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Alberta rides on back of ‘Brokeback’ film

Brokeback Mountain may be fictional - but the location isn’t. And it’s Alberta - the actual location of the cowboy romance - that is generating more inquiries for travel to the region.“Since its limited showing in early December (first appearing in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago), we’ve had dozens of calls per week - from tourists to film-related calls - wondering where in Alberta Brokeback was shot,” says an ebullient Tina Alford, manager of location and marketing resources for Alberta Film.

From clips on Oprah to articles in the Chicago Tribune, Australia’s Daily Telegraph, the Globe and Mail to Budget Travel, USA Today and most daily newspapers in Canada - Annie Proulx’s short story, adapated by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana for the silver screen, seems to have struck a potent emotional chord with all audiences.

Where is Brokeback?

“Most of the tourists who are calling Travel Alberta are from the United States,” adds Derek Coke-Kerr, managing director of Travel Alberta.

But that could change with Brokeback’s upcoming release in Berlin, and next month’s release in Japan. Hanging around to view the credits, it’s these movie buffs/travellers who have realized that Brokeback is not actually shot in Wyoming, but southern Alberta. And so, they’re demanding to know the exact location of Brokeback Mountain (it’s actually a composite of angles, from the peaks of Three Sisters flanking the town of Canmore, to Fortress and Moose Mountain, in Kananaskis Country).


And they want to know where the two star-crossed sheep tenders, Heath Ledger (playing Ennis del Mar) and Jake Gyllenhaal (Jack Twist), jump off a cliff into a clear Rocky Mountain river.

But a few of the key scenes that tourists seem to want to replay involve some of Alberta’s finest campgrounds. One is a shot of Upper Kananaskis Lake, which is completely accessible as are most of the other scenes that feature camping - actual sites at Elbow Falls and Canyon Creek. Then there’s the bridge along the Galatea hiking trail (in Kananaskis Country) where Ennis picks up supplies as well as King Creek (near the junction of Hwy 40 and the Smith-Dorrien Rd., in Kananaskis) where Ennis encounters the black bear (hired locally, from Doug’s Exotic Zoo Farm, just outside of Innisfail).

Alberta’s Accessible Wilderness
For Alberta-based location manager, Darryl Solly - who from February to August 2004, clocked 35,000 km (22,000 mi) for this shoot - it was precisely this “accessible wilderness,” that made him realize Alberta’s enormous potential for remote and rugged backdrops such as we see in Brokeback. In fact, more than 90 per cent of the scenes in Brokeback were shot within 21 m (70 ft.) of a road. Perfect for travellers who want to experience grand wilderness without hoofing over mountain passes (though you can do that to!).

“Plus, the authentic towns such as Cowley (featured in the opening scene when Jake and Heath meet outside a rusted-up, derelict trailer) and Fort Macleod (where Heath and his family live in almost squalor, above a laundromat), made it so much more real.

“For those apartment scenes we moved the tenant out from the laundromat into the Red Coat Inn, in Fort Macleod, so we could shoot,” says Solly, who’s worked on other features such as Legends of the Fall.

Follow the Crew along Brokeback’s Trail

Design your own Brokeback tour
Independent travellers who want to camp out under a tarp of stars - the very ones featured in Brokeback - or hike along the precise ridge that swirled with 1000 head of sheep, go two-stepping in the exact cowboy bar where Heath first met Lureen (Anne Hathaway), can follow this self-guided trail:
? Calgary: Dubbed the gateway to the Canadian Rockies, this southern Alberta city that’s nudging a million people and is most famous for its 10-day whoop-up, the Calgary Stampede, was briefly featured in the bar scene where Jake hooks up with Lureen. That particular bar is the Ranchman’s and is as authentic a cowboy bar that you’ll ever mosey across. If you time your trip for next July you could find yourself two-steppin’ till dawn (they even offer dance lessons) during Stampede. And one of the Thanksgiving scenes was shot at a home in Scarborough, a historic, inner-city neighbourhood in Calgary. The Brokeback crew stayed at several Calgary hotels, namely the Fairmont Palliser, the Hyatt Regency, the Sheraton Suites Calgary Eau Claire and a boutique property, the Kensington Riverside Inn. Favourite restaurants where the cast was spotted include Catch, the Bungalow and Living Room as well as several uptown bars and clubs along 17 Avenue S.W. Solly claims that producer, Ang Lee, loved Peter’s Drive-In best of all, “but that speaks to the fact that his sentimental favourite is Dairy Queen, as this was where Ang had his first North American meal after landing in New York where he studied film, after leaving Taiwan.” The clothes on Jake and Heath’s backs were scooped up from a retro/vintage clothing store, Divine Decadence, in Calgary and Edmonton. The sheep scenes (some of the most challenging shots in the film) were shot on Moose Mountain, a 45-minute drive west of Calgary and open to the public year-round.

What Looks off the Beaten Track is On
? Canmore: A 60-minute drive west of Calgary, this alpine town of 11,000 was home to cast and crew for two weeks. Many cast members stayed at The Marriott and ate at the Grizzly Paw, says Solly. Numerous images of Brokeback Mountain were actual shots of the Three Sisters, a jagged backdrop of peaks that frames Canmore.
? Kananaskis Village: Home to three hotels, this tiny village at the base of Nakiska Ski Resort was used as a base when the crew filmed various campsites (Canyon Creek, Elbow Falls, Upper Kananaskis Lakes, Mud Lake) and King Creek (where Ennis meets the bear).
? Cowley: Brokeback opens with a haunting scene of big sky country where a clothes line snaps in the wind and is followed quickly by Jack and Ennis’s first encounter in a parking lot - that fronts Cowley’s butcher shop as a matter of fact. Solly raves about this selection and service and says emphatically “this butcher shop is my favourite in…well, the world - the beef here is as good as I’ve ever found.” The cast didn’t stay in Cowley but visitors can now at a quaint, recently restored tiny church, St. Joseph’s Inn.

Behind the scenes of Brokeback
? Fort Macleod: Bunking down at the Red Coat Inn the cast shot several scenes in this southern town that until now has been most famous for its Empress Theatre and proximity to the UNESCO site of Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. The scenes shot in this prairie town were Ennis’ apartment, the diner where Ennis eats a slab of pie (the Java Shop) and the Queen’s Hotel (where Ennis meets Cathy, in the latter part of the movie).
“One of the wonders of this film,” says Coke-Kerr, “is that the focus is not exclusively on the Rocky Mountains. Yes, they’re present and they’re as captivating as always but it’s the sweep across Alberta’s small towns and prairies that best illustrates the diversity of our landscape. The fact it translates so well to the silver screen is thrilling for us, and we hope future visitors feel the same awe over its grandeur.”