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Isolated lodge offers cozy retreat in the Rockies

My dilemma: Should I trudge through shin-deep snow to the side door at the Kilmorey Lodge library? Or should I use the front door, shooing away the doe and her fawn that have taken shelter there from the falling snow?
The Canadian Rockies in the Banff Nation
The Canadian Rockies in the Banff National Forest are seen during morning sunrise in November.Jeff Haynes / AFP - Getty Images file
/ Source: The Associated Press

My dilemma: Should I trudge through shin-deep snow to the side door at the Kilmorey Lodge library? Or should I use the front door, shooing away the doe and her fawn that have taken shelter there from the falling snow?

I opt for the library door. The deer, after all, are one reason we chose this isolated lodge in the almost-deserted village of Waterton Lakes in the Canadian Rockies. This is their home; we are merely visitors.

In summer, Waterton Lakes National Park is a popular mountain destination for Canadian vacationers, smaller and less crowded than the better known Banff and Jasper national parks to the north. It also receives thousands of visitors who come north across the U.S. border as part of their visit to Glacier National Park, which abuts it.

Together, they form the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

But in winter, Glacier is essentially shut down. Its hotels and restaurants are closed and boarded up, its high mountain roads buried by deep, drifting snow. The border crossing that is the summer shortcut from the U.S. to Waterton is barricaded until summer.

Waterton Lakes, at the core of the Canadian park, comes close to doing the same. The grocery store and the gas station are boarded up; so are the fudge shop, the espresso bar and the ice cream parlor. The summer population of more than 2,000 shrinks to perhaps 100, many of them park staff. And even many residents in nearby Montana assume Waterton has joined Glacier in winter slumber.

But on the shore of Waterton's Emerald Bay, a snug century-old lodge remains open, a beacon of warmth offering cozy rooms and an award-winning restaurant year around for those willing to make the offseason trek.

We are here this weekend because the Kilmorey Lodge tops our list of places where we most want to be snowed in. Our cross-country skis are strapped on the car, and our snowshoes are in the trunk. We seek a blend of adventure and solitude, but also a comfortable bed, a warm fire, and gourmet meals served by cheerful and attentive staff. Kilmorey offers it all.

Adventure isn't far away. Waterton plows a road eight miles up from the village into the high country of the Rockies. From there the remaining two miles of unplowed road lead cross-country skiers or snowshoers to Cameron Lake, nestled in a cirque at 5,450 feet, hard against the Continental Divide.

It is one of the easiest and safest ways for winter visitors to view the high backcountry of the Canadian Rockies in winter. Later in the season, when the ice is thicker and safer, Cameron Lake itself becomes a thoroughfare for skiers. And all around are forest and mountains, inviting explorers on snowshoes.

Back down in the townsite is Cameron Falls, a spectacular waterfall on the edge of town that in winter is an easy destination for skiers who want an adventure a bit short of true wilderness.

Deer are common here, and they often bed down in the shelter of trees near the Kilmorey. A small herd of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep also frequents the townsite. Lucky visitors may even catch a glimpse of a mountain lion, searching for winter prey. This also is serious grizzly bear country, but they are hibernating this time of year and pose no threat.

Canada first protected Waterton as a park in 1895. In 1910, it became forever linked to its giant neighbor to the south — Glacier Park is eight times bigger in area — when James Hill, president of the Great Northern Railway in the U.S., decided to make Glacier and Waterton "the playground of the Northwest" with a network of hotels, camps, and chalets targeting wealthy tourists who would travel on his railroad.

His son, Louis Hill, chose a knoll overlooking Waterton as the spot for a new grand hotel, linked on a circuit to three others in Glacier park. The Prince of Wales Inn, resembling a giant alpine chalet, opened in 1927.

It still overlooks the village of Waterton, and staying there is a highlight for many summer visitors. It is closed in winter, and few even venture there because of the fierce and frigid winds that can howl down Upper Waterton Lake. Those that do visit the Prince of Wales can see the thick steel cables that literally keep the huge hotel from blowing away.

At the townsite below, the wind is buffered by trees, and it is calm when we return to the Kilmorey after our adventure on skis. It makes for a pleasant evening stroll through the snow around the shore of the partially iced-over Emerald Bay, listening to the honking of hundreds of Canada geese.

Evening comes early in winter, and the glow from the lodge windows is an invitation. Just off the lobby is a small, cheery pub where we can sit by the fireplace and look out over the snowy wilderness.

As in many old inns, the rooms are each unique and range from cozy to spacious. But all have antique furniture, plump mattresses and thick comforters that invite you to snuggle in and sleep late. The rooms have no televisions, telephones or dataports, and there is no cell phone service; this is not the place for such intrusions.

Dining at Kilmorey is a treat; a list of Canadian restaurant awards over the last few years fills a half page of the guest directory, and plaques fill a wall in the Lamp Post dining room. The menu and wine list belie the isolation of the small lodge.

This night we opt for an appetizer of black tiger prawns sauteed with maple-infused Canadian whisky and a hint of crushed garlic. For a main course we choose pescatore — scallops, clams, mussels, shrimp, crab, calamari, cod and prawns sauteed with garlic, Italian herbs and onion and finished with sauvignon blanc and cream, then tossed with linguine.

Then we head to one of Kilmorey's most pleasant features — the back library, with its comfy armchairs gathered around a wood-burning fireplace. You can choose to take your coffee and dessert here after dinner. But it's always a quiet refuge, the perfect place to curl up with a good book, listen to the crackle of the fire and watch the softly falling snow deepen outside the door.

Perhaps we'll be snowed in. We can always hope.