North of the border

The wind threatens to yank the board from my hands as I walk to the shore of Bow Lake in Banff National Park. My wife and two sons are already there, with boards in the water. So is an excited throng of Asian tourists, aiming their giant cameras at me and my family like we’re grizzly bears or naked celebrities. This is our first day in the park and our plan had been to paddle across the lake and hike to Bow Glacier Falls, which spills from the glacier over a 400-foot cliff. But that was before the wind hit. It’s raising shin-high waves verging on whitecaps and the water is barely removed from being glacial ice. You really don’t want to fall in. And you really don’t want your kids or Florida-born, warmth-loving wife to fall in.

I study the lake for a moment and consider this, trying to ignore the cameras clicking on all sides. I’m not at all sure this is going to work, and, in fact, we might get promptly spanked right back to shore, but at least it will be well documented.

It’s the second week of July and we’ve come north from our home in Missoula, Montana to Banff and neighboring Jasper National Park in Alberta, for a week of paddleboarding and exploring in what many travel cognoscenti consider the world’s most beautiful national park.

“We’re going to try and angle across to the far shore, where that big mountain will hopefully block some of this wind,” I half-yell to my family, who’ve gathered together in a semi-huddle. “Let’s start on our knees and see how it goes.”

Tourists sprint along the shoreline beside us like desperate paparazzi as we push off, hugging shore for a minute before pushing out into the choppy waters of Bow Lake. To my relief we actually make decent progress, paddling hard on our knees, until we’re in the middle of a two-mile-long, turquoise pool of glacial melt water.

“This isn’t as bad as I thought it would be,” calls out 12-year-old Jonah cheerfully. These are moments of victory for a father, seeing the adventure gene passed on to your kids. Everyone is stoked. The wind might be intense and the water might be marrow-freezing, but we’re paddling in Canada’s Banff National Park, surrounded by towering mountains draped with glaciers, and we’re about to become celebrities in several Asian countries.

“How does it feel to be famous paddleboarders?” I ask my boys.

“I’m huge in Japan,” calls back 16-year-old Silas.

  1. Strangely, and irritatingly, the mountainside doesn’t block the wind at all, which shifts and stays a headwind as we reach the far the shore. (I later learn this is because of ice-cooled air that drops off the Wapta Icefield every afternoon, pushing down through the valleys below and twisting with their contours.) With a mile or so still to paddle, I teach the kids about hugging shore to minimize wind, and we soon reach the head of the lake and a charming paddler’s hangout spot, with a wooden bench and flat, grassy area for taking in the view. Silas, a fishing fanatic, casts a line into the lake. I show Jonah moose and bighorn sheep tracks in the sand. We pull a backpack and hiking shoes from a drybag and head for the trail that will deliver us to Bow Glacier Falls.
  2. This is the Canadian Rockies at their most spectacular, where the 170 miles of glacier-crowned mountains between the towns of Banff and Jasper are necklaced with gemlike lakes and platinum rivers. There’s a reason they fill with tourists in mid-summer.
  1. father and son
  2. We’ve been here before on biking and skiing trips, but only in the southern tip of the parks, and now that my entire family has fallen for paddleboarding we figured it was time for a return visit. Our plan was to stay in a mix of lakeside lodges and campgrounds and paddle as many places as we could in a week.
  3. Or at least that was my plan. It’s the great challenge of adventure-loving fathers and husbands everywhere—bringing the wife and kids without alienating them. Or drowning them. You want your family to get out there, be tough, and most of all have fun, but over the years I’ve seen firsthand how easily this can backfire. Like the unfortunate backpacking trip where hours of wilderness bushwacking left the kids begging to press the SOS button on our SPOT unit. Or the first time I took my wife, Jacqueline, paddleboarding. The river was calm, but the forecasted warm, sunny weather didn’t materialize and I was too single-minded to change plans. Jacqueline froze, had zero fun and to this day her dominant memory of the day is her shaking, purple legs. It took me a year to get her out again.
  1. Fortunately, I seem to have gotten smarter since then and she and the boys have fallen in love with the sport. But that fine line is always there, waiting to be crossed by stubborn husband/dads, as I’d discover in the week ahead.
  2. The water is glass with the soft brush of a tailwind when we paddle back across Bow Lake after our hike that evening. There are no tourists on shore, no cameras clicking. Everyone has gone back to their lodgings for the night. We’re the only people around as we paddle toward the eastern shore where a red-shingled roof with many peaks rises above the forest. We glide toward it, make shore and head straight for the dining room of the grandly rustic Num-Ti-Jah Lodge, our home for the night. Named after the Stoney Indian word for pine marten, a common carnivore in these northern woods, the lodge is deliciously remote—no cell service, no internet—just the way I like it. Over a dinner of elk burgers and Alberta tenderloin, we watch the sunset blush the lake and distant Bow Glacier outside the window.

We spend the next few days in the bustling Lake Louise area, where we meet up with a posse of local paddlers. Standup was a bit slow to arrive in the Canadian Rockies, but it’s taken off in the last two seasons and the energy among local paddlers is palpable. At Moraine Lake, widely considered the most beautiful in the Canadian Rockies, our crew paddles powder blue water thick with glacial silt beneath the spectacular 3,000-foot buttresses of the Valley of the Ten Peaks. We are joined by Brandon Olsthoorn, who offers board rentals and lessons through his newly launched Bow Valley SUP in Canmore, 50 miles south, and local paddlers Sue Shih and Lee Appleby from Banff. The next day we head for the Bow River, which flows south from Bow Lake through the mountains and past the villages of Lake Louise and Banff into the eastern plains. Brandon tells us about his recent three-day SUP trip on the river, paddling from Lake Louise to Canmore, camping in backcountry sites along the way.

The river carries us south from Lake Louise, where we session a couple class I-II rapids and follow its flow through galleries of towering spruce trees, one magnificent mountain after another rising in the distance. Lee shares his plans for a weeklong wilderness SUP trip the next spring in Kootenai National Park, just over the border from Banff in British Columbia. Jacqueline, a tropical girl through and through, has the misfortune of pitching off her board in a rapid into the icy-cold water. She has virtually no body fat to go with her warm-water heritage. But the group energy keeps the family buoyant and then, after four or so hours on the river and just when Jonah is starting to run out of steam, we reach the takeout.

We spend our next and last day in the Lake Louise area at its namesake lake with simple a mission: paddle to the head of the lake, don hiking shoes and follow the Plain of Six Glaciers Trail to a teahouse high in the backcountry. There are a handful of these teahouses in Banff National Park, established as climbing huts for early Swiss mountain guides at the dawn of the 20th century and now used as a rustic rest stop by hikers. It’s a beautiful thing to sit on that wooden deck overlooking the Plain of Six Glaciers with a steaming chai and piece of apple pie.

As expected, there’s no shortage of people on the trail, many obviously from distant lands, so we play “Guess The Language,” noting Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Arabic, and more. When a cold rainstorm arrives just as we’re getting back to the lake, we hunker under the low branches of lakeside spruce and watch yellow warblers flit from branch to branch around us. This is the beauty of Banff in a nutshell—a glorious paddle, a multi-cultural hike, tea overlooking glaciers, and a quiet half hour in the forest listening to the rain.

After Lake Louise we head up the mind-meltingly scenic Icefields Parkway toward Jasper National Park, Banff’s neighbor to the north. Amid the soaring peaks and broad, glacially sculpted valleys, I make note of the endless series of lakes and rivers. We, or more accurately I, briefly consider paddling on the ablation pond amid the rocky moonscape at the foot of the Athabasca Glacier, but the strong winds and intermittent cold rain do little to stoke everyone’s enthusiasm. I remind myself not to push. As a lover of “Type II fun”— those experiences that are brutal in the moment but make for great stories later— this isn’t always easy. I’m not above subjecting my brood to the occasional dash of strenuous discomfort, but on a day like today I just need to repeat the adventure dad mantra: keep it fun.

Finally, after a day spent hiking to waterfalls and watching grizzly bears and elk from the car, we reach the town of Jasper, population 4,051, and head for a lodge on nearby Pyramid Lake. Jasper sits along the intriguing Athabasca River in an area riddled with mountain lakes. It’s quieter than the Banff region, with fewer selfie-stick wielding throngs, which suits us just fine.

A freshly sparked forest fire keeps us from visiting nearby Maligne Lake, a 14-mile-long masterwork of mountain and water dotted with backcountry campsites, but we paddle Patricia and Pyramid Lakes just outside town, where the calls of loons echo off the mountains and through the pure air.

Onour last full day in the parks we set out on the most dubious adventure-dad mission of the trip. Following a ribbon of pavement high into the mountains, we come to a small parking area and load our inflatable boards into backpacks. It’s a cool, gray morning, the mountaintops are concealed and snub-nosed glaciers hang from the clouds. Rock debris and rubble is everywhere from when a glacier dropped a massive block of ice into a melt-pond below, causing a flash flood that ripped down the mountain and destroyed a section of the road. As we start hiking, we pass signs warning of recent grizzly bear activity. I can’t help but grin. This is getting good.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Jacqueline says as we pick our way through the rocks. We’ve gotten a tip from a local about this place and I know it’s going to be worth it. The packs are heavy and the hiking is rough, but the kids aren’t complaining. You don’t want to push them too far, but you do want to push them.

After less than a mile we arrived at the base of a cliff-walled amphitheater. A series of waterfalls pour from glaciers into a pond of turquoise water. I begin inflating the boards as hunks of ice float nearby.

“I can’t believe I’m about to go paddling in water with big chunks of ice in it,” Jacqueline says, eyeing the pond warily, every ounce of her Florida genetics screaming “no.” I’ve also made the mistake of telling her about the ice-fall and flood. It doesn’t matter that it was three years ago, I can’t deny it’s sure to happen again someday. When the boys start throwing rocks into the water, as boys always do, Jacqueline blurts, “Oh great, now you’re sending reverberations into the mountain.”

“You’re probably never going to paddle in a place like this again in your life” I say. “Let’s check it out!”

She’s world’s away from enthusiastic, but Jacqueline once again confirms why I married her by being game for anything. The boys are amped—this is like something out of Tolkien come to life—but I make sure to have a safety talk before we hop on the boards. The water that splashes our feet feels like liquid ice. Jacqueline lasts a few minutes, says, “OK, I did it,” and paddles to shore. Once in a lifetime is plenty for her. The boys and I roam around for a while, prodding mini-icebergs, counting waterfalls, and trying to guess how long a person would survive if they fell into the impossibly cold water.

Many people would consider what we’re doing way beyond that imaginary line of propriety, or safety, or whatever it is that keeps them in their little imaginary boxes. But I’m teaching my kids that the world is their playground and, as long as they’re smart about it, the only limits are the ones in their minds.

That afternoon finds us clambering around the rocks on the shore of Horseshoe Lake, 17 miles south of Jasper. It’s a gorgeous spot, the crystal waters of the lake lined with rock outcroppings and small cliffs. I want to paddle, but the kids are tired after our glacial adventure, so I repeat my mantra—keep it fun—and leave the boards in the car. Silas grabs his fishing pole and Jonah discovers wild raspberry bushes, which we eagerly denude, and then we sit together on the rocks above the crystal water simply enjoying our last day together in this magnificent place.

Well, OK, I’m doing a little more than that. I’m also thinking about all the alluring places we didn’t paddle on this trip—Maligne Lake, Horseshoe Lake, the countless glacial pools and wild rivers. We’ve found a paddling paradise here amid the silver mountains of the north. We—the whole family—will be coming back soon.

WHERE:Calgary is the nearest major airport, 80 miles east of Banff, which is the hub of its namesake park (The village of Lake Louise is the park’s secondary tourist center). The famed Icefields Parkway leads 144 miles, from Lake Louise to the town of Jasper, the nucleus of the quieter, though still bustling, Jasper National Park.

WHEN: Spring arrives late in these northern mountains. July and August are the prime months, with average highs of about 70 degrees Fahrenheit; they’re also the most tourist-packed. Get early starts at the popular lakes (especially Moraine and Louise) to beat the crowds. No matter when you visit, the water will be witheringly cold, so plan accordingly and be safe.

STAY: Lodging of all stripes is abundant in the three main hubs, from hostels to five-star hotels. If you want to splurge and stay directly on a mountain lake, Bow Lake, Lake Louise, Moraine Lake, Pyramid Lake and others have waterfront lodges. Campgrounds are myriad in both parks, with many located directly on forest-ringed lakes.

BOARDS: Bow Valley SUP, in Canmore, offers half-day to weeklong board rentals and lessons for flat or moving water. The Banff Canoe Club offers board rentals with easy access to the Bow River and Vermilion Lakes. Translucid Adventures in Jasper leads SUP yoga classes, guides paddling tours and rents boards.