How to see the Canadian Rockies through an indigenous and female lens - Scotland on Sunday Travel

Hike while the bears hibernate, learn the offerings of the forest and cross-country ski in this winter wonderland.
Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada. Pic: Alamy/PABanff National Park, Alberta, Canada. Pic: Alamy/PA
Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada. Pic: Alamy/PA

It’s what they call a Bluebird Day – a clear sky and almost blindingly white snow in the sunshine, which makes me squint when I am eventually brave enough to look up.

Strapped into cross-country skis, I’ve shimmied my way along a marked-out track to the most beautiful opening in the woods from where I am once again struck by the majesty of the Rocky Mountains before me.

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With Alberta generally enjoying more than 300 days of sunshine each year, it’s no wonder everyone we meet fits the stereotype of a cheery, friendly Canadian.

Cross-country skiing in the Rockies. Pic: Aine Fox/PACross-country skiing in the Rockies. Pic: Aine Fox/PA
Cross-country skiing in the Rockies. Pic: Aine Fox/PA

On my week-long adventure, I am excited to discover the beauty of this place through a female lens, with indigenous nature walks and locally foraged food.

This vast western state is more than twice the size of the UK and is a mix of flat, prairie land and towering mountains.

I’m lucky enough to meet some of the outdoorsy, adventurous women who call it home.

Tourists flock to Calgary – the province’s largest city – in the summer for the famous Calgary Stampede (the world’s largest outdoor rodeo) and nearby Banff for the Rocky Mountains, sparkling lakes and lush green forest.

Guide Heather Black leads a tour to Grotto Canyon, Alberta, Canada. Pic: Aine Fox/PAGuide Heather Black leads a tour to Grotto Canyon, Alberta, Canada. Pic: Aine Fox/PA
Guide Heather Black leads a tour to Grotto Canyon, Alberta, Canada. Pic: Aine Fox/PA

But on my winter wonderland trip I am lucky enough to get to walk on water and hike while the bears hibernate. Winters last around five months in Alberta, roughly until around the end of March.

Hiring a car is probably the best way to get around, but visitors can get from Calgary to Banff in the Rockies with various operators including a shuttle from Calgary airport.

Before heading up into the mountains, keen walkers can make use of trails around the city, with Calgary having the most extensive urban pathway and bikeway network in North America.

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While the mountains attract snowboarders and experienced skiers, my naturally risk-averse nature means I prefer slower-paced adventures, so our morning of cross-country skiing in Bow Valley – between Banff and Lake Louise – has been a perfect start to the day.

Strawberries and beetroot at Sauvage restaurant, Alberta. Pic: Aine Fox/PAStrawberries and beetroot at Sauvage restaurant, Alberta. Pic: Aine Fox/PA
Strawberries and beetroot at Sauvage restaurant, Alberta. Pic: Aine Fox/PA

Wanting to get deeper into the forest to explore the breathtaking scenery around the Rockies, I join a tour along the Grotto Canyon Trail with Heather Black. Known as Buffalo Stone Woman, she aims to show visitors the beauty of nature from an indigenous perspective, regaling stories of how people have lived in harmony with the wildlife and used local plants and herbs as medicines for decades.

Heather is very open to answering questions on the settlers’ troubled relationship with her native ancestors. Around a decade ago, the Canadian government apologised and asked forgiveness from “the aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly”.

As we travel into Canmore, around an hour’s drive from Calgary, we’re made aware of what is known as a “pledge to the peaks”, which acknowledges we are in the Treaty 7 Territory region of Southern Alberta, encompassing the traditional lands of various First Nations tribes and noting the need for respect as we remember we are guests in their home.

Heather tells me she wants to share the beauty of the area with visitors, to educate people on how nature and humans can live together peacefully, a hopeful wish for the future in contrast to the pain of the past.

Trekking in the Canadian Rockies. Pic: Aine Fox/PATrekking in the Canadian Rockies. Pic: Aine Fox/PA
Trekking in the Canadian Rockies. Pic: Aine Fox/PA

Our hike begins with a calming and mindful smudge ceremony, where each of the group is handed a small patch of leather to thread into a keepsake pouch, which Heather fills with sage. She guides us as to how to move it in a circular motion over the smoke of the small fire she has lit, and to think of our deepest hopes and wishes as we close our eyes in a prayer-like ritual.

Afterwards, she hands us snow-grips to attach to our hiking boots and we set off towards the canyon until we reach the creek bed, which is thawing out as winter comes to an end.

In a lighter moment as the conversation veers towards her experience of bear sightings, I ask how she keeps safe in the summer while the grizzlies and black bears are awake. Without a second’s pause, a high-pitched howl-like sound rings out from her lips that startles me and the group into stunned silence, before we all – including Heather – burst into laughter. She is clearly adept at warning off bears, although she insists they are not interested in humans and will only ever attack if they feel under threat, especially if protecting their cubs.

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While ours is a short taster hike, visitors can opt for the four-hour trail right into the canyon to see ancient drawings on the cave walls.

A half-hour drive to Banff National Park has more snowy trails in store, as I take a plant medicine walk with indigenous company Mahikan Trails, around Cascade Ponds.

At times knee-deep in fresh white powder, I breathe in the fresh air as we stand among the spruce and lodgepole pine trees to hear how different plants have been used through the years for food and medicine.

The sun rises in Canmore, Alberta. Pic: Aine Fox/PAThe sun rises in Canmore, Alberta. Pic: Aine Fox/PA
The sun rises in Canmore, Alberta. Pic: Aine Fox/PA

The company was founded and is run by medicine woman Brenda Holder, who is of Cree lineage and has a deep knowledge of the historical medicines of the boreal forest. This trek is led by her son Jordan, to whom she has passed much of her knowledge.

We learn how watching what bears eat when they’re hungry and when they’re sick has taught humans over the years which plants were safe, due to their “almost identical internal physiology” to us.

From bitter buffalo berries, cooked to sweeten and paired with meat, wild rosehip for tea, and wolf willow seeds used for beads to make jewellery, my eyes are opened to the endless possibilities presented by nature.

This wealth of choice and taste is something used creatively by chef Tracy Little at her Sauvage restaurant. Having grown up foraging in the forests of Northern Alberta – more than 10 hours north of Canmore, reminding us of the vastness of this state – she has successfully turned her passion for sustainability and using mainly locally sourced ingredients into a career.

Diners choose either hunter (meat) or gatherer (vegetarian) set menus and let chef Tracy work her magic, which comes with a healthy dose of creative flair.

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Opting for the juice pairing, my starter of strawberries with beetroot is enhanced by a cedar-infused pear drink, and while I’m unsure at first on the smoked mushroom kombucha, it all makes sense when paired with a bite of mushroom foam and dandelion. A spruce tip dessert, akin to a lemon posset, rounds off a meal like none I’ve ever had.

It feels fitting to end my trip with one last adventurous walk, so I head to Lake Louise.

The 40-minute drive along the Trans-Canada Highway from Banff is a treat in itself, with tree-lined wildlife bridges dotted along the route, connecting habitats and allowing animals to cross the road.

While I’ve seen breathtaking images of the clear blue lake reflecting the mountains surrounding it in summer, I feel privileged to get to set foot onto the huge frozen body of water on my trip.

While I promise myself I’ll visit again when the snow is gone for a different perspective on this lush landscape, I think about how the Albertan summer has its work cut out to top this fairytale scene.

How to plan your trip

Canada As You Like It (; 020 8742 8299) offers a seven-night Alberta fly-drive from £1,355pp/$2,307 Canadian (two sharing), including return flights to Calgary, all-inclusive car hire, one night in Calgary, two nights in Canmore, two nights in Banff and one night in Lake Louise.

For travel between Calgary and Banff without a car visitors can take the Brewster Express return from around $137 (Canadian).

For more information, visit



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