Skoki

This is a word that, for me, brings hiking, a backcountry lodge, a classmate, a cookbook, Will and Kate, a suburb of Chicago, and a figure skater.

I grew up in and near Banff, so for me Skoki is first of all a valley and a lodge. I knew of it and had read about it for years before we ever went there. You can’t get there by driving, oh no. You go to the trailhead, which is at Lake Louise ski area (the most scenic ski area in Canada, loaded with excellent and challenging terrain, and also the place I broke my leg when I was 12 – in one of the flattest and least scenic parts of the whole place). Then you hike almost 15 kilometres through the back country, over Boulder Pass, past Ptarmigan Lake, up and over Deception Pass and on down into Skoki Valley.

I love hiking. I really love hiking in the mountains. I love the scenery, the nature. I love seeing the pikas and the lichen and kinnikinnick and the great peaks and valleys. I love walking up and down. I need to have things well above sightline in order to be happy where I live, which is one reason I live in a downtown high-rise now. We went hiking many times when I was a kid, picnicking on Shake ’n’ Bake in Larch Valley and having strawberry tea at Lake Agnes. My high school grad class went on a weekend hike to Shadow Lake in the fall of our last year (thereby hang some tales! but I won’t digress now). Get me hiking and I’m happy.

But I hate camping. In my childhood and youth I spent many disgusting cold damp uncomfortable smoky mosquito-bitten wildlife-haunted nights in tents. Yuck. If I never sleep in a tent again I won’t mind.

Skoki Valley is a beautiful place, and a beautiful place to hike to. You shouldn’t try to do it there and back in one day; it will take you about five hours each way. You’re staying overnight.

But did I mention there’s a lodge?

Skoki Lodge is a beautiful log lodge. It’s two storeys and who knows how many stories – it holds an important place in the history of Banff National Park. It opened in 1931 and has expanded a little since then. It has no electricity or running water, but it has heat and they give you heated water and nice food and lamp light and all that. We finally went there when I was a teen. I enjoyed it very much.

It is now being run by one of my high school classmates, Leo Mitzel. Leo is from Lake Louise and has always been a backcountry kind of guy. (If you’re wondering what he looks like now, here’s a picture from our 30th reunion last fall. If I ever go into much detail about that reunion here, it will deserve its own post. It was every bit as hilarious as the hike, which I don’t think I will ever talk about in much detail on this blog.) It is also being run by Leo’s wife, Katie, who he met at Skoki. She has produced a lovely cookbook. I was very happy to receive it from my parents this past Christmas. It includes the menu they served to Will and Kate (i.e., the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge), who stayed there in 2011. I am also happy to report that they did not miss a chance to use Skoki in the name of a kind of cookie – not Skoki cookies, which would have been a perfect sound, but anyway Skoki warden cookies.

By the way, you don’t have to visit Skoki in the summer. It’s also open in the winter. It’s OK to ski there!

It happens that Skoki is an anagram of OK ski. That’s not where it comes from, of course. On the other hand, it’s clearly not an Anglo-Saxon word. It would probably be spelled scokie or scokey if it were. It’s the odd one out in its surrounds: Skoki Mountain, which sits above the valley, has neighbours named Fossil, Jericho, Ptarmigan, Brachiopod, Anthozoan, Redoubt, Richardson, and Pika. It has that nice crisp mix of voiceless fricative and stops that sound so, ah, “authentic” (I think of Kananaskis, and of Nakiska, a ski area with a name that was basically made up to sound authentic). It ends with an open i that’s pronounced /i/ (“ee”). And in fact (although it’s coincidentally a place name from Poland) it’s modified from a word for ‘marsh’ from a Native American language.

Which Native American language? Potawatomi.

A few of you may know where the Potawatomi live. I’ll tell the rest of you: in the central United States, west of the Great Lakes.

One of the first white people to visit the valley, in 1911, was James Foster Porter, who was from Illinois. The valley apparently reminded him of an area north of Chicago, the Skokie marsh, on which the town of Niles Center was built. He and his companions discussed names for the place and liked Skokie, and it stuck. The Banff version was later respelled as Skoki, probably because it seemed more appropriately non-English, but I don’t know really.

The people in Niles Center also liked the name Skokie. They liked it enough that in 1940 they voted to rename their town Skokie. Skokie is officially a village, although it has a population of 65,000. It’s right on the northern border of Chicago. North of it are the Skokie Lagoons. Near them is the Winnetka Ice Arena, which is the home rink of the Skokie Valley Skating Club.

That’s where Jason Brown is officially from. Who is Jason Brown? One of the best figure skaters in the US today (update: and 2015 US men’s figure skating champion). He grew up in Highland Park (another northern Chicago suburb, and coincidentally the name of a good brand of Scotch whisky). He lives in Colorado now, but his official home club is the Skokie Valley Skating Club. He’s why I thought of Skoki tonight: we were watching the US national championships.

But I have now put my wife on notice that we will be visiting Skoki Lodge some time in the future. She rolls her eyes at the lack of electricity and running water, but it was good enough for royalty, so I say it’s good enough for us. Plus the food looks delicious.

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