I have to say that I would be remiss, if as an aspiring Travel Writer, I didn’t write about my number one favourite place, and a tourist destination in it’s own right. My life has been shaped by growing up in Canmore, and I feel incredibly grateful to have done so. I’ve been thinking about writing about it for a while, but to put my thoughts about it into something that didn’t sound angry and jaded at it’s rapid development, was proving difficult. I love my hometown, but at times, don’t like what it has become. However, with my most recent visit back home, I found a renewed sense of appreciation for the parts that I realized I have not lost.
I grew up in Canmore. One would think that growing up in a place would make me an expert on it. Like I should know all the ins and outs of the town; the good places to eat, the perfect store to shop in, or the best bar. But I don’t. Not even close.
So much has changed in the small Rocky Mountain town that I once knew. Being away now for 20 years, I feel so at home, yet like such a stranger, when I visit. Massive developments are ongoing, stores open and close, restaurants come and go, a few box stores have moved in, and there are traffic jams at rush hour! (When the heck did we get a rush hour??) I can still attest to knowing where many great trails are, or where the swimming holes are, most of those haven’t changed too much. Of course, there are the familiar stores that were there when I was a child, and a few restaurants that have stood the test of time. The Legion is still going strong, and the Canmore Golf Club is a constant mainstay, but really, the town as I knew it, generally doesn’t exist anymore.
One thing that does still exist, and will never change, however, is the stunning beauty that surrounds it. Those mountains, those impossibly perfect massive rocks that seem to just rise up from the ground, will stand on guard in that town long after we have all gone. The stories they could tell would be many, some would be of hardship, but most of them are of prosperity.
Canmore, Gaelic for “Big Head” (of which you will now see one as you enter the Main Street!), was named in 1884 and by 1887, had started it’s first coal mine. For almost 100 years, it maintained coal mining as it’s number one industry, and at that time was only a seemingly minute spec on a map, if it even made it on the map at all! When I moved there, in 1979 (having been born in Banff) at the age of three, the mines were just closing. The town was undergoing a massive shift. The roughly 2000 people that lived there wondered what would happen to their sleepy little mountain mining town, without the mines that built it? Surely Canmore wouldn’t have the same fate as Anthracite, another coal mining community near Banff, left abandoned when the mines closed in 1904?
In the early 1980’s, however, after a couple tenuous years, and an uncertain economic future for Canmore, Calgary was named host to the 1988 Olympics, and Canmore would host the Nordic Events. This brought extremely good news to the community, and work was started right away to capitalize on this potential fortune.
Being located only a 50 minute drive West from Calgary, and right off the Trans Canada Highway, means that Canmore is easily accessible. This also meant, back in the day, that it’s accessibility provided an ideal situation, for fast and explosive growth. Shortly after the world wide promotion, brought on by the Olympics, Canmore’s population began to escalate, new developments started to spring up, and things really started to get going.
I remember when there was no development across the highway, or up the mountains below Ha Ling Peak and the Three Sisters. (I remember when Ha Ling Peak, wasn’t named that!) I remember when we got our first traffic light! I remember when I walked down Main Street, and knew everybody I passed. And of course, I remember when the first new developments were put in. At the time it was exciting! It’s always exciting to see a place grow and prosper, but never in anyone’s wildest imagination did we think it would become what it is today.
As a kid, when I used to travel abroad with my family, people would ask us where we were from. We would always say near Banff, or close to Calgary. No one had ever heard of Canmore, and if they did know Canmore, we were shocked! But, over time, more and more people HAD heard of it, and along side this, Canmore’s population, and reputation, continued to grow.
Fast forward 30 years (yikes!), and Canmore is now just another household name. Of course, thankfully, it still isn’t as famous as nearby Banff, or Lake Louise, but it rightly stands on it’s own two feet as a destination of it’s own. It is home to many 5 star restaurants, has an incredible nightlife, boasts boutique shops galore, and has outstanding tourist infrastructure. Not to mention it contains a plethora of world class training facilities for Climbers, Cross Country Skiers, Mountain Bikers, and many other recreational enthusiasts.
As most kids in small towns do, we had a rivalry with neighbouring Banff. We always felt that we were better than Banff. Banff was too busy, and overrun with tourists, we would say. We went there, for sure! Banff had an awesome nightlife and ‘clubs’, it had the only movie theatre in the Bow Valley (still does) and it had a bowling alley! We would go there just to walk around the Banff Springs Hotel, or go up to the hot springs. We used it for what we needed, but Canmore was always better, we had decided. It was quieter, it was more peaceful, Banff kids were snobs, we were nicer…….so we thought.
In those days, Canmore WAS just a glimpse off of the Trans Canada Highway. Most people heading to Banff would simply blink, and completely miss us. And I have to say, that until you actually drive off of the highway, and tuck yourself right into Canmore’s downtown core, you really don’t see just how beautiful it is.
However, what really did make Canmore so charming back in those days, WAS the fact that it was the quieter, and equally as picturesque, little sister to Banff. And in a way, despite the massive amount of development (Canmore now has at least double Banff’s population), and it’s international acclaim, I believe that this is still the case.
When my parents bought their house in Canmore, it was one of only a few houses that were built, on their gravel street. Across the way was a field with trees and horses, and capping either end of the road was ponds, forests and the Bow River. We literally were living in the middle of the wilderness. Over the course of my childhood, we would move once more, to a house on the same street, 5 houses down. In the meantime, the street became paved, and houses filled in the remainder of the block.
The summers of my childhood consisted of long, lazy days, running amuck in the forests, swimming in the nearby rivers and ponds, and just doing pretty much whatever I felt like, within reason…..of course! My friends and I would head out on our bikes in the morning, inevitably ending up at someone’s house for lunch, and would play until it seemed like time for dinner. Heading back to our neighbourhoods, we would start to hear the Moms call us in to our houses, one by one. Eating as fast as we could, we had the luxury of extended daylight, to go back out after dinner if we pleased. We had the paths and forests mapped out. We knew trails and secret spots that we were sure that no adults knew about. We felt like we were Kings and Queens of the world back in those days.
Unfortunately, being away for as long as I have been, and seeing new developments happen each time I come home for a visit, I have become jaded with the hustle and bustle of the town. In past visits home to see my parents, I’ve felt that it’s but a skeleton of the town I once knew, and that just as soon as I would arrive, I couldn’t wait to get out of it again. But on a recent visit back home, I suddenly started to look at things in a different way. My partner was with me, and not only did I want to reminisce, I wanted to show him the cool, and what were once “secret” spots in Canmore, not just the well trodden parts he had seen on previous visits.
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This time my visit was different. I re-kindled my curiosity, and set out to re-visit those favourite haunts from days gone by, and in those moments, as I reminisced about the stories that accompanied those special spots, I realized that so much of Canmore has changed, but also so much of it is still the same. At the end of a full day of exploring, and at the age of 40, I finally thanked my parents for having raised me in such a wonderful place!
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Now exceeding 16 000 permanent residents (and many more non-permanent), there is no doubt that things are different in Canmore. There are major development concerns, wildlife corridors are being choked off, and municipal park land is being turned into housing, to name a few. But, I am so thankful for my childhood, and I couldn’t be more proud to be from such a great place. I will always cherish my time growing up there, and no matter what they continue to do to develop it and change it, they certainly can’t take that away from me.
To those of you that haven’t been yet, you really have no idea what you are missing. Do yourself a favour, don’t just drive by. Take one of those exits off of the Trans Canada Highway, eat at an award winning restaurant, visit the incredibly charming downtown area, walk the trails, gaze at the mountains, and thank Mother Nature for her truly astounding bounty. Because as I much as I want my small town to stay the same, I can’t think of any good reason that it shouldn’t also be shared with the rest of the world.
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