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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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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Paddling the Battle

Our new kayak’s maiden voyage on Sedgewick Lake yesterday afternoon just whetted our appetite for a longer paddle today. The Battle River, a tributary of the North Saskatchewan, meanders its way across central Alberta and western Saskatchewan. We headed for Burma Park, a small campground on the river about a 40 minute drive from here. The park itself is located on the south side of the river where the bank is too steep and unstable to access the water, but we found a perfect spot just across the river on the north side.

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We spent an hour paddling upstream enjoying the beautiful sunshine and the breeze which kept the mosquitos away. The only sound was our paddles in the water and an occasional bird call. Paddling steadily against the river’s flow, I was very thankful for the weights I lifted all winter!

When we decided it was time to turn back, we lifted our paddles out of the water, leaned back and let the river carry us for ten minutes while we enjoyed a snack and simply enjoyed the solitude. After that it was only fifteen minutes of easy paddling before the vehicle came into sight again.

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Though much of our kayaking will probably be done further from home when we’re on holiday, I also foresee many more hours paddling the Battle in our future.

Hike to Quarry Rock

One of the big advantages of living in (or visiting) North Vancouver is the fact that you’re only minutes away from a wide array of beautiful backcountry hiking trails. Our grandsons didn’t have school today due to a teacher professional development day and though it poured rain overnight this morning’s weather looked suitable for an outdoor adventure.

Quarry Rock is a large rocky outcrop overlooking Indian Arm at scenic Deep Cove. Clouds hung low over the cove as we set off on our hike.

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The 3.8 km round trip trail, which is also part of the easternmost section of the much longer Baden Powell Trail, begins with a long stair climb that quickly informed me that after a long winter, during which the treadmill in our basement mostly gathered dust, my legs and my cardiac conditioning are somewhat out of shape. It didn’t help that in my eagerness to get out and onto the trail, I’d forgotten to have my morning cup of tea! Fortunately, the fresh air, the enthusiasm of our young hiking partners, and the wonderful smell of the damp forest were invigorating.

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The overall elevation gain on this trail is approximately 100 metres, but there are lots of ups and downs along the way. In addition to many flights of wooden steps, boardwalks and small bridges, much of the trail is a maze of tree roots.

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The terrain is typical of North Shore hikes with the trail wending it’s way through densely wooded areas of Douglas fir and hemlock. Morning mist hung in the trees as we set off, but before long the sun began to peek through and we soon started removing layers of clothing.

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Along the trail, many small creeks filled with spring runoff from the mountains tumble down the hillside in their rush to reach the ocean.

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Eventually the trail climbed up onto solid rock and we walked out onto the bluff where the views were spectacular.

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This trail is clearly a popular one. Even on a cool Monday morning, there were lots of hikers out and when we reached Quarry Rock, it was so crowded with people that it was difficult to get good unobstructed photos!

 

Seven hours in Vegas

When you travel with Air Miles you don’t always have the choice of the shortest or most direct flights and sometimes that’s okay. When we flew to Mexico on February 9th, we left Calgary at 10:25 AM and after a two hour layover in Houston, arrived in Mexico City at 7:50 PM local time. Yesterday’s return trip was a lot longer, but also much more fun.

It was 5:15 AM when the alarm clock rang in our Mexico City hotel room. Forty-five minutes later we were in a taxi on our way to the airport. After being in the air for four hours and crossing two time zones, we touched down in Las Vegas at noon. Our connecting flight didn’t leave until 7:20 PM. We had seven hours to kill in Vegas!

After claiming our suitcase and passing through US Immigration and Customs in record time, we rechecked the luggage and caught a cab. I had the driver drop us at the Excalibur, close to one end of the famous Las Vegas Strip, where I stayed in November 2014 with the Rav4.

This was Richard’s first taste of Vegas. We started by dropping into the Excalibur’s lobby casino to try out a few of the penny machines. I soon turned my dollar into $2.50, but Richard lost his and it was time to head out and explore Sin City, USA! It was much chillier than my previous visit, but that didn’t seem to put a dent in the happy crowds strolling up and down the Strip enjoying its shops, restaurants and street performers. We joined them, stopping at Tom’s Urban for a late lunch.

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Continuing our walk, we arrived at the Bellagio just in time to watch the famed fountain show and then went inside to see the spectacular Chinese New Year display in the opulent hotel’s conservatory.

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Crossing the Strip, we made our way back to the Excalibur where we spent another half hour on the machines before catching a cab back to the airport. Seven hours in Vegas was definitely the best layover we’ve had in all our travels!

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Café Finca La Cañada

My Richard is a coffeeholic. Coatepec is known as the coffee capital of Mexico. Visiting a coffee growing operation seemed like a no-brainer.

Through another expat friend, Richard M was able to arrange for us to tour Café Finca La Cañada yesterday. Located just outside of Coatepec, up one of the roughest roads we’ve ever traveled, is the beautiful canyon estate owned by retired University of New Hampshire professor, Clifford J. Wirth, where he has now been producing organic, fair trade coffee for several years.

At first glance, the lush valley appears to be wild jungle, but on closer inspection one can see not only coffee trees but macadamia, banana, lemon, orange and tangerine trees growing on the steep hillside.

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Coffee “cherries” ripening

Cliff started our very enjoyable and informative tour by walking us through the coffee harvesting process. The “cherries” are all hand picked by the Mexican family that works for him and lives on the estate. He explained the two processing methods that can be used, a wet method and a dry method. He uses the wet method. First, the freshly harvested cherries pass through a pulping machine to separate the skin and pulp from the bean.

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Then the beans are placed in a cement tank of water. The lighter unripe beans float to the top, while the heavier ripe ones sink to the bottom. The husks and unripe beans are  composted.

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Ripe coffee beans

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Composting the husks

After separation, the tank is again filled with water and the beans remain there for 3 or 4 days to remove the sweet gluey layer of mucilage that is still attached to the beans. While resting in the tanks, naturally occurring enzymes cause this layer to dissolve. When this process is complete, the beans feel rough to the touch.

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Drying beans

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At this point, the beans are placed on outdoor drying racks where they are turned regularly until most of the moisture has been removed. The racks are tented with plastic to protect the drying beans from rain.

Once the beans are ready, they are sent off-site for roasting and packaging. In addition to selling his coffee in a number of local shops, Cliff supplies several hotels and shops in the Cancun area. According to his Facebook page, his coffee is “Cultivated naturally below the tall trees of the Veracruz cloud forest without using agrochemicals, thus protecting the delicate ecosystem of the Suchiapa River, its flora and fauna–particularly the birds that migrate between Mexico, the United States, and Central America. The cultivation and processing methods protect the environment and workers’ welfare.”

Sadly, a fungus called coffee rust, or roya, has swept across Central America in recent years, withering trees and slashing production everywhere. Cliff told us that his trees are slowly dying and the estate now produces only 40% of the coffee that it did before the roya hit. When he took us hiking down into the beautiful canyon, he showed us examples of leaves that have been affected. He is now in the process of planting a new hybrid variety that is resistant to the blight.

I don’t drink coffee anymore because the acid bothers my stomach, but we bought a kilogram to take home and I’ll definitely be tasting it. I’ll just have to be careful to leave most of it for my coffeeholic husband!

Naolinco, where everything is leather

In this part of Mexico, the small town of Naolinco, nestled in the mountains northwest of here, is famous for its leather products. Apparently more than 200 shoe stores and cobblers line its narrow cobblestone streets.

This morning, we took the bus into Xalapa and then a taxi the rest of the way. The landscape was rugged and beautiful.

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From Xalapa, the drive to Naolinco is only about 33 km, but it took close to an hour as the road winds its way higher and higher into the mountains and passes through a couple of tiny towns. Even though it was a cool, cloudy day, the views were spectacular and our driver, realizing that Colleen and I were snapping pictures out both sides of the vehicle, began to stop along the way to allow us better opportunities to photograph the panoramas spread out below us.

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As the taxi drove up what appeared to be the main street lined with shop after shop selling shoes, boots, leather jackets, belts and handbags at a small fraction of the price that we would spend for similar products in Canada, we could actually smell the new leather all around us!

img_3789img_3791img_3800Once again, we felt as though we’d stepped back in time as we wandered the narrow streets. We also discovered a much more modern looking mini mall with three storeys of tiny shops all selling leather goods.

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Amazingly, though there were many very tempting boots and handbags, all we bought was a harness for our new Mexican friend, Layla, the 7-month-old boxer pup that shares Richard M and Colleen’s home and hearts.

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