Nordegg, approximately 200 kilometres west of Red Deer, is one of Alberta’s quieter mountain communities. A once-thriving coal-mining hub of 2,500, named after German immigrant Martin Nordegg, who founded Brazeau Collieries here in 1911, the town emptied almost overnight when locomotives switched from coal to diesel and the mine closed in 1955. After a decade as a near-ghost town, it then served as a minimum-security jail for nearly 30 years (prisoners lived, at times, in the miners’ abandoned cabins).
Today, Nordegg is known mostly for its wilderness setting. The Bighorn Wildland to the west and southwest features several microclimates and diverse flora and fauna, including krummholz (“crooked wood”) stunted forests and neotropical hummingbirds. The Kootenay Plains area of this Wildland – once the territory of the Stoney tribes and a major wintering ground for elk and deer – is one of the few remaining montane ecosystems in the province, and was granted ecological reserve status in 1987. But industrial development and motorized recreation are still permitted across the Bighorn Wildland. The Alberta Wilderness Association is thus advocating for “wildland park protection” for the entire area.
Opened in 2000 above Abraham Lake by Swiss immigrants Madeleine and Alan Ernst, Aurum Lodge is perhaps Alberta’s most eco-friendly inn. Constructed from local and recycled materials wherever possible and 85 per cent solar-powered, with composting toilets, reuse of grey water and xeriscaped grounds, the lodge won the province’s first ALTO Award for sustainable tourism in 2001. The lodge’s eco approach attracts mainly nature lovers, sports enthusiasts (100-plus hiking trails are found in the area), photographers and city dwellers seeking a few days’ escape. Double rooms from $119 (including breakfast). http://www.aurumlodge.com
The Inside Track
Rocky Mountain backdrop: The spectacular views over Abraham Lake from every room at Aurum Lodge, with the snow, wind and sun constantly resculpting the landscape; nighttime brings a kaleidoscopic sky.
Shoot like a pro: Nature photographer Darwin Wiggett guides participants in “Aurum Lodge Winter Magic Photography Weekends” across the Kootenay Plains and through Banff National Park. (Contact Aurum Lodge for info.)
Cold thrills: Snowshoeing and guided ice climbing in Peskett Canyon (http://www.coe.ca).
Birth of a briquette: The 30-hectare Brazeau Collieries mine site, designated a National Historic Site in 2002 (open only in summer; http://nordegghistoricalsociety.8m.com).
Wildlife’s last stand: Bighorn Wildland, for a great read on the history and ecology of the area (2003; $35; available at http://www.albertawilderness.ca).