We had come to conquer a fear of horses.
My son and I would also stumble upon wolves in the wild, throw snowballs into a half-frozen aquamarine lake, shiver at the Cosmic Ray Station atop Sulphur Mountain and eat most of the animals we would spot on a Rocky Mountain animal safari.
But the real purpose was to free Caiden of his trepidation around the big beasts.
Our journey had begun a couple of years before in Ontario's Prince Edward County: It was a beautiful August day and we were about to embark on a family horseback ride. But as we neared Salmon Point, our son Caiden, then 7, got quieter and quieter. And when he saw the horses, he bolted – like a Brumby at the sight of a corral. Wild horses couldn't get him near a saddle.
Luckily for him, the sky darkened, rain soaked the ground and he was spared.
His luck ran out this year, though. No more running from the horses. Fears, left to fester, only grow: If you don't face them young, will you ever?
So early this spring we booked a trip to Alberta, to horseback ride in rugged terrain – in the Rockies in mid-May with snow still clinging to the ground. We also planned to hike, to ride the gondola up the mountain and then to warm up in the hot springs before venturing to Warner Stables for our horseback adventure.
And, of course, I wanted stylish sophistication (and a sustainable operating philosophy), so we checked into the Juniper Hotel just off the Trans-Canada Highway, which runs past Banff. Juniper embodies the essence of the Rockies with its bird's-eye perch above the highway and its natural materials and minimalist design inside.
We would have been happy to simply hang out there, but the great outdoors were calling. We headed out with Juniper operations manager Michael Code, who helped us spot the kigulis, partial pit dwellings built by the Salishan people, invisible to the untrained eye. This led to a still unsettled debate between mother and son about who had it easier: the natives who lived off (and in) the land or the settlers who built houses and traded goods and services to pay for food.
All of this whet our appetite for wildlife, so we set out on an animal safari. This is the kind of bus tour international tourists take – Germans, Swedes and Chinese with their long telephoto lenses and excited murmurings at every spotting. But as educated Canadians, shouldn't we already know our indigenous mule deer from our invading white tail deer, our elk, bighorn sheep and different types of bear, and all their behaviour and habitat?
The truth is, this refresher course prevented me from having to admit to my nine-year-old that I didn't have all the answers. Why are the trees stripped from the bottom up? Hungry elk. Why are the bighorn sheep eating dirt? For the minerals. And for the human animals, where can you sit on an underwater toilet in an underwater hotel? In Lake Minnewanka, where a town and its hotel was flooded, where the British army did high-altitude diving training.
That knowledge – that the grown-ups don't have all the answers or even all the questions worth asking – saw us embarking on a guided hike of Johnston Canyon. It's the kind of place we'd normally explore on our own, admiring but not really understanding the striation in the rock, the boulders that once bounced downhill into the creek, the funny squirrels, unusual lichen, the mesmerizing colour of the water.
Never underestimate the value of a good guide. Paul Sylvestre's words of instruction came back to us on a later visit to Lake Louise (rock flour – that explains the blue!), and served as material for a class presentation (the price kids pay for an extended "field trip"). Nothing locks in knowledge like learning it on location.
And nothing builds the appetite like fresh mountain air. Back at the lodge, I wanted to sample everything the Juniper Bistro offers. We especially liked the roasted duck breast with parsnip purée, duck crackling, roasted carrots and duck confit with star anise scented jus. And the braised bison ribs. And the pan-seared Arctic char. And the duck fat fried frites…
Finally, on our last day in Banff, Caiden would face his fear: It was time to drive to Warner Stables and get in the saddle. I arrived at the last moment – keeping our schedule tight so he wouldn't have the chance to let his nerves run wild – and had him in the care of the ranch hands within minutes of arriving. My Brumby (Caiden) was in the corral, and his nostrils were barely flaring. (Fortunately, we weren't the only guests with the jitters – one giggling young woman with a strong Kiwi accent was the most nervous of all.)
I managed to mount Coyote with a modicum of grace, Caiden was hoisted onto Perogie (See? Nothing to worry about!), and off we went, following our guide across a field, along a Rocky Mountain-blue creek, and up onto the mountain. Coyote was a lollygagger that day, and Perogie, to Caiden's surprise and then delight, loved to attempt a slight wander off track, which gave him a chance to direct him back.
We'd seen Banff by car, by bus and by hiking into a canyon, but there's something special about being both in it and above it while on the back of a warm and majestic creature (though I'm not sure the Warner Stables crew would call Coyote majestic). On horseback, you get the view, and the merest sense of the splendour and the hardships our ancestors enjoyed and endured when travelling these routes so long ago.
Up and up we trotted before wending back at, to Caiden's chagrin, a leisurely pace. Our two-hour tour was over before we knew it, leaving us both longing for more.
We'd faced our fear, and only our backsides were worse for wear.
Later that afternoon, driving the back roads en route to Lake Louise (where Caiden would perfect the art of mountain snowball making, and we would indulge in bison, elk and venison), we rounded a bend and came upon a small pack of wolves sauntering up the asphalt toward us. We crawled to a stop and watched in awe as they ambled by, the solid but scruffy and positively threatening leader staring us down with his glowing eyes. He was quintessential Brothers Grimm, and even in a cocoon of metal, I knew my place in the world.
Some fears don't need to be faced, only respected.
IF YOU GO
Juniper Hotel: The hotel is in the Cascade Wildlife Corridor – which means you may share space with elk, deer, marten, coyotes, wolves, cougars and even grizzly bears. A short but informative trail lies directly behind the hotel. Inside, the Cross Roads cuisine at the Juniper Bistro is designed to reflect the area's heritage. Fully 80 per cent of the food served comes from regional sources, and the restaurant has been approved by Ocean Wise, the Vancouver Aquarium's restaurant conservation program. Rooms from $95; thejuniper.com.
Horseback riding: For a quick loop, all-day adventures or overnight trips, check out Holiday on Horseback at Warner Stables. 403-762-4551; horseback.com.
A guided hike: White Mountain Adventures guide Paul Sylvestre has been hiking Banff National Park for 32 years. He's informative and entertaining. 1-800-408-0005; whitemountainadventures.com.
The wildlife, in situ: A bus tour may not be your thing (I didn't think it was mine), but it's a quick and easy way to get to see the animals in the Banff National Park. Discover Banff Tours; 403-760-5007; banfftours.com.
The wildlife, stuffed: Do make time for a guided tour of the Banff Park Museum. After seeing the animals in the wild, you'll be charmed by the tale of taxidermy that paid little attention to animal behaviour and even appearance – an animal with a hump in the wrong place, and another in a threatening stance he would never assume. It's a throwback to a bygone era. 403-762-1558; pc.gc.ca/banffparkmuseum
At the sight of Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, my son exclaimed: "That would be perfect for a hockey team. That would be the beastiest game of manhunt ever!" Thankfully you won't run into his hockey team. Do walk around the lake, enjoy the Rocky Mountain Trio in the Poppy Brasserie, and find a quiet desk at a window overlooking the lake to write postcards that you can send through the old-fashioned mail slot at the elevator. 403-522-3511; fairmont.com