Twitter can be an odd place. You might even say that sometimes it's downright nuts.
And that's just fine for the Banff Squirrel, who runs one of the most engaging and entertaining tourism accounts on Twitter. Tweets from @Banff_Squirrel, the account for Banff Lake Louise Tourism, are written by a squirrel that popped up--literally--in 2009 (see the photo, above, and story, below). The Squirrel's bio lists him as the "Unlikely Spokes-Squirrel of Banff Lake Louise Tourism in Banff National Park, Canadian Rockies."
As a fan of both Banff Squirrel and the Banff/Lake Louise area, I contacted the Squirrel to see if he'd be willing to take time out of his busy schedule (winter is coming, you know, and there are nuts to be hoarded) to do a Q&A with me. Much to my delight, he agreed. Thank you to the Squirrel and to all the people at Banff Lake Louise Tourism!
Q: First, since it's been a few years now, can you share with us the story of the "Banff Squirrel"?
A: Well, I was hanging out at Lake Minnewanka here and this adorable couple from Minnesota came down to the shoreline and set up a timer camera shot. The whirring of the timer thingy sang to me, so I investigated the camera--apparently drawing its focus my way and blurring the couple. It ended up being featured by National Geographic, then things got crazy. There were several kazillion views through the interweb and some fine photoshops of me onto different scenarios, like the moon landing or a Godzilla movie.
Q: Whose idea was it to create a Banff Squirrel Twitter account? Did you all have to audition to determine who could best mimic a squirrel on Twitter?
A: There is no mimicry here, Stucky. Banff Lake Louise Tourism left me a gift basket of legumes with a note to stop by the office, after that photo went viral. I brought a wolverine with me to help with the negotiations, which was counterproductive as he got into one of the servers in the IT room and destroyed it. I am still working it off...
Q: There are a lot of anthropomorphized animals and also structures (a lot of bridges!) on Twitter. Why do you think that is? Was the Banff Squirrel first?
A: *googling "anthropomorphized"* Interesting word, you must have gone to a fine school. I doubt I was the first non-human tweeting. But it was 2009 when we started this experiment, when twitter was still very young, so maybe. It might be that the personification of things like rodents and bridges is just funny, especially when they are given a voice. It is also a fun way to take advantage of entertaining incidents, like when the Bronx Zoo cobra escaped and showed up on twitter being really hysterical.
Q: What other wildlife might one encounter in the Banff National Park region? Are those creatures jealous they don't have Twitter accounts?
A: There are 53 species of mammals here in the park, from the apex predator--the grizzly bear--all the way down to a pygmy shrew. Most of them are just too busy avoiding the grizzly bears to get too caught up in twittering. We also have some 260 species of birds, including seagulls, which always confuses me when I see them at 5,000 feet in the Rockies. I thought they were "sea" gulls?
Q: Do you think having a squirrel represent the area has had an effect on raising the tourism profile? How and why?
A: It is a different way to go about things than most destinations, but it has worked for us. A wee rodent is pretty approachable, so maybe people are more inclined to engage with us. I don't know how much I may have affected it, but the number of visitors has been increasing. I do know that we have affected many people who were considering coming to the park, and hopefully introduced our neck of the woods to some others.
Q: Let's talk about Banff and the region. Give us a brief rundown on Banff's history?
A: In a nutshell, Canada was building the railroad across the country when, in 1883, three Scottish fellows stumbled upon a stinky sulphur smelling cave with a hot springs in it. A small park was made around it, which eventually grew to the 6641 square kms Banff is now. Nice views and hot springs are a good draw, they figured. With tourists now able to access this area (by train), investments were made--like the opening of the Banff Springs Hotel in 1888. Swiss guides came over and got us mountaineering, and the park started to grow in popularity to the present day 3+ million visitors a year. Of, course, there was lots going on before that. There is evidence of human activity around here dating some 13,000 years ago, when woolly mammoths were roaming around.
Q: What is the origin of the name "Banff"?
A: It is a funny name. There is a classic 1966 F Troop episode, with Paul Lynde playing a Mountie who is "ze burglar of Banf-f-f." The park is actually named after Banffshire, Scotland. I believe the area reminded a couple high level railroad officials of their birthplace, with certain mountains also reminding them of Scottish castles.
Q: Banff was "created" as a tourist town. Does that make it less lovable?
A: I think not. The "town" of Banff is only a 4-square-km municipality within the 6641 square kms of the greater Banff National Park. Its commercial growth is capped, and there is pretty much no more new land available to be developed. There is also the hamlet of Lake Louise here, and three ski resorts, but otherwise the vast majority of the park is undeveloped and protected. The town of Banff was formed specifically to serve the needs of people who want to visit and explore the area. Tourism is our industry, so our efforts are mainly to provide amenities that people will want or can enjoy. I also think the locals are a very friendly and approachable group of folks. The Town of Banff is held to a high environmental standard being in a park, and we are seeing this with things like hybrid buses and solar-powered public washrooms. So, yeah, it's a bit of a conundrum--we want to be able to share this beautiful area with as many people as feasible, but that takes infrastructure, which isn't what some people want to see when they think of a national park.
Q: How many people live there year-round?
A: Around 8,500 people live here year-round. It is a great place to live, in that regard. People go to the grocery store and end up having fifteen different conversations with other locals.
Q: Lake Louise is really blue. Why is it so blue?
A: It is that colour, which blows a lot of people's minds. What happens is that the numerous glaciers in the area are in motion. Really, really, slow motion. And they are heavy. So this movement grinds up the rock underneath the glaciers, pulverizing it into a fine powder, or "rock flour." This rock flour makes its way to the lakes through creeks and rivers. Once in the lake, the rock flour settles just below the surface of the water, reflecting up those green/blue hues. A lot of people think we paint the bottom of the lakes from time to time, which always makes me chuckle.
Lake Louise. Photo: @rockieschick22 on Instagram.
Q: Does Lake Louise have a monster? Like Loch Ness in Scotland or Lagarfljót in Iceland or Okanagan Lake in British Columbia? If not, have you thought about getting one?
A: Nothing like Nessie or Ogopogo, but we do have a Mermonster in Lake Minnewanka. A lake long respected by the First Nations people of the area, some thought parts of the lake were a portal to another dimension. When the wind comes up and howls across the crevices along the lakeshore, it is haunting. Banff's Norman Luxton used the legend to promote his boat tours in the early 1900s, even buying a "monster" he "caught" in the lake, which you could view if you took the tour. It looked like a monkey sewed to a salmon.
I have talked to Sasquatch out here a few times, but I don't consider him a monster. Just shy.
Q: What are the most popular activities in the region?
A: Depends on the season. In winter, we have three ski resorts with 8,000 acres of runs, plus all of the backcountry skiing opportunities. The snow also welcomes cross country skiers, skaters, dog sledders, snowshoers or people that just like crisp fresh mountain air. There is a bit more variety in the summer, with more hikes than anyone could complete, lakes to paddle, horses to back, bike trails and roads, fly fishing hotbeds, and lots that I am forgetting. As when the park was first formed, hot springs are always a year-round draw.
Banff Squirrel is always dressed right for the season.
Q: Banff and Lake Louise are fantastic destinations for active people. But what if a person has less mobility, what activities might they enjoy?
A: There is still a ton to do here if your mobility is limited. There are three sightseeing gondolas, and we have other cool attractions like the Glacier Skywalk that are easy to navigate. We have some beautiful museums and historic landmarks to explore. Some trails are wheelchair accessible, like Johnston Canyon. I like to think there is something for everyone.
Q: Does Banff have fun activities for younger kids?
A: Well, all of that nature-y stuff is super for the whole family. Shorter hikes, bike rides, float trips, camping, wildflower treks are all great. We also have an indoor waterpark (at the Douglas Fir resort), a bowling alley, golf simulators and a movie theatre. Parks Canada also has entertaining and informative programs and performances they run that are great for the whole family.
Reading a friend into a long sleep.
Q: Talk to me about travel logistics. How can people get to Banff? What's the nearest airport? Do trains come through Banff?
A: All of the action in Banff was started by the train coming through town. The Banff station just got a beauty facelift (and is the newest and least busy info centre for trip planning help from Parks Canada and Banff Lake Louise Tourism), and Lake Louise has another historic station. Impressive trains like the Rocky Mountaineer come through, but not really as an airport transit--they are more like vacations unto themselves. Most folks fly to Calgary (YYC) and then it is about a scenic 90-minute drive to the town of Banff. Lake Louise is another 57 kms west, within the park. You can rent a car from YYC, or use one of the airporter services that run often and daily.
Q: If a person doesn't drive there him/herself, what's the best way to get around? Are there car rentals available in town? Buses? Trolleys? Moose-back rides?
A: Getting around the town of Banff is pretty easy--as I said, it is not that big and we have local public buses, buses to Canmore and taxis. There are also summer shuttles to Mt. Norquay and the Sulphur Mountain Gondola, as well as shuttles in the summer in Lake Louise. I ride my bike most of the year, everywhere, even in winter. During the ski season, the ski hills run buses that frequently go to/from area hotels to the resorts, which is nice--especially if your forte is après-skiing. You can also rent a car in Banff or Lake Louise, including from the major brands like Avis, Budget, and Hertz.
Q: What are some resources where people can find out more about Banff?
A: We have me tweeting at @banff_squirrel, and I am always ready to answer any questions you might have, or just talk about stuff. There is sweet Instagram page at @banff_lakelouise for inspiration and we are on Facebook at banffnationalpark. If you search #mybanff, you will see a lot of cool stuff on Instagram and Twitter.
The banfflakelouise.com website is loaded with great info and trip planning ideas, along with info on local events festivals, and the best rates on hotels here. You can also buy your parks pass online through the website.
Well, I have to go now, Pam--there is a pika territory dispute at Helen Lake that I need to moderate before someone gets nibbled on. Thanks for the questions and have a splendid day.
Thank you, Banff Squirrel! I hope to see you soon!
Somewhere between funny and philosophical lies the truth in Pam Stucky's writing. Pam is the author of several books including the Wishing Rock series (Northern Exposure-esque contemporary fiction, with wit, wisdom, and recipes); the Pam on the Map travelogues (wit and wanderlust); and the YA Sci-Fi The Universes Inside the Lighthouse (wonder and wisdom). Pam's driving forces are curiosity, the pursuit of happiness, the desire to thrive, and the joy in seeing others do the same. Pam is currently working on writing novels and screenplays.