This is a bit of a variation from my usual rants and raves. It’s odd I’ve not done more travel writing as travelling is about my favourite thing to do. I should write about it more. So I’ll have a go. I want to share a great life experience with you.
There is quite the rage at the moment of thinking of things to do before you die. I don’t know if the ‘bucket list’ film came along first or all the books and websites of 100 or 1001 or 500 things to do before you die. Many of these things though I have no desire to do at all. I do not want to clamber with a large crowd of fans of voting ‘Green’ into some rain forest. I do not want to lasso ponies on the Mongolian Steppe. I certainly do not want to demonstrate to Sharks how delicious I look while I am underneath the water. I have no desire to throw myself from a tall building or structure in New Zealand or eat things that if prepared incorrectly will deliver a painful death. The things to do before you die often consist of activities in some far off land or doing dangerous things no-one really wants to do at all. I’ll go as far to venture that if the locals of the distant ‘must do’ land had any choice in the matter they would make themselves comfortable in my garden instead of living with or doing things some books tell us we must undertake.
I do like big mountains; I mostly like ones you can drive up though, I don’t really want to put on some bright coloured Scandinavian clothing and sleep in a tent. I prefer autumnal tones in my wilderness attire. I don’t like having to drink liquid boiled down from snow in the evening. I like beer, in the warm. I do like to go for a walk, even a very long one in the wilds, but I am not an adventurer though, nor a mountaineer. I like to come home to some warmth, be it a fire in a hearth in the winter or sunshine in the summer.
I always fancied a look at the Canadian Rockies. I can’t remember how the actual trip came about but Jen and I found ourselves on a large maple leaf liveried aeroplane heading for Calgary one night. We had also heard, somehow, about a road called the Icefields Parkway. This is a bit of a silly name, they should change it. I believe it is called a parkway because it is a highway across the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site. Either way the name doesn’t suit the road. To me it sounds more like a car park than one of the worlds greatest drives, which is what it is. It should be called ‘The Great Canadian Ventura Frontier Trail’, or something like that.
It’s pretty easy to get to the Rockies. This is the first important quality in my version of things to do before you die. You catch a scheduled airline to a large airport in another country not too far away. So we arrive in Calgary, the home of the famous Calgary Stampede which is the world’s greatest Rodeo. Calgary is in Alberta and about 8 hours flight from London. We had our voucher for a rental car and negotiateded the arrival formalities which are significantly less tiresome than arriving south of the Canadian Border. In a nutshell the Canadians seem pleased you have chosen to visit whereas the American Border people treat you as an arriving terrorist until proven otherwise.
We felt that as we were going to be driving to and in the Rockies. A 4×4 was the best option. Which it is, but we ended up with the wrong one. When you are given a choice of North American 4×4’s for your driving holiday, my gained experience will point you towards a Jeep Cherokee or similar. I know this because we were given a Dodge Durango. With the greatest of respect for the great Dodge motor vehicles legend. The Dodge Durango is the worst car I have ever driven in my life. It magnifies this by also being the most useless 4×4 I have ever encountered and to cap the experience it is the size of a suburban house and handles like one.
So we set off in our Durango for Banff. The road is a big dual carriageway across Alberta. Great expanses of flat land for miles around, actually most of Canada is flat, Like most of North America. You can see the Rockies in the distance. They just grow and grow as you drive towards them. After an hour and a half or so you arrive at the entrance to the National Parks.
There are a number of them of different names. They roll into each other really, but all you will know is that you are suddenly surrounded by Mountains and pine trees. All the pine trees. So many pine trees. The National Park gate keeper will relieve you of a surprisingly large sum of money to continue on your journey into the wilderness. I think it was about $100 for the week we spent there, just to get in.
We continued on our journey to Banff. and found our very pleasant accommodation, beside the Trans-Canada Highway. Billed as being 10 minutes’ walk from Banff Centre. Which was interesting given the walk would take about half an hour if you decided on that course of action.
We were there in May. It’s a good time to go because you have much of the place to yourself, being out of ski season and before the North American holidays happen, whenever that is. We had a big snowfall the night we arrived which was great as it meant the mountains had that lovely proper, ‘mountains covered in snow’ look about them. I like that quality in my mountains.
So as the temperature outside was hovering in the low single figures all week. The hotel made sure to equalise the temperature inside with judicious use of the powerful air conditioning. Apparently no-one wants to walk from an Alpine climate into a warm hotel. Certainly, it seems, in the bar, you want a nice stiff breeze blowing down your neck as well. Maybe though it’s just me who isn’t a fan.
We spent each night in Banff. Eating and drinking. I don’t really recall the food or the beer being noticeably good or bad. It’s a young lively place with incredible views all around. I liked Banff, I’d go back. As an aside it is worth noting that what young Canadians like to do in the evening, while eating and drinking, is to watch heavily clad men fighting with sticks on television. It is on every night in every bar in town. Bearded men, in padded clothing, fighting with sticks. I think they call it Hockey.
We planned our big expedition up the Icefields Parkway as a ‘there and back in a day’ trip. Most would suggest you spend the night in Jasper. Jasper is the far end of the day’s drive. It’s actually only about 300 kilometres to Jasper from Banff. So you can drive both ways in a day. A long day. But with a clear sky and a good run it will be one of the best days of your life. Jasper is a bit more ‘rustic’ than Banff. Banjo music would not seem out of place. It’s very nice, don’t get me wrong. But having been to Jasper, I won’t be hurrying back to Jasper except to buy fuel, turn around, and drive back to Banff again.
The Icefields Parkway peels off the Trans-Canadian Highway a few miles past a place called Lake Louise. The Trans-Canadian then heads for Vancouver through a massive valley past a place called ‘Field’. We know this because we noticed as we arrived there on our way to the Icefields Parkway that we had seen it the previous day and were in the wrong place. A round trip of 60 kilometres from the road we were supposed to be on. This makes a long days drive that little bit longer for no good reason which could be pretty tedious in any other surrounding. So pay attention to the enormous sign pointing you in the direction of the Icefields parkway when you pass Lake Louise. Near here is my favourite Canadian Rocky mountain. It’s called Castle Mountain.
There is little point giving the details of the drive as it defies description. The road is big and wide. Very high quality surface. The scenery is just stunning. Epic is often over used, as is awesome. But this is truly both. You are driving in the great Canadian Wilderness. The world famous Canadian Rockies. The road is a combination of long hauls across great valleys, some big winding climbs. You cross vast expanses of landscape that make you stop, leave your vehicle and take deep breaths to recover from it being taken away by the things you can see. The air is fresh, crisp. Mountain air tastes best. Some people like sea air. Sea air tastes like salty fish. This is better.
About half way up the road are the actual Icefields. Glaciers, big ones. There is a large visitor centre here and you can take a tour up to the ice itself. There is also, like at all large tourist destinations, a large car park for tour buses. There will be a number of buses full of Japanese tourists. An observation of mine is that I am pretty sure that at any given time of the day, at any large tourist destination, anywhere on the planet. There will be at least one bus load of Japanese tourists. Some will be wearing a surgical mask and gloves. It was a little surreal seeing a number of Japanese ladies, high in the Canadian Rockies. In some of the cleanest air on earth, wearing surgical masks. I like to think it was because they were unwell and didn’t wish to share their germs. I really hope so.
There are wild things up here. We saw a Coyote in the distance. Elk are abundant, Mountain sheep graze beside the road. Bald Eagles in the sky above and if you are lucky, perched on a fallen tree. We were lucky. We also saw a Wolf. He was just wandering along beside the road. We stopped and had a good look at him. I didn’t have my good digital SLR then so the shot is from a standard camera. But it is a Wolf none the less. A live, wild Wolf, in the wilderness a few yards from where I was sitting in a poor quality American 4×4.
We didn’t see any bears though. The bears had been hibernating and the word was that they were appearing from their hides and holes. With cubs. We wanted to see a bear. We drove all day one day. Up mountain passes, with Binoculars’, looking for bears. We walked in the woods, we wandered along rivers. We spent hours and hours seeking a bear or two. We arrived back at the Hotel after a wonderful but fruitless search to discover a large Grizzly had wandered into the hotel car park to have a rummage in the bins.
There is also much literature on what to do if you stumble upon a bear on your walks. Apparently there are two main kinds of bear attack. There is the ‘defensive’ attack where it just wants to convince you to be somewhere else. You are advised to keep still, roll into a ball and protect your neck. Do not fight back they say, you will make the bear angry. This will be a brief bit of scuffing designed to frighten you. I think we can take the fright as a given. The other attack is a proper one. The one where the bear wants to kill and eat you. It seems this is something you have to figure out during the previous attack you aren’t supposed to fight back from. If it turns into a proper attack. You fight back with all you’ve got. Briefly, before you are torn limb from limb. We learned one thing for certain though. The common theme in those coming second in a bear attack were the runners. Don’t run away. The bear is faster, it will catch you and you are then forced to find out which attack you will receive. It will be the worse one. You will have added an activity to the things to do before you die. The last one. Running from a hungry angry bear is not on anyone’s bucket list that I am aware of.
So, bucket list. Things to do before you die. This is a goodie. You can spend all day out seeing the real wilderness and wild things. You get to breathe some mountain air and see sights you will take to your grave. You can return from your incredible sights to a comfortable accommodation of your choice or budget and the end of the day. You can get home to your own garden in a few hours. You must do this trip.
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