Taking family travel to new heights

Photo by Toque & Canoe

Not every trip unfolds into a rare and transformative experience.

Occasionally, though, an adventure can profoundly impact a traveller’s perception of what is possible in the world.

Kayaking with orcas off Canada’s West Coast was a game-changer for me, as was jetting to northern Manitoba with Toque & Canoe co-founder Jennifer Twyman for what we would describe as the amuse-bouche of Arctic travel.

Most recently, a visit to Assiniboine Lodge, along with my husband and children, ranks similarly. Here’s why. —Kim Gray

 

Photo by Nick Banbury

Photo by Nick Banbury

 

HELICOPTER TRAVEL IS THE BEST

They say outstanding family trips are, aside from memorable meals, what kids remember most from their childhood.

If that’s the case, we lucked out big time when our family adventured to the historic Assiniboine Lodge on a recent Family Day long weekend.

With rented touring skis in tow and backpacks bursting with warm base layers, we helicoptered (not our usual mode of travel) from just outside of Canmore, Alberta into B.C’s Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park.

From the moment we lifted off—helicopter blades whirring, gusts of snow blowing in all directions and head phones clutching our ears—this expedition would repeatedly reveal itself as one of the sweetest trips we’ve experienced as a family.

 

Photo by Toque & Canoe

Photo by Toque & Canoe

 

MOUNTAIN MAGIC AND A MINI LOG CABIN

Just as it’s not every day you hop into a helicopter to get from A to B, it’s not your average night when you bed down in a cozy log cabin perched in the shadow of a mountain as breath-catchingly beautiful as Mount Assiniboine.

Often referred to as Canada’s Matterhorn, this extraordinary peak has such a magnetic presence that it’s hard to tear your gaze away.

To paint a picture, you’ve got this cabin, and you’ve got this enchanting mountain and then, once the sun has gone down, you’ve got a night-time sky literally blanketed with stars.

I was unable to replicate this glittering sky with my camera but luckily, you’ve got folks like Hannes Nitzsche @randomlightsphoto who do a fine job of capturing the magic of the region.

The whole snow-crusted package that comes with a visit to Assiniboine purrs backcountry Canadiana—right down to the black-and-red-plaid wool blankets conveniently scattered throughout the main lodge and guest cabins.

As parents, we relished watching our rosy-cheeked teenagers soak up this unique and wild environment—an off-the-grid corner of Canada that’s been an ongoing tradition for outdoorsy adventurers since 1928.

 

Photo by Toque & Canoe

Photo by Toque & Canoe

 

AVALANCHE TRAINING AND THE SCIENCE OF SNOW

Our adventure began with an intensive avalanche training course that involved learning about transceivers (or beacons), probes (long, skinny aluminum poles) and shovels (in case excavation, gulp, was ever necessary).

As a mother, this was both reassuring and sobering.

I’ve often been criticized by my kids for being too much of a “safety mom.” So, as expected, I appreciated having competent instructors who cautioned us that, in the backcountry, anything is possible.

Preparation is critical if an avalanche occurs. Rescuers, we learned, must be able to locate someone buried in snow in the shortest amount of time possible.

Andre Renner and Claude Duchesne—the lead operators of the lodge and our trusty guides for the weekend—are passionate outdoorsmen and excellent teachers, so when they spoke, we listened, humbled by how much there is to learn about the science of snow.

(To give you an idea of just how complex the topic can be, check out the extensive glossary of snow terms at Avalanche-Centre.org or explore Avalanche Canada’s online courses).

To my relief, our newfound knowledge required no practical application.

Over the course of our stay, however, we would hear avalanches spontaneously release with a thunderous boom in the distance—more than ample excitement for this “safety mom.”

 

Photo by Nick Banbury

Photo by Nick Banbury

 

BACKCOUNTRY RHYTHM AND BLISS

As a family, we’re decent alpine and nordic skiers. But none of us had ski toured before our trip into Assiniboine.

For the uninitiated, ski touring involves putting skins on your skis (keeping your heels loose much like cross-country skiing) so you can climb mountains and explore otherwise difficult-to-access wilderness areas.

Once you reach your mountain top (this is the best part), you get to do an about face, click your boots into the bindings, as you would with alpine gear, and then fly like the wind back down.

The fact that you’re skiing down a mountain you just climbed makes for a profound sense of accomplishment, and a near-ecstatic experience.

One morning at the lodge, our children opted to hang back together with their books, art supplies and the company of friendly staff—who, by the way, were amazing with kids, even staying up late at night with them and playing summer camp-like games in the dining room.

Some guests chose snowshoeing as an option for the day. Others headed out into the crisp morning air on a cross-country ski adventure. My husband and I opted to join Andre and a handful of others for a ski touring expedition.

Our slow, methodic climb up a nearby mountain (above photo)—capped with a picnic lunch and a bird’s-eye view of the Canadian Rockies—finished with a dreamy, extended tree ski back to the lodge (photo below).

 

Photo by Nick Banbury

Photo by Nick Banbury

 

I’ve skied my entire life and never have I experienced the freedom I felt on this day.

Fresh mountain air. A ridiculous grin pasted on my face. And a tail of champagne powder spraying in my wake.

A day like this in the mountains means an extra week of living tacked onto the end of your life. I’m sure of it.

 

Photo by Toque & Canoe

Photo by Toque & Canoe

 

THE LODGE AND HER PEOPLE

Our days at Assiniboine had a comforting rhythm: rise early for hearty breakfasts in the dining room, pack a lunch for your daily outdoor adventure, and then get physical like never before.

Before dinner (how about beef tenderloin, truffle potatoes and honey carrots with romantic white forest cake for dessert?)—guests would gather in the library and swap tales of their day or read quietly by the main window.

I know my children enjoyed meeting this gang of new people: the young lawyer, the medical school student and her mom, a tango dancer and his new fiancee, a couple of work mates originally from Britain.

But none of us knew how much we had bonded with everyone, including the lodge staff who cared for us like we were family, until it came time to leave.

It was actually tough saying goodbye.

 

Photo by Nick Banbury

Photo by Nick Banbury

 

UNTIL WE MEET AGAIN

I’m confident we’ll each hold our Assiniboine experience dear.

Me? I’m thinking of my daughter curled up beneath a blanket in the lodge library and peacefully sketching a scene outside the window.

I’m thinking of the excitement on my son’s face as he helped Claude run luggage from the lodge to an idling helicopter before our journey back to Alberta.

And I’m recalling the look I exchanged with my husband when all was said and done— a look acknowledging that we as parents are to some degree the architects of our children’s lives.

A look that said we took this remarkable trip together, as a family, and we won’t forget it.

 

Photo by Nick Banbury

Photo by Nick Banbury

 

*To learn more about Assiniboine Lodge, visit their website. Or call Sandy Wing for lodge availability at 1.403.678.2883. You can also e-mail Sandy at [email protected]

*Cheers to Icebreaker for keeping our writer warm in incomparably soft merino wool base layers. A special thanks to Canmore, Alberta’s Gear Up for patiently educating us about our touring gear rentals. And a warm shout out to our partners in tourism, who helped make this article possible but did not review or edit our post before publication.

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