Hidden gems

In addition to world renowned sites like some of the ones in Jasper and Banff National Parks, Canada is home to many hidden gems usually known only to local people. We also found some of those on our recent travels.

After saying good-bye to our son and his family and leaving the mountain parks behind, we spent another week in the nearby foothills where we camped at Bottrel, Alberta with our daughter’s family. There’s actually nothing at Bottrel except a general store and a small unserviced campground, but we heard about it because our son-in-law’s mother lives nearby.

The campground is only 40 minutes from our daughter’s home in northeast Calgary. As soon as we’d set up camp on the bank of the lovely little creek that runs through the campground, we drove into the city to pick up Drew, our oldest grandson, who enjoyed two days of camping with Gram and Grandpa before the rest of the family was able to join us.

One of the things that we wanted to do during that time was introduce Drew to kayaking, but the creek was too small for that and we didn’t know of any lakes in the area. Richard spoke to the storekeeper, who also runs the campground, and learned of a small fishing lake nearby that’s known only to the locals. The highlight of our outing to Winchell Lake was the rare opportunity to watch a loon and her chick close up!

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About 20 minutes from the campground, on our way into Calgary, we had also passed signs for Big Hill Springs Provincial Park. A quick online search revealed that its 2.3 km (1.4 miles) hiking trail with an elevation gain of only 20 metres (66 feet) was popular with young families. Not intending to do the hike until the rest of the family joined us, we decided to take a drive over to the park just to check it out. Drew was so enthusiastic, however, that we ended up hiking the entire trail that day! Of course, as little boys are inclined to do, he put in a few more steps than we did!

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Later in the week, we packed a picnic lunch and returned with the rest of the family. With Drew as our guide, we did the hike again.

An interesting geological feature in this small park, which is located in a beautiful coulee, are the mounds of unusual rock called tufa (too-fah). Apparently tufa forms when water, rich in calcium and carbonate, emerges from the ground. As it comes to the surface, it releases carbon dioxide into the air and forms outcroppings of calcium carbonate rock.

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The first part of the hike was particularly pretty following a stream with lots of little waterfalls.

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I believe this was 3-year-old Simon’s first hike, but he was very keen to go!

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hiking

Later in the afternoon, back at the campground, the creek was a great place to cool off!

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Driving the Icefield Parkway

Though the Icefield Parkway, the highway between Jasper and Banff in the Canadian Rockies, is only 288 km (179 miles) long, it can easily take all day or longer to travel because there are so many amazing places to see along the way. Come along with us and I’ll show you a few of the places that we stopped on our most recent trip.

Athabasca Falls

Approximately 30 km (19 miles) south of the town of Jasper, Athabasca Falls is neither the highest or the widest waterfall in the Canadian Rockies but it is thought to be the most powerful. The falls can be safely viewed and photographed from various viewpoints on both sides of the river. The parking lot is on the north side, but be sure to cross the pedestrian bridge and view the falls from the south side as well. The morning that we were there, the sun was in just the right position to create a vibrant rainbow in the gorge below the crest of the falls when viewed from that side.

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Sunwapta Falls

Another 25 km (15.5 miles) down the Icefield Parkway is beautiful Sunwapta Falls. Sunwapta means “turbulent water” in the language of the Stoney First Nations people.

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Columbia Icefield

Another 49 km (30 miles) southward brings you to the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre at the foot of the Athabasca Glacier. Entering the Discovery Centre was like visiting West Edmonton Mall at Christmas time or a Tokyo subway station at rush hour as tourists from around the world crowded in to purchase tickets to the various tours and adventures in the area! If you visit, however, descend the staircase to the lower level where things are a lot quieter. There you will find a fascinating display of historical photos and a diorama that provides an excellent overview of the entire ice field.

Straddling the Continental Divide along the Alberta/British Columbia border as well as Jasper and Banff National Parks, the Columbia Icefield is the largest ice field in the Rocky Mountains and one of the largest non-polar ice fields in the world. Meltwater drains to three oceans – the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Arctic via three great river systems – the Saskatchewan, the Columbia, and the Athabasca.

The most accessible part of the Columbia Icefield is the Athabasca Glacier. Even though it has receded significantly in recent times, this six kilometre tongue of ice flows to within one kilometre of the Icefield Parkway. During the summer months, adventurous visitors can hike out onto the glacier with a guide or explore it from the comfort of massive all-terrain vehicles. We chose simply to walk up the trail that leads to within metres of the glacier’s edge.

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The Athabasca Glacier is only one of many tongues of ice that flow from the massive Columbia Icefield. Right next to it is the Dome Glacier, less accessible, but also impressive. Look at that amazing snow pack atop the ridge! It reminds me of icing on a cake.

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Lower Waterfowl Lake

There are numerous glacier-fed lakes along the Icefield Parkway; too many to stop and photograph each one! Lower Waterfowl Lake struck me as one of the most beautiful.

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Yes, that truly is the colour of the water! The incredible turquoise colour is the result of glaciers grinding the rock beneath them into a fine powder called rock flour. Meltwater washes this powder into the lakes where it is suspended in the water. These silty waters absorb all the colours of incoming light except the striking turquoise or vivid blue that is reflected back to our eyes.

Lake Louise

If you stopped nowhere else along the Icefield Parkway, world famous Lake Louise is an absolute must! Named for Queen Victoria’s fourth daughter, it is a truly awe-inspiring sight. With Victoria Glacier and an amphitheatre of rugged mountain peaks providing an imposing backdrop, it is a photographer’s delight.

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Two great hikes in Jasper National Park

As part of Canada’s 150th anniversary celebration, the country offered free Parks Canada passes to every Canadian and every visitor from around the world who requested one, giving each of us free admission to national parks, national historic sites and national marine conservation areas across the country. We put our pass to good use when we spent a week camping in Jasper and Banff National Parks with our son Matt, daughter-in-law Robin, and grandsons Sam and Nate, who were enjoying their first family vacation in the Beatrice, a newly restored and much loved family heirloom.

Like most mountain parks, both Jasper and Banff abound with hiking trails of varying lengths and degrees of difficulty. While at Jasper, we took advantage of two of these.

Valley of the Five Lakes

We chose this trail on the recommendation of my aunt who has lived in Jasper since 1953 and who continued to hike into her late 80s. The 4.5 km loop, located about 9 km south of Jasper, was an excellent choice. With only 66 m elevation change it was an easy hike for all of us.

The loop takes in all five small lakes, each a different shade of blue or green, but all strikingly beautiful.

First Lake

First Lake

Second Lake

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Second Lake

Third Lake (and in my opinion, the most beautiful)

Third Lake

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Isn’t that just stunning?

Fourth Lake

Fourth Lake

Fifth Lake

Fifth Lake

While bears are known to frequent the Five Lakes area, especially in berry season, we saw only this frisky little chipmunk who was happy to pose for a photo.

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Maligne Canyon

With a depth of more than 50 metres at some points, Maligne Canyon is one of the deepest in the Canadian Rockies and certainly one of the most spectacular. For our second hike in the Jasper area, we started at the 5th bridge and hiked up the canyon trail to the teahouse at the upper end.

When I first looked at my photos, I was disappointed. Somehow they just didn’t capture the magnitude of what we’d seen. Then I realized that it was the thunderous sound of the water churning through the deep, rocky canyon that was missing! Use your imagination as you follow us up the trail and try to imagine what it sounded like as the canyon walls narrowed and the rushing water echoed below.

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Where does all that water come from? Located in the Maligne valley, Medicine Lake is formed by the Maligne River. One of the interpretive signs along the hiking trail compares Medicine Lake to a “giant leaky bathtub.” Water from the lake drains into what is thought to be the largest inaccessible cave system in the world and resurfaces downstream through springs along the canyon walls.

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The power of the moving water becomes evident when you look at the shapes of the rocky canyon walls that have been whittled away over eons.

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In some places, rocks and sand swirling around in the turbulent water wear potholes in the canyon floor or walls. Over time, as the canyon wears deeper these potholes, or bowls as we called them, are left above the water level, reminders of a previous time. You can see a pothole still being formed near the centre of this picture.

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Another interesting feature is the chockstone. Chockstones are giant boulders that have become wedged across portions of the canyon which narrows to only two metres at the top in some places. Over time, erosion slowly reduces the size of the chockstones until they eventually tumble to the canyon floor. There is a chockstone with moss and trees growing on it near the top of this photo.

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The promise of dozens of fossils preserved in the rock beneath our feet was an incentive to keep our young grandsons going as we climbed the last portion of the trail which is a bit steep. They became very good at spotting these reminders that this was once a very different looking world and enjoyed making rubbings of several of them.

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Though this hike isn’t a long one, if you go, allow yourself lots of time as there are so many interesting things to see and photos to take!

There are many trails in the canyon area and rather than retracing our steps the entire distance, we took a higher trail from the 4th bridge back to the 5th. Though we were above the canyon walls and further from the thundering water, the views were beautiful.

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The Hazeltons

After six weeks in the trailer, we are home! Though it was our plan from the beginning to arrive home today, I really wasn’t ready to end our gypsy wandering and I would have happily extended our travels indefinitely. Real life issues beckoned, however, and so it seemed wise to follow through on our original plan. As much as I loved being away from home, I did miss having access to wifi and being able to update the blog on a regular basis. Now that I’m connected again, I’ll do my best to share the remainder of our travels with you over the next few days.

The Hazeltons, a collection of small communities, located around the confluence of the Skeena and Bulkley Rivers in northwestern British Columbia, have been home to the Gitxsan people for centuries. The Gitxsan are a matrilineal society made up of the Frog, Eagle, Wolf, and Fireweed clans. Though their territory is inland, their villages with intriguing names like Kispiox, Gitanmaax, and Hagwillget as well as Hazelton, New Hazelton, and South Hazelton, are a centre of Northwest Coast native culture and, as such, are a place that I’ve long dreamed of visiting. My love for the art and the culture of the native peoples of the Pacific Northwest began as a child growing up on the coast of British Columbia and grew as a student of anthropology during my university years.

After settling into our campsite, we drove a few miles north to Kispiox, best known for the 15 totem poles, some dating back to 1880, that stand in the village alongside the Kispiox River. On the way into the village, we stopped to look at the art work decorating the band office.

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The following morning, we took a fascinating interpretive tour of the ‘Ksan Historical Village adjacent to our campground. It consists of seven replica cedar longhouses. One of the longhouses contains a small museum and a gift shop that are open to visitors who are also free to enjoy the grounds and photograph the buildings and totem poles. Only the guided tour, available in several languages, allows entrance into the three of the longhouses that contain an abundance of artifacts. The price is nominal and was well worth it! Aside from the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, I have not seen such an extensive collection of Northwest Coast history anywhere! Unfortunately, photography was not allowed inside the longhouses, so I’m not able to share that part of the experience with you.

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The small, narrow door in the last photo was designed to prevent enemies from entering in full armour.

As always, the totem poles fascinated me. Here’s a closer look at a few of them.

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We were especially fortunate to be in the area on a Wednesday. Every Wednesday evening during the summer months, a local group offers a traditional song and dance presentation in the Wolf House, one of the historical village’s longhouses. Again, for a nominal fee, I was thrilled to have the unique opportunity to see and experience this aspect of the Northwest Coast culture. I was especially delighted to see that the group included all ages; that the traditional songs and dances are being passed on to the younger generations.

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As we explored the various villages that make up the Hazeltons, we were especially impressed with how welcoming the First Nations residents were. While we were strolling around the historical section of Old Hazelton a local woman stopped to chat and told us about an easy 10 minute hike from New Hazelton to a beautiful waterfall. Had she not been willing to share with us, we would never have known about it!

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The day the tires went flat

On our way to the Yukon, we made a quick stop at the information centre at Dawson Creek, BC to take the obligatory tourist photo.

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I was about to step back into the vehicle when I heard a distinct PFFFT! Something was definitely wrong! A tire on the trailer had blown. This was no simple puncture. The tire was shredded! Thankfully we were sitting still when it happened and we were in a community large enough to have three tire shops! Within an hour, we’d found a replacement and we were on our way again. That wasn’t the case a couple of weeks later!

Shortly after leaving the remote community of Stewart, BC, while slowly following a pilot vehicle through a long construction zone, we began to hear a rhythmic FWUP, FWUP, FWUP! Pulling over as soon as we were able to, we discovered that another trailer tire had blown! Thankful that we weren’t travelling at highway speed when it happened and that we’d replaced the spare in Dawson Creek, Richard changed the tire and we moved on again, this time without a spare. There was nowhere within a couple of hundred kilometres to get another tire!

At the same time, we knew that we were also travelling with a slow leak in one of the vehicle tires. Richard had added air in Stewart that morning and we carry a mini air compressor for emergency purposes, so we were hoping that it would get us to a larger centre where we could get it fixed. No such luck! Less than an hour after losing the trailer tire, the dashboard sensor told us that the right rear tire was rapidly losing air. Stopping to check, we immediately heard that familiar PFFFT sound again! My poor hubby had another tire to change!

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Now we were 116 km from the nearest community with no spare tire for the trailer AND no spare for the vehicle! Yikes! On we went with a prayer that nothing else would go wrong. Pulling into Hazelton, BC our first stop after the visitor information centre was the only tire shop in the area. At the very least, we’d be able to get the vehicle tire fixed there. Amazingly, not only were they able to serve us immediately, but they also had a trailer tire that was almost a perfect match for the one we’d bought back in Dawson Creek!

Now we’re just hoping that we get home without any more tire woes! Though we’ve already put on the majority of the miles that we plan to travel, we’re less than three weeks into our six week odyssey.

Stewart, Hyder and a river of ice!

As we travelled south on northwestern BC’s Cassiar Highway, a 65 km (40 mile) side trip took us into the tiny town of Stewart located at the head of the Portland Canal, a narrow salt water fjord approximately 145 km (90 miles) long. The fjord, the fourth longest in the world, forms a natural boundary between Canada and Alaska. Stewart boasts that its deep harbour is Canada’s northernmost ice-free port.

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I had to visit this picturesque spot if for no other reason than I was born a Stewart!

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Most tourists come for other reasons though including the Salmon Glacier, the fifth largest glacier in Canada. A self-guided auto tour brochure, available at the Stewart visitor information centre, explains the history and natural surroundings of the area as you drive the 37 km (22.9 miles) to the Summit Viewpoint overlooking the glacier.

Although the Salmon Glacier is located in Canada, accessing it requires crossing the border into Alaska at Hyder, just 3 km (2 miles) from Stewart. If you go, make sure you have your passport with you so you can re-enter Canada after your drive!

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Once a booming mining town, Hyder, with its population of “100 happy Americans” is almost a ghost town. Though there are still a post office, 2 motels and couple of stores, most of its main street is boarded up. This building, a gorgeous reminder of days gone by, was definitely my favourite.

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About 6 km (3.7 miles) after leaving Hyder, we stopped at the Fish Creek Wildlife Viewing Area hoping we might be lucky enough to see some of the bears that come to feed at the creek during the annual salmon run from July to September. Though salmon had been spotted further downstream, they hadn’t made it that far yet and there were no bears to be seen. Further up the road, however, we did see several of these little creatures.

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We weren’t sure what they were until we checked with a wildlife officer at the viewing site on our way back down and learned that they are hoary marmots. They seemed completely oblivious to or unconcerned about human traffic. In fact, at one point, three of them engaged in a playful wrestling match in the middle of the road while we and other motorists waited for them to tire and move on! I was able to walk right up to one of them to take pictures!

The drive to the glacier, some 4300 feet (1300 metres) above sea level, was almost like climbing a mountain by car! The narrow, bumpy road, unpaved after the Wildlife Viewing Area, clung to the mountainside as we climbed higher and higher. Soon we were passing expanses of snow!

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A little further along, the toe or snout of the glacier came into view.

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Continuing onward and upward, we enjoyed many views of the enormous river of ice.

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I was still awe struck when we reached the Summit Viewpoint and realized that there was so much more to the glacier than we had been able to see before that.

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It was chilly, but we ate our lunch overlooking the vast expanse of ice.

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Turning around and noticing the bluff overlooking the parking lot, I realized that it begged to be climbed, so off we went!

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I’m so glad we did. It was an easy scramble and the sights that greeted us were amazing!

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I think the views of the glacier were even better from the top of the bluff. Looking down on the parking lot and our vehicle on the far left (with our bright red kayak on top) helped put the vastness of the glacier into perspective.

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Miles Canyon

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We didn’t spend much time at Whitehorse on our recent trip to the Yukon, but there was one site we’d been to on a previous trip that I wanted to revisit. Miles Canyon, where the Yukon River has cut its way through a flow of basaltic lava, is probably the most picturesque and dramatic natural feature close to Whitehorse. The narrow channel through the canyon was a serious challenge for miners and gold seekers on their way up the Yukon River to the Klondike gold fields. Hundreds of boats loaded with precious supplies as well as several lives were lost trying to navigate this treacherous stretch of river. Though the hydroelectric dam built in 1959 to supply Whitehorse with power somewhat tamed Miles Canyon, it is still a spectacular spot.

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My main reason for wanting to revisit the canyon is the fact that since our previous visit in the early 1990s, I’ve conquered my fear of heights. This time I was able to cross the sturdy 85-foot-long suspension bridge over the gorge with confidence and I even managed to walk the narrow trail along the canyon’s rim. Of course, it probably helped that I didn’t have three young children in tow this time and didn’t have to worry about them plunging over the edge into the tumultuous water 50 feet below!

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