By Dahna Branyan
Yellowstone, then Glacier and still haven’t spotted a Mountain Goat, Bighorn Sheep or Moose. Hope loomed large for such sightings in Canada, so we headed that-a-way.
We said goodbye to Glacier as we headed north past Whitefish, shaking a fist at Ryan Zinke on the way. The Canadian border folks were very welcoming once they again established that we had brought no guns from Texas.
When you get to Radium Hot Springs in British Columbia, BC-93 takes a hard right to start climbing over the Rockies through Kootenay National Park. Radium Hot Springs is populated with a number of chalet-like inns that decorate the town by hanging large pots of flowers from their railings. Gorgeous!
Radium Hot Springs, BC
Entering Kootenay National Park
Kootenay is just one of several national and provincial parks that surrounds Banff National Park. Canada set aside a huge chunk of land as part of the common wealth for the enjoyment of their people and the protection of wildlife. And in this part of the world there is a lot of jaw-dropping beauty to enjoy. Unfortunately, we had only planned to stay in Banff National Park so Kootenay was only a drive-thru.
Leaving Kootenay, Looking Toward Banff
After winding our way through Kootenay, we arrived at our Lake Louise campground in Banff. It’s a nice park, with the turquoise Bow River running through it. It does have a peculiar (to us) set up for campers however.
Bow River from our Campground
The sites are pull-throughs, wide enough for two RV’s pulling in at opposite directions. For some reason they put the utilities directly opposite of each other, forcing both RV’s to sit directly opposite as well. It’s a little tight and privacy’s a bit scarce.
Pat’s Mountain View – Oh Wait that’s the Rental RV Next Door!
The Actual View is Better – Whitehorn Mountain
I suppose they rightly figured that folks would spend most of their time seeing the sights instead of sitting around the campground. So we did just that. Our first full day included provisioning for the week. We took the scenic route, Alberta Hwy 1-A, through the deep emerald forest into the town of Banff. Strains of an old Gordon Lightfoot song started running through my head.
Oh there was a time in this fair land when the railroads did not run
When the wild majestic mountains stood alone against the sun
Long before the white man and long before the wheel
When the green dark forest was too silent to be real
Before Banff we stopped to check out a waterfall at Johnston Canyon. The limestone walls of the canyon barely allow enough room for a walkway beside the creek, and often divert hikers over the creek onto the catwalks. Sacha overcame her fear of bridges and hiked like a trooper all the way to the lower falls. It might have been these little guys egging her on.
Lower Waterfall, Johnston Canyon
After 1-1/2 miles of hiking over catwalks with a bazillion other hikers and their dogs, she was happy to see the back seat of the truck when we returned. After a few more pullouts to enjoy the views, we reached the town of Banff and the local IGA. As expected, Banff is a beautiful resort town crammed full of upscale resorts and inns that were bustling with folks milling about, having coffee, etc. at the many outdoor cafes. The town’s layout defies description – picture a town designed by the drop of pick-up sticks. Streets are narrow, traffic tight, parking nearly non-existent for a big pickup. We got our groceries and got out fast. The IGA did hold it’s own treasure of delicious local fare, especially Suprême créme á l’Erable biscuits. For you non-Frenchie types, that translates to Maple leaf-shaped maple Cream Cookies to which I’m now addicted…and our supply is running thin. Damn! Another monkey on my back.
Township of Banff
As you travel along Highway 1, you’ll notice the smart wildlife overpasses along the way. Tall fences on both sides funnel the critters into these crossings. Hmmmm – you do have to wonder if the apex predators have figured this system out and camp out near the crossings. They are attractively designed and are so much more appealing than the sight of dead deer we see lying on the roadsides of Texas. (To their credit, Montana has built at least one of these north of Missoula.)
After settling in, the next day we traversed the Icefields Parkway up to Jasper, Alberta through Banff N.P. and part of Jasper National Park. It is a breathtaking, jaw-dropping 144 mile drive from Lake Louise to Jasper. O Canada! The parkway takes you past turquoise glacial lakes, enormous rocky cliffs, and large, deep glaciers as the name suggests. Around each bend, another stunning panorama—hundreds of them!
There where the mighty mountains bare their fangs unto the moon,
There where the sullen sun-dogs glare
in the snow-bright, bitter noon,
And the glacier-glutted streams sweep down
at the clarion call of June.
– Robert Service, Heart of the Sourdough
Lone Kayaker on Bow Lake
Peyto Lake Below Crowfoot Glacier
The truck is going to need a new suspension after negotiating the parking lot before hiking up to see Peyto Lake. Several cars nearly high-centered after dropping into one of the many potholes. The plans to repair it in the spring did not happen. Don’t trust the guide that says it is an easy hike up to the lake. Whoever wrote that was 18. I will definitely need a new knee after hiking back down the steep incline.
We surely weren’t disappointed by the lack of wildlife. Finally – Bighorn Sheep and Mountain Goats! Even a bear for good measure.
If you have the sound on, you can hear the bear rustling in the browse – we were that close. I was standing on the running board of the truck filming and that would normally be too close for comfort. But I didn’t film the two morons in front of the truck crouched down next to him on the shoulder, filming with their phones. I figured the bear would go for them first. They were still crouched next to him as we drove away. He must have been in a charitable mood because we didn’t hear about any bear attacks the next day.
We got to Jasper about lunch time and stopped for a picnic/Sacha walk before driving around the town. Although a tourist spot, Jasper is not nearly as congested as Banff at the other end of the parkway and is dotted with lovely old churches and houses instead of shoulder to shoulder resorts. Wish we could have spent more time there, but there was only time to tag Jasper and head back.
Jasper – Pyramid Peak
Church in Jasper, Alberta
The reverse trip back to Lake Louise was just as stunning and we did make it back to camp before the rain.
What a glorious day! We’ve been through many national parks this past year, each one them magnificent, but the Icefields Parkway has to be the big crescendo of this trip. Top of the world, Ma!
Alberta is famous for its wild roses, but the blossoms were long gone before we got there. There were still many wildflowers to enjoy.
Wildflowers of Alberta
The following day we ventured next door into Yoho National Park (named for the Cree expression of awe and wonder) to Emerald Lake. On the way we stopped at Kicking Horse Pass to check out the Spiral Railroad Tunnels. Gordon Lightfoot’s Canadian Railroad Trilogy was running through my brain again.
Train Emerging from Tunnel on Kicking Horse Pass
For they looked in the future and what did they see
They saw an iron road runnin’ from sea to the sea
Bringin’ the goods to a young growin’ land
All up through the seaports and into their hands
– Gordon Lightfoot
These tunnels represent a marvelous engineering feat that allowed the Canadian Railroad to join western Canada to the eastern rails. The first attempt at crossing this pass was a dangerous 4.4% grade, resulting in a runaway train crash that killed a few railroad men. The spiral tunnels, finished in 1909 allow trains to rise and descend at a much safer 2.2% grade. It’s pretty amazing to watch a train cross over itself as it spirals downward. Even though it’s safer, it’s still a dangerous proposition to navigate the tunnels and there have been a number of derailments even in modern times. The video below will give you some idea of what happens about 25-30 times per day.
Single Train Traversing Kicking Horse Pass
Stopping at the Yoho Visitor Center, I asked where we might spot a moose and was told there were only 5 moose left in Yoho. It seems that when the elk were reintroduced to the park, they scarfed up all the moose browse along with their own. Moose, being more discriminating, ran short on food and have dwindled in numbers. I would imagine there are other factors that contribute as well – disease, predators, forest fires, etc. Guess we’ll have to put Alaska on the bucket list for a moose sighting.
Further on, Emerald Lake was as stunningly emerald as its name implied. There were a few canoes on the placid lake. We watched one launch with a Husky aboard. The Husky bit at the water until he could stand it no longer and jumped for shore. The owner had to reel it in by it’s leash and get it back aboard. No mean feat to retrieve a drenched Husky in a canoe. All the while, a lone loon looked on in disbelief.
Husky Headed For Dry Land
Not far from there was Natural Bridge. It’s a huge boulder that blocked the Yolo River. Flowing water and time had eroded the center away to form a bridge.
Coincidentally, this was also the site of one of 24 WWI internment camps where Ukranian and Europeans, deemed enemy aliens, were held under forced labor conditions. Sadly, it appears the USA wasn’t in it alone. Canada, however, has erected interpretive centers at these sites as part of reconciliation efforts to acknowledge these internments under its War Measures Act.
We spent Sunday visiting the lakes west of Banff. Lake Minnewanka was high on the list of attractions, so it was our first stop. Even though it was a gray Sunday morning, hundreds of other folks had the same idea and there was no place to park. We decided just to see it as we drove over the dam. It’s a large lake wedged into the surrounding mountains, but it’s a reservoir and does not have that turquoise color or charm of the glacial lakes so we got a photo and headed south.
Two Jack lake was the next stop, a pristine little mountain lake. We met some nice folks with a Shiba Inu, who looked like a tiny Sacha. She was about to take her first canoe trip and was decked out in a life jacket.
Father and Son Canoeing on Two Jack Lake
Mini Sacha (Shiba Inu) Getting Ready for Her First Canoe Trip
There’s a lovely campground at Two Jack lake. If we ever come back this way, I’d like to be set up for boondocking so we can stay here. Our last stop was Johnson lake. The clouds were starting to burn off and lots of folks were out enjoying the day.
What about Lake Louise, you might ask? We saved it for our last day, waiting for a sunny week day where it might not be so congested. Park officials recommend shuttling in to the lake because parking is scarce – such is the case for any national park attraction. We decided to take a chance and as we pulled up to the parking lot, an attendant told us we’d have to go back down near our campground and shuttle back up. Groan. But as we were rolling past the parking lot, a second attendant waved us into a waiting space. WooHoo!
Sierra Larkspur (Delphinium glaucum) at Lake Louise
The famous Lake Louise is famous for a reason. The lake sits in a bowl nestled in the mountains. Glacier-fed, the bowl is filled with exquisite milky jade green water. It is one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever beheld.
Lake Louise, Banff National Park
For those looking for more adventure, beyond the lake sits the Plain of Six Glaciers, which is one of the premier hikes in the park. At the top of the trail there is a tea house where one can sit and enjoy the view before descending back down. If we were younger with better knees… For those interested, I came across this wonderful description of the hike: http://banffandbeyond.com/plain-of-six-glaciers-the-other-tea-house-at-lake-louise/
While we could have spent much more time exploring Banff and the surrounding parks, after five days, we felt we understood the rugged splendor of the area. It was time to move on, so we wound our way down the foggy mountains and across the plain to Medicine Hat, aka “Gas City” on the Saskatchewan River. We passed a number of small pronghorn herds on the drive – we must have seen over 100. Medicine Hat was first established as a rail hub. As you might expect, the gas industry figures prominently in the town’s industry. But brick and pottery industries also grew up around the local deposits of coal and clay. Now the city is turning its eyes toward solar. While a solar generated steam plant near our campground shut down, (lower gas costs made it economically unfeasible) large solar farms are in the works. We also saw a few large commercial greenhouses around town which grow produce as well as evergreen seedlings for reforestation projects.
The Gas City Campground turned out to be little oasis in the prairie just off the river. Lots of trees and friendly people, we enjoyed our stay.
Gas City Campground
We found a wonderful little restaurant called the Rustic Kitchen nearby and had a great time visiting with our Estonian waiter, Xander. We really liked this town. It had a nice wide-open feel and from the looks of it, a vibrant cultural center and a great wildlife refuge, Police Point Park. Unfortunately, we were there at the wrong time – the passerines had already migrated and the waterfowl had yet to start their migration south. Even though it is a lovely park, the only bird we saw or heard was a Phoebe in the parking lot as we left. It wasn’t a total loss though. Sacha had a wonderful time. I’d still like to come back when the birds are here.
Our time was up in Canada for now so we packed it up to head back to Montana, and Pat’s chosen destination, the Little Big Horn.