After years of planning exhilarating hikes with my dad — from Nepal’s three-week-long Annapurna Circuit to the 11 km trek into Alberta’s Skoki Lodge — I have one bit of advice: Sometimes it pays to leave it to the experts. While typically I do embrace the DIY getaway, those trips took months, even years, to plan.
Last June, when my 76-year-old father decided to visit me in Alberta from his current home in Macau, I decided a Father’s Day treat was in order. This time, however, I wanted nothing to do with the actual logistics and organization of a three-day adventure.
“Not so solid on my pins, these days,” confessed Dad, when asked if he’d like to retrace his fond footsteps back into Skoki or bike up to Shadow Lake Lodge (which he had done four years prior).
That nailed it for me — Lake O’Hara Lodge. Located 11 km off the TransCanada Hwy., just east of Field B.C., you can arrive at this historic Douglas Fir-beamed backcountry lodge in Yoho National Park by school bus. Granted, after that you’re on your “pins” if you so wish, or, you can just hang out with old mountaineering journals and high tea in the elegantly rustic lodge. It’s the perfect setup for keeping you, your kids and parents busy: Backed by a network of 80 km of rollicking trails, a lake to paddle across, a dock and decks to lounge on, board games galore and Saturday night “entertainment,” it’s like a fantasy adult camp with top-tier “interest groups.”
“I suppose that’s why we get families who book the same cabin every summer,” says co-owner/manager Bruce Millar, “in fact, there’s one family from Philadelphia, who has been coming here since 1919, before the lodge was even built.” Constructed in 1926 as a deluxe bungalow camp for wealthy Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) patrons who wanted to leave the rails for a few days to dip into wilderness — Lake O’Hara Lodge now accommodates 54 guests (between the lodge rooms and the lakeside cabins) who get to enjoy unusual “backcountry” fineries from white linen tablecloths to a lengthy Canadian wine list and superb food. Yet it hasn’t been gentrified — it still has the vibe of a soothing, secluded retreat with its star attractions being the lake and the snaggle-toothed peaks around it.
Perhaps it’s because Bruce, along with his wife Alison, raised their two children on the shores of Lake O’Hara, but he stresses what my dad and I discover within moments of arriving: “There are so few places now where you can go with your family and truly connect . . . far from cellphones and televisions. A place where people actually look at each other when they are having a meal and converse. It may sound cliché but there is something for everyone up here,” adds Bruce, who’s worked here since 1994. “Young kids can go for a scramble, others can hire a guide, some just amble around the lake looking at flowers, others can set off on a big trek like the Alpine Circuit — and everyone can reconvene for tea time or dinner.”
And follow Bruce’s prescription, we did. Soon after ditching our daypacks in our lodge room we tucked into a tasty lunch of roasted carrot and apple soup, followed by a salad of roasted pepper and goat cheese and lashings of bread pudding and cream for dessert. That’s when me old pops decided to stay back, toasting his cranky knees by the fireplace, while I grabbed a map from Alison and headed up Wiwaxy Gap. Following the blue sign marked #11, the steep switchbacks soon placed me on a long traverse giving me shots of four of the area’s 11 lakes — O’Hara, Oesa, Yukness and Victoria. After some bushwhacking and scrambling due to the snow — often lingering until late June —that blotted out the trail in parts, I dropped down on to the Lake Oesa Trail and was back for high tea and a game of Scrabble.
That’s when the luxuries became apparent. Abundant hot water for showers, indoor bathrooms, well-lit communal areas and bedside reading lamps are not amenities you see at most backcountry lodges — and, trust me, a 76-year-old can get used to them lickety-split.
Ditto for his daughter.
Seems my dad hadn’t just snoozed the afternoon away for he regaled our entire table of six with his discoveries: how two of the Group of Seven artists, J.E.H. MacDonald and Lawren Harris, picnicked and painted on the nearby shores of Lake Opabin in the 1920s; how teams of horses made daily trips down to Wapta (on the TransCanada) hauling up cedar timbers to build the lodge in the mid-20s; how in 1909 the Alpine Club of Canada held the first of 13 summer mountaineering camps that put this place on the maps of many a climber.
With time to browse the main hallways, Dad had found photos of some of my old friends who had worked here decades ago as well as umpteen Swiss explorers and many of Banff Park’s pioneers. And so, as time does at this lodge — it unspooled. Slowly. In the process it gave us the gift of new adventures like next day’s hike over Practice Rock to Yukness Lake where we spied two white goats and gorged ourselves on one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever had — stewed figs in apple juice, topped with a thick slather of goat cheese, caramelized onions and lettuce wedged between two thick slabs of Sasquatch Bread.
The rhythm of daily lodge life is seductive. From under your fluffy down duvet you smell coffee that you know will be followed by a massive cold and hot breakfast (from frittatas to buckwheat pancakes with a rhubarb compote). Then, the daily decisions began — invariably someone would pull out a map and discussions over routes, abilities and weather would begin. The option of having a hot lunch back at the lodge is always there, although most guests opt for a packed lunch and promptly head off for the day. High tea would see most people flopped out around the cozy communal areas. Showers after that. Cocktails, and then lengthy multi-course dinners would follow at tables artfully arranged by Bruce and Alison so that thoughtful dinner conversations could carry on for hours. Kids are free to roam the lodge and play games while wee ones seemed to expire early, leaving parents to socialize.
Although I’m sad to report that my dad no longer hops across a bridge of rocks like he once did, but places like Lake O’Hara Lodge make aging and wilderness activities such a comfortable combination that I wasn’t surprised when my dad was the last to climb aboard the bus. Soon after I caught him looking longingly out the back window as we meandered back to the highway.
I knew that look. I wore it as a kid, when I left camp — my eternally happy place.
Backcountry Lodges for Multi-Generation Hikers
Lake O’Hara — hike 11 km up an old fire road or take the bus. The bus ride makes it easy for little kids and hikers with a variety of abilities.
Skoki Lodge — hike 11 km over two passes into a remote backcountry charmer, tucked in behind Lake Louise. Strong hiking ability is key. That said, many years ago, our eight-year-old made it in.
Shadow Lake Lodge —Hike or bike up a 14 km fire road, just west of Banff.
Assiniboine Lodge — Hike or take a helicopter ride into this recently renovated historic lodge and cabins. The chopper makes it easy for all ages and abilities.