Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Trans-Canadian Highway West

Whew!  Okay, now that all that philosophical bullshit is done, here's the narrative from Saturday morning until I got to Vancouver Island on Sunday.

I left Starbucks and gathered the location of the local car wash from a helpful road maintenance worker.  He directed me to an area which he referred to as the Compound, a term I am beginning to realize is used here in Canada to refer to any separate area or building that has a unified purpose.  In this case, the compound in question is the business end of running the tourist town that is Banff.  You have to go back out of town, turn left, and go over a rough railroad crossing, after which you will be on a street that has the plumbers and other businesses that the managers of Banff don't want anyone to think about when they are spending their gazoodles of money on main street.  Tucked there in is a self-serve car wash.  Perfect! 

The car cleaned, my clothes cleaned, my Tevas no longer odorous, my hair washed, and in a better
frame of mind I headed for Sulphur Mountain, home of the Banff Gondola.  Said Gondola takes you from 5,200 feet to 7,486 feet, from which point you can walk along the ridge to a slightly higher overlook.  The higher overlook is the site of a metereological station that Norman Sanson hiked to every week for something like fourty years.  The hike over to the Sanson station was easy, but there was an extension that diverged from the developed path and wound around the summit below the station that I walked down for a bit, and then returned back up.  It was a great little walk.

After that adventure, it occurred to me that while I couldn't afford the Banff Springs Hotel, the golf course might have a twilight rate worth pursuing.  The course is on my punch list of golf courses that I hope to work on someday, and since I was here...well, what the hell!  They did have a twilight rate, though it was still high enough to give me pause, but I made a 3:20 tee time and headed out to find the camping site that I had reserved for the night.

When I arrived at the campground there was a loonnnnggg line to get in.  Not being a fan of long lines, I ran up past the line and turned around to come back to the other side of the office.  I asked that clerk if there might be a better time of day to return as I had a reservation and so would prefer not to spend so long waiting.  She said, "I can help you," and boom, I was checked in.  Not sure if this will be true for all my camping at Canadian parks, but while the site was more expensive than US parks, it was very service oriented.  Definitely a good place to camp.

This waterfall is situated just below the Banff Springs Hotel.  What I noticed was that the rivers and streams in the mountains here all have that grey opaque quality that I only saw previously when I was in Alaska at the Copper River.  The grey color is caused by the rocky silt that comes out of the glacier melt in the mountains.  I think its interesting that in the Rocky Mountains in the US, this silt is absent...which suggests to me that the water in the Rockies in the US are predominantly from snow melt (and so clear) rather than from glacial melt.  Not sure why it's different here and in Alaska.  Something to check on, I guess.  It also occurs to me that the Green River, which runs into the Colorado, while clear does have a green tint to it that is not far off from this grey color, but I'm color blind.

I drove down to the Banff Cave and Hot Springs park to check it out and put it on my list of things to do the next day.  Then, a quick stop at the Banff Springs hotel to take a picture and use an ATM, and then off to the golf course.

It was lovely to play a round of golf.  I had some feelings of guilt for the splurge, but that's why they call splurges guilty pleasures, yes?  At first I was playing as a single, but after about six holes I caught up with three other guys who were there on business (nice place for a business meeting!)  The course was in excellent condition and provided a challenging but manageable layout.  What makes it a world class, bucket list course is not really the course itself, as I have played courses that made better use of the terrain or offered more extraordinary design, but the environment is not to be matched.  Banff is a strange place as a natural park.  It is very developed and commercial, yet the way that the mountains explode out of the ground around you and surge skyward is nothing short of miraculous.  Everywhere you go, if you
look up there is an enormous mountain looming over you.  As usual, I hit some great shots and had a string of stupid holes.  My biggest problem was that since I was playing at 5,000 feet and hitting the course clubs, distances were difficult.  After hitting over several greens I finally realized that I could hit a 56 degree wedge 110 yards, which is a really long way.  Interesting that the course measured distances in yards, but everywhere else in Canada things are metric.

After the golf I headed to the campground and enjoyed a quiet evening waiting for dark to settle in and to get to sleep.  Amazingly, I slept until almost eight Saturday morning, which is the first time during this journey that I slept in.  Its been a hard couple of days and I think I was tired.  Of course, the fact that I got up and peed at 3:30 in the morning, so I wasn't pushed out of bed by nature's call in the morning may have had an influence on that. 

It was good to take my time in Banff, and to have time to write and reflect.  At the same time, it was a really expensive place, even to camp.  After leaving the campground I headed into town to the Starbuck’s, wrote the blog that I posted Saturday morning, and made my way to the Cave and Hot Springs National Park located by the river in Banff.  It is the site of the first national park in Canada, so it is as much a park about parks as anything else.  It was interesting to note in the historical exhibits that Canada has struggled with the tendency to displace and ignore indigenous peoples in the same way that the United States has; though they don’t appear to have engaged in such widespread and systematic genocide as we did.  The hot springs were quaint, and it was here that I began to think about the fact that the most interesting element of the trip is not so much the beautiful scenery I am encountering, as the folks who are there to see it or the folks for whom it is their livelihood. 

I left the park and headed down the TransCanada toward Lake Louise, exiting almost immediately to take the Bow River Parkway, which is the scenic route to Lake Louise.  Once again, the scenery is extraordinary.  Although I was not highly motivated to stop at the various turnouts along the way, one spot boasted a set of falls and the possibility of a hike.  I pulled into the lot, fully expecting to exit stage
left as soon as the crowds deterred me, when a spot suddenly opened up right in front of me.  Time to park and sightsee.  I got out and nosed around the parking lot.  There were people with ice cream, which suggested the presence of honey glazed tourist baited items, but all I could see were a set of highly utilitarian washrooms and an information kiosk.  I could see from the kiosk that there was a nice little hike up to the lower falls of Thompson Creek, so I trooped back to my car, changed into garb more appropriate for hiking, and set off on my way up the trail…which immediately crossed a small bridge to reveal another parking lot and the anticipated tourist trap.  A quaint shop, an ice cream stand, a restaurant claiming to have the best burger in somewhere, I don’t recall the scope of their claim, and oodles of families and folks left, right and center.  I headed up the paved walkway and was soon happily strolling along yet another roaring creek in a dramatic canyon. 

After walking a ways up the canyon, I started to consider strategies for taking pictures of people, rather than scenery.  At this point all I had was my phone, and somehow it seemed socially inappropriate to start aiming my phone at random people and snapping their picture.  Initially, I managed to capture the backs of some very interesting tourists as I contemplated this new challenge.  The first truly interesting shot I got was of an older Asian woman who was sitting on a bunch.  I surreptitiously set up as if to take a photo of the canyon beyond her, and managed to get a fuzzy picture in which she was too small.  I continued up the canyon, eventually reaching the lower falls previously advertised, snapping these furtive shots along the way.  There was a small cave which led closer to the falls and for which folks were waiting in line.  As folks went in, folks came out, since it was a dead end at the falls.  The trio in front of me included a young lady and two young men.  One young man was translating from French to English for the young lady, who appeared to speak mostly French while the other young man spoke only English.  They were clearly together, since they all had cans of Bud Light.  When we reached the front, I took their picture for them, but throughout I was playing the “what’s their story” game. 

On the way back down the canyon, I was amused to have an older Asian man, who was walking slowly in front of me and whom I had no choice but to follow given the narrowness of the path, sit down next to the aforementioned older Asian woman when we encountered her bench.  I was sorely tempted to ask to take their picture, but have not yet hit that point in my comfort level with this idea of taking pictures of strangers.  It is a dilemma, this idea of capturing people along the way.  The larger the camera, the more legitimate the endeavor.  If I had a fancy camera with an expensive lens, they would assume I was some sort of artist or photojournalist, and probably ignore me.  As it is, I might be arrested as a stalker.

A note about bugs and mosquitoes in Banff…they are aggressive.  They appeared the first time at the golf course, where they ambushed me as I stepped from the cart in the shade of a tree by the 11th green.  They were not always on the attack, but when they were there was no ignoring them.  At the campsite, they were just annoying enough for me to change into long pants and shirt earlier than preferred, and at various times in my walk at the creek they made their presence known.  It was much more like Minnesota than the insects of the Rockies south of the border.  A little more moisture results in more picturesque scenery, but also in more ferocious mosquitoes.

I continued down the Bow River Parkway, which, in turn, continued to offer amazing views.  The entire Banff area is striking because the glacial activity which formed the area created these enormous U shaped valleys that are surrounded by dramatic peaks.  It stands in contrast to the Rockies in the US in that our mountains, while having been subject to glaciation, seem to have a more complex set of erosive powers including glaciers, water and weather.  Glacier National in Montana has some of this influence, but it was most striking at Banff.  At Lake Louise I returned to the TransCanada and headed off toward Vancouver.  Before too long I came to the turn off for the Icefields Parkway, which promised a spectacular drive through ice fields to the north of the Banff and Lake Louise area.  I was tempted, but ready to move on to a new adventure, so I let it go. 

The drive from Banff to Vancouver, which I took entirely on the Trans-Canada highway, is beautiful from end to end.  It begins as I describe above, with an ongoing series of valleys surrounded by high peaks.  Each valley has at its end the view of a new set of snow-covered peaks, which as they are approached and the valley turns in a new direction are replaced by a new set of snow-covered peaks.  As I moved through the area that they marked as their Glacier National Park the peaks often contained snow fields that must have been glaciers, given their size and that it is already late July.  In one particular spot there is a large glacial field above the higway to the left that is the largest glacier I have seen since I was in Alaska some years ago. 

One interesting feature of the highway that I still am not sure of the explanation for was located just prior to the large glacier.  There is a series of tunnels through which the highway runs, but the tunnels are open on the river side (away from the peaks on the right of the road).  The ground above these tunnels is not generally particularly rocky or cliff-like, such that it seems like the road could have simply been cut through this area without the need for a tunnel.  I considered the possibility that the tunnel was to protect from rock falls, but most of the terrain was tree-covered.  My working hypothesis at this point is that the tunnels are located in areas where snow slides are most common, but I don’t know.  Have to look it up when I’ve got internet…

After leaving the glacial area, the valleys begin to widen and eventually the land changes to support ranching and farming in the green spaces between the ridges.  I crossed the Columbia River in this area, though I did not realize it until I was looking at the map some time later.  After this point you are following first the Thompson and then the Fraser rivers, and at the times when the road climbed out of the valley and into the spaces not supported by a major flowage the terrain became almost Wyoming like in that it was dry and barren.  Just to make sure that there was yet another scenic element available to the traveler in British Columbia, there is a series of large lakes which appear to be naturally formed by deep chasms in the river valley, though there may have been dams helping to ensure the lakes were formed.  In any event, these lakes created entire recreational areas with marinas and extensive tourism economies.  The areas were very beautiful and ran from the somewhat rustic to lives of the rich and famous.  At the head of one of these lakes a large collection of logs were captured within booms and seemed to be waiting to either head downstream, or to get loaded onto trains having already come downstream.

I spent the night on Sunday in an Econolodge in a place called Kamloops.  It was a serviceable place and I met a family at the pool who were moving to Prince George, which is apparently north of Vancouver.  Sunday morning I headed off again toward Vancouver without pausing for my morning writing session as it seemed that Kamloops would not be likely to support a Starbucks…but I was wrong as there was one of the highway on the south side of town.  Wanting to move along and expecting to write later in the day, I passed it by.  Besides, I already had my coffee for the morning.

After crossing through a space with fewer, smaller mountains the path began to narrow again, and before long the Fraser river valley was once again lined with snow-capped mountains and had a rushing river running dramatically through its narrow valley.  A feature of the road that you won’t find in the US is that at regular intervals are signs indicating the station settings for the local broadcasting station for the CBC, the Canadian version of NPR.  The fact that these signs were provided by the government suggests a stronger support for public radio than we have in the states.  In addition, there are probably more CBC stations here, as there were many times when the ONLY station available was the CBC (and sometimes even that was lost to me).  There were a number of little things like this that unpacked the presence of a stronger central government…or perhaps it might be more accurate to say that there appears to be a stronger social contract here.  There appear to be more laws governing little things, like you have to prepay for gas in BC, it’s a provincial law, and non of the gas pumps have handle locks, so you have to hold onto the pump handle the whole time.  It’s a small thing, but I can see both of these centralized solutions to widespread but inconsequential problems (no pay drive aways and gas spills) having come from a legislature more comfortable with regulating individual behaviors.  On CBC this morning, which I listened to when I could, there was an hour long discussion about whether retailers should have the right to charge a fee for credit card users who used higher fee cards.  It was a strange conversation to listen to, since the answer in the US would almost always be, of course.  To us, a retailer should be able to charge whatever the market would be willing to pay for.  If a retailer charged a fee for cc use, then another retailer could choose not to, which in the end would likely discontinue the practice.  The real issue seemed to be the fact that different cards charge merchants different rates.  I could see us discussing possible banking regulations to ensure that fees match actual costs rather (to prevent gouging) but that would be the end of that.  Amusingly, even with my socialist leanings, I was inclined to think these people who called in were crazy to suggest that merchants should not have the right to charge customers a fee based on the cards they used.  “Why not,” I thought?  I guess I’m at least a little bit of a capitalist.

Eventually, the terrain widened out again, and about an hour outside of Vancouver I was suddenly back in the kind of commercialized version of civilization that I hadn’t seen since I left Denver exactly one week ago.  Another comment about differences in Canada has to do with the highways.  The Trans-Canada Highway, which is the major thoroughfare across Canada, has an extraordinarily wide range of conditions for something of its ilk.  The name would, in the US, suggest a wide boulevard running straight and true through the heart of the nation.  Instead, the Trans-Canada ranges from a very interstate-like divided four lane highway, to areas where the two lanes left to motorists are winding through tight turns.  At one point the speed limit shifted from 100 km/h to 40 km/h within a very short span.  It was pleasant, in that there was a great deal of variety and engagement in the journey.  Also, while negotiating through Vancouver, at one point I was supposed to turn right, “when you hit the highway”.  Of course, I was looking for an on-ramp to a controlled freeway, when suddenly I realized that the light I was sitting at was, in fact, the intersection with the highway.  I took what was no doubt an illegal turn and headed on my way.

One of my challenges at this juncture is that my phone is turned off to avoid international roaming charges.  I could probably fix this and get some kind of affordable service, but until now I was in parks, so who really cared?  Navigating a major metropolitan area, however, is greatly eased by ones smartphone.  On a whim, as I entered Vancouver, there was a sign indicating that 104th street was the last exit before the toll bridge.  I had no idea where the toll bridge went, so I decided at the very last second to veer wildly off the highway and soon found myself rolling along on 104th Street or Avenue…not sure which it was.  A series of local and chain establishments wandered by, a hospital, a whole raft of car dealerships, but no indication of where I might be.  I was looking for a likely place to stop and consult my somewhat less than detailed atlas, when a Jiffy Lube appeared.  Eureka!  An oil change would be just the ticket.  I pulled across three lanes of traffic and found my way to the entrance.  The service guys were funny and helpful and had me in and out in short order…complete with a code for a car wash next door and vague directions to the ferry terminal (the ones that indicated a right turn at “the highway”.)  The attendant at the car wash, when encountering the comment, “Beautiful day, isn’t it,” responded by observing he could do without the heat.  It’s 72 degrees out.  Everything is, in fact, relative.

So, once again, the car washed, me washed, and this time with an oil change, I headed for the ferry terminal.  I should mention that up until that morning the ferry terminal had not been on the itinerary.  The whole reason I am in Vancouver was to see a performance of Bard on the Beach here, but it being Sunday, and both performances being sold out, and the next performances not scheduled until Wednesday, I moved on from Bard on the Beach to a suggestion that I check out Vancouver Island…which requires a ferry ride.

After a wrong turn followed by helpful directions from the clerk at Holiday Inn Express in some random suburb of Vancouver (I knew it was a wrong turn when I was suddenly in a tunnel going under the Fraser River…this was not part of the plan) I found my way to the ferry, found my way to aisle 41, and proceeded to have a 90 minute wait for a 90 minute ferry ride.  Perfect!  I have now updated my travel log, uploaded my pictures, and am going to figure out what the hell I’m going to do when I arrive on Vancouver Island.  Possibly a park on the western shore (that was the concept) or maybe a lovely little cottage by the sea?  Not likely…but something will turn up.  I read in one post online that you can camp on the beach, which sounds like a distinctly charming possibility.

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