How Dear Old Jasper Park Is Bumping And Grinding Into The Seventies

JAMES FLECK January 1 1971

How Dear Old Jasper Park Is Bumping And Grinding Into The Seventies

JAMES FLECK January 1 1971
FROM OTTAWA TO the ski slopes of the Canadian Rockies in Jasper National Park is 2,268 miles, or 50 hours and 15 minutes of old-fashioned railroading aboard Canadian National’s Super Continental. And Canadian winters being what they are, no one takes that schedule too literally.

But it’s a rewarding odyssey — and almost a necessary one if, as I did, you wanted to be in at the start of something momentous in the folklore of Canada last winter: the opening up of CN’s very expensive Jasper Park Lodge mountain resort to the ski crowd. The lodge is a jewel in the necklace of great Canadian railway hotels that span Canada, all aging monuments to the new mobility of the 1920s, which starts with the Algonquin in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, and runs west to Lake Louise and the year - round Empress in Victoria. In themselves they are a Great Canadian Cliché. Expensive gentility, home of discreet indiscretions . . . and now the Jasper Park Lodge is staying open in winter for the noisy, rambunctious ski crowd.

One wonders why it wasn’t done before. The site is spectacular, high among some of the finest scenery in the world. The nearest place of any size is Edmonton, 234 miles to the east, out of which commuting skiers flow like lemmings on weekends. But they drive or take the train because Jasper’s airfield doesn’t function in winter. So for me, taking the Super Continental made sense.

Its arrival at Ottawa from Montreal coincides with the second sitting for dinner, where the best buy is the roast beef with horseradish. But finish quickly. At nine o’clock it’s bingo. A bilingual steward presides. “B-Seven — B-Sept." First, it’s straight bingo. Then four-cornered bingo. Then a cross, and an X and finally the letters C and N. Prize upon prize; cigarette lighters, address books — all hallmarked CN. The Jet Liners passing overhead may have movies, but CN and its Super Continental has bingo!

And then to the club car, where a boy and girl are singing folk songs, his from Ireland and hers from the Ontario farm country. A lumberjack from Newfoundland is making time with an Ottawa secretary, showing her card tricks. The bar is doing well.

To bed in roomette Number Six, and the contortions of Houdini to unlimber the toilet and washbasin; use them; haul down the bed, which then completely occupies the available space, by first opening the door and zipping closed the drape. Poke your backside into the corridor, turn a crank and yank down the bed. But remember to undress first, otherwise you have to start over.

And sleep to the diddley-dop lullaby of the wheels until light sneaks in through the shades. Peer out at the green-and-white world of Christmas trees, branches etched with snow. And marvel. This is God’s work, not man’s.

Breakfast with a CN employee produces the information that the railway is now sending conductors to a charm school where, among other things, they are actually taught to smile at passengers. And at 9.40 a.m. — still what? . . . 1,665 miles from Jasper Park — we’re at Hornepayne, north of Lake Superior, for a 20-minute stop for a crew change.

By late afternoon the Rockies are only 1,000 miles away. Time to get in shape. Roomettes are, surprisingly, big enough for push-ups, knee bends and other pre-ski exercises, plus 30 minutes jogging at 70 mph to the metronome beat: diddley-dop, diddley-dop, diddley-dop . . .

And we rock and sway on through the prairies by night and day, through Edmonton to collect a crowd of the young with ski hats and boots and stilt-like skis, and then up through the mountains, through the serpentine Athabasca valley to Jasper, only an hour late. Somewhere, unseen mountains are hiding in the night as we skiers climb down, chattering, from the Super Continental, to be greeted by the sombre gaze of carved creatures on a 70-foot totem pole.

The supernatural raven peers from its perch on top. An old woman peeks up from the bottom. The symbols of the taboos of an ancient Indian religion lurk in between. And when we finally reach Jasper Park Lodge, Catholic priests from the mountain regions, adjourned from a deanery meeting, are continuing their arguments in the night club. Asmara, an Egyptian belly dancer, slithers and sways. The modern religious taboos of celibacy, papal authority, and the Pill are carved out of an existential totem, punctuated by the bumps and grinds of Asmara and her music.

The late show ends. The clergy return to their cloister. The deer and elk nibble the grass between cabins. In the morning I see for the first time what Jasper Park Lodge is like in midwinter. My cabin overlooks a snow covered expanse of what in summertime is sparkling Lac Beauvert. To the south is the golf course topped by Signal Mountain. The greens are surrounded by high fences to protect the frozen putting surface from the sharp hooves of deer and elk. To the north is the main building. The main lobby and boutiques are open still. Shuttered and cold are the dining room with its clutter of tables and chairs for 700 summer guests, the empty branch of the Imperial Bank of Commerce, barber shop and beauty salon. Hidden in the woods are the less sightly two story dormitories for the staff. One hundred yards down from my cabin is the clubhouse, the heart of the new ski-crowd venture. Its dining room, kitchens and bar are used for the lodge’s winter operations.

In summer, it is $62.50 a day for two in a cabin such as mine with a screened front porch (now glassed-in). The most expensive are Point and Outlook cabins, $170 per day for four, plus $25 for each additional person. Winter rates are lower, $40 a day double and ski specials of five nights for two at $125 per person, or $155 for singles. The management doesn’t want singles if it can get doubles.

Helping to fulfill management’s hopes are two elderly Edmonton businessmen who noticeably differ from the ski crowd by their appearance and agility. The businessmen and their “secretaries” are conducting an extended deal in one of the high-priced cabins with kitchenette and fireplace. The foursome appears briefly at dinner each night, the oldest, decrepit and potted, dancing feebly with his 40year-old bottle-blond secretary while his partner squires a 20-year-old. The two old duffers always poop out early and stagger off to their lakeside tryst.

Trying to gain a reputation as a swinging winter resort has had schizophrenic results on the staid, formal image of the old lodge. A large segment of its summer clientele are National Geographic types who tromp the forest looking for birds and take their afternoon tea with lemon. The entire 360room lodge with its imitation Swiss chalet architecture has been built for them, down to the oak furniture, rubbed and whittled to make it look hand-hewn. Fake totem poles add to the lobby decor.

They come in chartered buses, by train and car from June 15 to September 15, with a 100% occupancy rate in July and August. The gross peaks at $2.5 million annually and a tidy $300,000 net profit. Summer is stretched by opening May 1 and closing September 30. But all these long, cold, closed winter months mean an irreducible operating cost of $50,000 monthly, and no income. Since all the capital costs for a winter season have been prorated on to summer operations, why not stay open?

Promotion manager Marty Lamarche, an English-speaking Quebecker, has grand plans. He is pushing manager Herb Pickering to get corporation headquarters in Montreal to approve sauna baths and a curling rink. With the opening of the new Jasper - Hinton airport, the nearest piece of flat land outside the park boundary (40 miles distant), he can now organize chartered ski groups that will jet in from New York and Los Angeles and other pockets of urban affluence.

For the ski-bunnies, when the men are skiing in the mountains or talking business, Lamarche has an idea for a small rope tow at the top of a gentle slope on the golf course. Novices could spend their first few days learning the rudiments within crawling range of the bar and other lodge pleasantries before they dare the peaks a mile overhead. For après-ski skiers — that is, those who don’t — there is the heated pool, snowmobiles, skating and a team of Percherons for sleigh rides. And the bar.

Sometimes the flinty-eyed men of the National Park Service, who’d prefer the park to be total wilderness, seem to stand in the path of this progress. All horses have to be moved out of the park at the end of summer so grass-nibbling pack and trail ponies won’t deprive the elk of winter food.

Asmara goes snowmobile riding up the valley in the afternoon with head porter Gabriel Gaudet. Gaudet is somewhat smitten by the charms of Asmara, née Sylvia Ashton out of Fresno on the Nile. He takes the exotic Egyptian vibrator over a smooth route on the golf course. But a mild bump accomplishes something that Asmara’s contortions have never done. She unkinks a nerve or a vertebra or some such part of her agile anatomy. Asmara is rushed off to the town hospital and the tender nursing of the Roman Catholic sisters. They might never have seen Asmara in action if she hadn’t had to demonstrate to the doctors what she could and could not do. Treatment is a few hours in a hospital bed and no dancing that night.

With Asmara out of action, the bar crowd dwindles to the handful of skiers staying at the lodge. Acting manager Archie Grant wants to put on a cover charge over the weekend to make up the loss, but promoter Lamarche talks him out of it. With the house making 30% on the sale of every drink, Lamarche explains, they’ll make more money on the bar than they could on the cover charge.

During the summer there are dozens of chefs to prepare the 4,000 meals a day. For the ski season there are just two, head chef Karl Frangi and assistant Norman Laçasse. But the spirit of the winter opening of Jasper Park Lodge is much like the enthusiasm that marked CN’s opening of the lodge for the summer in 1922 when permanent buildings replaced some of the original tents. There is one major difference — prices. In 1922 an American-plan single room cost $5 a day.

Yet many things have not changed: in 1971, Jasper Park Lodge is one of the few hotels that doesn’t provide television. “If they want TV,” says Lamarche, “let them stay somewhere else!” Instead the lodge offers live entertainment under the auspices of Social Director Wilbur Wright. Wilbur has a monthly budget of $2,500 to bring in Asmara, musicians, magicians, or whatever will amuse the après-ski crowd. When Asmara goes out of commission the night of her accident, the entertainment is limited to Wilbur playing dinner music on the electric organ, followed by Hans Reisel and his Lederhosen, consisting of a portly Edmonton accordion player and a motley collection of musical hippies stuffed into Bavarian-style costumes.

Manager Herb Pickering had insisted on a genuine Swiss Alpine band to lend authentic character to the ski season. The arrival of The Lederhosen was Wilbur’s response to his boss’s request, but two of Hans’ hairiest music makers with permanently pinpoint pupils were shipped back on the next train east. Their replacements give The Lederhosen a Greenwich Village complexion. Pickering flew off to the Alps last winter to inspect ski resort operations. He found the European mountains turned on by modern rock and came back happily convinced the last remaining authentic Alpine “oompah” band plays nightly at his Jasper Park Lodge.

Just before noon, Hans and his Lederhosen pack up their instruments to protect them from the cold and catch the bus for the Marmot Basin ski slopes. In order to lure skiers on their lunch break to spend the evening at the lodge’s nightclub The Lederhosen put on a short, free performance. For some reason, 8,000 feet up in the Rockies, The Lederhosen do look and sound authentic.

The bus ride from Jasper Park Lodge to Marmot Basin includes a scenic tour of downtown Jasper with stops at the major motels and the CN station. From here the route is south on the Banff highway. After 10 miles the bus pulls off the highway for the 1,800-foot climb to the base of the tows. (Tow tickets include this ride.) The National Park Service recently spent $1.1 million on a new road so skiers can now drive to Marmot Basin.

The 13,000-square-foot ski lodge is cinder-block modern, only lightly blighted by the fake Alpine camouflage of other U.S. and Canadian resorts. A lower level holds the ticket counters, ski shop, rental operation, and the toilets. Above this is an open cafeteria area walled on three sides with plate glass. The best view is to the east. From the window you can see the Banff-Jasper highway 2,000 feet below confined by snow-sprinkled crags, from Pyramid mountain in the north to Mount Unwin in the south. The south window looks down to the base of the chair lift. The west window features a snow bank, the last dip on the run from Marmot peak.

There are three lifts, a 3,700-foot Doppelmayer double chair and two Hall T-bars. These have a 2,850-perhour capacity, more than enough, except on weekends when there may be a five-minute wait in the line. Because of the inversion factor in the Rockies, the upper slopes are almost always 20 degrees warmer than the valleys. At the top of the upper T-bar, the altitude is 7,400 feet and the peak rises farther west to 8,557 feet. Experts can ski back down the towline. Intermediates take the more scenic way through the snow-filled bowl.

The future of Marmot is in the hands of the federal government and its park service. Everything built has to have government approval. Nothing escapes its inspection. Everybody pays. At the moment Marmot pays 5% of its gross to the park service. Now that the road to the base of the tows is finished, the government wants two more lifts installed. The actual power at Jasper rests in the old stucco National Park Service regional headquarters in downtown Jasper and with unseen bureaucrats in far-off Ottawa.

On the site the power is in the hands of husky Tom McCready, skischool director and ex-hockey player. McCready’s operation includes eight full-time instructors, mostly locals but with a sprinkling of internationals, drifters who have skied Marmot and stayed on. He has three full-time skipatrol people on the slopes during the week, augmented by 20 volunteers on weekends. The regulars earn from $285 to $400 a month, depending on qualifications. McCready and his instructors use the Canadian technique starting with the snowplow turn and advancing gradually to parallel. He says that “with middle-aged women, it’s too shattering to start them on parallel traversing. At the end of four or five lessons we advance them to the initial stages of parallel powder skiing. Before they can run through the powder in the upper basin we have to get them parallel. If they try anything but parallel up there, they’ll dig in.”

And they do. The ambulance from the hospital in Jasper is kept busy running up and down the mountain road to Marmot Basin. Two ski-bunnies that afternoon chance an expert run and one of the girls tumbles to disaster. She lies quietly in the snow trying to comfort the other girl who is close to hysteria. The ski patrol converges on the accident and sleds the victim smoothly down the mountain. The ambulance is there and the young girl from Edmonton speeds off to the operating room where the doctors mend fractures with an expertise derived from daily practice.

The latest casualty spends the afternoon in a room with Asmara. Both are up and around the next day, the girl with cast and crutches, Asmara, nerve unpinched, gyrating her torso at Jasper Park Lodge. It is an occasion. Instead of the standard fare of Cordon Bleu, Arctic char, or sirloin steak, the maître d’hôtel sends out a flaming fondue of beef preceded by turtle soup and crabmeat. Irish coffee tops off the dessert. (Dinner and breakfast are included in the lodge’s daily rate.)

After Asmara has jackknifed to a finish, the ski crowd takes to the dance floor. The beat of Hans and his Lederhosen is too much for one athlete who strains a muscle and has to be carried off the floor writhing in agony. Propped in his chair he watches from the sidelines, drinking away his pain. Then the cold hand of Alberta officialdom closes the bar. It is half past midnight on a Saturday. The government wants everybody to bed early. And up early on Sunday for church.

While church bells are pealing, the first buses crowded with skiers start the climb up to the mountain. About the time sermons are being preached in the village churches the Super Continental pulls in from the west. It pauses briefly, then speeds toward Montreal and the Laurentians. Mont Tremblant and the Laurentians and home are only 53 hours to the east, give or take an hour or so.