“People get religion here,” Rick Reynolds says.
The Parks Canada visitor experience manager – and yes, he's heard all the “Ranger Rick” jokes – is standing at the foot of a giant cedar that was already big when Christopher Columbus sighted what he mistakenly took to be the East Indies. There are massive cedars as far as the eye can see, up and down, giving one the sense of entering a Lilliputian world mere steps off the Trans-Canada Highway.
At trail's end, Reynolds opens up a covered visitors' register that invites comments. “Just check a couple of pages here,” he says, “and I guarantee you'll come up with something about spirituality.”
True enough. “This is a holy place,” writes one visitor from the Netherlands.
“Thank you, Canada,” write several visitors from various parts of the world.
“We just did it in the forest!” penned a young couple from Calgary whose names are available but omitted here out of mercy.
There are almost as many surprises as a Jonathan Swift novel holds in Revelstoke and Glacier national parks, two of the smaller Parks Canada treasures that are separated by a quiet 16-kilometre stretch of the Trans-Canada and bordered by the town of Golden to the northeast and Revelstoke to the southwest.
Don't let the nearby presence of thriving towns fool you, though. While accommodation is handily available at both, the parks feel hugely isolated. “Perfectly located somewhere close to nowhere,” is the motto of Heather Mountain Lodge, a quaint motel (with excellent dining) on the very edge of Glacier.
There are more than 400 glaciers in Glacier National alone. While the two parks hold massive, sloping mountains from the Selkirk, Purcell and Monashee ranges, making the area attractive to adventurous skiers, Glacier boasts the only mountain that visitors can “summit” in their own vehicle once the massive snowpack melts and the Meadows in the Sky Parkway opens. Skunk Cabbage Trail is simply bizarre – giant skunk cabbages giving the sense of a jungle in Canada's only interior rain forest. And, of course, there is Rogers Pass National Historic Site, where tragedy, engineering marvels and stubborn humanity finally produced the link that brought British Columbia into Confederation.
Reynolds calls these smaller parks “the flip side of Banff and Jasper,” which lie to the east. There is so much avalanche activity here that one of the more unusual winter and spring attractions is the presence of the Canadian military firing 105mm Howitzers off the highway and into the hills to trigger fault lines that avalanche experts have identified.
Those who come here are also different from those who travel to Banff and Jasper. Two out of every three travellers to Revelstoke and Glacier are international, usually from Alpine countries. And though most parks, and the national parks in general, have suffered slight drops in the number of annual visitors, numbers have gone up in Revelstoke and Glacier even following the 2001 terrorist attacks and the 2008 economic collapse. They are, in a way, still being discovered.
“My vision,” Reynolds says, “is that one day the word gets out about us to Canadians.”
It once was. In the late 1800s, Glacier House rivalled the great hotels at Banff and Lake Louise as a premier tourist stop. Though there remains only crumbling concrete foundation posts, looking oddly like an ancient graveyard, Glacier House was once a place for the privileged, with fountains in the ponds, a bowling alley, croquet on the lawns, horse trails and even specially imported Swiss guides to take guests up into the mountains and to a backcountry tea house.
The end began on March 4, 1910, when an avalanche buried a work crew out trying to clear railway tracks of an earlier slide. The horror shocked Canadians – some of the 58 bodies recovered were still frozen in a standing position – and a great outcry followed over safety along the mountain rail lines.
By 1911, the toll from “The White Death” had reached 200 lives lost. Instead of continuing to ride the steep climb over Rogers Pass, the decision was made to build the Connaught Tunnel. With trains no longer stopping at Glacier House, the stately resort fell into ruin and closed in the mid-1920s. For decades, Glacier remained a national park so forgotten it might as well have been in the Far North. Visitors were rare until the Trans-Canada Highway was completed. A plaque near the Rogers Pass Visitors Centre commemorates the highway's official opening on Sept. 3, 1962, by prime minister John Diefenbaker.
Today, the visitor centre is a prime attraction, with a moving “Memory Garden” in honour of the rail workers who died in that 1910 slide. As 32 of the workers were Japanese, the garden has a Japanese motif, including a giant crane sculpture and a sand “Zen garden” where visitors are welcome to rake a design into the sand.
The centre also boasts displays and information on glaciers and even glacier shrinkage for visiting climate-change deniers. It was here, thanks to a scientific family called Vaux, that photographic note was taken in the late 1800s and early 1900s that the massive Illecillewaet Glacier was shrinking. It is now believed that from 1850 to 2000, glaciers in the park have shrunk by an average of nearly 60 per cent.
A multidimensional theatre opened at the centre in July, featuring a semi-wraparound effect using different screens to give visitors a sense of skiing in deep snow, fighting forest fires from a helicopter, working a snowplow and even what it is like to be caught in an avalanche.
Still, the critical thing remains not the amusements but the adventures, not the roadside attractions but the off-road attractions. It is found in the valleys and along the milky, tumbling rivers and is most magnificently and magically discovered on a steep and long climb to one of the many sub-alpine meadows, where visitors from other parts of the country and other parts of the world find wildflowers they cannot name but will never forget.
At the end of a long day walking pretty much “nowhere,” parks guide Reynolds tells me about a survey they conducted.
“We gave out questionnaires and we got 3,500 back. And what people told us they wanted from their national park experience was pretty simple:
“Peace and tranquillity.”
Globe Travel visited courtesy of Parks Canada.