Kids in the Rockies! A wild family adventure in Canada’s natural adventure playground
We call the next part the wake-up call,’ said our guide and captain, Andrea, an expert canoeist from Quebec.
‘It’s just a foretaste, really.
Then we get a minute’s break, and after that, the fun really starts. So here it comes … Get ready to paddle, right side … NOW!’ Crashing into the wave made by the first rapid, we obeyed Andrea’s instructions.
And then the 15-mile ride began – a drenching, freezing and utterly exhilarating aquatic bucking bronco down the Sunwapta River, near the resort of Jasper in the Canadian Rockies.
Into the wilderness: There is fantastic white-water rafting to be had at Sunwapta Falls…just don’t get too close to the edge!
For the first 30 minutes after launching, the river is mostly calm and flat, allowing the six of us in Andrea’s inflatable vessel to practise whitewater rafting’s essential skills.
For example, on the command of ‘get down!’, the ability to crouch in the bottom of the boat and cling on for dear life is vital.
After that gentle introduction, the rapids barely relented throughout the following hour.
Clad in helmets, wetsuits and waterproof jackets, we rode the river at what felt like the same downward angle as the winter ski pistes on the craggy mountains above us.
We paddled frantically on Andrea’s orders, negotiating narrows between pairs of giant boulders and swinging at speed through sweeping curves, determined not to collide with the jagged, rocky banks.
All too soon (in fact, after a total of two hours) it came to an end.
But much as we might have liked to continue, we knew that beaching the raft at the correct location was very important. Two hundred yards further on, the river plunges over Sunwapta Falls – a vertical drop of 300ft, which, remarkably enough, one young canoeist is said to have survived.
Super soaker: David (back left) and son Jacob (middle right) get to grips with the foaming waters of the Sunwapta River
The Sunwapta plunges into a vertiginous gorge less than 6ft wide.
There’s a path that runs parallel to the river – and it’s a thrill in itself as one strolls by the side of huge vertical drops.
Rafting the Sunwapta was only one of many highlights of two weeks in Alberta in August with my wife Carolyn, and sons, Jacob, 13, and Daniel, eight.
To Daniel’s lasting disappointment, he was deemed to be too light to risk the Sunwapta rapids, although he was able to enjoy two earlier, somewhat less tumultuous trips – on the nearby Athabasca, and the Bow, 180 miles further south at Banff.
Our trip began with a flight from London to Calgary, where we spent three nights at the stylish Hotel Arts.
Thankfully, given that the boys were waking up at 2am as they struggled to adjust their body clocks, the hotel has soundproof rooms.
To be honest, as a city Calgary isn’t all that interesting. It’s a bit like an American oil town such as Houston, only much further north.
But just outside the city is the park built to stage the 1988 Winter Olympics. Still a winter sports mecca, the site contains one fantastic attraction in summer which even Daniel was able to enjoy: one of the world’s longest and fastest zip-wire rides, a 1,600ft thrill rigged from the top of the big ski jump.
It’s so fast you have to deploy a mini-parachute in order to stop – something no 53-year-old child (ie, me) could possibly resist.
Calgary was also a convenient base from which to drive to the Royal Tyrrell Museum at Drumheller, amid the shale canyons where about half of the dinosaurs ever dug up have been discovered.
Apart from its vast and extremely imaginative galleries, where tyrannosauruses seem still to be leaping at their prey, the museum offers visitors the chance to join palaeontologists at their excavations, and to make casts from real dinosaur teeth.
However, the Rockies were the main event and as a reporter almost as grizzled as the two bears we managed to glimpse from the stupendous Icefields Parkway it embarrasses me to admit I cannot properly find the words to describe them.
What I can say is the scenery we travelled through was so continuously magnificent, the things we did in it were so thrilling, and the people we met so unaffectedly warm, one really does run out of superlatives.
Boys own adventure: David’s sons Jacob, left, and Daniel take a brief rest in front of an imposing glacier at Mt Edith Cavell in Jasper
I’ve trekked, climbed and skied in the Alps and Himalayas many times, and although the Canadian Rockies are lower (at 13,000ft above sea level, their highest summit, Mount Robson, is well below the altitude of the 15,800ft Mt Blanc) their landscape and atmosphere are unique.
We realised this on our first day in Banff, when we walked to the top of Sulphur Mountain from the gondola that whisks passengers upwards from the town.
For a highland resort, Banff is unusually swish, with a number of excellent restaurants, hotels and trendy boutiques.
But from our perch 3,000ft above its streets, it shrank into insignificance, revealed as a tiny outpost amid a colossal wilderness that even now remains untamed. Ridge after precipitous ridge stretched to every horizon, many adorned with snow and glaciers.
In the Alps, a big, deep valley such as the one we gazed into would sport roads, farms and villages.
Here it was empty of all but forest and the wildlife for which it provides a habitat. At the base of the Sulphur Mountain you find the hot springs of the Cave and Basin Historic Site.
The next morning, we rode round the mountain on horseback.
Half an hour from the road and stables on a rough muddy trail between the trees, it felt truly remote – the kind of place where you could, if not careful, find yourself in serious trouble.
A day or two later we went for a stunning high-level walk around the lakes above one of the winter ski areas with Alex Mowat, a fearsomely knowledgeable local guide.
As we set off, he gave the Canadian version of a yodel: not to express the simple joy of hiking the narrows in the mountains, ‘but to let the bears know we’re here, knocking at the door of their home’. Bears not taken by surprise, he explained, are much less likely to attack.
But unless you’re stupid or very unlucky, the bears you might happen to meet in Alberta are, in general, unlikely to do you much harm.
Much more dangerous – and far more common – are elks.
At the Banff tourist office there’s a photograph of a man who got too close to one that charged straight at his car – and virtually destroyed it.
In Banff, we stayed at the Fairmont Banff Springs, a faux baronial castle with an epic view down the Bow River and to the peaks beyond.
One of Canada’s grandest hotels, it’s the sort of place you can’t help but be sorry to leave.
Here’s looking at you: A towering dinosaur at the Royal Tyrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta
However, any sadness we might have felt was soon mitigated on arrival at another Fairmont property, the Jasper Park Lodge.
This low-rise complex of spacious chalets sits on the shores of a still, silent lake. Its waters reflect the dazzling white sail that is the north face of Mt Edith Cavell, which we later explored on foot close up.
Here you need to be careful.
Occasionally, thousand-ton icebergs tumble down the mountain’s Angel Glacier and explode, blasting everything in the vicinity.
Our guide, Paula Beauchamp, showed us photos she had taken of one such moment of impact that happened two weeks before our hike.
Had anyone been strolling beneath the glacier snout at that time, they would probably have been killed.
Overall, Jasper, first built as a Canadian Pacific railway town, is a little more laidback than Banff, and its surroundings even wilder.
Nearby Maligne Lake, its azure waters fringed by ice peaks, has to be one of the world’s most exquisite beauty-spots. You can rent a canoe or a rowing boat at the lake, or take a cruise up towards the glaciers.
Yet another literal high point was a ‘helicopter hike’ when, after skimming the summits around the Cline Glacier, roughly halfway between Banff and Jasper, we landed by a foaming river beneath the cliffs.
This was true remoteness: had anything gone wrong with the aircraft here, it would have taken days to reach civilisation.
As we hiked upstream towards a mighty waterfall, we had to ford the river, bracing ourselves against the current.
On the far bank, we entered a dense conifer forest and came across fresh animal droppings.
We’d seen the nature guidebooks, and we knew what animal they came from: a grizzly bear. It was time for another yodel.
We didn’t spend all our time on strenuous pursuits. There were also afternoons relaxing by the hotel pools, and we enjoyed some memorable meals.
But be warned: Canadian restaurant wine prices are outrageous.
For most of the month before we arrived, it had rained almost continuously. But for us, the weather was perfect, allowing us to enjoy these amazing mountains to the full.
For an active family holiday, the Alberta Rockies are difficult to beat.
Virgin Holidays (0844 557 3859, virginholidays.co.uk) offers seven nights in Banff from £1,125pp including return flights with Air Canada from Heathrow to Calgary and accommodation at the Fairmont Banff Springs on a room-only basis.
Prices are based on departures on April 15, 2013. Rooms at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge start at £190 per night on a bed and breakfast basis. Visit fairmont.com.
Rooms at the Hotel Arts in Calgary start at £95 per night.