Thursday, 31 July 2008

goodbye to canada

oak room snap
Sitting in the hotel, pre departure to Calgary airport. Sipping a Margarita. Time to take one picture on the toysrus mini laptop 1.3 megapixel camera before dropping it into the backpack for the last time on this trip.

Amazingly, my attempt to blog whilst vacationing seems to have worked with only marginal techology glitches - mainly low speed links from places out in the wilds.

And the size and profile of the computer means it hasn't in any sense dominated the trip, with my notes being typed in a few chill-time minutes, or like now whilst sitting in a bar. The amusing point is that various people usually ask about the computer if they spot it, because of its small size. I'll admit I added an Apple sticker to the lid as well, but I don't think that really fools anyone.

Here in downtown Calgary there are about 10 wifi services in reach and the 'free' one that I'm using courtesy of the hotel.

Back to UK by Friday morning, highly refreshed.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

timber moment

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After the driving from East to West, the two day ride back to Calgary (maybe 1000 kilometers?) gave a different view of the landscape with many views of the mountains, lakes and forests. Naturally, with the emphasis on logging business in British Columbia, there was much evidence of logs being stored in the rivers, logs being transported and of course logs being made into timber planks.
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Tuesday, 29 July 2008

traintime

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One of the good pieces of advice we received about Vancouver was to ditch the car and use public transport. The roads are pretty busy, not in an undriveable way, but in a losw way, whereas the public transport and taxis have special lanes. So I'd dropped off the car downtown at the local Alamo depot and we spent the time in the centre on foot.

Time now to head back towards Calgary, and we've decided to use the train, which takes a different route from that we used to get to Vancouver, but still goes through the Rockies as well as other mountain ranges and across part of the desert around Kamloops.

Monday, 28 July 2008

Stanley Park

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The dolphins in the Aquarium in Stanley Park were less bashful than the Gray Whales in the Pacific, and jumped for joy at the approach of us to their large tanks.
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In a separate enclosure there was a (white) Beluga whale with its June born offspring and despite long queues of people to see it in some kind of special enclosure, we just walked to the main area where the two were swimming around with the young one trying to hitch the occasional ride from the fast swimming mother.
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Sunday, 27 July 2008

Vancouver

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Easy enough to navigate Vancouver, which is a proper city but with a compact centre. Water in every direction in the downtown area and some striking landmarks. This feels more like a city that is getting on with whatever it does, but that visitors are welcome to take a look around.

We tried a jazzy bar the first evening, and then today, Sunday, have been wandering the waterfront which is easily accessible from downtown.
Vancouver Waterfront
Despite significant reconstruction in progress, there's an attractive walk from more or less one end of the northern shoreline to the other and then cut through the West End with its smaller shops and cafes, which seemed attuned to the local lifestyle more than overt tourism. We'll be checking out Stanley Park and a few of the other attractions later, but it already feels right as a city.

goodbye vancouver island

goodbye vancouver island
...and hello to Vancouver.

Saturday, 26 July 2008

quintessential identity crisis

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Before leaving Vancouver Island, we spent some time in Victoria, which is cited in guide books as being quintessentially English with Victorian undertones.

We stayed at the rather posh Empress hotel which overlooks the waterfront and it became apparent that the once pristine Ford was now looking rather weatherbeaten compared to the other shiny sedans and coupes being valet parked.

I'd had a similar experience about seven days earlier when we'd pulled up next to a truck like ours in a car park and I'd wondered what the couple driving it had been doing to make it look so messy outside. Now this was us with the small peephole at the back where the wiper cleared away the mud.

The valets had seen it all before of course and were unphased by this or the collection of backpacks and carrier bags in the back.

I then set out on a brief solitary expedition to find some coffee and/or ice cream, which seemed to be needed at this point. My immediate impression of this part of Victoria was more of London's Oxford Street area, with a pedestrian street rather loaded with souvenir shops and full on tourists. So, whilst one could talk of an evocation of England, it wasn't quite what I had in mind.

There was also San Fransisco trolley buses plying sightseeing routes and Vienna-like horse and buggies to take people on more extravagant viewings. My guess is that Victoria is trying to re-invent itself and we've seen it in the midst of its angst.

Later, we hit the Veranda bar for some cocktails and sunset, and I guess this view of the harbour was one of the strong points of Victoria, but if I'm honest I didn't really warm to this city the way I have to the rest of the Canada we've been travelling.

trouble at 'mill

Chemainus
Crossing the island towards Victoria (a circa 300km trip for us) we decided to take a break somewhere and headed for the small town of Chemainus.

An interesting story where the local lumber mill closed and many townsfolk were then unemployed. They decided turn the town into a cultural centre and invited artists to create wall murals depicting the town's long term history and to generally pump up the volume on ways to attract people to this small location.
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Somehow it all worked and there's now a thriving tourism as well as even the repoening of the sawmill under new ownership. The town describes itself as 'the little town that did (tm)' and indeed the small shops and cafes did have an endearing quality, whilst providing a welcome coffee stop.

Friday, 25 July 2008

rainforests and whales

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Looking around it became clear that the area of coastline included a rain forest and some consequently stunning scenery. Some of the appearance was reminiscent of progressive rock music covers from the vinyl years.
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A great excuse to hop aboard a speedy boat and meander amongst the islands, looking out for wildlife.

As well as nesting bald headed eagles, sea otters and rather large sea lions, the prize spotting was a selection of grey whales, on their summer visit to the cold Northern waters to replenish their food supplies, before they head back across the Pacific towards Hawaii.

I was close enough to get the first hand impression of whale breath as well as their breathtaking sight. The whale in my snapshot probably weighs between 30 and 40 tons and will replenish 20 tons of that weight during the north pacific stopover.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

pacific

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Started the day by seeing a bear wandering along the far shoreline close to where we were staying and a couple of bald headed eagles circling the water.
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We ate breakfast and then headed for the beach in any case, determined to get wet toes from Pacific waters. Luckily, the sun decided to shine upon us, so as we approached a twelve mile stretch of sand, there was blue skies and blue seas. This piece of the Pacific was ours, for the morning.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

pacific rim

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The sweeping roads from Whistler towards the West are a sharp contrast to the roads of a couple of days earlier. Even with the extensive reconstruction ready for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, the roads are easy to travel. Our objective initially, has been Horseshoe Bay, to catch a ferry across to Vancouver Island, which in the distant mist hints at further mountain ranges and oceanic shoreline.

We landed on the island in Departure Bay and then started to traverse the 200 kilometers to our destination on the western side. The initial landscape was the closest to a United States style scenery that we'd seen in Canada. Miles of multi-lane highway with retail parks on both sides of the road, Dodge dealerships, Wal-Marts and Taco Bells. We eventually reached the city limits and all of the development stopped suddently, like something from Sim City and we again found ourselves on well surfaced sweeping roads across the middle of the large island, through rocky river valleys and eventually on decreasing width roads to the far coastal resort of Ucluelet, close to Tofino.
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Another pleasant surprise as we arrived in early evening to find we were staying in a wooden sided West Coast style house with a view to the water, boarded balcony with jacuzzi and even a log fire to take the edge off of the evening's 10 degree temperature. I sense a relaxing day tomorrow.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Whistler

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We've moved back more onto the beaten track now, targeting to spend a night in Whistler. The first part of today's trip was quite a journey along more twisty dirt tracks eventually stopping for a blueberry muffin and a mighty fine cup of coffee at Reynolds in Lillooet.
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Finally arriving at Whistler this afternoon, there is a dramatic contrast to the last few days in the wilds, with manicured shopping malls featuring Gap and Starbucks and courtesy shuttle buses in all directions. I commented that Disney's Imagineers could have designed part of the central area and our hotel ticks all the boxes.
whistler room chocsEven the complementary chocolates that arrived in the room were stylishly presented with frosted bear's paw motifs. Let's just say the spa is already being visited taking full advantage of the President Club membership.

I'm also taking advantage of real broadband to upload a few pictures and write today's blog entry at a more normal pace without the line failing every few minutes. The 'all mod cons' technology is something of a contrast with the nature of this morning when we were watching a house martin line its three young birds in a row along a ledge to make it easy to feed them whilst an occasional hummingbird flitted into view.

We're only in this spot for one evening before we head further west through the lakelands, so we've already said goodbye to the wilder areas of the mountains.

But I'll be thinking of them.
wilderness sky

Monday, 21 July 2008

dirt

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I mentioned we'd had to drive the last 100 kilometres to this place on dirt roads; I should have said they were on the edge of sheer drops of maybe 300 metres for most of the route, dappled with minor avalanches of rock. The only picture I have is from the next day on the way to the gas station.

The gas station guy explained that he regularly gets people stop by who think they are on the Alaska road, but have made a wrong turning back at the last place. He says there are people in tears when he tells them they need to go back the same 100 kilometres and take the other turning. I read a road trip book a few years ago and one of the pieces of advice from the author that stuck with me is to study signs carefully in remote places and make sure before taking the next road. Good advice in this area.
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The town where I got the gas has a population of 43 and was an old mining town, but now mainly logging.

I also visited the next town over the mountains which had a similarly low pop, as well as a gas station opened Thurs-Sat, a bar (closed) and a museum about mining(closed). And great scenery in all directions. Canada has scenery police who re-arrange anything that doesn't look good enough.
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Later, the lure of a mountain bike, which I took out on a trail, but this London dweller found the 'flat rides' in this part of the world a trifle daunting, with loose rocks, 60 degree gradients and twisty paths that gave numerous possibilities for falling into the lake. As it was around 30 Centigrade, I decided a shorter route would probably be sufficient to get enough of an impression without leaving one somewhere on the rocks.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

moose

moose
I was right that there wouldn't be any phone or internet access where we've been for the last couple of days. Further into the wilds where the moose roam free and one keeps a bell on the backpack to alert adjacent bears that we are in the area.
bugging me
Back home I normally escort bugs from the premises if I consider them ill-placed but here its difficult to know the best option.
outskirts of desert
But as if the initially isolated was not far enough from civilization, we've then cut across to the old gold rush trail across the desert towards Eldorado. There's still some dusty looking towns in the mid 35 Celcius early evening heat. And that was before traversing a 100 kilometer dirt track to the current base camp which is by another lake, outlooking to some further mountains and definitely 'away from it all'. Today is for chillin' before heading towards Whistler.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

wilderness

next section is unlikely to have wifi or internet

glacial

towards Columbia icefield
Off to the Columbia Icefield yesterday. This is a high area where the weather remains cold throughout the year and there's enough ice to feed eight major glaciers. The ice is replenished by snow throughout the year (including whilst we were there) and the eventual river water flows into three different continents.
on Athabasca glacier
The thickest part of the ice is around 350 metres and the area around the Athabasca glacier where I took the pictures is around 100 metres thick. Moving across the ice is slow and there's many crevices covered with snow but mightily deep. I don't think survival chances are very high if one were to fall in. The vehicle of choice for this section looks like something from Thunderbirds but seems to do the trick.
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Naturally we were above the tree line, but approaching through the last trees, they have a 'half tree' shape, like a flag. That's because of the cold continuous convected wind (katabatic) which blows from the glacier and freezes the sap on the tree's glacier side.

I filled a water bottle with the glacier water. The formula is something like that it takes 150 years to turn from snow into ice and then back into water and if I did'nt catch the water it would take another 40 years to flow out to the Arctic Circle.

Only one bottle but I'm drinking it like a fine wine.

Friday, 18 July 2008

grizzly neighbour

Our Grizzly Neighbour
I included bug spray on the list of essentials for this trip, but only when I got here did I realise that there's another spray called 'bear spray'. I still havn't got any, not the mini campers' electric fences which can be put around a campsite to deter wild animals.

Nonetheless, it was interesting arriving at our log cabin near Jasper only to see a rather large grizzly bear foraging in the bushes nearby.

I'm told the trick is to make quite a lot of noise when going about one's business outdoors so that the local wildlife knows we are around and has a chance to get out of the way.

The bugspray seems to work though. No mosquitos.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Lake Louise

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As luck would have it, the hotel room at Lake Louise has a view overlooking the lake, glacier and mountains. I gather it was a complementary upgrade but the result has its challenges.
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Its impossible to not keep going back to the window to look at gthe ever changing light. The room also has a large plasma television, but its not been switched on at all - with no competition because the view wins easily.

So yesterday afternoon, after arrival, it was a case of throwing everything into the room and running to the lake edge. Then after a wander, enjoying the late afternoon sun from a nearby bar.
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Later, an evening meal watching the sun set and then, later still, leaving the curtains open to catch the early light before sun rise.

And yes, I'll admit to being back at the lake edge as the sun came up at around six. Its still only nine o' clock in the morning, but already feels like I've had half a day today.

Later we'll head for the morraine lake and then further along the trail.
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Wednesday, 16 July 2008

bear facts

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Some wiggly roads during Wednesday, which also provided some stunning scenic views. We seemed to be working our way upwards through the sizes of wildlife too, seeing deer and then a small collection of mountain goats on the road. The goats were brilliant, because as our vehicle approached they, with a single boing, deployed themselves to the side of the cutting. To me this had a sort of surreal 'zoo-like' quality about it as we then drove past the goats clattering around the rocky hillside.

Next in scale was a true collectors' item. Two bears crossing the road in front of us. A mummy bear and a baby bear. They say its dangerous to see a bear cub alone, because the mummy bear will consider us as an immediate threat and get angry. In this case the sleek dark brown grizzly and her cub ambled across the road. As I was driving at the time, despite various camera implements nearby we didn't get a snap, but its well and truly etched as a good moment during the trip as we headed towards the snowy slopes near Lake Louise.

slopes

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I've been wearing hiking boots pretty much since I arrived here and its about time to exercise them on some hilly bits. First stop is the range overlooking the hotel, where there's a selection of glacial valleys with the town nestled in the bowl of the valley.

Some of the slopes had much loose scree, a function of the soft rocks being eroded by the ice and snow which is a feature of the area for much of the year. The ice gets into the crevices in the rocks and then breaks small pieces creating the loose stones covering much of the hillsides.
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The rocks became mountain ranges as a consequence of plate tectonics warping what would have been a sea bed and pusing it many metres intoi the air. Thats why there's small sea creature fossils in some of the rocks.

The particular summits were in the 2000-3000 metre range, which is high enough to be able to experience different weather systems from those closer to sea level.
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I'm trying to add some photos whilst still operating the circa 10 minute per post rule but the combination of slow bandwidth and no Edge, GPRS or G3 on my cellphone is making it difficult, hence some of the pix being drastically compressed jpegs as an interim measure.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

minniwanka

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Time to hop a boat further out into the wilds; the forest either side of the lake has plenty of wildlife, although the bears prefer the side with slightly less dense trees. There's a particular berry they enjoy and in the monbths when its abundant the trails are closed to hikers.
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The lake's name was a result of a makeover by the Canadians. It used to be called Cannibal Lake which didn't do the tourism any favours so inspirationally they changed it to Minniwanka which means "spirit of the water" in the local native dialect. Below the lake is a flooded village, a consequence of the damming of the water to create hydro electric power.

The shaded side of the glacial valley is denser with spagnum moss and maybe more moose rather than elk. I'm still waiting to see something bigger than a chipmunk but I'm sure as we get further into the wilds it will be possible. There's talk even of cougar on the slope to the side of this valley.
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Monday, 14 July 2008

Banff Springs

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Not too difficult to find the hotel in Banff, which looks like a cross between a Scottish castle and maybe a chateau in France. Originally built as a railway hotel and added to over the years, now a rather large and bustling destination, set by a river, close to the Bow Falls.
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Time for a balcony cocktail and a view of the mountains and then some planning for the next day's investigations of the area. Still Monday and already quite a range of experiences from the area finishing in the Germanic sounding Waldhaus, for an alpine fondue.

gopher alert

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By late morning Monday, it was time to move on from the Palliser to the next destination. Time to whistle for the wheels and hit it. I'd been told that the old Route 1A was a better route than the Route 1 for our journey to Banff and sure enough, there were some interesting views and stopping points along the way.
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Thats where the late lunch of rice and vegetables came in very refreshing along with a mighty fine cup of coffee.

The real target destination was Banff Springs, with its splendid and somewhat iconic hotel. The route started to show warnings about bears, wolves and elk, allthough we'd have to work our way up to that, starting with a gopher sighting.

wrangle

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I have a feeling that keeping an internet connection on the little toysrus computer may be challenging in some places. The hotel room is fairly spartan with its board for a bed and I've only really got a space to hang jeans and maybe park some cowboy boots.
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The culture of Calgary is a blend of cosmopolitan urban with the slick city skyscrapers of the oil crowd and the more rough and ready charms of the folk who wrangle cattle for a living. Throw in the Asian influence from the settlers who moved to Calgary from the Pacific Rim in the late 1800s and there is quite a mixing pot.

Similar contrasts between the airconditioned security patrolled comfortable public areas facilitating traversal of the city by glass corridors compared with people panhandling on the streets for a few dollars.