By Naomi Witherick
Nursing half a cup of coffee in a heliport felt weird. Here I was doing something I did every day, minutes before a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
I was at the Rockies Heli base in Kananaskis, waiting for a helicopter ride across acres of stunning Canadian Rocky terrain, accessing mountain views as I’d never seen them before. Rockies Heli has been whisking visitors on unforgettable flights since 1999, offering summer and winter packages that include heli-snowshoeing, heli-weddings and heli-yoga.
I’d opted for a heli-hiking tour that would soar over the Kananaskis River and surrounding foothills, before touching down for a short hike to beautiful backcountry views.
Bucket-list item? Check!
A helicopter ride had been on my bucket list since I moved to the Canadian Rockies. The tours are the ultimate experience when it comes to exploring the mountains and, having seen incredible photos of the Bow Valley from the sky, I was desperate to see it with my own eyes.
After our complimentary coffee at the heliport, Where editor Keili and I met our fellow passengers for the day – a friendly local couple accompanied by their two young children. We had a quick safety brief then were shown to the waiting helicopter outside.
It was smaller than I expected, with long bendy propellers that (to be honest) didn’t fill me with confidence. It was a windy day and I suddenly had visions of being travelsick on the two kids in front of me as the light aircraft was hurled around by the stormy gusts.
We were strapped in to our seats and adjusted our headsets, then the pilot lifted us a few feet into the air. Despite the wind, our helicopter hovered steadily, turning slowly away from the base then rising towards the foothills. Instantly, my fear of getting sick was calmed by how smooth the ride was.
Soon, we were surrounded by peaks. Displayed like dramatic monuments around us, the mountains looked different from the air. With a close-up view of the pine forest coating their slopes, I could really get a sense of their height. Yet seeing a three-dimensional angle of the rocky peaks from above made them look like mere figurines beneath us. It was as though the mountains looked both bigger and smaller from the air. It was magical.
Our guide pointed out the Kananaskis River, which punctuated the lush green with gaudy turquoise. We followed it to the dazzling Barrier Lake, equally bright in colour but in its sprawling, two-fold shape, looked like a spill of blue paint across the valley floor. It was framed by Mt Baldy and Grant MacEwan peak, where dashes of yellow larches were scattered through the flora.
We rode in silence for a while, digesting the scenery. The views were so dreamlike I had to continually remind myself it was real. I was actually riding in a helicopter, on an iconic Canadian Rockies experience.
My trance-like state was interrupted when we touched down on a grassy hillside where sharp gusts of wind literally took my breath away as I stepped down from the helicopter. The viewpoint offered a spectacular view of where the flat Kananaskis plains suddenly rise to countless lofty peaks.
Our guide led us to the nearby forest, finding a barely traceable trail through the dense trees. I took in every part of the walk: the pine scent-filled air, the rich carpet of moss beneath my feet and the bark-stripped trunks that lay as obstacles in our path.
After the rhythmic thudding of the helicopter, the quietness of the forest was bliss. Occasionally, a squirrel’s chirp would break the silence, but it didn’t detract from the wholesome feeling of being in complete and isolated wilderness.
We emerged at a clearing to views of foothills coated in dense forest, extending to snow-capped rocky peaks in the distance. Sipping hot chocolate and gazing at what lay before me, again, I had to remind myself this was real.
I knew it would be a short flight back to base, so I savoured every moment. And when our helicopter did eventually drop over the hillside to begin our descent, I took a final look at the mountains, knowing the views from the car on the way back home (though beautiful) wouldn’t quite be the same.
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