By: John B. Joyce and John L. Joyce
A rite of passage in the Burgh each spring is attending the Banff Mountain Film Festival (“BMFF”) World Tour of films sponsored locally by Venture Outdoors. The intro to the films always shows the picturesque town of Banff in the twilight glowing like a Thomas Kindade painting. I always think to myself it would be cool to actually attend the festival for the premiere and selection of the films that will ultimately tour the far reaches of the world. Last spring, at the silent auction I successfully bid on a trip for two to attend the BMFF. I walked out of the Carnegie Theater of Homestead that evening looking forward to taking my 15 year old son, John Leo, to the festival since he has a keen interest in filmmaking.
I had never been to Banff or for that matter Alberta, Canada. The BMFF takes place each fall in early November. For those unfamiliar with the film festival, it started when some Canadian mountaineers got together 40 years ago to share local films over a few beers. The festival has grown to become the Sundance or Cannes festival for outdoor adventure films (and more recently books). All of the major players in that space including National Geographic, Patagonia, North Face, and Deuter sponsor the BMFF. Nat Geo brings its “young explorers” (who are not so young – think PhD students not teens) to the festival to talk about their year-long studies of topics like olive oil or the mountains of India. More on festival later in this blog. I need to first get you to Alberta.
We started in Calgary by staying at an AirBnb run by Stephanie. Every trip has a surprise or two and Stephanie had a few for us. She was a former circus high wire performer who unbeknownst to us had a penchant hanging posters in her home of provocative story book covers from the 1950s with titles such as “Glad to Be Bad” and “The Yes Girl”. Needless to say, 15 year old John was surprised when we woke up to make breakfast and the poster on the kitchen cabinet said: “Sex, Don’t Start Without Me”. He turned to me and said, “What kind of place did you take me to dad?”
Banff sits right on the western border of Alberta not too far from British Columbia in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Travelling to Banff out of Calgary reminded me of Denver; as you drive west out of town the Rockies just blow up right in front of you. John had never seen snow-capped mountains and when he did he just said “whoa” and had a look of amazement.
The town of Banff is a village that actually sits in Banff National Park. Next to BNP are a few other national parks with the largest being Jasper National Park. A 45-minute drive past Banff is the gorgeous and world renowned Lake Louise. But my research told me that driving another two hours through the Icefields Parkway to Jasper would be worthwhile. The “Parkway” is nothing more than a simple two lane road through a valley cut by glaciers over thousands of years and over a mountain pass into the quaint town of Jasper. We saw very few cars. The drive is listed as one of the world Heritage Sites of beauty. We marveled at the mountains and glaciers and stopped from time to time to take in the views. We saw virtually no one.
Arriving in Jasper and walking through the town requires you to make some Le’Veon Bell moves in order to miss the Elk dung. The Elk roll into Jasper each evening and munch on the yard plants like the whitetail deer do in Pittsburgh. They leave their calling cards behind. On a whim, we spoke with a local fishing guide who kindly set us up with some rods and directions to some remote trout fishing spots along the Athabasca River. There was no human trail to hike into the fishing spots. Along the river bank we saw numerous bear, elk and deer tracks and a nice 10-point whitetail. One track caught my attention. It was larger than any of the bear tracks but looked like a huge dog print bigger than my hand. I realized we were looking at wolf tracks. There are wolf packs and grizzly bears throughout Banff and Jasper National Parks. The icefields are also traversed by herds of Caribou. Unfortunately, the Caribou herds are declining quickly with global warming diminishing their habitat and manmade roads allowing wolf packs easier access to hunt the herds. John caught his first bull trout on the Athabasca. His smile was priceless.
Banff is a beautiful small town, but compared to Jasper it was like NYC to Pittsburgh. The Banff Center for Arts and Creativity is made up of multiple buildings similar to a small college campus. The BMFF not only involves the films but top notch speakers on all topics related to outdoor activities. The Festival lasts 10 days. During the day, there are lectures, storytelling, films, mini-classes for things such as yoga, writing, filmmaking and more. In the evenings, there are at least three theaters on the campus with speakers and a line-up of films. We enjoyed all of the events. There are too many films to cover in blog. Come see many of them when Venture Outdoors hosts the film festival April 8 and 9 at the Byham Theater in Pittsburgh.
During the day John and I hiked trails up the neighboring mountains with great views of the valley and town. Mountain goats are regulars and Banff has a number of resident mountain lions. Banff has a nice historical museum and lots of art galleries. There are two ski resorts near Banff and one near Lake Louise. The snow was so plentiful early this year I was able to ski Sunshine Village on November 7. The town of Banff caters to the resorts which is why the restaurants are excellent.
The people of Banff and Jasper are friendly and welcoming. Travelling back to the States on election day was a bit sobering. The hiking, fishing and skiing were an adventure in and of themselves and then taking in the fabulous films and talking with world class filmmakers and sportspersons took our little trip to another level of adventure. Consider putting Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper and the BMFF on your bucket list. You won’t regret it!