I rushed to pay the admission fee and hurried to catch up with the guide for the 11 AM interpretive tour at the Cave and Basin National Historic Site of Canada. He had already started his presentation when I waved my tour receipt proving I wasn’t just a sneaky tagalong to the group. He nodded in acknowledgement continuing to call on people to share the names of their hometowns. We heard: “Toronto”, “Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,” “Ingersoll, Ontario,” …
“Now that you have all made the journey to Banff National Park, what do you think is the main tourist activity here?” our guide asked.
Why had I come to Banff quickly went through my mind: Hiking, bicycling, visit to the Cave and Basin, a ride on the Banff Gondola, glaciers, a chance to see a bear, views of the mountains. Surely, this was why others came too?
His answer was not to explore the 2,564 acre park. His answer was not to view the more than 1,000 glaciers or walk the 972 miles of trails. His answer had nothing to do with these recreational activities. His answer was “Shopping.”
I did not want to believe this. Here in Canada’s first established national park, the world’s third oldest national park, established in 1885, how could shopping be the #1 activity! Since 1985, the Park was designated a United Nations UNESCO World-Heritage Site. Furthermore, the Park is managed by Parks of Canada, a part of the federal department of Environment Canada. I hadn’t come to the wilderness to shop. I tried to put this notion of shopping out of my head during the remaining interpretive tour and focused on the history of this Park and its natural wonders.
I learned that three men, workers for the Canadian Pacific Railway – Frank McCabe and William and Tom McCardell - discovered thermal springs in what would eventually become the setting of Banff National Park. Warm water still bubbles out of the side of Sulphur Mountain. I watched this natural wonder flow around me as I walked along the outdoor boardwalk. A grated view point protects the vent hole opening to the original cave where the thermal water pools. When I leaned over it, I could smell the sulphur vapors sting my sensitive nose.
McCabe and the McCardells built Banff’s first hotel here in 1883. From the archive photos, the building looked more like an unstable, leaning log cabin. They thought the thermal springs would make them rich. Tourists did come to enjoy the springs and so did the Canadian government. Following the United States examples in managing the Hot Springs in Arkansas and Yellowstone, the Canadian government dismissed all private claims to the Cave and Basin and, in 1885, established a Reserve belonging to all Canadians – the birth of Canada’s park system. A film reenacts the experiences of McCabe and the McCardles, chronicles the history, and recreates the experiences of early bathers.
The tour guide ushered our group to the to the Bathing Pavilion, featuring an outdoor pool and bathhouses. The site had gone through many renovations and reconstructions. The first pool was constructed in 1902. Then in 1914, it was replaced with a new structure that came to be heralded as the largest pool in Canada at the time. Bathers used this pool until 1976 when it was closed due to it age, deterioration, and difficult maintenance. Nine years later, in 1985, the site reopened with the new pool, exhibits, and replica bathhouse. Another seven years passed, and the swimming pool was closed again. This time more that structural and mechanical problems plagued the pool. Reduced visitation (Had the tourists all gone shopping?)and increased associated costs contributed to the closing as well. In 1994, the pool was converted to a reflecting pool. I walked around imagining what it must have been like to come here for a swim.
I could not linger here too long, because our guide has one more spot to show our group. He took us to the basin, an open air mineral pool with mats of growing algae. Here we saw the Banff Springs Snail clinging to the rocky basin edges. They are an endangered species so he warned us to look but not poke our fingers in the water. The snail, no bigger than an orange seed, is susceptible to human disturbances. The Banff Springs Snail lives in the warm mineral springs on Sulphur Mountain feeding on bacteria, algae and other micro-organisms.
From here, we could visit at our own leisure the remaining exhibits on the second floor of the bathing pavilion. I didn’t linger reading all the information, I made my way to what I had been waiting to see from the moment I got there. I followed the short, dark path to the cave to see this interior pool. I sat there for a while looking up at the original vent hole discovered by three railroad men. It was amazing that they ever discovered this place. It was amazing that from this mountain cauldron came the birth of Canada’s national park system.
July 10, 2008
Cave and Basin National Historic Site of Canada
311 Cave Avenue, Banff, Alberta
A little note: I succumbed to shopping in Banff National Park. Rainy weather forced a change in plans to take a mountain top ride in a gondola. I ended up in downtown Banff having dinner at The Old Spaghetti Factory – “Banff’s Best Dining Value” – 403-760-2779; 2nd floor Cascade Plaza. And, I shopped at the mall too. I was lured into buying a lemony soap at Lush Town ( www.lushtown.com ).
Banff National Park - Quick Facts found on www.rockiesguide.com confirms our guide’s surprising revelation on shopping. “Tourism infrastructures include: 1 golf course, 3 alpine ski resorts, more than 125 restaurants, over 220 retail outlets, 49 hotels (5,780 rooms), 36 Bed & Breakfasts and more than 1,150 businesses.”
This same website notes that over 4-million people visit the Park annually leaving behind a trail of spending. Estimates of direct tourism expenditures are as high as $750-million per year, some of which is attributable to shopping.