Helicopter Parenting at Assiniboine Park
Forty-two years ago, the writer visited Assiniboine Lodge and it didn’t go so well. He returns to find a place that’s both different and the same as he remembered.
Sunshine glances off the turquoise ripples of Lake Magog as I trudge along the trail with my older brother, the peaked roof of Assiniboine Lodge now visible like a brush stroke of red at the far end of the lake. Fatigued from a long day in the mountains, I slip into a meditative state and with each step sift through the memories of my first visit to this place. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I was far too young then to appreciate this rugged truism, and besides, my belly grumbled with a hunger that eclipsed the astonishing beauty of our surroundings.
Nuclear families are not democracies; they’re autocracies. It was 1972 and as usual, being the runt of the Findlays, I had been swept along obliviously on another epic family backpacking trip, this time into the heart of Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park. Mount Assiniboine, with its classic pyramidal geometry, is known as the “Matterhorn of the Canadian Rockies,” and people have been drawn to this mountain region straddling the B.C.-Alberta border for almost a century, ever since the Canadian Pacific Railway built Assiniboine Lodge in 1928. This historic lodge and neighbouring Lake Magog, which shimmers at the foot of the Canadian Matterhorn have been the subjects of a million postcard snaps and countless amateur and professional artistic renderings, but it was all lost on a six-year-old. After the 28-kilometre slog into Lake Magog from the Smith Dorrien Highway, Assiniboine represented to me the ultimate privation that could be visited upon a child: an empty stomach.
You see, my dear mom and dad had miscalculated the amount of freeze-dried rations needed to feed a hiking family of two adults and four kids. Two nights into our trip, stores were already running thin, and all we could do was salivate like kids locked out of a chocolate shop and watch as well-fed Assiniboine Lodge guests waddled through flower-dappled meadows with cameras and field guides in hand. The Findlays were not lodge dwellers; my dad, a stoic Scotsman, was a dedicated backpacker committed to the carry-on-your-back-everything-you-need-to-survive philosophy. Eventually, in order to preserve calm and sustain a hungry family, he swallowed his pride and traipsed over to Assiniboine Lodge to ask if it would be possible to buy a meal or two. He wasn’t looking for charity, just some seats at the table. However, he was met by Erling Strom, the legendary Norwegian who had managed Assiniboine Lodge for decades and who, in some ways, treated the whole park as his personal fiefdom. Peons like us who chose to dwell in tents at the provincial park campground were often afforded a measure of disdain, even contempt. Needless to say, my dad’s plea for a place in the dining room, or at least for a few scraps from the pantry, was met with a perfunctory no and a quickly closing door.
Thankfully, a trail maintenance crew camped nearby took pity on us and parted with a few tins of chicken, which, as repulsive as it sounds now, must have tasted like three Michelin stars to the ravenous Findlay brood. Of course, I survived to participate in many more family hiking adventures, and my youthful short-term memory allowed me to quickly forgive my parents.
Despite the psychological trauma of my early visit, Assiniboine Park hasn’t lost its allure. More than 30 years later I have returned with my brother and a few friends to climb the park’s namesake mountain, which tops out at 3,618 metres. After a night at the R.C. Hind Hut, a cramped Quonset tethered to rocks at the base of the peak, we shuffle into pre-dawn half-darkness following a quick instant-coffee-and-porridge breakfast. We luck out, finding the mountain in almost perfectly dry late summer condition, except for a layer-cake frosting of snow on the upper third of the sedimentary massif. Calm blue skies bless our ascent of the sixth-highest peak in the Canadian Rockies and, by late that afternoon, we are already strolling through meadows of Indian paintbrush and shrubby cinquefoil next to the impossible turquoise of Lake Magog, just four hours earlier having stood atop Assiniboine, which now towers almost 1.5 vertical kilometres above us. When we arrive at Assiniboine Lodge, the reception we get is the polar opposite of what the Findlays experienced so long ago. In 1983 Herr Strom passed the torch to Sepp and Barb Renner, who managed the lodge until 2010, when they, too, handed over the reins, this time to son Andre, who was basically raised in this incredible mountainscape. Today, he manages it along with business partners Claude Duchesne and Annick Blouin. (Annick is the lodge’s longtime chef.) We are just in time for the guides’ meeting, shorthand for staff happy hour. The sun is setting, casting Assiniboine in an alpenglow that has enraptured countless others before us. The clink of ice in gin-and-tonic tumblers punctuates the laughter and chatter. Places like Assiniboine have a way of clutching the soul; it took me more than three decades to come back, but I knew I would eventually, this time on a full stomach.
There are three ways to get to Assiniboine Lodge—by a quick helicopter trip from either Canmore or Mt. Shark, cross-country skiing (in winter) or a hike (in summer), trekking in along the 27.5-kilometre trail over gorgeous Assiniboine Pass. The lodge welcomes an eclectic mix of five-star travellers and diehard outdoorsy types brought together by a shared love for this iconic property and its surroundings. Once there, you have your choice of staying in the lodge or in the slightly more rustic cabins. Guided hikes are available during the day, and an après-adventure sauna will help soothe aching calves and quads. assiniboinelodge.com
Old School, New School Gear
Look like a weathered Swiss mountaineer when slicing into that manchego with this limited-edition Damascus Explorer knife from Victorinox. swissarmy.com
Wool has all the sweat-wicking properties of man-made fibre but none of the ungodly stench. This merino half-zip is built for the multi-day excursion. icebreaker
Hudson GTX Mid boots from Lowa look great with lederhosen, and their rubber soles will stick to whatever face of the Eiger you choose to scale. altitude-sports