It’s June, the bees are buzzing, flowers are blooming and we’re making good time as we speed along the empty road free for now from the usual glut of campers. Entering the Fraser Valley, we view Vancouver’s leftover pollution, which hangs in the air like a glaucous curtain. Construction is everywhere and houses instead of fields now line the freeway.
We’re soon climbing the hills of the Coquihalla Highway peering over the tops of coastal cedars on one side of the van and sheared rock on the other. As we near the Interior, once vibrant pine trees stand beetle infected red and dying; nature’s enemies come in small packages. Passing through Barrier, we’re met with fire-blackened poles that were once a living forest. The town was razed in one of B.C.’s worst fires but the residents with true pioneering spirit stayed on and have since rebuilt.
We reach Valemount; surrounded by mountains this valley village offers numerous adventures to tourists and residents. The area is home to lakes, provincial parks, marshes, waterfalls, and river rafting et al – surely a camper/hikers paradise. Nearby is the second oldest park in B.C., Mount Robson Provincial Park (created in 1913). Unfortunately, the mountain was dressed in clouds as we rolled by. Luckily, we easily find a motel and unpack the van. The cavity sits empty minus one suitcase, mine, which remained at home on the bedroom floor, and so I am left with nothing. A quick visit to a “one stop fits all” shop, I have the essentials and we are off to Jasper, Alberta.
It’s time for lunch and a quick trip to the hospital to renew the prescriptions I left behind. We browse through the gift shops and museums marvelling at the art in local galleries. Jasper accommodations are pricey so we decide to head for Hinton and take a short scenic drive to Maligne Lake, the largest natural lake in the Canadian Rockies – white sands, wildlife and tranquility all in one. Wild strawberries dot the grassy area that leads to the lake while elk and sheep graze nearby undisturbed by our presence. Highway 16, better known as the Yellowhead, takes us the 80km to Hinton.
Intrigued by the name Yellowhead, I looked it up on the Net: Initially it was the secret trail to the fur cache of its namesake, the golden-locked Iroquois Metis guide known as “Tete Jaune” (literally translated as “yellow head”) who guided for Canada’s biggest rival companies, the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company.
Along the way, we spot a black bear and goats licking the salt from the asphalt shoulder; wildlife enthusiasts’ cameras posed, slow down for safety and souvenir photos.
We locate a Super 8 motel overlooking Hinton and bed down for the night. Much to our dismay, motel prices have risen to over $100 but now include a full breakfast.
The morning sun beats through the breakfast area and mixes with the air-conditioning as it warms the room. It’s time to get back on the road again. First stop: the Jasper Tramway; the town site of Jasper is built in the shape of a “J,” which is clearly visible from the 2,265m platform at the top of Canada’s highest and longest aerial tramway. A cold wind whistles us around the wooden walkway as we inhale the mountain air and view the surrounding vista. We are captured in the walls of six mountain ranges, which feed the lakes and rivers below. This is truly a photographer’s dream as seen by digital images of smiling faces amidst the mountain vista.
Next stop: Athabasca Falls. The sounds and sight of racing water adds a slight chill to the hot air. I stand in awe of the water’s power, swirling, spraying its way towards the cascading falls. Shelves of grey rock lie before me, water tumbling towards the drop-off, and an apron of evergreens surround the scene guarded by a background of snow-patched mountains. Guardrails and stone steps lead us along the many paths of this world-class attraction. There is so much to see and do outside of Jasper Township; next time we’ll map our trip.
It’s mid-afternoon when we leave the falls and make our way to the shrinking Columbia Icefields. We manage to catch the last trip up to the Athabasca Glacier. Our driver says each of the tires on the specialty built “ice explorers” cost $9,000 and they’re kept clean by running through a body of water prior to ascending the mountain of ice. The actual icefields cover an area of 325km and are estimated to be 365m deep: enough ice to last over the next 300 years. This icefield drains into the Pacific, Arctic and Atlantic Oceans. The Athabasca Glacier, where we stand, is about 6km in length and 300m deep. Fissures of fast flowing water allow us to taste the fresh, icy cold water. I can’t help wondering how old my mouthful is and what the world was like back then.
We decide to look around Banff, spend the night in Calgary then continue on to Drumheller to visit dinosaurs at the world famous Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology. This museum is by far one of the best I have visited and it encompasses all ages. It feels as though one is walking amongst giants in another world. I was amazed to watch the scientists at work brushing away eons of debris from artifacts some 65 million years old. In the 1880s, while searching for coal, J.B. Tyrrell discovered a dinosaur’s skull and the rest is history. Just down the road on Hwy 10 are the Hoodoos. They look like sandstone mushrooms carved by wind and water erosion over thousands of years. They are very fragile; if the cap is destroyed, the remainder of the sculpture will crumble.
Calgary hotels are expensive, so we take a side trip to Cochrane, where we spend the night. The next morning we head back to Banff but are only allowed a pit stop as our park fees have expired. Our next destination is Golden in the Kicking Horse Mountains, where we have lunch and strike out for Revelstoke. Our first stop is the hydroelectric dam, the second largest facility in B.C. with enough energy to power 747,600 homes a year. This massive concrete structure is easily viewed from the highway.
I think Revelstoke is one of B.C.’s best-kept secrets. This heritage town with its 60 historic buildings, of which some are still lived in, is well preserved. Situated on the Columbia River, guarded by the Monashee and Selkirk Mountains and part of the world’s only interior rainforest, its history dates back to the building of the railway; maintained for future generations through its informative museums. Many world records have been made at the community ski jump. Alpine sports and snowy vistas greet the winter visitors while hiking and camping welcome summer enthusiasts. The locals are friendly and prices are reasonable.
After spending a night in Revelstoke, we begin the last leg of our journey on Highway 1 through Kamloops and the Fraser Canyon, always a favourite, back to the Lower Mainland. The water runs high in the mighty Fraser as by now most of the mountains are drained of snow. I watch a freight train wind its way along tracks laid by Chinese labour so many years ago and as my eyes climb the rock cliffs blasted long before modern technology’s safety standards, I think once again of Revelstoke, the last spike and the men that died to make this province accessible.
All in all, we’ve covered 3,500km in five days with just enough visiting in each of our destinations to quench our curiosity about returning.
* The best way to appreciate the breathtaking scenery in the area is to be amongst the surrounding mountains. The top of the Lake Louise Sightseeing Gondola offers the most spectacular view of Lake Louise, Victoria Glacier, and the mountain peaks of the Continental Divide. The Sightseeing Gondola climbs to an elevation of 6,750 ft (2,057 m), the perfect place to experience the panoramic splendour of the Rockies and the Bow Valley.
* Take time for a tour onto the icy slopes of the Athabasca Glacier, located at the Columbia Icefields. You will travel in a specially designed coach to the middle of the glacier, on a 5km round trip journey. Your driver will point out interesting geological features as you travel in safety and comfort. At the icefall below the glacier headwall, you will have the option of stepping out onto ice formed from snow falling as long as 400 years ago.
JULY 2011 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER & LOWER MAINLAND