Breaking bad in the Badlands

Most of the people we’ve met so far in rural Alberta are just a tad different from their counterparts in B.C.  and I’m quite sure they are proud of that. Once you get out of the big cities and past hyper-touristed Banff, there is more than a touch of the wild west to be found.  In the short few days we have been in this province, we have seen this:

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And this, the Last Chance Saloon in Wayne, AB, right in the heart of the Badlands.
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After a long day of climbing hoodoos we stopped here for a beer and some local colour. Actually, everyone there was from somewhere else. Wayne’s population dwindled down to roughly 40 souls since the decline of coal mining in the 50s and the marketing of the Last Chance Saloon as a haunted hotel and inspired watering hole is their only stab at keeping the hamlet on the map.

We were joined by a couple who appeared to have begun drinking the day before; the man attempting to speak in whole sentences and the woman thinking she was. They invited us to join them at their trailer for perogies and beer, but we declined, thinking we’d never be heard from again.

I asked our server Erin about her tattoo, and was told a quite moving story. Her father passed away four years ago and she asked the funeral director to make a print of his hand on paper, which she then had tattooed on her upper arm. I tried to imagine how it would feel to lose a parent so young; perhaps this is her way of holding on to him.

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So back to our campground. It is run by a Harley-riding couple who look far more outlaw than they probably are, but still – I was afraid to ask them for a photo. As I’m writing this, there are about 10 big bikes around the campground – all friends of the owners.

And yet, on May 24 weekend, the campground is quiet, except for the people next door playing badminton. Sites are clean and well-cared-for, bathrooms and showers are spotless, there is even wifi throughout. We asked ahead of time about noise and were told that partiers are “thrown out.”  Adjusting my preconceived notions …

Our first dinner on our first night camping. It is so good to be back – we sleep like babies, wake up at 5:00 am to a cacophony of birdsong and everything tastes good. Love the evening campfire and watching little kids ride around on their bikes.

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I don’t want to miss telling you about our drive through the Rockies. It is something everyone should do at least once. The roads are beautifully engineered, even at the highest elevations. There are frequent pullouts for picnics, pit stops and photo ops. The scenery is so beautiful it looks like a painting. Mount Rundle, close to Banff:

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Wildlife is plentiful in this area and the highway was so dangerous to both the animals and the drivers that several years ago the province erected fencing and built overpasses (for the animals). It may have been ridiculed at one time, but it seems to have worked like a charm – we did not see so much as a dead squirrel.

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We couldn’t resist stopping in Banff. We lived there over 30 years ago and both our boys were born there. No question we have all changed a lot in that time, but Banff is unrecognizable from the rustic alpine town we knew and loved. Amazingly, the duplex we rented has not been torn down, although it is rather dilapidated looking. We lived on the top floor.

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Although Banff is in a National Park, there is little about it that speaks to nature. Masses of tourists pack streets that are filled with high-end shopping, souvenir shops and cheek-by-jowl hotels and it makes me sad.  Someone got the planning all wrong.

After leaving Banff, we arrived at our campsite just outside Drumheller around 5:00 pm.

This is the landscape we came for, the stunning slash in the Red Deer River Valley that is made up of box canyons, hoodoos, coulees and sparse vegetation. The badlands are spread out over a wide area – an area that exposed coal seams in the 1900s, as well as the fossilized remains of dinosaurs.

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After the coal disappeared, the area fell into decline until the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology opened and brought dinosaurs (and tourists) to the forefront. This renowned museum showcases one of the world’s largest collections of dinosaur skeletons with dynamic, interactive displays intended for all ages. It was fascinating  – we stayed for a few hours. The museum gave me fresh respect for the artistry and planning that is involved in  effective museum curation and display. Dozens of dioramas showed species of dinosaurs with painted backdrops.

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We watched a staff member demonstrate how  bones and fossils are prepared and the delicacy required to avoid damaging them.

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Off to the hoodoos we went!

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If there is anything more surreal than a field of 2-storey capped rock formations set against a Homer Simpson sky, I don’t know what it might be.  The hoodoos are fenced off from visitors, but the rest of the landscape is open. We climbed around the 70-million-years-old layers of sedimentary rock with dozens of excited kids who were zipping and leaping about on the rocks like small mountain goats. We were a little more sedate and after an hour or so we sat to appreciate the vista.

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Our view across the Red River.

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This creature met us on the way back to our car. At first we thought it was a rattlesnake, but discovered from our campground host that it was a bullsnake – similar in colouring, but not poisonous. It  was still a thrill to see it – about four feet long and menacing enough.

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Some more shots of the area – this one taken from Horseshoe Canyon, about 15 minutes outside Drumheller.  We climbed down to a number of the trails along the bottom of the valley. There were a few flowers in bloom, but very little vegetation. Amazingly, we saw several small cactus – how in the world do they survive the bitter cold and snow in the winter, I wonder.

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We were grateful to be here this time of year – our days reached about 25 degrees, which was comfortable for hiking. The valley is blistering in the summer – probably even in another month it would be too hot to stay down there for very long.

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One last shot of Horseshoe Canyon.

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We head out tomorrow in the direction of Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan. See you again in a few days.

On the road again…

After a wonderful, whirlwind month visiting friends and family on Gabriola, Vancouver Island and Vancouver, our final destination was Kamloops to visit more family. This is a shot taken of the Kamloops valley; our last memory of  “home” before we hit the highway to drive east.

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Our original plan was to drive coast to coast to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday. We wanted to visit as many National Parks as possible, since entrance fees are free this year (with a pass) in honour of that event and we have time on our side.

We drove across the country from Halifax twelve years ago, but that involved reluctantly leaving our youngest son behind, driving 8-10 hours a day for 5 days to meet the movers on the west coast (who were then two weeks late), anxiety over the unknowns of one new job (Stephen), and having to find a job (Ginny). We were moving to a small island of 4000 people after a lifetime of living in cities. Plus we were travelling with our cat, who remained annoyed the entire time. Our stress levels were through the roof and we remember very little of the landscape that blurred by our car window.

This time we have no pets, our sons are self-sufficient adults and we have allotted three-and-a-half months to see as much of the country as possible.

Our first reality check: we are about one month too early to visit the mountain parks.  Many of the upper trails are still snow-covered and the parking lots are closed to cars. It is quite cold at night for tent camping. There is SO much to see – we could easily devote three months just travelling through British Columbia and Alberta. We decided we will save those provinces for next summer and concentrate on all points east.

The road trip…  our three favourite words.   It is so exciting and energizing to watch the landscape unfold and the weather patterns shift. We left the rolling ranch country and desert landscape of Kamloops and soon were heading towards mountain peaks.

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Everything changes in the mountains. The air is clean and sweet, signs for wildlife start to appear and the creeks and rivers look cold and slightly unforgiving.

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We stopped at Craigellachie to see the site of The Last Spike – the joining of the east and west railway line, commemorated in this overwrought plaque:

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Just as we arrived, The Rocky Mountaineer pulled through, symbolically uniting east and west. We soon joined the hordes of photo-snapping German tourists, which felt like a good luck charm. If there are Germans we must be on holiday!

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Mountain roads are twisty, beautifully engineered and fun to drive. It’s never boring – every turn in the road brings a fresh adventure.
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We drove past a sign that said, “Road Closure from 2 pm to 5 pm” and thought it meant “single lane” or “slow going”. Imagine our surprise when we came to a complete halt at 3:00 pm and stayed put for another 2 hours. We were just 27 km. from our destination, Revelstoke. But, early in the trip and still in “go-with-the-flow” mode, we amused ourselves by going for walks, talking to other drivers and reading our books.  Soon enough, the work trucks started to file past us in the opposite direction and our wait was over.

We stayed in Revelstoke for two nights because we have fond memories of this town and wanted to revisit some of the trails we had hiked before.  In 2010, our son Alex Burr was one of 32 students chosen by the Parks Canada-sponsored “Canada’s Greatest Summer Job”, and spent that summer interviewing and taking videos in Revelstoke and Glacier National Park to celebrate the Park Canada’s 125th anniversary. We visited him for a few days in July, which meant the roads were clear to drive right up to the Meadows in the Sky Parkway (closed to us this time). We hiked and biked in town and drove out to other hiking spots, so this time around, we chose two areas we felt might be available. In fact, neither of them were officially open, (they open tomorrow), but we parked our car and with the tacit (you didn’t hear it from me) approval from one of the workers, we ventured in to the Skunk Cabbage Boardwalk Trail. I’m not sure if these jazzy red Adirondack (Muskoka?) chairs are part of this years celebrations, but they look shiny and new.

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The Skunk Cabbage Boardwalk Trail is delightful this time of year as the flowers are just coming out, so we were able to walk without being treated to their distinctive odiferous scent. The flowers attract bears and while there was evidence of recent visits we had no encounters. This area is also home to a huge number of migrating birds and we were serenaded all the way through.

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On to the Giant Cedars Boardwalk Trail, just a couple of kilometres down the road. We didn’t see any giant trees like we have seen in Cathedral Grove or the California Redwoods, but they were impressively large nonetheless, and we indulged in a half hour of “forest-bathing.”

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After lunch at the fabulous Modern Cafe back in Revelstoke, we drove to Begbie Falls for a 6-km. round-trip hike. The bridge over the Columbia River enroute to Begbie.

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This area is a hot spot for mountain biking as well as hiking and there were a number of challenging bike trails with ominous signs,” Extremely difficult. Use at your own risk.”

We were happy to plod along on the road, our (my) only concern the cougar or grizzly that might be lying in wait.

We walked out of the forest into a clearing to be treated to a view of the ski hills that are slowly shedding their snow cover.

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The path to the falls is steep but well-maintained and the view was worth the scramble down. The falls are much bigger than they look in this photo.

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The town of Revelstoke is just on the brink. It will never become Banff and the locals are anxious to keep it that way. They want to balance progress and economic prosperity with sustainable growth and retention of character. The older homes and civic buildings are beautifully maintained and the shops and cafes downtown have character and quality. We were here just before the season begins; these streets will soon be packed.

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As we travel across the country, we will camp, stay with friends and family and try to find affordable hotels/hostels that are not party-central. When we read about The Cube Hotel in Revelstoke we  thought we would give it a try. If only all hostels were like this one.

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This old warehouse was bought by owner Louis-Marc Simard and his partner and completed gutted.  Spotlessly clean and decorated with original art, the lobby and communal areas are inviting, comfortable and fully equipped. A full, delicious hot breakfast is included. Our room – comfy bed, sink and toilet in the room, immaculate showers down the hall, waffle-weave dressing gowns, flat-screen TV and decent reading lights. All this for $68 a night.

We could easily stay another day or two in Revelstoke. As I write this, I am listening to a train wind its way through town, the sound of the wheels on the tracks echoing through the valley. If I had to choose between living by the ocean or right in the mountains, it would be difficult.

We’re heading for Drumheller and the badlands tomorrow – we’ll be there for a few days of hiking and hoodoos. And camping – an activity I thought I had left behind.

My friend Nicola sent me this graffiti she snapped on a hike in Mexico. She thought we might relate.

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