Saturday, September 3, 2011

Traveling the Canadian Rockies

Visitors to lovely Lake Louise
8/10/11 Chatterbox
Betty Kaiser

July is usually a travel month for the Kaisers. This year we decided to chart an RV trip to the Canadian Rockies. We began in Lynden, Washington near the border crossing. We often cross there because it’s convenient, we can shop for antiques and eat at the Dutch Mother’s Restaurant.

We had made reservations in both Jasper and Banff National Parks but were pretty much winging other stops and Lynden is a great place to get organized. Happily we were well fortified and had no trouble finding available campgrounds or restaurants along the way.

The road to Jasper was steep and wide with magnificent views of rivers and mountains. Suddenly we were in God’s country and it was obvious that our planned 3-day stay in that area would not be long enough to see everything.

Jasper is a turn of the century railroad town and resort area that still welcomes thousands of visitors on the VIA and Rocky Mountaineer trains that chug into the old-fashioned train stop. It lies along the Athabasca River within sight of four magnificent mountain ranges and many lakes. It is both picturesque and quaint.

Our campsite was quiet and rustic and teeming with wildlife. The Canadian Parks mantra is that people are visitors. This is the home of the grizzly, elk, moose, coyote and cougar. Visitors are cautioned to give animals a wide berth and all of the trash containers are bear proof. One afternoon a small herd of elk grazed our area completely ignored by our Canadian neighbors. Now that’s privacy.

Due to time constraints we opted to book a Maligne Canyon Tour of lakes, gorges, wildlife and waterfalls. It was a good choice. Early on tour day we joined our fellow passengers from Australia, Switzerland and the U.K. That would be the pattern for all of our tours. Usually we were the only ones from the USA. This time a father and son joined us from Richmond, VA.

Our guide was a trained geologist and we learned more than we needed to know about how the Maligne River carves a gorge through the solid limestone of the Rockies. Along the picturesque road there are six different footbridges and a teahouse. We spent time hiking down trails and marveling at the scenery as we were sprayed with the cold water of magnificent waterfalls.

Medicine Lake was another stop. One of the largest so-called ‘sinking’ lakes in the Western hemisphere, it is actually an area in which the Maligne River (flowing from its lake) backs up and suddenly disappears underground. During the winter months it is a meandering frozen river. Interesting stuff!

After lunch we boarded a boat to tour the pristine Maligne Lake that surrounds the world famous Spirit Island. Even with all the boats coming and going it was a peaceful spot. Another memorable scene was a mama bear and her two cubs playing in a ravine. Wonderful!

Too soon it was time to leave Jasper and head for the Columbia Icefields, Lake Louise and Banff. At every bend in the road, the scenery is simply spectacular. A stop at Athabasca Falls is mandatory. The falls are a thundering sight with a bridge and platforms at different vantage points that gave us goose bumps.

The closer we got to the Columbia Icefield and Athabasca Glacier the more glaciers came into view. At the centre we paid our money and boarded a shuttle to the rim of the ice fields. Then we transferred to the Ice Explorer — a space-like vehicle with huge tires — it slowly bumped down a steep incline and moved onto and across the surface of the glacier as digital cameras flashed.

It is almost an out-of-body experience to walk on a centuries old glacier. I wanted to shush people so I could be engulfed in silence and truly enjoy the moment. It was absolutely the highlight of our trip.

Our visit to Lake Louise was shrouded in mountain mist, rendering the color of the lake less brilliant than hoped for. Nevertheless, literally thousands of people were there to gaze at the glacier peaks framing the lake, rent canoes, walk the shoreline path or hike up to the teahouse and beyond.

In the chilly morning air, Chuck and I headed into the massive, cream-colored Chateau for coffee and a delicious, melt-in-your mouth croissant. Later, after walking the trail, we had lobster and shrimp croissants in the dining room overlooking the lake. For us, it’s always about the food!

Still heading south, we were fascinated by the 40 wildlife crossings over the highways constructed to insure safety for the variety of animals that would otherwise be killed on busy roads. They look like mountain trails. Sadly, one day, a young female Grizzly Bear was able to get around the fences where she was hit and killed.

As we entered Banff I really gave kudos to Canadian campers and parks. The people and the quiet, well maintained 2,400 sites and 13 campgrounds were impressive. Plus, they have a great shuttle system to get you almost any place you want to go right from the campground. It runs in 40 minute intervals.

Once again we wanted to get an overview with a narrative of the area so we booked another tour. Our group included visitors from Amsterdam, Australia, Burma, England and of course, Oregon. Over the course of a week we saw and did all the touristy stuff and loved it.

First, of course, we stopped at the Banff Springs Hotel and gawked like the tourists we were at the opulence surrounded by wilderness. We rode around the Minnewanka Loop to Cascade Ponds, Johnson Lake, Bankhead (fascinating former coal mine) and of course, magnificent, historical Lake Minnewanka. Then we headed out the Bow Valley Parkway to Muleshoe and Johnston Canyon.

Too soon it was time to bid farewell to our Canadian neighbors and head home but we’ll be back!

Betty Kaiser’s Chatterbox is about people, places, family, and other matters of the heart.

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