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WINTER IN THE Rockies Canada: It's not all downhill schussing in the Calgary-Banff area. There's much to see and do from museums and a luxurious castle to ice walks through some of North America's most spectacular scenery.


"Tourists are like Christopher Columbus," Peter Swan said with a smile. "When they leave home, they don't know where they're going; when they get there, they don't know where they are; and when they get home, they don't know where they've been."

As a guide for White Mountain Adventures, he was leading our group of ice walkers through snow-filled Johnston Canyon between Banff and Lake Louise in Canada's Alberta province. While we enjoyed his humor, it was his understanding of the outdoors that we really appreciated.

As he led us along the bottom of the canyon and across catwalks, he pointed out numerous things we never would have seen ourselves -- from animal tracks to delicate ice crystals clinging to gray canyon walls; from geological time in multicolored rock sediment to towering waterfalls frozen on the outside while flowing on the inside.

Besides showing us how to see our surroundings in more depth, Swan was teaching us that during the winter, the Canadian Rockies offer much more than just downhill skiing thrills.

In the Calgary-Banff-Lake Louise area, nonskiers can discover an "Olympic" city, explore one of Canada's finest national parks, and experience two luxury resorts built in the days of railroad barons. Along the way is truly dramatic winter scenery, the easy canyon ice walk and four museums that give insight into the region's natural history and native cultures.

A good starting point for exploring the area is Calgary, made famous when it was host to the 1988 Winter Olympics. Today, with an updated international airport and 800,000 residents, it is the second largest city in Alberta and a popular gateway to the Rockies.

Sitting on the plains, nestled against the banks of the Bow River, Calgary's compact downtown of chrome and glass has mountains as its western backdrop. With its open, airy feel, mountain/plains setting and friendly locals, Calgary reminds many of Denver.

Even in winter, the city is outdoors-conscious. When the sun is shining, residents fill the streets. Many stretch their legs at the Eau Claire Market and riverside walk, where a footbridge leads to the meandering paths of Prince's Island Park. Others window-shop on the pedestrian Stephens Avenue Mall. For those who want a bird's-eye view, the 630-foot-high Calgary Tower offers 360-degree views.

A definite stop for anyone visiting Calgary is the Glenbow Museum and Art Gallery. The founder, Eric Harvie, made a fortune during oil's heydays and used much of it to collect items from around the world. A man of broad interests -- and straightforward tongue -- he reportedly told his staff: "Go out and collect like a bunch of drunken sailors!" The result is a vast and fascinating museum that sprawls over four floors and includes everything from African drums to modern-day baseball caps, suits of armor to covered wagons.

A First Nations Advisory Council helps the museum with its extensive First Nations collection (words like "Indian" and "tribe" are no longer used). Exhibits include a mid-1800s Blackfoot bison "story robe" that depicts battles and hunts through extensive drawings on the skin.

A two-story tepee from the same time shows how well-designed they were. A comb of buffalo hide reflects how each kill was used fully.

The original landscape

For thousands of years, members of the Blackfoot, Sarcee and Stoney nations roamed the region, from the plains to deep within the Rockies. To see the landscape as they saw it takes only a short drive from Calgary into Banff National Park, where much of the wilderness has been preserved.

Banff National Park, established in 1885, was Canada's first national park and is today its most popular, attracting more than 3 million visitors a year. Covering 2,656 square miles, the park contains 25 peaks that soar higher than 9,900 feet. More than 750 miles of trails pass by glacial-cold lakes, natural hot springs, fast-moving rivers and peaceful valleys.

Towering above it all are huge saw-toothed mountains, skirted by alpine forests. The granite peaks look freshly cleaved as they rip jagged lines out of cobalt-blue skies. Lodgepole pines are etched against whipped-cream drifts. Clear mountain air adds a crispness and clarity to every scene.

Near the middle of the park, and only 75 miles northwest of Calgary, is the bustling resort town of Banff. On one end of its main street is towering Mount Rundle, and on the other a bridge over the Bow River. Tourist shops, cafes and eateries fill the two-story buildings that line the street.

For its small size, Banff has a surprising amount of interesting museums. Right on main street, a doorway marks the entrance to the free, privately owned Natural History Museum. Creative displays include a mining tunnel, dinosaur dig and an 8-foot-tall rendition of Sasquatch (Big Foot).

Down the street, next to the bridge, the Banff Park Museum is the oldest natural-history museum in Western Canada. Started in 1895, it's now housed in an elegant two-story log building that looks like a railroad pagoda. Stuffed bison, deer, sheep, bear and even fish give visitors a chance to study the park's wildlife up close (the specimens are either from the early 1900s or had died of natural causes).

Across the bridge, in a re-created log fort, the Luxton Museum features the Indians of the Northern Plains and Canadian Rockies. Dioramas include the religious Sun Dance, a buffalo jump, and the Hudson's Bay trading post on the Bow River. There are a stunning feather headdress and items made of woven porcupine quills.

It's only a mile or so up the road to Banff's most famous attraction -- the Banff Springs Hotel. After the transcontinental railroad was completed in the 1880s, its general manager, William Cornelius Van Horne, stated, "Since we can't export the scenery, we will have to import the tourists."

A castle in the Rockies

From that thought rose the Banff Springs Hotel, which was completed in 1888. Modeled after baronial castles of Scotland, it became known as the "Castle of the Canadian Rockies" and offered train passengers true luxury in the heart of the wilderness.

Today, after numerous expansions and renovations, the Banff Springs Hotel is considered one of the finest in Canada, offering guests excellent service and accommodation (at corresponding prices), as well as conference facilities and a complete European-styled spa called Solace.

While luxury is the attraction at the Banff Springs Hotel, the wilderness is the attraction of Banff National Park. Numerous winter tours offer various sights, hikes and excursions. For those who want to explore on their own, stopping when they want, the small road, Route 1A, from Banff to Lake Louise (30 miles) is excellent. Paralleling the main highway, it gives travelers a better tTC sense of the scope and size of the surrounding mountains.

Lake cradled by peaks

At the end of Route 1A is Lake Louise, one of the most picturesque spots in the park. The huge lake is cradled on three sizes by massive peaks that dwarf everything but the sky. Perched on the fourth side is Chateau Lake Louise, another resort built by the railroad for its passengers. Completed in 1890, it became known as the "Lady of the Lake." Today, its rooms still give guests breathtaking views of lake and mountains.

Not far from the chateau is Johnston Canyon, where Peter Swan guided us through a wintry landscape. At the end of the trail, we came across Twin Pools and the Upper Falls amphitheater. Taking a break before heading back, we sipped hot chocolate and watched ice climbers tackle the frozen waterfalls -- and once again realized how much the Canadian Rockies offer nonskiers.

If you go

Note: All price quotes use the Canadian dollar, which last week was worth about 74 U.S. cents.

Getting there: Air Canada, American, Canadian, Delta, Horizon, KLM, Northwest and United airlines have direct service from U.S. cities to Calgary. Weather: Alberta has more than 2,000 hours of sunshine per year, more than any other province. Winter runs October to April. Days are usually dry, sunny and cold, with daytime extremes from a balmy 45 degrees to a frigid 20 below. Chinook winds can bring warm, dry air from the west that can quickly raise temperatures.

Accommodations: Calgary has numerous and varied lodgings for any budget. Banff has many levels of rooms, from dormitory beds in the well-situated YWCA (takes men and women; $40-$50 a night), to the deluxe Banff Springs Hotel ($125-$190 for a standard room, double occupancy, depending on the season).

Museums: Calgary: Glenbow Museum, 130 Ninth Ave. S.E., daily 10 a.m.- 6 p.m. $5 per adult. (403) 268-4100. Banff: Natural History Museum, October-April, daily, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Free. (403) 762-4747. Banff Park Museum, September-May, daily, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., $2.25 per adult. (403) 762-1558. Luxton Museum, Wednesday-Sunday, 1 p.m.-5 p.m., $4.50 per adult. (403) 762-2388.

Tours: White Mountain Adventures, (408) 678-4099, has canyon ice walks, cross-country skiing and snowshoe trips. The Johnston Canyon ice walk costs $30 per person.

More information: Alberta Tourism, (800) 661-8888.

Pub Date: 12/15/96

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