Outdoors in Maine: A breathtaking, jaw-dropping trip to Banff

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Banff, that fabled alpine village in the midsection of the Canadian Rockies, has been on my wife Diane’s bucket list for many years. Flying to Salt Lake City, we rented a car and drove to Butte and Great Falls, Montana, on up to Calgary, Alberta, and then West into Banff National Park.

This was not our first rodeo when it comes to gawking at impressive Western vistas. The Grand Tetons in Wyoming and the Flattops in Colorado were something to see, especially in late September when the golden aspens set off the spiraling firs and lodge pole pine that cascade their way up to the gray rock and snow-capped peaks.

Frankly, Banff was never on my list. As far as I know you can’t hunt elk or mule deer there, at least not in August. But I do like mountains and big sky country.

A piece of cake getting across the border, especially when compared with 20 years ago during an Ontario crossing when the Crown almost jailed me for having a can of bear spray in my fishing vest. Route I-15 from Salt Lake City to the north Montana border is a dream highway: smooth as silk and speed limit 80 mph.

Nothing — not Maine’s Mt. Katahdin, the Grand Tetons, or the Beaver Flattops in Colorado — can prepare you for your introductory eye-blinking, jaw-dropping, double-taking confrontation with these mountains called the Canadian Rockies.

Along the Trans-Canada highway northbound all the way to Jasper National Park in northern Alberta there are mammoth mountains, glaciers and vistas that enthrall you with no letup. Every twist and turn is a photo op and an obligatory turn-out for picture taking and contemplation, spiritual or otherwise.

Not since we beheld the Grand Canyon on a windless day at sunrise have Diane and I ever been so moved, so utterly swallowed up by the magnitude and natural extravagance of our surroundings. The only other word that comes to mind, when trying to describe these imposing works of nature, is gravitas. In their grand dignity and splendid solemnity, these mountains overpower and remind you of your relative insignificance in the grand scheme of things.

According to the brochures, the Canadian Rockies were 35 million years in the making. There is a geological explanation for their formation, which has something to do with sedimentation and shifting plates. (Dr. Bornes, my college geological professor, spelled this out in detail years ago. I didn’t understand it then and I still don’t.)

If breathtaking vistas are your thing, find a way to see the Canadian Rockies while there is time. We saw many tour buses. There is also a train trip. Given the quality of the attraction, car traffic wasn’t bad. The souvenir shops in Banff were too chaotic for my taste, but gas prices are lower in the West and it takes a lot less time in the West to get from, say, Butte to Bozeman on smooth wide-open highways than it does to get, say, from Princeton to Topsfield on remnants of what were once passable highways.

We were able to keep trip costs down somewhat by sleeping in a two-man mountain tent at park campsites along the way and cooking on a one-burner pack stove. Yes, at our age, this minimalist camping got old fast. We did cheat and hit a motel every three or four days for a hot shower and a soft bed.

Finally, to our delight, we found the Western Canadians to be as cordial, polite and helpful as their gentile national counterparts in the Canadian Maritimes.

If you are looking to add a place to your bucket list, do consider the Canadian Rockies. You won’t regret it.

The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He is also a Maine guide and host of a weekly radio program, “Maine Outdoors,” heard at 7 p.m. Sundays on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network. He has authored three books; online purchase information is available at www.maineoutdoorpublications

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