Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Secrets of the Crowsnest

In the southwest corner of Alberta,there's a corner of the world filled with intrigue, natural beauty and, for some, more than a little sadness.   During our early Spring visit, we found the often understated but unmistakable treasures this community has to offer to be a perfect fit for our girlfriend getaway. Steeped in history, wildlife and nature, there is plenty to do and see for all ages.

We were fortunate that one of our group has spent some time exploring the Crowsnest; not only was she able to offer up some great suggestions on places to stay and things to do, she connected us to one of the 'locals' who kindly filled in any blanks and offered a few suggestions of her own.  While the secret to a successful trip doesn't necessarily hinge on having someone who knows the area, it certainly doesn't hurt!

We knew we had started off on the right foot when we landed at our home-away-from-home. A Safe Haven, in Coleman, provided a comfortable, modern vacation home which we were thrilled to find spotlessly clean and well appointed and providing stunning views of what I later learned is the backside of Turtle Mountain, better known for its part in the Frank Slide disaster.  We couldn't possibly have been more comfortable in this three bedroom, two bath home which sleeps 12. Although the plan was to eat only a few meals in, we found ourselves enjoying our cozy accommodations and the supplies we packed to be perfectly contented making our own meals augmented by a large selection of coffee, tea, spices and daily condiments provided by our hosts.  Because we want them to do well, we're sharing this little secret too.  It was absolutely perfect and I highly recommend it for groups of friends or family, large or small.  You'll find the link at the bottom of the page.

The Crowsnest Pass, made up of the communities of Blairmore, Bellevue, Coleman, Hillcrest and Frank, offers a genuine mountain lifestyle.  While inhabited only by First Nations Peoples for centuries, large quantities of coal was discovered in the mid-1800s, though the first resource to be developed was actually lumber.  The Canadian Pacific Railway built a line in the late 1890s, at which time the CPR sought and received funding from the Federal Government partially in exchange for a freight subsidy on prairie farm exports.  Here's a little tidbit I learned about a well known phrase to the Prairie Provinces:  the subsidy agreement was known as "the Crow Rate' and was eventually extended to all railway lines in western Canada.  Who knew?  

All the mines in the Crowsnest were closed by the end of the 20th century as cheaper and safer open-pit mines opened. Some logging and oil and gas exploitation continues in the area, and a sulphur plant has been in operation for several years but tourism remains underdeveloped.  I'll let you in on a second secret: if you desire an experience akin to that of Canmore or Jasper, but less developed and at more moderate prices, the Crowsnest is your 'go to' place.

After a wonderful dinner in (thanks to Jane) we headed off to the Pass Pottery Club Sale in Coleman where Jane found a few pieces calling her to take them home.  She said they were gifts but, by the level of her excitement, we aren't convinced they will be gifted anytime soon. Secret Number Three:  when in the Crowsnest, don't forget to tap into the many opportunities the local art community offers.The Crowsnest Pass Public Art Gallery is also worth a stop, as you will find fine art and crafts from over 50 local and area artists at the Gallery Gift Store.

The weather was a wee bit 'iffy' so we decided to start by soaking up some of the local history and culture.  At the Crowsnest Museum, we learned all about Emporer Pick.   Emilio Picariello was an Italian bootlegger who immigrated to Canada in 1899.  This industrious fellow worked as an electrician, laborer, grocer, in a macaroni factory, and began a cigar business.  He also manufactured ice cream, where he often accepted payment in bottles, eventually achieving a monopoly on the bottle market, and earning him a reputation as the 'bottle king'.  During Prohibition, Picariello  purchased the Alberta Hotel in Blairmore as his base of operations, where he excavated a room under the hotel and dug a tunnel from it out to the road to benefit his bootlegging enterprise. Picariello was well respected by the community, an elected alderman of Blairmore and often praised for his philanthropic ways.  He distributed food to needy families and money to miners while on strike.  

Picariello eventually crossed paths with Filumena (Florence) Costanzo who became a partner in his bootlegging activities. I'm not going to ruin it for you but you should know that these two made history in a Bonnie and Clyde sort of way that is anything but boring.   This particular story is soon to receive it's very own permanent display but the museum also hosts a mining room; general store and blacksmith shop; pioneer room; military/police gallery and wildlife room, not to mention, there's also a nice little gift shop. Secret Number Four:  there's no better place to learn about the history of a community than by visiting its museum.

A wee bit off the beaten track, but definitely worth the stop, is the Hillcrest Memorial and Cemetery. The Memorial is not only a tribute to those who lost their lives in the Hillcrest Mines but in all mines throughout Canada.  On June 19, 1914, 235 men entered the mine, 189 of whom lost their lives.  Only 17 were from Canada, and 2 from Alberta.  This was not the only mine in the Crowsnest where lives were lost; there was an explosion at Hillcrest in 1926 where two men lost their lives and eight other incidents in various mines throughout the Pass accounting for the loss of an addition 227 men. This valley holds more than its share of grief. Secret Number Five: never take life for granted.

Depending on the level of activity you desire, the Crowsnest Community Trail is a 23 km. non-motorized route that connects all five communities in the Pass as well as local businesses and historical sites, such as the Frank Slide Interpretive Centre and the Bellevue Underground Mine.  If mountain biking is your passion, maps are available at the links below to Powderkeg Mountain Bike Trails and the professionally designed Bike Skills Park.

We chose to work our way along Miners Path, the historic route taken by Coleman miners on their way to work.  This relaxing and easy trail begins in Coleman and follows Nez Perce Creek to Rainbow Falls.  There is also a branch where a bridge crosses the creek and leads up to the old McGillivray Mine site which still has remnants of a bygone coal mining era.  It's well marked and well used.  Secret Number Six:  Find out where the locals like to go and you won't be disappointed if you follow them.

Sadly, we were also introduced to the Cinnamon Bear Bakery and Cafe, where we gorged on lattes, chai tea and some of the best treats I have had in some time.  It even has it's own Facebook Page! If you have an incurable sweet tooth, you will no doubt find a way to soothe it here.  If you're wondering why I say 'sadly', it's because we stopped on the way home too. . . my hips will never be the same. Secret Number Seven:  if you stop at the Cinnamon Bear, you may as well make it worth your while. . . don't stop at one treat. . . have a few!

We also spent a goodly amount of time at the Frank Slide Interpretive Center.  I visited a few years back with a large group, and didn't spend the time needed to watch a 30 minute reenactment of the disaster or the following 25 minute presentation of the history of the Crowsnest.  Both are very well done, extremely informative and time flies.  It was also nice to have the time to poke around the exhibits as well as walk a couple of the many trails offered.  Secret Number Eight:  If you decide to walk the trails, make sure you pick up a guide at the kiosk.  82 million tonnes (30 million cubic metres) is a lot of limestone to ponder when you don't know what you're looking at. 

If camping is your thing, you're in luck! There's a provincial campground a short walk from the beautiful Lundbreck Falls. While the cascades may not be huge, they are surprisingly picturesque and if you happen to be a fisherman, I'm told if you follow the water you'll find great spots for rainbow and cutthroat and perhaps even a dip in quieter waters.  We found a marmot and were totally happy with that.  Secret Number Nine:  always keep your eyes open for wildlife.

Hopefully, I've provided you with a enough tips on visiting the Crowsnest Pass, to catch your fancy but, honestly, this tenth and final secret is golden, perhaps because it's not really a secret at all. Whenever you decide to explore the Crowsnest Pass, make sure you do it in the company of someone you cherish, be it friend or family. That way, you can be guaranteed a great time.