To experience how the pebble of ordinary life could be transformed into a jewel through the magic eyes of travel, we have once again taken to the road along the Canadian Rockies. It’s been three years since we had been to the airport, thanks to Covid restrictions and our own concerns regarding recent airline disruptions. In a mixture of trepidation and excitement, we signed up for an eight day Globus tour through Glacier National Park, then Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper. Prior to flying into Calgary, we submitted all the forms to the Arrive Canada website, and thankfully all went smoothly with our flight and arrival. It has been almost thirty years since I’ve last been in the area, and then it was for a ski trip to Banff. Calgary had grown considerably since then. I was impressed with the new high-rise buildings, as well as the cleanliness of the city. We enjoyed seeing all the wall murals and public art as we walked around after our arrival, as well as what we saw after our brief city tour the following morning.
Our first stop was at Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Our First Nation’s guide belonged to the Blackfoot tribe who had lived in the area for thousands of years. Prior to the arrival of the white man and the weapons he brought with him, buffalo (bison) roamed the area, numbering in the millions. Their meat provided food, their skin shelter and robes, and their bones tools which allowed the tribes to survive. In order kill the buffalo, the members of the tribe had to lure them to a specific area which contained a fifty foot cliff, then stampede the animals over the precipice. It was a complicated process involving knowledge of animal behavior and instinct, and the willingness of a young man trained for the role to play the part of buffalo calf to lure the animals to the right point. Sometimes, the process resulted in the death of the one who acted this role. The native people honored both the animals as well as those participating in the hunt. A number of such hunting areas exist, but this one was one the largest, containing skeletons of thousands of buffalo. After the hunt the meat had to be quickly processed, mixed with berries, formed into pemmican, then stored in leather bags. Some pemmican found buried has survived a couple of hundred years.
A large and impressive museum has been erected at the site detailing the history of the hunt, local animals, and the lives of the indigenous people of the area. We had a chance to meet the grandson of the tribal member whose determination led to the construction of the site. He had lived his whole life there, and proudly shared with us his insights.
Waterton National Park, where we spent our first night on the road, and still in Canada, has a shared agreement with Glacier National Park in the US in order to allow free movement of wildlife between the two parks. The Prince of Wales Hotel in Waterton is imposing from the distance, but rather tired and in need of some loving care. When the Prince of Wales was touring Canada almost a hundred years ago, the owners hoped to lure him to stay at his namesake spot, but they were disappointed as he chose to reside elsewhere.
For Miki, Glacier National Park turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. She was expecting to see large glaciers, such as the one in her home country of Chile, but sadly, the glaciers have all receded or melted with global warming. Rather than in our bus, we toured the iconic Going-to-the-Sun Road in a Red Jammer open top car holding up to 15 people, similar to the yellow antique touring cars familiar to visitors to Yellowstone. Immaculately maintained and refurbished by the Ford motor company, these are the ideal vehicles to see the park. Driven by a retired police officer from Miami and his wife, the colorful commentary of the drivers and their humorous interactions added zest to the experience. Sadly, nearby fires burning west of the park caused visibility of the surrounding mountains to be less than ideal, but I was happy that the weather was such that we were able to drive with the tops open.
We spent a night in Whitefish, and had a chance to sample local huckleberry pie and ice cream. In the morning, we crossed the border back into Canada, where Miki was one of the lucky six recipients of a random Covid tests required by the Canadian government. She was given a test kit (an improvement over the other members of the group so chosen upon entry to Calgary who had to take an Uber or cab to obtain their own kits from a designated pharmacy) and instructions on how to proceed in collecting a specimen. Unfortunately, the government web site turned out to be rather buggy, resulting in our tour guide and the other five frustrated members of our group spending several hours in the hotel that night trying to get through before succeeding. We didn’t get a divorce in the process, but tensions were high. Fortunately, the results (which also took significant effort to obtain) came back negative, so we were able to continue.
Fort Steele is a historic heritage site containing buildings from the original as well as restored structures typical of the era between 1890 and 1905. The Kootenay gold rush of the 1860’s brought large numbers of white people to the area, resulting in significant unrest between the settlers and the native Ktunaxa Nation. Superintendent Samuel Steele was brought in with the North West Mounted Police to restore law and order, and it was after him the fort was named. It is a large and interesting place which I would have explored more but the pace of the tour dictated we move on. It reminded me of a heritage site we visited in Latvia on a prior trip to see Miki’s relatives.
The weather gods smiled on us throughout most of the trip, and the gloomy forecasts for upcoming days turned different than promised. We arrived in Banff in the late afternoon, and were fortunate to see the town and valley laid out before us after the bus made its way to one of the local ski areas, affording a panoramic view of the surroundings. Later, settling in to our hotel, we found the town full. There had been a fire outside of Jasper that resulted in loss of power and water in the city that was to be our next destination, so people there had to be evacuated to Banff, and others not allowed to enter. Fortunately for us, we were spending two nights in Banff, and by the time of our departure, rain and wind dispersed the smoke, and power had been restored.
Banff is a spectacular place. It was my first time seeing it without snow, and I thoroughly enjoyed hiking with Miki along the Bow River to see the falls, as well as the Banff Springs Hotel, the classic turn of the century masterpiece built by the Canadian Pacific Railroad to entice visitors to the West. The hotel still has the grandeur that marked the apex of the British Empire, and the common areas are impressive. While the guest rooms (based on my prior stay there) are small, they are currently undergoing a much needed retrofit.
One of the joys of travel is the opportunity to meet new people and hear their stories. We met a lovely couple from Australia with whom we found a lot in common, and based on Patricia’s suggestion, we had high tea in the Rundle Room of the hotel. With a sweeping view of Mt. Norquay, we felt like visiting royalty, munching on a tower of delectable mini sandwiches and pastries while sipping tea from fine china.
Many of the meals were on our own, and the town has no shortage of restaurants. Miki has a predilection for any place that serves Wienerschnitzel, so I selected Swiss-Italian restaurant, Ticcinos, that fit the bill. The food turned out to be first class, and we discovered the co-owner to be a charming gentleman originally from Montreal, who was on the Canadian Olympic Ski team, and whose photos decorated the walls. Hearing that Miki was from Chile, we talked about all the places he skied there. He then introduced us to Fernando, the bartender, whose home country also turned out be Chile. Our waitress was from Prague, and everyone was incredibly warm and welcoming. By coincidence, we found our Australian friends inside the restaurant, just finishing their meal. We all enjoyed the place so much we returned there the following night together for another delicious meal. At the end of the evening, the owner had even arranged for us to receive a complimentary liqueur of limoncello.
The following morning we said good bye to Banff, and began the 230km. drive along the Icefield Parkway to Jasper, stopping at pristine Lake Louise and the historic Lake Louise Chateau. The blues of the glacier lakes are almost impossible to imagine without seeing them, shading from deep turquoise the cerulean with variations between. Obligatory Japanese weddings were going on at the hotel, with couples taking selfies along the lakeside and professional photographers capturing the event for all the families not able to attend personally. According to National Geographic, the Icefield Parkway is one of the ten most scenic drives in the world, and we were lucky enough to be driving it on a perfect, sun-drenched day. While I normally prefer travelling without a group and being able to make our own schedule, for this trip having someone else do the driving and giving us a chance to just watch spectacular scenery was definitely the right choice. It also afforded us to meet some really nice people from all parts of the country. From the Patel foursome from Texas to Anita, a recently retired lab tech from Georgia to Sue and Darlene from Central California, from Peter and Carolyn to Jill and David, who were kind enough to collect the info of many of the attendees and shared the list with us, I felt privileged to share time with many of you. The group was remarkably prompt for arrivals and departures, as well as respectful of each other. Friends are the gifts we give ourselves, and I only regret not having more time to get to know you better. Everyone has a story that is remarkable in some way, and my life has been immensely enriched by the ones shared with me over time.
Before getting to Jasper, we made a worthwhile stop at the Peyto Lake viewpoint. I wouldn’t have believed that water could be that intense cobalt color! Throughout our journey, we saw the requisite wildlife; bears, moose, mountain goats, big horn sheep, along with signs cautioning tourists to maintain an adequate distance from the wildlife.
Miki and I skipped the raft trip on the Athabasca, and spent the afternoon enjoying the sights of Jasper. Next morning, I joined with many of you to hike along the Magical Mystical Maligne Canyon Nature walk. (Miki, keeping true to her tradition of never on a Sunday when it comes to hiking, stayed behind.) It’s too bad, because the narrow chasm, hundreds of feet in spots, carved by the churning swirl of water through the limestone cliffs, was truly impressive. The river flowing through the rocks is augmented by additional streams of water pouring out from the sides of the cliffs, fed by underground channels from the higher lake above. Our guide poured a small amount of water from his canteen on the limestone rock over which we walked, revealing ancient fossils of plants and animals from the sea that existed here eons ago. The variety and profligacy of Nature never fails to amaze me!
All too quickly, our holiday was coming to an end. The weatherman predicted 90% chance of rain for the day, and for once, he was right. As we drove back along the Icefields Parkway, visibility was low, and rain was streaming down the windows of the bus. Our guide was speculating whether it would clear enough to permit us to do the Ice Explorer Excursion, the last part of our tour before going back to Calgary, then home. As we approached the Athabasca Glacier, the rain turned to snow, and a goodly amount of white stuff had already accumulated, turning the green pine forests around us into a winter fantasy. When we reached the designated spot, we were delighted to find that the tours were going to proceed. We boarded one of their special buses, which in turn took us up to the icefields, where Glacier vehicles designed originally for Arctic and Antarctic exploration, with wheels larger than on many tractors, waited for us to take us onto the glacier. Luckily, there was not a lot of wind, so temperatures were not nearly as frigid as they can be, and we had a chance to walk on glacier ice, feeling like young Amundsens trekking around the area. Someone had planted a large Canadian flag on the ice, and people in the group took turns being photographed with the red and white maple leaf swirling behind them, imaging themselves as intrepid explorers.
Returning to Calgary without fanfare, the group had the usual farewell dinner. Our salmon was quite tasty, and for hotel food for a large group, even the appropriate temperature. Following a 6:30 AM breakfast, we left to catch our morning flight. Calgary now provides US Customs right at the airport, saving long lines for the same at LAX. Miki’s sister picked us up at the airport, deposited us with a week’s worth of dirty laundry in our suitcases, and the chance to enjoy the comforts of home. I worked the following day, but by the time I came home, I was feeling a bit congested. The next morning, Miki developed similar symptoms, took a home Covid test, which turned positive almost immediately. (She had a negative test in Canada the prior Thursday.) She called me to let me know what happened, and on coming back, I too tested positive. Fortunately, neither of us feels very sick. She had a low grade fever today and congestion, whereas I never had fever, and my congestion is almost gone. Naturally, the big plans we had for the weekend had to be cancelled, but let this be the biggest tragedy of our lives. Hopefully, none of you has come down with a similar problem, and if you have, we hope it will be short lasting. We were quadruple vaccinated, but stuff happens when you travel, when you fly.
My final thought for you is that life is short, and we never have too much time for gladdening the hearts of those who are traveling with us. May you be swift to love and make haste to be kind.