We've always had a fascination with Canada. A land of s p a c e, of mountains, snow, wildlife, rivers, and, if I'm totally honest, Due South. This year we managed to put enough money aside for a holiday - a once in a lifetime expedition to somewhere we had always wanted to go.
Today was our second big expedition. In a similar theme to the tour on Sunday, we were hoping to see as much as we could to get an overall impression. And my word, did we see some splendour!
Apparently the weather had been quite unsettled before we arrived, but all we had seen had been clear blue skies and perfect weather since our touchdown. We couldn't have asked for better sightseeing weather so we decided that today was a good day to drive the Icefields Parkway up to the mighty Athabasca glacier and the Columbia Icefield.
The Icefields Parkway is a road that wends itself through spectacular scenery up to the town of Jasper four hours away (if you don't stop). We decided from the outset that there was no way we were going all the way to Jasper and back in one day so we decided that we would just go to the glacier, stopping at as many sights as we could on the way. We popped into the Tourist Information office1 and they gave us a tourist map with their favourite sights highlighted.
So we made our sandwiches and drove off into the perfect blue horizon.
I won't list each feature that we saw, because lists are boring, but we stopped every few miles for some sight, usually glaciers, mountains, or waterfalls. There were plenty of each and always there were trees and rivers alongside us. We even caught a glimpse of a bear in our first 'bear jam' – a traffic jam where tourists break the rules and stop to try and get closer to a bear. We stopped initially until we realised what was happening and moved on. I have no wish to be a reason that a bear becomes accustomed to humans to the point that they have to be put down.
One place that stands out is Peyto Lake. It appears on postcards all around the area and for good reason – the blue colour is unbelievable. It is caused by 'rock flour', which is powdered rocks created by the force of a glacier slowly moving down a valley. When this flour flows into a river or lake it absorbs all light except that brilliant blue. Peyto is notable partly because of its isolation but also because the viewpoint means that you get to see the blue from the best angle. It also is surrounded by snow-topped mountains and flows into a wooded valley at the base. If you ever get the chance, don't miss it.
The end of our long drive was the Athabasca Glacier which sits at the highest point of the road. This gigantic glacier is one entrance to the Columbia Icefield. This massive ice plain is so large that were you to invite every inhabitant of North America to stand a metre squared apart you would still have space left over, and where frozen water lies as deep as the Eiffel Tower is tall. It is too big for my brain to comfortably hold. Water that falls at this point falls on the Continental Divide that divides up the whole of the continent – the place where water decides to go either to the Pacific or Atlantic oceans (or, at this point in the Divide, the Pacific, Altlantic, or Arctic).
It is a tourist location and has its own tourist information centre just off the road. You can pay for a trip on a special truck that takes tourists out onto the ice of the glacier, but we couldn't bring ourselves to contribute to the erosion of the ice. It may well be that the trucks do very little damage, but we were content just walking up the valley to the toe of the glacier and to take in the vast amount of ice in front of us and in the valleys either side. The glacier has been receding since records began and little plaques with dates are left as a record of the shrinkage. In one of the photos you can just about make out the plaque for the year 2000.
We stopped less often on the way home, but found time to stop and look at the few sights we missed on the way up, including the thundering Panther Falls which we almost didn't find. Bridal Falls, on the opposite side of the valley is easy to spot, but we had been advised by the Tourist Information guide to venture through the trees at the edge of the car park to find Panther Falls. It's only a few metres away but the land and trees manage to block the roar of the water. We were the only people to find it while we were there. Definitely a hidden gem.
After cooking ourselves tea we went for a stroll around Johnson Lake, which is just out of town the other side of Highway 1, at the foot of Cascade Mountain. This lake is not glacial, so is crystal clear but not blue. We caught a glimpse of a red squirrel but weren't fast enough with the camera to capture anything except a blur. We also saw at first hand the fire damage on the mountains. Fire had been suppressed in the National Parks for over a century until ecologists realised the importance of fire in the death-regrowth cycle of the forest. Now they are trying to plan controlled fires around the parks to encourage new growth. Younger trees also have a better chance of withstanding the fungus that's causing so much damage in BC.
As sightseeing was over and we wanted to start walking, the clouds obligingly came over and covered the sun so that Mr Vip didn't suffer too badly from sunburn. It was still bright and clear visibility to make the best of the views though. And views were what we were after – today we were to hike up Sulphur Mountain. We first visited the Tourist Information and checked out the route we wanted. There are two main routes – a shorter one that follows the route of the cable car and is very steep, and a longer one that goes up Sundance Valley on the other side of the mountain, and follows the tracks left by the people who built the weather station at the summit. We chose the much quieter second option. What can I say? It was a walk through woods. We saw a marmot (the world's biggest squirrel – it's like a huge rabbit!) then we broke the tree line, entered the snow line and finally joined the tourists, smug that we'd walked while they had taken the gondola. After a cup of tea we decided that we didn't want to either walk back the way we came or follow the noisier path, so we took the gondola. Although we were prepared to pay for a single, when we were there they didn't check tickets so we didn't have to. Lucky us!
All the way up (and indeed, in many other places) people before us had taken a delight in balancing pieces of rock on top of each other – an inukshuk. I even made a couple myself, pointing the way up the track.
We decided that, after our hot springs bath we deserved a proper steak. It was perfect.
Today we re-visited Lake Louise. This time, instead of being whisked off in a bus, we had time to hike up to the small but perfectly formed Lake Agnes, high above Lake Louise.
I mainly wanted to visit it because of the Edited Entry on the tea houses of this area. The tea houses fly in supplies at the start of each tourist year, and then bring up perishables by pack pony. The walk was reasonably busy with tourists but not to the point that anyone slowed us down. By the time we got to the lake though, we didn't actually feel like tea. Instead we wandered by the lake, marvelling at the perfect reflection in the still waters.
In the afternoon we left the car at the B&B and took to the river in a canoe. You are not allowed to use a motor boat on the Bow river, so canoe is the main way to get around. We visited the Vermillion Lakes and attempted to go up against the fast-flowing Bow river for the last ten minutes of our hire. That was very hard work!
Finally we decided that the perfect way to ease our aching muscles was to pay for a sports massage up at the hot springs. We were attended by a young lad who hailed from Quebec, the first first-language French person I had encountered here. The massage here was way better than the so-called massage I had at the spa on my last Post write up!
Here is a link to my photo album