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Biggest covered mall in the world, aargh! (exit 24, of around 60!)

Weather-wise, today was a real contrast to yesterday’s cool air. We were out early to continue our journey westwards and were met with temperatures well above zero. By afternoon we had gone through spells where it climbed as high at 19C. Unfortunately it was not to hold and our plan of reaching Jasper in the Rockies was slightly hindered by snow!

We started our day at the West Edmonton Mall (WEM). Now neither of us enjoys shopping and I think it is fair to say that we both hate shopping malls but this one claims to be the largest in the world so we felt we had to have a look. For shoppers it must be paradise. Its brochure claims it that “with more than eight hundred stores and services under one roof you’re sure to find exactly what you are looking for”. We did but for us it was the way out, but not before we walked around a bit.

It is pretty big. Not only do they have the shops but there is an amusement parks, a water park, deep sea aquarium, sea lions show, open skating rink, cinema and fantasy land Hotel. You could probably come here for a weekend and go home very happy if this is your cup of tea. The water park looked pretty good and if it had been open we probably would have given it a go. They have a huge pool with a big wave machine and lots of waterslides all decked out in beach theme.

In one of the guide books we had for Edmonton you open the front cover to me faced with a full page advert for …… a shooting range. It is also in the West Edmonton Mall so we went to have a look. You walk into a shop unlike those we see in the UK. Behind the counter rifles and machines guns were ranged along the wall. In the counter top display cases there is a wide selection of pistols with “take home today” tags attached to them. I found it a bit unsettling that someone could come to this centre to do their normal shopping and walk away with a handgun.

The shop was tucked away at the back of the mall, round a corner, and down an unpainted alley so I suppose it was given a low profile compared to other shops. At the back of the shop they have a firing range so for $18 anyone can walk in off the street and get supervised access to the range. The only other cost is the cost of the bullets which was about $25 for a box of fifty bullets for a pistol.

Leaving Edmonton behind we set off again on the Yellowhead Trail towards the Rockies aiming to get to Jasper this evening. The landscape changed quickly outside of the city and again became full of trees. Stef was driving while I had a snooze safe in the knowledge that the landscape would not change that much that I would miss anything too interesting. A couple of hours later we stopped at Edson and I took over the driving.

For the first ten minutes the winds picked up and there were some pretty strong gusts blowing us across the road. A few minutes later it started to snow, initially just a light flurry but it gradually got heavier and heavier. Beyond the stage where it was closer to turn back to Edson I kept going, agreeing with Stef that we would leave Jasper until tomorrow and just hole up in Hinton, the next town we would reach. The Finnish man we had met in Thunder Bay had warned us about how quickly the weather could change and said that when the snow starts he just pulls off and waits for it to stop.

We reached Hinton after a cautious and conversation free hour or so’s driving. With about five motels easily visible on the main road we were confident that we would get a room with no trouble. Our confidence soon started to ebb though. This area is the new oil lands of Alberta and the first motels we tried were all full of oil men. Stef’s charm worked at one motel’s reception and although they had no availability they called round for us until they found us a place to stay.

The Pine’s Motel was towards the end of town, next to a golf course and RV park, both of which were closed. Rather than a new modern block it was a collection of smaller cottage style buildings. If I have to be honest it is the type of place I would normally drive past and not stop at but we got a very friendly welcome from an eccentric French sounding lady who was delighted she could now put up her “no vacancies” sign. The room was absolutely fine. Clean, large and well heated and with the usual two double beds.

From the warmth inside we watched the snow coming down and turning the car park from grey tarmac to white. It was really pretty to see and I was glad that we had decided to stop here. We do not really get snow in London so neither of us are used to driving in it, especially not at night.

In the Rockies

We woke to a white morning and snow covered grounds in Hinton but also to clear blue skies and our first glimpses of the Rockies. Yesterday’s snow storm worked in our favour. If it had not snowed we would have carried on to Jasper in the dark but today we got our first views of the Rockies on a beautiful sunny morning. It was still cold though, about minus 5C when we left Hinton and not rising above zero for much of the day.

The snow was crisp and crunchy underfoot having been frozen overnight. Beneath it was hidden a layer of ice and I was secretly glad that Stef was driving the first stretch today. That meant that he had to navigate the frozen car park and get us onto the road, which was clear by the time we left. A few kilometres out of town the police were out stopping people from turning north as the road there was blocked.

A few more kilometres further on and we were in the Jasper National Park. Here Parks Canada seem to manage the roads (all the signs on the roads and in Jasper itself are yellow on brown backgrounds) and snow ploughs were out clearing any snow and ice. But how can you sum up the Rockies and put them into words. As we found in South America it is impossible to do. Our photos will paint a better picture but even they will not be able to portray the intakes of breath that follow you around different bends in the road.

Views of the Rockies were on our left and right as well as ahead. To our left the mountains were close by and were sheltering the landscape from the wind. Here ponds of green/blue glacial water shimmered in the morning sun. To our right, there was a valley river plain between us and the Rockies. On this open land the effect of the wind could be seen as the streams and ponds along the way were all frozen solid, a very bright white ice.

Speed limits are lower in the national park than on the main highways and are even lower still in areas frequented by wildlife. It was not long before we had pulled up on the side of the road with our camera at the ready. A small group of horned sheep were grazing alongside the road. They seemed totally oblivious of the traffic passing by and were just happily munching away. Unfortunately we were a bit past them before we stopped so the photos are mainly of rear ends!

Jasper itself is a small village which has a sleepy feel to it in the current off season period. At the Parks Canada information centre, a not particularly helpful man gave us various leaflets about the local area in between eating his lunch. We did a quick tour of hotels in town before settling for the Whistler’s Inn, where we got a free upgrade because we went back there having first discounted it.

Elk in Jasper

In the afternoon we headed out for a short, acclimatising walk around Lake Annette. The acclimatising was more to do with the temperature than anything else as even in the afternoon it was still below zero. Out of the wind the temperature is fine but the wind chill factor is pretty icy. The walk was a flat two and a half kilometres round loop. The lake itself is a small glacial pool and the water was totally clear. At the lake edge it was totally clear and then changed to icy blue and green as the water deepened.

Around the lake is an easy path which takes you past a small beach and then up and through the woods. We met a few other people along the way but it was really quiet. At one point we saw a huge tree still dripping and oozing gum. The gum itself looked frozen and was hanging in orangey yellow icicles.

From the lake we carried on along the river to The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, another in the chain of hotels built by the railway. There is a main lodge building with smaller separate lodges dotted around the lake. Inside the main lodge was a cavernous entrance hall with a lounge and separate restaurants leading off it. We had gone to the hotel because there was Christmas in November this weekend. We thought it would be a Christmas fair but no.

People book to come on an all inclusive weekend that is in effect Christmas with Santa, decorations and the full blown meals to go with it. They run activities during the day that seem to be famous chef’s coming to demonstrate the latest Christmas dishes. The weekend is so popular they run it a few times around Christmas. We tried to find a nice little lounge to have afternoon tea but failed. The main lounge was being cleared to get ready for this evening’s welcome drinks party. The other alternative was the night club tucked away at a corner of the basement. Coming out of the hotel a small herd of elk were grazing along the side of the road.

Back in Jasper we did find a little coffee shop that was still open, just. Everything here seems to shut down pretty early, I suppose mainly because it is out of season. We stopped off at the local supermarket to buy bits for a picnic lunch for tomorrow and then chilled out (or rather warmed up) in our room for a while before going out for dinner. We ate at Fiddle River, a restaurant with typical Canadian food that has a good reputation for fish. Neither of us had fish. Stef had Caribou Pepper Pot, a casserole, while I had duck with bacon and beans. Both of us loved the food and we would go back there if we were in Jasper again.

Artsy waterfall near Jasper

We woke late this morning knowing that we were going walking and that we wanted to give the outside temperatures the chance to rise before we got going. At Tourist Information we had been given a copy of their Summer Trails  leaflet and had a couple of walks recommended to us. This whole area is criss-crossed with trails and paths used by horses and mountain bikers as well as walkers. We had breakfast, made a picnic lunch and then headed out to the Maligne Canyon.

The canyon is a short drive out of Jasper and there is a 4km round trip walk along the river. At the Fifth Bridge car park there was no one else around when we parked up and we expected a quiet walk. Bear warnings are still posted around town so we left lunch behind rather than running the risk that it would attract a bear. It was probably being over cautious especially as the trail turned out to be pretty busy with a steady stream of people going up and down.

We crossed a short bridge over the Maligne River and then followed the river bank which initially climbed gently up hill. It was a beautiful crisp morning but still very cold with it. We soon warmed up though as we walked along. The river was still running, and running pretty fast, and as with Lake Annette yesterday the water was very clear and a fabulous blue/green glacial colour.

Along the way there were pools that have been carved out of the rock by the water that looked very inviting for a dip. We would have to save that for summer though! The canyon soon started to develop and it was not long before it was way below us. The only evidence we had of it was the sound of running water, it was too far below us to see it.

Further on, bridges crossed the stream again but at places where you could see the water tumbling down. It looked like liquid ice, a really bright, clean white colour. At the top of the canyon the water crashed fifty metres down below us. It was a stunning sight to see and, as with the course of the water all the way up the canyon, the fast running water was ringed with icicles and solid ice. In spring and summer it must be a thunderous sight to see.

For the time of year, I was surprised to see so many people on the trail. I dread to think how busy it must get in the summer, not only with people walking but with horses, bikes and people swimming too. While there were a lot of people around most seemed to just walk down a short way from the car park at the top of the canyon. It suited me as it meant that for the best part of the two hours we were here we were the only people on the paths we were on.

We thawed out for a while in Morty with the heating on full pelt, eating our picnic lunch. Then we headed back past Jasper and out to the Old Fort Point for another walk. The car park here is on the side of the river and it was pretty busy with cars. We met people along the trail but most seem to have opted for the easy option and have walked along the lake.

The Old Fort Point Loop is a 3.5km round trip. Our information leaflet said that the quickest way to the top was up a steep climb up a set of stairs and that the better route is a trail winding around the hill. This gradually goes up hill apart from one steep section - thirty metres of elevation in a short distance. We opted for the latter route and set off through the woods.

It again was a beautiful walk but here the paths were covered in a thick layer of ice for most of the way. It was impossible to walk on the main path and both of us thought about Bambi slipping and sliding on the ice as we initially skidded ourselves. The forest here, as with Maligne Canyon, was full of pine trees and every now and again we would get a waft of fresh mountain air tinged with the scent of pine needles.

We reached the steep section described in our leaflet and unfortunately it was not one of the ice free sections. People were coming down the other way (having started the loop in the other direction) as we were struggling to get up. Unusually, I got further than Stef. He reached a point where he was quite literally stuck. Any time he put one foot forward his other foot slipped out behind him. Even with my walking pole he was stuck.

Got to the top at last!

Knowing we could not go up we decided to head back down but this was tricky too. I was trying to give suggestions to Stef of the way he could go back down but he again was caught in a tricky spot. As I started to come down myself I head a loud "aaarrggghh" as Stef slid a couple of metres down the hill. I think we were both frustrated that we had not made it up and there was a definite defeated air as we made our way back to the car park.

Back at the start I spied the stairs that constituted the "steep" climb for the fastest route for the top and we decided to try going up this way round. The stairs were OK, the steep bit came afterwards and it was on open rock with the wind whistling around us. It was a cold climb up to the top but well worth it for the views. On the way we met some of the local people we had said on the flatter route round and they had managed to navigate the icy slope up, obviously with more practice of walking in icy conditions than we have.

En route, we passed some mountain goats (or they could have been a variety of sheep) munching away while they watched us go by. As with the elk we saw by the Fairmont hotel yesterday, they were totally undistracted by people passing by and are obviously used to it.

With a double whammy of walking around Old Fort Point we must have walked about ten kilometres in total. Not bad considering we have spent a lot of time lately driving around in Morty and not really doing much walking. Although it was very cold it felt great to be out and about and doing something and we both felt pleasantly knackered by the time we got back into town. We rounded off our day with a Chinese meal before crashing out for a good nights sleep.

Jasper the bear, a local cartoon character

Our plan for today was to drive along the Icefields Parkway towards Lake Louise and Banff in the south of the Rockies. It gives great views of the glaciers along the way and although it is only two hundred and twenty kilometres it usually takes all day once you have factored in stops along the way.

We should have known our plan was doomed when we woke to grey and cloudy skies, not the best of weather for getting fabulous views along the way. Undeterred we headed south having checked the road conditions, not great but we thought we would give it a go. At the National Park control point we again checked the road conditions. They said the route was open but that we would be driving on compacted snow and ice in sections.

We set off, just one in a stream of vehicles heading south. Most were cars or pick up trucks and we should have picked up something from this too! We drove about fifteen kilometers, mainly on clear roads but also on some flat icy sections. I pulled over to let someone pass me with a view of a hill in sight. The hill was covered in ice. I was a bit wary driving on what we had so far and I could tell that Stef was wary too. We had a quick conflab and decided that much as we wanted to see the icefields the drive would be too dangerous for us in a motor home and in icy conditions that we are not used to.

Tentatively I turned back and we headed back to Jasper. We stopped at the park entrance to ask about alternative options and double checked them at the Parks Canada information office in town. The lady there was very friendly and you could clearly see that she thought we had wimped out until we mentioned we were driving a small RV. With that, her views changed and she confirmed we had made the right decision. The roads at the north end of the park are better than those at the south and on the way there are some pretty steep climbs with the total elevation increasing by over one thousand metres.

We were both a bit deflated that we could not follow our preferred route but she was great in helping us to plan an alternative. Our first though to just skim over hte Rockies and get as quickly as possible to Kamloops would also have taken over pretty tricky roads. Instead she recommended we headed back east so that we could join up with the main Trans Canada highway. As a key transport and communication route used by big trucks it is the highest priority road in the area to be kept clear and we should be OK going this way.

If we had gone south as planned we would have worked our way east to Calgary and beyond to Drumheller. Drumheller is in the Badlands, a bare almost desert like area which is renowned for its dinosaur finds. Our alternative route simply takes us via Drumheller first.

We have a clear run to Hinton but from here the skies were dark grey and there was a lot of icy snow on the sides of the road. The traffic had cleared tracks on the road but it was still pretty nasty driving especially when the big trucks went past. The HGV drivers here seem to have no concerns about the road conditions and still power down at and above the speed limit. Now they not only kicked out a big wind pull behind them but also lots of sand and snowy sludge.

At Entwistle we turned south on the route 22 and Stef took over driving. Almost on queue the road conditions improved and we were driving along clear roads, both musing again at the long, wide roads cutting through the flat prairie landscapes. They are interesting in a boring sort of way but also have a very hypnotic effect, especially with cruise control on. If we needed convincing that we were back in cowboy country the sight of a herd of horses being rounded up by a couple of cowboys did the trick.

Its also oil country in this part of Alberta and with views of the Rockies coming back to our right the landscape was also dotted by the signs of oil. Small oil derricks were spaced at regular intervals across the landscape all pumping away. They did not look big enough to be part of a commercial operation but I suppose lots of small derricks adds up to a lot of oil.

We knew we would not make it all the way to Drumheller today and opted to stop at Rocky Mountain House, a key stopping place on the old fur trade routes. Our guide books listed a lot of motels here so we thought we would find it easy to get a room at an affordable rate. Where Hinton had been full, here the hotel rates were high due to the oilmen. We ended up at the Voyageur Motel, run by a Chinese couple, where we had a room with a full blown kitchenette.

Needing clean clothes we used their laundry, meeting two different men from New Brunswick in the process. Both are here for the work. It sounds like they come here and work through the winter and are then able to take the other six months of the year off. Not too bad a deal but I expect they have to live in motels for the duration. At least here you can be self sufficient and cook rather than eating out all the time.

Pilons on the prairie

With a kitchen available to us we brought bits and pieces in from Morty to have for breakfast before heading out to Drumheller. There was a light layer of snow on the road and it was yet another very cold start.

We headed west to Red Deer on yet more long straight roads with oil derricks lined on either side and then turned south on the main route 2, also known as the Queen Elizabeth II highway. At the junction with route 72 we turned off east to Drumheller, again on long straight roads. The only village on this road was Beiseker. A few kilometres before we the village there was a small colony with signs outside saying "absolutely no tourists" and "enter at your risk".

I have googled to find out what it was all about. Seems the colony is one of the Hutterites, an anabaptist religious sect. Their origins stretch back to 1528 and the reformation and they came from Switzerland, Germany and the Tyrol. They operate on a community basis, with the community being run by the male elders. They certainly did not create a welcoming impression when we drove past.

At Beiseker we stopped for coffee. It is another small prairie town with a deserted feel where the only signs of life are in the corner shop cafe. We were eyed slightly with suspicion and I doubt they get many strangers here. As we got closer to Drumheller the landscape changed. What were wide open prairies became barren stretches of land similar to the altiplano we have seen in South America.

These are the Badlands of southern Alberta. Before we knew it we were suddenly dropping down into a big canyon, with the Red Deer river running along its bottom. The sides of the canyon reveal the different layers of rocks that have built up over millions of years from when this whole area was a huge sea.

Drumheller is much like many of the towns we have passed through. Most of the "action" is on a strip of malls outside the town centre. The downtown area seems to be pretty small. We had planned to stay at the Travelodge, just over the river, and got there just in time to get their last room. Seems that the hotels here are as busy as they are in Hinton with a mix of oilmen and the crew working on improving the roads into town. We were too early to actually get into the room so went to see some of the local sights.

Our first stop was Tourist Information in the downtown. It is hard to miss. A huge model of a Tyrannosaurus Rex stands outside in the car park, one of many dinosaur models that are dotted around town. If you want, you can climb up it and stand in its mouth but it was far too cold to do that this afternoon. There was a young local girl behind the desk and she confirmed what was open and worth seeing. She also

Hoodoos (what is a hoodoo?)

From here we headed out of town to follow the Hoodoo Trail. The road took us out past the site of the new Walmarts that is soon coming to town, another reason why all of the hotels are so busy. A few kilometres further on there is a turning off to Rosedale, an old mining village. The mine is on the other side of the river from town and the miners initially used to row across in boats. Later a line was strung across and the miners and their coal were hauled across on the line.

In 1931, a suspension bridge was built and was used until the mine closed in 1957. The bridge has been restored and is now open to anyone to cross but there are warnings not to walk on the slag heaps on the other side as they could still be burning and/or hide tunnels and holes.

It was freezing outside, we later found out that the wind-chill factor today made the temperature feel like -12C. The bridge swayed quite a bit as we walked on it. The river below was partly frozen with blocks of ice and all I could think about was how cold it would be if the bridge gave way. As we crossed the bridge the wind blowing down the river picked up and it was absolutely freezing, so cold that it made my face hurt. I gave up and turned around before we reached the end but Stef carried on to the other side of the river. It took us both a few minutes to warm up again once we were back in Morty.

Further down the route are the Hoodoos. These are strange rock pillars formed by wind and water erosion which reveal seventy million years of geological history within their layers. A sandstone layer sits on top helping to keep the pillars, but in time the erosion around their sides will cause them to collapse. The Hoodoos reminded us of the Balancing Rock on Digby Neck in Nova Scotia in that the pictures we have seen led us to expect something much bigger than they are in practice. That said, it was still quite unique walking around centuries old pillars of rock.

Again frozen we headed back to town and the warmth of our hotel room which was now available. We spent the rest of the day updating our website and doing other stuff before heading over the road for dinner. We went to a Greek restaurant and had a pretty authentic meal before crashing out for the night.

Stepping back in time, a few million years

Today we stepped back in time a few million years by visiting the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology. This is the main attraction that brings people to Drumheller and it is well worth a visit. Located a few kilometres out of town on the North Dinosaur trail it is a modern building set in the middle of a small valley. It seemed slightly at odds with its surroundings and I could picture it being used as a set for a Bond film where the baddies had their scientific research centre for some evil, dastardly scheme.

The museum was captivating and in total we spent about four hours there. Not getting there until late morning we actually found we ran out of time and whilst I matched my pace around the exhibits to the time left available, Stef continued to look at exhibits in detail which means he did not see everything there was there. I would probably go back again. They had the museum really well balanced between information panels that you could read, little experiments you could do, buttons you could push and videos to watch. The videos were superb and all features the same man, John Acorn, who I think is something to do with the museum rather than just an actor. He did not take himself too seriously and had a great way of getting across his message. I found them really entertaining and could picture a group of kids chuckling away watching him and learning as they went.

After a brief look at the world and how its rotation around the sun influences the seasons we headed for a room sponsored by Shell. It was totally designed for little kids but with none in there we went and had a look. They had a couple of bit plants with holes and air tubes in them and loads of soft balls on the floor. The air tubes sucked the balls up into the flowers and then spewed them out across the room. It kept us entertained for a good ten minutes!

At the Nexen section there were different demonstrations of physical properties, all linked back to how they influence geology. These looked at how liquids with different levels of viscosity behave, the impact of water flow speed on the ground, refraction of light and your own speed of reactions to name a few. From here they took you through a hall explaining about the people how have made this area famous with their findings of dinosaur and other fossilised remains.

There is a clear historical demarcation of when dinosaurs were alive and when they became extinct. This is represented geologically by the layers of earth in which remains have been found. The dark rich soil that is a dinosaur hunters dream is covered by a layer a few centimetres deep separating it from lighter soil above. The key is the thin layer. No-one really knows what it is other than that something significant happened which could have been a comet hitting the earth and creating a huge layer of dust like debris. This is just one theory of why the dinosaurs became extinct.

Keeping up its hands on approach you can look into the preparation lab where the scientists do their stuff with bones. When remains are found in the field they are wrapped in plaster to ensure safe transit back to the museum. In the lab, the scientists carefully remove the plaster and the rock and other debris around the carcass. They add a stabilising glue like liquid to the bones to maintain them and preserve them before they go on display. It looks like very slow and painstaking work which they do referring to previous finds and texts describing how the muscle structure works.

Mining the black gold

This whole area is a unique area for geological investigation and interpretation. What is now the great prairie land stretching across central Canada and down through the USA used to be the bottom of a vast, shallow sea and marshland. They have found fossilised and geographical evidence of a large coral reef and lagoon. This is now a fair few hundred metres up the side of the Rockies in a layer known as the Burgess Shale, after the man who found it. This is an important layer for fossil finds and for unravelling the history of the Rockies and surrounding landscape. The reef, known as the Devonian Reef, is what has now created the oil and gas reserves that are being mined.

One section of the museum has been set aside as a Cretaceous Garden, simulating what the vegetation would have been like in this area at the time of the dinosaurs. I had expected it to be slightly tropical but the air inside was cool. Plant species have come from all over the world and many of them are familiar to us still today. They can track back through fossilised seeds to look at the “genetic” heritage of the plant life as well as the animal life. Some plant fossils they have uncovered and excavated are in effect whole pine cones and twigs of trees.

One of the highlights has to be the hall with full size skeletons of the dinosaurs. They had so many and it was fascinating just to walk around them and marvel at what it must have been like to see them alive and in their natural habitat. Some of them are so huge I find it hard to believe that they could actually move around. Their bones are the size of small tree trunks. Others are smaller and delicate, others still were airborne only. Looking at them I found myself comparing them to whales skeletons and to us. The bone structures in whale flippers mirror those of the human arm and hand and I drew parallels to this with some of the dinosaurs.

I have loved watching Time Team on Channel Four, where they send in a team of archaeologists to uncover the mystery about a place in three days. This has captivated me in a similar way and makes me want to come back again. In the summer you can join one of the teams out in the field and actually take part in the process. I am sure it is probably very slow progress requiring a lot of patience but the thrill involved in making a find must be fantastic.

Part way through the day we took a detour from the museum and headed outside. Following the Dinosaur Trail we came across what is described as the Little Church and it is. The Church can seat six people and that is all. But it is not just a tourist attraction, it is used as a place of meditation and prayers and signs outside ask people to respect that fact. Even so it is a bit of a curiosity.

Further up the trail we climbed up hill and then turned off to the Horse Thief Canyon viewpoint. Oil derricks were dotted along the way with signs warning people to keep away because of poisonous gases. At the view point I could understand why. The smell of gas was over powering. The views from here were pretty spectacular. The scenery and landscape reminded me of Purmamarca in North Western Argentina (the one place where we lost our film annoyingly!!). The landscape is sparse and barren but the rocks tell a tale. Different layers of rock are clearly visible and in bright sunlight are probably also different shades and colours of the rainbow. Unfortunately for us it was grey and bitterly cold so we did not hang around too long.

I was fascinated by Drumheller and the whole of the Badlands area of this part of Canada. It is very different to anything we have seen here so far and I somehow feel we have not done it justice by just stopping off for a few days. It is somewhere I would come back to again, not just to revisit the museum but also to try and have the opportunity to experience a dig and just to explore a wider part of the whole area. Stunning!

It was yet another cold morning. The weather reports implied it would be getting warmer but it was still well below zero when we left. Outside the tourist information office in town is one of their new attractions, described as “exciting” in the local tourist bumf. What is it?? A twenty five metre tall model Tyrannosaurus Rex. If you so desire, you can pay $3 to climb up the inside and stand in its mouth looking out over the valley. We decided that photos from the ground were more than enough for us and stopped off before leaving town to get a few!

We then backtracked along the route 9 heading towards Calgary. Ahead of us were what we think (and hope for the best of reasons) will be our last views of Canadian prairies. They have kept us company now for many days and much as we are glad that we have seen them I think we are both also glad to be leaving the flat landscape behind us. This part of the prairies though will stick in our minds for some time. They are gently rolling rather than being totally flat but what makes them really special is that as you head west you have a stunning view of the Rockies looming ever closer towards you.

After Beisecker we again passed the Hutterite community. I think we are both taken aback that  religious group can post such stark warnings that are almost threatening. So much so that as we passed we slowed to capture photos of the signs. What I initially thought was one of the community waving to say “hello”, I now think was one telling me to bugger off and leave them alone!

Having read the description of Calgary in Lonely Planet neither of us had a burning desire to stop there. We had a picture of yet another town dominated by out of town malls and a central business district of high rise blocks. The main Trans Canada Highway runs through Calgary and our views were not really changed by what we saw. You first see Calgary from some distance away as the high rise business district is the only feature on an otherwise flat landscape.

We took a detour into the downtown area in search of camera cleaning equipment which we found in the shape of Don’s Photo shop. Here a very friendly chap told Stef what to do to clean the sensor on his camera and sent us packing with various bits and pieces. How well it has worked only time will tell but early cleaning attempts seemed to solve one problem but create another one.

Heading to the Rockies, again

Heading out of Calgary the Rockies dominated the road ahead of us. In South America we have spent a fair amount of time in the shadow of the Andes but have never had the sense of perspective of driving up close to a mountain range that we have had here. Turning left and right the Rockies dominate everything that you can see. Although they are lower altitude than the Andes they hold their own magnetic attraction and we both spent the afternoon either in stunned silence or reverting to baby talk and simply uttering “oooh” and “aaah” at each turn.

Even here at relatively low altitudes the wind was making its presence known, a foretaste of what we can expect as we get higher. No matter which compass direction we were driving in the wind seemed to switch round with us and to buffer the side of Morty trying in vain to push us across the road. It was nothing compared to the winds we had in Newfoundland though.

We got to Banff in the late afternoon and hunted around for a while for a hotel. We got a good deal at the Banff Inn, the sister hotel of the Whistlers Inn we had stayed at in Jasper. Banff itself seems like a small town that exists only because people come here to ski in Winter and to hike in Spring/Summer. It is just off season but the slopes opened a couple of days ago so they are expecting things to pick up pretty quickly.

Even though we are not meant to have wireless internet access at the hotel we picked up someone’s connection from somewhere. While it was good to have the access it also meant that we started to look to firm up our travel plans for Indonesia. This was bad news as the indications are that it is not the safest of places to go to right now if you are a Western traveller. As members of the Anglo Indonesian Society (one of Stef’s pet projects) we have fired off a mail to get a local on the ground update from them.

In the evening we headed into Banff and to the local cinema. For such a small place I was surprised that it had four screens with different films playing. We went into screen One, which probably seated a few hundred people, and saw Derailed. I quite liked it but Stef did not. At one point people in the cinema started to laugh, loudly, so I guess they didn’t like it either! We rounded off the night with dinner in the local “Irish” pub. Allegedly, the pub was built in Ireland and was dismantled and brought here but somehow I think that someone may have been visiting the Blarney stone too much!!

We climbed all the way to the top (well, in our minds at least)

Today we had planned to do a walk up Sulphur Mountain from where you can get great views down across Banff and the surrounding valleys. The trail starts just outside of town at the car park for the hot springs and the gondola that also goes up to the top of the mountain. We have had conflicting information from Parks Canada. The person we spoke to yesterday said this trail was closed. When we went in this morning to get more information (yesterday’s person was not too helpful) we were told it was open.

When we got there, there was a gate shut across the foot of the path, to me a sign the trail was closed. Stef disagreed so I tried to call to confirm. Whilst I was phoning Stef was watching the light and he concluded that we needed to get to the top quickly to get good views as today is a brilliantly clear day. The walk is only 5.5km but has an elevation gain of 655m so we knew it would be a couple of hours to the top. To catch the light we opted for the gondola instead.

We slightly choked at the cost ($45 for two) but paid our fees and went up. On the way we both decided we were glad we had not walked. Beneath us, the path switched backwards and forwards across the mountain gently, or so it seemed, climbing upwards. It would have been a beautiful walk through the woods but as that side of the mountain was in shade I reckon we would have frozen before we got to the top, the temperature today was still sub zero.

At the top there is a walking trail that you can follow across to a small weather observatory that was built by the Federal Government. A horse trail to the top was built in 1902 and 1903 and the observatory, which is a small stone hut, was built from local stone carried up by pack mule. The observatory is a snug and cosy looking refuge. Very basic it has bunk beds, a small stove, a chair and that is about it.

A local man, Norman Sanson was instrumental in ensuring the observatory was built on Sulphur Mountain and he was then engaged to take the required meteorological readings. For his job he had to climb to the top every two weeks but he usually went more frequently. Often alone he would sometimes get stranded at the top when the weather closed in. On 1 July 1931 he made his one thousandth trip to the summit and was joined by friends for a celebratory breakfast at the top. The observatory has since been used for other research projects including a cosmic ray monitoring station.

The views from the top were spectacular. We could see down to Banff, a small picturesque village that reminded both of us of ski towns we have seen in Europe. Lake Minnewanka sparkled in the distance, a huge body of water that is about forty kilometres away. We also had fabulous views of all the surrounding mountains and peaks and picked out a few for our friend Mark who is a keen winter climber.

Back at the base of the mountain we headed for a soak in the hot springs. The springs were well known to the local Native people as a sacred place where illnesses could be cured and health maintained. The springs were discovered by workers building the Canadian Pacific Railway and their discovery led to the creation of Banff National Park, Canada’s first. European visitors first came in 1884 and a bath house was built in 1886. This house, and its replacement, both burned down. The current building dates back to 1932.

The baths are outside, a kidney shaped pool about twenty metres long. Today the water was at a very relaxing 40C which meant that even though the outside temperature was sub zero you were still lovely and warm in the water. So warm in fact that after about twenty minutes we both had to move to a shallower section to cool down. It was a great way to relax and just gaze up in wonder at the Rockies surrounding us. On the path leading up from the car park to the bathhouse is an open spring tumbling down into a pool. Here you can see the steam rising off the water and there are strange spongy looking plants growing at the bottom of the pool. There was a distinct smell of sulphur in the air.

We rounded off our day in style with our first ever Korean meal. As we walked into the restaurant a big group of Chinese, Korean or Japanese tourists walked out (there are a lot in town) so we hoped we were in for an authentic meal. Stef had a sort of spicy stew with Kim chi (a type of cabbage), soya and pork. I had barbecued marinated beef which was superb, not just for the food but also for the experience.

In the middle of each table is a hole and in the hole is a gas ring. A big metal plate was brought to the table and heated on the gas. Then my beef turned up and a chef cooked it at the table, leaving it on a low heat to keep warm while I ate. I do not know what it was marinated in but it was really morishly tasty and came with a sort of bean paste which was also delicious. Rice, tea and a plate of pickled vegetables (too much vinegar by far for me) rounded off the meal.

Massive icicles
You're sooo strong!

Today we attempted another walk. We headed up the Bow Valley Parkway to the Johnston Canyon to walk up to the Lower and Upper falls. The path leads along the shore of the river and, for the most part, gently winds up to the falls. In the winter though, Parks Canada do not clear the walking trails so as with the Old Fort Loop in Jasper this one was a bit on the slippy side. In some places there was a thin layer of snow but in many there was also simply a layer of ice.

The canyon was beautiful. Down below the river was still running but the banks were iced up and snowy so the running water was a crystal clear trail nibbling away at the frozen edges as it ran by. Icicles hung down in frozen sheets, at some points looking as if a really cold blast had blown through freezing the spray instantly as it went.

We slithered and slipped our way to the Lower Falls, spectacular today because of their icy setting. A small tunnel has been carved through the rock so that you can get a close up view of the falls. It may have been a natural tunnel and it seemed to continue on the other side of the falls. You could also see evidence of how the falls are now further up river than they used to be. The rock wall above the tunnel was very smooth compared to the rocks around it and was streaked with beige and green colours as if there were the traces of minerals that had been left by the water on its way down.

Steps started to lead up to the Upper Falls. These were icier than the path so far and after slithering up a couple I refused to go further, sensing what would happen if I did. The last few walks we have had I have managed not to fall, unusual for me as I always manage to trip or slip on something. We turned back to head for the car park and along the way the sun came out and lit up the icicles so they were even more beautiful.

Then trouble hit. We got to a slope which had been pretty icy going down; now going up it was even more icy. Stef made it to the top but I lost my footing not once but twice and then lost my temper before I made it up the slope! I have some pretty interesting bruises and bumps to show for the experience. What made it more annoying was seeing other people just strolling up as if there was little ice on the ground. They must have superglue on their shoes or in built crampon spikes.

Having walked for less than we expected we had time to kill in the afternoon and went to the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies. It is really a museum founded by and dedicated to a local couple, Peter and Catharine Whyte. She was from a well to do American family and was destined to marry a Rockefeller. He was a local from Banff who thrived on the outdoor lifestyle. They met at art college and secretly got engaged. They had a low key wedding with “only” three hundred guests.

The museum houses many of their pieces of art as well as explaining about their life and lifestyle in Banff. Their painting style did not do much for either Stef or myself but they did have some superb black and white photos. Some of them are early ones taken by Peter and Catharine but they also had an exhibit of more recent photos taken by a family member who is a professional guide/photographer. In one of the galleries they were experimenting with Collaborative Landscape Art. Basically it is a big sheet of white paper, divided down into squares. Anyone who visits is free to draw in a square but what they do must fit with what is on the other squares. We added our bits, but as neither of us can really draw it will be interesting to see if they are still there when the painting is published on the museum’s website (

They seem to have been influential people in the local community with a bit of an open house policy for people to drop by. With long associations with the local Indian people they also had bits about the local Indians in the museum including a fabulous full blown feather head dress that was worn by the chief. We both left with the feeling that they had had a privileged lifestyle as Catharine’s wealth left them free to follow their desire for painting and to travel the world without worrying about money.

Looking back to Lake Louise

We left Banff today in glorious sunshine, which hid the fact that it was still pretty cold, although much warmer than it has been. Our plan was to do a long haul down to Vancouver with a quick detour to see Lake Louise (named after one of Queen Victoria’s daughters) along the way. The Rockies really are stunningly beautiful and our few days here have really whetted my appetite to come back and spend longer here.

At Lake Louise we stopped off at Tourist Information to check the weather forecast for tomorrow. As it should still be good, and therefore the road down and out will be clear, we decided to stop here overnight so we could get time to enjoy the views. Banff was expensive compared to other places in Canada but not as expensive as Lake Louise.

We tried the Youth Hostel but they wanted a lot of money for a very basic and uncomfortable looking room so we left and went across the road to the Lake Louise Inn. The rooms here were more expensive but worth it, especially as we got a free upgrade to a big room with a very comfortable king sized bed. We dumped our stuff and headed out for the lake, a four kilometre drive up hill.

As the road comes to an end your view is dominated by the Fairmont hotel on the lake. These are normally French chateau style places that were built around the turn of the century when the railroad came through. This one looks like a modern office building and I personally think it is a shame that they built it here. It does not blend into the local scenery at all, unlike their hotel in Banff. Ah well, they did supply us (for a cost!) with a very welcome tea and coffee after our walk.

The Lake is nestled into a valley which became closed off by silt deposits. Rocky Mountains guide your view to the other end of the lake and the Plain of Six Glaciers. The lake looked pretty frozen but signs were out warning that it was only thin ice. The whole setting was a bit of a fairy tale landscape view.

We walked along the shore of the lake with snow crunching underfoot, the snow hiding any traces of ice that may be underfoot. It was a lovely walk with the sun just peeking above the top of the mountains still and the smell of fresh pines keeping us company along the way. At the end of the valley we kept going towards the Plain of Six Glaciers, a consistent uphill climb. We did not make it all the way to the Tea House on the glaciers (which is closed anyway at this time of year) because the path simply ran out in front of us. It had wound around the hill and through the tree line and suddenly we were on open land and walking in a snow drift.

The views back down the lake were pretty stunning, despite the hotel in the distance. There had been a reasonably steady stream of people coming and going (including two chaps in their late forties who sounded like they were talking shop all the way) but we had a few minutes with no one else around to enjoy the view before heading back down.

Our first attempt at getting into the hotel to warm up was in vain as you needed to be a resident to get in through what looked like the main back door. Most people also seemed to be in the same position, all looking for a bit of respite from the cold but none paying Fairmont prices. We did make it to their lounge but having looked at the cost of a quick bite or even just a cake to go with our tea we opted for the drink only! It is one of those spots where you could sit for hours just gazing out at the view and not getting bored by it.

With daylight closing in we headed back down to the village and our hotel, stopping en route to check local options for dinner. After a quick ten minute stop at the mall it was already dark, but it had confirmed by suspicion that we would eat in the hotel. The other option was the standard mix of ribs, burgers, steaks etc that we are getting a bit fed up of seeing.

At the hotel we made the most of the facilities and went for a swim in the pool (a bit on the cold side) and a soak in the hot tub. It was not quite the same as being out of doors in the springs in Banff but it is was still a great way to wind down and end the day. A couple of drinks in the hotel bar and a shared plate (well massive round tray actually) of nachos and we headed for bed.

Canadian Pacific Railway

This morning we woke to grey, frosty skies having expected more of yesterday’s sunshine. We left Lake Louise hoping to make it as close as possible to Vancouver, if not into Vancouver itself. The weather report was still looking good so we knew that unless some freak weather moved in we should have a good journey.

We headed through Kicking Horse Pass and through the valley of the same name working towards Field. All around us were low clouds shrouding snow covered mountains with white and frosty trees lining the road. For the first metre or two up each tree you could see the impact the traffic has as the snow was a dusty, dirty brown colour rather than sparkling white.

Having had warnings that Roger’s Pass in the Glacier National Park could be slippery and a bit tricky we found the road open and clear all the way. The main knack to driving here is not to get lulled into going too fast. There are long, slow downhill sections where if you pick up too much speed you will not stand a chance of slowing down to get round the inevitable corner. There were often signs for big trucks to stop and check their brakes and some of them were crawling downhill almost as slowly as they would crawl up hill.

With the roads being clear, rather than heading west on the Trans Canada to Kamloops we decided to go down the route 97 and into the Okanagan valley. I think we had both expected that as with the land to the east of the Rockies, once out of them we would be back onto flat open land. Not so. We found ourselves going “up hill and down dale” for most of the day, except for when we were in the valley itself.

This area has rich and fertile land and is a key area for growing fruit. Along with Niagara in Ontario, it is also a wine producing region. There was not much evidence of this agriculture today but there were signs of its other attraction – tourism. Along the beaches on the Okanagan Lake are many wharves and jetties and signs in one of the towns we passed declared it to be the house boat capital of Canada. With its comparatively favourable climate it is also home to many retired people.

The beauty of the valley was disturbed when we got to Kelowna, yet another sprawling town. We had initially planned to stop here for the night but as there were a couple of hours of daylight left we opted to push on and see how far we could get. A little way out of town on route 97C big signs were up warning of dense fog on the road ahead. As permanent signs it is obviously a year round feature and when they say dense here they really do mean dense.

Had we known what this next stretch was going to be like we probably would have stayed in Kelowna and headed out in the morning. As we climbed up through Trepanier Provincial Park the fog came up and in parts it was difficult to see more than twenty metres ahead of us. That did not slow down other drivers on the road who carried on as if there was clear visibility, including the big HGV’s. Either they knew the road really well or they were just stark raving bonkers.

For a while the higher we climbed the denser the fog got but then all of a sudden it started to clear. Soon we were above the fog and driving in beautiful evening sunshine. It was just that time when the sun is getting ready to set and it is sort of dark and light at the same time. To our right and below us the valley stretched out, full of fog. It was quite a surreal sight to see. The sun lifted our spirits and we threw away our doubts about getting to Vancouver tonight, even though it was still a couple of hours drive away.

We had though been lulled into a false expectation of a great sunset. As we reached the summit and started our descent we were soon back into fog but this time it was also mixed with night time dark and it was pretty unpleasant going. It felt like a long time before we made it to Merritt, the junction with the main toll motorway heading to Vancouver. Much as we both wanted to push on, I think we had both had enough of driving in bad conditions and we decided to stop in Merritt for the night.

As a small place it was not listed in our guide books but inevitably near the main road junction there were a spattering of hotels to choose from. We drove on a little following the signs for downtown, which seemed to take us away from where all the lights were. The downtown was pretty quiet but the Coldwater Creek Hotel beckoned from the corner. It is an old three or four storey wooden building with balconies all around, the type you see the ladies of the night plying their trade from in Western films. The temptation was too great and we went to see if they had a room.

Inside was an anonymous looking café and, on the other side of the hotel a huge bar with more TV screens inside it than customers. They did have a room free but we both started to second guess what we would see when we opened the door. There was just something about the place that made us think that in the UK it would be some sort of hostel for people down on their luck. The room itself was spacious and had a kitchenette and bathroom but it had certainly seen better days and we decided not to stay.

Instead we opted for the Econo Lodge Motel a bit further up the road. Although not a patch on last night’s Lake Louise Inn, it was cheap and cheerful and had a comfy bed and was perfectly suited to what we needed. It sounds like we made a good call stopping here as the people at Reception confirmed that the road from here to Vancouver is also prone to heavy fog. We hopped over the road to get a bottle of vino, ordered a take out and settled in for a night’s battling over where we go next.

Our plan is to go to Indonesia but the UK, Canada, Australia and the US have all issued travel warnings advising against non essential travel. For me that rules it out but Stef’s urge to go makes it a more difficult call for him. He has been emailing people and chatting to people on line about it, all of whom say how great a time they had when they were there but none of whom refer at all to the current security position.