After attending a week-long wilderness first aid course in nearby Canmore, I decided to treat myself and my girlfriend to an (alas, too short) stay at Shadow Lake Lodge this spring. I had stayed at the lodge several times before, as a hiking guide guiding groups of German-speaking visitors to Canada. The German hikers had always loved the remote lodge, its rugged surroundings, hearty gourmet food and friendly staff.
Now, three years after my last visit, I was finally hiking in again to this unique lodge that is neither road-accessible nor is it a “heli-lodge”. In fact, helicopter use is “verboten”; the sole exception being an annual removal of outhouse waste containers to a proper sewage treatment facility. Everything that is required to feed and house guests and staff is carried in by pack horses, just as it was over 80 years ago when the Canadian Pacific Railway built the first cabin on the site.
We chose to hike in the shortest (13km) route along Red Earth Creek. The parking lot is just off the Trans Canada highway about 20 kms west of Banff. We began with the usual gear prep in the parking lot, as we bundled snow shoes, ski jackets, shorts and T-shirts into our packs. With a late and deeper than usual snowpack this year, we wanted to be prepared for all possibilities.
As other reviews have noted, the hike up Red Earth isn’t spectacular, but once you are out of earshot of the highway (about 5 minutes’ hike uphill), the quiet stillness of the forest surrounds you and begins to soothe away any stresses. In late June we were treated to delicate Calypso orchids and Glacier lilies in bloom beside the trail. Lost Horse Creek Campground, reached after about 90 minutes of steady hiking, makes a welcome rest stop.
Continuing on the trail, you will come upon a bicycle rack, usually with a couple of mountain bikes locked to it. The bikes generally belong to Shadow Lake Lodge staff (although riding a bike to this point is a great way for guests to shorten the hike in to the lodge!). The rack is where you leave the old mine road along Red Earth Creek and turn right, up a steeper and narrower forest trail that will bring you to the lodge. In total, it took us just under 3.5 hours from stuffing gear into backpacks in the parking lot to sipping tea and munching cheese and freshly-baked cookies in the lodge’s rustic yet comfortable dining cabin.
After we had had our first cup of tea we were shown to our cabin and given a brief run down on the facilities.
The individual guest cabins all have 2 beds in them (one has one king size), table and chairs, propane heater, old-fashioned laundry drying rack, dresser, and a wash table with jug and basin. No running water in the cabins, but you can take your jug and get hot water from a tap outside one of the main cabins. Or, have the best back country shower I’ve ever experienced in the shower building. This simple cabin offers one bathroom for men and one for women. Inside is an odour-free (really!) “pit” toilet (actually a barrel that gets flown out as already mentioned), two sinks and an on-demand propane heated shower. Maybe it’s the luxury of a shower in the wilderness, but this shower impresses me every time with its even, hot temperature. Most campground showers running on municipal water and power aren’t half as enjoyable as this one!
Dinner was served at 6:30. It’s a “one choice” menu – if you have food allergies or preferences, you should let the Lodge know in advance. But if you’re an omnivore, you won’t be disappointed. Before dinner, the staff, who always seem to be from all over the world, introduce themselves and present the dinner menu. This year we met Perrine from France, Amy from Australia, Janna from Czech Republic and our chef Barbara from Calgary (originally from Switzerland).
The food was excellent – day one we had beef tenderloin with all trimmings; next day succulent chicken breast.
Evenings are perfect for a short walk to the namesake lake in which Mt. Ball is reflected on wind still days. If y you’re not up for more walking or if the weather is inclement, the original cabin is the place to relax by the warmth of a wood stove...
After a wonderful sleep under fluffy duvets, we were woken by a knock and a cheerful “Good Morning” from one of the staff. We had ample time to get ready and make it to the dining cabin just as the smell of bacon was drifting in from the kitchen. Somewhat to my chagrin, the group of elderly Japanese hikers who were sharing the lodge with us on the first night had already been up for several hours as they had to see the sunrise on Mt. Ball. (Next day we made the effort too and it was worth it!) Breakfast was hearty and delicious and afterwards we could pack our own lunch from the selection of fresh lunch fixin’s the kitchen had laid out.
From the lodge, you can go in three main directions: up to Gibbon Pass, up to Ball Pass, or continue past the Ball Pass turnoff to Whistling Pass. We chose Ball Pass – the middle distance hike that also offers a far-off view of Shadow Lake and the lodge buildings when you reach the pass (bring binoculars if you have them as you’re waaay up there and the lodge is barely visible). Snowshoes came in handy on a few snow-covered scree slopes but most of the pass was snowfree and we could boulder-hop and just lay in the sun enjoying our sandwiches.
We made it back just in time for afternoon tea (ends at 5:00pm). Restraint must be exercised as dinner comes too soon to work up another appetite!
Two nights is generally the minimum stay required by the Lodge, but you wouldn’t want to spend any less time anyway, even for a first visit, there’s just too much to see and do. Plus, it takes a while to realize that you aren’t going to hear a phone ring, a car or motorcycle engine roar, or even Banff’s omnipresent trains go by. There are no TVs and while you can be assured that emergency communications are in place (with back up as well), the absence of “the modern media landscape” is part of the wilderness experience.
What more can I say? We are saving up for the next visit hopefully less than three years from now...