The Sunshine Village Slush Cup celebrates the last day of lift skiing in the Rocky Mountains. In front of a thousand spectators, 65 skiers schuss a 150-metre drop, fly over a lippy jump and attempt to skim, on skis and snowboards, across the 30-metre-long, 2.5-metre-deep pit of ice-cold water that waits frigidly on the other side.
Very few make it, but winning isn’t everything. The point of the Slush Cup, held Monday, is to simultaneously pay one’s respects to the end of winter and the beginning of spring.
While the rest of the country was lining up to buy geraniums over Victoria Day weekend, Banff was waving goodbye to nine months of winter and feverishly embracing two short months of summer. They go summery fast out this way, because they don’t have a moment to lose.
Up high, at 2,160 metres, Sunshine is an Archie comic come to life: women skiing in bikinis, men snowboarding in banana hammocks, everyone in (and some possibly on) ecstasy. A young man in a kilt and a “Fort McMurray mullet” is playing golf down each of the runs he skis. Another is D’Artagnan, of Victor Hugo’s Three Musketeers – no, wrong, he’s Captain Morgan, of the rum. Natch, dude.
Prizes are awarded for biggest splash, biggest air, best costume, Mr. Slush Cup, Mrs. Slush Cup. Miles Horton, a 24-year-old Englishman now of Calgary, is clad in a polar bear costume, 40 per cent of which is head. “We just met a guy in the parking lot, and he had an extra costume,” Mr. Horton explains. The guy in the parking lot was going as a pink rabbit. Mr. Horton is not hopeful: “I’m hoping not to drown.” Meg Omand , a 22-year-old biology student at the University of Alberta, is entering for the first time – “and probably the last” – as “a Baywatch Barbie,” in a red one-piece bathing suit and a blond wig. “I’m going for Miss Slush Cup,” she says, “because there’s only four girls.”
Lower down, in the town of Banff, signs of spring are just as bracing. The first wave of the summer’s 3.2-million tourists arrived on Saturday. Traffic instantly slowed to funeral pace, and you could dream up a PhD thesis topic in the time it took to round a corner through the 5,000 pedestrians and 1,800 cars that pass through the town’s main intersections every hour on a busy weekend. The town is experimenting with angled slots and all-way pedestrian crossings to alleviate its chronic parking shortage. The sewage system is built to withstand 35,000 flushes at once. You know, just in case.
The locals are crazy for spring. The temperature dropped to -18 in the first week of May, but I saw people hiking in shorts in March. Most Banffites had completed the biannual gear changeover by mid-May, as winter sports evolve into summer ones.
Then there’s the clothing issue.
“You have to remember where we are, in the mountains,” explains Connie MacDonald, a 40-ish mother who works for CMH Heli-Skiing. Skating, snowshoeing, curling, downhill and cross-country skiing gear goes into storage in May; out comes tennis, hiking, biking (mountain and road), stand-up paddle-boarding (the latest fad in Banff), canoeing and golf, all in a climate that requires at least three layers in any season. Ms. MacDonald owns at least 50 jackets. Her friend Sharon Oakley, co-owner of Abominable Sports, owns that and eight bikes. Both women give away 20 jackets a year to the charities and thrift shops, which in turn sell them to the Mexicans and Filipinos who staff Banff’s shops and restaurants, and whose appearance is another sign spring is nigh. The Help Wanted sections of the local newspapers are as fat as the ravens, and the ravens are as fat as Hells Angels.
In the days when the Banff Springs Hotel shut down for winter, its opening was a sure sign of spring. Nowadays you can tell from the sound of RVs and buses on the highway. No Vacancy signs began flowering this weekend.
The town spruces up in spring. Last Friday, Parks Canada reopened its $13.8-million renovation of the Cave and Basin hot springs, which were discovered by accident in 1883 by three railwaymen and led directly to the creation of the national park system and a multibillion-dollar tourist industry. (William McCardle and Frank McCabe, the discoverers, had no sooner laid claim to the hot springs when John A. Macdonald decreed they could not; they were paid off with $600.)
Catkins appeared on the willow bushes two weeks ago. But experienced gardeners in Banff wait at least three more weeks before they plant their gardens and change their snow tires. And even then no one takes the ice-and-snow scraper out of the car, given that it snows in June (and sometimes in July and August). “It’s easier than using a credit card,” says Chip Olver, a long-time resident and town councillor.
The famous mountain daylight is already endless, heading toward the solstice, a turning point everyone talks about and celebrates. You can read by natural light at 7 a.m. these days, and you can keeping reading until nearly 10 at night. But lingering storms and snow keep hikers out of the high mountains until June, and the aspens don’t fully green up until as late as July. Spring in the Rockies is hesitant, changeable, unsure of its progress.
No wonder hot dogs and hamburger buns sell out across town on nice weekends: There aren’t that many days when you can have a barbecue, and when you can, everyone does. Mosquitos – large, but (so far) timid compared to their Mafia cousins in Saskatchewan – appeared a week ago. The national downhill ski-cross team was practicing at Sunshine until last Friday, on a model of the course that will be set next year at the Sochi Olympics, but the giant mountain magpies have been strutting their bright blue chests since March. It’s still chilly to walk on the shady side of a street.
Jon Whyte, the late poet and chronicler of Banff, called winter “a time of reduction,” and hated November. But he adored the strung-out mountain spring, when the elk moult. Mountain humans moult faster and more eagerly, especially as the winter warms away. (Maybe that’s why so many men in the Slush Cup dress in drag.) Al Matheson, the manager of operations at Sunshine, figures “meltdown” – the point at which snowmobiles can’t be used any more – will occur mid-June.
But it’s never as total as it sounds. By Sept. 15, Mr. Matheson will be “snow-farming,” and by Nov. 11 they’ll be skiing again. Just in time for remembrance – of springs past.