Today’s interview segment is with possibly our most humorous “guest” yet – you see, he’s not even human. And, he’s a cheeky little… guy. In fact, after reluctantly agreeing to allow me to call and interview him, his first response to my list of “what to do” Banff questions was: This is completely BS. Slightly rude, but I persisted, and actually got some good gossip out of the Banff Squirrel. Despite his offputting demeanour, he knows his territory (uhm, why wouldn’t he?), and so if you are planning a trip to Banff, his recommendations are superb. Read on…
Can you introduce yourself?
I’m the Banff Squirrel, probably best known for “photo-bombing” a traveller’s happy snap at Lake Minnewanka in Banff National Park. After Marilyn Terrell and National Geographic picked it as “Photo of the Day” back in August 2009, the photo went viral and the rest, as they say, is history (or at least my 15 minutes of fame).
Photo-bombing isn’t that terribly lucrative, so the folks at Banff Lake Louise Tourism offered me a gig Tweeting about the Park. Which also isn’t very lucrative, but I make a few bucks on the side letting migrating birds borrow my wi-fi for trip planning.
My hometown feels a bit like a college town where everyone’s having too much fun to show up for class. There’s Jazz at the Banff Centre and some very cool galleries for the arts crowd, wandering mountain professors happy to share their thesis on life in the Rockies, and a revolving cast of youthful characters doing a post-grad in outdoor adventure.
Andy: Nothing wrong with having too much fun. Congrats on the gig – you are tearing it up on Twitter. Though I am unsure how I feel about my inclusion on your Advent Calendar as a gingerbread cookie. Thank you, nonetheless.
It must be getting a wee bit chilly up in Banff! Back to the “what to do” Banff question, what things can one do to stay warm and enjoy the town in winter?
We turn the thermostat down in Winter so the sled-dogs don’t overheat. And to keep the jokes fresh.
The trick to staying warm is to keep moving. Take a skate on Lake Louise, ride an inner tube down Mount Norquay, snowshoe with a Heritage Guide at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise then try your hand at ice-climbing at the Banff Alpine Centre Hostel. If that doesn’t warm you up, tuck under a blanket for a dogsled ride or hop on the horse-drawn sleighs at Lake Louise. As a not even close to last resort, Banff has more hot tubs per capita than almost anywhere, including a rather famous one that’s been soothing chilled bones since the late 1800’s. Rent a reproduction of a late 1800’s “bathing costume” for extra giggles while you’re there.
There are lots of great live music and dance clubs and in a ski town every night is somebody’s Friday night so it’s never hard to find a fun crowd. Banff’s newest hot spot is the Sasquatch dance club, full of almost enough Park-inspired décor to distract even the harshest critic from your dancing skills.
Dress is “mountain casual” pretty much everywhere, but you’ll see the full range of get-ups from hiking boots to heels and everything in between on any given night.
Andy: I’m in, though I’ll bring my own bathing costume, thanks.
Spring and summer brings a whole new scene, right? Tell us what to do, Banff style.
Each Spring when the wildflowers bloom on the mountain meadows, I stage a one-squirrel production of “The Sound of Music.” Mixed reviews, but the “Goodnight” scene on the stairway of the Rundle Lounge at the Banff Springs Hotel is, in my mind, a real show-stopper. Audience participation is encouraged, so feel free to break into song at any point in your travels.
We’re real fortunate to have the Banff Centre and they put on a full slate of concerts all year round. Summertime brings a series of outdoor concerts featuring some of the world’s top performers in just about any artistic discipline you can imagine – and many of them are free. Speaking of free, one of the best shows in town plays nightly and always has seats available – just lie back on a patch of grass and watch the night sky. It’s unlike anything you’ll see in a busy city and the town’s made a real effort to minimize light pollution.
Despite being world-famous as a ski town, we get more visitors in Summer than in Winter. Some of them are people, but the real exciting ones are grizzly and black bears, herds of elk and deer, and the odd cougar (some of whom are not people). There are a ton of great local tour guides who will be happy to introduce you to my forest friends whether you choose to travel by horse, canoe, inflatable raft, bike or foot.
If guided tours aren’t your thing, local hiking, cycling and running groups set out from the town centre on an almost daily basis and are more than happy to have new friends join in the fun. Keep in mind that hiking/biking in groups of four or more is always recommended (and in some areas mandatory) both for safety reasons and because it’s more fun with friends.
I haven’t been, but everyone says Banff is one of the most beautiful places in Canada, if not the world. Where’s your favourite view?
A list of the worst views in Banff would probably be a lot shorter. Things like @Real_Banff in a speedo at the Upper Hot Springs come to mind… but I digress.
The Sulphur Mountain Gondola lets you summit a mountain peak without cracking a sweat and the 360-degree view from the top is not shabby. Back in town, ask a local to direct you toward “surprise corner” for a spectacular view of the Bow Falls and the castle-like Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel.
Early mornings are a great time to get out to the Vermillon Lakes (a fave spot for canoeing and igloo building) as the sun rises.
But here’s the insider’s tip: mountains are awe-inspiring but everybody’s kinda hoping to see a bit of wildlife too. Most days, you’ll find deer wandering the backyards of Banff and elk stubbornly refusing to let duffers play through at the Banff Springs golf course. But take a trip round the Minnewanka loop or up the switchbacks of Mount Norquay to see the real wild ones. And if you’re heading up to Lake Louise, take the old 1A rather than the highway and odds are you’ll get happily stuck in a “bear jam.” Just remember – these are wild animals and if you can get a great shot without a long zoom lens, you’re waaaay too close!
Lastly, one can get pretty hungry/thirsty after all that hiking, skiing,and adventure-ing. Got any suggestions for those of us who want a little more than nuts?
Banff has lots of great chow options, from gourmet burgers and caribou fondue to sushi delivered on a model train and 5-diamond dining.
Regardless of your culinary cravings, one thing I always recommend is to spend some time where the locals hang out. Banff is a very young town filled with folks who have chosen to live here to pursue an active outdoor life. So if you’re looking for the inside track on the best hikes, mountain bike rides or places to spot wildlife, grab a pint or two at the Rose & Crown or the Elk & Oarsman and make friends with a local. Just watch out for the rugby team – they’re usually short a few players and might ask you to play.
For something a little out of the ordinary, check out the former home of Western Canada’s first disco, now converted into the Grizzly House restaurant. As if the caribou, elk and rattle snake featured on their fondue menu aren’t enough to set this place apart, each of the tables and even the washrooms are outfitted with special “house phones.” Consult the map on your menu and you can prank, say hello or just shoot the breeze with any of the restaurant’s other patrons. Needless to say, The Grizzly House is fully licensed.
Evelyn’s is a local coffee fave and brunch or tea at the Banff Springs is a must-do. There are a number of great steak joints in town serving local Alberta beef (raised by real rootin’ tootin’ cowboys) including the Maple Leaf, the Bison, Saltlik and the Juniper Bistro.
Late-late night pizza at the Aardvark is a local tradition as are the gourmet burgers (with vegetarian options) at Eddie’s Burger Bar. Tell them the Squirrel sent you (won’t help you, but if enough people say it, I may be in for a free burger).
But hey – you’re in the world’s finest national park and the best steak you’ll ever eat is probably the one you cook on your very own campfire under a canopy of stars. If camping’s not your thing, make friends with a local and they can probably hook you up with at least a singalong and a roasted marshmallow or two.
Damn, now I am hungry . But Wow! For a cheeky little squirrel, you sure know your territory. Merci & Thanks Banff Squirrel for all these awesome tips on what to do! Banff is calling folks, so ignore that squirrel and get packing!
All images courtesy of Banff Lake Louise.