Treading softly on the Earth

Journalist Michael Vlessides reports on green practices in some of Canada's back-country lodges

He holds the glass aloft admiring its tawny contents as a brewmaster would his latest creation. But, as Bruce Millar, owner and operator of the Canadian Rockies' historic Lake O'Hara Lodge calmly drains the mug, even the most casual spectator realizes this is no pint of ale. Rather, the soft-spoken Millar has just consumed a glass of water drawn off the terminus of the lodge's proprietary wastewater treatment system.

Relaxed demeanor aside, environmental stewardship is taken very seriously at Lake O'Hara .Like other remote inn-and-cabin complexes that dot western Canada's rugged mountain landscape, the lodge is completely off the grid, and therefore responsible for its own power and heat production, as well as the treatment of aII its waste water.

The lodge currently boasts one of the most sophisticated water treatment solutions in the Canadian Rockies, a membrane bioreactor system that combines filtration through a water-permeable polymeric membrane with biological treatment via the bacteria inherent in human waste.

The result is that (other than its difference in colour), effluent coming out of the system bears a striking resemblance to normal tap water.

Certainly there are other far less expensive options available than the bioreactor system, which cost the lodge $250,000 CDN (GBP100,000) when it was installed in 1997, and will incur some $40,000 CDN (GBP16,000) every six or seven years, when the membranes need replacing. None of the alternatives however provide a final product nearly as clean, which made the choice an easy one for Millar.

"We believe that since we're working in a national park (British Columbia's Yoho National Park), we need to be at the forefront of the environmental movement, rather than being told what we should be doing by Parks Canada," he says.

Yet environmental stewardship at Lake O'Hara goes further back than 1997. Back in 1974, the owners of the lodge installed what was then the largest land-based vacuum toilet system in North America, which radically decreased the lodge's water consumption.

After an upgrade of almost $75,000 CDN (GBP £30,000) in 1997, most of the two dozen toilets on site today use no more than one litre of water per flush, compared with six litres for a typical low-flush toilet. Although Bruce admits the lodge's green initiatives have largely been undertaken without the guidance of a formal plan, it has not diluted their impact.

Clean-burning propane gas is used instead of diesel fuel to power its three generators. Several years back, Bruce invested $5,000 CDN (GBP £2,000) in a system to re-circulate surplus heat produced by the generators to pre-warm all the lodge's domestic hot water from 5°C to approximately 50°.The heat from the generators is also used to heat the utilidor boxes that protect the sewage system's pipes from Canadian Rockies winters, as well as the room in which the sewage treatment plant is located.

Lake O'Hara Lodge is not alone in its commitment to treading softly on the Earth. Across the Canadian Rockies anti surrounding mountain ranges, many 'backcountry' lodges have realized that environmentally friendly management techniques not only ensure the long-term health of their natural surroundings, but also make good financial sense.

Brewster's shadow Lake Lodge recently switched from kerosene to solar-powered lamps, and also installed an engineered settling system through which grey water is cleaned and oxygenated before being dispersed into a neighbouring filtration field. Last October, the lodge won the Banff Heritage Tourism Best Environmental Practice award. At Sentry Mountain Lodge, traditional toilets have been eschewed for those of the composting variety.

Purcell Lodge, built to be as self sufficient as possible, boasts a 12-kilowatt hydroelectric system capable of producing all its electricity needs from a nearby stream. If anything, these lodges echo the sentiments of Millar, who says Lake O'Hara is only beginning to realize just how green its operation can ultimately become.

"I always say everybody needs to go beyond the towel sign in the bathroom. We need to support new technologies and keep investigating new ways of providing services. We're lucky enough to work in one of the most pristine environments on earth, and we need to keep it that way."

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Lake O'Hara Lodge

Purcell Lodge

Sentry Mountain Lodge

Brewster's Shadow Lake Lodge


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