Canadian Rockies a towering visual treat by foot -- or bus (photos, video)
Canadian Rockies a towering visual treat by foot -- or bus (photos, video)
BANFF, Alberta -- The moment my feet hit water-slicked ice, I said something to myself that I say every winter in Cleveland: “I am not going down.”
Arms outstretched for balance, several calculated steps later, I reached a slushy area for my boots to grip. Finally, I could stand still, raise my head to the view.
I had made it to a frozen tongue of the 83-square-mile Columbia Icefield, spilling between two mountains. I was standing on the Athabasca Glacier, one of the many scenic reasons for making this trip to the northern Rocky Mountains in Alberta Province, Canada.
Go to a frozen site in the middle of a perfectly good, hot August? The glacier looked a bit sooty instead of pristine, perhaps from the ashes of wildfires raging a province to the west. But it was also alive with rivulets of melt water trickling in song.
The streams tunneling along the ice were tinted a mint blue, a color that results from the sun hitting the water’s limestone silt. Rock flour, they call it. People got on their knees to cup their hands and drink it.
There was so much to think about here: How this country’s ice masses are large and well-positioned enough to feed into the Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Or, how in the last century, the reach of the glacier had been shortened more than a mile by climate change. And how wickedly cold you could feel on a summer day, even in a winter coat, hat and gloves.
Whoops, our 20 minutes were over.
Russell, our tour leader was calling us back to the bus where he handed out little cups of a cream whiskey liqueur to warm us up.
Um, did I say bus tour? Must have let that slip out. Yes, 8 nights and 7 days with Trafalgar Tours that included rustic Jasper and the arts and ski center of Banff. Apart from the glacier visit, we mostly wore shorts or light pants.
I have never been a bus tour type of person. There was one in Italy in 2001 but, heck, we stayed in a villa and the bus was only half-full. Having a driver was necessary on a food tour when there was always wine at lunch. Who else would drive as we napped?
I’ve always been happiest with a travelin’ pal, a car and an open road. Or, just the car and the road. Most of that was back when time felt unlimited. Now, I want every minute to count. I don’t want to stress out finding my way. I don’t want to miss a beautiful outdoor sight. And I want travel to teach me something important.
This time it did so on a full, 44-seat bus.
My sister Pam found the tour and wanted me to go with her. I hadn’t been to the Rockies since a camping trip in the 1970s and was ready to return any time.
Being part of a herd has its potential drawbacks: Assigned schedule, assigned bus seats, assigned rooms, assigned meals, assigned happy moments, etc. Very little of that was a problem on this trip.
What was a problem, and one easily avoided, is something I learned in Italy. One in every 20 people is a jerk. Fortunately, the group was big enough so we could avoid Mr. Inappropriate after his question about the sexual orientation of two courageous female backpackers we met on a waterfall trail.
“If they are what you think they are,” I said to him, “they’re not going to bother you.” I spoke, knowing that’s probably what bothered him.
Otherwise, it was a respectful group of what we expected – mostly married, retired couples celebrating an anniversary. We instantly sidled up to the outliers, especially Kim, a woman pharmacist from Dallas who was brave enough to come solo. There was Larry, a widowed male psychiatrist from Denver, and a mother and 14-year-old son from Canada’s sister-land, Australia. It was refreshing to have a young person there, especially one who happened to enjoy the company of adults.
Part of what held the party together was the presence of Russell, who at any given moment looked composed and sounded knowledgeable. He certainly found common ground with this Northeast Ohioan for his stories about Calgary’s dominant Eastern European population, its economic rise and fall in the oil realm, and its struggle to climb back up. We had already fallen in love with our entry port’s downtown parkland along the Bow River, full of families and flowers.
While it was sad to confront the glacier’s recession, a slightly smoky day or two, and frequent swatches of long-pole pines decimated by pine bark beetles, Alberta mesmerized. Tall, bare peaks surrounded by healthier forests, all dotted and streaked with silvery-blue waters. The color was like finding a Caribbean palette in the tundra. We saw it everywhere, lunching (on our own dime) on the balcony of the Fairmont Hotel at the iconic Lake Louise; skimming via motorboat across the water to an enchanting cove at Maligne (mah-LEEN) Lake, getting pounded into mental silence by the power of the 830-foot Takakkaw (TAK-aw-kaw) Falls in Yoho National Park, and bobbing down Bow River in a raft powered by one terrifically muscular young man. Every drop of water seemed to smile.
No wines at lunch on this trip. I wanted my eyes open for the continuous panorama of natural greatness. In both Jasper and Banff, you could turn 360 degrees and always see a mountain.
Our timing was lucky. Only the week before, Russell said, the wildfire smoke nearly obliterated mountain views for several days. I couldn’t imagine the disappointment.
Our greatest moments came in a gondola ride to Sulphur Mountain, near Banff. My sister sent me a photo before the trip, showing folks in a glass-walled restaurant, surrounded by peaks. “I want to eat here,” she wrote.
And we did, even if the meal was on our own. Russell snapped to attention and made us a reservation at Chalet Bistro. The gondola ride was part of the tour package, after which we had two hours to kill before dinner. That was easy. There’s a small museum, orientation film, gift shop and a glorious ¾ mile boardwalk to a historic, stone-built research outpost. We joined people from all over the world, walking together high in the sky, dozens of mountain peaks at our feet.
When dinnertime came, my sister and I shared a window seat, a venison filet, a well-rounded Cabernet Franc (Tinhorn Creek, British Columbia), and the engaging company of our server, Tyson, a young member of the Plains Cree nation who aspires to a career in stand-up comedy. He was interested in my sister’s experience taking a class in stand-up with a whole, five-minute graduation appearance at a club in Manhattan. If only we had been in Banff on a Monday, we could have caught him in open mic night.
One important thing about indigenous residents of Canada: They are called First Nations people, a respectful and accurate term that I wish we used in the United States.
For years, my friends have praised the charms of the Banff region, including some who went back three or four times on their own. Being a paddler and a hiker, I wouldn’t mind that, either.
There were things I left undone, activities I would have loved to do if I had a wee bit more time on my own schedule. One was a chance to hop in a kayak on Lake Louise or Maligne Lake for some private time on those blue topaz waters. The other came to mind when we were riding away from the Athabasca Glacier. Out my window, I saw a group of eight people, single file, with hiking poles and ice cleats.
My heart hungered for that intimate encounter with the disappearing ice. Still does. Now I know it’s there. For a while.
IF YOU GO
Trafalgar has regular guided tours June to October to Alberta and its Jasper and Glacier national parks, including Banff.
Contact: Trafalgar.com, 1-866-544-4434
How we got there: Flew from Cleveland to Toronto to Calgary. Flights are not included in the tour price.
Base price for tour: About $2,000 (U.S.), although that can vary. Does not include a tip for our guide and driver. Trafalgar has a discount partnership with Costco for some trips.
What is included: Our fees included all pleasant accommodations, most breakfasts, half the dinners. Food was plentiful, well-prepared and fresh. It also included admission to about half the places we visited, including a ranch. Each of us spent another $300 to participate in the raft ride, gondola up Sulphur Mountain and excursion to Takkakaw Falls and Moraine Lake. Paid options were also available to a Royal Canadian Mountie show, on-ice hockey experience, helicopter trips around the peak and more.
Other favorite things: Talks by a Mountie and a naturalist; visit to the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies to see landscape paintings (whyte.org); stroll through the luxurious Fairmont Banff Springs hotel (fairmont.com/banff-springs), where some of our group had tea; dinner in downtown Jasper at Fiddle River. And great, one-hour hikes wherever we went.
Extra: A few in our group had rail passes for the easily accessible station in Jasper to the Rocky Mountaineer.
Reminder: You need a passport to travel to Canada and back.