Hello Canada (World)

When we got to our overnight destination, a town called Quesnel, I wasn’t disappointed, mainly because I had very low expectations, just as I had two years earlier when we overnighted in Kamploops. These towns aren’t exactly what they once might have been during the Gold Rush days, when honkytonks vied with brothels and gambling halls for one’s attention.  But there is one interesting place worth investigating in Quesnel and that is the District Museum and Archives, located across from the train station and next to the tourist information.  The museum was built in 1963 and houses a history of the area. They have displays of what it was like to visit a dentist, a bank, a newspaper office and a barber shop in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They have an Industrial Section that shows exhibits of logging, farming, mining and carpentry. They’ve got old quilts, pieces from the Titanic, First Nation relics, and furs and clothing from the Hudson Bay Company. There are moose, deer and elk heads mounted on a wall, uncommon Chinese sprinkling cans, vintage dresses and automobiles, a giant waterwheel, collections of old bottles, decorated moccasins, and rare musical bells. And then there’s the haunted doll Mandy, kept behind a glass case, with the warning that anyone who dares to photograph it might run into a streak of bad luck. There’s a complete story about Mandy, dressed in a small child’s clothing, her face cracked below the nose and above one eye. It’s said that if you stare at her, she will stare back at you. And if you look from different angles, her gaze will follow yours. Naturally, when no one was looking, I snapped a picture of Mandy. My wife shudders and turns away when she sees it, but a bit of creepiness is good for tourism, and I applaud the museum for giving Mandy a place of honor and a history worthy of Stephen King.

We arrived in Jasper at dusk and were dropped off at the Jasper Park Lodge (or JPL to the locals). This is a Fairmont property that is really the place you want to stay if you’re only going to visit Jasper once. The golf course is considered one of the best in Canada (and after playing it, I must say it has a few truly spectacular signature holes and one heck of a lot of wild geese that won’t budge even when you hit a three wood between them on the fairway). The rooms and cabins are comfortable and rustic. The elk provide a sense of daring when you’re trying to get to your cabin and eight of them are munching on grass in front of your door (as they were when we got to our lakeside cabin and had to wait ten minutes for them to move on). The Edith Cavell restaurant served us lobster and fish that looked like works of art. And when you walk the hallways of the main building you’re made aware that the Queen of England came for a visit, her portrait hangs along with other members of the royal family, and so you think that if this place was good enough for old Elizabeth, it’s got to be the place to stay when in Jasper.

Besides the beauty of the lake itself, there are canyons and hot springs to explore in the areas surrounding Jasper. The one we went to, Maligne Canyon, was just a twenty-minute drive from the lodge. The waterfall was mesmerizing; the chance to get so close to the canyon and to see how the water carved and shaped it was well worth the visit. And to be a bit pedestrian about this natural wonderland, the gift shop had the best selection of leather gloves I’ve seen in Canada.

The car now became essential as we wanted to drive Route 93, the Icefields Parkway, from Jasper south to Banff. Just as the train was billed as the most spectacular blah blah blah, so too is this drive. And, lo and behold, once again, it’s true. It’s about 230 kilometres between the two, but it’s not the kind of drive you want to do in three fast hours. You want to stop at Athabasca Falls, thirty kilometers south of Jasper, and at Sunwapta Falls, another fifteen minutes down the parkway. Both of these falls allow you to get very close to them, so close in fact that at Athabasca there is a bench dedicated to the 21 year-old hiker who fell over and lost his life in 2002. What also got our attention at these falls was an Indonesian family taking their three pet ferrets for a stroll. People with dogs are hardly noticed, but ferrets on a leash—that’s not a very common sight.

The big tourist attraction on this parkway is the Columbia Icefield, which is about two hours outside of Banff. Here you park your car and enter the Icefield Centre where you can use the restrooms, eat lunch, buy souvenirs, and purchase a ticket for a tour of the icefield, which is twice the size of Vancouver. Mammoths and saber-tooth tigers once walked on this glacier where now Explorer all-terrain buses with five foot high wheels tread. It’s one of the largest accumulations of ice south of the Arctic Circle and is recognized as a World Heritage Site. The specially equipped buses will take you down to the glacier where you can walk on the ice, pack an ice snowball and throw it at your spouse for laughs. If she throws one back and hits you in the head, it isn’t as funny.

One mountain of glacier feeds into three oceans—the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Arctic. It’s the only glacier in the world that does this, and it still boggles my mind trying to figure out how. It’s just as mind boggling to consider that while this icefield has been around since the Ice Age scientists predict that it will disappear in 150 years. Now, think about this: 70% of our drinking water comes from glaciers (or so we’re told). What’s going to happen six or seven generations from now when glaciers such as these are gone?

This is what Hiromi and I talked about as we drove to Chateau Lake Louise, our next destination. I wasn’t complaining about my movie star book and she stopped complaining about the iceball I threw at her; instead we were wondering how our children’s children’s children were going to survive the world we were leaving them.

The view from the Chateau of the lake and the glacier reflecting into it is, next to Niagara Falls, the most photographed scene in Canada. And from our first floor room we had a spectacular view of Lake Louise and Mt. Victoria. In fact, I suspect it was spectacular from every room that looked out on the lake. Built at the end of the 19th century, the Chateau is huge, housing seven restaurants, an 8800 square foot ballroom, colorful stained glass windows depicting Canada’s wildlife, an indoor pool, gift shops that might rival Las Vegas, where you can purchase fossils like a mammoth’s tusk for $50,000, Louis Vuitton luggage, and at the Art of Man gallery, masks, paintings and bronze sculptures of cowboys, Indians and wildlife. Among the wildlife native sculptors represented were R. Parsons and Karl Lansing, whose bronzes of moose, raven, goat, and elk ranged in price from $12,000 to $27,000.

But it’s not what you can buy at the Chateau, but what you can see and breathe when you hike around the lake and into the forests that are 5700 feet above sea level.  Subalpine spruce and fir account for 80% of the forest in the area, some of which are 500 years old. Bear scat steams along the trails and friendly chipmunks will take food from your hand. You can rent a canoe and paddle around the lake or just sit on a bench and watch amateur artists paint what they see with charcoal or watercolors. During our two nights there we ate one dinner at the newly refurbished Tom Wilson Steakhouse, where they had a very tasty menu that included three appetizers with your entrée for just $50. The other dinner we ate outside the Chateau, at the Lake Louise Railway Station & Restaurant. It was much simpler food, the atmosphere was authentic railway station and the waiters were all from Australia and New Zealand. Made us Americans feel right at home.

Leaving the Chateau behind we stopped at a candy store in town called Candy Shoppe Olde Tyme and I stocked up on licorice pieces from around the world. I’d never seen so many jars of licorice ranging in taste from salty to sweet, in texture from soft to hard, and in color from brown and red to charcoal and black. I had to take a picture just to show my licorice loving friends back home. And since Hiromi doesn’t like licorice, I didn’t have to share a single piece on our drive to Banff.

A few miles outside of Banff we saw a sign for Lake Minnewanka (Lake of the Water Spirits) and somehow I remembered that the Marilyn Monroe/Robert Mitchum film River of No Return was shot there, as well as Superman, Legends of the Fall, and The Assassination of Jesse James. How did I remember this?  Well, I didn’t remember the other three until I got there and was told about it. But I thought it might be worth taking a boat tour around the lake. That’s what I love about having a car for short drives (long drives make me sleepy and anxious to get to wherever we’re going). You see a sign, you head in that direction.

Sure enough, the lake had tour boats and Aussie and Kiwi guides (are there any Canadian guides in Canada?). So for two hours we got to hear abut the history of the lake (evidence of human occupation around the lake dates back 12,000 years, where the natives hunted bison and big-horn sheep with hand-held spears), see the Devils Gap and learn of the half fish/half human creature that supposedly hangs out in that vicinity, and look for the bald eagle perched in his nest waiting to swoop down and steal a fish off the line of an angry fisherman.

We didn’t hear any strange voices or running buffalo hooves in our placid journey around the lake, but the stories of such noises are linked to the history of the place and one can see why Hollywood has been fascinated using it as a backdrop for their westerns.  We did see a buffalo head, however, inside the reception and dining room of the Buffalo Mountain Lodge where we stayed in Banff. It was hanging over the fireplace, a sad reminder that these trophy animals once roamed freely in western Canada. The lodge had a comfortable, rustic feel with its many cabins and mountain views. It is part of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Resorts, which also owns the Deer Lodge near Lake Louise, and the Emerald Lake Lodge. They have four restaurants—Cilantro, Divino, The Ranche, and Velvet—and the meat served at each comes from their own wild game preserve. So if you’re hungry for the taste of buffalo (like beef, only more flavorful and lower in fat), elk (high in iron) or caribou reindeer (double the iron of elk or buffalo), these are the lodges and restaurants to find such game.

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