We’d been to Canada twice before, both times to Toronto, both times to a Bouchercon. We hadn’t ever been outside the city limits, and we hadn’t seen any of the sights Canada’s so famous for, unless you count the CN Tower.
Some friends of ours, Kyle and Loibeth Pettit, invited us to spend a week with them at the Rocky Mountain Resort (http://rockymountainresort.com/) just outside Banff, Alberta, in the Canadian Rockies. Kyle had swapped their timeshare for a week there, and we couldn’t resist making the trip. I called Continental to see if I had enough air miles for round-trip tickets, and sure enough, I did.
“I can give you seats in first class for the return trip for the same miles,” the woman told me.
I said, “Nah, I’d rather be in steerage. Just put us back with the peons.”
Okay, I lied. What I really said was, “Okay.”
So we were all set. On May 10, 2009, Judy and I drove to Houston Intercontinental Airport, went through customs without much trouble, and took off for Calgary.
The flight wasn’t too bad, and we zipped through customs in Calgary and went right to the rental car desk. The guy at the counter said that Kyle had reserved a Chevy Impala.
“Are you sure there’ll be room for all four of you and you luggage?” the guy asked.
I wasn’t sure at all, so I let him talk me into upgrading to a Dodge Grand Caravan. This turned out to be the best decision I’ve made in a while. Chrysler Corp. might be getting a bad rap these days, but the Caravan was great. Very comfortable seating for everybody, lots of room, and good gas mileage. Best of all, Judy and Loibeth, who sat in the second row, could see everything from the windows.
Kyle and Loibeth arrived shortly after I’d taken care of the car stuff, so we hit the road for Banff. I was the designated driver for the trip, so naturally I got lost as soon as we left the airport.
It didn’t take us long to get oriented, however, and we drove through the outskirts of Calgary on Canada 1, the Trans-Canada Highway, which we stayed on all the way to the resort.
About halfway there, we entered Banff National Park and had to pay for a permit that was good for all the parks we’d be visiting.
“How long will you be staying?” the park attendant asked.
“A week,” I said.
“You might as well buy a year’s permit then,” the attendant said. “It will cost less.”
Who was I to argue? We bought the year’s permit ($136 Canadian) and hung it on the rearview mirror.
“Be sure to take that off and take it home with you,” the attendant said as we drove away.
We found the resort with no problem, and Kyle and I went inside the office to check in. Kyle was hoping to speak to Emma, the young woman with the cute French accent to whom he’d talked on the phone when making the arrangements. Emma wasn’t around, but we got checked in and drove across the street to our rooms. They were on the second floor, so we had to climb stairs. That wasn’t so bad, but getting our heavy bags up required some effort.
We had two small bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a kitchen-living-dining area. The bedrooms and one bathroom were upstairs. Judy and I had the downstairs bath, which worked out just fine.
After we got everything unpacked, we walked across to the office area and had dinner in the hotel restaurant, Seasons. It was Mother’s Day, so this was our celebration. I had the lobster ravioli, but I don’t remember what the others had. No one else was in the restaurant, so the waiter was very attentive. My food was very good, and I’m sure the others enjoyed theirs as well.
It was getting late by the time we finished, so we didn’t try to do any sightseeing. We went back to the condo, talked for a while, and went to bed.
May 11, 2009
We got up and drove into Banff where Loibeth bought some bottled water at a convenience store, and I took a photo of a magpie in the parking lot.
After the brief stop, we drove to Sulphur Mountain, where we took a gondola ride to the top. There’s a nice circular building with a cafeteria and an observation deck. We looked around for a while, and I decided to hike over to the Sanson’s Peak Meteorological Station and Cosmic Ray Station via a nice wooden walkway. It was about a 1K walk according to a sign, and although it was higher than where we were, it wasn’t much of a hike. Kyle, Loibeth, and Judy declined to go, but I was not deterred. I took a lot of photos both going and coming, and when I got back, we looked around the observation deck some more before taking the gondola back down.
After getting back to level ground, we drove past Surprise Point to the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, which is modeled after a Scottish castle. We couldn’t figure out what the “surprise” was, but it did offer a nice view of the hotel. We’d planned to have lunch there after touring the place and looking in the shops. Judy and Loibeth went into the jewelry shop immediately, and Judy got her rings cleaned. I got $200 in American cash changed to Canadian money. Judy bought a pair of amber earrings at another shop, and then we went into town for lunch.
We ate at Coyote’s Southwestern Grill. Okay, it’s pretty odd for people from Texas to be eating at a Southwestern Grill in Alberta, Canada, but that’s what we did. I had a great Italian melt and some soup that was even better than the sandwich.
After lunch, we looked around at some of the stores and then drove out to the Vermillion Lakes. It was windy and cool in the wetlands near the lakes, as it had been all day, but the scenery was nice.
After we left the Vermillion Lakes, we went to Lake Minnewanka, where we saw deer and bighorn sheep licking something off the roadway. We figured it was ice, as the lake itself was partially frozen. There were a few Canada geese there, too.
Our next stop was the scenic Safeway store in Banff, where we bought some important provisions: mixed nuts and cereal. Safeway didn’t sell wine, so we went to a nearby liquor store for a bottle of Australian shiraz.
We took the provisions home and then went to dinner at Wild Bill’s Legendary Saloon, which we determined is legendary mainly because of the $15 hamburgers. Kyle said his elk burger was overcooked. That was no problem with my veggie burger.
Wild Bill’s wasn’t named for me but for Wild Bill Peyto, whose name is attached to other landmarks in this part of the world, as we discovered later.
By the time we finished dinner, it was time to head back to the resort and go to bed.
May 12, 2009
This was the day for Lake Louise. We’d been told that the water was an incredibly blue color, and we were eager to see it. Not so eager that we took the Trans-Canada Highway, however. We took the Bow River Parkway, instead. At some times of the year, the Parkway can be dangerous for driving, but it was just fine the day we went. Even better, it was practically deserted. We saw only a couple of cars during our drive.
It was along the Parkway that we spotted one of the strangest sights of the trip. We’d stopped to take some photos of the Bow River, and just as we were about to leave, I noticed something at the base of a tree. I walked over to take a look and saw a small white stuffed animal, an artificial rose, and a pink envelope.
Naturally I couldn’t resist opening the envelope to take a look at what was in side. It was a Mother’s Day card. We all wondered who’d created the little display, and why. I’m sure there’s a good story there, but I don’t think I’m the one to tell it.
We went on to Lake Louise and discovered pretty quickly that we wouldn’t be seeing the amazingly blue water. The lake was completely frozen over and covered with snow. It was beautiful, all right, but not exactly in the way we’d expected.
We considered walking up to the tea house, one of the big attractions, but it was too far. We decided instead to walk to the “end of the lake.” It was a long way. Judy and Loibeth didn’t make it, but Kyle and I got there. The most interesting thing we saw was a frozen waterfall. I’d never seen anything remotely like it, so I took a bunch of photos.
On the return trip we were joined by a young man also named Kyle (Grant). He was from Australia, and he’d recently taken a job at a ski resort. He was quite a sports fan and knew more about American sports than I did, especially NASCAR. When we got back to the hotel, a gaggle of young women waved and said “hi.” I knew who they were interested in. Kyle (Pettit) thought it was him, but it was the other Kyle. He bid us farewell and joined them. Not that I blame him.
We spotted a chipmunk frisking about near one of the hotel entrances. He wasn’t bothered a bit by us, so I got some good pictures of him.
We walked around inside the hotel for a while and considered having lunch there. Lunch in the dining room was a bit pricey, so we ate in the hotel deli, which was very crowded. I guess we weren’t the only ones who thought the dining room was too expensive.
We drove back to the resort after eating and rested for a while. Judy and Loibeth thought they’d like to have a margarita with dinner, but they wanted a frozen margarita, not one on the rocks. I had my laptop, so I googled “frozen margaritas in Banff” and came up with Magpie and Stump. I know that doesn’t sound like the name of a Tex-Mex restaurant, and I know you wouldn’t expect to find Tex-Mex in Banff. But there it was, so we thought we’d give it a try.
We had a bit of a scare when we got outside. The clicker wouldn’t open the doors of the Caravan. I tried and tried. Kyle tried. Loibeth tried. It wouldn’t work.
We called the rental agency, and the helpful clerk told us how to get the emergency key out of the clicker and open the door with it. The clerk said the clicker battery was probably dead, and we figured we’d have to use that key for the rest of the trip, but for some reason it worked from that time on.
The margaritas at Magpie and Stump weren’t exactly frozen, and they weren’t exactly on the rocks, but they were passable, I suppose. The food wasn’t the Tex-Mex we’re used to in Texas, but it was also passable. We had a good time.
After dinner, we went back to our cozy rooms and played some 42. Judy and Kyle easily defeated me and Loibeth. They were probably using some kind of secret signals, but being the good sports that we are, Loibeth and I didn’t complain.
May 13, 2009
This was the day we’d picked to drive from Banff to Jasper by way of the Icefields Parkway, one of the world’s Ten Great Drives according to National Geographic. It was snowing when we started out, and since we were going even farther north, we thought we might have chosen the wrong day. We decided we’d better stop at Lake Louise and see what we could find out. We located a Mountie station, and Kyle got out to ask about the weather. He encountered a locked door. On the door was a sign that said, “If the door is locked, use the telephone.” Kyle started back to the car, but a voice from inside the station came over a speaker and asked what he wanted. He used the phone and after overcoming the language barrier, he asked about the weather forecast. What he learned was that Mounties don’t give weather forecasts. Or even discuss them, apparently. So we drove across the road to a Visitors’ Center, where they told Kyle that the weather in the mountains changed from hour to hour but that the roads would be kept cleared. They said we’d have no problems, so we set out.
We didn’t have any problems, and the weather did indeed change often. We drove through snow, sunshine, rain, and sleet. Sometimes all at once. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but they sure did come close together.
We stopped along the way at many places. Hector Lake, the largest lake in Banff National Park was one of them. I think that’s where we first encountered the two fat ravens that swooped down to beg for food. Loibeth had some airline peanuts, which the ravens seemed to enjoy. Judy, who has a pathological fear of birds, didn’t like the ravens at all, especially when it appeared that one of them might get into the car with her. One of them did perch on the hood and look in through the windshield.
A little on down the road, we stopped at Crowfoot Glacier, and, sure enough, the ravens arrived almost as soon as we did. They’d probably followed our car. Loibeth gave them some more peanuts while Judy hid in the car.
Our next stop was Peyto (that’s Pea-tow to you statesiders) Lake, named for the aforementioned Wild Bill. The waters of the lake are supposedly beautiful, and forgetting our experience at Lake Louise, we decided we wanted to see them. But there was a catch. To see the lake, we’d have to walk to Bow Summit, the highest point on the Icefields Parkway.
In summer, maybe it’s not a bad walk, but this wasn’t summer. There was no path other than a trail no more than a foot wide leading up through a barren field of blindingly white snow. No matter. We were intrepid.
We met a German couple who were on the way down.
“How far to the top?” Kyle said.
“Three hundred meters,” the man of the pair said.
Well, that wasn’t much more than three football fields. I figured we could make it.
The first few steps were up a slight incline, maybe about three feet long. Loibeth got two feet before slipping on the ice and rolling back down the incline, hurting her arthritic wrist in the process. We stood where we were and watched her. I mean, we didn’t want to fall while trying to rescue her. What good would that do?
After she righted herself and got to her feet, Loibeth announced that she would wait in the car. Judy, Kyle, and I went on.
For about ten yards. That’s when Judy stopped. She said she couldn’t make it and would go back to the car.
Kyle and I kept on going.
After about a hundred yards, Kyle thought he’d better go back. He’d stepped off the narrow trail a couple of times. Each time he’d sunk nearly thigh-deep into the snow. Much more of that, and his pants legs and socks would be soaked. So I went on alone.
After quite a while, I stopped to look around. Nothing but snow on all sides and that little trail in front and behind. I thought maybe the guy had said “about three hundred kilometers,” but it was too late to turn back. I soldiered on. And on. And on. Finally I got to the summit, more convinced than ever that the German guy had no clue about distances, but at least I was going to see the lake.
Naturally, it was frozen over. I’m sure the water would have been beautiful, though, if I could’ve seen it.
While I was there, a Scandinavian couple came along. I asked if they’d like me to take their photo with their camera, and they said that would be nice. I did, and the woman then offered to take my picture in return. I told her I’d like that because I wanted to show the others, who hadn’t come, that I’d made it to the top.
“The lazy bahs-tahds,” she said, and we all laughed.
Going back down wasn’t nearly as tough as going up had been. When I got back, I learned that Judy had been afraid to attempt going down the little incline. She told Loibeth, “I’ll just say here until they come back.”
Loibeth wasn’t sure we’d ever come back, so she had to take action. The German couple was leaving the parking area. Loibeth leaped out of the Caravan and dashed in front of their car, waving her arms. Luckily, they stopped, and Loibeth persuaded the German guy to rescue Judy, which he did. Kyle must have showed up about that time, and they sat in the Caravan to wait for me and worry.
Why did they worry? It wasn't that they cared about me. It was because I had the keys to the Caravan. They were afraid I might fall off the path and be buried in the snow or have a heart attack and plunge off the Bow Summit onto the frozen lake. But I fooled them. I got back easily enough, and we went on our way to the Mystaya River. It required a little walk. In fact there was a sign. It said, “Mystaya Canyon. 300 Meters.” That was enough right there to discourage Judy and Loibeth, who didn’t even get out of the Caravan. Kyle and I are made of sterner stuff, however, and we set out. Somehow it didn’t seem nearly as far as the previous three hundred meters, and we got to see a pretty sight.
We went on from there to the Columbia Icefield. We decided not to take the bus ride out onto the Athabasca Glacier because it was plenty cold where we were, and we figured the glacier might be even colder.
We had lunch at the cafeteria in The Crossing Resort, and since it was mid-afternoon, we had the place pretty much to ourselves. I had a grilled cheese sandwich. Hadn’t had one of those in a long time.
After lunch, we drove on to Sunwapta Falls. Everybody got to see the sights this time, as it was pretty easy to get to. As usual, we got some photos.
There was some spectacular scenery along the rest of the way, too, but we didn’t make any more stops. We got to Jasper and looked around for a place to stay. We’d seen the Amethyst Lodge page on the Internet, and the place looked pretty nice from the outside, so we stopped and checked it out. It was okay, and after Loibeth did a little haggling on the price, we booked our rooms for the night.
Anthony’s Restaurant was in the hotel, and that’s where we had dinner after a little wine in Kyle and Loibeth’s room. There was a special at the restaurant, which we all had, and it was pretty good even though I can’t remember now what the entree was. A pork chop, I think, but I wouldn’t bet on it. It had been a long day, so we went to bed not long after having dinner.
May 14, 2009
We got up and had the breakfast buffet at Anthony’s before heading north from Jasper to take a look at Hanging Valley, Maligne Canyon, Medicine Lake, and Maligne Lake. The valley and canyon were pretty sights, and we hoped we might see some wildlife because there was a sign warning of bears. We didn’t see any animals, though, which was probably just as well.
Medicine Lake is an interesting place because it’s not a lake at all. It just looks like one. It’s a spot where the Maligne River backs up in the spring and summer when there’s a lot of run-off from the mountains. In the fall, the water drains away into one of the largest underground systems in North America. It was mostly drained when we saw it, but it’s quite a sight, just the same.
Maligne Lake is the largest lake in the Canadian Rockies, and it was entirely frozen over. It’s still a spectacular sight, however. It was cold and windy when we stopped, and of course there was no chance we’d get to cruise out for a close-up view of the famous Spirit Island. We settled for a few photos and got back into the Caravan for the trip back to Banff.
Because we’d skipped Athabasca Falls on the way to Jasper, it was a place we felt we had to see on the return trip. We turned off onto Highway 93-A, which isn’t exactly a super highway, with narrow, uneven pavement, and soon found ourselves in something resembling the back country. We saw very few other cars on the road, but that was fine with us. We stopped at a beautiful lake (unfrozen) for photos and then found a nice spot at the confluence of three rivers: the Athabasca, the Maligne, and the Miette. It’s supposedly another place to spot wildlife, but we didn’t see any. It had a nice potty, though.
Much of the movie The River of No Return was filmed around Athabasca Falls, and the falls are a very popular place. According to this website, “there are literally so many people here at any given time, it's almost like walking through the streets of New York City during the Friday evening rush hour.” That certainly wasn’t true of our visit, another time we were glad to be there during the off-season. Only a few other people were around. The falls aren’t tall, but they’re certainly impressive, loud, and powerful.
After leaving the falls, we got back to the main highway and took off for Banff. We ran into heavier snow than we’d seen the day before, and it had obviously snowed quite a bit along the way. We stopped several times for photos, and the two ravens joined us again, hoping for more peanuts. Loibeth had run out of them, however, so the birds were out of luck.
We stopped again at the Crossing Resort for lunch, and I picked up a book of photos of the Canadian Rockies in case my own photos and Judy’s didn’t turn out so well. I didn’t really need the book, however, as our over 300 pictures all looked pretty good.
Back at the resort, we checked the ‘net for places to eat and settled on Melissa’s Restaurant. I had a hamburger steak that was quite good. The bread that came with it was good, too.
After dinner we went back to the condo for some more 42, and this time Loibeth and I won handily, as I recall.
May 15, 2009
We decided that we’d spend Saturday resting up, packing, and generally getting ready to head back to the USA, so Friday was our last big sightseeing day. Our destination was Yoho National Park, which is in British Columbia, only a short distance west past Lake Louise.
It was a good choice. Our first stop was along Kicking Horse Pass at a place that overlooked the spiral railroad tunnels through the mountains. I could see one tunnel entrance clearly in the foliage, but we didn’t see any trains.
From there we went to the Natural Bridge that spans the Kicking Horse River. This was another impressive sight, and again one that wasn’t crowded with other tourists.
Emerald Lake was next, and for once we got to see a lake with beautiful water that wasn’t frozen. At least not entirely. About half the lake was covered with ice. This was easily one of the prettiest sites we visited. A tour bus loaded up and left just as we arrived, and although there were a couple of other people around, we had the place pretty much to ourselves.
Leaving the lake, we drove to Golden. We had to drive down Ten Mile Hill. That was fun. Truckers were supposed to stop for a brake check at the top, but we didn’t have to bother with that. We just turned off the engine and coasted down.
Just kidding. We drove down at a sedate pace, and the sights were spectacular. As the driver, I didn’t have much chance to look at them because I didn’t want to drive off the side of the mountain and wind up in a mangled heap beside the Kicking Horse River, a fate that I believe Loibeth worried about more than I did.
When we arrived in Golden, we stopped to eat at the Golden Grizzly Cookhouse, which had a false front that looked a little like a giant log cabin. It was a busy place, and there seemed to be only a couple of waitresses, but they did a good job considering the size of the crowd. I ordered a cheese bread appetizer, and Judy and I shared a pizza that was quite good. (As you can see, we stuck to the low-cal diet on this trip.)
After pizza, we started back to Banff but stopped almost at once to take some photos of Golden from a vantage point high above the town.
Next we stopped at Wapta Falls. We’d read that it was an “easy hike” from the parking lot to the falls. I wondered if it was three hundred meters. Hard to say, because different guides gave different info, some saying that it was a 45-minute hike, some saying 40 minutes, and some saying 30. Whatever it was, Judy and Loibeth weren’t going, but Kyle and I, being the manly men that we are, were not deterred. We took off for the falls. The only real problem we encountered was a number of trees that had fallen across the muddy pathway, but we negotiated those in our manly fashion.
When we reached the falls, we knew we’d never make it to the bottom. The path was almost straight down, and a young couple just coming up it almost didn’t make it. So we stayed where we were and looked at the falls from above. While not a high waterfall, Wapta is certainly wide. I was sorry Judy and Loibeth had stayed in the car, though I doubt they’d have been able to make the hike. Kyle and I went back at a good clip.
From the falls we drove back to Banff, stopping only in Field, where there was a visitors’ center, for a potty stop and a soft drink. We drove around Field, which took about four minutes.
We drove back to Banff and discovered that a small herd of elk had come out of the woods to graze. Since it was still winter, none of them had horns, though I believe a couple of them were in the velvet. Naturally we took pictures.
We recuperated for a little while before going downtown to the Clock Tower Mall for dinner at the Pad Thai Restaurant. I had cashew chicken with coconut rice, and it was very good. The price wasn’t bad, either.
I think we were all too tired for 42.
May 16, 2009
This was the day we weren’t going to do much. We thought about going to a movie, but we didn’t even do that. We started packing for the trip home, and then we went downtown. Judy and Loibeth shopped a while, and Kyle and I sat on benches to watch the people go by.
We had lunch at Coyote’s Southwestern Grill again, and I had another Italian Melt. It was just as good as the first one. The soup was different but delicious. Then there was more shopping and sitting before we went back to pack some more and to take some more pictures of the elk grazing in front of the condo.
For dinner we went to Bumper’s, whose motto is, “If you haven’t been to Bumper’s, you haven’t been to Banff.” We didn’t want to say we hadn’t been to Banff, since we certainly had, so we naturally had to eat at Bumper’s. There was a nice special that included prime rib, so that’s what I had. Very good.
We played a little 42 after we got back to the condo. I’m pretty sure that Loibeth and I won again.
May 17, 2009
Up early for the trip home. We loaded the Grand Caravan and drove back to Calgary. We had no trouble finding the airport again, and we got there in plenty of time. In fact, we were earlier than we should have been as there was no way even to check our bags.
Kyle and Loibeth went off to the Delta Airlines area, while Judy and I sat at the Continental area until someone showed up to take the bags. We had first-class seats for this flight, so our bags got a special tag.
After we got checked in, we went through customs. The line was long, but not excessively so, and we spotted Kyle and Loibeth a little way in front of us. After customs, we had to go through the security check. For some reason, I set off the alarm and had to be wanded. I must have turned into Magneto or something while we were in Canada because everything about me set off the alarm when the wand passed by: my wrists, my ankles, my arms, and so on. I got patted down, but they must have decided that I was just a harmless old man and they let me through.
Kyle and Loibeth had a little trouble, too, so we talked to them for a while before trudging off to our gate. The Rule of Airports is that our departure gate is always the one farthest down the concourse, and it held true again. After we finally got there, I got out my computer and took advantage of the free WiFi to do a couple of e-mails and surf the ‘net.
When the call came to board, we were first on the plane. First Class was great. The best part was the fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies. I’m sure the people in steerage could smell them, but they didn’t get to eat any. We did.
The plane was 40 minutes early into Houston. Judy and I were first off. Our luggage was the first to appear on the carousel. We walked out the door, and the van from the parking lot was waiting. When we got to the lot, our car was the first stop. None of that has ever happened before. It was our best flight ever.
We went back to Alvin, did some unpacking, and cleaned up after the cats, who’d been naughty while we were gone, in spite of the fact that we had friends coming in to look after them. Sam was particularly glad to see us, as he kept going out, then coming back in to check and make sure we hadn’t left him again.