Mild to Wild in Alberta’s Canadian Rockies

Banff, Alberta —  “I should have gone canoeing.”  These were the only words I could utter as we made our way to the shore of the Kananaskis River.  We had just finished a 15-minute orientation at the parking area and with our heavy, bright orange kayaks in tow, every pair in our White Water Kayaking tour group started to make their way down a steep slope to the shore of the river where we will eventually lay down and board our kayaks.

I was already huffing and puffing from the weight of the kayak when I started to hear the sound of the Kananaskis.  But that was very quickly drowned out by another deafening sound:  the loud beating of my oh-so-nervous heart.

I had wanted to go canoeing that morning—hoping to see the snow-capped mountains mirrored on the calm early morning waters as I slowly paddled my canoe, taking in the beautiful scenery of the Canadian Rockies with each row.  Calm, serene, and romantic—that’s what I thought of Alberta after seeing Brokeback Mountain.  Ang Lee’s signature sweeping shots of Western Canada’s magnificent mountains and lazy streams did it for me and had me searching for the next cheap flight to Calgary.

But instead, there I was, the most unfit person I knew, clad in a very tight wet suit, with an even tighter life jacket that went up to my chin (because my torso is too short according to the guide, thanks very much) and about to brave rapids of the Kananaskis.


White water kayaking and early morning canoeing are just two of the many activities that Alberta offers.  Where we went, in Banff, the list includes:

  • Glacier Tour
  • Grizzly Bears Spotting
  • Horse-drawn Sleigh Rides
  • Horseback-riding with Breakfast
  • Evening Wildlife Safari
  • Kicking Horse River White Water Rafting
  • Icewalks
  • Helicopter Tour
  • Hotsprings Visit

These are just some of the more popular tours out there but I’m certain that there are more if you dig deeper online.  Of the options I had available, I opted to go for one easy and mild activity to balance off the wet and wild activity of white water kayaking.


When I called to book, I was told that the early morning canoe trip was fully booked and the person on the other end of the line recommended that I consider the white water kayaking instead.  She assured us that the Level 1 rapids are very easy to manage.  Perhaps intoxicated by the excitement of going on a trip to the Canadian Rockies, my friend and I signed up for it without much hesitation.

The tour picked us from our hotel at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel and after, two other pairs.  We stopped at a road on the way to the Kananaskis to rendezvous with the last pair.   They were half an hour late.  This meant that our gearing up and orientation time had been truncated by half an hour.  During speedy changing to our wet suits, I found out that our group was made of a pair of cross-country skiers, a pair of Winter Olympians, two football varsity players in their high school, my athletic friend, and then, yours truly.

The group intently listening during orientation

The group intently listening during orientation

We had to rush to get to the water because the dam releases more water into the river thereby causing the rapids.  If we missed this, there’s no way for us to get in safely.

Getting ready - sense the tension on my face

We practiced around the calm waters for a few minutes trying to get used to paddling and communicating.  The person in front paddles the boat forward, and the person at the back steers.


Soon, the dam released the water, and we were hurtling down the river and going through Level 2 and Level 3 rapids.  At that point, I’ve forgotten all my fears including the lady I spoke with who cheerfully sold me ‘Level 1’ rapids.  I was kayaking at the Kananaskis!


During a calmer stretch of the river, the tour guides asked us to bank to the left so we can go swimming.  ‘Swimming’ is apparently not swimming at all.  It meant jumping into the rapids, taking a lawn chair position, counting 1- 2-3 swells, and then swimming fast and hard back to the shore for your life.  I must say, it was a pretty wild way to end the tour.

Doing the ‘lawn chair’ position


The next morning, with arms sore from the kayaking activity, we opted for an easier activity: slow horseback trail ride with breakfast.  We started very early in the morning right before sunrise when the mountain air was cold and crisp and the only sound breaking the silence is the neighing of the horses.

Coffee, mountain air, watching the horses

The trail was absolutely stunning as promised.  The slow pace of the ride will make anyone feel safe.  It also gives you enough time to appreciate the stunning scenery all around.  That morning, I saw the mirrored mountains I had hoped for—and it was much better than any scene that Ang Lee can do.  Two hours into the ride, we stopped in a clearing where a breakfast spread of steak and eggs was waiting.  It was an absolutely perfect morning.


So how about you—would you go for a WILD or MILD outing in Alberta?  If you want my advice, mild and wild and MORE is the absolute way to go.

See more destinations and more stories here.


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