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On top of the world

Families bond on heli-hiking adventure in the Bugaboos

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I was running as fast as my weary legs would take me, negotiating the tussocks of Blackforest Ridge and screaming as loud as I could. When I ran out of air, I stopped, gasping in a breath like the one you take when you've been under water too long. I stayed hunched over, staring at the ground. And then I burst out laughing.

I was on a Canadian Mountain Holidays Family Adventure -- one of the legendary heli-hiking and heli-ski company's newest summer offerings. My six-year-old son and I had helicoptered into one of their decked-out backcountry lodges, set sweetly beneath the renowned Bugaboo spires in the Purcell Mountains of southeast British Columbia.

And mid-afternoon, after a long day of hiking, the guides and child-care specialists introduced this game of Scream as an attempt to get the kids moving toward our chopper pickup. Each kid took a deep breath and then ran screaming as far as they could. Whoever made it the farthest on one breath earned a handful of Swedish berries. It looked like so much fun, we adults took a turn, to the dismay of the hikers high up on the ridge, who had no idea why we were all running and screaming below.

These Family Adventure trips are fascinating.

I have been heli-hiking before with my husband and loved it so much, I had to go back.

When I learned about the family trip, I thought it would be a great chance for my son and I to do some backcountry bonding -- complete with king-sized beds, a five-star chef, a masseuse, an indoor climbing wall in case you didn't get enough exercise outside -- and a handful of child-care specialists/guides who preferred to be known as Facilitators of Fun.

As a parent, you have the option of hiking with your children or without. The children's programming runs from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. each day, and when I say programming, I mean it. The helicopters leave immediately after breakfast, and as soon as the kids hit the hills, they're introduced to a mecca of mountain games while learning all about this precious alpine landscape.

From geology lessons, which inevitably turn into skipping rocks on alpine lakes, to learning a whole new mountain alphabet, it's non-stop. I hiked with my son, as most families hike together on that first afternoon.

After landing at a hike called Groovy, one 14-year-old turned to me and said, "So this is what it's like to stand on top of a mountain. We don't see views like this in Ohio."

His name was Iain Bonner, and I'd had the pleasure of sitting next to him at lunch. He and his mom, Victoria, seemed a bit angst-filled. Iain had wanted to come hiking, but after arriving at Bugaboo Lodge, he had quickly decided this was not the trip for him. He was quiet as he ate, but mostly, he was scared. If you're from a place like Ohio, my guess is those sharp-looking spires, resting at over 10,000 feet each, look a little intimidating.

However, after three hours of easy-paced hiking, learning to bum-slide down the snow-covered slopes, a few impromptu snowball fights and the kind of views that leave you humble, Iain was euphoric. As he climbed out of the helicopter just before dinner, he turned and exclaimed, "That was the best day of my life so far!"

Those kinds of days change you. You sit high in the hills just watching as children as young as three years old, all the way up to adults, stand in awe, soaking in the reality of the scenery and everything it represents.

Paul Lazarski, the lead guide for the 31/2-day trip, put it best.

"This is the real world (up here). There's nothing interrupting or interfering with this. People tend to grow in these environments, but they don't even realize it's happening."

He said every guest comes for different reasons, but they all leave with an appreciation for the world and this environment.

"The great thing about the family trips is that parents get to share something real with their children."

I watched this first-hand with Iain and his mom, Victoria. That first lunch and afternoon, there was tension between them, yet I watched their interactions soften as the days passed and their closeness as they hiked toward us on the last afternoon.

Also along on our trip was a three-generation family of 10, from four-year-old Mira to 70-year-old Joan, celebrating her birthday. The family, who live scattered around the globe, have come together intermittently, sharing time together at different CMH lodges, for more than 18 years. One of them told me this family-tradition trip is the only time they ever hike.

A family of four from Delaware that included 13- and 16-year-old boys had climbed in the Tetons a year earlier, but wanted to take in the Canadian Rockies.

'Best vacation ever'

A single mom spent the trip getting a much-needed break from her six- and 10-year-old boys. She hiked with a group of adults while her kids had the time of their lives learning the difference between sheep and cougar tracks and playing games of Camouflage -- a mountain version of hide and seek -- lakeside, before tucking into their custom-ordered lunches and chocolate bars all the way from France. It was evident the families -- there were 20 children in the lodge and about 30 adults -- had all come here with very different experience levels and a range of expectations. The last morning, after filling my face with the best homemade muesli I've ever had, I spotted Victoria and asked her what she ended up thinking of the trip.

"Beyond my expectations," she said, glowing.

And a couple of minutes later when I ran into her son, he told me it was "The best vacation ever!"

As for my son and me, we live in the mountains full-time, but we wanted to get away and give my husband some time to spend long, guilt-free and solitary days on his bike saddle. Finn had told me he didn't want to go, because, as he said, "I hate helicopters!" It took him about 15 seconds to get over that. And he loved that the pilot, Perry, called himself a "bus driver," pointing out he could drop us off or pick us up anywhere or any time we wanted.

I was a little worried about Finn and how he would adapt to lodge life. He stayed pretty close the first afternoon, but by Day 2, it was as if I wasn't even there. I had to beg him to take a break from his afternoon dip in the lodge's lake to have just a moment to catch up. Then, before I knew it, he was off to make his own pizza with the other kids.

After a relaxing dinner, I found him amid heaps of Lego in the playroom, so when he asked me to hike with him on Day 3, I was secretly happy.

Hummingbirds, hawks

Once on the trails, however, he ignored me in favour of playing follow-the-leader with our guide, Jeff Bodnarchuk, who set off water and Alka-Seltzer rockets while awaiting our afternoon flight to a higher location. It wasn't until our final flight out -- the 10th in just four days -- that he cuddled up to me and took my hand. He was tired out and smiling ear-to-ear as he pointed to the helipad.

I had always wanted to see the iconic Bugaboos, and they had not disappointed. As the vacation came to an end and I sat in the cedar lounge chairs outside the lodge, I watched hummingbirds and hawks flit about. I took one last long look before heading back to my room, sad that I would have to leave in the morning.

I thought about one of the dads, who had told me he just wanted to get off the beaten path, and how he looked hiking down Pipeline's goat path. Lazarski said there were likely only 20 hikers who had ever been there before us.

I remembered the feeling I had -- as if the mountains were hugging us -- while I stood standing, arms around my young son as we looked out at Cobalt Lake.

Then I thought of 83-year-old Mary Petland, who'd simply come to the lodge to hang out while her husband hiked. And finally, I recalled what Joan said after being serenaded by the CMH staff on her birthday.

"You see stuff you don't see anywhere else. And I just love that helicopter."

-- Postmedia News

IF YOU GO

Canadian Mountain Holidays offers heli-hiking at the Bobbie Burns and Bugaboos lodges in July and August. Visit canadianmountainholidays.com or call 1-800-661-0252 to book your trip.

CMH will help you build any heli-hiking adventure, so if the family trip is not for you, check out their yoga retreats or women's-only trips.

Don't worry about equipment. CMH will outfit you and your kids with boots, jackets, rain pants, a pack and hiking poles. Their in-lodge shops sell everything else you'd need.

For the best lodge or trip availability, book as early as you can. Fall is ideal.

Don't forget your swimsuit. Both lodges have hot tubs, swimming ponds and saunas.

Bring your appetite and wear loose clothing at mealtime -- regardless of good intentions, you'll likely overindulge on sumptuous desserts; each lodge has a five-star chef and its own pastry chef. All meals are served family-style.

Even if you've never been on a helicopter, there's no need to fear being a first-timer. You'll be supplied with earplugs upon arrival at the helipad and once you've reached the lodge, the local pilot will teach you about the helicopter huddle and take you through safety training.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 16, 2012 D3

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