May 20-25, 2016
Two weeks ago, it was fair to say that I knew more about North Korea than our Northern neighbor, Canada. My boyfriend suggested we take a five-day-getaway to the Canadian Rockies. The Canadian Rockies? Not Montréal? It wasn't until he showed me photos of Lake Louise did my interest pique. But photos can be deceiving. There's photoshop, contrasting of colors, filters and overlays that can glamorize any person or landscape. But, was I ever wrong - not just about the glorious sights, but about how much one could learn in a short trip up North.
Roads & Infrastructure by Ukrainian Internment Camps
The first lesson and acknowledgement is about the roads and infrastructure of Banff National Park. We chose to take the alternative route, Highway 1A, to Lake Louise. We were told it was a more scenic drive than the Trans-Canada Highway 1. As we drove the quiet lush filled road we passed a memorial board that read: Castle Camp - Internment at Banff National Park. Everyone is well aware of Japanese Internment Camps, but we were surprised to learn of Ukrainian Internment Camps that occurred from 1914-1920 throughout Canada. Over 8,500 "enemy aliens" were held as prisoners toward the end of and after WWI. The majority of these men, women and children were of Ukrainian descent. The Castle Mountain Internment Camp imprisoned 660 men that built the very roads and bridges within Banff. The labor demands were tough. But severe weather conditions, lack of supplies, and poor treatment by the guards made it tougher as they built infrastructures by literally hacking, axing and creating paths through the National Park. Learning this gave us a tremendous appreciation for them, their forced sacrifice and forgotten hardship. So often travelers enjoy the beauty of road trip without giving a second thought of the human beings that built it voluntarily, or as in this case, involuntarily.
If you love wildlife, this place is for you. Prior to heading to Banff we stayed in downtown Calgary. On our walk to dinner I was ecstatic to see so many Black Billed Magpie. The Yellow Billed Magpie is native to the area of where I live, Sacramento, but they are still a rare sighting. In Canada, the Black Billed are everywhere! Magpie's are considered one of the most intelligent birds, along with it's fellow Corvid, The Black Crow. Some argue that Magpie are smarter than Crows, as they are the only bird that has self-recognition when looking into a mirror. I say they're smarter because I read that the Magpie has turned the table on its nemesis, the cat. Instead of cats harassing the birds, the Magpies have become dominant and harass the cats. Canadian cat owners have to keep the cat indoor during mating season, as the Magpie will get right in the face of the cat to confirm it will not tolerate being intimidated or having their baby birds bothered. If birds aren't your thing, perhaps the wilder animals are, and Banff provides it.
Traveling the Canadian Highways takes patience. You can't speed even though you're on a highway. The max speed we ever saw was 90 kilometers per hour - that's about 55 mph. The average speed is around 30 mph. There are more signs about "Elk Crossing," "Bear Crossing" and "Do not feed the Wildlife" than there are signs about which exit or connecting highway to take to your destination. If caught feeding wildlife, even an innocent little hungry squirrel, it's a $25,000 fine, deportation, and a future court date with a Canadian judge for further sentencing.
I like that they care so much about their furry co-habitants, but it took all my willpower not to leave an almond trail for any animal to enjoy. My boyfriend kept having to remind me about the hefty price tag for such a snack. My response: "But wouldn't it be cool to say you were arrested by Canadians for feeding a wild animal?" It's equivalent to being arrested at a human right's march (which remains on our Bucket List).
One last note about animal feeding, on our last day in Calgary, I did steal grapes and melon from our breakfast buffet in Calgary and left them under a tree for the Magpies. I then jumped in the car and said "Drive!" My boyfriend said this rule breaking didn't count because we were outside of the National Park. It still found it exciting.
We expected to see Elk because they were "everywhere" travel writers proclaimed. We did not come across one Elk. However, we did see bears and bears and bears, oh my! We saw, up close, four Grizzly and one Black Bear. Our second Canadian Rockies Lesson was being able to identify a Grizzly versus a Black Bear. Grizzlies are HUGE, brown, and have a hump on their back. They are known to eat up to 250,000 Buffalo Berries per day! The Grizzly is not territorial, unless you're trying to eat its berries, since they themselves have to cover wide distances to find food. The first two bears we saw were Grizzlies, we had one on either side of our car. It was my first time seeing a bear. In a high pitched voice I said "There's another one on your left!" They never looked up at us, but I made sure to lock the doors anyway. Some people pulled over and got out of the car with their kids! Don't feed your kids to the bears, because that could possibly be a $25,000 fine.
The third bear we saw was a Black Bear. Black Bears can either be black or brown. They are smaller than a Grizzly and don't have a hump on their back. They leave their babies high up in trees while they go out looking for food.
I live in the California. Our State Animal is the Grizzly Bear. I've never seen a Grizzly here, that's because California is not home to one Grizzly Bear. The last Grizzly in California was spotted in 1924. We are home to approximately 30,000 Black Bear. There's been talk (a petition) to reintroduce the Grizzly to California. Perhaps Canada can send us a few to get started.
One of the dismal facts of wildlife is for the gray wolf. After becoming non-existent to the area, they were reintroduced in the 80's. Today there are a mere 25 gray wolf in Banff. It's highly unlikely to ever see a wolf. Since they can hear sound from six miles away, they will hear a person coming long before they can be seen.
From Banff to Lake Louise to Jasper, then back down, with a stop at Waterfowl Lake, picture taking at Bow Lake, a 5K hike at Johnston Canyon, and a boat ride through Lake Minnewanka, we saw the most incredible landscapes nature can make.
The main attraction: Lake Louise. The lake itself isn't large. What it lacks in size it makes up for with its majestic feel and its pristine calm water. Everything is energy; I repeat this often in my life. And this Lake has an energy, a power, to bring tourists in abundance to view it with a naked eye.
In the shadow of Lake Louise is another Lake, and quite possibly my favorite, Bow Lake. In comparison, Lake Louise is a screaming praise to nature, while Bow Lake is a gentle genuflection to the environment. My boyfriend promised that one day he'd get me a one month stay at the hotel next to Bow Lake just to write and be in the presence of the Lake's energy. I will hold him to that promise. I already have an opening line for the book I will write there: The crow was accustomed to being fed by humans. This came to me, perhaps, because a Crow was next to our car when we parked, looking at me to feed him. I apologized to the Crow, but I couldn't risk deportation, as I was having a good time.
The biggest lesson we learned while traversing a glacier was in vocabulary and grammar. Is it crevice or crevasse? There is a difference. And I'll be sure never to interchange them the way many Facebook people do with to/too, your/you're, their/there and then/than. A crevice is a fracture or large crack in rock. A crevasse is a fracture or large crack in ice. If there is a crevice on the side of the mountain, when it rains water will get into it. When temperature reaches zero degrees or below the water become ice. Ice expands and pushes the rock forward. Along the highway boulders on the side of the road have come bursting forth from the angelic looking mountain way across the street. While on a the glacier, a crevasse can open up and swallow a walker whole. My boyfriend and I enjoyed using the word crevasse whenever possible. It gave us an air of je ne sais quoi. Snootiness? Yes.
Along the highway you enter and exit Avalanche Areas nearly every half mile. Similar to how Californians know Napa wines, Canadians know meteorology, geology and topography. It's essential knowledge for surviving a winter in the Canadian Rockies.
Overall, The Canadian Rockies a magnificent sight. A camera can't capture the wonder of nature. But when you're there, your soul can feel it. The mountains speak, the lakes hum, and the fog whispers as it lifts off the peaks. And you surrender yourself to its overwhelming beauty. We can't wait to return.