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

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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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Kayaking northern Canada’s lakes

I’m so glad we bought our kayak before embarking on this trip! Northern Canada has thousands of gorgeous lakes, many of them easily accessible by road.

Twin Lakes, Yukon

As we drove the Klondike Highway from Whitehorse to Dawson City, we followed the shoreline of Fox Lake for several kilometres. Noting that there was a government campground near the northern end of the lake, we determined to stop there on our way back. When we mentioned that plan to our brother-in-law, Grant, who has spent most of his life living in the Yukon, he suggested that we try the smaller Twin Lakes instead. It was excellent advice!

Smaller than Fox Lake, the western Twin, where we camped and paddled until I thought my arms were going to fall off, was so much fun to explore. As you can see in the view from the campground, there were many little islands to paddle around and hidden bays to discover.

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As we approached one of the little bays, I heard an enormous splash. We stopped and listened. A second splash followed, much too big to be a fish jumping. It had to be a beaver. Paddling ever so slowly and quietly toward the rippled water, we soon spotted a furry brown head just above the surface. Following at a distance, we watched the beaver until he used his flat tail to signal yet another warning and then slipped out of sight. Just around the next bend, we spotted his home.

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Boya Lake, BC

A few days later as we made our way down the Cassiar Highway in northern BC, we stopped to camp at Boya Lake Provincial Park. We lucked out, snagging the most beautiful site in the campground right on the lake front.

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Again, paddling this lake was every bit as interesting as Twin Lakes had been. Though we didn’t hear any loud splashes this time, we did spot another beaver. The colours of the crystal clear water, quite shallow in places, was absolutely beautiful!

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It was the ever changing view from our campsite that was most mesmerizing though. As evening settled in, the water became dead calm and the reflections amazing! I was constantly jumping up to take another photo! Here are just a couple of my favourites.

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If you decide to travel to the Yukon or northern BC and don’t mind camping without any services, I highly recommend government campgrounds. Located in beautiful spots like Twin Lakes and Boya Lake, they offer spacious treed sites and are meticulously maintained. At just $12/night, the Yukon campgrounds are a steal of a deal. BC parks aren’t far behind at only $20/night.

Don’t get eaten by a bear!

We have never seen as many bears in the wild as on this trip… 18 so far! We’ve even hesitated to go hiking in some areas due to the risk of meeting a bear on the trail. In spite of the sign, we did do the 9th Avenue Trail at Dawson City though.

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The only wildlife we saw was this curious fellow who stopped munching long enough to watch us go by.

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Well, that’s not entirely true. There were also mosquitoes! Lot’s of mosquitoes! We made two errors that a hiker should never make. First, I forgot my water bottle. I filled it and left it sitting on the counter in the trailer. Fortunately, I’d packed some pop for our lunch, so we were able to stay hydrated. Second, we forgot bug spray, a big mistake, especially in the north! The mosquitoes hadn’t been bad in town, so we didn’t didn’t even think about them until we were out in the bush getting bitten. Luckily, it was a cool day and we were wearing long pants and sleeves, so we didn’t get eaten alive.

Back to the bear sign though. Notice that it says, “BE ALERT MAKE NOISE”. I’ve been giving Richard a hard time lately over the fact that throughout our many years of marriage, he hasn’t been a very open communicator. I know that some of you who know him will find that difficult to believe, but it’s true. I also read that talking works better than carrying bear bells as a way to avoid an encounter with the furry beasts. When we read the sign, I told Richard, “Today you’d better talk to me or you might get eaten by a bear!” In fact, I think a new code phrase has been born. From now on, if I think he’s being particularly uncommunicative, all I’ll have to say is, “Don’t get eaten by a bear!” and he should know what I mean!

Anyway, I digress. Back to the hike…

Beginning in 1898 when the population of Dawson City swelled with thousands of people hungry for gold, tents and then log homes were built up the steep hillside behind the present day town. Today, the uppermost avenue is 8th, hence the name of the 9th Avenue Trail that follows the perimeter of the town, but further up the hill. As the gold rush came to an end and the population dwindled, the hillside homes were eventually abandoned, but there are glimpses all along the trail that there were once people living there. The homes were often built on flat platforms with stone retaining walls. Most of these wooden structures are long gone, but a few signs of them can still be seen.

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There was no garbage collection in Dawson’s early days. Broken and discarded items were often piled up outside the buildings. Rusty remnants can still be seen along the trail offering archaeologists plenty of information about life in early Dawson.

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I’m not even sure what that was, but the bed springs were obvious. I wonder who slept on them and what their story was?

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The hike was not a long or strenuous one. The 9th Avenue Trail itself is only about 2.5 km in length. We made it a little longer by adding the connecting Crocus Bluff Nature Trail which leads out to a viewing platform perched on a rocky bluff overlooking the highway entering Dawson and the confluence of the Klondike and Yukon Rivers.

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Ghost moose

We had an unusual visitor yesterday; a young moose that has been hanging around our neighbourhood for the past few days munching on the plant life.

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Yes, I was actually that close to him! When I first realized that he was there, he was standing just outside our front door snacking on my rose bush.

A rather scraggly looking character, he is what is known as a ghost moose. Infested and irritated by ticks, he has rubbed off most of his dark brown hair, exposing his pale undercoat.

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Though I’ve never seen one before, apparently ghost moose are becoming more and more common and are most often spotted in March and April. Biologists blame climate change for ushering in shorter, warmer winters that are conducive to increased tick populations. The tick’s life cycle begins in late fall. Larva cling to plants and climb aboard unsuspecting moose that brush against them, feasting on their warm bodies over the winter months until early spring when they generally drop off and lay their eggs to begin the cycle over again.

A single moose can be host to a staggering number of ticks. I’ve read numbers upwards of 50 000! Thousands of feeding ticks can actually kill a moose! Calves, like this one, are particularly vulnerable. Loss of blood leaves them weak and easy prey for predators. Scratching off large patches of their thick outer coat in an attempt to remove the ticks leads to the loss of body heat and even hypothermia. Some spend more time scratching than foraging for food. Skinny and malnourished, they eventually die of starvation.

Considering that our young visitor has made it through our cold winter and seems to be eating well, I’m hopeful that he will survive, but I also have other concerns for his well-being. He is obviously one of last year’s calves. As such, he’s still a bit young to be wandering about on his own. Moose calves usually stay with their mothers for about a year and a half.

The fact that he’s spending so much time in town is also a major concern. It’s not unusual for us to see a mother moose and her calves in the yard during the winter, especially at night, but they are usually easily spooked, retreating to the trees on the edge of town when startled. This little guy is much too bold. He continued to nonchalantly trim the lower branches of our weeping birch while vehicles passed by just a few feet away. Even a neighbour in a noisy truck stopping to take pictures didn’t deter him.

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Not only is becoming semi domesticated not good for him, but as cute as he is (in his own scraggly way), he poses a danger to people. He’s already big enough to cause serious damage and  if he survives, he’s going to get a LOT bigger. A full grown bull moose can reach a height of up to 2.15 m (7.1 feet) at the shoulder and weigh between 500 and 725 kg (1,102 and 1,598 pounds)!

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Hiking Kejimkujik Seaside

Nova Scotia’s Kejimkujik National Park is actually one park divided into two completely separate areas. Thankfully, locals refer to it as Keji because I’ve had a terrible time getting my tongue around that name! The meaning of the Mi’kmaq name is uncertain, but the park’s official stance is that it means “tired muscles”. Yesterday, we spent several hours hiking the beautiful Seaside portion of the park; 10.7 km in all and I’m proud to say that my muscles are just fine today!

The hiking trails ramble through coastal barrens and bogs, around rocky headlands and along cobbled and sandy beaches offering views that are breathtaking. The trails are well maintained and there’s very little change in elevation, but if you go, you’ll definitely want good footwear for the rocky sections.

Come along on a virtual hike with me.

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In the past, sheep were grazed on the barrens. Here are the remains of the shepherd’s home; definitely a room with a view!

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Wildlife share the park with hikers. A sign at the entrance warned that bears have been sighted. Thankfully, we didn’t see any, but there was plenty of scat along the trail. The only wildlife we saw was birds, a squirrel and this harbour seal sunning itself!

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Fall camping

IMG_5618I’ve always wanted to go camping in the fall; always hoped for just one more outing with the trailer before winter hit. As teachers, it never happened. We were back in the classroom and up to our eyeballs in work by late August or the first week of September. Then, with retirement came several years of helping our friend, Louis, with harvest. I loved being out on the combine, but it meant that there was no time for camping in the fall.

Finally, this year it happened! We packed up the trailer last Wednesday morning and headed for Miquelon Lake Provincial Park, less than an hour and a half from home. Surrounded by the spectacular colours of the season, fall camping was everything I always thought it would be! Though we got caught in the rain while out geocaching on Wednesday afternoon, the clouds soon disappeared and for the remainder of our time the weather was glorious.

Here in Alberta, we don’t get the wide variety of fall colours that are found in eastern Canada, but everywhere I turned I was surrounded by beauty and I took dozens of pictures!

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We found 14 geocaches within the park boundaries, but the highlight of our trip was definitely Friday’s hike. We left the trailhead late in the morning intending to hike 7.3 kilometres, but we’d completed all but 1.5 km of that by the time we stopped to eat lunch! Digging out our trail map, we quickly decided to add what we had originally thought might be a separate hike sometime in the future. In the end, we covered 13.2 km! Considering the fact that just a few months ago, I couldn’t walk more than two km without playing out, I was pretty stoked!

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Those of you who’ve been reading my blog for very long know how much we enjoy exploring old abandoned houses that give us glimpses into life in days gone by. Imagine our surprise and delight when Richard spotted an old brick chimney rising out of the bush a short distance from the trail. Of course, we had to take a closer look! Although the girl manning the park office couldn’t give us any information about the house or its original inhabitants, it was easy to see that the two storey structure and its smaller outbuilding must have been there long before the park was established in 1958.

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Though we didn’t see any of the larger wildlife, including deer, moose and elk, that live within the park, there was clear evidence of their presence along the trails. Plenty of fresh hoof prints and droppings told us they weren’t far off. What we did see were squirrels, muskrat, tiny frogs, a surprising number of garter snakes and an abundance of water fowl. As Miquelon Lake and the numerous wetland areas within the park are located within two of North America’s migratory flyways, flocks of migrating geese honked their way overhead and settled on the lake each evening.

Miquelon Lake is also part of the Beaver Hills Dark Sky Preserve, an an area that has been established to reduce the glare of artificial light and increase the visibility of the night sky. Each evening, as we sat around the fire in the crisp evening air, darkness settled around us and stars filled the sky. What could be more relaxing?

Dare I hope for one more camping trip before winter arrives?

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