Tourist Mecca or Aussie Haven in the Snow?
12.09.2015 - 15.09.2015
Everyone assumed that if we were going to see the Canadian Rockies that we must be intending to take the Rocky Mountaineer with its amazing views through rooftop windows in the carriages, etc. But have you seen how much that costs???
So we took the more budget-friendly method and got a car. But it’s a big drive. So firstly we drove NorthEast into the Okanagan valley to a town called Vernon, lying nestled between two lakes. Our hotel was above Swan Lake and was actually really quite a nice place with helpful staff and a nice big apartment-like room. This is Canadian wine country, and it had been our plan to go winery exploring on our day’s break, after this 450km leg towards the Rockies. But with the sun shining in through the blinds, and peace and quiet, we decided to just prop and rest instead!
To do our bit towards the Okanagan wine industry, we did however return both nights to a tiny quirky little Italian family-run bistro. Here the food was great and we busily introduced ourselves to good Okanagan wines and smelt the smell of good coffee. (Even I can tell that filtered crap, they call coffee, is watery and abysmal). It’s amazing where you find people devoted to producing good food. Very unprepossessing outside, in a weird side street, in the middle of run down houses, and beside a train line, and still it was worth two visits!
After our day of rest, it was another big drive to Banff, 430 kms this time but much more winding and mountainous – funnily enough!
And My God can they DO MOUNTAINS in Canada!
To drive surrounded by awe-inspiring mountains all around you is a gift. It required frequent stops to get photos of the amazing views that kept blowing our tiny little minds.
Banff, famous or infamous – I’m not sure which, is a funny place!
Most of all I was reminded of Noosa. Yes I know, one is hot and sunny and in the tropics, and the other cold and snowy! But somehow, even without the endless Hastings Street bars and restaurants (all with chairs facing the roadway) of Noosa, it’s about the people Noosa attracts. The seriously wealthy all mixed up with the hobos, and the ordinary people, who’ve come to have a sticky beak at how the other half lives. And perhaps even pretend to themselves they were living it too, for the day, or a few days!
We’d only come across occasional Aussies thus far in our travels, but in Banff, it was Aussie city! More than half of the staff in bars and restaurants, retail shops, working the many hotels and buses, and tourist sites, were young Aussies. All here to make money over summer and stay for the skiing, or more to the point snowboarding, in winter. Along with that, as you walked down the streets, with yet more endless souvenir shops, a good proportion of the visitors were Aussie too!
The kids were happy to talk about their plans and clearly get seduced by that winter ecstasy in the snow!
But we weren’t here for Aussies, we were after these amazing mountains. Despite a fair bit of rain, we headed off to Lake Louise and the Moraine Lake both coloured by the glacial melt that leaves them an incredible aquamarine/green colour. A walk around Lake Louise had us still using the knowledge instilled in us by Steve the naturalist in Denali. Peaceful, beautiful, breathtaking, intriguing, and just a little bit scary, if you thought about the grizzlies that live there too! Another special walk to add to the many we were accruing in this amazing region.
Our other big adventure was the Icefields Parkway. This is the road from Banff through Lake Louise and onto Jasper. Weaving its way directly north through the Rockies, this iconic journey is a 290 km trek from Banff and we were doing it in one day. So going as far as Jasper was probably not the best idea, because that meant nearly 600km in one day PLUS seeing and photographing etc! It’s not only stunning scenery, but also renowned for the wildlife opportunities. And as I’ve written before, we’d been pretty short on, in the wildlife stakes thus far!
As we climbed further up these mountains we began to get some snow. How romantic heh? Probably not, when you’ve never driven in snow, have no winter tyres on (it wasn’t anywhere near time for that yet), and didn’t know if snow chains should be happening! But it cleared up and we pressed on. And oh the mountains!! I’m more of an appreciator of water views than mountains normally. But Oh! These ones are gobsmacking! Alaska does the glaciers brilliantly, Canada has mountain scenery to brag about. And unlike European alps (as far as I know) these are glacial formed and many are still glaciers.
Which was how we came to be taking an expensive ($118USD) trip for two onto the actual Athabsca Glacier, seeing those amazing blue striations up close, and trying to keep on our feet on very slippery ice! The snow coaches that are used to get you onto the glacier have enormous tyres but go up and down these 30 degree REALLY REALLY STEEP slopes /moraines to get you on there. Moraines are these enormous hillocks of stone that are pushed into shape by the glacier’s constant movement. They provide markers as to where the glacier reaches in its forward movements. The staff can tell you which moraine was formed in which year. Quite amazing stuff.
And then it was time to hit the road and return so we’d be in Banff before dark. Hmmm. You know that snow on the drive up? Well by God did it snow on the way back! Heavier and heavier. Poor visibility. Fear and stress. Exhaustion PLUS, by the end. And then we hit Lake Louise and Banff and no sign of snow.
But later that evening (as we went out to #putoutyouronions for Tony Abbott) the snow had started. The concierge did seem just a little confused, when I asked if we could borrow some onions. But, used to Aussies, he just went off and did it!
The next morning we opened our curtains (we were staying up the road from the famous Fairmont Banff Springs at the Rimrock) to a mountain in front of us covered with snow and trees heavy with the classic winter wonderland. It was lovely, (from inside).
But by then it was time to leave the Rockies, and head on to French Canada. But that’s for next time.
Oh I nearly forgot. Figuring this was probably our last chance to improve our wildlife sightings rate, I made it my business to take us to places that might give us the best chances. On our way back from Lake Louise, I spied from the FREEWAY (doing 110kmh) a cluster of elk crossing a waterway. Fortunately, we were close to an exit and could see a small road to take and get a better view. There was of course the predictable “animal jam” as cars and people tried to get a look but Phil got some photos.
Another time we were creeping down the Bow Parkway (Banff is in the Bow Valley) an area renowned for wildlife sightings. We were doing about 40kmh for quite a few kilometres. My eyes are scanning the woodland beside me and suddenly Phil is yelling “there’s a bear”. Thinking he was looking at the other side of the road, I’m screaming “where, where?” Eventually I got an answer that it was crossing the road about 200 metres further on. Well I saw the last couple of inches of the bear’s arse fur, but Phil saw it crossing the road!
Finally in our last hour in Banff, driving down the same road as the Elk Animal Jam, I spied a beautiful doe eating in a clearing. By the time I’d got Phil to stop and reverse, she was very wary. She looked at me and then moved off into the woodland. Phil got a brief look and I got a photo of her rear haunches, but that’s our only proof. But I won’t forget that moment of “communication” for a very long time. It felt like a blessing, but I also felt guilty that we’d frightened her.
At last wildlife came true!
Lots of love in the meantime