Canada is a big place. Over the past couple of family vacations, we have been discovering (or in my case rediscovering) this fact. In 2017 we went to Newfoundland for Canada’s sesquicentennial. When 2019 rolled around we toyed with the idea of going to Europe to visit relatives. Maybe the kids could see their first mountains in the Alps, like I once did, visiting my paternal grandmother. But there wasn’t enough time. We only had a week. So, we decided to stay in Canada again for another no-passport-needed trip. The kids could see mountains right here at “home” in the Canadian Rockies.
It also seemed a good time for a family of Toronto-based ecologists to go to Alberta because, as the Federal election looms, Canada seems to be polarized over many issues including pipelines. I know that many Albertans are frustrated and feel like the rest of Canada doesn’t understand what they are going through. They may have a point, aptly captured in this political cartoon, which pokes fun at Canada’s response to the loss of 2500 jobs due to the closing of an auto plant in Oshawa, after seemingly ignoring the fact that Alberta has been losing thousands of jobs a month (at least in 2015/2016). I know we can’t change that by visiting and learning about the place, or with our paltry tourism dollars, but it seemed better than nothing.
Because of the success we’d had in Newfoundland, we once again decided to rent a car and do a self-guided tour, with accommodations and some destinations planned in advance for us by a local travel agency. This time – to the kids delight – several “touristy” things were included. In other words, things in which their “frugal” mother wouldn’t normally indulge.
We landed in Calgary and our first stop was Nose Hill Park where we had a picnic lunch and then hiked restored native prairie in the middle of the city.
Then it was off to the Calgary Tower. A ride to the top was included in our trip – one of those things I wouldn’t normally have paid for – but when we arrived, we found the entire tower closed. Apparently, there had been an incident with the elevators in mid-July and the tower had been closed since. Undeterred, we decided to explore the downtown core of the city. We stopped at the wonderful architecture of the Calgary New Central Library. Both outside and inside, the building is like an art museum and library rolled into one with a large central atrium and a huge skylight.
After the library we took the Calgary Transit light rail over the Devonian Gardens. One hectare of indoor botanical gardens housed on the fourth floor of the CORE shopping center. The kids loved the idea of the indoor gardens and a pretty impressive indoor playground. It certainly seemed like a good idea to me in a place with six months of winter.
That evening we had an excellent pizza dinner with a cousin of mine whom neither Hubby nor the kids had met. She’s lovely and we had a great time catching up. We ended up visiting relatives anyhow. Not that difficult when your extended family is spread all over the place.
We started the next day at Olympic Park just west of the city where we took in the infrastructure used during the 1988 Calgary Olympics. I still remember those Olympics with pride and had the orchestral theme of the games running through my head the whole time we were there. We took goofy photos in the bobsled used for the 1993 movie “Cool Runnings” and then the kids convinced us to do the downhill karting track. The ride included taking the ski lift to the top of the hill and then a 1.8 km long iceless luge track down. It was great fun and the kids got to drive their own carts. Best of all, we got to do it all twice.
Then it was onwards to the mountains and Banff. We opted to stay a bit outside of town (but well within cycling distance). There we had peace, quiet and a lovely one-bedroom condo with a spectacular view of Cascade Mountain just outside our door.
We visited the Cascade Gardens and found them a profusion of flowers: stunning pinks, blues, and golds accented by pools of water, arched bridges and a gazebo. We took in the main drag of town from the historic Banff Park Administrative building and then it was off to the next adventure, a covered wagon ride with Warner Stables Banff Trail Riders. This was another one of the excursions I might not have taken had it not been included, but it ended up being quite lovely. Lucas was completely taken by the horses (if a little scared), and the wagon ride offered us lovely views. Next time though, I want to ride the horses.
We ate steak outdoors in the woods – we are not vegetarian when we travel to free range beef country – and then we got lassoing lessons! On the way back to the hotel we took in a few more sites including the Banff Springs Hotel (from across the Bow Rapids) and then the lovely little trail out to Hoodoo Viewpoint. The light was perfect and turned the tips of the mountains pink and gold.
When we woke the next morning, there was frost on the car. We knew it would be chilly up at the summit of Sulpher mountain and so we dressed warmly before heading to the Banff Gondola. The ride up was smooth and fast. Much quicker than the 6 km hike would have been. We had a gorgeous sunny day, so the views for the top were spectacular. There was also an amazing interpretive centre and a great little hike along a scenic boardwalk to Sanson’s Peak (2,256 metres).
There was so much to see that, although we first had a ticket for 1.5 hours at the summit, we changed our return time and ended up staying 2.5 hours.
Then it was off to Lake Minnewanka, which takes its name from the language of the Stoney Nakoda people who settled the area as much as 10,000 years ago (Minne = water and Wanka = spirit). Lake Minnewanka is the deepest lake in Banff National Park. It got to be that way because the glaciers got stuck in the Minnewanka valley when they ran up against a wall of the granite at the valley’s east end. While stuck, they kept them grinding the valley deeper and deeper. The place where the glaciers finally breached – Devil’s Gap – gives a view out to the Prairies. The Stoney Nakoda people would have used the Devil’s Gap as an entrance into the Rockies, a route they introduced to some of the first European explorers. The Devil’s Gap has been a critical corridor for people and wildlife for at least 13,000 years.
On the way back to the hotel we saw a group of big horned sheep, which made taking the scenic route all the more worthwhile. Back at the hotel, everyone decided to take some time for themselves. I used my time to rent a bike. For all of the pricy things included in our trip, renting that bike was the best $10 I spent. I rode into town along a short stretch of the Banff legacy bike trail. I mainly bike in the city and so riding on a safe and separated bike lane, through stunning scenery with clean, fresh air flowing into my lungs was exhilarating!
Beyond the town I continued onto the Vermillion lakes. These lakes represent a rare wetland in the Rockies, where water wants to rush downhill and rather than meander.
There were ducks on the lake and the view of Mt. Rundle was amazing. No wonder people have been painting or taking pictures of these wetlands and mountain from the for so long.
The next day we drove from Banff to Jasper on the famous Icefields Parkway. The drive is consistently rated amongst the top 10 most scenic drives in the world and it is clear why. We took a quick detour at Lake Louise to take the Trans-Canada highway into British Columbia. This was the first time that Hubby, Ray or Lucas set foot in that province. Across the border we were in Yoho National Park and we made a pit stop at the spiral tunnels. The tunnels were designed as spirals as a way for trains to safely navigate the steep grade up to the highest point in the Trans-Canada railway (and highway) – Kicking Horse Pass – so named because James Hector had a very hard time while surveying the pass in 1858. The trains spiral up or down slowly in tight turns, greatly reducing the risk of runaway trains.
Back in Alberta, we made a stop at Peyto Lake, which is the same turquoise blue as Lake Louise (if not a bit brighter). The lakes have this stunning colour because the glaciers that feed them grind the calcite and limestone of the mountains into a fine powder called “rock flour”. When suspended in water, “rock flour” absorbs all colours of the spectrum except blue and green, making the water glow turquoise.
From Peyto Lake we went straight to the Columbia Icefield. The change in elevation was dramatic and it was exciting to be up so close to the tree line. The Glacier Adventure tour was included and so we got to go out onto the Athabasca glacier itself by ice crawler. I could have done without the crowds, but the ice crawlers were very cool and the guides were full of interesting information. For example, the Subalpine Spruce and Engelmann Pine we saw beside the glaciers are 300 to 400 years old, yet are only just taller than an adult human, because they only have about two months a year to grow.
I was impressed by the size of the ice crawlers. The tires alone are taller than out kids. The guides told us that these huge machines are built by a Calgary based company that builds research and industrial vehicles. Ice crawlers built by the same company, are being used in the Antarctic. They run on very low tire pressure (16 psi vs 30 in a regular car) which gives excellent traction on ice and steep grades. Each crawler costs $1.3M.
As impressive as the ice crawlers were, the glacier was even bigger.
When we exited the ice crawler, we were standing with 250 meters of ice under our feet. The glacier was also melting – all around us. This water was flowing down from the Columbian Icefields and then splitting into watersheds that feed three oceans: the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Arctic. The glacier is melting fast. When I was here in 1996 the glacier was certainly thicker and closer to the road. I hitchhiked out from Jasper and was easily able to walk from the road to the toe of the glacier and up onto it (something that is absolutely not allowed now). Indeed, the glacier is losing more than 5 meters off its surface every year and may be gone in a generation.
As we descended from the Icefields towards Jasper, we started noticing red trees. This was pine beetle infestation. And the species attacked the most often are lodgepole pine. The views remained spectacular and the rusty red was almost pretty, but it was still a sobering site to see so many dead and dying trees. The beetle has infested 30% of lodgepole pine forest in Jasper National Park. That is not good news because the dead trees make excellent kindling for forest fires.
When we got to Jasper, I took a hike at the Old Fort Point trail. I needed to get my blood flowing after a day in the car and so I hiked the 130 meters up to the viewpoint straight up the steepest part of the trail. I was rewarded with lovely views of the valley and Mt. Edith Cavell glowing in the sunset.
Our full day in Jasper was packed solid with activities. We started with the Jasper SkyTram, which is a cable tramway with only too large trams, in contrast to the Banff gondola, which is more like a ski lift with over 80 gondolas. From the tram station, I hiked up the additional 200 metres to the summit of Whistlers Mountain at 2463m.
After the SkyTram we drove an hour to Maligne Lake. On the way out we saw a small group of Elk and on the way back we saw a black bear crossing the road. At the lake, we boarded a boat that would take us 14 km out to Spirit Island. The island became famous to the wider world in 1960 when it was pictured in Peter Gales’ image in Kodak’s Colorama showcase in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal. That photo sparked the tourist industry on Maligne Lake. Gales said he took the shot because he thought it captured the spirit of the Rockies. As we pulled through the narrowest part of the lake, we saw what artist and explorer Mary Schäffer – the first European to see Maligne Lake in 1908 – called “the Hall of Gods”.
We stopped on the mainland next to tiny Spirit Island to explore and to take pictures; however, we were not permitted on the island itself because it is a spiritual place for the Stoney Nakoda First Nation. They call the island Sacred Island and used it as a spiritual place when they lived in the area for at least 8000 years before the coming of Europeans. Then in 1907, when the National Park opened, the Stoney we exiled from their lands within the park were shipped off to reserves in Northern Alberta. The Stoney weren’t allowed back onto their Sacred Island for a hundred years. Then in 2016 they returned for a healing ceremony.
The healing ceremony was prompted by the Excelsior wildfire, which began on July 1st 2015 and burned out of control as a category 6 wildfire until June 20th. That fire left a scar on the land – a big one – 5000 hectares. We saw it while driving along Maligne Road to and from the lake.
On the way back to Jasper, we made a quick stop at Maligne Canyon. It is the deepest gorge in the Rockies, up to 55 m deep and 1.2 km long, carved through Devonian limestone. All of the water flowing through Maligne and Medicine Lakes, thunders through this canyon on the way to the Athabasca Valley. But the water disappears into a vast underground cave system first. By using red dye, scientists discovered that the journey took 12 to 24 hours in the summer and 5 to 9 days in the winter. Once in the canyon proper, even more water is added via springs found in the gorge. In fact, geologists have discovered that more water flows out of the canyon than flows in!
That evening we took a guided paddle onto Pyramid lake with Wild Current Outfitters. Compared to the large group tourist activities we’d been doing; our guide’s small operation was a relaxing break. He’d built his 9-person voyager canoe himself over a winter and the boat was beautiful! It was peaceful on the lake because all of the rental boats and had already been returned. We saw a single canoe and a fishing boat, but beyond that, the lake was ours to share with Common Loons, an osprey and whatever other animals were hiding nearby. There may have been plenty. Other have seen golden eagles, elk, moose, bears, wolves and even a lynx on his tours. To top it all off, on the drive back to town we saw two fully antlered male elk.
The next day we left the majestic Rockies behind. The 4-hour drive to Edmonton took us along the Athabasca River as it tumbled over rocks or braided its way through gravelly flats. As we drove, the mountains gradually petered out to foothills. On the way we saw black bear and buck elk. We made a pit stop in Edson, a town of about 9000 people in the rolling woodlands, about half way to Edmonton, and then we were off, on a mission to the West Edmonton Mall.
I am not a big mall person, but I’ve been interested in the West Edmonton Mall (WEM) since I was a child when I could barely fathom the idea of a place big enough for Galaxyland indoor amusement park, the World Waterpark, a skating rink, bowling alley and more.
The was even an exact replica of Christopher Columbus’ flagship sailed to the Americas in 1492.
When I was a kid – actually until 2004 – it was the largest mall in the world. Now there are more than twenty malls that are bigger, which says much about our consumerist society. WEM covers an area of about 490,000 square meters and houses more than 800 stores, 2 hotels and 9 attractions. We stayed at the Fantasyland Hotel (not something I would normally do, but very convenient since it rained the whole time we were in Edmonton and we could walk indoors from the hotel to all the attractions and restaurants).
We chose the Waterpark for our attraction and I was quite impressed. There were splash pads and slides for little kids, intermediate, advanced and extreme riders as well as three hot tubs (which kids were allowed into). There was also a huge wave pool with waves big enough to actually crest! I guess when you have 6 months of winter you need to put things like amusement parks and certainly waterparks inside.
The next day took us from Edmonton to Drumheller. Before leaving, we headed into downtown Edmonton to get a glimpse of the city proper. We drove along the North Saskatchewan River and saw a number of parks as well as the Alberta Legislature. It rained for most of the drive, but we didn’t mind. We’d been extremely lucky to have beautiful clear skies for our time in the mountains. The rainy summer also meant that wildfires were tamped down and we hadn’t had to deal with the smoke and poor visibility of previous years. Indeed, we were grateful for the rain.
About half an hour from Drumheller, the skies cleared, and we got great views of the Prairie, with recently harvested wheat fields shining golden from horizon to horizon. The weather also held for us to be able to take a hike through the Drumheller badlands.
The Alberta badlands were formed during the last Ice Age between 22,000 to 12,000 years ago. At that time, this part of Alberta was buried under a kilometer of ice. When that ice melted, remnants of the glaciers acted as dams, creating huge inland lakes. When the glacial dams collapsed, torrents of water surged across the land. Huge rivers cut into the glacial ruble and sedimentary rock, carving out deep canyons.
As we hiked, we took in the fascinating scenery. There were hoodoos, deep forested valleys called coulees which carry runoff from rain or snow, and smaller rills that showed the patterns of run-off formed form by channels of water. The canyon walls were layered, and each layer told a story of the deep history of the landscape. The whitish sandstone told of sands deposited by huge rivers, the grey-brown siltstones told of silt and mud deposited by floodwaters, black bands of coal told of plant material accumulated from ancient swamps, finally red-purple-black bands of ironstones told of chemical reactions that happen in the buried sediments.
With such deep history revealed by erosion, the Alberta badlands are a treasure trove of fossils and the remnants of more than 20 different species of dinosaur have been found in the Drumheller area: Triceratops, Pterasaurs, Corythassaurus and of course the Famous Albertosaurus. The badlands are still full of cool creatures, albeit smaller ones.
With intriguing scenery and a trove of fossils, why is this area called the badlands? The slopes of the canyons are made of bentonite clay, formed from ancient volcanic ash deposited millions of years ago. On a dry day, it looks harmless, but any precipitation causes the bentonite to swell and become very greasy and slippery. This made crossing these canyons extremely difficult for native peoples and for early European explorers.
After exploring outdoors, we took in a multitude of exhibits inside the Royal Tyrrell Museum. We walked through galleries about geology, geological time keeping, how scientists clean and preserve fossils and then we took a journey through time from the Precambrian through to the Cenozoic, leaning about plants and animals and their fossils along the way.
On our last day in Alberta, we went back into the town of Drumheller to take photos of the world’s largest dinosaur statue (cheesy but fun).
From town, we drove 15 minutes to the Horseshoe Canyon, where we took a short hike down into the eastern side of the canyon to enjoy a last glimpse of the Alberta badlands. Then we went to the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s (NCC) 320-acre Nodell property to check out a stretch of restored prairie and the western part of Horseshoe Canyon.
From the badlands it was onto Calgary and the airport. The clouds folded in and we were engulfed in a misty fog as we entered the city. I was sad to be leaving, but happy that I’d had the chance to show my family the awesome beauty of Alberta. Canada is such a huge and diverse country and I’m so glad that we’ve spent the last few big trips exploring parts of it: Newfoundland in 2017 and now Alberta in 2019. Wonder where we’ll go next? The Yukon is still on my bucket list.