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You’ll encounter a few ghosts of Skoki past and present at Canada’s oldest backcountry ski lodge.
You’ll encounter a few ghosts of Skoki past and present at Canada’s oldest backcountry ski lodge.

Going cross-country in Banff Add to ...

Skoki Lodge has had almost 80 years to modernize, but people still love it for what it lacks: Electricity. Running water. Internet. Cellphone service. Plumbing. Road access.

And, since midnight in our cabin, heat.

So, at 3 a.m. and -30 Celsius, I've walked to the manager's cabin. My bare hand, hovering above his door, is about to flash-freeze. I hesitate until I remember the premium I paid for a private cabin. I knock loudly. "Sorry about this, Leo. Our heater quit working and we can't get it started. Can you take a look at it?"

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My Christmas Eve tradition has been to cross-country ski the accessible, familiar trails in Kananaskis, west of Calgary. But last year I decided to quit flirting with the outdoor experience and consummate the fantasy: Remote and renowned, Skoki Lodge was my choice.

Skoki is the oldest backcountry ski lodge in Canada, possibly North America. It was built in Banff National Park in 1930, 19 kilometres north of the Lake Louise townsite, and, despite a few additions, it hasn't changed much in the decades since. While modern resort chains spend lavishly to differentiate their brands, the charismatic Skoki belches more charm up its chimney in one evening than you'll find at so many competitors. Skoki offers the ultimate old-school Christmas.

But first you have to get there.

The trail to Skoki begins halfway up the mountain at the Lake Louise ski area. After locating the trail (no easy feat), we planted our poles and pushed into the forest toward a resort that, at 2,440 metres, is the highest lodging in any Canadian national park.

We are experienced classic cross-country skiers, but for this adventure we rented ski touring gear, mostly for the assurance of having climbing skins (removable strips that attach to the bottom of your skis to grip during the uphill parts of an excursion). Our backpacks held extra clothes, a trail lunch, hot tea and emergency supplies.

The -27 temperature motivated us to move quickly along the ungroomed 11-kilometre trail. We glided through the Coral Creek Valley, thick with snow-covered conifers. After four kilometres, we pulled up beside the Halfway Hut, a log building known to be haunted by the ghosts of four Skoki visitors who perished in avalanches in the 1930s. It's possible that while standing there I felt a chill up my spine courtesy of a spectral presence from a warmer dimension. If so, I confused it with the air temperature in this one. We gobbled our sandwiches and tried to drink bottled water that was nearly frozen.

We soon crested Boulder Pass and skied onto the white expanse of Ptarmigan Lake. Wind had almost obliterated the trail, so we spent a few anxious minutes looking for a trail marker. If visibility had been poor, we would have had to turn around. Sighting a marker, we climbed Deception Pass that, at 8,200 feet, was the highest point and best cardio workout of the trail. Now above the tree line, we felt as if we could touch the sun that hung low in the sky. We looked back at the stunning view before descending to the sheltered Skoki Valley for our final 3.5-kilometre stretch. After 31/2 hours of skiing, the lodge appeared through the trees.

Crossing the lodge's threshold, we found ourselves in a building crafted from hand-cut logs, with wooden furniture and floors, and stone fireplaces. All of it was designated a National Historic Site in 1992. Katie Mitzel, who co-manages the lodge with her husband, Leo, greeted her first guests of the season with hot soup and muffins.

That night, we were included in the family's Christmas Eve ritual. For us, her husband and two young children, Katie dished out gourmet-calibre cuisine that seemed incongruent to a place she gets water for by chopping a hole in the creek ice.

Katie and Leo have managed Skoki since 2003. With help from a couple of live-in staff, they fix everything and feed everyone. After their kids went to bed to await Santa, we quizzed Leo and Katie about their status as the highest-elevation family in Canada. "I started working here in 1998 and can't ever imagine leaving," Katie said. "It is who I have become … the mountains, the wildness, the remoteness. Life makes sense out here and only gets confusing when we come out."

Fatigue soon made us bid goodnight and head to our cabin. Our Honeymoon Cabin had a king bed, cozy down comforter and propane heater. We got our morning wash water by packing a porcelain dish with snow and putting it on the stove.

Under a sky sprayed with shimmering stars, I detoured to the lodge's unheated, unlit outhouse, my flashlight illuminating a toilet seat thickly coated in ice crystals. The next day, perhaps fuelling the local ghost lore, staff spoke of hearing an anguished falsetto shriek from somewhere in the darkness.

On Christmas morning, we watched the kids unwrap their gifts, then we put on our skis and explored the nearby valleys and slopes. Hearty sandwiches, veggies and baked goods were provided as brown-bag lunches. Midafternoon, we returned to sit by the lodge fire, sip mint tea and study the books, photos and historic artifacts that line the lodge.

Among them, signs of Skoki's Boston connections: One of Skoki's founders was Boston debutante Catharine Robb, who moved here in 1930 to be with her husband, artist Peter Whyte of Banff. The Whytes helped build Skoki Lodge, and the guests from Boston made their way west. Seventy-eight years later, the East Coast influx continued when a group of Bostonians arrived, followed by a solo Japanese traveller who spoke no English. They were in time for Christmas dinner, a candlelit cornucopia punctuated by people shouting praise back to the kitchen. The Japanese traveller communicated only through gestures, but his constant smile lit up one end of the long dinner table.

At 3 a.m., Leo dutifully came to our cabin to repair the heater, but was defeated by it. I

finished the night on a couch in the main lodge. After breakfast, it was time to ski back to civilization. We thanked Katie and Leo for showing us that, even though we don't have the courage or skills to live in our own natural paradise, we can always come to Skoki and rent theirs.

***

Pack your bags

HOW TO GET THERE Major airlines have scheduled service to Calgary International Airport. Car rentals are available, and both Brewster and Greyhound offer scheduled bus service from Calgary to Lake Louise.

WHERE TO STAY Lake Louise Alpine Centre Get an early start on your ski-in to Skoki by staying the previous night in Lake Louise. Even though it's a hostel, the 164-bed Lake Louise Alpine Centre is charming. Jointly owned by Hostelling International (HI) and the Alpine Club of Canada, it offers good food at Bill Peyto's licensed café, as well as fireplaces, vaulted ceilings, an enormous self-catering kitchen and private family rooms from $87 for HI members, and shared rooms from $31. 203 Village Rd., Lake Louise; 1-866-762-4122; www.hihostels.ca. Skoki Lodge 1-877-956-8473; skokilodge@skilouise.com; www.skoki.com.

WHAT TO BRING The ski-in to Skoki Lodge can expose you to extremely cold alpine weather. Wear adequate warm, breathable clothes and have windproof pants and jacket ready. Gaiters are recommended. Be able to make repairs to your equipment. Pack a lunch and adequate liquids, plus sunglasses and sun block, and a first-aid kit. At the lodge, you will need comfortable casual clothes for daytime and sleeping, warm socks, toiletries and a flashlight. Indoor shoes or slippers are nice but not necessary, as your ski boots can be worn for walking about the property.

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