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Cozy Inn Canada

Sharing Christmas At A Ski-in Wilderness Lodge

December 15, 1996|MARGO PFEIFF | Pfeiff is a freelance writer who lives in Quebec, Canada

BANFF NATIONAL PARK, Canada — Slipping on my backpack and back-country skis, I set off in bright morning sunshine through fresh powder snow toward remote Skoki, one of the oldest ski lodges in the Canadian Rockies. It was the 23rd of December last year as I left behind the bustling downhill slopes of the Lake Louise ski area and began the gradual ascent on a well-packed trail toward 8,120-foot Deception Pass. The pass, situated about 5 1/2 miles into the 6 1/2-mile trip to Skoki, is the highest point on the route.

In winter, the only way in to the lodge, nestled in the middle of the wilderness in Banff National Park, is on skis; the nearest town, the scenic village of Lake Louise, is more than 15 miles away.

I had hiked in to Skoki three years ago in summer. But this time the mountains were snow-draped, and I was on my way to spend a traditional Christmas in a log lodge with neither electricity nor running water, deep within the park. It would be an old-fashioned holiday like those my grandmother used to tell me about, when she was young in Germany. I thought of the gifts I had wrapped and packed in my backpack for my traveling companion, Philip, who charged up the trail ahead of me.

Back-country lodges are, by definition, secluded places that often require some effort to reach. Most of them don't have telephones; some don't have electricity. Stepping into them is a return to a simpler past, accompanied by the sensation of living in the wilderness (yet in relative luxury), nestled beneath white peaks and surrounded by deep snow.

There are about a dozen of these isolated lodges in the Canadian Rockies, but very few are open during the Christmas and New Year's season. Most open for winter skiing in late January or early February. Besides Skoki (which opens briefly for Christmas from Dec. 22 to Jan. 4, then reopens Jan. 24), two other lodges in the Banff region share Christmas with their guests. One, Shadow Lake Lodge, is 12 miles west of the town of Banff and requires a nine-mile ski in. Mt. Engadine Lodge, just south of Banff National Park, can easily be reached by car.

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After two hours of gentle uphill climbing, Philip and I reached the summit of Boulder Pass (7,035 feet); from there we could see the climb we would have to make to Deception Pass. We stripped off a layer of clothing as we steamed in the cold air from the climb.

Although it's a bit of a climb from the trail head to Skoki Lodge, anyone with moderate cross-country and downhill ski experience should be able to make it to the lodge without too much trouble; even kids tackle the trip. En route we met a couple of 12-year-olds who, though inexperienced, easily passed us on the uphill stretch.

Although I had skied cross-country for three years, this was my first back-country trip. I was using back-country skis and boots rather than the conventional cross-country gear since the former have a metal edge that allows more control on the descents, much like downhill skis. I also bought extra-large baskets for my ski poles to keep them from disappearing into the deep powder on the sides of the packed trail. And they were especially good for support when the inevitable spill sent me tumbling into waist-deep drifts. (Back-country ski gear is available for rent at nearby Lake Louise and in the town of Banff.)

During lunch on a flat stretch that was the frozen surface of Ptarmigan Lake, I strapped on climbing skins--snakeskin-like strips that adhere to the undersides of skis to keep you from slipping backward as you stomp up steep inclines. Then we set off to tackle Deception Pass, a bit of a hike but well worth it for the spectacular view of a zigzag skyline of snow-covered summits. Then it was a short, thrilling downhill ski into Skoki Valley.

After a leisurely four hours of skiing, we spotted a veil of lazy smoke curling from the chimney of the rustic old retreat nestled at the base of the valley. Lodge manager Blake O'Brian welcomed us with a bowl of hot homemade soup at the long, wooden table in the dining room and a mug of coffee from a big enamel pot that is always brewing atop the wood stove. He and his wife, Jennifer, have made Skoki their second home (their first is in Banff), and this would be their eighth Christmas at the lodge. It would also be their first with their 6-month-old daughter, Rowan.

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Skoki Lodge looks like something out of "Heidi's" Switzerland--built in 1932 of ax-hewn pine logs for enthusiasts who came (according to a stack of old guest books) from as far afield as Australia, Venezuela and England for the extraordinary skiing in the Canadian Rockies. In those days, eight hardy pioneers and two dog teams carried 3,300 pounds of provisions, bedding and four wood-burning stoves over two passes. Later an old piano was airlifted in by helicopter; it now occupies a place of honor beside the stone fireplace. These days, supplies are brought in--and laundry sent out--by horse in summer, snowmobile in winter.

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