Jul 13, 2005

Wolvenspirit's Summer Excursion Part III of V: The Canadian Rockies Experience

The clock on the radio read 3:15 a.m., yet somehow, I could already see the earliest signs of dawn. That daylight could possibly rear its head so early was mind-boggling to me, until I saw an Alberta checkstop sign and realised that we must have crossed into mountain standard time. Even still, dawn at 4:00 in the morning was not something I was accustomed to. Spending the longest day of the year up at this latitude was, in fact, fascinating for me. The longest daylight lasts in the Hawaiian islands is around fourteen hours. Up there, the daylight persisted somewhere around twenty hours. I suppose they are used to it, but I certainly wasn't.

As the dawn gradually grew brighter, I began to witness more scenery, and found it, well, nothing short of breathtaking. We were descending a wide mountain pass, looking down upon several steel blue lakes and snow-capped mountains. It all looked positively majestic in the youthful light. Admittedly, at this point I was tired, but riveted by the scenery at the same time. We finally passed through the gate to Jasper National Park, which was of course unmanned so early in the morning. After another 45 minutes or so of driving, we reached the town of Jasper, where we refueled and inquired as to where the campsites were. We ended up driving through Whistler's, a very large, spread out campsite located in the foothills of Whistler's Mountain, much of which was not populated at all. We found ourselves a very secluded, tranquil campsite amongst the evergreens and decided to pitch our tents and settle down for a spell. It was still only 6 in the morning or so by the time I nestled down to sleep. Sleep was something I desperately needed.

Unfortunately, at around 8:30, we were both awakened by a park ranger who ordered us to pack everything up and sign up at the front kiosk for an assigned camping spot. The section of the campground we had chosen was "closed" until peak season, apparently. I was half-expecting something of the sort to happen, and wasn't exactly thrilled when it did. We were charged a considerable amount per person for camping, and shoehorned into a little site located in a ring of occupied campsites. Having last camped at a secluded little lake, this was rather difficult to adjust to, having people camped on either side of us and totally within our view. This is the sort of camping I never cared for, personally, but we didn't have much of a choice. I built up my tent as quickly as I could and retreated into it, thankful for the privacy, and laid my weary bones to rest for a good few hours.

Once again, my father hung around the camp all day long, while I took the car and explored a few locations in the park. I was delighted to discover a small cemetery on the outskirts of town. Though there was not anything truly exceptional about it in comparison to other cemeteries I had been to, I was able to bask in the serenity and solitude it offered for about an hour. Honestly, I am one of the very few individuals I know who enjoys cemeteries so much. It was one of those very comforting overcast days, where it felt only natural to be wandering around outside, especially in such a beautiful area. Amongst all those deep blue lakes and tall white mountains, I truly felt at home. This was a very wolf-friendly place, to say the least. In the charming little town of Jasper, I even found a gift shop by the name of "Timberwolf." Perfect, no? Later in the day, I returned to camp and helped gather some firewood. I ended up going to sleep before the last remaining traces of daylight faded from the sky, around 11 in the evening.

The following day proved to be even more interesting. The weather was much clearer than the day before, and the sun even shined at times (go figure!). We left camp to head up the hill to the Jasper Tramway, another money vacuum which is still a fairly obligatory tourist activity, heavily purported to be worth doing at least once. A ticket cost $21 per individual--to get to the summit, it was either pay that much for a tram ride or hike 9 or so kilometers up the mountain while watching fat, lazy people ride up without moving a muscle, teehee. If I was alone and had more time to spend at the park, I may very well have opted to hike, but considering the situation, I happily agreed to riding. Well, my happiness faded somewhat when I realised how many human beings they were going to try to cram into a single tram car. I swear, it was elbow to elbow, torso to torso. They loaded us in like cows and sheep. As we ascended up the cable, a girl with an incredibly obnoxious, almost monotone voice began rambling various tidbits of trivia about the park. Feeling hot, uncomfortable, and utterly claustrophobic, I stared out the window as we rose higher and higher into the sky, concentrating on how pleasant it would feel to get the hell out of there. Fortunately, the ride lasted only eight minutes, and I was one of the first to step off the lift. Even the upper tram station had a gift shop of its own, not to mention its own restaurant. The view from this point was marvelous, for I could see the entire town of Jasper and countless peaks near and far.

A summit trail led to the very zenith of the mountain, and it was incredibly steep. I had to pace myself, due to the lack of oxygen at such an elevation. I was far from the only one up there, and I shuddered to imagine what the place must have been like in peak season. Almost everyone I encountered along the trail seemed to be of European descent. When I finally did reach the summit, I was pleased to discover that I was just about the only one up that high. The scenery up there was to die for; something I could only hope to describe in a photograph.

After finding my way back down, I met up with my father again in the restaurant and enjoyed a good salad. We then rode back to the lower tram station, this car not being nearly so unbearably packed as the previous one. A good portion of the day was spent tripping about the park on scenic roads, simply driving and walking around and becoming lost in the natural beauty. Late in the afternoon, we made our way to the Maligne Canyon seven bridges area, as the guide books made it sound very appealing to both of us. Considering the daylight was already starting to fade, we did not initially plan on going very far down the trail. When we crossed the first bridge and looked down into the canyon, though, we were blown away by what we saw. It was almost mind-boggling, difficult to comprehend, how deep and narrow the canyon was, especially in the dying light. We progressed down the canyon, always promising ourselves we would stop at the next bridge and turn around, but no, we just -had- to keep going. The scenery was simply much too riveting, and we got completely sucked into it. The experience just seemed to get better and better, as we passed by underground river outlets pouring into the main glacial river, and a beautiful multi-tiered waterfall on the other side. It was already too dark to take any quality pictures, but we promised ourselves we would come back tomorrow. We did, in fact, get all the way down to the lower parking lot, and at that point, we concluded that it was already too dark to walk back up the way we came. Oh, the spontaneity of it all was just so romantic. We decided we would just hike back up the highway to the parking lot we had originated at, feeling that would be the safer bet. It was a much longer, more roundabout way to go, too. This was one of the more surreal events of the entire trip, walking up a desolate highway with my "physically disabled" father (he discovered on this trip just how much more activity he could endure with a new medication) at 11:30 at night, where it was still not completely dark. To tell the truth, I was loving it. I never could have predicted such a thing would happen. When we finally reached our vehicle, we returned to camp, and once again had another good night's sleep.

Returning to Maligne Canyon the next day was the first entry on our to-do list. This time, I dropped my father off at the upper parking lot so he could walk down the trail and I drove down to the lower parking lot so I could meet him somewhere on the way up. If anything, the canyon looked slightly less impressive in full daylight because it was more predictable and less mysterious. ...Naturally. I was, however, satisfied with the fact that I could take good pictures this time around. Even still, photographs fail to capture the true majesty of the place- it is something that must be seen in person.

On the northern edge of Jasper National Park, reached by a scenic drive up Fiddle Canyon, are a couple of hot springs. For some reason, I had this image in my head that the springs would be two completely natural pools deep in the woods somewhere, reached by a rugged and unimproved two-mile trail. I came to discover, however, that I was thinking far too heavily of my hot springs experience in Oregon when I was six. When we reached the springs later that afternoon, my heart just about sunk down into my knees in disappointment when I found out just how commercialised it all is. They charge a fee to get in, and the springs are really just two naturally heated concrete swimming pools in a fenced-off enclosure. Essentially, it's laid out so you walk in to the entrance building, pay your fee, walk into one of two locker rooms depending on whether you're a guy or a girl, change your clothes, and proceed to the springs. It's oh-so bloody procedural and automatic. The springs actually were not as hot as usual due to heavy rains bringing an excess of cold water into the enclosures. Still, after taking a quick dip in the nearby unheated swimming pool, it felt very, very nice. Unfortunately, there were simply too many humans around for me to thoroughly enjoy the place, even though the high mountainous setting was simply magnificent. At the very least, the drive up and down Fiddle Canyon was very nice, and this time, we actually got back to camp before dark!

When I first caught sight of the resplendent full moon shimmering through the spruce trees above, I decided that I must go for a stroll. I ended up at the edge of a large clearing, a sprawling grassy field completely unoccupied by anyone else. As I slowly proceeded onto it, my gaze fixated upon the moon rising above the trees on the other side, I was overwhelmed with a profound sense of euphoric nostalgia. I was reminded of my night wandering days in Arizona, where I found a clearing of the same size up in the mountains late one evening, and the spiritual ambience of it made my heart want to sing for joy. I'll probably never understand why certain places I visit or things I do invoke these sensations, but perhaps I don't need to. I spent at least a couple of hours moondancing in the clearing, soaking up the beauty of it all and simply being free . . . simply being myself. It was only when I heard a dog bark and turned to see a nocturnal human couple walking along the nearby road that I was snapped out of my trance. Had they seen me, I could just imagine them thinking, "what in God's name is that furry freak doing?"

The next morning, it was finally time to pack up our possessions once again and truck along to Banff National Park. The two parks are connected by the Icefields Parkway, a famous scenic highway that leads past many ...icefields. Actually getting to Banff took us most of the day, not necessarily because of its distance from Jasper, but because I could hardly resist stopping at every pull-out to admire the remarkable vistas. In all sincerity, the scenery along this highway was among the best I have ever witnessed. We passed by one series of impressive mountain peaks after another, countless marvelous lakes, spectacular glaciers, and towering waterfalls. At one lookout, I was fortunate enough to have a wild mountain goat and her kid run right past me, down along a high river bank. I was the only one there to take a few glorious photographs of them both. Farther down the road, a small herd of wild horned sheep crossed the highway right in front of us. I was one of the first to stop and take a few pictures of them, but it wasn't long before more humans stopped and began to encroach upon their space a little too much. One clueless idiot, in fact, began throwing them food scraps, even though countless signs advise against feeding the wildlife. I peeled out of their before an entire tour bus of tourists began joining the mix. Honestly, I believe those animals either loved the attention, or simply didn't care about being gawked at, as they appeared to be in no hurry to move along.

We did make an extended stop at the Columbia Icefield, a convenient roadside glacier. To have passed through the Canadian Rockies without visiting a glacier would have been, well, silly. It was a brisk, steep little hike over barren rock up to the edge. Along the way, about two dozen warning signs covered every conceivable threat glaciers posed to humans, using a "this could happen to YOU" mentality and quite a few corny illustrations. A trail up the steep field of ice was marked with cones, and only led on for about a quarter mile or so. If the visitor chose to go any farther, well, it would totally be at their own risk! They way they discouraged it, you'd think you were dancing around a minefield. I noticed a few individuals walking well beyond the limits of the "trail," so I'm sure it wasn't as dangerous as it was made out to be. Still, I was content to go to end of the trail and stay there for a little while, enjoying the coldness of the place and the surrounding physical beauty. Ah, and it's always beneficial to be able to say that you have walked on a glacier before.

Before we reached Banff, we stopped at Lake Louise, a smaller town along the way. While I stopped in a deli for a few bites to eat, my father phoned a friend in Calgary; someone he had known for decades and had just spoken to recently about visiting. It was his vision that we might end up at his homestead in Airdrie and experience the comforts of home for "free" for a couple days. As it turned out, that is exactly what happened. He invited us to drive over there that night and see him. Of course, we still wanted to see Banff, but fortunately, it was conveniently on the way.

We approached the Banff townsite late in the afternoon, and I would have to argue that it could not have looked better any other time of day or year. The way the golden sunshine of the late afternoon drenched the verdant town was simply marvelous. The real heartbreaker was that we could not spend much time here at all, having such a strict schedule from now on. At this point, we had to start planning out the rest of our days, so that we could successfully reach San Diego by the 26th, the date my father wanted to be at his coin show there. As of this point, it was already after the 20th, so yes, every day mattered. We made a beeline for the Banff Tramway, hoping it was still open after 8 in the evening. Surprisingly, it was, so we took a little ride up to the top of a mountain. I declare, this tram ride was much, much better than the last. We got an entire tram car all to ourselves, and it was quite comfortable too. Not to mention, it was a ten minute ride. There weren't too many tourists at the top, and the late afternoon views toward Banff and the distant mountains, with the sun at my back, were simply stunning. I only wished that we had enough time to walk up the series of stairs to the highest point of the summit, and just bask in the euphoric atmosphere. Unfortunately, we had to elevate back down before long, and hit the highway for Calgary, racing to meet up with Mark Fellows by an agreed-upon time in the evening. From this point on, everything more or less seemed like a race.

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