Published: June 27th 2008June 27th 2008
Day 8. Farewell Cowboy Trail, hello Rockies!
Long journey today, leaving the Rockies at Waterton, driving up through Cowboy Country, and then heading back into the Rockies at Banff.
We were up fairly early and decided to throw in a hike before leaving Waterton Lakes. It’s a place I would happily spend a family camping holiday, and the weather this morning was ideal for a walk. We drove up into the Blakiston Valley again and across the river. Leaving the car in the well-planned forest camp ground (where a few deer were resting on our return) we set off up the well-maintained trail. Our first proper hike. There were droppings by the trail that my husband swore were moose though the only quadrupeds we saw were some more beautiful deer at the forest edge. The sun shone, the path was good and Crandell Lake a pleasant spot to stop. Back down to the car then lunch beside the great river draining melted snow off the mountainsides. (I put my foot in it - the pain was unbelievable it was so cold!)
After a few more opportunistic photos of a black bear (we’d stopped to photograph Upper
Orchid by the trail
Walk up to Crandell Lake
Waterton Lake and just happened to hear the bear in the trees nearby!) we headed out onto the highway northward. Highway 6 north to Pincher Creek and the spectacle of a forest of wind turbines along the hilltops (this is known as the windiest spot in Alberta), then west to stop briefly at Frank Slide. Well we thought it would be a brief stop, but the place was so amazing we stayed for ages.
On 29th April 1903 a mountainside looming above the small mining town of Frank, in southern Alberta, suddenly came loose and descended to the valley floor with such momentum that the rock flowed out across the valley, burying everything for 2.5km beyond the foot of the mountain. Over 100 years later and the area is still a barren wilderness. The death toll from the slide was “about 70 people” and the amazing thing is that the coal miners at work in the mountain at the time somehow managed, after 14 hours, to dig themselves out.
We turned north once more, onto Highway 22. It isn’t for nothing they call this the Cowboy Trail. It’s not harking back to some bygone era - here there
really are men mounted on superb horses, wearing proper cowboy hats and big leather chaps, sitting on traditional Western saddles, riding across open hills and through dense forests to round up their cattle. I saw a signpost advertising the Great Canadian Barn Dance with the slogan “Who let the bulls out!” The countryside all around was dotted with old farm buildings and quaint old barns, green grass growing, paint peeling, and a feeling that time was just slowly passing by.
Just after Bar U Ranch National Historic Site (living museum ranch), which we didn’t have time to call in on, was the oddest spectacle I have seen for a long while. On every fence post for over a mile - we are talking HUNDREDS of fence posts - there was a cap, presumably nailed on. A long line of caps, sitting keeping the sun off the fence posts in a most thoughtful manner. The prize for most unusual festival I have ever seen has to go to Turner Valley, which was about to host the annual “Rhubarb Festival and Quilt Show”!
The weather was against us as we drove up into the Rockies, this time heading to Banff.
But the welcome when we arrived at the Royal Canadian Lodge was sufficiently warm to make up for it. They even had a gift for Monkey, wrapped in crinkly paper and tied with a ribbon that kept her occupied for ages!
Day 9. High tea and hot water
We couldn’t leave the hotel this morning without first plunging into their pool. The pool room felt like we were entering a subterranean rock grotto. Subtle lighting, rock tiles everywhere and a waterfall trickling down from the hot pool into the main mineral pool was marvellous. It was difficult to get Monkey out, and we hadn’t even had breakfast!
After a stroll along the streets of downtown Banff, past the designer boutiques, outdoor stores (where we bought Monkey her very own bear bells - not so much to tell bears she was in the vicinity, but to alert us to her whereabouts around the hotel!) and many eating houses (this is a proper town, not your average ski resort as I’d expected) we decided the weather was too cold for walking up any mountains, and the Gondola looked like a far more pleasant option.
Top of gondola
We COULD go out...
Monkey as we approached the Gondola. Soon we were gliding effortlessly to the top of Sulphur Mountain, encased in our snug little bubble, the valley floor dropping away below and the glowering clouds coming nearer by the minute. The visitors’ centre at the top was great. We climbed to the top viewing platform and looked out over the Bow Valley and surrounding mountain peaks. A guy standing nearby was telling his friend how he’d stood on the summit of Australia’s highest peak and seen one of those signposts that say, everso helpfully (like you were about to set off there) “London 3450km, lunar surface 384,000km” etc. And on that particular sign it had said “Banff, Canada”. Now, a few months and a few thousand miles later, here he was in Banff. Rather neat I thought.
The summit of Sulphur Mountain, just a few hundred metres away along a very nice boardwalk, was swathed in cloud and the occasional snow flurry so we decided a nice hot chocolate and a cup of tea in the café beneath us was the better way to go. Tea tastes better at altitude, I always think, though that could be because of the effort
Cafe Sulphur Mountain
We'll stay inside and admire the view of Banff
more usually expended in getting there. I was starting to like this “lift up the mountain” concept quite a lot.
Disgorging like clumsy butterflies from our gondola cocoon, we walked over to the Banff Upper Hot Springs to partake of a submersion in the steaming mountain spring water. The facility was lovely, full of people gently steaming in the outside, but for some reason, with cold wind and sleet falling we couldn’t bring ourselves to disrobe and instead headed back to town to a nice snug café.
And, later, another swim in our luxury pool, caressed by the cascading water and warmed in the soothing hot pool. Aah. Monkey slept well!
Day 10. Coffee and canoe
This morning we set off into driving sleet. Not great, so we decided Canmore and a coffee shop were good bets. The visitors’ centre was all geared up, with printed lists of “things to do in the rain”, with everything from visiting the chocolate factory (oh yes) to caving. We plumped for the Coffee Mine - a fantastic coffee shop packed with delicious, bulging sandwiches, home-baked scones, muffins and cakes, and a plethora of teas and coffees. Instead
Flowing from Grassi Lakes, Canmore
of visiting the Nordic Centre (famous training ground for Winter Olympic athletes and great for summer mountain biking) we had another cinnamon whorl and a steaming mug of hot chocolate and relaxed some more.
Just across the road was the civic centre and Geophysical Museum. The glimpses of jagged mountain peaks, vast slabs up rock heaved up out of the bowels (or should it be the skin) of the earth, left me desperate for more information on local geology. Surely this was the place to find my answers.
Unfortunately nobody had loaned the designers of the Geophysical Museum the manual on how to lay out a perfect museum. A large room was dotted with all manner or paraphernalia, and some geological specimens laying in the wrong trays. However Monkey was enraptured with the stuffed bison (“do not touch”) and I found just what I was seeking, in some geological diagrams tucked away around a corner. The vast Rocky Mountains of Alberta are all sedimentary! I’d been wondering about that for days! Laid down in four epochs, partly beneath a vast inland sea (upon whose shores the dinosaurs had grazed and hunted). Well that made it all worthwhile. Charming
View from Banff
Beside the river
The weather let up and we stepped outside to see a mountain looming at the end of the street. Not sure that had been there when we parked the car. We drove up to the start of the Grassi Lakes trail and, hoisting Monkey onto my back, we set off. We puffed up through the forest, husband ambling along at a relaxed pace and seeing a humming bird! Up a steep section overlooking a stunning waterfall (shame about the power lines in the foreground) then on to the lakes themselves. There was a faint smell of sulphur in the air and the lakes were clear as emerald - a sure sign of water welling up straight from the heart of the mountain. I was too knackered to walk round the lake and view the pictographs (pictures on rock) left by the original inhabitants of the area.
We drove back to Banff and headed for Cave and Basin National Historic Site. I’m glad we did. A little path led us deep into a cave where natural light filtered down through a hole in the roof and natural spring water cascaded out from the depths of the mountain.
From the shoreline
The smell of sulphur from the hot water perfused the damp air. This is the founding site of Banff - the tourist attraction that first brought European settlers to the area back in the late 1800’s and led to the establishment of the first National Park in Canada. Outside in a natural pool the water heated deep within the mountain could be seen bubbling up through black silt, as the tiny (5mm long) and endangered (see size and specificity of habitat!) Banff (hotspring) snails grazed their way around the perimeter.
Rather than take a walk along the trails nearby (from which someone we met later had seen a beaver!) we headed round to Blue Canoe rental on the shore of the Bow River and got ourselves a good (blue) Canadian canoe and a couple of paddles. (Which unfortunately Monkey thought she should get to hold - tricky, when the canoe was going backward in the current and a few swift strokes were becoming a high priority!)
We paddled up into the network of channels surrounding the fenland trail at the edge of the Vermillion Lakes. (Little did we know there was a black bear in the area, though
THIS COLOUR IS NOT ENHANCED IN ANY WAY!
that would only have added to the thrill.) It was amazing. I couldn’t believe how different I felt, how close to nature, how at one with the mountains and the forest all around, compared to ten minutes before when I had been standing in nearly the same place, on dry land. The water swirled around us and two squirrels had a chase up a leaning tree, across the river and down onto the ground on the other side, chittering and scrabbling the whole time. Magic.
Day 11. Want ice (and snow) with that?
Another long journey today, and the weather not looking great. After a delicious breakfast (eggs benedict with Canadian red smoked salmon!) we packed up and set off for Lake Louise. It’s a famous touristy destination but somebody had said we ought to see it. And there were apparently a couple of tea houses serving nice cakes up on the mountains. So we thought we’d give it a quick stop.
There probably were a fair few tourists there wandering around the lake shore. But I didn’t notice. The scenery was so breathtaking that everything beyond the aquamarine lake, the glacier and snowclad
peaks and the dark forests was invisible. Seriously, there could have been a million tourists and I’m not sure I’d have noticed.
We decided to walk up to Lake Agnes (where there was a tea house, of course). The path was fantastic - just like you see in those pictures of people hiking through the Canadian wilderness, sunny trail, pine forest, hearty lifestyle. We made good time to Lake Agnes, pounding up with the intention of sightseeing on the way back down. The teahouse was idyllic, a charming log cabin with the best lemongrass tea I’ve tasted since the Himalayas. The date slice was pretty good too. Relaxing, steaming cups in hand, we noticed an appreciable dimming of the light shining in through the condensation-clad windows. Oh my! Our sunny day had changed within seconds to a flurry of driven snow! We drank up and, smugly donning our wet weather gear (always be prepared in the mountains), headed back outside. The snow whipped around the cabin, dancing across the lake and swirling off down into the valley. The landscape had changed dramatically over a cup of tea.
From Lake Louise we headed up the Icefields Parkway, through some
of the most dramatic mountain scenery I have ever seen. Driving sleet and rain deterred us from exploring some of the scenic viewpoints we’d been recommended, but as evening progressed the weather seemed to calm down and the mountains emerged in all their glory. We were making time, to get up to the Columbia Icefield and go out onto the Athabasca Glacier on one of the famous snocoach tours.
I was dreading a slightly corny experience - coach takes bunch of tourists onto glacier - and instead found myself on the tour of a lifetime. Travelling out onto a glacier can, in many conditions, be life-threatening to say the least. This tour provided a guarantee of safety with one of the most entertaining trips I have ever been on. The guides were fantastic. On a scale from one to ten they’d score 12 for entertainment and background knowledge. They made the whole thing a scream, without any of the associated risk to mind and body, and were as lively as if this had been the first tour of the day (rather than the last).
We were driven up the side of the mountain to the snocoach ‘parking lot’
where we dismounted our on-road vehicle and climbed up into the bus with the giant wheels. Less than 20 exist in the world, and apart from those here on the glacier, the only other ones are down in the Antarctic. You can assume, therefore, that you are on safe tyres. Still, the descent from the rocky lateral moraine onto the icesheet itself was very, very steep. The journey up the iceflow was illuminated by dramatic views as the mountaintops cut in and out of the clouds. I was fascinated to learn that the fossil layers were a good 9000 ft up the mountain, far higher than us. We were on the glacier for a good 20 minutes, soaking up the remoteness and trying to shake off the feeling of standing on a giant icecube tray. I felt as if any minute somebody would lift the lid on the freezer, a giant hand would appear above us and a voice would boom out “where are the fruit lollies?”
The wonderfully entertaining experience was made all the more poignant by the discovery on return to the icefields centre of a marker showing the position of the glacier in 1843. It’s a
Athabasca Glacier Retreat
Position of the glacier in 1843
shocking indicator of how global climate change is shifting the balance in the mountains.
The final drive to Jasper took us along the edge of the Endless Range, a continuous wall of mountains forming a rampart along the eastern side of the valley we were following north. The views were endlessly marvellous, the mountains cutting a deep impression into my memory. What a place. What an experience. What a long day!
Day 12. You say Maligne, I say Maligne
Today has been the most amazing day I could ever have imagined. I’m so excited!
We set off this morning for Maligne Lake, taking our time as we drove through the beautiful mountain scenery, spotting wildlife along the way. A fox trotting across a meadow; young male deer, antlers still swathed in velvet (could it have been a caribou?). And later… well that’s later.
We stopped at Medicine Lake for a tranquil sit beside the water. Surprisingly tranquil, this lake - then we realised. The river flowing out of it isn’t - flowing, that is. The water simply disappears downwards, into fissures in the ground, and comes out somewhere else! Some reappears in the riverbed
downstream, whilst other underground streams don’t break cover till they reach Maligne Canyon way below.
Maligne Lake is famous - for a stunning vista and for being the largest glacier-fed lake in the Canadian Rockies. We arrived just in time for the midday boat tour up the lake and, though the weather was overcast and the colours not at their dramatic best, we had a great experience. I expected the lake to be the pulsing turquoise of Lake Louise but initially it was not. Our guide explained that the rich aquamarine colour, caused by light reflecting off “rock flour” (ground up sediment washing out from the bottom of the glaciers), was only present as we travelled further up the lake towards the existing glaciers. Our starting point had long since been abandoned by glaciers so the water here was devoid of suspended silt.
The boat stopped at Spirit Island - possibly the most photographed spot in the Rockies - and allowed us all to explore and photograph to our hearts’ content. It was a lovely place and all too soon we were loading back onto the boat, treasured images in hand. Our guide explained that the lake’s
name is ‘Maleen’ Lake, not ‘Maline’ Lake, after a French explorer, losing most of his pack train in the violent river below, referred to the area as “maligne” (which in French obviously means wicked, malignant or… how about “maligne”?) The sun greeted us as we returned to the information centre and invited us to sit and enjoy this lovely spot. I had other plans. I wanted to hike up to the snowline and the Opal Hills walk was beckoning, promising stunning views of the Maligne Valley where we currently, comfortably, sat.
Ooh what a climb! This was proper mountain hiking, not the relaxed stuff I’d become accustomed to at Lake Louise and Waterton. Monkey got heavier by the step as we sweated up through the forest. Only the occasional chatter of a grumpy squirrel broke the silence all around us. We started to encounter patches of snow on the steep trail, sending us slipping and sliding downward with each footstep. After what seemed hours of clawing our way upward, wondering occasionally if we’d left the trail only to discover it quite clearly in the snow-free patches, the forest around us, quite suddenly, bowed out. We found ourselves surrounded by
Storm coming in
little Christmas trees standing about shyly in the snow. And there above us lay the eternity of unmelted snow I’d been dying to see. Endless and beautiful, its pure whiteness stretched to the sky. A sky that was now turning a glowering shade of grey as a snowstorm swept toward us. I took the cue and decided it was time to descend. The views of the valley could wait till another day.
Now all we had to do was drive down to Jasper Park Lodge where I was to have dinner. Plenty of time. We’ll just cruise down there, arrive punctually at 6.30pm. Unless… unless a lone car parked by the roadside catches our eye. What’s so unusual about this one? The occupants are looking up, into the tree, rather than down on the ground. Oh well if it’s just a bird we won’t worry about stopping… A rather large, black, fluffy bird! Oh no there are two! Two black bear cubs playing high in a pine tree! It’s a dream come true, I’d never imagined I’d actually see it! And there on the grass, about 20 metres away, is the mother bear munching away, half an eye out
as she fills her tummy with succulent new growth. We stopped and watched for a while as the young ones deftly tumbled and flailed around, then headed on our way, stopping briefly to admire another black bear a little further down the road. What a day for wildlife!
And then came dinner. Jasper Park Lodge is an amazing place, an array of luxury log cabins and single storey apartments spread across acres of lakeside property beside Lac Beauvert. Elk wandered nonchalantly across the immaculate lawns, guests sailed by in golf carts as I headed in to dine in the Moose’s Nook (after a swift change out of hiking gear and into something rather more suitable, in one of the well appointed washrooms). The name (Moose’s Nook) doesn’t do the place justice. For one thing, it’s no nook, its more like a grand hall with a very friendly and informal ambiance. The head mounted over the fireplace is a bison, not a moose, and the walls are given a snugly feel by the quilts that decorate them.
I can’t begin to describe the pleasure this meal provided, from the unobtrusive yet perfectly timed service to the fine
The boat house
wine and outstanding food. That meal will live on in the memories of all my tastebuds for years to come. Restaurants around the world will sigh in disappointment as they fall short of achieving that ecstasy brought on by my first taste of bison. No wonder the aboriginal people went to so much trouble to secure a few steaks off these beasts. Soft and succulent, the flavour is so much more delicate that beef, and complemented perfectly by the horseradish and mustard mash. I nearly missed out on the grand dessert experience but thankfully was persuaded by the waitress that “Bananas Foster” (was that really its name?) wasn’t after all banana split with sprinkles. How right she was. It was like some creamy banana sundae that left a huge smile on my face. It’s still there.
After dinner I was given a tour of the resort in the late evening light. A visual tour full of stories and facts (most of which I’ve already forgotten) that was more entertaining than a night at the movies. Here was the cabin taken by the Queen on her visit. In here Bing Crosby used to throw wild parties. This cabin, one of
Bear in the background
M's head as daddy holds her to see the bear...
my host’s favourites, was said to be haunted. He had actually been present when the children of the family staying there had come running out, claiming to have seen a maid in uniform. Odd, as none was inside. Stranger still, when they tried to get back in, all the doors were mysteriously locked. Then a fire had been spotted inside the cabin one night and the maintenance guy had been hurriedly sent down to investigate. He found nothing, but on leaving smelt the faintest trace of smoke on his clothes - then out of the corner of his eye caught somebody looking at him from inside! Slightly more down to earth was the story of the Canadian army who took over the hotel during World War II and dug tunnels between some of the cabins. One apparently still has a large earth hole in its basement!
After a wonderful evening I was quite keen to walk home to our more humble residence on the other side of the river. The light was fading but it was a lovely still night. I might even see some wildlife on the way. I have never in my life been so charmingly told
Maligne Lake road
not to do something than I was tonight! Isn’t that the definition of charm? Getting somebody to do something without actually telling them to? The lady at reception was the epitome of diplomacy as she suggested that a walk down the solitary forest track, through elk calving territory, as night came on, may not be the very best thing to be doing at half ten at night. I left by taxi with a broad smile and a contented tummy. What an evening.
Now I can’t be absolutely certain that this wasn’t a set up, but I was there when the concierge called for a taxi and he didn’t ask for any particular person nor give any secret password. So the man who turned up must have been allocated simply by chance. He was interesting, knowledgeable about the local area, about politics, and about European history. He was also, he told me, previously employed at the Lodge as a handyman. Totally unprompted, with no idea of the evening I’d had (I just said I’d been to dinner there) he suddenly said “that place is haunted you know.” I sat there smiling, expecting him to trot out the stories I’d just
heard. He continued: “I used to do the floors in the Moose’s Nook and one night, as I walked the length of the room, I could hear someone walking across the floor above me. Strangest thing was, about a year later I went up there with the maintenance guy, looking around and suchlike, and guess what I saw - there was only a crawl space up there! No way could somebody have walked across that ceiling.”
Day 13. Riding high
Today, after breakfast in a lovely little bakery, we headed up towards Pyramid Lake with the thought of hiring a canoe. On the way I spotted the sign for the riding stables and that was it - I went no further. I signed up for a one hour ride and was soon mounted on a comfortable little horse. The place was a bit of a conveyor belt - tourists in one end, mounted tourists with hard hats out the other - but was professional and slick. I was instantly gratified to note that with my stirrups slightly shorter, and a smaller (Western) saddle than I’d had on the ranch, I could hold a more comfortable place
on my horse’s back. Though admittedly we didn’t get above a walk!
We set off into the forest, each introducing ourselves to the loud but competent trail leader who managed to spot a coyote within five minutes of us setting out! I was delighted as my wild animal count increased still further. We wound through the forest, learning about the trees, the “dead man’s beard” fungus hanging from the branches, the scrapes and nibbles made by deer on the trunks (poor trees, they’re really up against it). Suddenly the view opened out and we were gazing down into the Athabasca River valley, Jasper off to one side, mountains glimmering white all around, the river and emerald green lakes far below. Beautiful! The most interesting fact I learnt was that the major cause of hospital admissions in the area was… no, not ski injuries or bar brawls but… squirrel bites! The tenacious little critters may look cute, but once they’ve got their teeth latched on apparently it’s quite a job to get them off again.
After lunch we headed out on the Maligne Lake road once again, stopping at Maligne Canyon for a walk up (from number Six Bridge)
alongside the busy and turbulent Maligne River. As we ascended, the river sunk deeper into the rock around it and became more and more coy. How can a river disappear so rapidly? It turns out that underground rivers are disgorging their contents into Maligne Canyon, adding sudden bursts of vigour to the stream as it winds its way downward. So the lower reaches are far more powerful than the stream at the top that has sunk an impressive 50 metres down into the canyon depths. On closer examination I did notice a vast gushing torrent I’d taken for a branch of the river, coming straight out of the base of the cliff. Hello Medicine Lake, so this is where you got to.
Fancying a sit-down but also wanting to go up a mountain, we headed over to the Jasper Tramway. This large tram-car is hoisted up Whistlers Mountain on a cable high above the surrounding forest. Great views of the valley, and a satisfying feeling to see the path to the summit winding through the forest beneath us as we ascended effortlessly skyward.
It was cold up top, but very interesting. Cold and bleak wouldn’t be too far
Top of the Jasper Tramway
off the mark. Large banks of snow lay everywhere, bullying grey clouds whipped around the adjacent peaks and the barren mountaintop looked lifeless. No sign of the whistling marmots after which the place gets its name. They’ll be tucked away safely in burrows no doubt. A sudden movement caught my eye - a little animal, a real, furry one with feet and ears it had to keep warm and a stomach it somehow had to fill - was bounding across the rocky landscape. A ground squirrel! What on earth it found to eat up here (unless it had stashed a few bags of peanuts somewhere) I don’t know.
As we waited to ride the last tramcar down, husband entertained himself in the gift shop, buying a (toy - but not far off lifesize) mounted head of a mountain goat. Nice. That’ll look very classy on the wall back home.
14. Miracle cure
Our last morning in the Rockies! My heart almost wept at the thought of leaving this amazing place. We packed our bags and wandered out of our Pine Bungalow to gaze across the mighty Athabasca River one last time.
From Pine Bungalows
another grey and overcast day as we drove eastward out of the Rockies, but we decided to take the road up to Miette Hotsprings - probably won’t go in, but at least it’s worth a look.
What a lovely drive! If we had been coming from Edmonton and this was our first experience in Jasper National Park, I feel sure we would have be awestruck. The little road wound up a forested valley, steep mountains on either side, jagged peaks glowering down, and a feel of wilderness and wildlife all around. (Didn’t see any, but I’m sure it was looking at us!)
We could see steam rising as we parked the car below the hotsprings. The Miette Hotsprings building was very inviting, the two large pools populated with lounging bodies, swathed in drifting steam, fresh fluffy towels available for rent for a few coins, even classic swim suits were available. (On the way out we heard a hiking guide telling his party to hire the suits as the water could wreak havoc with modern lycra suits. No wonder mine had become progressively more baggy the more mineral pools I swam in!)
Guess what - we went in!
Miette Hot Springs
Hire one of these swimsuits!
Monkey had hurt her arm yesterday and it was bandaged to support a potential sprain. I managed to get her changed and took her out to the pool edge. The warm water kept the chill off the damp mountain air but I was keen to get submerged! First, I had to persuade Monkey that we could take the bandage off her arm without pain. She was reluctant, but allowed me to go ahead, then gently lower her into the water. Within five minutes the arm that she had been holding limply at her side, with the occasional whimper when someone went to put a sleeve over it, was splashing energetically in the water! A miracle cure! (And her dry skin cleared up!)
The two large pools were at different temperatures (the water flows out of the mountain at 54 Celsius so is cooled before entering the pools), the warm (rather than hot) pool having a gentle slope into it which provided Monkey with no end of fun. I wish I’d brought my camera, the scene was magic with the wet forest and cloud covered mountaintops, the bright blue pool and steamy air. Instead I just relaxed and enjoyed it.
Monkey wanted to investigate the small pools that nobody was using. I assumed they were a little cooler so happily obliged. Of course that meant that I jumped in first. Oh my! They’re not cooler, they’re FREEZING! I had inadvertently jumped into the plunge pool. Of course Monkey then took one small step down into the water - and decided it was far too cold! Thanks.
Lunch was eaten as we drove, there were still a good three hours to go before we reached Edmonton. The mountains slowly slipped away leaving us passing through forested country on a major highway. Not a bad way to get from the Provincial capital to the Rockies, methinks! There were a few amusing signposts along the way.
The first sign to catch our eye said “Scenic route to Alaska”. “That,” my husband said in astonishment, is like driving through Devon and coming across a sign that says ‘Scenic route to Italy’!”
In a little town further down the highway I noticed a sign over the door at “Annette’s pet store and trophies”. Hmm, it conjured up images of what befell the town’s dearly departed pets.
Later, the conversation turned to
what the mainstay might be for the town of Carrot Creek. What was ‘Carrot Creek Hall’ actually full of?
And then, with the nearest ocean being the Pacific, lurking on the other side of the Rockies, we saw a sign for ‘Alberta beach’ - 11km. (Actually Alberta is quite hot in high summer, and the large lakes with which it is blessed provide ample opportunity for swims and watersports.)
Three hours later - still in the car, but getting there - we decided we’d cracked the secret of “Big Sky Country”. The Rocky Mountains simply rub off all the low level cloud that hangs around chimney pots and hilltops in England. So by the time the weather reaches Alberta, you’re only left with clouds way up high providing a feeling of vast open skies.
An easy drive into Edmonton, a circuit (by car) of West Edmonton Mall, and we found ourselves checking into our final hotel of the holiday: Fantasyland Hotel. Yep, right in the shopping mall. And they’re not wrong about the fantasy. We emerged from the lift on floor seven into a stable - every room door had a horse’s head painted on it (I
checked, each was individually painted!), looking over a stable door. We opened the door to the room. Oh my! A lovely great double bed, a set of bunk beds with jail bars over the end and “County Jail” painted above, a bathroom off to one side. Oh no - no bath, just a shower. Monkey does love her baths. Then, two steps into the room, the view opens out and - there’s a Jacuzzi bath!! In the bedroom! Tiled with glass tiles and swathed in piles of plump white towels! Guess what we did that evening. Monkey was in heaven, jumping and splashing around till bedtime.
15. Worlds in one city
Our day in Edmonton - and the last day of our holiday (sigh)
After getting some breakfast in the Mall we headed off to the Royal Alberta Museum - we’d been told it was worth a look. And weren’t they right!
First thing we stepped into, right on the ground floor, was the Wild Alberta section. Here, they’ve taken Albertan animals (stuffed of course) and rather than putting them all in glass cabinets with tags on, the curators have created a stunning natural
vista for each animal, placed it in its forest, or lake, or burrow with a natural landscape painted behind. It’s absolutely beautiful, and a great introduction to the province’s wildlife for anyone landing in Edmonton.
The snow is piled on the ground in one display and, hiding in a den deep beneath, there’s a black bear. You can just see its head if you look down the entry tunnel to its lair. Monkey was fascinated and soon set off down the tunnel…
On the board outside the bighorn sheep ‘enclosure’ was a horn - a real one - for people to touch, and next to the beaver lake was the leather of a beaver tail. The experience was multisensory, with sounds, things to touch and some fabulous views. If only there had been a bison steak to taste...
The mineral room upstairs was also great, and provided clear information on how the Rockies formed - won me over immediately. Not so the bugs! There was a whole section with live insects and spiders (in tanks) which Monkey absolutely loved but which I happily passed by in favour of the Aboriginal Culture exhibition.
Big horn sheep
What do they keep in the horn?
Peoples of Alberta arrived with the retreat of ice at the end of the last ice age 11,000 years ago. They survived and diversified and there were four clear tribal cultures by the time Europeans arrived in the region. This section of the museum is fantastic. We had had hardly any contact with native Albertans (the staff at Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump had all been ‘true’ locals) so I felt it was important to learn more about them. Though the displays were amazing, explaining hunting, art and ceremony, the feeling I came away with was one of sadness.
Apart from the artistic stone spearhead display, the various cabinets containing artefacts from the tribal cultures had nothing (and I looked quite hard) dating back further than the mid 1800’s. This in itself says a lot about the aboriginal cultures - they weren’t founded on materialism or permanence. The people lived in teepees made of buffalo hide, which they rolled up and carried on their journeys, moving with the seasons and the food supply. Their art was expressed in their ceremonial costume, dance and the decoration on their homes.
And now, only 150 years later, all that is left
Royal Alberta Museum
Aboriginal stone spear heads
sat before me in display cabinets. The exhibition didn’t shy away from the terrible treatment the natives had had at the hands of the settlers but ended, thankfully, on a positive note, celebrating the culture that is kept alive today in various communities around the province.
From something deep, and meaningful, we headed off to the opposite extreme - West Edmonton Mall, mecca of materialism and trivial entertainment. And didn’t we love it!
We arrived just in time for the sealion show at Sealion Rock. I don’t normally like marine animals in captivity, but these slithering sealions were like huge, happy dogs watching their trainers intently, doing their every bidding, splashing the kids till delighted screams echoed around the mall. We made great efforts to prize Monkey away at the end of the show, luring her with all sorts of delicious foods gleaned from the battery of fast food outlets, health food outlets, cafes and restaurants distributed through the mall. We wandered on to the ice rink (yes, we are still in the shopping mall) and watched some talented youngsters going through their routines.
The main goal for the afternoon was to get to World Waterpark.
A lifesize bronze whale in a pond!
What an adventure that was! To call it a swimming pool with water slides would be like calling London a small town. This place was enormous! The swimming pool cove could rival many a Cornish beach in size, and its wave machine produce some very respectable surf. We bobbed about on rubber rings till the fog horn sounded and the wave machine started up. At that point I had to stand up, grab Monkey and hold her above my shoulders to keep her out of the surf! (I suppose I could have gone shallower, but what’s the fun in that?)
Daddy was amazingly brave (or did I hear ‘foolish’ muttered somewhere) and went down the ‘Sky Screamer’ slide - a near-vertical slide that descended (I really don’t think I’m exaggerating) at least 80 feet into a pool of water. I tried the ‘Tropical Typhoon’ - you effectively get flushed down a pipe into a sink, swirl around at vast speed then get dumped out of the bottom into a deep pool. My favourite was the ‘Howler’, a twisting tube that sloshed you high up the sides then plunged into darkness before jettisoning you out into a pool. Wahoo!
There was a great multi-storey, water-filled activity centre for kids (Monkey was a bit too small and declined to go down the water slide tube more than once!) and a hot pool in which to unwind. We were all exhausted by the time we left and headed for “Bourbon St” to get some dinner. At least we thought we were all exhausted. No sooner had Monkey downed her garlic bread and pasta than she was off charging round the mall, checking out the jazz band playing in the ‘street’ (as well as shooting into another couple of restaurants we had no intention of visiting).
Our final night in Alberta. Back in the room we had only a quick bath (no, no bubbles tonight!) and tucked Monkey up. Time to sit back and mull over what a wonderful trip it had been (and listen to the people next door running their Jacuzzi into the early hours!) then pack quietly ready for the drive tomorrow. Back to Calgary (an easy cruise down the highway) and off, away back to Britain.
It’s been an experience that will stay with me. A sparkling experience, full of excitement and interest and, even with all that we’ve done (and there has been a lot!), I genuinely feel refreshed. I wonder how soon I can come back?