Friday, August 15, 2014

The Magnetism of the Mountains

GOLDEN, BC, Canada -- Our northern cousins are as adept at Yellowstoning their treasures as we are. Routing major highways through the hearts of national parks makes it easy to love them to death.
Then, too, we blundered into Canada on the long weekend of their biggest national holiday. In the Rockies of Alberta and British Columbia, all of Canada, it seemed, was up and about.  The highway running through Kootenay National Park was a long narrow parking lot for the populace of Calgary, seeking relief from a heat wave that sent temperatures higher than those we had fled back home in New Mexico.

Visitors seeking the summit of Revelstoke on the wildflower Parkway,the ice fields of Glacier or the sun-drenched jewel that is Emerald Lake flounder in a sea of logging trucks, 18-wheelers, rental RVs and SUVs mounting kayaks and mountain bikes and canoes and camping gear. Venture onto a remote forest service road that's not on the tourist maps and you'll share it with Volvo-loads of escaped Windsorites looking for black bears, mobile drilling rigs looking for black-gold treasure, locals driving off-road vehicles at race-track speed. This is an area of brawny, beautiful mountains; of crystalline streams and trout-teeming rivers and lakes; of forests still nearly primeval.  Little wonder everyone wants their piece of it.

Although virtually all the campsites are occupied, we have a sense of peace and solitude, an island of tranquility among the trees of the Golden Eco Adventure Ranch and campground. We can walk to the vast mowed field where paragliders and other daredevils of the defy-gravity gang land after leaping off a rocky crag high on the slopes of Mount Seven.  World records for distance and speed have been set from this starting point.

Our campsite is surrounded by hundreds of miles of biking and hiking and equestrian trails.  You can ride a ski gondola almost to the summit of Kicking Horse Mountain and walk or bike down to the valley. But you'll share those trails with oodles of hard-bodied Canadians and queue up for most of the morning to get aboard that gondola. Just about everyone says the views make it worth the wait. Canada's mountain parks offer orgies of scenery that neither hordes nor rainstorms can despoil.
Time and the economy have taught the winter resort operators to become year-round destinations for tourists and vacationers. Two excellent German restaurants serve more than passable roladen, jagerspaetzle and blitz torte mit schlag to those who throng to the Kootenay Valley.

 But the culinary crown jewel of the Canadian Rockies is the Cedar House, a small, Swiss chalet-style place with a sunny side veranda overlooking Golden and Reflection Lake. Corey Fraser, trained at the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts in Vancouver, is the latest in a line of superb chefs who have kept this restaurant on Canada's finest-dining lists for years.  Like many world-class eateries, Cedar House specializes in fresh local provender, prepared with consummate care and innovation. Its salads are visual works of art that join choice local fruits and vegetables in exotic flavor marriages. Fraser prepares regional delicacies --steelhead trout from the Columbia, duck that swam on Lake Loon, grass-fed Alberta beef, free-range Invermere chicken, Vancouver scallops -- with love, imagination and subtle sauces. Even a simple creme brûlée becomes a Cezanne still life in Fraser's kitchen, garnished with razor-thin slices of apple and peach, wild strawberries and blueberries, half a scoop of rich vanilla ice cream, half a scoop of tangy raspberry sorbet and a slather of something silky and chocolate. Come hungry. Stay long.

A refugee from Stateside clings only briefly to the stereotype of the hardy Canadian as perfect custodian of ecosystems and their wild denizens. Two well-intentioned amateur ecologists opened a shelter for homeless bred-in-captivity wolves a few miles outside of Golden. Visitors pay to watch and photograph the wolves and listen to lectures about wild creatures and environmental responsibility. The chap who took our entrance fee asked where we were from.  "New Mexico," I said, "where ranchers shoot grey wolves as fast as they can be re-introduced to the area where Aldo Leopold once wrote about the 'fierce green fire' in their eyes." "We're no better here," he said.  "We hunt them legally, with no restrictions whatsoever--pregnant females, pups, all fair game.  Some places offer bounties.  Others sterilize them. You'll learn the terrible truth about us if you stay for the next lecture." We stayed.

There is considerable allure in these parts for entrepreneurial outdoorsy types to set up small businesses that leave time free for snowshoeing, skiing, hiking, hunting, fishing -- or hang gliding.  But they, too,face terrible truths about their mountain paradise.

Sandra and her husband, who have owned and managed the local general store cum gas station for ten years, are selling out and heading south.  "Last winter was the last straw for us," said Sandra.  "Thirty below, not just for a day every now and then, but for weeks at a time. The cougars had no prey in the high country so they came down here in the valley and ate livestock and family pets. All our neighbors lost dogs to the cougars." She nodded toward the aging mongrel they found abandoned in the woods nearly a decade ago. "We kept that one indoors all winter," she said.  "Next winter we'll be in a place where he and our girls can run free in safety."

We topped off our gas tank and drove back to the Golden Eco Adventure campground.  We watched a paraglider land in the field.  He was from Toronto.  "This place is unique in the world," he said.  "Perfect thermals for flying.  Our whole club membership is planning to come up here next summer for two weeks."

The mountains will be waiting for them. Man has many ways to smother them with affection, but he can't really love them to death.

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