Touring Alberta, Calgary Stampede, Columbia Icefields, Lake Louise, Banff (Bamf!), Drumheller

Owing to a very hectic week, I really haven’t had a chance to get to this one. Hopefully my workload will drop a bit in the not-too-distant future so I can return to the simpler things in life … like writing eight-page emails that I know you all love so much.

Cathy and Craig were due to come out and visit and see the Great Province of Alberta. Neither had taken any vacation time in a while, and both needed it badly. Despite an impending launch for the new version of our largest client’s website, I took two days on Monday and Tuesday so that I could spend some time with my sister and (pseudo-)brother-in-law. This (supposedly) was not a problem … would find out after my return that taking vacation around a launch date of our largest client’s website is not a good idea…

I arrived at the airport to meet them. Originally, the flight was to arrive around 6:30pm, but owing to a “mechanical problem” with their plane, the flight was delayed until 9:30pm. I’m still amazed at the things I could find to do in the airport for two hours.

As I waited for Cathy and Craig, I began to notice that the Calgary Stampede must be close … there were an untold number of people wandering around in western garb, or at least with cowboy hats. (And no, this is not the sort of thing you see in Calgary on a regular basis.)

Their flight in, we collected their bags, collected their rental car, and headed over to my Aunt and Uncle’s. They (and my Nana, who was also there) wanted to see them. Besides, we needed our tickets to the Stampede. Yes, we were going. I’d never been and wanted to see what all the hype was about. I assume Cathy and Craig wanted to go for a similar reason.

We were late leaving — about 11:30 or so — and didn’t get to bed until well after midnight. We were up the next morning at 6:30. It was the first morning of the Calgary Stampede, and it was also parade day. Every year, there’s a massive (and I mean massive — it’s the largest parade I’ve ever seen) through downtown of horses, marching bands, floats, quasi-important people, local (and not-so-local) Native peoples, and a lot of street sweepers. Those horses aren’t exactly toilet-trained, y’know…

We were informed that we should get seats early. Many people had already beaten us to the punch, and had chairs set up at the side of the road. We sat on one of the creosote-soaked railway ties that made up one of the “gardens” along the south side of 9th Ave.

The parade is popular. I think about half of Alberta turns out for it. I’ve seen parades where people line up to see things pass — you can usually wiggle yourself into the line to see. Not here. If you didn’t have a seat, you weren’t getting in. And that was on 9th … I’d hate to see what 6th Ave was like. Utter mayhem, I guess…

The parade featured, as I said, people from all walks of life and all facets of the Stampede. And about a hundred marching bands. (There’s a competition at the Stampede every year.) The bands came from far and wide, including Minnesota (about four or five bands were from there), California, Alberta (of course), British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Japan, Australia, Taiwan, and even Tongo. I didn’t even know Tongo had musical instruments, let alone a marching band! And a good one, at that!

We ducked out before the parade was over. I had to go to work (unlike most of Calgary). Cathy and Craig took the opportunity to go find a pub. I directed them to Ceili’s (“Cayley’s”), down the street from where we live. We would meet up with them that night at the Stampede.

Chris and I arrived at the Stampede grounds that night around 7:30. Picture the CNE (or PNE) grounds. Same general idea … with two or three times the number of people per square metre. It was complete chaos. It was the Calgary Stampede.

It’s hard to explain what the Stampede means to this city unless you’ve been here to experience it. Nearly two months ago, the city started gearing up for it. Windows of shops and companies started receiving paint jobs — cartoonish cowboys, horses, cows, and western scenes. Light posts along nearly every major road in Calgary starting flying the Stampede banner. Advertising was prominent as far back as a month ago. Three weeks ago some companies started promoting Stampede events (the ubiquitous Stampede Breakfasts). Two weeks ago, the decorations went up. These involved whole trees cut into 1-2 inch thick planks, bark and all. These are nailed together to create the kitschy western “feel” of Stampede. Nearly every restaurant puts this stuff up.

And then there’s the people. Everyone who is somewhat serious about this stuff pulls out the jeans, western shirts, cowboy boots, and cowboy hats. (There’s a rumour of a little-known Calgary law that states you must have enough cowboy hats in each home for everyone currently living there.)

The grounds were complete packed. Chris and I had to struggle (somewhat) to find our way. Our ultimate destination was the Grandstand, where we would meet up with everyone else. We got sidetracked by the Nokia PowerXone. I thought it was going to be a cool product exposition. It was in fact a large building with lots of open space, and a few stalls operated by local companies. I don’t think Nokia was even there… The only cool this was a full-size video dancing game, operated by two players who knew it so well they could dance while playing.

The Grandstand is big — no-one seems to know how long it’s been there, but it’s a mainstay at the Stampede. While most of the Stampede is not unlike the CNE or the PNE (save for the abundant Bullseye BBQ Beef on a Bun stands), the Grandstand is the bastion of the time-honoured traditions: The rodeo and the chuckwagon races.

We’d missed the rodeo (on earlier in the afternoon), but we were going to see the chuckwagon races and the “Grandstand Show”, whatever that was. After climbing almost all the way to the top (Aunt Brenda got us seats nearly at the top, which turned out to be an excellent vantage point to see everything at the races), we ran into my Aunt, Uncle, Jen (cousin), Cathy, and Craig.

While most of us looked “normal” (in the sense that in any other major city in North America at that point, we would be indistinguishable from anyone else), Uncle Mike had dusted off his cowboy clothes. Although he played it down a bit by leaving the hat at home. At least one of us was playing cowboy.

We found our way to our seats and watched the spectacle unfold. The chuckwagon races have evolved a bit to stay with the times. Originally, they were real chuckwagons, with real cast-iron stoves. Then a few too many horses and riders were getting killed, and many an outrider was throwing their back out trying to load the heavy stove. As with most competitive sports, things changed.

Today, the wagons are wagon-like, but smaller and more compact. The stove is now a small red barrel (assumedly with some weight to it). The races are limited to four Chriss, and four teams of outriders. (Don’t worry, I’ll get to the description in a moment.) The races are probably faster than they were before, and accidents less (although people do still get injured and killed).

The races are fairly simple. There are four teams: one chuckwagon (pulled by four horses) with one driver, and four “outriders” each with a horse. All four teams start lined up at four sets of barrels; one outrider holds the team in place, the other three poised to load the “tent” and “stove” into the wagon. The barrels are arranged in a 1/6 of a circle, with a second set of barrels about one chuckwagon length away from that.

At the horn, the three rear outriders throw the contents in, and the fourth lets go of the team. The chuckwagons are actually pointed away from the race direction. They race from the first barrel, around the second (some cars don’t turn that tightly), and then charge towards the actual racetrack. It’s usually pretty close. The outriders then have to hop onto their horses and sprint after the chuckwagons. They can’t get ahead of their wagon, but they can’t fall behind it either. The outriders are pretty useless, actually, aside from loading the wagons. (In fact, outriders are recycled across all the races, and are independent of the drivers.) The race is one lap — first one to the end, without penalty, usually wins.

It’s rather amazing how much some people can get into this sort of thing. You’d think: “They’re wagons. Racing around a track. Whoopee.” Chris thought that. He got into it — he actually found himself cheering for the drivers. It’s crazy.

Even crazier is the sponsoring. chuckwagon racing is big in these here parts. So much so, companies put down as much as $165,000 just to have the cover of the chuckwagon bear their logo. (Aunt Brenda tells me that this is down from years past. I wonder what the prices used to go for?)

There were nine heats of racing, after which there was a short intermission where the Skyhawks flew into the Grandstand. (You may remember them from [[BC Rail Royal Hudson 2860, West Coast Railway Association, Comox Airshow, and Skyhawks]].) This was their second flight of the day, after a somewhat disastrous first flight (one of the parachuters missed their mark and collided with an ambulance … at least they hit the one thing they needed the most). Shortly after, they hauled out the stage.

This was the first year for this new stage. It’s big. It needs the biggest farm tractor they could find to move it into place. But after only a few minutes of tweaking, it’s ready for use. And so began the Grandstand Show.

The best analogy is if you took a Vegas show and put it outdoors. In fact, they go so far as to call the show “The Best Show in the Great Outdoors”, or something like that. It’s not a claim they make lightly, nor is does it falls short of the claim. It’s pretty impressive, even if the most famous person is Tom Jackson (of North of 60). Admittedly, he does have a very cool voice, which came into play in the show’s finale.

The show started off with the singing of the National Anthem … by a three-year old girl. There’s no physical way a three-year old should be able to sing that well. Especially when I can’t. She had it all memorized, although she paused a while in between verses, either to remember the next line or out of fear. It’s not easy getting in front of 10,000-odd people and perform flawlessly.

The entertainment consisted of the Young Canadians (a 100,000-person singing and dancing troupe), some soul singer I’d never heard of (although he was all the way from New York, so assumedly he couldn’t have been that bad), a juggler (one of the better ones I’ve seen), a not-so-good comedian all the way from Saskatchewan (whose jokes mostly revolved around Saskatchewan and speaking French), and of course, Tom Jackson.

Stuart had warned us of the “Young Canadians”, alluding them to be like the “Duff Singers” on “The Simpsons”. Thankfully, we were not subjected to such torture. Although they were slightly too cutesy, it wasn’t too bad. There was no way to count the exact number of them, because they were all over the place. Excellent choreography, I have to say — much better than I’ve seen in other live shows.

The evening ended with a telling of the dreamcatcher fable from Native lore. It was an impressive show that I found really interesting … and that was without the fireworks going off all over the place. I never thought you could work pyrotechnics into a show that wasn’t featuring loud music, but apparently you can.

Oh yeah, I should also mention the beer. Budweiser seems to be the supplier for all the beer at the Stampede (oh, how can I contain my joy?) — I think Cathy, Craig, and Uncle Mike tried their best to take a dent out of that supply. The three of them, especially Craig and Mike, were utter wrecks by the end of the evening. It didn’t help that Cathy and Craig still hadn’t adjusted to the time zone, so were in considerably worse condition.

I won’t mention the “serving wenches”. Okay, I just did, but it’s an inside joke that only those who were there will get…

At first, the general consensus was to go home. However, Jen decided that she was dragging someone on a ride, even if it killed them. I was game, I have to say that. HOWEVER, Cathy was pleading to go to bed. So I refused. So Jen got Craig to go. Cathy apparently was unable to stop him.

We didn’t actually get out of the grounds until after 1am. This was partly because every time we tried to get everyone together, half of them disappeared. Cathy, Craig, and Uncle Mike were still loopy by the time we got to the C-Train station. [More references to “serving wenches” go here.]

No-one (in either household) rose early the next morning. Although I wanted to drag Cathy and Craig out to Dim Sum, they were … how shall I put this? … not well. There was only one solution to their problem — breakfast at Dunn’s.

Dunn’s Famous Delicatessen was a mainstay in Ottawa for years. Chris and Gerry used to frequent it at all hours of the day (and night) when they were in school. Cathy and her friends lived with one of the chefs, so had an open door policy (not that the place ever closed). It was a sad day when Dunn’s (in the Market) closed. I have many fond memories of eating breakfast at any time during the day (I love all-day breakfasts) at Dunn’s in the Market. I miss it. There’s still one on Bank Street, but it’s just not the same.

Neither is the one out here. It’s not a deli — it’s a restaurant. But it’s not that bad. The breakfasts were similar, and good. It perked up Craig and Cathy. Afterwards, we returned to the apartment (after making a quick beer run) and prepared for the evening’s festivities.

Chris initially didn’t want to come with us. So I left him phone numbers should he change his mind. With that, Cathy, Craig, and I took off to the Northeast. Pam (another cousin of ours) arrived to join us in our revelry. Almost as soon as we got there, the question arose: “Where is Chris?”

The annoying began.

I made the first call, to let him know that his presence was desired. I made a second call about 30 minutes later to remind him. But I didn’t make the first call. Nana did. Chris had never met Nana before. Never even spoken to him before. So naturally, Chris was a little caught off guard when he received a phone call from a strange elderly woman. But it finally convinced him to come out.

The evening lasted well into the night. It included more food than we really knew what to do with (all of it very good), and my first taste of scotch. Several months ago, when Uncle Mike and I were both job-hunting, we had wandered into the local liquor store. Mike had pointed out his favourite scotch, one I’d never seen before. (I may not drink the stuff, but I do know what the good stuff is.) Mike made me agree that when he got his new job, we’d toast it with a shot of scotch.

I’m not a scotch drinker. Never was, and after tasting the stuff, I doubt I ever will be. It’s an acquired taste, and it’s not one I’m really keen to acquire. I will admit that it’s an interesting drink, and I can understand why there are those who are obsessed with it. It’s too strong for me (I’m a weakling, I guess) — I draw my line at 7.5% beer. (Okay, wine is stronger, but that’s a whole other issue…)

As we approached our apartment (following the soiree), my cell phone rang. A rarity on its own (not many people call my cell anymore), the fact that it was somewhere past midnight just made the mystery all the more interesting. It was Jim and Frank, returning from their trek to BC. They happened to be calling from the same bar we were passing at that exact moment. [Insert theme to Twilight Zone here.]

Ah, you probably haven’t heard the saga of Jim and Frank. They’re Chris’ friends. Chris gave Jim his car when he moved out here. Jim thought it would be a good idea to drive the car (a 1987 Dodge Shadow) to BC and back. There’s a massive story I could get into here, but I’ll save you the agony. In short: We never thought the car would make it. (Okay, Chris thought the car would make it; I was amazed the car made it as far as Calgary, let alone two trips over the mountains.)

They were on their return leg, and were looking for a place to stay. Chris and I maintain an open door policy — it’s open, so long as it’s not locked. I was a little worried what Cathy and Craig would say, but they were alright with it — so I was alright with it. Chris and I slept in the living room that night. (I was sleeping on the couch anyway…)

Surprisingly enough, the next morning wasn’t so bad. This further extends Stuart’s theory that draft beer, although tastier, is worse for you than bottled (or in some cases, canned) beer. I think medical science needs to devote funds to solving this problem.

The tour of the day was Drumheller, home of the Royal Tyrell Museum. This was after a considerable debate as to whether it would be Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump or Drumheller. After a bit of pushing to Drumheller (more to see, frankly more interesting), we loaded up the rented Oldsmobile Alero, and hit the road.

It takes about an hour and a half to get to Drumheller (it’s not a long drive, but it’s a little tedious — there ain’t much there). It was the first time Cathy’d been in the Prairies since about 1993 — it was a first for Craig. Most of the time they marvelled at the yellow fields of … something (I think it was either mustard seed or canola, but I’m not sure which). But when we rounded the corner at Horseshoe Canyon, the marvelling skyrocketed.

Starting at Horseshoe Canyon (at least on this road), the Prairies suddenly give way to massive gouges in the ground, carved by wind and rain over millennia. The Badlands. It’s impressive to see, or at least so Cathy and Craig thought.

The Town (City?) of Drumheller sits in the Red Deer River valley, which I assume is part of the Badlands. It’s not huge by any means, but because of the geography it sits in, it’s laid out according to space in the valley itself. It had been over a year since I was last there (see [[A Boys Night out in Calgary, Drumheller, Banff (Bamf!), and Star Wars]]), and it didn’t really look all that different. Actually, it didn’t look any different at all. About the same weather, just a few more people.

We went directly to the Tyrell, opting to beat a few tour buses we passed on the way. There’s only one reason a tour bus would go to Drumheller. The frogs in the pond were quiet, possibly due to the larger number of cars and people, but otherwise it was just the way I last saw it.

Cathy warned me ahead of time that she and Craig are not big readers. They’re more “visual” people, and prefer to see a museum, rather than read it. I was amazed at how fast they were going through the exhibits. I couldn’t help but speak up if I thought they might miss something interesting. I almost became a tour guide. (Most people would tell me to shut up, but I guess Cathy and Craig like it — they didn’t have to read at all.)

About an hour after entering, we exited to the day air. A quick run up the lookout, and we were back down to the car and off. Wanting to stop for a quick drink (we’d packed beer and Mike’s Hard Lemonade into a cooler), we pulled off at McMullen Island. I emphasize “quick”. Cathy is a mosquito magnet. The moment she got out of the car, they swarmed her. We stayed only long enough for them to finish their drinks (I refrained — I was driving), and we bolted.

I took them east of Drumheller to the Hoodoos. Not “The” Hoodoos, but one of many examples of granite-capped sandstone pillars. Cathy and Craig seemed impressed with the small stone structures, and like the other tourists, climbed all over them. Unlike most of the tourists, though, Craig aimed higher to get better pictures. I followed him … all the way to the top.

I was amazed at how much out of shape I was. Last year, when Jay, Stuart, and I scuttled up the side, I hadn’t been quite so tired. I supposed it’s because the past two or three weeks have been completely occupied with work — sleep and almost any form of exercise has been a total afterthought. While we were up there, Craig snapped a couple of pictures of Cathy from a distance. Of course, she turned away when we were going to take the pictures. We tried whistling to get her attention, but we were too winded to whistle.

After returning to the valley floor, the three of us climbed back into the car and returned to Drumheller. We stopped briefly at the (Star Mine) Suspension Bridge for a couple of pictures. Our next stop was for lunch at Boston Pizza. After that was a stop for gas, and then a stop at Horseshoe Canyon. The last stop was at home.

Jim and Frank hadn’t left yet (they wouldn’t leave until the following day), opting to relax a bit before their push back to Ontario. Cathy, Craig, and I were aiming to go the Barley Mill for dinner and a beer or two, and invited Chris, Jim, and Frank to come. They said they might, but were aiming for Pongo, a restaurant on 17th Ave.

The sky was not cooperating. It threatened to unleash a torrential downpour. Out here, threats are rarely empty. We ended up having to evacuate our patio table (despite carefully placed umbrellas) for the sanctity and dryness of the indoors. A powerful storm raged for a couple of hours, during which time we waited … and drank beer. I hadn’t had that much in a very long time (memories of my last trip to visit my friends and old roommates Jon and Stuart in Waterloo came to mind). Luckily, I didn’t pay for it the next morning…

Monday was the day of the Big Trip. We were off just after 9:15am, heading into the mountains. Until this point, neither Craig nor Cathy had ever seen the Rockies. Craig had been to Vancouver before, but I have to say that the Rockies are more impressive than the Coastals. It wasn’t long before we were weaving our way through the range.

Our first destination of the day was Banff. The Alero didn’t really guzzle gas, but it certainly wasn’t the most fuel efficient. It also had a tiny gas tank. We filled up there, and then were off to Lake Louise. We figured on two days in the Rockies, mostly owing to distances we had to cover and the need to enjoy it. Day One would cover Moraine Lake, Lake Louise, and the Columbia Icefields. Day Two would be Banff, Kananaskis Country, and then home. (As it stands, we didn’t make to Kananaskis.)

We went directly to Moraine Lake. The skies were iffy at best, heavily clouded and looking like it might rain. Spots of sunshine periodically poked through, but I wasn’t really certain we’d get a good chance to see everything if we didn’t move before the skies opened. We got spots of rain throughout the day, but nothing to drench us. Luckily, the weather also kept the bugs to a minimum.

Moraine Lake looked very different from the last time I saw it, with Stuart, Jay, and Kevin. The snow was gone, the lake was blue (and I do mean blue), and there were more people than you could count (quite a few of whom came on bicycles up a very windy and steep hill). We stopped long enough to take a few pictures and use the bathroom. Then it was off to Lake Louise.

There were lots of people there, too. About as many as when Gerry and I visited it nearly three years ago. Most of them seemed to be people in the marching bands (there was a troupe or two from Minnesota who were following our every move) — there were certainly enough tour buses to account for all of them. Again, we didn’t spend a lot of time there, preferring to get a few pictures and run. However, there was also the matter of food.

It dawned on me that while were at Lake Louise, we should have eaten at Moraine Lake’s lodge. Chateau Lake Louise isn’t the most cost-effective way to eat (nor did I think we met the dress code). Nor is Lake Louise an easy place to find a bite to eat — aside from the hotels, there are only two restaurants. We got lucky with one of them, although our simple meal took over 45 minutes to appear. (Note to self: In future, bring lunch with you.)

Craig and Cathy at Lake Louise, Banff National Park, Alberta, 09 July 2000

Then it was back on the highway and on our way to the Icefields Parkway. This is the only road that connects Banff with Jasper. The two National Parks butt up against each other, and are only connected by this single road. During parts of the year, namely winter, this road is closed — it’s impassable for upwards of three days at a time after heavy snowfall. It takes a while to check the highway for snow drifts and avalanche debris.

The Icefields Parkway started as nothing more than a simple packtrain trail through the mountains. But in the 1930s, Canada implemented a work-relief program to expand the trail into a more passable road. This road was turned into the present Icefields Parkway in the 1960s. Today, it’s the best (and probably only) way to see 35 glaciers in five hours. It’s a spectacular drive with many awe-inspiring photo opportunities. It’s a real shame that it was cloudy that day.

I was a little anxious to get to the Icefield Centre around 4:00pm, mostly because I thought the Centre closed at 5:00pm. I didn’t want Cathy and Craig to miss out on a good tour … particularly one I hadn’t done before myself. I wanted to see a glacier myself.

Okay, I’d seen a glacier before — I lived in BC for two years, after all. But I’d never walked on one. There wasn’t anything the guides could tell me that I didn’t already know (years of reading Time Life books and watching Discovery and TLC certain improved my knowledge of such things), but that didn’t change the desire for the experience.

We arrived about 4:10pm, and immediately changed into pants and shoes. It was cold. Very cold. Glaciers, particularly the Columbia Icefield, create a massive cold wind that constantly blows out of the mountains. It keeps everything in perpetual chill.

The Icefield Centre sits at what used to be at the toe of the Athabasca Glacier (the glacier has since receded). It’s a relatively new building, built partly by Parks Canada and by Brewster Transportation, who runs the Snocoach tours on the glacier. (Brewster is an Alberta bus company that seems to own nearly every major mechanized tour in the province.) In addition to an interpretive centre, the Centre houses the Snocoach tour centre and a hotel.

We jogged inside and got ourselves ready for a tour. Tickets for the tour aren’t cheap — $26 a pop. But it’s an hour long, and entertaining. We couldn’t get tickets until the 4:45 departure, which gave us ample time to wander around.

Looking up the Athabasca Glacier, Columbia Icefields, Banff National Park, Alberta, 9 July 2000

The tour goes in two stages. The first stage is in a standard tour bus. This takes you on an eight-minute trip up the side of the mountain to the Snocoach departure station. The Snocoaches are huge, and not exactly speedy — it would make the trip about twice as long if had to leave from the Icefield Centre. The trip up from the Icefield Centre is somewhat informational. The introduction to the glacier, how it was formed, and how it transformed the valley.

The driver took car to point things out like the lateral moraines, two huge piles of crushed rock the glacier created when it pushed its way down the mountain. They’re about 200 metres high, and well over a kilometre or two in length. Concrete companies would kill for something like that — but they’re well-protected in Jasper National Park.

As we drove along, the driver identified many of the features (such as the moraines) to the passengers. One of them were the trees that lined the roads. Because of the cold wind that always blows off the glaciers, the trees were missing branches on one side — they were all swept back. When she asked the age of the trees, many people spouted off numbers. But I guessed right — 300 years. These trees might have been my height. The constant cold keeps the growing season to only 60-90 days a year. It is very possible that some of these trees might outlast the glacier, which is expected to disappear in 600 years at the current rate of recession.

The road to the Snocoach departure is only partially paved. After a while, the pavement stops, and the road veers downhill. The paved section is the only part on bedrock — which doesn’t move. The rest, however, rests on what was once moraine, and is unstable. The bus took a nasty dip (about a 10% grade) on a road that was once level and straight. Even the Snocoach depot is on unstable ground … which is why none of the buildings there are permanent.

We transferred from our bus to a Snocoach. These are basically enormous six-wheeled buses. The wheels are about two metres high, and under half the height of the bus. 22 of these buses were built, by a Calgary company no less, for use in such terrains. Brewster owns 21 of them. (The 22nd is run by the US Government in Antarctica.) They feature six-wheel drive, engine-reactive transmissions, and a top speed of about 45 kilometres an hour. Downhill. With a tailwind.

Vintage Snocoach, Columbia Icefields, Banff National Park, Alberta, 9 July 2000

Our driver, Steve Jobidon, claimed he was a 105 year-old retired school teacher. He claimed his longevity was from drinking glacier water. My guess is he was overestimating his age by about 80 years, although it was clear that Steve was an avid outdoors person — skiing, hiking, and all that kind of stuff. He had the tan and the wrinkles to prove it.

The coach lurched out from its berth, turned, and headed towards what looked like a sheer cliff. It’s not too close form the truth. As the glacier recedes, the Snocoaches have to go down an increasingly steeper hill to get to it. The hill is quite long, and is the steepest unpaved hill in North America — a 35% grade. The Snocoaches are fitted with a transmission that will slow the Snocoach to a dead crawl (and in fact will stall the engine, ending the coach in an uncontrolled descent) to keep it on the road.

At the bottom of the hill is a large pool of glacier water. This is intentional — drivers must wash the coach’s tires before entering the glacier’s top. Any extra dirt on the glacier will hasten its recession. (The glacier has retreated an estimated kilometre in the past 40-odd years, at least according to my relatives.) Only then does the Snocoach enter the top portion of the Athabasca Glacier.

The Athabasca Glacier is one of several outlets for the Columbia Icefield, a massive 325 square kilometre mass of ice in the Canadian Rockies — the largest sub-polar icemass in the world. It’s also one of two hydrogeological apexes. Meltwater from the Icefield drains into three oceans: Pacific (though the Fraser river system), Arctic (through the Mackenzie river system), and the Atlantic (through the Saskatchewan river system, emptying into Hudson Bay). The only such apex is in Siberia. The Icefield, like its outflow glaciers, is also receding — my Aunt remembers it being 500 square kilometres when she was younger.

Glaciers (including the Icefield) are formed from snow — lots of snow. More snow that you have ever seen in your life. Every snowfall buries and compresses the previous layers, recrystallizing the snow into grains similar in size and shape to grains of sugar. Over time, the grains grow larger, and air pockets between the grains get smaller, making the snow denser. After about two winters, compressed snow turns into firn — a stage between snow and glacier ice. Firn it is about half as dense as water. Older, larger ice crystals are so compressed that air pockets between them are very tiny. In very old glacier ice, crystals can reach several inches in length (this can take over a hundred years). The lack of air in glacier ice produces its distinctive blue colour.

Brewster maintains a road on the glacier, about 300 metres long, or so. It takes the Snocoaches from the base of the hill to almost the centre of the glacier, where we tourists got a chance to hop out, and see what being on a glacier was all about.

Well, for starters, it’s cold. Really cold. But not so cold that there isn’t runoff from the glacier. Some parts of the surface look frozen, but aren’t. I felt sorry for anyone silly enough to travel up there with sandals. I took several pictures, including one of a very cold Cathy, sipped the glacial water (which tasted like snow — go figure), and then got back on the bus before my fingers started going numb. (I was a little cold. It was also raining lightly, which didn’t help.)

Craig and Cathy on the Athabasca Glacier, Columbia Icefields, Banff National Park, Alberta, 9 July 2000

As we waited on the bus, we heard screaming from outside. At first, I thought a fissure opened up on the glacier and swallowed up a bus. Turned out it was the Minnesota marching band following us around — they were getting a group photo taken on the glacier.

As we wheeled back to the Snocoach platform, Steve happily informed us of the three benefits of glacial water. The first was longevity (Steve claimed that this was one reason why a small glacier, currently known as the AA Glacier — it’s between Mount Athabasca and Mount Andromeda — was going to be named after the oldest tour guide there, namely him), the second was as an aphrodisiac, and the third as a laxative. He offered to speed the Snocoach’s return…

Cathy drove on the way back to Banff. This gave me the opportunity to actually see what we drove through. I’ve been through several passes in the Rockies, nestled between Calgary, Kelowna, Hope, Kamloops, and Jasper. Of all the ones I’ve travelled on so far, the Icefields Parkway is by far the most beautiful. (I suspect the drive would be awesome on a sunny day.) We stopped several times to take pictures several times (in particular, Cathy was hunting for a moose, which we never saw). One day, I will go back … when it’s sunny.

We arrived in Banff just after 8:30. It took us another 45 minutes to find a hotel that wasn’t booked or cost a fortune to stay at. Still cost us $180 for the night. On the other hand, we were close to downtown, which meant we could go out, eat, drink, and be merry, but still stagger back to the hotel without having to take a cab. This was important, considering I took them to St. James’ Gate, the local Irish Pub (run by the same company that runs the Barley Mill).

The following morning, we started our Banff tour. After checking out and stopping for coffee, we went to the Cave and Basin, the origin of Banff National Park (and to a certain extend, Parks Canada). The last (and only) time I’d been to Cave and Basin was with Chris, Therese, and Stuart, when we introduced Chris to the Rockies a month or so earlier.

Back in the early 1880s, three men followed the CPR through the wilderness, hoping to make their fortunes. They came across a warm stream, and followed it to its source. Warm streams are rare in this part of the country — most are ice-cold. They found a hole in the ground that reeked of rotten eggs. Sulphur water. It was precisely what they were looking for — liquid money. They erected a small hut (which they called a hotel) and started charging people to come and bathe in the waters.

Even back then, the Government was nosey. They got involved and a legal battle ensued. The Government won. They wanted to protect the area and created the Banff Park. To manage it, they created an organisation responsible for the parks. This was the birth of not only Banff National Park, but of Parks Canada.

The Cave and Basin wasn’t really protected. For years, people swam in the basin (which unbeknownst to them harboured an extremely rare species of snail — it’s the only place in the world it’s found), and bottled the water. The Government built a pool to allow people to swim, and closed the basin to use. The pool was in use until the early 1980s, when it was closed for renovation. However, after the renovation was complete, no-one wanted to take over the maintenance. The pool was closed and remains for historical significance.

The cave is nothing special, basically a big hole in the ground that someone blasted a small tunnel into. Warm water spills into the pool from a gap in the far wall, falling into the pool. It then drains off and out into the basin. And it smells really bad. Cathy couldn’t spend long in there before she had to get out.

I then tortured Cathy even more by dragging her up the side of the mountain on a boardwalk, showing them where the cabin was, and here the water came from (inside the mountain). The water was rain and snow at one point. It seeps into the mountain, warms from the heat of the Earth, collects minerals (most importantly iron pyrite, which is full of sulphur), and flows back to the surface under pressure.

Our next stop was the Upper Hot Springs, on the other side of the mountain. The Cave and Basin springs are cool — only about 30 degrees. The Upper Hot Springs are 40 degrees, and used every day by average people who want a nice, warm swim. They first take a bath, $7.00 from your wallet, to be precise, before taking a 20-minute soak. Any longer, and you run medical risk of turning into salt pork. But the faithful are always there, looking for whatever it is that draws them there. Frankly, I’ll wait until the winter, when its $5.50, and the summer tourists are gone.

Finally, it was time for the big trip — up Sulphur Mountain itself. In the early 1940s, a man by the name of John Jaeggi started a service where he’d haul people up the side of the mountain in a farm tractor. He drove them up to a halfway station (still visible from the gondola), where passengers would have to walk the remainder of the distance to the top. This continued until he rolled the tractor (he was alone) in the late 1940s. But Jaeggi’s dream didn’t stop there — he figured an aerial tram would be a better method to get people to the top.

Construction began in the Fall of 1958, and the first aerial cars started running 18 July 1959. It was a colossal project, with most of the equipment coming all the way from Switzerland (which had a great deal of experience with mountains). The Complex at the summit wasn’t built until 1980, and now serves at the terminus for the gondola, but also has two restaurants (Canada’s highest), a gift shop, and an observation tower.

Jaeggi wasn’t the first up, however. The first person to use the mountain was Norman Bethune Sanson. He was the local meteorologist who took readings at the summit of Sanson’s Peak on Sulphur Mountain from the summer of 1903 until the summer of 1945. A small stone building remains as a testimony to his tenacity to track weather patterns in the Rockies.

Cathy’s not big on heights — never was, or so I gather. Yet she was determined to get herself up there. With a lot of guts, we paid the $18 per person fee (really quite reasonable, when you think about it) and climbed in for the ride.

The last time I was on a gondola of any kind was at the CNE. This one was considerably newer, and much nicer. The ride up, aside from the three towers, was very quiet. All we could hear was the wind. Cathy looked straight ahead into the mountain. She glanced only once or twice out any of the other windows, not wanting to know we were as much as 100 metres off the ground. She was very happy to get her foot back on solid ground. Given, we could have walked the trail that leads up the side, but it’s a two-hour hike, and none of us were that interested in the exercise.

The view from the top of Sulphur Mountain is unbelievable. For anyone who wants to travel to Banff, it’s a “must-see”. Particularly on a sunny day. But bring a sweater — it’s cold up there. Craig, the poor guy, had only a t-shirt and shorts. He was freezing during our nice little hike.

Sulphur Mountain lodge, Banff National Park, Alberta, 10 July 2000

Between the gondola complex and Sanson’s “cabin”, there’s a one-kilometre boardwalk. It’s a nice trip, with lots to see. And a bit of wildlife, too. Bighorn sheep dot the sides of the boardwalk, particularly around the complex. They’re pretty docile, and probably well-fed by someone. Craig and I debated as to whether its the tourists or the employees, but it was obvious someone was feeding them.

Cathy and Craig atop Sulphur Mountain, Banff National Park, Alberta, 10 July 2000

After our chilly hike, we stopped briefly for a drink in the restaurant. Then it was back down to the base of the mountain. It was time for lunch … at the Banff Springs Hotel. This was a recommendation from Aunt Brenda, who thought it would be something fun to do.

Along the way, we made two stops. The first was at the Park Administrative Building, which sits at the foot of Banff Ave. Assumedly owing to Stampede (its influence extends a long way), there was a Native t epee and dancers showing their culture to the uncultured tourists. It was humorous to watch the Native elders get people to move in synch. But they didn’t do a bad job…

The next (brief) stop was at Banff Falls, on the Bow River. It’s down the hill from Banff Springs. It’s more or less a giant rapid. Not horribly impressive, but neat. We tried to take a group photo, but Craig went through some elaborate process of getting the camera to look at us. A chap from Ireland offered to take the picture. In retrospect, it would’ve been a good idea — I don’t know if the camera ever got the picture before it tilted forward.

Banff Springs is an impressive hotel to see from Sulphur Mountain, but equally as impressive from the ground. After parking the car, we ducked inside. We didn’t do a full tour of the hotel, but went right for the outdoor patio. Lunch took a little longer than I’d expected, but it was worth the wait. The winner for best meal was Cathy — a smoked salmon wrap that was absolutely delicious … would’ve been better without the cream cheese (at least in my opinion, but I don’t like the stuff). The meals are pretty reasonable, considering it is the jewel in CP Hotel’s crown.

We didn’t stay too long, knowing we had to be back in Calgary for dinner at Uncle Mike and Aunt Brenda’s. We arrived in Calgary just after 4:00, and we didn’t get to dinner until nearly an hour later. I had to work the next day, so we didn’t drag it out too long — we didn’t want to repeat Saturday.

The next day was insanity. I didn’t get to see Cathy and Craig off. In fact, I worked solid until Saturday evening, save for a few breaks to go sleep.

I need a vacation from their vacation…