Travel

From Glacier, into Canada, on to Canmore and Banff

... the joys of being a tourist: shopping, eating, up at dawn ...

by Don Norris

Part 2 of 3



At the little village of Babb, Montana, where we stopped for breakfast, I spotted this gorgeous white horse -- in front of an old cabin that was losing the fight with winter weather.

We pick up our story on the fourth day of our 19-day tour of the Rockies, having visited Kalispell, Montana, and crossed the Continental Divide, west to east, over the "Road to the Sun". Still at Jackson's Red Eagle Motel in St. Mary, we were ready to move north, to Canada.

I was up at dawn that morning, and watched as the rising sun, to my back, lighted the spectacular cliffs of the Rockies from our second floor porch. It was magnificent as the sun crept right underneath the hovering cloud cover, casting a horizontal bright orange light on the striated, banded mountains. They were so close, so beautiful, but in two minutes the sun went out, behind yet another cloud bank. It began to rain, again.

I wasn't fast enough to get a decent photo of that precious glimpse of sunlight.

Our first goal for the morning was a mountain road up to the very the face of the Rockies to a place called Many Glacier, still in Montana, but almost to the border. Rain or not, it was still glorious. How can one ignore such massive beauty, just because it's cloudy and wet!



There were three wranglers at the Many Glacier corral, and we were graced by the prettiest of the cowboys. Er, cowgirls. Cowpeople? Anyway, Lorry was still pushing the Melrose Public Library T-Shirt Contest, but a ride into the mountains wasn't to be. Too much rain for these city slickers.


The rural road twisted and turned, climbing through the mountains and valleys, and at the end was yet another gorgeous turquoise moraine lake and another park town. There was the rustic four-floor company resort, a cafeteria, grocery store and a corral with 29 saddled horses -- waiting in the rain for riders that weren't there. We chatted with the wranglers, but like all the other missing horse-people, we turned down what would have been a beautiful trail ride. Rain!

That trail ride, incidentally, would have cost about $50 each, for a couple of hours in the saddle. I'm sure it would have been a "follow the leader" walk-along -- which isn't my idea of riding a horse. I should have been a cowboy.



On our way out of Many Glacier, we came to a siding where a group of people were scanning the mountainside with their binoculars and telescopes, searching for wildlife. Before we had the car stopped, Lor spotted a black bear about to cross the roaring stream off to our right. The crowd must have heard my screeching tires, for all came running with their cameras -- and I grabbed half a dozen pictures through her open window.

The bear thought better of the charging tourists, turned tail and lumbered across the flood plain and into the woods. I think I was the only one to get a decent picture. I got six frames of a bear's tail, and one head-on.

At this point we were near the village of Babb, Montana, out of Glacier Park but only ten miles from the Canadian border. We pulled into the only restaurant in Babb for a late breakfast only to find that the cook hadn't shown up that morning, and the owner was overwhelmed with orders. Toast and coffee was served by one understanding diner who grabbed an apron and started cooking. And that's the way it was.

We thought the officer at the Canadian border was a bit rough with us, but then, understanding these times, he had a right to be sure this 73-year old couple were not masquerading terrorists from the middle east. We stopped at the welcome sign and took yet another picture in our Melrose Public Library shirt. By the way, the sun was out for the first time, and the mountains faded off to the west, to be replaced with plains of golden wheat. Wheat, as far as you could see. It was spectacular; no wonder "America the Beautiful" makes this reference.

And then we discovered we had no money. No Canadian money, that is. At Fort Macleod we found our American Express debit card was worthless. With a whole portfolio behind it, we couldn't withdraw a Canadian penny from American Express. In desperation we stuffed a mastercard into an ATM, and the machine clicked out two hundred dollars -- for which we paid a stiff penalty in the transition.

In fact we paid most of our large bills with mastercard, but kept a pocketful of Canadian cash for everyday expenses. At one point I had about two pounds of "Loonies" and "Twoonies" -- those Canadian coins worth one and two dollars respectively. Everything we bought we had multiply by 75 percent to get the US equivalent -- which was a pleasant exercise that probably caused us to spend more than we intended.

In Fort Macleod we poked our noses into two restaurants for lunch, but both served Chinese foods. Down the street we turned into the Westerner Restaurant, where we found the cooks were both Chinese, but serving western. Our lunch companions were two families of Blackfeet Indians. Including tip, we spent $17.65 -- which was $12.70 in our money; we were getting used to the difference.

Calgary was next. About 50 miles -- no, about 80 kilometers -- into Canada, one encounters the traffic jam that is the afternoon rush hour in Calgary. There is much new construction going on, new housing, new highways. It is a new city, much bigger than I had presumed. We spent the night at a motel squeezed between a Denny's and six other motels, near the University. The room cost was $92 Canadian, $62 US.



It was an easy Sunday morning drive across the plains to Canmore, which serves as a jumping off place to the Canadian Rockies. Just west of town the mountains seem to grow right out of the plains, seemingly straight up -- except for those high passes between hundreds of mountain peaks.

Canmore is for tourists. At one time it was a mining town, but today its downtown is a mecca of shops and nice restaurants. A new main drag is lined with new motels, new strip malls, and more restaurants. But we spent parts of two days there, just kicking around, getting acquainted. One day, arrival day, we had two meals at the local "Subway" sandwich shop -- for the sake of economy -- besides, it was good!





Mountains for sale? The Three Sisters? Actually, a car dealership was at the bottom of our photo, which we cropped. The sign stayed. The quilts above were on display at the Canmore Art Center/Library.

We wanted to check in at the Radisson for a rate I had copied off the internet, but I had failed to make a reservation -- certainly not at that low price. So we invested a couple of bucks in email research at a rental computer in the lobby, only to find that the low price I saw three weeks before was no longer available. And so we went elsewhere.

The next morning, August 30th, the temperature was in the 40s. I'm glad we brought coats for we were headed for the high country.

Because of a rangers' strike, we breezed right though the entry gate to Banff National Park on Monday morning, for there was no one there to collect our fee. The road climbs steadily, winding and bending, struggling up sharply, then plunging down into some little hidden valley. And that's where we found Banff, tucked in a tight little valley hardly a mile long. It is a gorgeous place -- the mountains and those valleys.

The sheer massiveness of those peaks is astounding. When at last we got out of the clouds and could see the summits, it was like a super-sized Disneyworld. Surprisingly, these Canadian Rockies are not granite, but are widely banded with broad stripes of sedimentary rock -- all of which was at the bottom of an ocean millions of years ago. We bought a book on the geology of these peaks, and found that there is a granite base, but it is buried some four miles deep.

So the Canadian Rockies are a soft touch, so to speak. Erosion is irregular, and so one sees crazy formations, radical cliffs of strange and bright colors, and sharp peaks of light and dark gray sedimentary rock. The height of these Rocky Mountains varies from 9000 to over 12,000 feet, fourth behind the world's highest in the Himilayas in Asia, the Andes of SouthAmerica and the Alps in Europe. Valleys, trenches and passes are generally above 5000 feet -- almost as high as New England's Mount Washington.

Banff is another tourist town. But thank goodness it is there, for the town provides a comfortable kicking-off place of high priced hotels, motels and inns. There are endless restaurants, even more gift shops, and one has to search to find a supermarket. There are flowers everywhere, like most everywhere in Canada we had visited. Banff was rich with plantings, lush lawns, flowerboxes, and vast displays of high altitude fauna.

One of the highlights of the town is the "Red Coat" -- a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer, whose beat in his formal dress uniform is right downtown. He smiles at all the people, pauses for a photo with any tourist, and gives out directions to wherever one wants to go. And sure, I grabbed three shots of Lorry on the arm of this handsome servant of the people. Nice guy.

Lor and I lucked out on our choice of hotels in Banff. We had stopped at the Chamber of Commerce office near Canmore, beforehand, who passed along a new notice that the Banff Aspen Lodge had reduced their prices because of some re-construction to its entry. And so we got a choice room with balcony (directly over the new construction) for the reasonable sum of $129 Canadian, plus taxes. That was about $110 a night in US funds, which stretched our budget. But it was worth it; we were only two blocks from downtown. We spent three nights there while exploring the wonders of Banff National Park.

I'm a cheapskate, no question about it. But on a trip like this -- once in a lifetime -- I can relax my grip on my wallet once in a while. Consider this: We spent 18 days in motels that cost a total of $1428 (US), or an average of $80 a night. It was the single largest expense of our trip. Second was car rental (a new Olds Alero mid-size), plus gas: totally $668 (US). Third was airfare on Southwest, Manchester NH to Spokane, WA: $587 for two. And next was dining out, plus a few groceries: $506 (US).

And yes, we do keep track of spending, whether on vacation or at home. It's a hobby that we started when we retired in 1988. The major lesson here is that we spend just about everything we have coming in, for the portfolio is almost exactly the same today as it was 16 years ago. And sure, we realize that inflation IS taking a three-percent bite from our nestegg, every year.



Among the sites that Banff offers is its hot springs, which have been turned into a large shallow swimming pool. So much for rustic. Nearby is the National Park headquarters, located in a magnificent stone mansion overlooking the length of Main Street. Its lawns are plush, the plantings are lush and yet it still reminds us that we are in a foreign country; I cannot think of anything like this place in the US. Handsome, formal, pristine, old, colorful, neat, organized, regimented, and certainly one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. Perhaps the jagged mountains all around us had something to do with this wonderland.

Lorry says to tell you of the nice shops in Banff. We visited every one, including the western wear shop where I almost bought another cowboy hat, but the price was too high. There was another shop that carried only Canadian-made wares, and it was beautiful -- but costly. But that's what one can expect at any tourist mecca: high prices.

A word about Canadians -- the people. Gracious. Understanding. Helpful. One gentlemen told me that "Canadians don't dislike Americans at all", he said, in all seriousness. "We are too much alike to have animosity." He added that while the Canadians like Americans, they don't care for our politics. I told him that I would fix that when we got home. We laughed.

We found that most people in Banff are tourists. I estimate that 10 percent are Americans, another 10 percent are Canadians, and the rest are Japanese.

This was never more evident than at Lake Louise, where all visitors are shuffled onto one rather concerted shore-side site, at the east side of this pale-turquoise lake site. It was wall to wall tourists, almost all of them off tour buses.

Even though it was the end of summer during our visit, the tourists were still there in force. We thought we could avoid the press by going so late in the season, but not so. I wonder what the mid-summer crowds must be.


On a scenic drive over Banff we came upon dozens of mountain sheep, all within a mile or so of the center of town. They certainly weren't wary of the tourists.

The 35-mile drive between Banff and Lake Louise -- one has a choice between the high-speed parkway or the original 1923 local road -- is, ah, dangerous, according to the warnings for local wildlife. It is a pretty drive, winding through the forests, brushing up against towering cliffs, diminished by soaring mountains -- but we saw no wildlife. Some ravens, but that was it. No elk, no deer, no bear, no eagles, not a hawk. But then we passed only a dozen cars in that hour-long drive.

Above all it was a peaceful place. Soaring pines, aspens rustling in the breeze, mountains in every direction. No people. Very few cars. Not a truck. Not even a train on the ubiquitous railroad that followed the pass to the northwest.

But the mountains were still overcast. We began to assume that this was normal.

Lake Louise village is built for the tourists. It is rustic, modern, expensive, a relatively small place with perhaps four resort-style hotels, one tourist-oriented shopping mall, and Lake Louise itself. Yes, there is beauty here, for the lake, now a creamy turquoise color from the ice melt of the glacier just above, is about as picturesque as is possible. It must be the most photographed place in the world, but unless you are a serious hiker, there is only one place from which to take its picture. You can also rent a red canoe, which adds a touch of contrasting color for the other tourists.


In late summer the mountain meadows are laden with color -- but sometimes you have to look closely for it.

We weren't disappointed in Lake Louise, for it is naturally beautiful. It is just the tourist association that makes this place appear so tacky. Tacky with tourists. Send the visitors home, can the tour buses and the place would be spectacular. But then the Canadians do well in shuffling the tourists along peaceably and with least strain upon the ecosystem.

It seems we are our own worst enemy. Just stay in line, that's all.

At the Lake Louise mall, I bought a compass, a small thermometer and a book on the geology of the Canadian Rockies. And there it was in print: For the most part, these mountains are of sedimentary rock, which means this entire chain was once the floor of one gigantic ocean for an awfully long time. As for the thermometer, it was now September 1, and it was getting cold at night.

Funny, at this classy hotel/motel in Lake Louise, I asked the lady behind the reception desk what her best price would be, whereupon she invited a negotiation. We ended up saving about $30 off the advertised room rate.


At the right is a banded mountain in the vague light of a gray day. At the left, we used Photoshop to enhance the banding, added some blue sky --to show what that same mountain would look like on a nice summer day.

It is a longish ride northwest from Lake Louise to The Crossing -- actually the name of this place is called the The Crossing of the Saskatchewan River. It was still raining as we began this leg -- and we had to pay $12 (Canadian) to use that road and enjoy its marvelous views. And while it was a cloudy day with occasional rain, we were able to seek the peaks of endless mountains as we rolled north. It was like watching a movie, except the mountains were stationary and we were the ones passing by one 60-mile-long screen of glacier-laden peaks.



There is nothing along this route but those views. We saw spectacular turquiose lakes, much like Lake Louise, and we kept seeing more and more glaciers, far above our heads. There were no towns, no houses, no gas stations, no homes, no tourist stores. Just that two-lane road winding through the long valley. There was the river, the peaks, the glaciers, the forests and it was gorgeous.

Running high above us was some 80 miles of the Continental Divide. I have to imagine that someone had climbed the entire distance of the divide, but it must have been some horrendous feat. The literature calls it jagged peaks and unspoiled wilderness. It was September 1st, and the most traffic on that solitary road was the occasional tourbus, headed for the Columbian Ice Fields and Jasper.

It was a never-ending mountain range. The color was the color of the sky -- still gray, but even so, the colorful banding of these once-ocean-floor peaks was inspiring. How could this be? It must have taken millions of years for all that ocean-sediment to pile up, then more millions of years to create these mountains by bashing earth's transitory plates, one against the other.

Of the millions of humans who have passed this, there must have been one who just had to walk the divide.

On this day we were blessed with the sighting of several hawks and one cantankerous raven who sat there on the bear-proof trash container, screeching at us. We did see bear paw prints on several of these steel trash bins. It is a strange feeling to realize that you are sharing the exact same place with huge black bears. I was standing in his tracks.

We stopped along the highway at a pullout, at a place where an over-laden stream had become a torrent. Through the binoculars we got up close to the peaks and their own private glaciers. I took advantage of this moment to cut another walking stick -- this one an aspen, for there is no other hardwood at this altitude. We also picked up a reddish pebble from the stream bed. Souvenirs.

By early evening we arrived at The Crossing. If there was a town, we didn't get to see it; we did see the sprawing log-cabin motel, complete with its own pub, choice of two restaurants, a cafeteria, big gift shop, gasoline for both cars and diesel buses. The Crossing motel was modern, log-cabin style; warm, comfortable, clean, utilitarian, and a room cost $112 in Canadian money, $87 in US. A flat rate, no haggling here for there is only one motel.



From our porch (or perch, for we were about 6000 feet high), we watched as the sun set off to our right, casting glorious yellow light underneath the rain clouds, lighting up the lower cliffs of the mountains across the narrow river valley. It truly was a nature's-made light show. Pouring rain and a mountain's base ignited by a brilliant setting sun. Phenomenal!

The next morning it was 42 degrees and the sun was shining -- briefly, for the rains came as soon as we got our rented Oldsmobile loaded.


The Columbian Ice Fields were only an hour-long run from The Crossing, during which we crossed two passes. At one pass there was a pull-off, from which we could see not only the valley below, but a fantastic multi-waterfall cascading down the cliffs, not more than a thousand meters away. Talk about spectacular! The cliff was alive with waterfalls, a thousand feet high.

And right, around the bend -- well, right around a few more bends -- was the huge reception building for the ice fields, on the east side of the road. But from our parking lot, there was the Athabascan Glacier, slowly inching it's way right toward us. It looked blue, a faded, luminescent blue, spotty blue. Blue and white. And dirty.

Even on September 2nd, there were many hundreds of tourists in the center. Of special interest was the three-D mock-up of the Columbia Ice Field -- that is, if you could tear yourself away from the large gift shop, the cafeteria and other displays. There was also the enlarged ticket area, where we had to pay $60 (Canadian) for two tickets to go out on the ice sheet. I suppose we could have hiked up there, but it was really cold, the wind sweeping past the mountain peaks and across the ice sheet itself before chilling us on the porch of the guest center.

So we boarded what seemed to be a standard tour bus, joining one load of a special tour. Some of the guests told us that this was a special bus for the something-something tours, and that we couldn't ride with them. Which we simply ignored, and found two empty seats in the back of the bus. This is the first leg of our visit to the glacier; the big bus lumbered across the highway and up a dirt road to a staging point less than a mile away. There we disembarked from the nice warm coach, and had to stand in some rickety open shelter for the arrival of a special ice-sheet bus.

This can only be called a behemoth. It is a huge ice crawler, with six-foot tires, a huge motor that powered up and down a precipitous sand road, through a wash (designed to wash the huge tires) before actually crawling onto the ice itself. And the driver gave us a line of patter that lasted for his ten-minute journey -- the statistics of a glacier, which no one probably could remember.



I think that tractor part of the trip was worth the sixty bucks, although walking on a glacier does come in a close second.  The company obviously built this Visit-A-Glacier system, and it is a really special occasion. I do believe, however, that the concessionaires are making a bundle of money, even after paying for all those ice-tractors.


Lorry and I walked out onto the glacier like we were about to take a stroll. And of course, on the second step, my feet went out from under me and down I went -- feeling a might foolish. It is slippery, and I wasn't the only one to take a spill. Our group (and several other bus-loads full) was restricted to an area about a hundred feet across, where the ice had been scoured and filled to prevent money-paying tourists from slipping into a crevass, never to be heard from again.


We were told that there are cavernous tunnels through the glacier, the product of ice-melt and flowing water, below our feet. My major impression is that we were so cold, even with wintercoats, because of the wind coming over the divide and swooping down the ice -- before hitting us full blast. I would guess we spent 12 minutes standing on that glacier, before hot-footing it back to our ice-tractor.

We can now say, we've been there, we have walked on a glacier.

At this point, feeling $60 lighter, we decided we'd had it with glaciers, passes, mountains with clouded peaks, and ice flows with no wildlife. The choice was to continue northwest another 60 miles to Jasper, or to retrace our steps to Lake Louise, pick up the Trans-Canada Highway, and head west to the town of Golden, in British Columbia. We chose the latter.  

And so ends Part Two of three, the last of which is scheduled for the April issue of the Melrose Mirror. If you'd like to review the first chapter, the link is here.


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