One characteristic of national parks, especially premier parks such as Banff, is that they draw visitors from all over the world. And that includes us. We’re visitors to Canada from that big foreign country to the south.
Banff’s international draw is reflected in our campground. A quick survey suggests that around one-third of all the RVs in the campground (this is the hard-sided campground where everybody is in a trailer or motorhome) are rentals. Seldom do we hear our fellow campers speaking in English, and while we see a few Quebec license plates, I don’t hear much French either.
Normally in campgrounds, we like to chat with our neighbors. But nobody does that here. It’s like a big, impersonal hotel where everyone keeps to themselves.
“These folks are not campers,” my lovely wife observes. “They’re simply parking here for the night in their mobile motels.”
I’d like to say it was painful to leave Lake Louise, but it wasn’t.
The campground was packed with RV renters who for the most part didn’t know the etiquette of camping. The family next to us apparently could only communicate by shouting, and the “do not wash dishes or laundry in washroom sinks” didn’t apply to many of our neighbors.
We did truly enjoy the beauty of the Canadian Rockies. One day we took the 200+ kilometre drive up the Icefields Parkway from Lake Louise to Jasper. Dark craggy mountains draped with hanging glaciers line both sides of the roadway, which provide enough photo fodder to satisfy a National Geographic shooter. Last time I came through here was in the winter when the roadway was as white as the hills. This time the pavement was black, the peaks gray and runoff-engorged waterfalls silvery white.
In Jasper, we visited the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge where Dianne and I stayed a few years back on a winter ski visit and the deep gorge of Maligne Canyon where we took a winter hike. In the depths of winter, the stream is frozen and its walls lie draped with ice. Back then, the walk up felt like we were hiking up a rocky, glacial crevasse.
No canyon-bottom hikes this time. Raging with runoff, we looked down on a canyon roaring with water plunging over boulders and pouring down waterfalls.
The next day we drove down to Banff to do laundry, groceries and most importantly, stock up on beer and wine.
Located totally within the park, Banff has all the character of Aspen, Vail and Estes Park crammed into one packed town. The supermarket had fewer parking spaces than the average Starbucks and laundromats in this tourist-oriented town were few and far between.
But we succeeded in refilling the trailer pantry, restocking the trailer wine (and beer) cellar and reloading our trailer duffels with clean clothes. The Xterra gas tank is now topped up with fuel and we were ready to escape this incredibly beautiful but overcrowded tourist magnet.
From Lake Louise, we drove the freeway-like Trans-Canada highway past Banff, dropped out of the mountains, rounded Calgary and headed east into the Canadian prairie. The terrain gently rolled with undulating hills covered with green and yellow crops and dotted with small, blue water ponds. Sorry flatlanders, but we both agreed the landscape was far more attractive than crossing the Great Plains through Kansas or Nebraska.
Our destination is Dinosaur Provincial Park, a World Heritage site known for offering more dinosaur bones for its size than anywhere else in the world. We checked into a grassy campground shaded with leafy cottonwood trees with nearby pit toilets. Flush toilets, free showers and a burger-cooking restaurant were available a few hundred metres away.
While bones sparked the park’s creation, we came to explore and photograph the park’s badland topography. The landscape features a river and glacial-carved landscape covered in mounds of bentonite that’s been molded into an array of standing hoodoos and rilled peaklets. Cameras in hand, we hiked the park’s scenic loop drive, all five of the park’s interpretive trails and took a guided sunset drive into the park’s limited-admittance backcountry. We also swatted a myriad of mosquitoes.
Our stay overlapped Canada Day, which is like our 4th of July, but they do theirs four days earlier. July 1st marks the day 150 years ago when the British colonies came together to form what is now Canada. Falling on a Saturday, it was duly celebrated by a slew of families out camping with their kids and the family dog(s). I have to say that the interaction of the parents and children in this natural setting was a delight to watch.
The downside of having so many families sharing the campground was that the showers were always crowded and with the hot water supply frequently depleted. They may have been frigid, but at least they were free.
We are on a quest for the best poutine in Canada! Surprise, Surprise!
[Poutine, for those of you not in the know, is a Canadian creation that consists of French fries covered with cheese curds and smothered in gravy.]
Years ago, we had some awesome poutine at a restaurant in Jasper. We revisited it on this trip. The poutine was okay, but not like we remembered.
But now in Regina, Saskatchewan, we had great poutine at Leopold’s Tavern. Dianne had “Smoked Meat Poutine – the Best of Montreal and Quebec Combined in One” – with artery clogging bacon, Canadian bacon and fries smothered in beef gravy and white cheddar curds. MMMMMM!
I had “Jalapeno Poppers Poutine,” which was a spicy, south of two borders taste treat.
Both were pretty awesome, and neither of us could finish them all. The best poutine competition is going to be tough as we make our way across “The Great White North.”
We’re having a great time and seeing some incredible sights: Canadian Rockies, the badlands of Alberta and grasslands of Saskatchewan. Internet has been very sparse at the places we’ve stayed, but we have a bit better connection here in Regina for a few days.
In my writings, I used to make fun of people who constantly needed to be connected to cell service. “Cellaholics” I called them.
Well, we just went through four days of cellular withdrawal and it was painful. We were camped at Dinosaur Provincial Park, deep in the hinterlands east of Calgary. Only if we drove to high ground could we could get one bar of cell coverage. It was enough to allow Dianne to make a garbled call to her mom, but otherwise worthless.
The park did offer free Wi-Fi, but at 0.06 mbs, it was only slightly faster than my dinosaur-era AOL dial-up service. Downloading e-mails took longer than an extra-innings baseball game.
We’re now in Regina, camped in an RV park where we have a full three bars of cell coverage and in-park Wi-Fi. “Be patient,” the check-in clerk advised. “It’s not high speed.”
I measured it at around three mbs, which compared to the prehistoric speed at Dinosaur, seems positively fast. We’ve reentered the 21st century.
Just as with the plains states of the U.S., we assumed there would be little of interest in the prairie provinces of Canada. But we’re finding our drive through the flatlands to be quite delightful. I can put the Xterra in sixth gear, engage cruise control and sip coffee as we motor past huge fields of yellow-green canola blossoms.
I’m as happy as a trucker with a tailwind until my honey says she wants to stop and get a photo of the plants.
We’re now in Manitoba, camped at Riding Mountain National Park. The first question I asked at the Visitor Centre was “where’s the mountain?”
The young lady admitted there was no “mountain.” When settlers came into the area, the higher grounds here made them think they were in the mountains. No telling what they thought when they got to the Canadian Rockies in Alberta.
We live in Colorado. We’re not used to a lot of flying bugs. Sure, we have mosquitoes in the mountains and the Miller moths can occasionally be a problem around town in the spring, but other than yellowjackets wanting to share our backyard dinner, flying bugs are not a problem.
At home, when we wash the windshield at the gas station, it’s to remove dust, not splattered bugs. That’s not the case here in the prairie provinces of Canada, where the Nissan glass looks like it was bombarded by bug brigades on a suicide mission.
At our Riding Mountain National Park campsite, unless there’s a strong breeze blowing, the mosquitoes can be ravenous. Fortunately, we’ve got a screen on the trailer door and a screened-in enclosure to retreat to outside.
Yesterday we toured the park by car. Today was to be our hiking day. We chose a 14-kilometre out-and-back hike along Clear Lake, the park’s signature body of water.
The trail goes through the forest and we were soon accosted by swarms of fish flies. These sort of look like giant mosquitoes about one inch long. Thankfully, they don’t bite. But they love to fly in the face and land on clothes and packs where they take up residence.
We made about half our planned distance before turning around and retreating back to camp where we’ve got a screen on the trailer door and a screened-in enclosure outside.
Our next stop was Winnipeg. Sometime in the last century, I spent a couple of nights here after returning from a photo trip to shoot polar bears along Hudson Bay. The place has changed.
We camped at Birds Hill, a provincial park north of town. It’s named for a person, not the avian wildlife, and every year they hold a huge Folk Festival here. We arrived on closing day and got to hear the Barenaked Ladies (actually four males who definitely keep their clothes on) from our campsite.
One of our days here was dedicated to doing chores. We spent two+ hours getting a “15-minute express service” oil change at a local Nissan dealer. That was followed by a good four hours spent shopping for beer, wine, meat and other foods. Somewhere in there, laundry got done at the campground.
The other day was spent wandering around downtown Winnie. The town lies at an old trading post site near the junction of the Red and Assinboine Rivers. The place where the rivers meet, The Forks, is now a fascinating, national historic site filled with outdoor art, small shops and restaurants. As we wandered around, both Dianne and I said the same thing:
From Winnipeg, we crossed the remainder of Manitoba and entered Ontario, Canada’s most populous province. We’ll camp in a string of provincial parks until we get to Ottawa.
Our first stop was one night at a lakeside park a few kilometers from the Trans-Canada Highway. We checked in and drove to our nice wide, pull-through campsite, which came equipped with two picnic tables. A water spigot and large shower building lay a short walk away. So lay our electric hookup.
Ontario parks employ shared electric boxes where two adjacent sites use a common, twin outlet box. Our box stood in the bushes between our site and our distant neighbor’s.
Our trailer originally came with a skimpy 15-foot built-in cord for 30-amp hookups. I removed that cord long ago, replacing it with a marine-style input for which we carry a 30-foot connection cord. Here, fully extended, it reached about 2/3rds of the way from the outlet post to the trailer.
Fortunately, we carry a 25-foot regular extension cord with us, which we normally use to plug in our 12/120-volt, back-of-the-car cooler. Rigging the two together, we got power to the camper and only blew one of the box’s 15-amp circuit breakers.
Next stop was a three-night stay at Sleeping Giant Provincial Park along Lake Superior. The park lies near the end of a long peninsula, an hour’s drive from Thunder Bay. Our site lay along a dead-end dirt road, which meant precious little traffic.
We had a one-hole pit toilet nearby that was kept impeccably clean, mostly because with everybody else camped in bathroom-equipped trailers, we were the only ones using it. We had a pair of resident deer that would wander by camp, seemingly unafraid of us, a fox strode through camp on several occasions and we were greeted by a host of what I assume is Canada’s national bird – the mosquito.
We slathered ourselves in Deep Woods Off and tried to make sure that we kept the screen door to the trailer and the door to our screen shelter closed at all times. Still, every morning I would be awakened by a mosquito buzzing by my ear.
The park has a host of hiking trails of various lengths, some of which we actually hiked. We found that If we kept moving, the mosquitoes would stay away. Photo stops were brief at best. One evening, we drove to a hanging overlook to watch the sun set over Thunder Bay.
Near the end of the peninsula lies the former silver-mining community of Silver Islet. Today, it’s filled with summer cottages, some of which were formerly miners’ homes. We chatted with one resident, a 75-year-old man who winters in Florida. A staunch conservative, he repeatedly made the point that in Canada, health care is not “free.” It’s paid for out of tax revenue.
Well, so are roads, schools, police and fire protection. Paying for health care out of taxes means everybody’s covered.