Across Canada by Car

Road tripping through the Canadian Rockies in search of a polar bear


Plan Outdoor Time

My idea of "outdoor time" during a road trip normally revolves around gas stops and rest stops. Preferably, they are the same thing. But on the most mythic road trips, one builds time into each drive for play. Think, for instance, of On the Road. Which is why over lunch, Calene and I perused a list of outdoor activities in Banff.

Banff is a ski town in the winter and a tourist attraction all year, thanks to its artsy and welcoming feel. Its annual film festival is world-renowned. The Bow River, which has a deep blue color thanks to a preponderance of glacial flour, runs through town, adding the tranquil vibe that accompanies running water.

When Calene and I visited on our honeymoon, it seemed that the only outdoor activity was hiking. But soon we discovered a mountaintop gondola ride, hot springs, whitewater rafting, mountain biking, a national historic site, shopping and just plain people watching. Calene and I opted to rent mountain bikes and spent a few hours bumping through the forest singletrack.

By the time we got back in the car and headed down the highway, I found myself wondering and anticipating what lay ahead, rather than staring at the map and dreading the miles between our current location and our hotel. All these years, I thought I knew how to road trip, only to learn I'd been doing it all wrong.

Avoid Normal

The hotel our second night was the rugged Num-ti-Jah Lodge on the shores of mighty Bow Lake. ( It was an hour and a half northwest of Banff, but a hundred years back in time. When Jimmy Simpson, a red-haired mountain man, first camped on that spot in 1898, he thought it the most beautiful spot in the world and vowed to "build a shack there" someday. Simpson did better than that. By the time it was completed in 1950, it featured a stone-and-log construction and 25 very utilitarian guest rooms.

Calene and I slept in a Spartan room looking out onto the emerald lake. Out the window, we could see the paw of an enormous glacier dangling from the cliffs ringing the icy cold waters. The food in the Elkhorn Lodge dining room, where moose and elk heads hung on the walls, was nothing but gourmet. Entrees included fine Alberta beef and local venison, and the broad wine list featured vintages from around the world.

But the lodge's greatest allure was its isolation. There was no phone or TV in the room, and checking email was out of the question. The greatest amusement of the evening was when a moose lumbered by outside, and we all went out to have a look. At bedtime, Calene and I piled on an extra blanket to keep out the chill night air, and fell asleep listening to the sound of a cold Arctic wind battering our windowpanes.

I have to admit that left to my own devices I would never have chosen the Num-ti-Jah Lodge. I would have made reservations at someplace more chain or upscale in Banff, or even down the road in Lake Louise.

The same would hold true for our lunch destination the next day. From the outside, the Baker Creek Bistro looked like a camper's store. The food, however, was incredible, fresh local ingredients cooked to perfection. There's a lot to be said for avoiding normal, and taking a chance on character and charm.

Take the Back Roads

Day Three was the last day of our trip. We would head into Lake Louise and then drive back to Calgary. Rather than remain on the Trans-Canadian and aim directly toward Lake Louise, we followed the slower but more beautiful Highway 93 as it meandered through the forest. We sacrificed speed but gained immeasurably in local charm.

The smaller road twisted and turned, passing through dense thickets of pine and allowing us to see wildlife standing along the road.  Calene and I lost all track of time, and even a sense of the drive itself. Our banter was witty and knowing, a reminder of how much better we knew each other and how much our love had grown since our honeymoon. I will always remember that day--gliding down that road, my beautiful brown-eyed wife at my side and the music turned down low so we could talk. 

Eventually, we pulled into Lake Louise. The lake was just like we remembered--a cobalt jewel nestled between two soaring peaks. Calene and I hiked the steep graded trail in the forest above the lake, putting off that inevitable moment when we would wander back into the Chateau Lake Louise to see if, by some extraordinary chance, there might still be Lladro polar bears for sale.

There weren't.

But you know it didn't really matter. The road trip had been romantic and charming and wonderful in a way that we could not have imagined. Someday, I will find one of those bears and place it upon our mantel. But until then, it is as good an excuse as any to take a road trip, telling ourselves all the while that we are searching for a ceramic bear when in fact we are looking for each other.

Martin Dugard is an Active Expert and the New York Times bestselling author of Chasing Lance (Little, Brown, 2005). Contact him at

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