Monday, June 25, 2012

North to Alaska: leaving the RV route

A paddle on Maligne Lake
On our way out of Jasper we took a detour out to Maligne Lake, a long, skinny water body that extends to the foothills of stunning snow-covered peaks and glistening glaciers. A great days paddle took us about half way down the lake and back - unfortunately we weren’t geared up for an overnighter, but very rewarding nonetheless. A highlight was a couple of loons that popped up next to us, only meters from the kayak - very impressive, sophisticated looking birds.
Out on Lake Maligne
I know what you're saying - "not more bear photos"
...but they're so cute!
National Geographic Channel on the road 

As the number of mosquitos increases so to does the number of RVers, mostly on a circuit from Vancouver through the Jasper / Banff Rockies. Who can blame them? If I had two weeks vacation, it’s what I’d do. But, on those occasion’s where we stayed in the major parks that the majority of RVers frequent, an odd phenomenon became apparent - it seems that they had all substituted their National Geographic channel on the big screen at home with the big screen of their windshield, and were now watching telly on the road, and you can’t deny, it’s a good show! Now, the cool thing about most of the rented RVs is that you don’t have to get out of them to get from the drivers seat to the living quarters or to the toilet / shower / bed. Consequently, at the end of the day the vans would roll into camp and no one would emerge! A quick migration from the front to the rear of the van, dinner in, and off to bed without entering the natural world! So we sat by our campfire, enjoying the great outdoors whilst others viewed it through their windows without the hassle of their clothes smelling of smoke. Hmmm....

Anyway, enough of being judgmental, we have now moved on to Mount Robson, the tallest peak in the Canadian Rockies which revealed itself to us in glimpses as the clouds scudded across it’s face. Whilst it may be the highest point in Canada, at just over 4000m, its not all that high but it is formidable, and every year it thwarts the attempts of most parties that try to conquer it. 
Rather than do battle with the clouds, we retreated down valley and put the kayak in on the Fraser River for an afternoon paddle, a river that flowed fast enough with sufficient swirls and eddies, sweepers and log jams to ensure we didn’t become complacent. 
Next morning we cycled to Lake Kinney at the base of Robson and then, as the rain set in, made our way further northwards. Discovered that if you don’t fill up the propane tank, you run out of gas so dined out that night in a local diner with the truckers, the policeman and a group of men who looked like they were having a conference dinner after a local lumberjacks forum. 
Heading north on Christine’s Birthday 

As we turned north onto the Cassier highway we finally started to feel  (as the sign proclaimed) that we were on our way to Alaska. Mind you, there was still a fair bit of BC, not to mention all of the Yukon that we still had to traverse, but the  lure and legend of Alaska is strong and wields its influence well south of its border.
We also felt that we were moving into country that was recognisably home to First Nation peoples.  In South Hazelton we stopped in at a museum and recreated ‘Ksan village, thinking initially that it may be a bit contrived, but were quickly disuaded of this view as we discussed the issues, challenges and opportunities with the lady who curated the museum and the younger woman who showed us through the village. Coming from a family lineage of village chiefs, they clearly felt the importance of maintaining their cultural traditions with the added benefit of a strong western as well as indigenous education.  As a group, they seem to have struck an effective balance, capitalising on western business opportunities while maintaining their traditional training and education.

Not all however saw their future in the area and a chat with  a young guy at the gas station revealed that many were looking to get out of town and get a job on the mines. Other conversations about housing issues, social welfare, employment, substance abuse etc revealed many parallels with aborigines in Australia and for that matter, disenfranchised peoples in general. But indications of strong local leadership and the reclaiming of identity and pride certainly give some cause for optimism at least locally if not more broadly. 
Along with chocolate-coated almonds, Christine’s birthday treat was lots of bear encounters along the way and a happy birthday song from a Loon on the lake by which we spent the night. 

Being an illegal alien - into America without permission
On the main street, Stewart
A spectacular detour off the Cassier Highway took us into Stewart, via a winding road that took us below towering snow covered peaks; massive suspended icefields with jagged ice cliffs where masses of ice had been torn away to plummet to the valley floor below; cascading waterfalls  and icy blue-green glaciers which come down almost to the road.
Stewart is a somewhat dilapidated town, but in a homely way, a mixture of run down houses and some closed shops but enough bustle to give the sense that they were gearing up for the tourist season and for the brief salmon fishing season. A kilometer or so to the west of Stewart, one get’s a premature taste of Alaska where a thin strip of US land separates a large portion of Canada from the Pacific coast. The town of Hyder on the Alaskan side is even more dilapidated in a more dejected way - empty houses and a general feel of disrepair. In spite of some signage suggesting all is generally well in town, if the bears didn’t come here to fish it’s hard to imagine Hyder staying on the map. Logs floating in the estuary conjure up images of what was probably once a thriving logging port where, prior to roads and trucks, millions of logs were floated down the fiords to southern markets.
Bed-time view - Salmon River
Our attempt to drive up to Salmon glacier was thwarted by avalanche  warnings so instead we camped on the banks of the Salmon River in the warm afternoon sun with avalanches cascading, one after the other, off the mountain range across the valley. Having given up our US entry documents on crossing into Canada, we figured that we were probably illegally in the US but while Canada had a customs post to check people coming back into Canada, the US didn’t really seem to care if people drove down the dead end road without valid documents. 

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Canada calling - across the border to Waterton National Park
May 21-23
Surrendered our  US entry permits as we crossed into Canada on the understanding, given by the US customs guys, that by doing so we would get a new 6 months when we come back into the US - we hope it’s that easy. Everything else we’ve read suggests that its an elaborate application process with letters from employers, banks etc. Time will tell!
"Mum - I think someone's following us"
While the names of the national parks change, the Rockies just keep on rolling on, ever-changing, and seemingly ever more impressive. Next stop is Waterton NP - the Canadian extension of Glacier NP. Took an afternoon drive out into the park and a random stop at a pull-out revealed yet another black bear, this one with 2 older cubs, by the stream side, chewing on the bones of some long-dead beast. 
Waterton Lakes National Park
On our drive back we found what was obviously a beaver dam and lodge and a few minutes of patient waiting revealed the owners, a pair of beavers who swam around the perimeter of their extraordinary engineering feat, checking to ensure that all was in order. The local indian tribe recognised the importance of the beaver by the annual celebration of the “Beaver Bundle”. I suspect that this is the less-than-poetic translation of some aboriginal term, but reflects the central role of the beaver in creating elaborate ecological systems that traditionally delivered a range of resources to the  local people such as feeding and breeding grounds for moose and ducks as well as aquatic plant gardens.

Another bear day the following day - this time a cinnamon black bear with cub. After watching them for a while they retreated up a tree for a nap. This provided the next bear lesson - don’t think you can climb a tree to get away from them. We couldn’t believe how quickly and effortlessly they scrambled up. 
Banff to Jasper via the Icefields Parkway
May 26 - June 4
Bumming around Banff
Storm brewing over the Vermillion Lakes, Banff
Whilst we are still surrounded by snow-capped peaks, it is becoming apparent that winter is receding as the days become warmer and the number of tourists and mosquitos increases. They are not biting yet - the mosquitos that is - but I suspect that over the next week or so our mountain idyll might suddenly get a new soundtrack - the hum of  bitey insects after our blood!

It appears that there is only one reason for the existence of Banff, and that is to accommodate tourists throughout the year. Reasonably tasteful, but a tourist town nonetheless. It’s fair to say though, that places which attract tourists have attributes that tourists want to see or engage with, and in Banff its all about engaging with the mountains, skiing and snow-shoeing when its under snow and mountain biking and hiking when it’s not - or just hanging out in the town in whatever the latest swanky apparel is or driving around with the roof down on your Audie or equivalent. 
Canada goslings on their first outing
We, on the other hand, hung out in campground on the edge of town with stunning views of the surrounding mountains. Once again, these provided the backdrop to the tug-of-war between storm and tempest and a sun determined to assert itself. As a consequence - more rainbows painted across the face of dark stormy mountains as a new moon struggled to make its presence felt through the scudding clouds.  
Well, to be truthful, our “hanging out” was confined to a brief period bookended by successively longer and busier days. Firstly a triathlon of canoeing (more like attempted canoeing) on the Vermillion Lakes - beautiful expanses of water on the edge of town surrounded by woodlands and grassy verges that provided a home to nesting Loons and Canada Geese. Unfortunately it wasn’t immediately apparent that these lakes were no more than 15cm deep until we pushed off from the shore only to find that we had to keep pushing through mud, rather than paddling. Needless to say, we gave that up after half an our or so and decided to switch to bikes instead (with a brief interlude to check out mum grizzly and 2 cubs that were causing a consternation on the edge of town) and cycled to the base of Sundance Canyon followed by a hike up through the gorge with its cascading streams and waterfalls. 
A leisurely float on the Bow River
The following day we were out in the canoe again, this time on the Bow river, a delightful float with enough ripples and eddies to ensure that we had to make a bit of effort rather than let the quickly flowing waters simply carry us to our destination - the middle of Banff town. We did the bike shuttle thing again, meaning I got to ride back to the car along some great mountain bike paths while Christine lay in the sun awaiting my return.
Cruising the Icefields Parkway

From Banff we headed north once more along an incredibly scenic road with the above mentioned name. Ho Hum - a few kilometers down the road we have to stop again for another bloody bear - aren’t these things meant to be endangered?  Funny how these critters seem to do OK when people (men) aren’t trying to collect their heads and skins to put up on their walls in order to tell exaggerated stories about their prowess in killing them. If shooting them is as easy as photographing them (get them in the sights and pull the trigger) then perhaps it’s not such a manly activity after all - geeze, even I can do it! I just end up with a photo rather than blood and guts. But sorry, can’t say that - we’re in Northern America after all and the myth of manliness and domination of all things must be maintained. OK, so we are in Canada, but I suspect as I head into the Yukon it ain’t going to be any different!
Lake Louise - starting to thaw
But...where were we? That’s right, heading up the Icefields - next stop, Lake Louise. There’s no denying that it is a picture postcard lake, even under ice, but our heretic vote goes to the nearby Moraine Lake for scenic spectacle. Probably got something to do with the fact that we were underwhelmed by the monstrosity of a hotel that they had built on the shores of Louise and the 400 other people all trying to take the identical photo!
Moraine Lake
A detour off the Parkway too us to Yoho National Park where we again  put the peddles to the metal and cycled up the closed road towards Takkawakka Falls with snowshoes on our backs to enable us to continue beyond the point where the bitumen disappeared under snow. We managed to progress a few kilometers across snow that was only just (or maybe not quite) firm enough for snow shoes. Eventually the combination of an avalanche across the trail, detonations from explosives dropped from a plane with the aim of creating more avalanches, and the threat of rain convinced us that caution was the better part of valor and we headed back to find a camp for the night.
Golden-mantled ground squirrel - another fan of Moraine Lake
Ice-fields above Moraine Lake
Snow-shoeing Yoho National Park
Back on the Parkway we continued our transect of the ridiculously spectacular Rockies. A stomp through the snow took us to an overlook of Peyto  Lake, its icy, crystaline surface glinting deep blue in the morning light.  Then came the Columbia Icefields, apparently the biggest mass of permanent ice in the northern hemisphere after the Arctic - huge sheets of ice perched atop the ranges, breaking off around the edges to leave massive ice-cliffs or forming rivers or falls of ice flowing over the millennia down the valleys towards their retreating bases, which are ascending to meet them faster than the ice mass can move down.
"..but I swear the travel brochure said we were staying on a lake"
Driving the Icefields Parkway
Icefields Campsite
A spectacular campsite with views across to the Athabasca Glacier served as our base for a hike / scramble / snow slog up the ridges opposite the  ice fields, affording great views across and down the valley, all in splendid solitude, well away from the masses on the other side of the valley, huddled in a small circle at the terminus of the sno-buses which take them a small distance out onto the glacier. 

Athabaska Glacier
Barrow's Goldeneye enjoying the icy waters
No time to relax in Jasper
The Icefields Parkway deposits its northbound travelers in Jasper, a welcoming little town that could encourage one to just chill out but, unfortunately, it too is surrounded by stunning landscapes with endless options for playing, most of which involve bears! Actually, the bears turn up even before the play begins, in our case in the form of a visit by a grizzly by our breakfast table - fortunately it chose to depart as we and the neighbors took an interest in it and a little later the rangers turned up to encourage it to leave the campground. 
More black bears on some of our side trips and then rumor of a linx! Some people had just seen one cross the road but our waiting around for further glimpses revealed nothing. The lure of the lynx was strong, however, so we returned to the same area the next morning and, lo and behold, it trotted across the road a hundred meters ahead of us in almost the same place as yesterday (suggesting a den with cubs nearby?) This brief but exciting sighting motivated us to return the next day but several hours of waiting revealed nothing, but was still a pleasant way to pass a drizzly morning that was not well suited to much else. 
Patricia Lake - perfect for an evening paddle
Whilst damp in the morning, the afternoon cleared brilliantly so out came the kayak, a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, some cheese and biscuits and we were off across Patricia Lake for an idyllic end to the day. It’s worth noting here that the kayak was designed by the Swedes, the inventors of Leggo, with some degree of similarity. While it seemed like a smart design, we had however questioned their logic in providing 4 water bottle  holders on the deck, until we realised that they were also exactly the right size for a wine glass - clever buggers thought of everything! We’re not quite sure if the brand name - Point 65 - has something to do with the alcohol limit for usage. I think we just managed to stay under it for our circuitous route back. 
After the placid paddle on the lake, I decided to take on the Athabasca River the next morning, a run of a few kilometers with numerous rapids, mostly fun and not overly challenging but one had a bit more mischief with stoppers building in the current, one of which crashed over the bow and slapped me in the face with most of the icy water finding it’s way down inside my supposedly water-proof gear! Emerged at the other end where Christine waited, wet but thrilled. 

Bear's bathtime..
As if we hadn’t had enough excitement for the day, we went for a cycle around some of the lakes near to town. On the way back we passed through the Jasper resort where we cycled within meters of a young grizzly that had wandered across the golf course and hopped into the lake at the front of the resort for a swim, much to the consternation of a flock of Canada geese and some park rangers who quickly emerged with their guns to heard it off back into the forests. 
...much to the consternation of the geese.
Well, that was enough excitement for one day, so we settled by the banks of the river and drank margaritas as the sun set over a bend in the river in which the glistening water seemingly flowed in all directions in different parts of the river - or was that just the margaritas? 
Margarita sunset
Another play day followed - this time hiking the Valley of the Five Lakes,  a chain of small, exquisite glacial lakes each of a different color depending on its depth. Christine then drove to the trailhead to Wabasso Lake while I biked along a great little single-track trail that had lots of climbs and drops (some taken in kamikaze fashion, others a little more trepidatiously), roots and rocks and precarious down-side drops to test my newly acquired mountain biking skills. This Valley of Five Lakes area is described somewhere as the Holy Grail  for mountain bikers. I imagine that those who really know what they are doing probably fly over the bits where I got off and pushed. Adrian and Rowena - put this on the top of your bucket list!