RV’22.6: Banff, History, and Surroundings

On our second day in Banff, we toured our first National Historic Site. National Historic Sites are also administrated by Parks Canada, but as the name implies, they are about preserving history rather than conserving nature. It just so happened that our first NHS was the birthplace of National Parks in Canada: the Cave and Basin National Historic Site.

In 1883, a few chaps exploring for the westward-expanding Canadian railway found a cave. It was the source of a beautiful natural hot spring that aboriginal Canadians had been visiting for thousands of years. Natural hot springs were an exciting thing in health tourism in those days, and when the railway was opened, people started visiting. So many people visited that the Canadian government began to talk about how to administrate this natural area so it would be protected, for future generations to continue enjoying it. That’s how the first national park was born.

That much is very interesting, and we read about it in a museum display in the first room of the NHS. But then you turn a corner, go through a rock tunnel, and go into the actual cave where it all started.

The room was warmish, womb-like, and smelled like eggs. Daylight came in from the hole in the roof and highlighted the scabrous rock walls. This rock, called tufa, is made from the mineral deposits left by the hot springs.

After the cave, we entered the old dressing hall, an enormous stone room built right into the mountainside. It has been converted into a large exhibit about the history of Banff National Park and Parks Canada. Four enormous screens take up one wall and show a short film about the history of Parks Canada.

The displays impressed me with their honesty. They included the ways in which settler cultures, seeking to use the park for settler recreation, ignored or betrayed the indigenous inhabitants of the area. This is one of many places where we could see Parks Canada wrestling with their own Truth and Reconcilation goals.

Throughout the displays, they described the back-and-forth over the last hundred-some years as Parks Canada has shifted in its answer to the question “what are parks for?” Are they primarily for reconcilation or conservation? Who are they for? Since Canada is such an enormous country, with enormous natural resources, this is part of a larger question: what is Canada for? What kind of country do we want Canada to be? How do we want to conserve and enjoy it? The exhibit concluded with an opportunity to write your own ideas, have your picture taken, and post your picture on a wall. That was a pretty brilliant way to make visitors feel they were being brought into the broader conversation.

Outside, you can see where the pool used to be. Despite repeated renovations, it became impossible to maintain, so they bricked it in a while ago.

At the end of the pool, you can see the basin. It’s another hot springs area. Here there were some park staff who kindly interpreted lots of what we were seeing. The girls connected with one staff member, Pradnaya, who cheerfully answered all their questions.

It’s a pretty unique little ecosystem. The kids learn about the water cycle in school, but here there’s a different water cycle. Snowmelt and rain enters the earth through the many fissures caused by the tumultuous earth history that created these mountains. The water gets hotter and hotter as it goes into the earth, until about 3 km down, where it reaches the boiling point. Then it shoots back up out other fissures into the many hot springs in the mountains. Along the way it picks up lots of minerals from the rocks, including sulphur, which makes the eggy smell when it hits the oxygen in the air at the surface. There’s an endangered species of snail here that only lives in this funky water and nowhere else in the world.

Climb to the upper observing decks, and you get a wonderful view of the mountains.

Dooner looks like she’s saying “wow!” But really she’s yelling at me because she’s sick of having her picture taken.

Turn around the other way, and a boardwalk takes you into the woods above the cave. There are other springs up here, and swampy areas laden with minerals.

This is a stream, with a bed of rich waterweed, all coated in the white mineral deposits that come from the water. I could have sat there and watched it move for hours.

Cave and Basin was a very special place. It made us excited to visit more National Historic Sites, so we beelined for the next one, just a few kilometers away: The Banff Museum.

This building, which hasn’t changed much in over a hundred years, is full of natural history study in the late Victorian style, meaning: taxidermy. The Xplore books were a particular help here, as they helped the kids to really look and engage with what otherwise might have glazed them over as a bunch of museum displays without context. There was also a thoughtful exhibit on climate change. This included some fascinating ideas about what the future of the parks might be as the climate grows warmer, both for worse and for better, and (be still my beating heart) the new field of snowmelt archaeology.

After our day exploring these two sites, we took to the road again to explore areas of interest that weren’t right near the town of Banff. A local must-see is Lake Louise, about forty minutes from town. To our surprise, it was still quite frozen. I don’t mind; the color of frozen lake in the spring is my favorite. There was so much snow, in fact, that most of the trails were still closed. But we could still walk the lakefront a little bit, and see the glacier at the far end of the lake.

There wasn’t much to do, but there were still a lot of people. Sisko got his fill of socializing, and plenty of people got their fill of him! The girls got to touch the lake water – their books asked, how cold is the water? But of course it was cold, it was mostly frozen. This would have been more impressive on a hot day, when the glaciermelt means it’s still cold.

From Lake Louise, we drove a little further west, across the border into British Columbia. Our destination there was Yoho National Park. This wasn’t on our radar originally, but the Burgess Shale exhibit at the Royal Tyrrell Museum was so impressive that I wanted to get close to it for myself.

Yoho seemed incredibly quiet after the business of Banff and the crowds at Lake Louise. The staff at the visitors’ center took their time to get to know us and made some excellent suggestions about how we could spend our short visit. Here as well, many things were closed because it was still avalanche season, but a few day use areas had just opened up. We made our way down to one almost at the end of the main road that snakes through the park.

The water was, in mid-May, about the same temperature as Sandy Lake outside of Rankin is in August. That is to say, you step into it and your feet go immediately numb. Pretty much nothing can keep Stringbean out of the water, though, so she was in up to her waist! No thanks, says me. The other two played in the sand, which ended in Dooner burying her precious park dogtags, and then forgetting where they were. What followed was a half hour of sand-trawling until Jared finally found them. Good grief.

It was starting to rain by the time we headed back. We couldn’t get close to the mountain where the Burgess Shale deposits were; the trails were closed, and anyway the only way to actually get to the dig is on an all-day guided hike only open to those aged 8 and up. That may be on my bucket list. Apparently, billions-of-years-old fossils are as thick as weeds up there. Anyway, I snapped a picture of the mountain on our way by.

Yoho was one of my favorite places that I’d like to return to. Even in the busier parts of the year, it wouldn’t be nearly as crowded as Banff, and there’s lots of glorious hiking and mountain climbing to do.

We packed a lot of fun into a couple of days, and were starting to wear ourselves out! But we weren’t done with Banff, not quite yet.


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