Thursday, 29 July 2010

I've breathed the mountain air, man.....

Ah, Canada.

We've been skiing in Canada twice before, and each time we're there, people are telling us that this is their off-season and that we should come back in summer to see what the place is really like.  As we seemed to have some time on our hands this year, this was one of the first destinations on our list.  After a month spent in the UK, by the time we boarded a plane for Vancouver, we were raring to go.

We spent four days in Vancouver in all.  This is supposed to be one of the most "livable" cities in the world, and it certainly seemed nice: Yaletown, Stanley Park, Granville Island, the waterfront, the backdrop of snowy mountains, the Canada Day parades and fireworks, all the brewpubs in Gastown..... it seems a very nice town, but really we're not in Canada to spend time in the cities, so we picked up a hire car and took the short ferry ride to Vancouver Island to start our trip proper.

Not before posing next to some statues in the park, obviously.

We're not the only people in the world who still do this.... right?

I'm 36 years old.  Should I worry that this isn't really a dignified pastime for a man of my age?

Anway.  Vancouver Island.

People rave about the "English-style" afternoon teas that you can get in the swankier hotels of Victoria.  Well, at $60 a pop, you'd expect to be getting pretty good cucumber sandwiches, right?  Well, we weren't having any of that.  We went whale watching.

In the course of a morning spent wrapped up in a survival suit on board an inflatable speedboat, not only did we get to see loads of orca, but I also learned loads.  Did you know that there are at least two different types of orca in these waters?  "Residents", who eat only salmon, and "Transients", who eat other marine mammals.  The two types of whale apparently have different dialects and have not interbred for at least 10,000 years.  They might even be completely different species.  Amazing.   These are clever animals.  They hang around in pods, but they work in cooperation with each other to hunt and will stay together for most of their lives.  Fascinating animals.  We watched sperm whale in New Zealand, but there's something thrilling about watching a killer whale cruising gently through the ocean.  Sharks get all of the publicity, but the orca is the real apex predator of the ocean.  Orca have been known to grab sharks, immobilise them by turning them upside-down, and then extract their protein-rich livers before letting them drop to the bottom of the ocean.  IN YOUR FACE, JAWS!


Victoria itself, incidentally, is beautiful.  Not the town itself, so much, as the fact that everywhere you look, you are surrounded by towering, snow-capped mountains.... either looming over from Washington State in the USA, on the island itself, or on the Canadian mainland.  There seems to be a lot of new development in town, with one penthouse in particular selling for several million dollars... but if ever there's a million dollar view, this is definitely it.  A lovely spot.  Decent beer too, which can't hurt.

On Vancouver Island, we met up with Cheryl, who we first met whilst learning to dive on the Great Barrier Reef, and whose travels have now brought her up to Canada.  The plan is to do some diving, but we also spend a couple of days together driving around the island, sampling Canadian wine and cider and marvelling at how many Bald Eagles there are around here.  Beautiful birds.

...and Cheryl's lovely too.  Check out the manmade fibres of the frequent flyers!

Apparently the waters around here have some of the best temperate water diving in the world.  By "temperate", they mean "bloody cold".  We dived in 25 degree waters in Australia, 20 degree water in New Zealand..... and the water off Nanaimo here is about 9 degrees.  This means wearing a double layered wetsuit, hood, mittens, neoprene boots and a whole pile of weight to help you actually take that lot below the surface.  Given that it's about 35 degrees out of the water, this means that you spend most of your time out of the water in a pathetic sweaty heap.  Still, the water is beautifully clear around here, and we take a couple of dives just outside the harbour and get to see wolf eel, giant octopus and the wreck of an old WW2 tugboat that has been scuttled here to give divers something else to look at.  Part of me was hoping we might meet an orca whilst in the water.... there's apparently never been a recorded case of an orca deliberately attacking a human in the wild.... but I'm not too disappointed when we don't.

Two things become clear to me as we dive:

1) I really need to get my own dive computer.  There isn't one on the kit we're using, and the depth gauge we have is in feet and I know my safe diving depths in meters.  I really should be in charge of my own destiny underwater and not reliant on anyone else.

2) I really need to get an underwater rattle to keep a more reliable hold on my dive buddy's attention.... we manage to lose each other under the water here, and it can be a little scary to say the least.

After diving, we say goodbye to Cheryl and head up to Port Hardy at the north end of the island to catch the Inside Passage ferry.  This is a 15 hour journey that winds through the narrow channels that lie off the British Columbia coastline on our way up to Prince Rupert.  In lots of ways, it's very similar to Doubtful Sound in New Zealand, with towering cliffs, moody mountains, deep waters and forest coming right up to the shoreline.  Here though, we also see little manned lighthouses and ruined settlements that are slowly being reclaimed by the forests.

It's stunningly beautiful.

Along the way, we see dolphin and humpbacked whale, and we keep a sharp eye open throughout for orca and bears on the shoreline.

It's a long trip, but also a very tranquil way to get a feel for quite how big and how wild this part of Canada really is.  Once we arrive in Prince Rupert, our journey across to the National Parks begins, as we drive north towards Smithers, hook down to Prince George (don't bother, by the way) and then make our way over to Jasper National Park.  I listen to the World Cup final on the way to Prince George - oddly Canadian radio is taking the feed from the BBC, so I get to listen to Mike Ingham and Chris Waddle, and when we get to our motel, I turn on the telly and listen to Sky's Martin Tyler on ESPN.  The road we're on is lovely, running alongside ever bigger mountains and rushing rivers fed by glaciers.  Along the way, we see our first bear.... a rangy little fellow just browsing in the undergrowth along the side of the highway.  We stop and gawk at him, but he pays us no mind at all and just carries on accumulating the calories that he will need before he hibernates in winter.  Bears are 90% vegetarian, and an adult male will need to eat something like 40,000 calories a day to store up enough fat reserves if he is to survive the winter.  That's a lot of berries.

When we left Vancouver Island, the temperature was over 30 degrees.  Prince Rupert is somewhat more exposed to the open ocean, and it's a lot cooler and wetter, but as we drive inland towards the mountains, the weather gradually improves...... and then we get to Jasper and it all goes horribly wrong.  We had planned to do a lot of hiking from this point onwards, but the weather decided to put a spanner in the works.

The mountains are all snow-capped around here, and we've seen a few glaciers, but in the middle of July, I wasn't really expecting to be caught in a snowstorm.  It does snow a bit in Jasper itself, although mostly it just rains, but in the mountains all around, it snows pretty solidly.  Apparently the (closed) ski pistes receive about 20cm worth, and as you can see above, Maligne Lake receives enough to cover my boots.  It makes walking a bit troublesome and lots of the trails are closed down as dangerous.  The temperature rises some 20 degrees by the next day, so much of the new snow melts immediately or softens sufficiently that the higher trails all carry avalanche warnings.  Crazy weather.  Even the locals seem impressed.  We spend the morning soaking in the Miette hotsprings as the rain continues to fall, but we still manage to squeeze in a decent walk in the afternoon around Maligne Canyon, which is experiencing a 20 year high water level and is thus even more impressive than usual.

We check in with the Parks authorities before we do any walking, and as a general rule, we tend to avoid those trails that are carrying grizzly bear warnings (the wardens don't like to close any trails, but they do make it pretty clear which ones they think you shouldn't be walking).  Straight after the snow, we have a lovely (guided) walk around the Five Lakes trail just outside of Jasper, but when the weather improves, we head back up to the Miette hotsprings and walk up the Sulphur Skyline trail, a long climb up to a peak that gives you some splendid views of the surrounding country (as pictured at the top here).  It also seems to be home to some very inquisitive ground squirrels....

It's a bit windy right on the top, but the panoramic view is fantastic.

Just in case you forget that you're in a national park - and a UNESCO World Heritage site, to boot - every single drive reveals more wildlife.  We've already seen bear, but around here we also see caribou, coyotes, fox, bighorn sheep, mule deer, loons, woodpeckers, geese, a mink (that needed rescuing from a bear-proof bin), chipmunks, ground squirrels, tree squirrels, all sorts of birdlife and this magnificent elk.

It's a real wilderness out here all untamed forests and mountains.  It might be the busy season for tourism out here, but by London standards, it's not busy at all.  Jasper itself is pretty nice.  This is our first visit, and it seems like a smaller version of Banff.  There are plenty of tat shops selling crappy t-shirts to the tourists, but there are also plenty of decent outdoors shops, bars and cafes to keep the more discerning visitor happy.  We were particularly fond of the Bear Paw Bakery.... where you can get a decent cup of coffee, a breakfast muffin and a ready-wrapped sandwich to take out onto the trail.  Mmmmm.

After four days in Jasper, we head up the Icefields Parkway towards Banff National Park.  It's a justifiably famous drive, as the road runs alongside increasingly impressive mountains, many with huge glaciers hanging off the side.  The thing to do here is apparently to get onto a huge 4WD bus and drive out onto the Columbia Icefield itself, where you can walk around on a block of ice that's thicker than the Eiffel Tower is tall.  Call me a stick-in-the-mud, but I think there's something a bit weird about turning a glacier that has retreated 1km in the last 80 years into a highway.  Erm, shouldn't we just leave it alone?  Why do we feel the need to touch it?  Instead of walking on it, we stop just up the road from the Visitors centre here to take a walk up to Wilcox Pass, over the highway from the icefields.  From here, we are able to climb up to a splendid view of the three glaciers in this valley.  We hiked up to the Franz Josef glacier on South Island in New Zealand, but these are much bigger and in many ways much more impressive slabs of ice.  I don't want to overburden you with superlatives, but it's hard not to be awed by the spectacle.  We spend the night in a youth hostel at Mosquito Creek with no electricity, no showers and no flushing toilets.  The nearest mobile phone signal or phone of any kind is about 18km up the road in Lake Louise..... and it's splendid.  They have a wood-fired sauna, you see, and we put a couple of pans of water on the stove to heat up as we cook in the sauna, and then use the hot water to wash ourselves down (after I've updated some Australian cyclists on the current state of the Tour de France, obviously).  It's hardly luxury accommodation, it's true, but the location next to a babbling creek, near a stunning lake and in the shadow of some towering mountains is pretty hard to beat, and it's not hard to see why the guy who runs the place has chosen to spend 11 months of each year out here.  I'm sure he doesn't get paid much, but he's truly rich in lots of other ways.  I'm sure he enjoys a proper shower once in a while, mind you.....

The following day, we leave Jasper National Park and head through into Banff National Park and on into Yoho National Park.  We're staying in Field, just back into British Colombia from the Icefield Parkway and home to the awesome Truffle Pig restaurant, but we pop back into Alberta to hike in Lake Louise.  We've been here in winter, when it was possibly the coldest place on earth, but this is our first visit in Summer.  In our wisdom, we chose a Saturday, and the place is absolutely HEAVING with people.  Well, it's heaving in the car parks and around the lake itself.... but the key statistic here is that apparently 95% of the 5m visitors to these parks in the summer never go more than 600 yards from their vehicles.  The path around the lake is swarming with tourists, but as soon as we take a trail with a slight uphill gradient, the crowds just melt-away.  We have purchased a book called "How Not To Waste Your Time in the Canadian Rockies", and it's great at helping you to work out which of the many, many trails you might like to tackle.  It's possibly a bit snobby -- it considers meeting more than 12 people on a 5 hour hike to be "crowded" -- and it's also geared up for backpackers doing multiple-day hikes, but it's also very informative to the novice looking for a decent day hike.  Thanks to this book, we choose to walk up from Lake Louise, beyond Mirror Lake and Lake Agnes and on to the Big Beehive and up the the Devil's Thumb.

The views are splendid.

From up here, you can barely even see the monstrous concrete pile of the Lake Louise Fairmont Hotel, nevermind the armies of tourists around the Lake.

There are people up here, but it's almost possible to feel like it's just you and the ground squirrels.

The trail up to the Devil's Thumb proves to be less of a "trail" and more of a scramble up an unmarked track to an unspecified finish, but the views of the lake and the glacier that feeds it more than make up for that.  It's hard work, but fantastically rewarding.  It's also the hike that convinces me that I should finally give up and get myself a pair of hiking poles.  It's a bit fal-de-ri, I grant you.... but they seem to help with the uphill bits, and my shoulders and arms probably need the extra exercise anyway.  We also take the precaution of adding a bear bell to our kit list.  This is a bell that you strap onto your bag; the idea is that you want to make enough noise to never surprise a bear and to perhaps provoke a aggressive response.  They're not foolproof, and some people call them "dinner bells", but our rationale is that we'd rather give the bear the extra chance of hearing us coming than take no precautions at all.  Lake Louise is bear country, and grizzlies come down here in summer to raise their cubs and to take on board calories.  Lots of people carry pepper spray canisters on their belts, just in case, so a bell really does seem like the least we can do.... even if we haven't actually seen any bears since we were in Jasper.

This soon changes.  We do a few more hikes in the area around Field, and on the road up to Emerald Lake, we see a large black bear.  Actually, we see two: one on the way to the lake, and one on the way back.  We have the bear on the way back all to ourselves for a little while, as we spot him browsing in the undergrowth just off the road.  We are soon joined by other passing motorists, but not before we've had a chance to see and to hear quite how powerful this animal is as he forages in the undergrowth, literally ripping up anything that takes his fancy.  One Japanese man who stops takes the opportunity to get out of his car, with the bear not 3m away from him on the other side of a small ditch, and rummage in his boot for his video camera.  Once he's found it, he steps closer to the bear and starts whistling at it to catch it's attention.  Once we've recovered from our initial astonishment we tell the man to get the hell back into his car, and it dawns on him that he might get attacked.  Well, yes.... it's true that the bear could turn on him, but frankly I'm amazed at his lack of respect for such a magnificent wild animal.  I honestly wouldn't care much if the bear did maul him, only it would come off worse for the bear in the end as he would likely be shot..... good grief though, does he think this is Disneyworld or something?  Sadly I think he's far from alone in this ignorant behaviour, and as ever, the bear's greatest challenge for survival is the intervention of man.  They already think that the grizzly population might be too small to be sustainable, and we may not be too far away from a time when a sight of a wild bear like this might be a thing of the past.  Such a shame.

From Field, we head out of Yoho National Park and further into British Columbia to spend a couple of days in Golden.  We've been here before, to ski the Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, but this time we're got other plans.  We spend a fun half day rafting the mighty Kicking Horse River, with its grade 4 rapids and freezing cold water, and then we head up the mountain to have a look at the Grizzly Bear Sanctuary.  When we were here in April 2009, we saw Boo the resident grizzly bear as he emerged from hibernation and sat snoozing outside his den, but this time around we're hoping to see rather more of him from rather closer.  Initially, he's foraging right at the back of his 20 acre enclosure and it looks like we might be out of luck, but then he wanders right down until he's browsing unconcernedly about 2m from where we're standing.

He's here because he was rescued with his brother after a hunter killed their mother when they were cubs.  He can't be returned back into the wild, but he has a big enclosure here and the Kicking Horse Grizzly Bear Society are working towards creating a habitat where future orphaned bears can be looked after and ultimately released back into the wild.  Boo is their ambassador, and he's a magnificent sight.

Look at those teddy bear ears!  Although a quick look at his equally impressive set of claws would deter any sane person from wanting to climb the electric fence to give him a cuddle.  It's not quite the same thing as seeing a grizzly in the wild (which we don't actually manage to do), but it's probably a whole lot safer for both bear and hiker that we don't, to be honest.  Bears should be undisturbed.

That same afternoon, we head over to the Northern Lights Wolf sanctuary just outside Golden to take a walk with a real life Timber Wolf.  Maya is not a wild wolf ("wild? I was furious..." etc.) but like all the other wolves here, was born in captivity and rescued from various zoos and so on to live at the sanctuary.  She's not a domestic pet though, and like all wolves, she has a healthy fear of humans.  To help her feel more comfortable, we are accompanied on our walk by Jackson, a karelian bear dog, who has grown up with Maya and helps her to relax.  Together, we have a pleasant stroll in the woods above Golden, with Maya loping around cautiously.

She has good reason to be afraid: it is still perfectly legal to shoot wolves in British Columbia, as long as you are below 1,100m (which we are), and farmers will look for any opportunity to get rid of something that they perceive as a threat to their stock.  Wolves are increasingly rare in Canada, although the guys who run the sanctuary are hopeful that things will change now that they are being recognised as a vital part of the lifecycle of the forest and have been reintroduced to places like Yellowstone National Park in the USA with an immediate impact on the health of the area.  We aren't walking with a wild wolf, for sure, but it is still a huge thrill to be able to watch such a beautiful creature from such close quarters.

In some ways, she's very much like a dog, but a closer look reveals her longer legs and proportionally huge, webbed paws that help her travel silently through the woods.  Jackson, by contrast, is not wearing his age so well (they're the same age): he's lost an eye in a tussle with a badger and is generally a little creaky, even if he's still game for a walk.

It's a lovely afternoon.  After all, it's not every day that you get to take a stroll through the forest with an actual wolf.

After a couple of nights in Golden, we head back into Banff National Park and the town of Banff itself.  Just like Lake Louise, this is absolutely swarming with tourists... certainly compared to the same town in winter, anyway.  Again, these crowds aren't terribly hard to escape, and we have a couple of nice walks around the area, especially up in Sunshine Meadows.  We've skiied up here, it's right up on the continental divide, and in winter it can seem like the coldest place on earth, even if the snow is excellent.  In summer, the contrast could hardly be greater, with the ground covered in lush grasses and wildflowers and with Colombian Ground Squirrel all over the place.

Actually, whilst we're in Canada we go for at least a stroll on all of the four pistes that I've skiied: Sunshine Village, Lake Louise, Mount Norquay and Kicking Horse.  I've heard that the French Alps don't look so good in summer due to the amount of blasting that has taken place to shape the pistes.  In Canada, whilst you can see where the pistes are, the mountains are still quite pleasant places to walk.  Lake Louise in particular is a lovely spot, although much of the mountain is closed off as Grizzly habitat for most of the summer (not a problem in the winter, when the bears are hibernating).

Whilst staying in Banff, we take a trip up to Canmore to meet up with Siew and Steve - who we met on our trip to Africa back in May.  We catch up over dinner and learn that we have apparently managed to see more bear in the last two weeks than Siew has seen in her whole life in Canada.  That rather puts into perspective how lucky we've been (or how little Siew looks around her!) and is a really nice way to round off our trip.

Our 4 weeks are over all too soon, and almost before we know where we are, we're in Calgary waiting to catch the redeye home.  It's been wonderful.  I like Canada in winter, but I like it in summer even more.  It's a beautiful country (even if C. can't get her head around the "French" that some of the locals insist on speaking, or the Poutine that many of them call their national dish.  Chips and gravy, perhaps.  Curd cheese?  Yuck!)

We will be back.  I'm sure there are some microbrews I didn't try, for starters......


  1. Lived 3 months in Toronto when I was a kid. It made an impression on me.

    A beautiful country.

  2. Did you feel compelled to do a Mr Burns impression when driving towards Smithers? Excellent.

  3. Ian - in a word? Yes. Of course I did!

    Release the hounds.

  4. It sounds like an absolutely amazing trip, and I know what C means about the French spoken there. *G*

  5. Poutine's ace! My friends Ben and Becky have just got back from a honeymoon exactly where you were - they were in and around Banff and did the Icefields. Stunning photos.

  6. Oh, and a big thumbs up for Canadian microbreweries, too!