This pilgrimage to a luxurious-yet-rugged backcountry adventure destination was pure, natural bliss.
BY: Mark Kristofic. PHOTOGRAPHY: Paul Morrison
It was in Bobcaygeon, I saw the constellations reveal themselves, one star at a time.
– Gord Downie, The Tragically Hip
Lake Louise is part of my annual western pilgrimage route. I’ve managed to get there once or twice a year for the past 15 years, except when the birth of a child would interrupt my travel schedule. But only this winter did I discover the surreal backcountry ski experience waiting for me in Skoki, just two short passes beyond the back bowls.
I had heard of Skoki Lodge, of course, and knew that it was the Rocky Mountain base of choice for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge during their 2011 Canadian tour. So when Dan Markham, marketing director for Lake Louise, made the convincing argument that it was time to visit Skoki, I decided to attach myself as a hanger-on to our production crew.
Departing Ontario on a depressingly warm, grey and damp Sunday, it was a welcome change to arrive in sunny, crisp Big Sky Country. After a quick drive – it’s less than two hours from Calgary to Lake Louise – we were set to go the following morning. Making our way up the Grizzly Express Gondola at Lake Louise, Dan explained his plan to ski down the back side to the trail, giving us a quick bird’s eye view of where we would be heading.
Ascent to Disconnection
Heavy packs moderated the pace for the first half of the touring, giving me the opportunity to take in the mesmerising beauty of the Alberta Rockies in reflective serenity. A five-centimetre dusting gave the already breathtaking scenery the perfect white blanket postcard effect. I knew going in that Skoki Lodge had no power or cell service: I would be completely disconnecting from the outside world. As we moved out of cell service range, the instinct to keep reaching into my cell phone pocket quickly started to fade. Managing the iPhone withdrawal symptoms through the peaceful ski tour in was the perfect first step of decompression.
Getting to Skoki requires touring through two passes. It was a relatively simple and scenic climb to Ptarmigan Lake, which in the winter is a long, windswept open crossing. With guests leaving Skoki crossing paths with fellow guests coming in for the night, Ptarmigan Lake feels like an endless open crossing where you can take a competitive, hardcore, heart-pumping pace, or make it more casual, serene and conversational. Being in no rush, a conversational pace allowed our crew to chat about the upcoming few days, take in the beauty of the lake crossing and pass it with relative ease, never breaking a sweat.
Sliding up to Skoki, we clicked off our skis and entered the lodge. The immediate sensation was olfactory bliss as we walked through the door to be greeted by the tea, soup and variety of cheeses that are laid out every afternoon, perfect for famished guests who have worked up an appetite touring, skiing and snowshoeing the day away on the many trails and passes in and around the lodge.
The lodge itself, built in 1930, is a picturesquely perfect Canadiana log cabin, complete with candles, wood stove and kerosene lamps for that warm evening glow. The inability to get online, or even charge a device, means that guests engage in the lost arts of conversation and reading. Naturally, with the physical nature of the activities around the lodge, there’s also the odd nap by the fire, complete with soft snoring. Extroverted guests engage in introductions and stories of the day, while introverted guests are able to feel completely at ease in their own private worlds with a book by the fire.
The Lodge exudes a rare mix of luxury and backcountry ruggedness. While the guest rooms are small and quaint, the three males of our crew were lucky enough to be put up in the Riverside Cabin, where Prince William and Kate stayed in 2011. The private cabin just steps away from the main lodge gives guests an added level of privacy in a rustic paradise.
A Woodland Feast
Prior to visiting Skoki, I had heard rumblings that in addition to epic ski touring and powder, the Lodge is known for its food. Guests dine on meals prepared by the same kitchen staff that served the Royals five years ago, and dinner and breakfast are as much part of the Skoki experience as the ski touring and views. Chef Katie Mitzel mingles with the guests prior to dinner and quickly ingratiates with her lively personality and passion for food. She starts each meal with an introduction to the group and a description of the culinary feast her staff has put together in the propane-powered kitchen along with details of how dinner was prepared and where the food came from. Following dinner, as guests loosen their belts to allow for optimum belly expansion, staff clear the dishes to be washed in water hauled in from the nearby creek.
Back to Reality
Touring out of Skoki and back to Lake Louise is a slightly surreal experience. Ripping Lake Louise frontside groomer turns back to civilisation, I had a hot shower and laundry on my mind. My cell phone vibrated as we came back into service area, immediately triggering the old instinct to reach into my pocket. This time, though, it was to turn my phone off.