A Sleigh Ride in Banff

Just prior to Christmas, Jean (Alex’s stepmom and Granny to the kids) declared that she wanted to do an old-fashioned sleigh ride with the girls in Banff sometime in the new year, and could she make those arrangements? Obviously, we said yes – who are we do deny a grandparent an outing with their grandkids? – and the rough plan was set.

It should be noticed that Jean has an affinity for sleigh rides. She grew up on a dairy farm northeast of Toronto, on land that has long since disappeared under the ever-expanding metropolis. Although she and Allen don’t have any farm animals in Ruskin, I’m sure she’d love to have some horses, given a chance.

The plan fermented until about January when dates were set and outings were booked. This is when specific details came into effect. First, Alex wouldn’t be going. She’s very allergic to horses (she’s been triggered even just walking around Heritage Park), which excludes her not only from the ride, but even being in the same car as the rest of us, because of the potential. And second, if you noticed the “us”, I had to come along. Although Jean is a grandparent, there’s a line where “grandparent” doesn’t qualify for “legal guardian of a minor”, apparently.

Thus it was set for early February. Which was the next problem.

This has been an usually warm winter. Here in Calgary, we can typically expect -20C weather for a good portion of December to March. We have, in fact, seen a single week of it. We usually get 1-2 metres of snow over the course of a winter; we’ve barely had 40 cm, the lowest since I moved here in 2000, and most of that fell a couple of months ago.

In fact, until Thursday, we had almost none. It’s been above zero quite a bit recently, too, which is even weirder for February, which is typically the coldest month. We had so little snow that when Jean arrived today, the first thing she said (after “hello”) was that sleigh ride for four had been cancelled … and rebooked as two sleighs of two – there’s so little snow that the horses can’t pull the bigger sleighs.

Somewhat ironically, it was snowing on our way out to Banff today, though mostly at the fringes of the mountains, just where you’re coming in, blowing snow across the highway, which is always so much fun to drive over because it’s an optical illusion between where the road is where the snow is drifting.

It was -10C when we got to Banff – a cold, but comfortable temperature. We headed for lunch at Park, our current favourite restaurant. Unlike previous trips, it was a dry one for me (which, reminder, it’s been a while since I was last there), but the ginger ale was delicious, as was the repast. As this was Granny’s Gift Day, she very graciously covered the bill.

I’ve been to Banff countless times. I’ve seen the horse-drawn carriage so much that it’s almost faded entirely into the scenery – just something you expect to see and hear, especially during the warmer months (during which we almost never go to Banff, anymore, because of the flood of tourism in recent years). But I’ve never ridden one. Even before we knew of Alex’s horse allergy, it hadn’t been a strong need. It had been considered at least a few times (by me), to take the girls out, but I’d never followed through.

But we weren’t aiming for the street carriage, we were headed to the sleighs, which are run from Banff Trail Riders, at their facility near the Cave and Basin west of the Banff townsite. This is a rather large area that you can’t easily see from the townsite, as it’s shielded by trees and parkland, and during the summer months, can have several hundred animals on site.

Banff Trail Riders is one of the largest outfitters in the world. They run all kinds of tours, including a multi-day excursion deep into Banff National Park to their very off-the-grid lodge, requiring a 40 mule “train” to carry supplies and propane tanks (the mules carrying the propane are referred to as “rocket donkeys”). During the winter, it’s only a couple of dozen, kept mostly for the sleigh rides, the rest are off to a 600-acre pasture out by Cochrane to take it easy.

There weren’t many at the barns when we arrived. This is the high point for the winter season, apparently – Valentine’s Day is ‘round the corner, and who doesn’t love a romantic sleigh ride? – but the lack of snow has caused a dearth in regular business. Nevertheless, we got checked in and waited for our sleighs to be set up.

Our two-bench sleighs (guide/wrangler in front, us in the back) were each pulled by a large white horse, both a larger stock that were originally show horses, but had retired to haul around people. I’m not sure how that’s retirement, but the life of horses has gotten quite a bit easier than their forebearers who had to work fields.

Choo Choo and I rode in one sleigh, with Jean and Monkey in the other. Despite all my warnings to dress warmly, Choo Choo had decided a hoodie would be sufficient, instead of a hat. She very quickly started to chill. And while we were given blankets for the trip, Choo Choo needed to keep it to stay warm enough.

And to be clear, the sun was out – it was a gorgeous day – though there was a biting breeze in some areas that could cut through quite a lot. Knowing it could be cold, I had bundled better, though it was barely enough.

Our sleigh route is through – wait for it – protected marshlands. Yeah, I know, it was a bit puzzling to me, too. But in the winter, said marshlands are frozen, meaning potential damage is almost eliminated. And in normal winter circumstances, it’s probably a lovely trip. However, the lack of snow meant there was little-to-no cover in some areas, causing our sleigh to regularly hit large bumps of risen, frozen earth, and some parts of the trail had to be closed entirely. The horses were given a solid workout as a result.

We stopped once about halfway through to hop down, dive into the trees, and emerge at the edge of the frozen Bow River. We could see footprints across the snow, many people believing that the river’s ice was strong enough to walk across. It’s a risky thing, especially this winter, so we stayed on the clear shores to take a look at the view, and to take a picture of the three of them (I was originally meant to come only as a photographer).

That’s when I noticed the avalanche. I’ve never seen one in person before, only in videos. I was taking a picture of the three of them with Cascade Mountain in the background, when I noticed that one of it’s steep gullies had become … hazy. There was what looked like a cloud that seemed to be falling. We all gazed in amazement at the phenomenon, safely a distance from us, before returning to the sleighs.

Finally back at the barns, we got some group pictures before retiring to the campfire to warm up a bit, have some hot chocolate and cider, before heading back into town. (I needed to make a stop to find some socks for Cathy as I work through her weekly birthday presents … but that’s another story.)

Remember that blowing snow on the way into the mountains? It was waiting for us as we headed back. Except, it had done much worse things since we had come through. Although it was -10C in Banff, it was closer to -2C just outside of the mountains. Combined with the bright sun, it had made the highway warm enough to melt the snow, which was then covered with more blowing snow. Those of you who know that this means can skip to the next paragraph, but for the rest of you, this is how you get 40 car pile-ups, because one idiot doesn’t realize the risk, zig-zags between cars because they’re impatient, loses control, and bang.

Fortunately, there wasn’t much carnage (yes, pun intended). Only a couple of cars had slid off the road, including one bus, but no injuries that we could see (though fire engines and ambulances were out) and traffic flowed fairly steadily from the Kananaskis exit, through the Stoney lands, though to Scott Lake Hill. It was slow going, but most importantly, it moved.

So at least the day ended well.

This was my first sleigh ride. 51 1/2 trips ‘round the sun to finally have one. I can’t say it was a bucket list item, but I will admit that it was fun to have, much like a hayride in the past, or even riding a horse. Though I think I’ll avoid the multi-day trip into the mountains, just yet.