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Shops in downtown Banff, Alta. (Jeff Whyte/iStockphoto)
Shops in downtown Banff, Alta. (Jeff Whyte/iStockphoto)

Ian Brown: A city slicker reports on the wild life in Banff Add to ...

The fight came down to ideals versus real estate. Ms. Gilles-Smith, whose tea emporium is off the main drag, pays $50 a square foot; rents on Banff Avenue, the high-traffic frontage, run two to four times that sum, and that’s before “key fees” that can top $100,000. According to Ms. Gilles-Smith, “It’s some of the most expensive commercial real estate in Canada.”

Its owners – three-quarters of Banff’s downtown retail space is owned by six parties – were against a quota on chain stores because it would lower property values. Council voted 5-1 against.

“When you live in a national park,” Ms. Gilles-Smith says, “you’re supposed to protect what is dear to you – a community, a way of life that is unique, a unique perspective on the environment.”

Recently I met a man who has resided in Banff since the late 1930s, “back when it was mainly a summer resort, when it used to be high end,” he said. “People came for two months at a time. Now, Banff is a pretty wild place.” He wasn’t talking about cougars.

But chain stores also go way back here. The Feb. 3, 1933, edition of The Crag & Canyon bears a front-page headline: “Chain stores are menace to a community.” And as Chip Olver, a councillor for the past 19 years, points out, “This town started as a chain. The whole Banff Springs-CP hotel was a chain to bring tourists into the mountains.” Money-making has a pedigree in Banff as long as any white man’s – just not as long as nature’s.

Statistically, I am more likely to be killed by falling airplane parts than I am by a cougar. Or so says Jerry Kobalenko, the author of Forest Cats of North America. We’re skiing on the Cascade fire road, 15 minutes outside town, past the spot where Frances Frost, a 30-year-old cross-country skier, was killed by a two-metre-long cougar at 1 p.m. on Jan. 2, 2001. She is the only human being to have been killed by a cougar in Alberta in 115 years. People in town still talk about that day.

It was an innocent-looking place to die, no more than 200 metres from her car, to which she was headed at the time. Mr. Kobalenko examined the site right after the attack: The cat stalked the woman from the edge of the woods, avoiding the backward thrust of her ski poles, until it took her down by jumping on her back and biting through her spinal cord.

“Avoid that initial attack,” Mr. Kobalenko says, “because it hits you like a ton of bricks.” I do not find this advice reassuring. Still, he says, “unless you have a particular fear of cats, it’s not an issue to be out, even in cougar country.”

That’s the logic of mountain thinking. “It’s part of the culture of being here,” Karsten Heuer, the filmmaking, book-writing president of the Yellowknife to Yukon Conservation Initiative, explains to me. “It’s no different from people accepting the hazards of being mugged when you live in the big city. It’s part of the contract of being here.” He thinks that wild animals make him wilder, more alert. “The fact that in the Bow Valley we can still encounter these animals that can do us harm is a gift. It wakes us up and gives us some of their vitality.”

Or, to put it as an insider at City Hall did, “We don’t stay in our rooms because we know there’s a cougar out there. We prepare for it, and go out. And we don’t not go downtown because we know there’s a McDonald’s there. We know it’s there, it has a role to play, and we’re not going to have it dictate to us.”

These days on my daily trips up Tunnel Mountain, I carry my bear spray 30 per cent of the time. I don’t know why I do when I do, or why I don’t when I don’t. I suspect it has something to do with why people come to live in the mountains, where you can still be surprised every day – by a sharp shift in the weather, by a stark view you never noticed, by a cougar on your log pile, by how little separates the wild from the settled.

It makes logical sense to carry bear spray against cougars (protection against attack), and also not to carry it (far greater odds of setting it off accidentally in your own face), just as there are rational reasons for and against chain stores in a unique setting most Canadians worship. But a life isn’t just about adding up. Out here, among the animals, that can still be true.

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