I have heard the Canadian national anthem live three times this week. First, before the Toronto Blue Jays championship baseball against the Cleveland Indians, a loss which prompted derision from local young men here in British Columbia about the sorry state of their clutch hitting. Then, before Hockey Night (Saturday night as Canadians know), at a noisy brewhouse serving sweet chlii wings and poutine. The crowd grumbled as Toronto blew a four goal lead against Winnipeg, then cheered as they won in overtime. This led to derisive and drunken expletives about the sorry state of Toronto’s goaltending. Lastly, a curly-haired cowgirl rode with the flag around a Calgary Stampede ring before a horse show. The sparse crowd cheered; the only derision was next door in the Saddledome as the last place Calgary Flames lost 5-4 to St. Louis. It was a great week to tour the Western Canadian Rockies.
Shoulder of the Season
Coming in October during the shoulder of the seasons – between summer and winter tourim – had both pluses and minuses. Many museums and tours close October 15, so I made a mental note in future to come three weeks earlier. Storms at the beginning of the month have closed some passes. But our weather was good for October – only rain and fog, with a little snow, and a little sun as bookends. Most of all, off season meant not fighting with bloated RVs on scenic byways and no photo bombers at the biggest vista spots. There were busloads of Japanese tourists, but that happens all year long. Blissfully uncrowded trumped warmer weather.
Empty roads were expected. Off season timing was why we went. There were a few reminders of what Canada is like and a few surprises. The food was unexpectedly good at several of the brewhouses and diners. Not all – there was an ill-chosen coffee shop on Canadian highway 1 that served tartar sauce and salad dressing in Kraft teaspoon packets. But the salt and pepper ribs at Earl’s in Chilliwack, and the pulled pork mac ‘n’ cheese at the Noble Pig in Kamloops were both flipping delicious. Even the burgers and steaks were extra tasty; much better than we get in Cailfornia. Fewer hormones in the beef? More hormones in the beef? Hard to say which.
Also, all the hotels had indoor pools. Nice ones. Even the scruffy Travelodge in Golden, British Columbia had a waterslide with the indoor pool. Most U.S. hotels just laugh at you if you ask about an indoor pool. Every little town seemed to have arrows pointing to the Historic District and the Town Pool. Who knew that Canadians liked to swim so much?
As expected, Canadians we talked to were all nice. Not particularly apologetic, as I know it is a standard joke that they say “Sorry” all the time. We didn’t hear that, but every service person was exceptionally friendly, chatty and helpful, whether it was a cheap sunglass hut or at the gas station. Then, there is the math. An American traveling in Canada needs to do constant conversions, typically multiplying by 0.6 or 0.7. 400 kilometers is about 240 miles, 50 kilos is 30 pounds. Or so. Hmmm. 19 Celsius is oh about a little chilly Fahrenheit (66). The exchange rate was at .75 US dollars to the Canadian dollar, and that was great! It was like everything was 25% on sale. Gas was the most frown-inducing — $1.01 Canadian dollars to the liter. Good luck with that. The answer is San Francisco priced gas, which is kind of expensive.
A Hundred Kinds of Fog
We knew we were going to Lake Louise and Banff which are picturesque and much worth the drive, no matter how or when you go. What was an extra boon was the stunning three day drive through the Western Canadian Rockies to get there from Seattle. The mountain ranges seemed to go on forever and were already dusted with snow. I never realized that there are so many different kinds of fog. Wispy fog, almost see through, is different from the rolling cottony clumps which drifted below these gray stripes. Gray and white seem boring when there is a lot of greenery around, but not when it’s raining in the mountains, and there are suddenly multiple levels of silver, slate, and cream dusted with dots of pure white.
Lake Louise is turquoise and clear. The Lefroy glacier which carved it has ground rock flour into the waters and the silt creates a strong green tinge. Windy, snowy, or sunny, the lake showed us many facets over three days; when the wind clears, it is emerald from some angles and mirror to the mountains from others. At the out-of-our-price range Fairmont Chateau overlooking the waters, high tea was only horribly expensive at the 70% exchange rate, though the sweet biscuit with raspberry jam, clotted cream, and lemon curd was a life-changing experience. So life-changing balanced out horribly expensive, as it often does in the world. Any more should be said in pictures.
Baby Boomers and Dinosaurs
Calgary, on the eastern prairie outside of Banff, is a modern city with museums, shopping malls, and suburbs. We hadn’t made extensive plans but found plenty to do. Since tourist luck is its own kind of luck, we had clear and sunny weather on the exact day we drove in, so saw fabulous views of Olympic Park and the Rockies from the top of the rotating restaurant in the Calgary tower. There was an excellent show in town called “Boom,” a retrospective of the history and culture of the baby boomers, with playwright Rick Miller providing live music with dead-perfect impressions, projecting photographs and videos to augment the story. Apparently, it has become the most presented play in Canadian history. Afterwards, people in the audience asked the playwright why there so much in the show about American music and society, and Miller commented on how – like it or not — the big neighbor to the south has an undeniable influence on Canada. Apparently, when he performs the show in theaters in America, audience ask why there’s so much Canadian history in it. Perspective goes all ways.
Ninety minutes northeast is the Canadian Badlands, which look very much like South Dakota, and were prime grounds for unearthing one of my favorite things – dinosaur bones. They had a beautiful museum full of fossils – the Royal Tyrell museum in Drumheller. (Karin, for some reason, decided to spend a quiet morning writing and drinking coffee in the hotel – who would have thought that she would prefer that to another lecture about the fascinating purpose for the antorbital fenestra!) There have been so many dinosaurs found in the Calgary and neighboring areas, that many have names like Albertosaurus or Oldmanasaurus after the area. But my favorite name wasn’t a dinosaur. An ancient frog bone reconstructed to a skeleton was named after the beloved Jim Henson: Hensonbatrachus kermiti.
Get Over It: Rocky Mountain Show Jumping
The last event of the trip in Canada was a contest of show jumping at the Calgary Stampede grounds. The indoor arena was a little chilly but big enough to fit a dozen complicated jumps. They appear much taller close up than they have on TV. The arena was sparsely attended (most, as mentioned, at the hockey game next door) but they applauded the riders with enthusiasm. Mostly grandparents spoiling little girls with big foam cowboy hats waving plastic horses as the riders went by. We arrived early enough to see the tractors come in, and stage hands jump down with tape measures to set up the nearly two meter obstacles. Tournament officials came down with clipboards to walk off the distance between combination jumps. Then the riders came in to walk the course. Several riders rode multiple mounts, and two rode clean twice to get into the $35,000 jump off for the grand prize.
We first picked out the horse D’Artagnan because we liked the name. D’Artagnan made two jumps then refused, then decided the gravel was interesting, so that was the end of D’Artagnan’s day. The contrast was remarkable between the horses who couldn’t quite make the jumps and the ones that flew over like they were on springs. Our second choice – based on the name, given our expertise around horses – was Couscous Von Orti, written by a Chilean rider, Samuel Parot. Couscous flew around the ring, cornering so sharply with speed that he looked repeatedly like he would tip over. The last two riders were flying clean but slightly behind the time to beat, so as they sped up, they knocked the last bar over. Looking up Parot and Couscous’ history, they’ve won quite a bit, so we may see them a future Olympics.
We ended the trip hearing the Chilean national anthem, a sweet bookend to the trip. Everyone stood respectfully and cheered with enthusiasm. Canada is a cheerful and respectful country after all, resigned to its noisy neighbor to the south. Living in their quiet beauty to the north, knowing the snow will keep out anyone who expects things to be easy, but knowing that whenever you’re ready to come see the mountains, they’ll be waiting for you.