Hunched into a contortionist’s position, wrestling a fitted sheet on to the third top bunk, I comfort myself by thinking “Still easier than setting up a campsite!”
We are setting up our base in the cozy HI Nordegg-Shunda Creek hostel, which, if you ask me, is a perfect compromise if you have people in your family who love camping and the outdoors, and someone in your family who is reasonable (not naming any names!) It is a straight-forward trip from which ever direction you are coming, but a bit off the beaten path, making a great spot if you don’t want to compete with thousands of tourists, but don’t want to do off-grid entirely.
David Thompson Country (where Nordegg is located) in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains is known for hiking and outdoor pursuits. The boundary for Banff National Park is less than 100 km from Nordegg, but the area is far less popular than the nearby Mountain Parks, and feels a bit “undiscovered.” I am hopelessly devoted to the Rockies, and any year I haven’t visited is a sad year indeed, but with free admission at National Parks and the resultant masses clamouring for a piece of them in 2017, a quieter spot outside of the Parks was a welcome change. Nordegg hits that sweet spot with the natural beauty and opportunities for outdoor activities like in the more popular tourist areas, but with a special feeling that you have uncovered a hidden gem.
Taking a hike from the hostel is a way to spend as much time in the woods as you like. The effects of a massive forest fire in 2013 are evident in spots where charred logs still lie where they fell, and in the soft green new growth that has taken root since then. Hardcore hikers can set out for the whole day on challenging terrain (you can borrow bear spray from the front office at the hostel—yikes!) or choose a more leisurely route for an hour or two. The hostel also has a baby carrier guests can use to bring the littlest hikers along. For an idea of routes, check out Hiking with Barry and Alltrails.
If you’d rather be by—or in—the water, there are several lakes in easy driving distance from the hostel. We spent an afternoon rambling around the Fish Lake Provincial Recreation Area. We didn’t find a sandy beach area to set out the beach chairs we lugged from the car, but the boys did still make it for a little swim. There is access to the water through little clearings through the trees from the rocky pathway all around, and a dock you could jump off into the crisp clear water if you were braver than I am. Despite the 20 degree and partially cloudy weather, and in true tough Canadian child fashion the kids braved the chilly water, teeny fish flashing in the sun and skirting around their legs. It wasn’t exactly beach weather if you ask me, but perfect for walking around the trails.
About the only holiday balance you won’t find here is town and country. Don’t come looking for an urban getaway! Two late evening arrivals at the hostel looking for groceries lucked into the pizza leftovers of another group for supper, as our host explained with a shy smile their chances of finding anything open were “Not much.”
But making its way back from bona fide ghost town status is the hamlet of Nordegg (now with TWO gas stations!) At its height, the town of Nordegg was a bustling coal mining town, bursting with up to 2,500 people in its heyday, all connected to the Brazeau Collieries Coal Mine and later briquette factory in some way. The railroad companies were the main purchaser of the coal, and everyone lived in relative prosperity, black lung notwithstanding. However, by the 1950s up to 90% of the coal powered locomotives on the rails had switched to diesel and the demand for coal plummeted. The mine, and subsequently the town, was deserted. Now, spurred on by the oil and gas industry and by the burgeoning tourism scene, things are starting to pick up a bit. I mentioned the second gas station? I’m only being a bit facetious. The fact that Shell is setting up shop is a good indication of anticipated money to be made! There is also a playground in the last stages of being built and mountain biking terrain park outside the Nordegg Heritage Centre.
The Nordegg Heritage Centre is worth a visit for several reasons: a small museum summarizing the history of the area, a charming gift shop, and the Miner’s Café (renowned for its homemade pie.) On the day we visited we tried the bright flavours of the blackberry apple and strawberry rhubarb. As a born and bred Prairie girl, I am genetically required to opt for rhubarb whenever it is presented, but it was a tough thing to leave the coconut cream and the maple pecan unsampled.
The centre is also the spot from where the guided tours of the Brazeau Collieries depart. The two hour tours (one of the auxiliary buildings of the mine, the other of the briquette factory) alternate mornings and afternoons during the summer season. Our guide was very engaging, patiently answering myriad questions, and I found the tour far more interesting than I had guessed it would be. My eight year old was bitterly disappointed our agenda (nor the patience of our five year old) would allow us to take the second tour in the afternoon. We left only under solemn promises to return next spring specifically to tour the briquette factory. Even if you don’t fancy yourself much of a history buff, the tour is worth your time. The juxtaposition of rusting out machinery and buildings slowly being reclaimed by nature with the forest and the distant mountains is stunning.
We finished off our not quite mountain, not quiet back-county, not quite camping trip with a thoroughly peaceful evening back at the hostel. The end of summer is the start of shoulder season, so we missed the stifling hot days, but enjoyed our time well before the snow flies. Although some of the businesses in Nordegg are seasonal, including the tours at the mine, the HI Nordegg is open year round, and I imagine it would be a charming spot to spend a cozy winter retreat. There is ice-fishing and cross country skiing in the winter at Fish Lake, and the snow shoeing would be excellent. I might almost convince myself about the joys of striking the perfect off mountain winter getaway balance! Almost.
Many thanks to Hostelling International and the Brazeau Collieries for hosting my family. Opinions are, as ever, my own.