Bex booked a last minute flight to Canada, a good excuse for us to explore the vast mountain ranges on my new doorstep. The journey to Calgary was a four hour jaunt, a standard Canadian afternoon outing. Bags packed, I headed east to Fernie, another ski town an hour and a half away, new home to Will and Abi, my Whistler housemates. The snow began as I commenced my drive and by the time I reached Fernie it was a winter wonderland. The towns boast of being the only town with a 360 degree view of the Rockies was not evident however. We strolled into town where the high street was a row of ski shops and bookstores all housed in smart fronted townhouses. Being a main part of the rail route, big cargo trains pass through around every three hours, rattling the town with their many carriages. We caught up on a summer apart and enthused over a winter in a different mountain range, before I pressed on into the hills.
After an hour or so, I emerged out the other side of the mountains. Now in Alberta, my first time crossing interstate, flat ranch land laid out infant of me. With the snow ceasing, strong winds whipped across massive plains. I barely saw another car as they overtook me off into the distance. There was little sign of settlement, stretches of hundreds of kilometres without fuel and the GPS barely had to speak, only reminding me every 100 kms to stay on the highway. Calgary awaited, and that evening Bex landed. Despite my warnings of cold, the biting wind surprised both of us.
The next morning we awoke to explore Alberta’s second city. Despite flurries of snow, we set forth to explore Calgary by foot on a walking tour, for three hours. Our tour guide was obviously local, whilst we shivered she wore track pants and had a bit of skin on show. Bex experienced her first Tim Hortons (terrible Canadian coffee chain which is a rite of passage) and we walked the highlights, from Calgary Tower to Fort Calgary, along the Bow River and through the shopping avenues. An Oil and Gas city, Calgarys wealth and the prospects of its people are inextricably linked to the prosperity of the industries whose head offices dominate the centre of the city. Its biggest claim to fame is the Calgary Stampede every July which by itself takes its place as Alberta’s third largest city. Canada, much like the states, has much diversity in the states who can govern and regulate themselves differently. Alberta has no sales tax thanks to the riches of a man named Paddy Burns, a butcher who built a meat packing empire which made him so rich that when he died his inheritance tax meant the state had so much money they abolished sales tax. It is about 30 cents a litre cheaper for fuel in Alberta than BC, so it makes an incredible difference.. Interestingly enough, he is one of the four founders of the stampede and reportedly, on his 75th birthday he is said to have had the worlds largest birthday cake which was distributed to the people.
After a morning of acknowledging the heroes and the beavers of the city, we literally could not bear to be outside. We shopped away the afternoon and rounded it off with a mammoth milkshake each. “Topped with a slice of cheesecake..” says it all..
The morning brought more snow to the city as we headed to Banff with two passengers. One we dropped at a casino in the middle of nowhere which made for an interesting pitstop. As we headed for the hills once more the snow ceased and blue skies broke through. It being remembrance Sunday, Banff Avenue was busy with a parade, as well as souvenir shoppers, locals and mountain gawkers. The high street was like a Disneyland where you could get any sort of souvenir reading ‘Banff’ that you wanted. A mountain greeted you in every direction, rising up from behind the high street, reminding you of the vastness of the nature you were surrounded by. We met Joe and Jess, followed by Kelly, JD and Peggy for coffee, then armed with a map of the area we made for Lake Minnewanka. The lake was fringed with snow and the vast mountains were reflected in the still waters.
Courtesy of Joe and Jess, we were able to stay in the staff accommodation of the Fairmont. It was in the grounds of the castle which were fringed with an avenue of trees. Nearby, we walked to Bow Falls. Partially iced over, the fast moving water was on an agenda to get to Calgary where we had visited a the same river a few days before, and gushed under an icy top layer.
The next day our tour guide was Joe and he informed us we would need crampons for our journey north to explore the scenic spots of Highway 93. He then told us to meet him at the Banff sign. Despite being an ‘obvious tourist spot’ the Banff sign evaded us for a good half an hour and eventually, as we joined the highway back to Banff, Joe and Jess overtook us in the van, forced us to pull over to redirect us and instructed us that Joe would be coming in our car for the rest of the day, presumably as Bex and I couldn’t be trusted with directions. It’s a short hop up to Lake Louise and beyond that the road has lakes and glaciers off to every side. Being a snowy November day, there was few other visitors, but the skies were brilliant blue.
We stopped at Bow lake which was partially frozen. We quickly discovered that attempting to skim a rock across the ice reverberated a squeaking sound which Bex likened to a guinea pig. Joe kept us entertained by falling through and doing a flailing dance as he tried to rescue himself. We overshot the next stop, Peyto Lake and kept driving, drawn in by the endless avenue of glaciers en route to Jasper, however that was further than we were aiming to go, so we returned to Peyto, again partially frozen but still hinting at its glacial blue depths in the centre. We had a photoshoot of fluctuating success. The 10 seconds for self timer was often not enough time to navigate across the snow to be in the picture causing mixed results. The drive was enchanting, we even spotted a Coyote. Back in Lake Louise, I was surprised at the size of the town which appears to be little more than a car park and a few convenience stores. Again, the main gem is the castle like Fairmont Hotel which overlooks the now fully frozen Lake Louise. We strode out across it, like many others who were confidently skidding around. In a few weeks the zamboni’s will be out to smooth the ice surface so people can skate freely on the ice.
Travelling in November felt like an unexpected priviledge. Some things, such as Moraine Lake, have closed due to avalanche warnings, but the sites that are open are quiet and the snow highlights the scale and serenity of the views. Our final stop was the hike to Johnstone Canyon. A turn off the Bow Valley Parkway and into a deserted car park, we made our way to the first falls as the sun began to set. The path was skiddy and ice had formed white ripples like dripping wax on the walls where water once trickled. The first falls were still gushing, albeit through a cavern of ice which framed the fast flowing water. The second falls were a further hike and as the temperature dropped with the losing light, we put on our crampons to avoid skidding everywhere. Bex was kicking up a spark show with hers as she ground metal on the icy rock. The top falls were now just a wall of ice, built up as the temperatures dropped, a stunning but chilly effect. By Bex’s torchlight we made our way back to the car, back to town for Jess’ delicious home cooked Veggie Lasagne.
As we bid Banff goodbye, Bex laden with souvenirs, we crossed the Great Divide which forms the border between Alberta and BC. On one side the water heads for the Atlantic Ocean, on the other side- to the Pacific. We were now in British Colombia. Steep Canyons, such as Marble Canyon demonstrated the power of nature in this area, formed by gushing waters as they set about on their journey. I had promised Bex hot springs, and our journey took us through Radium Hot Springs then Fairmont Hot springs, both settlements built up around natural hot water which now supplies a pool. However, where I was taking her was a spring, well known to the locals as Lussier Hot Springs, where hot water formed pools as it collected through the rocks, and people sat steaming themselves next to an icy river. Since my last visit, a dusting of snow had transformed the ground and I had to persuade Bex she would be warm, as the air temperature was biting. Once in the water it was like a hot bath, one shared with strangers in a snowy spot adjacent to a river.
Little did I know, our Tuesday was going to bring a final surprise. That night around 9pm we were visited at the front door by a black bear. He seemed to be doing his neighbourhood watch rounds as he stuck his head right up to the window, had a sniff before moving on next door.
Bex settled in in Kimberley, checking out the Platzl, braving the unplowed ski hill and even made time for a crafty afternoon. I think I nearly kidnapped her to be home in the Kootenays. All too soon it was time to complete the circle and begin the journey back to Calgary.