I strap nailhead-studded crampons called Icers over the soles of my winter boots and wonder just what I’ve gotten myself into. Others had raved about river-carved ice castles in Johnston Canyon, a notch in Banff National Park’s craggy peaks, so I’d signed up for a half-day hike as a midweek diversion for muscles weary from skiing Norquay, Sunshine and Lake Louise. Looking at the terrain ahead, though, I’m not sure how much of a break my weary muscles will get.
Pam Manning, our guide from Discover Banff Tours, had collected me along with other guests from Banff-area hotels this morning. En route, she’d sprinted through the park’s history and the region’s geography, reviewing 10,000 years in about 30 minutes, finishing as we pulled into the parking lot, a speck off the Bow River Parkway.
In summer hundreds, if not thousands, of visitors plod daily up the paved path to Lower Falls, with fewer continuing on to Upper Falls. In winter, the numbers drop dramatically, making it possible to meander along the ice- and snow-covered path accompanied only by the river’s trickle.
Hiking here isn’t for the faint of height or weak of quad. Although not overly taxing, the three-mile round trip is a steady—and slippery—ascent across catwalks and up icy stairs bolted into the rock.
According to local legend, Johnston Canyon was named for a mining prospector who salted his claim, bragged in the saloon, sold it and beat feet out of Dodge, er Banff. When his victims realized his trickery, they referred to the canyon by his name, often prefaced by an expletive.
You too may curse Johnston as you inch along the icy catwalks high above the canyon floor. We crest a rise and stop dead, stunned by Lower Falls, a 33-foot frozen, ice-spired cathedral. We cross a bridge spanning the river to a cave pocketed in the canyon wall. An opening in the limestone grotto provides a misty, front-row seat on the falls tumbling down.
We continue hiking, paralleling the roiling river to Upper Falls, a frozen 100-foot cascade that makes Lower Falls look like a leaky faucet. Manning reaches into her backpack to share a 1999 newspaper article detailing a kayaker’s planned plunge over Upper Falls. “I have no fear,” he told the reporter. “I know what’s going to happen. I will be fine.” He was.
My buddies want to ski Sunshine’s double-black Delirium Dive this afternoon. Perhaps I could summon the kayaker’s confidence for my plunge. I gaze back up at the falls. On second thought, a dive into the Fairmont Banff Springs mineral pool seems a saner idea.
IF YOU GO
Johnston Canyon is 15 miles west of Banff. Discover Banff Tours’ four-hour guided trip departs Banff twice daily at 8:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. $61 per adult; rate includes ice cleats and a snack.
- SKI Magazine, November 2008