Canada 1 - The Rockies - Piers Coe

Canada 1 - The Rockies

This was the start.  There are two parts to life now. Life before Canada, and life after Canada.

Obviously not our first rodeo, as big road-trips go, but this one was special, and has influenced every one since, one way or another. Quite a bit of planning went into this, as usual, and hampered as ever by the constraints of desk-slave holiday allowance we wanted to cram in as much of this really rather large, and awe-filled corner of the world as we could into the limited time afforded us.

The basic route was simple enough – fly into Vancouver, quick trip over to Victoria and back, then head steadily east via Hope, Kelowna and Revelstoke towards the rockies, then up and down the absolutely sublime Icefields Parkway to take in Jasper & Banff, then out the other side of the mountains to Calgary for our flight home.

We started with a few days in the big city, cycling round the Stanley Park, visiting GasTown, all the usual tourist hotspots, and then we were off… the real BC was coming. First a ferry over to the island, were we had a couple of nights in Victoria.

For most british people, ‘ferry’ means a couple of hours stuck in an over-crowded floating mall full of screaming children, whilst travelling between the, shall we say less-than-scenic, towns of Dover and Calais. ‘Ferry’ in BC is different. The scenery, reminiscent of somewhere in eastern Adriatic Sea, is enough to instantly remove any stresses of city life. Everywhere you look, little archipelagos of forest-clad islands poking up out of the sea, idyllic little cabins clinging to their edges. Towering snow-capped peaks form the next layer back, both on the Island, and behind the fading bustle of Vancouver.

Then there’s the stars of the show. The tannoy crackles into life, and expecting a tedious safety announcement, or a call for someone to go and turn their car alarm off, the words (not uncommon, as we would later find out) took us a bit by surprise. We did not expect “If you look to our starboard side about half-way between us and the shore, we have a family of Humpback whales passing through”. Yep. This is a special place.

After watching the family of whales surface, blow, and dive a few times, from the deck of the ferry, we arrived at the Island, and made our way to downtown Victoria. A wander around the town, and a craft beer flight (new discovery for me – these things are genius!), and that was our day. The next would bring more whales. Lots more whales! We were booked on a full-day whale watching tour, that we briefly thought might be a bit redundant now, having had such an amazing view from the ferry. Needless to say, redundant it was not!

The captain of our boat that day went to great lengths to get us the sightings we had dreamed of, and his efforts resulted in some amazing sights. We sped around the southern tip of Vancouver Island, and eventually ended up in US waters, just off the spit of Dungeness Lighthouse. We had an amazing sighting of a pod of Orca, that at times surfaced really close to the boat, making for amazing viewing. As if not wanting to be left out, a pair of Humpbacks turned up on our way back to Victoria too, treating us to some great close-ups of their tails as they dived. Amazing.

The next day, we were back on the ferry, packed as this itinerary was, heading east, inland. A lunch stop at Hope, and then a long drive through seemingly endless forest, finally emerging on the banks of Lake Okanagan, although it could easily have been the Mediterranean! Climate changes so much with a few hours drive in this part of the world.. Elevation changes, mountain ranges, coastal vs inland…

The Okanagan is known for it’s wineries, and it’s easy to see why. Warm temperatures, plenty of sun, a big beach, and pleasure-boats milling about on the lake. Kelowna, our stop-over for the night, felt more than a little like some sort of Canadian-French-Riviera hybrid.Our next day we spent cycling the old railway & trestles of Myra Canyon, in the hills above Kelowna. A great little ride, both relaxing and scenic. An afternoon stroll along Kelowna’s lakeside promenade, and a good meal finished off the day. Next, it was mountain time! Continuing east, our next stop-over was in the great little town of Revelstoke.

Revelstoke is my kind of town. This much was evident from within a few minutes of our arrival. Nestled in a valley, river meandering through the town, forest-clad mountain-sides all around, with a little pub called “The Village Idiot”, walls adorned with ski, snowboard & mountain bike paraphernalia. I was home. The town has a laid-back feel, with a few cafes, and bike rental shops with racks of very decent looking bikes outside. I wished we’d allocated more days here straight away! As it was, we just had time for a day up Mount Revelstoke, and some time spent at the Giant Cedars Boardwalk Trail.

Our drive up the side of Mount Revelstoke will always stick in our memories though, as it was here that we saw our first bear! We’d rounded one of the many hairpins onto a straight stretch of the road, with a steep drop off into forest to one side, and a tall bank leading up into the forest on the other… just as we’d straightened we caught sight of a beautiful black bear emerging from the verge on the down-slope side of the road ahead of us. We stopped and watched, slack-jawed and silent, as he made his way across the road, seemingly unphased by our presence, and scampered up the steep bank back into the forest above. We waited a minute or two in case he re-emerged, but he obviously had places to be. As we pulled away, we noticed a Park Ranger at the other end of the straight, who’d also been watching our furry friend. Although I imagine this a relatively common occurrence for locals, the beaming grin on his face suggested he was similarly appreciative of the bear’s visit.

After a few hours hiking the trails at the peak of Mount Revelstoke, it was time to move on. Just up the road, heading into the Rockies proper, we had a little stop-off at Giant Cedars Boardwalk… a great little spot where you can walk amongst the massive, ancient, and awe-inspiring old-growth forest. From there, we headed to Golden – a little town that was our last stop before getting on the Icefields Parkway.

A quick overnighter, and then we were off… leg 1 of our journey along this epic stretch of road, surrounded by towering mountains, ancient glaciers, and endless forests. Coming from Golden, we joined the road about half-way along it’s length, so would be heading first northward, up to Jasper, and then after a few days there, we’d head back southward all the way down to Banff. The weather wasn’t exactly playing ball, for either direction, to be honest – we stopped at the infamous Peyto Lake both times, and on neither occasion could we actually see past the end of the lake! It may have put pay to photographic intentions, but the gloomy weather didn’t dampen the sense of scale you get, from winding along the valley floor.

Jasper was one of our favourite stops of the whole trip. A cosy and inviting little town, surrounded by spectacular landscape & wildlife, it’s a place we’ll surely return to one day, and it’s easy to see why there are strict laws against holiday-homes there – it’s small-town feel would be easily lost under the inevitable flood of 2nd home investors that would descend, given half a chance. Highlights of our stay here were some great restaurants, awesome local craft beer, and the most serene and wonderful experience watching a family of moose graze on marsh grasses on a little loop trail at the end of the Maligne Canyon road.

We couldn’t stay forever though, so eventually we headed southward again, destination Banff. Famous for it’s skiing, like all mountain towns, I prefer them in the summer… quieter, more chilled-out, and the landscapes so much more varied & accessible. We crammed-in tons of smaller hikes while here – easy to do as there is so much on the doorstep. Lake Moraine, Lake Louise, the Lake Agnes Tea House atop the big bee-hive (we made use of old-fashioned horsepower here, riding up the rocky trails like something straight out of a wild-west movie), canyons galore, Sunshine Meadows, the list goes on… We had some great food in town too, and of course a few of the local craft breweries finest. A great time was had… and we’d have gladly spent another week there, but departure time was closing fast.

Driving out of Banff, heading east to Calgary for our return flight, we just had time for a quick lunch stop in Canmore. We picked it mostly due to it being the right distance along the road, knowing nothing about this little place on the edge of the Rockies. Turns out it’s a great little town. Interesting little high-street, lakes and parks abound, and surrounded by inspiring mountain peaks. It was a fitting farewell to all things mountain, as moments later along that road, everything suddenly goes very flat & expansive.

We did not want to go. It took all of our available willpower to pack up, tear ourselves away from the lakeside, and get back in the car for those last few miles. I’d like to say it got easier with time, but the reality is that this was the trip that unsettled everything. Post-adventure blues hit HARD when we got home… like months-long, until we planned the next Canada trip, hard. We console ourselves with the gigs of photos, the most amazing memories, and the thought that we’ll be back. One day.

Nowhere is ever quite the same.

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