Camping: the good, the bad and the ugly

Camping can be a crapshoot. Our ideal experience involves shady treed sites, quiet neighbours, a campfire and perhaps a babbling brook. Our less-than-ideal involves all-night parties, little or no privacy, and a cast of characters that we would never otherwise meet (and that’s good thing.)

We’re happy to say that 90% of our camping experiences meet the former description – the latter is a reminder than camping is just another version of real life.

In the past seven days, we have travelled from Fernie to Manning Park, with Christina Lake as our first stop.

We’ve wanted to check out this lake for a long time –  friends have raved about the great swimming and mountain-wrapped views.

There was a hint of smoke in the air from the many forest fires that have burned all summer in the U.S. and Canada. This was the clearest day we had and the water was cool and refreshing.

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We booked into a private campground on the south end of the lake, just a block from a small beach and right around the corner from a burger/hot dog/soft-serve ice-cream stand that looks as though it’s been in business for decades.

Christina Lake has that kind of atmosphere – a summer favourite that hasn’t been gussied up yet – the tiniest bit tacky and filled with people who have been coming here for years. It’s homey and family-oriented. The kids get to play without too much adult supervision.

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The very next day, the smoke was back:

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Our campsite was fine, but for two days we were entertained by the shenanigans of the campers two sites over. The owner had already warned us about them – they had been turfed out of another campground and were “on notice.”

The main perpetrator (she of the tight clothing and bleached hair) swanned about in a shirt that boasted, “KINKY AS F–K” (we tended to believe her).  Her hapless male partner did little but smoke and sulk and at one point walked right through our campsite with a pillow and blanket, enroute to a vacant site, saying “She’s making too much noise.”  They had two young girls (quiet) and three small dogs (yappy) who barked and barked until the woman yelled out “SHUT-UP”, which would quieten them for exactly 30 seconds until the next go-round. On Day 3, they abruptly left and the rest of our stay was perfectly peaceful.

Christina Lake is not far from Grand Forks – a town that suffered terrible damage this spring from flooding. We drove in one day for something to do and discovered a surprisingly pretty town; parts of which are still recovering and likely will for years. These posters were on many storefronts that are closed and under renovation.

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We had an excellent lunch at a place called The Board Room; packed with customers since so many restaurants have yet to open. Fantastic sandwiches, great coffee, watermelon-scented ice water – a welcome change from camp food. The mood among the locals seemed to be quite upbeat – Grand Forks is a small community where everyone rallies to help out.

We also went to the Saturday market, but since it was threatening thunderstorms, there were not many people there. We did stop to talk to a couple who transplanted from Vancouver last year, bought a farm in Grand Forks and are valiantly making a go of it. It’s been a good move for them – they love the area and are obviously doing something right.

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On the way back to our campground, we saw a bunch of cars lined up on the highway, which usually means one thing: wildlife viewing. Lucky us –  a small herd of big-horned sheep.

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As we got closer, we realized there was a territorial spat going on – two males facing off, presumably for the rights to the females, who kept their backs turned to the posturing.
We watched for a long while but aside from a couple of fake charges, nothing much was happening.

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Leaving Christina Lake, we had another weird experience. Stephen was driving and out of nowhere, a car zoomed up behind him and aggressively tailgated. At the first opportunity, the driver sped past us,  honked his horn, and flipped us the bird; his face ugly and contorted.  We were gobsmacked by this unprovoked display of road rage and hugely gratified to see him pulled over a few kilometres down the road.

We drove on for four hours through tremendously smoky conditions, but by the time we arrived in Manning Park, the air quality was much better.

I’ve given you the bad and the ugly sides of camping – Manning Park was nothing but good. This was our campsite:

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We walked about 10 yards from our site to the creek. We fell asleep at night to the sounds of rushing water and rustling trees and woke up to really cool temps – about nine degrees. This is mountain camping – even in August.

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We met an interesting couple from Moncton in the site next to us – they were on their honeymoon, riding across Canada on His and Hers Kawasakis.  We wondered if they kept in formation as they rode.

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She is a PhD student who had been in Bali to study the phenomenon of the high rate of  deafness in the small community of Bengkala. Due to a geographically-centric recessive gene, 40-50 people in a population of 3,000 have been deaf since birth. The amazing thing about it is that rather than treat these folks as “other”, everyone in the village learns to sign so that everyone can communicate. This is a story for our troubled times.

Manning Park is huge – over 83,000 hectares and the main attraction is the vast number of hiking trails that range from a half-hour stroll to a six-day backcountry hike. The wildlife is another big deal – during our three and a half days here, we saw a number of animals up close.

Mum was very watchful as we approached and as we continued to slowly walk toward them, they made their elegant way into the forest. Just like that…they were gone.

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We came across a couple of bucks, who seemed far less worried about us and bounded up the slope in their own good time.

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In many areas of the park, especially around Lightning Lake, we saw an impressive system of tunnels, and every once in a while, up would pop a Columbian ground squirrel. They have no fear of people at all – as soon as this little guy saw me taking his photo, he started scampering toward me.  I’m not proud to admit it,  but I screamed and ran. I had an unpleasant image of those sharp little nails climbing up my leg.

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Hiking in Manning Park this time of year is glorious – no bugs, comfortable temperatures and over 20 trails to choose from. Since neither of us were inclined to choose from trails that were 16 km. (one way), we chose a couple of 9 km. hikes – just enough grade and distance to give us a bit of a workout.

On our first hike out, the park ranger alerted us to a mother bear and cubs that had been sighted the day before – alas, no such luck for us. Still, the scenery more than made up for it.

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We thought we might see bears on this open area – maybe Stephen’s “Hey bear” calls and my shrill whistling scared them off.

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This hike promised three waterfalls, but we saw just two. After months of hot, dry weather, neither of them were terribly exciting. It’s funny how people will walk miles if they think they might see a waterfall, and almost invariably they are a trickle, not a roar.

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Another hike we took was a 9-km. loop around Lightning Lake – the central lake in Manning Park that is a magnet for canoes, kayaks and swimmers.

We followed this path to the end of the lake and onto the other side, to pick up the trail.

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The water was like a millpond that day; we almost had the trail to ourselves.

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A bridge at the halfway point.

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Another small bridge in the woods.

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We loved Manning Park – there is so much to do there and the campgrounds (there are four) feel like the wilderness. It was the perfect way to end our camping adventures for now. We would highly recommend this park to anyone, but be sure to camp. Manning Park Lodge (the only accommodation in the park) has seen better days.

We stopped in Hope on our way to Vancouver and I would like to leave you with this photo. I don’t know why, but the sight of dogs sitting in the driver’s seat always makes me laugh.

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We will be out of cell service and wifi range for a bit – see you again in about a week.

 

Bison, prairie dogs and pronghorn antelope

“I feel like a cowboy”, said Fanny, a young Belgian who has been travelling for several months across Canada with her partner Jay. They think the prairies are “awesome” and in fact, love almost everything they’ve seen since arriving in Montreal eight months ago.  They are here because they heard great things about Canada and they wanted to open up and explore life before careers and family took over. Part of the attraction for them was our huge and varied landscape.

It is essential to get off the Trans-Canada Highway to see the best of the country. While some of the secondary roads are patchy and rough, others are well-maintained and practically empty. We sailed merrily along at 110 and 120 (and higher) for much of the time.

We were keen to visit Grasslands National Park in southern Saskatchewan to get up close to that deceptively passive terrain. Just look at this photo. Hidden in those hills and valleys are dozens of birds, rattlesnakes, bison, prairie dogs, Richardson ground squirrels, coyotes, and burrowing owls. You’d never know it, and that is the defining quality of the prairies – you need to get out of your car and travel on foot to appreciate what is there, right in front of your face.

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As we were heading toward Grasslands we got a sneak preview of the abundant animal life. We stopped by a marsh to view the hundreds of birds that were either in the water or flitting about stalks of grass. This area was just teeming with life –  so many native birds we had never seen. It was an astounding sight, but before we could attempt to take any photos we were driven back to our car by swarms of biting insects. We were actually swatting and running, like something out of a comic strip.  A serious bird-watcher or photographer might want bee-keeper style headgear and a bottle of Deet.

There are also many deer and antelope and I now have “Oh give me a home, where the buffalo roam” stuck in my head.  This little pronghorn antelope bounced across the road and stopped for a photo.

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The prairies are just like everything you’ve seen from photos.  Ribbon roads, railway trestles and fence posts figure prominently.

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So do grain elevators. Most town have one, right beside the railway tracks. Grain elevators, trains and the big sky –  iconic elements of the prairies.

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The fields are dotted with abandoned and crumbling  structures.  These weathered old homes aren’t going anywhere – at some point, the roof will cave in and no-one will even notice. They bear witness to a pioneer past.

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Saskatchewan is a province that constantly reminds you of the disproportionate person-to-land ratio. While the cities and larger towns prosper, a lot of small “towns” are actually crossroads – there are no stores, gas stations or hotels.  Success  is a tiny hamlet with a couple of dozen homes. The signpost is pocked with bullet-holes – target practice or frustration?

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Grasslands National Park is about 35 km. north of Montana, and Val Marie is the closest small town in Canada – again, about 35 km. to the campground. Our original plan was to stay one night in Val Marie to reorganize our car, power up our devices, buy some food and get set for 3 days of rustic (no showers) camping. It did not turn out that way. The one bed and breakfast (Convent Inn) was closed for the long weekend (?!?) and our other option, the Val Marie Hotel, was horrifying filthy. It was a shabby building with a Beverage Room Entrance, but we were willing to overlook the externals until we saw the shared bathroom. Off to the campground we went (minus groceries, since the grocery store also closed for Holiday Monday).

Our first sight of the campground saved our sagging spirits – this would be a great adventure. Our first night we sat in front of a campfire, watched the night sky and listened to coyotes howl.

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Grasslands is relatively new (4-5 years old), and infrastructure is still a work in progress. This campground has 24 sites, as well as 4 cabins and an overflow site, with spotlessly clean pit toilet buildings, potable water taps, dump pits for grey water and animal-proof garbage and recycle bins. The main building to the right is the Parks Canada office/wifi centre, and there are plans for showers at some point.

It is also populated with dozens of Richardson ground squirrels, who have an impressive system of tunnels. They seem willing to share their home with us and while they run and chase each other and pop in and out of their tunnels, they do not come close to people (or their dogs). They are also impressively car-smart.

There is an 80-km. Ecotour drive that runs the periphery of the park, providing a comprehensive and scenic overview of the lay of the land, as well as several lookout stations. We stopped at the black-tailed prairie dog colony. Grasslands is the only place in Canada where they exist in the wild.  They are often confused with ground squirrels, but these little characters are much larger and way more sociable. They bark and chat and chase each other, and have created a fascinating inter-connected community of big mounds and tunnels.

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And of course the big draw are the bison herds. They were brought into the park in 2006 from Elk Island National Park and today the herd stands at about 350. We were given a dangerous animals brochure (bison and rattlesnakes) and advised to remain at least a football field away from bison, particularly at this time of year when they are calving and more aggressive. These are majestic creatures – woolly and shaggy and huge.

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This one was right at the main gate, but we stayed in the car for photos – he was stomping and shaking his big head – clearly he was not on welcome committee detail.

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As for rattlesnakes – we had no luck with sightings. They advised us to wear boots and long pants tucked into socks, and we could have borrowed snake garters, but we ventured out and kept a close eye on the ground cover.

We headed out on an 11-km. trail, which was well marked and great for the hamstrings (described modestly as undulating prairie). No animal sightings on that hike, but lots of panoramic vistas.

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Very happy to be heading back to the barn – we had hiked out to the far range of hills and back.

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Unfortunately, the weather turned suddenly, as is often the case in the Prairies. We experienced significant howling winds on our last night, with our tent snapping and falling in on us – a long night and terrible sleep. We woke up to a changed forecast – really strong winds (up to 90 km.), followed by rain, so we reluctantly made the decision to leave.

On our way out of the park, we stopped to chat with a couple from Victoria who are also travelling across Canada, but doing it with a lot more comfort. They are pulling a bright yellow trailer emblazoned with Big Canadian Stuff and will be on the road until October. They have definitely made the case for having a warm, dry home-away-from-home, especially for travelling long distances through North America in three seasons.

We’re rethinking…

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We drove east on Hwy, 13, part of the historic Red Coat Trail. This is the trail taken by the North-West Mounted Police to bring law and order to the wild west; now indicated with distinctive route markers.

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We are hanging out for a couple of days in Weyburn, home of Tommy Douglas. We’re in  a Canalta hotel (a Western chain of hotels) and decided to stay an extra day to regroup.

This is a hotel that caters to work crews and once a week they leave out dinner for them. Last night it was cabbage rolls and potato salad. We rolled in with a filthy, bug-splattered car packed to the rafters with smoky camp gear. We hadn’t had showers for three days. Within minutes, we were checked in and sitting down to an unexpected and delicious meal. We were taken care of by very kind Prairie folks who made us want to stay a little longer. Another hidden charm –  the people. When Steve commented this morning how much he enjoyed the cabbage rolls the night before, they arrived over to our breakfast table with two plates of leftovers – “You can heat them up later.”

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.