Canadian Rockies - Part One


I'm a map nerd. I visit Google Maps two or three times a day just to "street view" a random place I've never been. I've always considered myself above average in the geography category of Trivial Pursuit. And I know the capital of Pennsylvania without needing to look it up. So when Andy mentioned Banff and Jasper National Parks in Canada as a potential road trip, it was a little bit of a blow to my ego. My response was "Huh? You wanna go where? Never heard of it." I guess I hadn't thought much about western Canada as a destination (besides maybe Vancouver). But I took a look at a map and just west of Calgary in the province of Alberta, a magical land of white mountains and turquoise lakes appeared. After confirming that hotels with modern plumbing existed in this part of the world, I was sold. We booked the flights and off we went. Day One was loooooong - about 10 hours of travel time to get from Boston to Calgary. We were tired and hangry by the time we checked into the hotel. We ate. We napped. We woke up recharged. Being this far north meant the sun stayed up until close to 10pm, so we had tons of daylight ahead to wander around the city and explore. Our first destination: the Peace Bridge, a footbridge that opened up in 2012 to make the lives of Calgary commuters a little bit easier. We hung out here in the daylight, where a guy with a squeezebox underscored our visit.

And then we went back when it got really dark outside to catch this beauty all lit up (and without a soul around).

If you didn't know (I didn't), Calgary is full of spectacular public art. It seems like every city block has a piece of inspiration just waiting to be found. They even have a Downtown Art Guide that is worth taking a peak at if you're going to be in the area. We snaked our way through the city to find one piece in particular and ended up seeing some other gems along the way, like this sculpture entitled "Spine and Panels"...

...and this bust by Jaume Plensa.

The sculpture we were on the hunt for was also by Jaume Plensa (I guess we dig his work). It's called "Wonderland" and the scale of this piece is impressive - a mesh head nearly the size of a house. Visitors can walk inside and gaze up at The Bow, one of Calgary's skyscrapers.

And here's the view of the full sculpture. So beautiful all lit up at night.

To me, the second day of any road trip is when the adventure really begins. Even though we were eager to get to Banff National Park, a quick stop for road provisions was the first order of the day. Hey, we were about to spend the next 8 days in national parks or small towns. The elements for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were going to be a necessary staple. On the shopping list:

bread

peanut butter

jelly - oh snap, you have to refrigerate jelly? put that back on the shelf

chocolate-covered espresso beans

potato chips (President's Choice, of course)

Food procured. Car gassed up. Let's hit the road to Banff! Within 5 minutes of leaving Calgary, a motorcycle cop pulled our asses over for speeding. Pro Travel Tip: Change the "miles per hour" setting on your GPS to "kilometers per hour" BEFORE you start to drive in Canada! Keeping it set to MPH will just confuse the hell out of you and you'll be speeding without even knowing it.

The story has a happy ending though. The cop couldn't have been a more lovely human being. He asked us where we were headed and gave us some travel tips for the journey. We weren't even ticketed. Shaking our heads, we drove away saying "God, Canadians are just so NICE!"

After about 90 minutes on the road, we passed by Lake Minnewanka and got out to stretch our legs. It was definitely a pretty lake but, upon exiting the car, I was bombarded by mosquitoes kamizaee-ing my ears - the kind that make that horrendous eeeeeeEEEEEEEEEE sound. I think I lasted about 5 minutes on the lake shore before I was back in the car. Andy toughed it out to get some photos.

Is visiting a ghost town on your bucket list? It's on mine. But I never thought it would be in Alberta, Canada (I guess I was picturing more like the southwest of the states). Not far from Lake Minnewanka sits Bankhead Ghost Town. Bankhead used to be a small coal-mining village but was it abandoned after the mine closed in 1922. There are some paths through the fields, and the shells of a few buildings remain.

Otherwise, the town has pretty much returned to nature. There's a train with coal-filled cars set up on some tracks...

...and we spotted a few scurrying ground squirrels. Look at the adorable ear on this guy!

Okay. So here we are on day two of a ten day journey into some pretty rugged territory. And I started to feel a pinch of anxiety that I didn't do as much research about Banff and Jasper as I should have. I had a general sense of where we were going and what we would hope to see, but what was the history of this place? Enter Cave and Basin National Historic Site. Cave and Basin is basically a museum of Canada's National Park system. There's all kinds of information about how the parks were founded, what animals you're likely to spot while traveling through, and what sorts of activities are available to you along the way. This place was beyond helpful. We stocked up on pamphlets. They also have a hidden gem here - a cave with a mineral spring. Now, I'll be honest, it smelled like a neverending fart in this cave. It was stunning, but I could only handle about 2 minutes of being in there before I had to get some air. Andy, on the other hand, seemed to spend an eternity inside it - okay, he says 20 minutes but it seemed like an eternity to me.

While he photographed the cave, I watched a documentary on Banff and Jasper in the Cave and Basin auditorium and thumbed through our new collection of literature. I also tried to mentally prepare for the next activity of the day. The gondola ride up to Sulphur Mountain was nearby, but I never made any promises to Andy that I would actually do it. Maybe I'm weird, but I prefer to see gondola cars before agreeing to anything having to do with sitting in something that is only attached to a wire. A quick Google image search of these cable cars before we left Boston did not ease my fears. They seemed tiny. The ticket booth employee promised me it was a mere 8 minute trip to the top. 8 minutes? Okay, I think I can do that. Yes. We paid. Now I was on the hook and my adrenaline was surging.

Everyone around us in the line to board the gondolas was calm and happy, seemingly un-phased by what they were about to do: enter a mostly glass enclosed cube with a capacity of 4 people attached to a 1-inch wire and travel a mile up a mountain at a 51% incline. We boarded the unstable cube with a couple from India. They seemed lovely in the 30 seconds that I was still collected enough to have a conversation. A quick glance out the window and my heart felt like a jackhammer. I'm also pretty sure my stomach turned completely inside out. Internally, there was full on panic, but I tried my hardest to not let anyone know. I wasn't fooling anyone. Ever the multitasker, Andy took some pretty decent shots of the view in between rubbing my back and telling me it was going to be fine.

And it was fine. We made our way to the top - that's all that mattered to me in the moment we stepped off the gondola. But 8 minutes? Hell no. It felt like 45 minutes to me. (It was probably 8 minutes). The views of Bow Valley and Spray Valley were really something special and eased all the tension that had built up within me. Well, most of the tension. I was still very aware that we had to go back down the mountain.

There's a network of wood-slated trails and viewing decks that take visitors up even higher. We walked the whole way up and the serenity of this place (or maybe the thin air) had me all mellowed out by time we had to take the gondola back down the mountain.

Once my jelly-legs were back on solid ground, we strolled down the main drag of Banff and ate at a place called Boston Pizza. I half expected we'd be treated like royalty because I was wearing my Red Sox cap (didn't happen). And when Andy and I dorkily told our waitress we were from Boston, Massachusetts, she didn't seem interested (or know where it was).

Bellies full, we drove a short distance to where we would be spending the night, Johnston Canyon Resort. Was it in Johnston Canyon? Yes. Was it a resort? No way. But in the moment when we swung open the cabin door, it didn't matter what they called it - it had a bed and we zonked out pretty quickly.

In part two of our Canadian Rockies adventure, we'll: ...commit grand theft jelly ...find out what it's like to be inside a Bob Ross painting ...and convince ourselves that the melting snow we drank is real life glacier water! NEXT