Slow down, breathe deep, listen to the sounds of the forest — the wind in the trees, the crackle of ice, the crunch of snow beneath your boots. It’s magical. This is winter in the Rockies as you may not have experienced, with Indigenous guides showing you the way.
Indigenous tourism has become a significant contributor to the Canadian tourism industry. According to Shae Bird, CEO of Indigenous Tourism Alberta, one in three international travellers are seeking some type of Indigenous experience when visiting Canada, as are one in four domestic travellers. Despite high demand, the past years have been challenging for Indigenous tour operators due to COVID-19. Bird says the goal right now is to see Indigenous tourism in the province rebound to pre-COVID numbers — an annual economic contribution of $166.2-million — by 2024-2025.
Indigenous Tourism goes well beyond cultural showcase events, with a range of adventure experiences extending across all seasons. Here are three Indigenous tour outfitters offering outdoor programming in the mountains and foothills near Calgary over the winter months to come.
From smudging sage at the start of your visit, to laying down an offering of tobacco, it’s all about sharing, connecting and learning at Painted Warriors, which offers land-based programs in the serene foothills of the Rockies northwest of Calgary.
Co-owners Tracey Klettl and Tim Mearns (the duo is a couple as well as business partners) share knowledge from their Ojibway and Cree heritage with their guests through programs, camps and tours. “It’s building a bridge of understanding between cultures, and bringing back a connection between the land, animals and people. It’s really about pausing and digging deep,” says Klettl.
Experiences include archery, hunting-gathering skills and education, snowshoeing, outdoor survival skills, animal track identification and wildlife viewing. There’s also horseback riding and equine training presented with an Indigenous perspective. “Riders learn to make a connection with their horse before they ride it,” Klettl says. “They learn how to speak to their horse … and the whole feeling when you ride a horse after you’ve actually made that connection is completely different.”
The archery lesson starts with safety training and instruction, then moves on to a simulated “hunt” for food that begins by laying down an offering of tobacco and proceeds using three-dimensional, life-sized foam animal targets. “We use archery to give people a feel for what it would have been like to hunt and how it looks through our lens — hunting responsibly and ethically,” Klettl explains. “Hunting from our perspective is completely different than trophy hunting … A lot of people are surprised at how archery touches you on so many different levels. It challenges you mentally, emotionally and physically, and it’s very spiritual, because when you are shooting a bow, you have to calm and clear your mind.”
Dinner at Painted Warriors is often cooked over an open campfire and includes traditional fare such as bannock twisted into a “snake on a stick” on a green willow branch and toasted over the hot coals. After dinner there’s freshly brewed mint tea, and then it’s time to sleep in the cozy Métis trapper tents, each warmed by a wood-burning stove.
403-637-9138, 31341 Range road 5.1, Mountain View County, paintedwarriors.ca
Girth Hitch Guiding offers climbing and ice-climbing courses and experiences for all levels, from beginners to advanced, primarily in the David Thompson Corridor near Nordegg. “Climbing is for everyone,” says Girth Hitch owner and Association of Canadian Mountain Guides-certified lead guide Tim Taylor. “We’re pretty excited about Canadians getting switched-on to their own backyard.
“As Canadians, we have access to some of the best winter playgrounds, with the longest ice-climbing season and the most accessibility to great ice climbing anywhere in the world.”
Taylor, who is Métis, ties his Indigenous heritage into his mountain adventures through what he describes as “a sense of place, connecting to the land and the wilderness that’s part of our heritage.”
The David Thompson Corridor offers a vast number of excellent ice climbs on frozen waterfalls ranging from 30- to 300-metres high, but even more so than the physical challenge it’s the spiritual side of climbing that Taylor wants to share with his guests. “It’s about transformational adventures,” he says. “Climbing is where I challenge myself holistically as a person and develop the competence that I can bring back to the challenges in life.”
Taylor also sees that transformation in the climbers he guides. “The mountains are the catalyst,” he says. “I get to be the coach, the one who walks beside them while they unlock that potential. It’s a huge privilege.”
Mahikan Trails is an Indigenous-owned tour company that shares teachings from the land through medicine walks. Mahikan walks take place year-round in locations such as Grotto Canyon near Canmore, at Cascade Ponds near the town of Banff and in the foothills areas in and around Sundre, Alta. Guides help their guests find the rhythms of the forest while instructing them about wild-plant medicine.
In addition to educating their groups on forest plants, Mahikan guides also speak on what makes up a healthy forest, including the need for regular fires and the complex interrelationships between plants, animals and people.
Even in winter, lead guide and instructor Jordan Ede says there are many medicinal plants that you can spot in the snow, including yarrow, wild rose and buffalo berry shrubs.
“A lot of people will look out here and see a forest. I look out and I see a pharmacy, a grocery and a hardware store,” Ede says.
Indigenous Tourism Notebook
The Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum in Banff is a space dedicated to the culture and heritage of First Nations of the Northern Plains and the Canadian Rockies.
At the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies in Banff, the Recognizing Relations program is an ongoing collaboration with the Stoney Nakoda Nation seeking to identify individuals and families in the photographs and films in the museum’s archives and library and remove inappropriate language in the descriptions.
The Carter-Ryan Gallery, with locations in Canmore and Banff, features the bright graphic paintings and soapstone sculpture of Indigenous visual artist Jason Carter.
In Jasper, Warrior Women, founded by Cree Knowledge Keeper and artist Matricia Bauer, does a series of outdoor fireside chats with conversation about Indigenous culture, stories, drumming and songs.
Canadian travel app and web-based platform Yervana helps connect travelers to off-the-beaten path adventures and local guides, including some who are Indigenous.