Skip to main content

Yoho National Park Yoho has 38 peaks over 3,000 metres in height, dramatically justifying its name, which is Cree for 'awe.'Tourism BC/JF Bergeron

Better to carry bear spray on the belt than a BlackBerry.

Both, of course, are irritating - one to black bears and grizzlies, the other to fellow diners, airport travellers, friends and family - but only one, the bear spray, has even the remotest chance of being used in these parts, and even that is extremely unlikely.

For the only service you'll get in Yoho National Park is at a restaurant - after that, forget it.

"But I just wanna get the baseball scores," says a nearly frantic American at the reception desk for Cathedral Mountain Lodge, a sumptuous log-cabin retreat that sits rather breathtakingly along the shores of the tumbling Kicking Horse River.

Sorry, he is advised, but all there is for farther than the eye can see in this ring of towering mountains is a single land line, and it takes longer than a double-header just to connect.

Eventually, the few locals say, you get used to it. Keith Wake lives in nearby Field - which claims to be one of the only "towns" (pop. 132) in Canada's vast national parks system- and is a typical 19-year-old each winter when he heads off to Golden to play junior hockey for the Rockets. He lives by his cellphone, e-mail and the Internet. But summers he comes home to handle rentals for Emerald Lake Sports and Gifts and goes "un-plugged" right until training camp.

"You're so used to it that whenever you head out you check," he laughs, tapping his pockets and belt for an imaginary cellphone. "But then, after a little while, you don't even think about it.

"You even get to like it."

He is hardly the first to offer such urban blaspheme. "Every so often," American naturalist John Murphy has written, "a disappearance is in order. A vanishing. A checking out. An indeterminate period of unavailability." And Yoho National Park - smaller than eastern neighbour Banff, but wilder and higher - is unavailability personified.

"What wilderness should be doing," thought the late great Canadian canoeist Bill Mason, "is speaking to our soul and teaching us about being quiet."

All fine and well, Bill, but the contrary advice out here in this particular wilderness is to make noise. Sing, clap your hands, carry a stick that you can periodically strike against a passing tree or rock - a sort of Morse code of the bush that tells bears that idiots are passing through and best not to be seen with them.

In one long hike and climb up to a sub-alpine meadow - beauty beyond words, with paintbrush and western anemone turning the landscape to a Wizard of Oz field of colour - we encountered a nurse from Seattle who, after starting out alone, had wisely thought better of it and turned back to find other hikers she might join. Her strategy for dealing with bears: She carried her iPad held out in front, with Louis Armstrong jazz on full blast.

They recommend you travel in noisy groups of four or more in the early days between late spring melt and early summer as the grizzlies move from lower ground to higher and, for the most part, out of thought. In nearly a week of hiking low ground, middle ground and high ground, we saw only three black bears - and all three from our vehicle while driving to get to the trails. On the actual trails, nothing. And this, without a note from Louis Armstrong.

In their rather-eccentric-but-charming book Don't Waste Your Time in the Canadian Rockies ("The Opinionated Hiking Guide"), Kathy and Craig Copeland claim that Yoho boasts "the heaviest concentration of high-impact scenery" to be found in the western mountain ranges.

Yoho has 38 peaks over 3,000 metres in height, dramatically justifying its name, which is Cree for "awe." The rest of the world, it sometimes appears, is more impressed by this awe than are those with the strongest claim on Yoho. "You're the first Canadians I've had this year," says one guide. He lists Germans, Dutch, Belgian, Spanish, Australian, New Zealand, South African and American… but no Canadians until this late June day.

The park dates from 1886 - celebrating its 125th while Parks Canada marks its 100th - and is as much a creation of the railroad as rail was fashioned by the terrain. Cornelius Van Horne, the man charged with putting the Canadian Pacific Railway through as part of the Confederation's commitment to British Columbia, saw that the extraordinary costs of building through such hostile terrain might be offset by visitors who would be as awed by the mountains as the builders were frustrated by them.

"Since we can't export the scenery," Van Horne declared, "we shall have to import the tourists."

Van Horne was an imaginative salesman. When he trolled through Europe in search of investors, he would pretend to be chilled by the winds of Florence and loudly state how he pined for Winnipeg "to thaw me" out. So concerned was Ottawa's Department of the Interior with potential visitors being put off by the long, hard winters that they banned the use of "frost" and "cold" in brochures, using "buoyant" instead. Buoyant, it turns out, would describe perfectly an early summer evening, when the cabin fireplaces at Cathedral Mountain Lodge become welcome places of worship.

Field, incidentally, is named after American financier Cyrus Field, who was brought here by the CPR's Donald Smith to see if he might like to invest in the railroad's scheme to put a line through and bring tourists in. They not only gave his name to the town but to a nearby mountain, Mount Field, though in the end Field never invested so much as a penny.

Perhaps that's where the "priceless" ads found their inspiration, for once travellers have paid their park entrance fees, pretty much everything is free apart from campsite or lodge costs and food. You can walk or nearly drive to such water attractions as the natural stone bridge, spectacular Takakkaw Falls (spurting out of the hills 250 metres up like a giant fire hose) and thundering Wapta Falls. You can take a guide-controlled hike up to the Burgess Shale, a 500-million-year-old fossil site that is considered the "best" ever discovered and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can walk completely around - or canoe, if you prefer - Emerald Lake, taking in spectacular vistas of Mount Burgess, which once graced the back of the $10 bill, and marvelling at the lake's colour that is the result of glacier-created "rock flour" that reflects the blues and greens of the spectrum. And then, of course, there are the far more ambitious back-country hikes. For those who book well in advance and prefer to avoid a 22-km round-trip hike, there is a bus shuttle available to take you in to the Lake O'Hara area, long a favourite of landscape artists and photographers.

The great attraction, however, remains the very mountains that at one point seemed impenetrable to those seeking a pass through the Selkirk Range of high peaks. Cathedral Mountain is not only the subject of Group of Seven artist Arthur Lismer's most famous painting, it is one of the central "conquests" of driven British clergyman James Outram, who set out to scale every peak in the park and managed 28 "first to the top" climbs in merely two climbing seasons, 1901 and 1902.

It was only on "solitary mountaintops," Outram claimed, that he was able to find "the long-sought sanctuary of the storm-tossed soul."

That, of course, sounds a tad severe - what comfort, one wonders, did this man find in his work? - and we much prefer the thinking of John Muir, the Scot who briefly lived in Canada and went on to found the Sierra Club.

"One day's exposure to mountains," believed Muir, an avid reader of adventure stories, "is better than a cartload of books."

And much better, it goes without saying, than a work message on your BlackBerry.