physician Chris and his wife, Adrienne, were here for their fourth Christmas in a row. They used their five days at the lodge as a much-anticipated family get-together with three sons who were studying at universities across Canada. We got to know a foursome of former Ottawa high school friends, women in their early 40s, in for a two-day reunion/retreat.
Gifts were exchanged between family members because the next morning everyone would be off skiing at an early hour. It was a magical evening, the windows frosted with ice and the varnished log walls warmly reflecting the light of candles, hurricane lamps and fireplace while we sipped eggnog and munched on shortbread.
On Christmas morning we set off under clear, sunny skies, with a high-temperature forecast of 28 degrees. A word of caution: Since weather conditions in the Rockies are unpredictable, it's wise to pack some essentials on your ski trips in and out from the lodges. Carry lunch (including some high-energy food) and emergency gear (such as a first-aid kit, waterproof matches, a flashlight and a knife). Dress to stay warm and dry with several layers of warm, light, loose-fitting clothing that can be removed or added as needed.
In the early afternoon, after cookies and coffee, we decided to try out Skoki's sauna before Christmas dinner. Off in the woods is a tiny wooden shack with a stove that we stoked with dry wood and kindling until it was glowing red. Grabbing a couple of big pails, we headed down to the "well," the source of Skoki's drinking--and bathing--water. It was a hole in the ice covering a small stream, kept open with a plywood plank. With a giant ice-gilded ladle, we quickly filled the buckets and carried them to the sauna. The heat inside was delicious, but soon we were sweating hot. Once the water was warmed, I headed outside for relief, soaping up and splashing off on the deck. I quickly learned to keep my feet moving, to keep them from freezing to the wooden planks!
Christmas dinner was a traditional turkey feast. The candles on the tree were once again lighted and, before the evening was through, we had worked our way through our pianist's repertoire of festive tunes, cleaned out the stash of sugarplums and raided the refrigerator for leftovers.
Five days passed all too quickly, until we were exchanging addresses while strapping on skis. It was time for the ski-out to the trail head at the base of Ski Lake Louise. The trip out was on a long, gentle trail through evergreen forest that flew past in a quick 2 1/2 hours. As Philip and I skidded to a halt at the base of the downhill resort, the crowds, noise and bustle seemed like a foreign world after the tranquil retreat in which we had been cocooned for one of the best Christmases ever.
We had our next year's Christmas planned too: New friends Jake and Alice had persuaded us to spend it at Shadow Lake Lodge. They found the nine-mile ski-in there a little more challenging than the trek to Skoki, but the day trips included skiing to glaciers and ice caves, they said.
Shadow Lake Lodge is 12 miles from Banff, and accommodates 24 guests over the holidays in picture-perfect log cabins heated with propane. Included are three meals a day plus afternoon tea. The lodge was built of logs in 1928, one of a series of small rest stops constructed by the Canadian Pacific railway throughout Banff National Park.
But back to the present. After skiing out from Skoki, Philip and I headed for Mt. Engadine Lodge, where we planned to spend New Year's. Another Canadian Rockies lodge, Engadine is in the heart of Kananaskis Country, a region in the foothills just south of Banff National Park. To get there, we drove 40 minutes out of the town of Canmore to Mt. Engadine and a cozy pine lodge with a huge, blazing fireplace in the lobby entrance. The lodge houses 24 guests in alpine-style rooms with big feather duvets on the pine beds.
Because of the ease of access, there tend to be younger families here than at Skoki. And plenty of children take advantage of the network of easy groomed trails right outside the door that are part of the Mt. Shark Cross Country Centre. In addition, there are 100 miles of groomed trails within 20 minutes' drive at Peter Lougheed Park, and 30 minutes' drive away at Canmore are the facilities of the Olympic Nordic Center.
Operated by Swiss-born Liesbeth Kranabitter, Mt. Engadine Lodge includes all meals in the cost of lodging, as well as a vast table covered with a selection of cakes, European style, to accompany afternoon tea and coffee.
But first, we prepared to settle, with about 40 others, into Liesbeth's New Year's dinner, a gourmet feast that is legendary in these parts.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Getting there: Calgary International Airport is the nearest to Banff and Lake Louise, Alberta. There's nonstop service from L.A. to Calgary on Air Canada and Delta; direct service involving a stop in Salt Lake on Delta; and connecting service on United, Delta, Air Canada and Canadian Airlines. Round-trip fares begin at about $480, including tax.
Canadian Airlines provides 2-3 nonstop shuttle flights daily from Calgary to Banff for about $50 round trip. But rental cars are available at the Calgary airport, and the drive to Banff is spectacular. There also is regular bus service from Calgary to Banff.
Where to stay: It probably is too late to reserve for this year's holiday season; most lodges begin to fill by late October. Some require bookings of more than one night over weekends. Smoking or pets are not permitted inside the lodges:
Skoki Lodge, P.O. Box 5, Lake Louise, Alberta, T0L 1E0; telephone (403) 522-3555. Rates per person, including all meals, start at $87 for one night and go down to $65 per night for stays of five or more nights, plus tax. Price includes shuttle from Fish Creek parking lot to the trailhead; transportation can be arranged from the base of the Lake Louise downhill ski area on request. Open Dec. 21 to Jan. 4, and weekends only Jan. 24 to Feb. 7. The lodge reopens full time Feb. 7 to April 20.
Back-country ski gear can be rented at Wilson Mountain Sports in Samson Mall Lake Louise, tel. (403) 522-3636, and Mountain Magic Equipment, 224 Bear St. in Banff, tel. (403) 762-2591.
Shadow Lake Lodge and Cabins, P.O. Box 2606, Banff, Alberta, T0L 0C0; tel. (403) 762-0116, fax (403) 760-2866. Rate per person based on double occupancy, including all meals and afternoon tea, is $83 plus tax. Only 24 skiers can be accommodated, so book early. Open mid-December to mid-April.
Mount Engadine Lodge, Box 8239, Canmore, Alberta, T1W 2T9; tel. (403) 678-4080, fax (403) 678-2109. Rates per person for lodge rooms or cabins, including all meals and afternoon tea are $69 to $75.. Open December through mid-April.
For more information: Canadian Consulate General, Tourist Information, 550 S. Hope St., Ninth floor, Los Angeles 90071; tel. (213) 346-2700, fax (213) 620-8827.