I hear it and feel it beneath my feet. I’m snowshoeing across a small mountain lake with our friends and guides Paul and Eva Sylvestre, owners of Nature in Focus in Banff, and I look at Paul suddenly feeling very uncomfortable about being on a lake.
Paul explains that our weight has caused the ice to settle and soon a fine film of water will creep up from around the edges of the frozen lake to settle on the ice surface, nothing to worry about but we may have slush to snowshoe through on the way back. I override my discomfort and keep following him relieved when we reach the shore on the other side. My husband, two daughters and several friends follow with Eva at the rear.
When Paul came to Banff 35 years ago from eastern Canada to do the photography program at the prestigious Banff Centre he never left, he fell in love with the wilderness and mountains. Swiss-born Eva sauntered into Banff 21 years ago and fell in love with the mountains as well; they reminded her of where she grew up. With five languages under her belt it wasn’t long before she was hired to guide for a local outfit. She soon met Paul and eventually the two created Nature in Focus, a guiding company which offers snowshoeing and hiking trips.
“Nature in Focus has been in existence for three years now,” says Paul. “Eva had already been guiding for 10 years for various local outfits and, after years of working at the Banff Centre, I took a one-year sabbatical and decided to join Eva in a career of guiding. Friends of ours that own and operate an interpretive guiding company suggested that we should look at starting our own business and they could send some of their work overflow which is how Nature in Focus came into existence.”
We continue on our way up a slope in deep powder where Paul stops to point out the beautiful trunk of a dead tree burnished by the wind and sun, its grain twisting in a spiral as it rises to the blue sky. Paul’s eye for photography means clients often stop in areas where there are great photo opportunities. We take some photos, each with our own unique angle and composition and continue up the slope.
Paul points out that starting you own business in Banff is very different from most places, it’s not just a matter of plunking a sign up or taking out an ad.
“In a national park things are quite different,” he explains. “First of all, you need to have the need to reside and a home occupation doesn’t qualify! So you need to find a part-time job with a local business, then apply for a home occupation license from the Town of Banff. You then need to apply to Parks Canada for a guiding license and specify for which national park. But not before having taken the Interpretive Guides Association Professional Interpretive Guide accreditation (IGA) which means taking a course, passing exams and working as a guide-in-training with a guiding outfit for pretty well a whole summer. You also need an 80-hour Advanced Wilderness First Aid course and also of great benefit is the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG) Hiking Guide certification…oh and you need insurance too.”
While I’m still trying to get my head around the complicated rules and bylaws of starting a business in Banff, Paul and Eva announce it’s time for lunch break so we all settle down on a log and eat while enjoying snow-covered peaks and trees as far as the eye can see. Paul magically produces a camp stove and a can of maple syrup and quickly whips up taffy on snow for the group, what a treat! After lunch we head off again to explore a natural quarry where the snow on large boulders creates interesting shapes everywhere we look.
Today Nature in Focus offers guided snowshoe and hiking trips that caters to the needs and wishes of its clients depending on their level of fitness and interests. Snowshoe trips are usually three hours long with snacks, lunch and interpretive stops along the way. Hiking trips vary between 2 to 8 kms (one to five miles) and every outing is different from a nature walk to hiking up a peak says Eva.
“Our snowshoe clients are mostly inexperienced first-timers, very few have done it before,” says Eva. “Some have such a good time that they go out and buy snowshoes after their trip!”
While it seems like a dream job Eva is quick to point out some of the realities of this type of work; bad weather, freezing cold rain, thunderstorms, injuries, wild animals and clients who don’t want to follow the guides.
“People with type A personalities who are used to being leaders are very hard to work with they often split off from the group and we have to bring them back,” says Eva. “But fortunately, this doesn’t happen in winter because it’s very hard breaking trail in deep snow on snowshoes. We get people to experience breaking trail and they soon fall back in line!”
Their preferred snowshoes are Tubbs Mountaineer Eva says. They’re well built technical snowshoes with simple bindings that work very well. In spring, when snow conditions get heavy and sticky they spray silicon on the tops and bases of the snowshoes to prevent heavy snow buildup.
Living together and working together day in and day out is not easy but Eva says they set some ground rules early on to make sure it works.
“When we work together we are basically two professional guides. Most people don’t even know we’re married,” she says. “We often split up, either on topics or parts of the trip so that people with different fitness levels can do more or less. At the end of the day we give each other feedback as to how we could have improved on our information or trip.”
As we head back across the lake I look at our earlier tracks and, sure enough, they are slushy in spots. But I cross and on the other side we see a snowshoe hare in the snow. We’ve seen many tracks today and Paul and Eva identify them all for us: pine martens, hares, coyote and lynx.
On their days off what do Paul and Eva like to do? You guessed it; they head out for more snowshoeing, skiing or hiking depending on the season. Eva says on those days it’s nice not having the responsibility of clients and just enjoying the beauty that brought her to this area many years ago.
“Snowshoeing, hiking and nature is definitely our passion and the best part of living in Banff is that we live right in our playground, it’s a great base camp and a lot less driving if you’re already there!” says Eva.
One last surprise before we finish our trip, Paul announces we are going to have a snowshoe race across a clearing. Here’s a tip for you if you are ever caught in an unexpected snowshoe race in powder, position yourself on the outside edge of the group as the snowstorm created by the melee will blind you. We all dissolve in laughter at the finish line and slowly head back to our cars after three hours of snowshoeing in the fresh mountain air with happy smiles on everyone’s faces and, quickly, the conversation turns to après-snowshoe destinations.
Photo credits: Paul and Eva Sylvestre except where noted