Cavorting in Canada

Trip Start Apr 14, 2010
Trip End Apr 16, 2011

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Flag of Canada  , Alberta,
Thursday, September 29, 2011

As we arrived at the ferry terminal on Vancouver Island for entry into our last new country of the trip, our first emotion was relief that they'd let us in – since Sarah’s passport had taken a serious dunking in Zion National Park it had dried very crinkly and the ink had run on a lot of her passport stamps, including her US entry stamp, and we weren’t sure whether Immigration would accept it. Luckily they were mostly just amused at quite how many stamps were in the passport and waved us on in.

Our first stop in Canada was the city of Victoria on Vancouver Island.  We were hoping to visit some family friends of Sarah’s but unfortunately they were away and instead had arranged for us to get the keys to stay at their lovely house – rather a luxury for two backpackers!  Vancouver Island felt incredibly British, particularly as we arrived in typical British autumn weather of drizzly fog.  We did get some sunny weather too and enjoyed strolling the parks, exploring the lovely waterfront of Victoria and gorging ourselves on the local smoked fish.

From Victoria we were once more heading north, this time to Whistler resort.  We’d been on a ski holiday in Whistler some years ago and were keen to come back to see it in summer and also to try to find one of the best steak restaurants we’d ever been to!  The town felt very different without a covering of snow but was still really busy.  During the summer months Whistler has some of the best downhill mountain biking in the world and as a result there were still plenty of tourists around.  Gordon was chomping at the bit to have a go and was soon kitted out and heading up the chairlift to test his skills.  The biking is set up like ski-runs, with green, blue and black runs.  After warming up on some easier runs Gordon headed for his first black.  At the top of the slope was a sign saying, "Beware, this path contains some knarly jumps, switchbacks, open rock terrain and berrs.  For expert riders only."  He wasn’t entirely sure what a “berr” was but thought, how bad could it be?

It turns out Berrs are vertical drops in the path, as Gordon discovered when he went over one and found himself very quickly 5 feet lower down with his bike on top of him.  He didn’t let that put him off though and was soon back on again completing the famous A-Line run 3 times without any mishaps (apart from being shouted at by angry pros whose way he got in) and came back suitably mud splattered and happy a few hours later with only minimal bruising to show for his adventures.

All of which left Sarah dangerously unsupervised in Whistler village with a credit card which she was soon giving a work out in a little boutique.  Going back to work is going to be pretty hard on us so she figured that some new outfits would help ease her back in.  Besides, we had an incredibly generous 46kg of luggage allowance each on the flight home and it seemed silly not to take advantage of it!

From Whistler we headed north and east and to the Canadian Rockies and the town of Jasper.  After a full days’ driving to get there we were keen to stretch our legs and headed to the Visitor’s Centre who recommended a couple of walks which we dashed off to do before the weather could turn as it was forecast to do.  We’d forgotten that we were once again into bear territory until the Visitor’s Centre suggested that we might want to take bear spray with us as they not only have black bears in this neck of the woods but also grizzlies.  We ended up with no choice but to chance it as the shops weren’t open yet and happily didn’t come across any.

The Rockies around Jasper were gorgeous; think pine and beech covered slopes, with the beeches just turning yellow, leading to craggy summits covered with huge glaciers.  Our first walk took us on a loop under an overhanging glacier where we saw some huge chunks calving off it and crashing to the valley floor below.  After that we decided to head on to the Sulphur Skyline trail as it offered a chance to get to the peak of a mountain.  The walk wasn’t too bad but the views from the top were great.  We’d been looking forward to another scenic picnic but hadn’t thought about the wind though which was ferocious and cold.  We could barely stand up straight and ended up wolfing down our lunch crouched behind a tiny rock which gave a tiny bit of relief from the wind before dashing back down to the very welcome open air hot springs at the bottom of the walk.

Back in Jasper that evening we found a local paper and were leafing through it when we came to an article called 'Massive Bear Chases Man’ (we may be paraphrasing) which was reporting a guide who’d been taking a client up to one of the glaciers when a grizzly started following them.  They started back down the glacier and he kept following, slowly gaining on them before starting to charge.  They dumped their packs and climbed 25m pine tree – acknowledged wisdom being that grizzlies, unlike black bears, won’t climb trees.  The grizzly sat beneath them chewing his way through their bags but wasn’t done yet.  Instead he went after the two of them, climbing 20m up the tree as the two men scuttled even higher to the top of the pine tree which was now creaking and swaying ominously under their weight.  The bear then sat there, in the tree, for 2 hours waiting for them.  Can you imagine?  Thankfully in this case he did then give up and they managed to get help.  We were beginning to think some bear spray might be a wise investment.

Next morning bear spray wasn’t necessary though as we woke to torrential rain and wouldn’t be walking anyhere.  There really was no option except to go for a proper weekend brunch before heading on to our next destination, Banff, three hours down the road.  The road from Jasper to Banff leads right through the Rockies under some huge peaks and is supposedly one of the prettiest drives in the world (in fact a Banff climbing guide we’d met in Thailand a year ago and bet us a beer that we’d agree once we drove it).  Sadly we couldn’t see much except low clouds with the odd glimpse of mountains.  We’ll just have to come back another time to see it and settle the bet!

In Banff, the weather had improved a bit and so we decided that it was time we got our climbing equipment out. We found (with the help of some surreptitiously taken photos of a climbing book sold in the visitors centre) a fantastic wall that was perfectly suited to our abilities: nice and tall, steep and fun but nice big hand and foot holds and loads of different routes up. The only problem was that rock that was in the shade and bitterly cold meaning that you had to take breaks on the way up to warm your hands! We were enjoying ourselves so much that the day literally passed by in a flash and before we knew it started to get dark and we needed to head home. Our last day in Banff we got a cable car up to the top of a nearby mountain (we don’t enjoy climbing mountains where you can get a cable car to!) for the views and had barely opened our mouths to exclaim at the ridiculous price they wanted for a round trip (“$80 each!”) when a tour bus driver tapped Gordon on the shoulder and asked if we would like 2 free tickets as he had spares. The view looked all the better for being free.

We then headed south and back down towards the US as we wanted to visit another US National Park we had heard a lot about; Glacier National Park. We had a bit of a surprise when we crossed the border into Montana as suddenly everything was shut down. And dark. And a bit weird frankly. The last town we had crossed in Canada was quite alive and normal really; a McDonalds next to a Travelodge next to a Starbucks kind of place.  Then we crossed the border and there was nothing. It was dark. The one petrol station was shut. The shops were shut. There was a big hotel on the edge of park but it was shut up as well. We asked a security guy who was hanging around who said that the only accommodation was at a place called Duck Lake Lodge about an hour away which might be open. We drove down an increasingly narrow and bumpy dirt track praying that Duck Lake Lodge was open and that they did food and finally arrived at a bizarre little hunting lodge in the middle of nowhere. It was, thankfully, open and serving food.  In fact, any food you could possibly want, well, as long as it came from a deep fat frier.

The next day we were planning on heading into the park and going for a decent hike up to a lake we had read about until the lady running the lodge mentioned that “the bears were running” this time of year. Then we met another guy who had been walking in the park and turned a corner to find a grizzly with her two cubs on the path 30 feet in front of him. Then, on the road into the park we saw a big black bear not 100m from the road chewing at a carcass. Holy crap but he was big - and they are meant to be the small ones- what on earth would a grizzly be like?

These events, combined with the story from the guide in Jasper (only a few hundred miles away) and Bill Bryson’s stories about bear attacks we had been listening to convinced us that heading off into a virtually deserted, mostly closed and possibly bear-ridden National Park on our own and without any bear spray might be a bad idea. So instead we climbed back into The Tank, turned her back to the snow and ice of Glacier National Park and headed down and out of the mountains to started our 3,000m odyssey across the prairies and towards the East Coast.
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