The adventure begins as soon as I start driving up the steep Spray Lakes Road above the small mountain town of Canmore known as the eastern gateway to Banff National Park.
I’m heading up to Mount Engadine Lodge, located in Spray Valley Provincial Park, for my husband’s 50th birthday, an area known for it amazing wildlife and great snowshoe and ski trails. We have rented to the whole lodge for the occasion and have invited friends and family from across the country to celebrate.
The road soon turns to gravel and twists relentlessly for about 3 miles (5 km) with washboard turns that send the car skittering across the road. On my right a cliff rises dramatically and I keep an eye out for possible falling rock or snow. On my left there’s a sharp drop-off, which gets more precipitous the higher I go.
“Is this road…safe?” My friend’s son, Des, asks me. I have three teenagers in the car who have been busily texting on their smart phones until the twisting motion of the car draws their eyes to their surroundings.
“Somewhat.” I reply and smile knowing what a surprise he and my two daughters, Liesl and Halle, will get when they arrive at the lodge.
We finally get to the pass and the gravel road now levels off in a high valley bordered on each side by beautiful snow-capped peaks and evergreens laden with snow with the frozen Spray Lakes on our right dotted with ice fishing huts. We arrive at the lodge 45 minutes after leaving Canmore and I’m treated to a priceless moment when the kids realize there is no service for their phones here. SURPRISE! There is WiFi in the lodge at certain times but I don’t tell them that.
Chris and Shari-Lynn Williams, the Innkeepers, greet me at the door and get us settled in our cabin then usher us in for tea served buffet style with variety of sweet and savory goodies. Here I meet the rest of our group and the rest of the staff, Carol our chef, and Bree, Linda and Joanne. With our diverse group I’m curious to know what kind of people come up to the lodge in the winter.
“About 60 percent of our guests are now active snowshoers, with about 20 percent of those people combining the snowshoeing with cross-country skiing,” says Chris. “The snowshoe experience here is vastly different from what anyone in eastern Canada or the eastern U.S.A. would be used to as the soft champagne snow can allow you to drop 3 to 4 feet quite easily out here when breaking trail.”
After tea everyone heads out for a sunset snowshoe to test that soft champagne snow. A few trails start from the lodge and some of us head down on the Moose Meadow loop, a 3-mile (5 km) trail which climbs onto a shoulder of the mountain across from the lodge and returns along the open meadow just below. The snow is deep but light and sheds off our snowshoes without effort.
Along the way we hear whooping in the woods and soon see alpine tourers cut across the trail and quickly disappear into the trees making beautiful turns as they go. People come here for the accessible backcountry but that champagne powder must be part of the secret as Chris says. We laugh as we watch them go and make our way back as evening falls.
Back at the lodge Halle is snapping photos of the scenery while, inside, Des is playing some tunes on the piano and Liesl is busily pouring over books, smart phones forgotten!
The lodge was built in 1987 and sleeps 19 people including three small cabins snuggled together nearby. Most rooms are named after wildlife in the area and ours is the Whiskey Jack cabin, a nickname for the bold gray jay, a notorious food thief. This cabin is the largest of the three with two bedrooms, a private bathroom and a deck overlooking the meadow. Some rooms have their own private stoves to make a fire, very romantic.
Chris and Shari-Lynn have been innkeepers at various locations all over North America and even in St. Lucia but this is one of their favorite lodges.
“Biggest difference for us is the type of guest the lodge attracts,” says Chris. “Guests are generally quite active and are willing to share stories and experiences at our large group tables and common space area. Having the seasonality for us is also key, different crowd from winter and summer with a larger group of international tourists in the summer. Living where we do with its majestic setting is also a huge bonus.”
The next morning I check out the 2.5-mile (4 km) Pine Loop Trail with the dog and Halle, the views are beautiful with rabbit, squirrel and deer tracks crisscrossing the trail, but our stomachs bring us back to the lodge where we find homemade granola, yogurt, fresh fruit, juice and coffee, so we tuck in while enjoying the view from the bank of large windows facing the meadow. I see the turns the alpine touring group made in the fresh white powder high on the mountain across the way against the blue sky, beautiful!
Bree brings me out of my reverie by announcing the hot breakfast is served, or round two. I turn and there on the buffet are mounds of bacon, sausages, scrambled eggs and pancakes. A second breakfast, amazing! I head back up and load up stealing two pieces of bacon for the dog – I guess it’s fitting that we’re in the Whiskey Jack cabin.
By now the whole group is up and decides to head up to the Mount Shark multi-use area 3 miles (5 km) up the road for a cross-country ski. There are over 12 miles (20 km) of groomed trails here for cross-country, skate and biathlon skiing with numerous backcountry and snowshoeing trails in the area.
Our group consists of some hard-core backcountry nuts to some who have never been on skis or snowshoes before however, whether we use the trails from the lodge or at Mt. Shark, there is something for everyone.
One group heads up to the Bryant Creek warden’s cabin for a 17-mile (28 km) round trip, they will be doing steep hills both up and down with some of the trail in the trees. When they return they show us photos of a moose and hare they saw along the way.
Another group heads up to Karst Spring, a warm spring which flows out from a cave, for a 5.5-mile (9 km) round trip and 650 ft (200 m) elevation gain. The rocks at the mouth of the cave are covered in bright green moss all winter long making for a dramatic color display against the white snow.
I choose to stay back with two newbies. I help them adjust their bindings on their rental skis, give them a couple of tips and we’re off. Along the way we stop often to see if we can identify the many animal tracks we see; elk, deer, rabbits, squirrels and mice. We cover a gentle 3-mile (5 km) loop and finish with two confident and newly addicted outdoor enthusiasts. No sooner are they back at the lodge then they strap on snowshoes and we head out for another 3-mile (5 km) loop.
That evening the birthday celebration goes off without a hitch thanks to the awesome staff. The meal is superb with melt-in-your-mouth roast beef and salmon, salad and roasted veggies. The cake portion is massive and, despite all the exercise, no one asks for seconds. We go late into the night with singing and poems created for my husband’s birthday and end off with an amazing moonlight snowshoe on the meadow where we take in the millions stars, sparkling snow and listen to the silence around us.
Calgary airport (YYC) is the nearest airport. Rent a car and head west on Highway #1 (Trans-Canada Highway).
Option 1: Drive west one hour to Canmore, take the second exit and follow the signs to the Spray Lakes Road/Canmore Nordic Centre. The road climbs a steep hill and eventually becomes the Smith Dorrien-Spray Trail or #742 South. About 23 miles (37 km) after leaving Canmore turn right at the Mt. Shark turnoff and immediately left to the lodge.
Option 2: Drive west about 45 minutes and turn south on Highway #40 or Kananaskis Trail. Drive south to the Smith Dorrien -Spray Trail (#742) turnoff. Turn right and drive about 30 km to Mt. Shark turnoff, turn left and immediately left again to the lodge.
Canmore is the best place to rent any equipment, gas up and get food. If you’re using option 2, Calgary is your best bet for any of the above. The lodge has free snowshoes for overnight guests to use and it’s pet-friendly. Dinner reservations are also available for day-use people who want to have an excellent meal after a great day in the outdoors (reservations required).
Weather, including temperature, avalanche conditions and trail conditions, is updated regularly at the lodge. Spray Valley Provincial Park is part of a collection of parks that form Kananaskis Country.