International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Canada
were no cowboys at Calgary Airport. A small observation, but important
to travellers like us, whose total experience of Canada was gleaned
from books and films in which, dare I say it, the Mountie always
got his man. Brushing aside this early disillusionment, we followed
our enigmatic guide, Jesse, to a large coach named Brewster, much
like the other thirty or so coaches in the terminal.
was my sisters fault. Twenty years ago she took three months out
to backpack across Canada. The same year, with two small children, we
got as far as a cottage in Devon. Having never met an unfriendly Canadian,
now enjoying our empty nest, we opted to follow in Sues footsteps.
Our leave allowance dictated a much shorter timescale though, and we
were forced to depart from tradition by booking on an organised tour.
Visions of being led by umbrella-touting guides combined with five-minute
visits to "places of interest" had us deeply worried; kind
friends asked whether we had booked with Saga, and we both felt the
need to smarten up our holiday wardrobes, leaving behind much-loved
walking trousers which bore testament to rapid descents in Snowdonia
and the Lake District. This time we would travel in style.
Heading out of Calgary, our driver Mike provided a snapshot description
of Banff, his home town and our first destination. He told us that if
anyone stopped for a coffee there, they became a local; much the same
had happened to his wife, a former teacher from Somerset, and her café
visit had extended by ten years. He didnt say much about the scenery.
There was no need as, with every kilometre, the mountains were encroaching
on the highway, preparing us in a small way for Banffs dramatic
setting. Banff Avenue, running down to the Bow River, twisting up Sulphur
Mountain and framed by snow-tipped peaks, was classic picture-postcard
material. Our hotel, to all appearances a large Swiss chalet, sat halfway
through town, set back from the avenue behind somewhat sparse greenery.
Mike explained that it used to have flower borders, but the previous
week they had been consumed by a local elk before enraged staff had
managed to call the vet for a stun gun. "Are elks dangerous then?"
A polite query from the back seat. Mike, the master of the insouciant
smile replied "Aw, probably you wont see any that close".
Already Canadian wildlife was raising issues, even before any mention
was built on a series of hot springs, discovered in 1883 while building
the transcontinental railroad. Within two years the area had been
designated Canadas first national park. Mr Brewster senior,
of coaches fame, was an enterprising farmer who encouraged his sons
to work as tour guides. Tourists initially came to take the cure,
but were not averse to a little hunting and fishing as well as plunging
into hot, sulphur-encrusted pools. From this the Brewster empire
grew, the Banff Springs Hotel a monolithic memorial to their enterprise.
It still stands today, despite being built back-to-front, thus affording
the kitchen staff a spectacular view of the nearby waterfalls, while
paying guests gaze at the mountain road.
Early next morning,
we were picked up by a minibus which rattled up a dust track towards
the Banff "wildlife corridor". Yannicke, our young guide,
had all the charm, elegance and driving skills associated with Frenchmen
and we naturally assumed he hailed from Quebec, a city boy led westwards
by his enthusiasm for the great outdoors. We were nearly right; he certainly
had travelled some distance, and explained that his only regret was
the infrequency of his visits home to family in Versailles. Had he just
stopped for a coffee?
None of our tour group had opted for this excursion, however we
were accompanied by one very serious couple. In late middle age,
their mobility was limited by copious amounts of birdwatching equipment,
cameras, water bottles and foul weather gear. I felt somewhat ashamed
of our Argos binoculars, nevertheless we all saw the same animals;
elks, birds of prey and in the distance, a brown bear. Their disgruntled
expression deepened throughout the morning, their parting comment
to Yannicke voiced their disappointment at not seeing a grizzly
close up. Each to their own; I was more than pleased to avoid any
Later we saw a
bear being airlifted in a trap; these large metal cylinders are baited
when a bear starts enjoying life in town. Bruin enters, the door clangs
shut and a short time later he is winched by helicopter to be released
in a remoter area. Yes, I thought Mike was spinning a tall tale too,
but we witnessed the flying bear at first hand.
Banff makes the most of itself; we were there in July, in a heatwave
which rendered the hot pools untenable but encouraged picnics in the
shade under the Hoodoos, an eerie rock formation on the edge of town.
Banff is even busier in winter, when skiers head for Mount Norquay.
Tourism rules. After a spectacular gondola trip to the cosmic ray station
[disused] on Sulphur Mountain our second evening was given over entirely
to eating, purely because Canadian portions would feed an average British
family for two days. To have any chance of success in the local restaurants,
it was imperative to follow the locals lead, and start eating
early, usually six pm. Mike recommended his favourite beef house, Bumpers
on Banff Avenue, and I ordered a "ladys steak", recommended
for those on diets. It was excellent, and the leftovers sufficient to
produce a beef casserole for four.
Before driving to Jasper on the Icefields Parkway, we called in for
a last coffee on Banff Avenue. Gazing out of the window I realised why
it had a familiar atmosphere. "Its a bit like Ambleside really.
Lakes, mountains, Japanese tourists . . . ." I was startled to
hear a reply from the next table "Aye, it is. Im from Ambleside
and I came over to work the ski season two years ago." Blonde,
athletic, and fresh complexioned, the speaker had all the appearance
of healthy Canadian womanhood. She had obviously also stopped for a
coffee in Banff.
comparison of the populations of Jasper, 4,700 and Banff, 8,721
provides a clue to the contrasts between these settlements, linked
by the Parkway, often blocked in winter, and the railroad. In Jasper
the highway runs alongside the rail tracks; on arrival our coach
was dwarfed by an enormous freight train, swaying gently through
the junction. No high speed trains here, and although over three
million tourists visit the park area annually,
employer is the railroad. Some towns in Australia have their "Big
Orange" or "Big Salmon". Jasper has her "Big Bear",
named, of course, Jasper and we were unaware of his cultural significance
until a local explained that he stars in a cartoon strip in one of the
Canadian national dailies.
Again dropping out of our tour group, we booked a mornings white
water rafting on the Athabasca River, so early the next day found us
on a sandy riverbank upstream from Jasper, attempting to insert ourselves
into wetsuits. I viewed the whole outing with trepidation; the guides
were both younger than my son and their graphic instructions in the
event of capsizing seemed totally superfluous. The river was in full
spate, due to its melting glacier, and I fully expected to be swept
away, if not entangled with broken branches rolling in the yellow foam.
Yet once we launched out into midstream adrenalin took over. Our guide
sat in the stern and simply told us when to paddle and when not; strangely
enough this worked well. It was immeasurably better when we shouted
as well as paddled, and screaming took us even further. Convinced that
we would overshoot our landing place and rocket on towards the Pacific,
I was very impressed when the second guide appeared at a sandy bay framing
a wide bend and waved us in. Half an hour later, drinking hot coffee,
we composed tales for our future grandchildren "we just missed
the rocks, they would have ripped the raft apart in seconds."
Action adventure over, I felt the need for some culture, so headed into
the Jasper-Yellowhead Museum and Archives. A museum volunteer with a
pronounced Essex accent welcomed me; one of the few incomers, hed
lived in Jasper thirty years and told me it was nothing like Basildon.
I agreed. The museum was running a special exhibition dedicated to bears
and anecdotes from the townspeople emphasised just how close to nature
they had lived. One arrived home from work, and seeing an elk in the
front garden, barged into the house shouting "Dont go outside!
Elk!" At the same time his wife, in the kitchen, watching a brown
bear climbing out of her dustbin, was shouting "bear!" Another
elderly lady reared two orphaned bear cubs successfully, but had to
send them to the zoo when they started playing up in the shops and expecting
to be carried everywhere. Yes, I remembered that phase with my children
too. Before leaving, we booked onto an afternoon history walk. The leader
seemed concerned, especially when I told him I came from York. "Yes,
I was there just after the war," he remembered, "its
pretty old, isnt it. Did you realise that in 1900 the population
of Jasper was three?" I felt that Jasper had packed shedloads of
history into a small timespan and told him so, he seemed highly relieved.
Canada Day is 1st July, and by great good luck, we celebrated it in
Jasper. We ate some Canada Day Cake in the town park, as did the rest
of the population, before reserving a little piece of sidewalk to watch
the parade. This ranged from the toddler group clad as miniature Mounties,
to the older generation driving mobility scooters in perfect formation.
We were surrounded by local families, all of whom had relatives in the
parade, paradoxically we felt very much at home. Everybody waved flags
yet their nationalism was not aggressive or even buoyed up by pride,
it was inclusive and friendly. When the population of Jasper hit the
streets an atmosphere of goodwill permeated all. Was this just a Canada
Day phenomenon? The drawback of this type of travel is that, unless
we return, well never know.
Banff and Jasper, both founded after my grandmother was born, have given
us a small insight into living in a young nation. The rest of our journey
is still a kaleidoscope of impressions; differing atmospheres, haunting
beauty, history and wildlife jostle for attention. Even better our original
theory has not been disproved; we have yet to meet a grumpy Canadian.
The way forward is obvious; start saving for the next trip.
© Jane Anderson May 2009
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