The Icefields Parkway and the Num-Ti-Jah Lodge – Alberta Rockies …
twork by Lily Azerad-Goldman
The Drive Along the Icefields Parkway
Pardon my slang when I say, “you ain’t seen nothing yet” until you have motored along The Icefields Parkway, sometimes referred to as “the wonder trail” and one of the most scenic mountain routes in the world stretching from Banff to Jasper in the heart of the Alberta Rockies.
As we drove along this incredible parkway, I wondered how it felt during the height of the economic depression in 1931 to have been employed as part of a relief project, and paid the paltry sum of twenty cents a day to use picks, shovels, horses and a few tractors to construct a single lane gravel road extending 143 miles through some of the roughest terrain in Canada. It took nine years to finally open this highway that today is one of the most popular and scenic in Alberta, and which over a million people drive on each year.
The Breathtaking Sights
Driving through the snow-capped parkway requires a special pass, as its primary objective was and still is to provide a scenic drive and not a transportation corridor. In fact, you will not see any large trucks on the road, although you will see many tour buses, RVs, cyclists, and, if you are fortunate, much wildlife. After all, it is their home you are entering and it is not uncommon to come across over two hundred and fifty species of birds, grizzlies, black bears, coyotes, wolves, elk, deer, mountain goats, bighorn sheep and many others wandering around the glacier-fed rivers, flowing streams, thundering waterfalls, or near lakes, rivers and valleys. They may even be taking a leisurely walk along the parkway so be very careful if you do come in contact with these animals and remember to stay a fair distance away. If you are driving this parkway during the winter months beware that this is avalanche territory and from time to time the roads are closed.
The name Icefields Parkway is very appropriate, as you will be able to view the seven mesmerizing icefields or large upland glaciers and approximately twenty-five small ones dating back to the ice age.
You won’t want to miss the most famous destination along the parkway, the one hundred and twenty five square mile ice cap known as the Columbia Icefield – one of the largest accumulations of ice south of the Arctic Circle, and a remnant of the huge icefields that at one time covered Alberta.
It is this glacier that feeds rivers flowing into the Atlantic, Pacific and Artic Oceans.
Favorite stopping points along the way, and ones we enjoyed and strongly recommend are: Bow Summit, the highest point along the parkway and probably provides you with the one of the most magnificent mountain panoramas in the world, Peyto Lake, Sunwapta Falls, Athabasca Falls, Hector Lake, where you will discover a typical lake formed in a glacial basin, Upper Waterfowl Lake and Weeping Wall.
The highlight of our drive was experiencing the Ice Explorer Ride or “snocoach” that brought us up to the surface of the Athabasca Glacier.
At one time the Athabasca Glacier and the Columbia Icefield formed an enormous ice sheet carving the landforms of the Rocky Mountains. As our driver guide informed us, today this glacier moves at a pace of two inches a day or fifty feet a year down the mountain valley.
The “snocoach” vehicles, with their huge wheels, are able to ride the surface of a glacier, and trust me when I say it is quite a thrill to ride on the surface. These tours are open from the beginning of May to mid-October.
You can also experience the glacier on foot; however, it is highly recommended that you do so with an experienced guide, otherwise you may find yourself falling into a crevasse.
Historic Romantic Lodging Along the Icefields Parkway: Num-Ti-Jah Lodge
A very convenient lodge along the parkway and about half way between Banff and Jasper is the rustic and historic Num-Ti-Jah Lodge. This establishment is the only one located on the beautiful shores of Bow Lake, and was built by one of Canada’s legendary figures, pioneer guide and outfitter, Jimmy Simpson. Even a mountain was named after Jimmy called Mount Simpson.
Bow Lake Beauty
In 1898, when this great Canadian mountain man camped at Bow Lake, he promised himself that one-day he would return and build his own shack. It was twenty-five years later that he did in fact return, leased five acres of land from the Parks Branch and built the first log cabin on the site that also served as his permanent base for outfitting tours. If you are wondering what Num-Ti-Jah means, it is a Stoney Indian word for a small animal, similar to a sable called pine marten.
It was not until 1937, when the parkway between Banff and Bow Lake was completed, that the Simpson family began building their lodge. From six rooms in 1940, it expanded to twenty-five in 1950, and today, although it is no longer owned by the Simpsons, little has changed, for much of the lodge has been preserved. It still has twenty-five rooms, some of which share bathrooms. Don’t expect to find a telephone or television in any of the rooms, and this is what makes the lodge noteworthy. Guests are offered a true mountain experience living within a Rocky Mountain culture. As the personnel of the lodge had indicated to me, all that we need at the end of the day is shelter for the night, a hearty meal and a warm bed.
After staying a few nights at the lodge, we could well understand why honeymooners love this place, particularly if they are the outdoor type or enjoy history and seclusion.
The lodge is an excellent starting point for as many as fifteen hikes from beginners to advanced levels. There is also the moonlight walk along the shoreline of Bow Lake, something we enjoyed immensely. During the winter Alpine and Nordic skiing is very close at hand as well as showshoeing.
As for dining, the lodge offers their nightly signature Fireside Dining Experience consisting of a five-course table d’hôte menu that changes daily. Diners start off with an informal appetizer held in the library of the lodge, followed by a plated entrée and ending with a chocolate fondue.
Many an intimate wedding has been celebrated at the lodge, and according to Lee O’Donnell, the lodge’s manager, all are unique. They prefer to have the couples stage their own events by having them schedule such activities as hiking, trips in and around the parkway, and even polar bear dips.
If the weather holds up, there is nothing more beautiful than the ceremony outdoors with Bow Lake and the blue ice of Crowfoot Glacier as a backdrop.
Jimmy Simpson may have summed up what the Num-Ti-Jah Lodge is all about when he stated: “There is absolutely nothing in the city to give us the same feeling as the great, mysterious things of nature though they be stone and ice. It is only among them that we feel the utter helplessness and insignificance of ourselves.”
If you want more information about this area you can email the author or check out our North America Insiders page.