Something happens to our bodies when night falls. It’s a time of stories, whether told around a campfire, through children’s books or at the movies. It’s a time when sounds travel, and our imaginations run wild. It can be a time when we wind down and reconnect with friends and ourselves, or a time when we wind up to move our bodies, dancing or enjoying a performance.
In celebration of night, winter and the Stoney Nakoda’s long relationship with the land around the Bow River, three groups (Montreal’s Moment Factory, the Stoney Nakoda Nation and Pursuit Banff Jasper Collection who own the Banff Gondola) created Nightrise. It’s an interactive multimedia experience: a light show, a soundscape and a memory-maker at the top of Sulphur Mountain in Banff National Park.
“The arrival of night shifts our perspective. It invites us to tune into our senses, to discover wonders that only appear in the mountains when darkness sets in,” says Moment Factory’s Jamie Tobin.
Travellers have long prioritized experiences over material goods, but in recent years many have an even deeper desire to create core memories — meaningful and unique moments of connection with the world and each other. For tourism operators, that means offering much more than poolside cocktails and canned entertainment.
At first, technology may seem to be the enemy of memory-making: our addiction to the internet and smartphones has made genuine interactions more difficult and spun the pace of daily life ever faster. The remedy, then, ought to be a weekend in the woods, totally unplugged. But that won’t work for everyone — especially after decades depending on technology, to quit cold-turkey sometimes leads to more stress. So at Nightrise, technology enhances the wonder of the natural world, making it easier to drop into a story, embrace your inner child and lose track of time.
“Nightrise is an opportunity to escape the stress of everyday life while immersing yourself in a visually and acoustically pleasing environment,” Tobin says.
It’s like the difference between simply reading a book, and making the effort to put on music, light a candle and sit in the perfect chair before reading that book.
READ MORE: 11 things to do in Banff this winter (besides skiing)
What is Nightrise?
The experience starts moments after the four-person gondola takes flight: a cosy snowglobe carefully shepherding passengers up Sulphur Mountain. The pristine views of Banff National Park are inspiring enough, and then a faint piano chord and the soft voice of Cherith Mark from the Stoney Nakoda Nation tempts travellers to expand their horizons.
You’re encouraged, incredibly gently, to open your eyes to new possibilities.
“I wonder, have you ever listened to the view?” the soundtrack whispers as you float above the trees and set your sights on distant summits. “What if you could listen to the mountains?”
It’s not an instruction to treat the experience a certain way (the unofficial catchphrase of Nightrise is that there’s no ‘right way’ to experience it), but an invitation to let your guard down. At the top, in the zone titled Diamond Dust/Wiyapta Ptach, I overhear one group joking that they should’ve taken gummies before stepping into the dark room sparkling with dancing dots of light. Beside them, parents watch over a toddler having an absolute ball in the disco-like setting. I wait in a beanbag chair until these groups move on, so I can listen to Cherith Mark’s voiceover about the Stoney Nakoda’s names for the seven moons of winter. We each found our own way of enjoying the same moment.
READ MORE: Ride the Banff Gondola into a magical nightrise realm this winter
Later, I ask for Mark’s guidance in digesting all that I’ve experienced. I came in with a very serious goal of absorbing Stoney Nakoda culture and connecting with this land; others clearly had different goals. How does she, as both an artist who helped create Nightrise and a member of the Stoney Nakoda Nation, feel about these different ways of experiencing the space?
“Nightrise is just one of those very personal things. There’s no right way to see the experience. See it all,” she says. “Each zone tells something different — it taps into your psyche, and it’s up to you to figure out: okay, this zone means this to me, this zone means this.”
My favourite zone is outside, in a sheltered plastic dome where you’re invited to snuggle under a blanket and listen to Mark’s voice tell a story she learned from her mother. The story, set long ago, is about a family left behind after “the tribe in the foothills” fled a fearsome sickness, and how seven orphaned siblings eventually made a new home in a constellation in the stars. It had my heart breaking for the many hardships the Stoney Nakoda have faced due to colonization, and left me overwhelmed at the possibility that every star in the night sky is someone’s ancestor.
But not everyone under the dome had the same experience. Other groups only dipped into the dome to take a selfie, or used the space to chit-chat while sipping Alpine Hot Chocolate (an utterly delicious blend of Belvedere vodka, cherry liqueur, dark chocolate and star anise chili syrup). I tell myself, again, that there’s no right way to experience Nightrise. And make a note to ask Mark what she thinks.
“Sometimes people will hear that story and they will visualize it right away, and some will just, I don’t know, they don’t know how to take it. You get both, right?” she says, clearly comfortable with letting the art and her words affect people differently.
David Barbour, General Manager of Banff Lodging and Gondola, later brings up the range of values that Pursuit wanted to incorporate into the Nightrise experience. The company has a long history (more than 130 years) of offering authentic mountain experiences, and their relationship with the Stoney Nakoda goes back over a century as well.
”Nightrise is a very contemplative experience. But we also have another part of our brand which is fun. We want people to have fun and get their blood moving a little bit. So just this past year we’ve added a new installation where we encourage people to have fun with music, have fun with the lights.”
That new installation turns out to be the pinnacle of all that Nightrise represents. Everything is at its best: the summit views of this incredible landscape and sparkling night sky, the Nakoda language soaring in song, the interactive light display encouraging fun and celebration.
“Just hearing the language echo in the mountains — wow. It gets you into a different realm of things, seeing the world through that language,” says Mark, whose first language is Nakoda, and who works as the Language and Culture Coordinator for the Stoney Education Authority. “Language connects us to identity, it connects us to our culture, the way of life. Some of our teachings are done in the language, so you have to have that connection.”
I stand on a beam of light which triggers a voice, part of the music composed by Anders Hunter from the Stoney Nakoda Nation. It connects me to the mountain scenery in a deeper way, calling forth the rich history and culture in this land. Then some new friends round the corner and stand on other parts of the installation, bringing drums, bells and other sounds to our collaborative creation. We can’t help but laugh as we step from sound to sound, almost tricked into dancing, engaging with this modern expression from the still-thriving Stoney Nakoda.
Despite my determination to have a studious experience at Nightrise, this music, this light show, this view… this is the moment. You might even call it a core memory.
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