When I tell people I’m from Alberta, nine times out of ten I get the same response: “Banff!” Yes, Banff is beautiful, but my favourite part of Alberta is a region strangely absent from the national radar: Kananaskis Country, an expanse of wilderness sandwiched between the southern foothills and the B.C. border.
Kananaskis Country is a region most people find by accident, if they find it at all. For me, it’s one of those childhood fancies that nestles in your psyche. I grew up on the southern edge of the city, a spot that affords a panoramic view of K-Country; I used to gaze at its distant peaks and think that if I ran really hard, I could get there. My family also had an addiction to K-Country, which is where we went to hike, sightsee, and cross-country ski.
But when I tell friends about Kananaskis, unless they’re from Calgary, all I get is a blank stare. “Fair enough,” I’ll say, “but I bet you know it. Have you seen Brokeback Mountain? Legends of the Fall? The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford? Do you remember the alpine skiing events during the 1988 Winter Olympics? Or the 2002 G8 Summit, hosted by then-Prime Minister Jean Chrétien? If so, you’re probably more familiar with K-Country than you think.”For local outdoor enthusiasts, the area has a much more significant claim to fame. There is really only one river you can whitewater raft in the Alberta Rockies, and it’s in Kananaskis. There are several groups that will take rafters down, including adventure company Inside Out Experience.
“Left forward! Right back! All forward! Get down!” yells Andrew Pratt, a river guide and owner of Inside Out. He takes his responsibility seriously, and is teaching a family of six to “surf” a rapid on the Kananaskis River. The tanned, jovial Australian, who came to Calgary for university and never got around to leaving, is a jack-of-all-trades, punctuating each panic-inducing moment with a crash course in local history.
“See that rock? It isn’t real,” he tells the group. “It was built for that Marilyn Monroe movie, River of No Return. There’s a scene where she’s standing right on top of it.”
After the trip, Pratt talks at even further length about why Kananaskis is such a well-kept secret. “It’s known by locals,” he says, mentioning that they do get a handful of tourists, who add pins to the world map Pratt has up in his adventure centre.
“It’s not Banff, it’s not Jasper. It’s something completely different. You can’t come here to shop; you can’t go here to party. You go for the scenery, and the landscape. It’s meant to be a recreation area for people to come and have fun.”
Pratt says one of the things that makes K-Country perfect for adventure companies is the fact that it isn’t a national park, leaving it free from many restrictions. While Banff National Park has been protected land since Canada’s pioneer days, Kananaskis’ 4,211 sq. kilometres (1,626 sq. miles) are designated as a “multi-use recreation area.” Roughly 50 per cent is protected land, while the rest permits ATVs, forestry, cattle grazing and oil and gas development.
The topography is likewise diversified—the terrain varies from meager foothills to walls of snow-capped peaks. Highwood Pass, in the deep southeast, is the highest road pass in Canada—take a detour on the Valley View Trail, and you have an unobstructed view of the Continental Divide. Around Bragg Creek, however, the terrain is soft and undulating, with a sky big enough to rival the prairies.
Adding to K-Country’s ragbag personality are places such as Kananaskis Village, a slice of luxury in an otherwise wild expanse of parkland. The area is home Nakiska Resort, a ski hill built specifically for the 1988 Winter Olympics; the Delta Lodge at Kananaskis; and Kananaskis Country Golf Course, which hosted the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, Italy and Japan in 2002 for the G8 Summit.
“When (George) Bush arrived, he shook my hand and said, ‘I just want to say, you live in the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen,’” says Darren Robinson, general manager at the Kananaskis Country Golf Course.
Like Andrew Pratt, Robinson is a self-appointed ambassador for K-Country, though his area of expertise is decidedly more refined. As he drives his golf cart past white-shoed golfers and million-dollar views, he boasts about Robert Trent Jones Sr., the architect who designed the course in 1980 after personally handpicking its location. The course is actually two-in-one: guests can choose either the Mount Lorette or Mount Kidd route, though the latter contains their signature hole, a par 3 island green.
“It’s a world-class facility that all Albertans can afford to play on. You can travel all over the world and only find one spot like this.”
Like everything else in Kananaskis, I’m not surprised to learn that despite its setting, and accolades such as “Best Course in the Canadian Rockies 2005” from SCOREGolf Magazine, it remains a locals’ enclave. Robinson can’t say for sure, but estimates that 85 per cent of his golfers are locals.
“Alberta really treats this like their little jewel,” he says. “It’s close, but at the same time it’s a world away. I wouldn’t trade my job for anything.”
Kananaskis calls to people like Pratt, Robinson, and me—there’s an advantage to being a humbler, oft-ignored little brother: elbow room, and the chance to experience nature without the intrusion of planes, trains, or another gift shop selling shot glasses and maple leaves.KANANASKIS 411
There are many things to do in Kananaskis Country. Here are our picks on how to make your visit a memorable one.
Seasons Steakhouse, Delta Lodge at Kananaskis, 403-591-7711
Kananaskis Country Golf Course, 403-591-7154
Summit Spa & Fitness, Delta Lodge at Kananaskis, 403-591-7711
Upper and Lower Kananaskis Lakes
Inside Out Experience, 403-949-3305
Boundary Ranch, 403-591-7171
Nakiska Resort, 403-591-7777
Canmore Nordic Centre, 403-678-2400
Rent Equipment (canoes, mountain bikes and kayaks)
Kananaskis Outfitters, Kananaskis Village, 403-591-7000
Upper and Lower Kananaskis Lakes
For maps and descriptions, visit a Kananaskis Country information centre, located at Barrier Lake, the Canmore Nordic Centre, Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, and the Elbow Valley, or pick up An Altitude SuperGuide, available at Pages Books.
Easy: Nihani Creek—from Bragg Creek, follow Hwy 66 for 32 km (19.9 m) to the Little Elbow Campground and follow the signs for Loops C, D & E. The trailhead parking lot is next to the suspension bridge. Round trip 5.2 km (3.2 m).
Intermediate: Moose Mountain—from Bragg Creek, drive west on Hwy 66, turn off at the Moose Mountain Ridge Road, and follow it for 9.5 km (5.9 m). Round trip 14.2 km (8.8 m).
Advanced: Junction Mountain Fire Lookout—from Turner Valley, follow the signs for Kananaskis Country. Once you reach the Sheep River Information Centre, continue west for 16.9 km (10.5 m) to the Indian Oils trailhead, then follow the access road to the Sheep River. Round trip 24.4 km (15.1 m).—Sally MacKinnon