Trip Report: Canada
Updated: Aug 5, 2021
August 9 – September 4, 2017
Today is Emerson’s second birthday. Darwin is convinced it’s hers, but we keep reminding her that happened back in June. Maybe she just wants a do-over, since we accidentally scared the hell out of them both in the Subway Cave Lava Tube.
We’re definitely doing better this time. We arrived at Park Lake Provincial Park in Alberta yesterday and will be leaving the park (and Canada) in a couple of days. We were hesitant when we heard the weather forecast: Widespread smoke in Lethbridge, with a high of 33 C (91 F) and high winds. But our campsite is lovely—we’re about 20 yards from the lake, which is providing a strong breeze, and we’re also in partial shade. So for us, the weather is in the low 80s and the wildfire smoke is barely noticeable.
We took the kids to the playground this morning and will let them play at the lake this afternoon. Then, just as Darwin did back in June, Emerson will unwrap his one small, not-too-heavy birthday present from a reusable shopping bag. Hopefully he’ll still be surprised even though he has seen the box for the tractor we’re giving him in the back of the car for the past two months. Every once in a while he’ll see it and yell “Tractor!” and I’ll say “Yep, that’s a tractor,” and close the door. Nothing to see here, move on.
Canada has been great. This is our fourth park and fifth campsite. First we spent a couple of nights at Waterton Lakes National Park, which is the Canadian side of Glacier National Park in Montana. Our campground (Townsite) was basically a big grassy field with a bunch of tents and trailers in it, as though we had all come for a concert. But it was remarkably clean, at the base of beautiful mountains, and adjacent to a large lake and cute little town. In fact it was so pretty and laid back here, I barely got angry when I hurried home with the kids in the stroller from the playground, cutting through fields as sprinkles turned to steady rain, only to find the car was gone and we were locked out of the trailer. The Dome wasn’t up, so I just stood there in the rain with the kids, waiting for Wendy. I figured there had either been an emergency with the dogs, or she’d decided to come get us when it started raining.
“I couldn’t find you!” Wendy offered as she pulled up. “I must have just missed you!” I was only a little mad about being wet. Mainly I was upset that I’d bothered running when it didn’t do any good. If I’d exerted less effort—pushed the stroller on the street rather than attempting to bound over grassy hills—we all would’ve been home sooner.
We didn’t go on any hikes at Waterton. We had planned to do one on our only full day at the park, but on our way to the trailhead, we saw two bears. One was a spazzy baby black bear running along the road batting signs with its paw. It crossed in front of us and as we slowed down, we saw another, bigger bear, on a hillside. As mothers of toddlers, we immediately decided it was imploring the spazzy bear to “Come on! We have things to do!”
After seeing how quickly little Yogi ran, Wendy and I kept envisioning meeting a bear on a trail. There’d be no getting away. Sure, I “ran” back to the trailer when it rained, but that term is indicative more of the effort I’m putting forth than the actual speed I’m going. The baby bear, on the other hand, was objectively, joyously running. Besides, there are lots of instructions regarding when to deploy bear spray. But then what? Are you supposed to back away slowly or run? I don’t want to needlessly engage the predator/prey instinct, but by doing the equivalent of kicking a bear in the nuts, have you then pissed it off enough that you’d better run while it’s incapacitated or it’ll bat you around twice as much?
On the drive home from what turned out to be a car-only site-seeing tour, we saw the baby bear again (still running) and a third bear. That cinched it for us.
Our bear awareness continued when we left Waterton and drove to Banff. First we stayed at the southern end of the park (in Tunnel Mountain Village II), which seemed more like a bustling town than a national park. Here we engaged in our first really touristy activity: a cable car ride. Darwin had recently become afraid of the wind—literally—especially when it blew the R-Dome; she’d run to us, her brow furrowed, and exclaim “Wind blow tent! Wind blow tent!” She knew what it was, but it scared her anyway. So we thought a cable car ride hundreds of yards above a mountain might frighten her. But nope, both kids loved it. In fact, Emerson cried when we reached the top and had to exit the car.
It dropped us off at the top of Sulfur Mountain, where we strapped the kids into their backpacks and traversed the 200-step wooden boardwalk to a “cosmic station.” Since neither Wendy nor I tend to read information placards, we don’t really know what that is. But the views were great and chipmunks abounded (or perhaps they were a small rodent called “Clark’s Nuts” — it’s a real thing).
The southern part of Banff holds good memories because of this, and because of our hike along Stewart Trail with CeCe. (Dogs are allowed on most trails in Canadian parks.) It also holds good memories because it’s the first place I ever tried poutine—a delicious combination of french fries, gravy, and cheese curds. But it’s also the place where a nearby train woke us up every night, and where I lost the outer shell of my tri-climate jacket.
The day we set aside to explore the town called for the use of our jackets—sometimes just the warm lining and, when it intermittently poured, the outer shell. We kept the coats in the bottom of the stroller and donned different components at the appropriate time. I was wearing the outer shell of the Patagonia coat when we arrived at the car and began packing it up to go home. I took the coat off… and that was the last time I ever saw it.
When we got back to camp and began placing the coats into the bag where we keep them, they were all there except my outer shell. My parents bought me that coat for Christmas and I’d planned to take it to France—a little piece of my Maryland home with me on our new farm. And now it was gone. We drove back to the parking garage, hoping it had fallen out of the car and we’d find it on the ground, maybe in a corner. But it was nowhere to be found.
Aside from the sentimental value, that jacket was really useful! Here we were, headed farther north into Canada, where the weather had already proven unpredictable, and I’d lost the ability to protect myself from rain and wind.
When we left the southern part of Banff and arrived in Lake Louise, Wendy bought me another outer shell as a birthday present. I guess if I’m going to lose something that means a lot to me, doing so around a holiday is good timing. So now I’m properly outfitted again, and already had occasion to use the shell on one of our hikes.
Lake Louise is a more national parky side of Banff. It has a very small shopping area and is much less crowded. We spent seven nights here in the Lake Louise Hard-sided Campground. The “hard-sided trailers only” requirement was not lost on Wendy. She waited until there was sufficient light and activity in the morning before walking the dogs, watched for bears whenever the kids played outside, and only took the dogs out at night before it got dark.
We know we’re supposed to back away slowly so as not to agitate them, but our dogs don’t. We fully expect CeCe, Odie, and Clark would bark their faces off if they so much as got a whiff of a bear. “I’d just have to let CeCe go,” I told Wendy on one of our evening walks along the campground perimeter, which abutted a forest and river. “She’s the only one who could actually fight a bear.”
“CeCe? Nah,” she replied. “I’d let Clark go. He’d distract the bear but then the bear wouldn’t be able to catch him.” She had a point. Though I suspect Clark may just run to us, and possibly around us in circles, wanting to be close but also unable to calm himself. “I’ve rounded them up for you,” he’d be telling the bear, “This big dog that looks like a cow is easy pickins.”
Lake Louise also had train tracks nearby. Perhaps some tourists appreciate this, but we didn’t find it enchanting. “Shut up train! Everybody hates you!” Wendy retorted one night in response to its intrusive whistle. That summed it up well. I wore earplugs and still woke up to it a couple of times each night. The kids picked up on our distaste for it, merging their excitement with our disdain. They’d yell “Train!” when they heard the whistle, immediately followed by “Loud!”
While our in-camp experience may not have been stellar, our other activities were. We went on a glacier tour, where the kids got to ride in a bus for the first time. The bus drove us to the place where the ice explorer tractor/buses hang out, then we boarded one (with Emerson yelling both “tractor!” and “bus!” alternately) and drove onto Athabasca Glacier. Then we got out for half an hour, took pictures, drank some of the water, and finally licked a glacier. I don’t know how that last item arrived on Wendy’s and my to-do list, but it held a prominent place and finally we’re able to cross it off.
Also, when we got home, Clark was still alive. We had expected he would be, but a niggling concern remained in my gut since he’d snuck the “butter ball” off the table that we’d made for CeCe that morning: two Benadryl tablets surround by butter. She weighs 60 lbs and he only weighs 15. At the very least, I’d expected him to be asleep when we got home. But as soon as we pulled up I heard him barking. It was like nothing had ever happened.
We went on a couple of really cool hikes in Lake Louise. One was recommended by a lady from North Carolina who camped next to us at Mt. Rainier. She’d been to Banff and said the Lake Agnes Tea House hike was a must-do. We read that it was 3.4 km each way (about 2 miles) with significant elevation, but decided that it sounded worth it.
I was cursing North Carolina halfway through the hike. It was just up and up followed by more up. Plus the view of Lake Louise disappeared early on in favor of forest, so watching Wendy try to prevent CeCe from eating horse poop was my only real entertainment.
I’m not a hiker. I just like to see beautiful things, and I’m willing to work for it. I realize lots of people derive pleasure from the hike itself—especially if they have to exert a lot of effort—but if I could see all these beautiful things without breathing hard and getting jelly legs, I’d gladly do so. We hiked two-and-a-half hours uphill to spend 20 minutes at a small lake next to a crowded tea house. To put it in perspective, the Cleetwood Cove Trail at Crater Lake had an elevation gain of 700 feet over the course of a mile; the Agnes Tea House lake had an elevation gain of 1,300 feet over the course of two miles. Wendy was glad we did it. But me? No. Not even if Emerson had been walking rather than riding on my back.
The other hike we went on was totally worth it: Johnston Canyon. It was quite different from anything else we’ve experienced so far. We walked in a canyon, the jagged rock towering above us on each side. A concrete pathway with a sturdy guard rail was attached to the side of one of the walls and a glacial river roared below.
We left the Lake Louise portion of Banff in need of groceries and with a big pile of laundry in tow. This trip has activated interesting parts of our brains since everyday administrative chores sometimes require extensive planning to achieve. For example, Wendy purchased pre-made polenta then dreamt that I’d carelessly eaten it as a snack; she was furious with me. And in our waking hours, we’ve accused each other of crimes such as the “frivolous use” of clean clothing, lights, or water.
Jasper though, had everything. The town isn’t very big, but it’s very practical, with a decent-sized grocery store, three liquor stores, several gas stations, and two laundromats. Curiously, each laundromat also doubles as something else; one is also a coffee shop and the other one doubles as a stationary shop. The latter is called “Three Sheets to the Wind” and quickly garnered our business. Other practical benefits to Jasper? No train and most activities were in close proximity to our campground (Whistlers). Oddly though, for such a seemingly-well-planned town, there were no diaper-changing stations and lots of stairs without ramps. There was no way for someone in a wheelchair to enter the Visitor’s Center, either laundromat, or several shops.
We went on a couple of hikes while in Jasper and the best by far was the Cavell Meadows trail. I waited in line at the Visitor’s Center two days ahead of time to secure a free permit to drive along Cavell Road so we could travel to Edith Cavell and hike 7 km (about 4 miles) next to Angel Glacier into a meadow carpeted with wildflowers. It was quite difficult, with the same elevation gain as the Agnes Tea House hike (1,300 feet), but it was—without question—totally worth it. I think it may be my favorite so far, with our hike along Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park a close second.
The kids also got to ride in a boat for the first time. We had planned to rent a canoe while at Lake Louise but scratched the idea when we learned it cost $100/hour. I felt bad because I’d asked the kids if they wanted to go in a boat and they shouted “Yeah!” even though they didn’t really know what that meant.
It only costs $40 to rent a rowboat at Pyramid Lake in Jasper, so we went for it. I’d never rowed a boat and turns out it’s actually more tiring than paddleboarding or kayaking. Our hour-long rental turned into a 30-minute rental where Wendy says we traveled maybe five feet. The kids loved being on the water though, clad in little life vests, taking a turn with the oars.
After rowing, we drove to the part of the lake with a beach and had a picnic lunch. There they were, let loose at a sandy beach at the base of a mountain, crystal clear water gently lapping at their legs… and they found a big mud pool someone had dug into the sand. They just couldn’t resist the brown, murky goodness it contained and proceeded to play there—literally one foot away from the clean water—for an hour. They couldn’t travel in their sandy, mud-laden state, so Wendy and I washed them in the lake before returning to the car. “Playing in mud is fine,” I told Emerson as I rinsed away the grit with ice-cold glacial water, “but this is what happens afterward. Keep that in mind next time.”
As a testament to the boundless energy of two-year olds, we drove to a third part of the lake with a footbridge to a small island. We walked around the perimeter with the kids, then drove home and went to the playground. When bedtime rolled around, they still weren’t ready to sleep even though Wendy and I were beat.
After Jasper we traveled to Red Lodge Provincial Park, which was just a place to stop for a couple of nights to break up the drive as we leave Canada. The provincial park we’re in now—Park Lake—has been a great way to end this portion of our trip. Canada has been awesome. While many of the highways we traveled had some degree of disrepair (especially the Icefields Parkway), they also had large turnouts with trashcans—a convenience I’d like to see in the States. I love that dogs are allowed on national park trails; we didn’t suffer any damage to the trailer while here. Truth told we’re a little sad to leave Canada, but we’re looking forward to our next big stop: Yellowstone National Park!
Read the next trip report: Yellowstone National Park