From migrating birds to the Final Frontier

Did you know the Arctic Tern flies more than 40,000 km. from southern Chile to the Arctic and back every year? It is one of more than 250 species of migratory birds that uses Lesser Slave Lake as a major resting point – often compared to Point Pelee (Southern Ontario) in terms of migratory importance.

A group of birds playing by the shore – the Arctic Terns are the ones with black heads.

IMG_0057
This is just one of the fascinating facts we learned while visiting Lesser Slave Lake Provincial Park, about four hours north of Edmonton.  The Boreal Centre for Bird Conservation is one of the attractions in the park and we dropped by to learn more about what birds might be in the area. It houses an excellent interpretive area.

The centre is a world-class research and education facility and a site for visiting students and researchers.

IMG_0014
Unfortunately we were in the area just between seasons for many of the major migratory birds and about three hours too late in the morning to wander the nearby Songbird Trail to any great effect. We didn’t miss out entirely though – we woke up every morning in our campsite about 6:00 am to cacophonous birdsong.

We were primarily at Lesser Slave Lake for the pristine camping and swimming but serious birders should not miss this spot.

IMG_0018
Our camping at Lesser Slave Lake was a full-on Discovery Channel experience. The first night there we woke up to an explosive thunderstorm. It had been brewing for a couple of hours – threatening skies and distant rumbles, but  when we tucked into our  tent for the night, there was not as much as a raindrop.

A couple of hours later – boom – thunder and lightening right overhead, crackling and pounding. Water pummelled our tent as though a giant was hurling buckets at us. It was thrilling but a bit unnerving and a bit disappointing – we wanted to watch this fantastic show, but felt pinned to the spot. We were so warm, dry and cozy and not willing to zip and unzip the tent and run to the car, getting soaked in the process.

The next morning, we woke to sunshine. Lesser Slave Lake is the second largest lake in Alberta – 100 km. long and 15 km. wide. From our perch on the white sand beach, it felt like we were staring straight out to sea.  The water is delicious –  you could almost drink it. Clean and cool with a sandy bottom – exquisite swimming. We are used to the buoyancy and life of ocean swimming,  but I could be a convert to clean northern lakes. It was also quiet – home to kayakers, fishers, stand-up paddlers and a flotilla of inflatable rafts, sharks, and flamingos – not a jet-ski in sight. This is our kind of beach.

IMG_0049
It is also home to amazing fishing; all the northern greats – walleye, pike, whitefish, perch and ling cod. We watched one man bring in a fish about 18″ long that his wife carefully measured before he headed off to the fish cleaning station. He caught that in about 15 minutes, just wading out to his waist from shore.

Hiking is another attraction. We headed for the nearby Marten Mountain lookout and again, we were dealing with threatening skies. We were just between systems, so weather remained changeable.

IMG_0035
The fire station is at the summit. This tower serves as a lookout for signs of small fires that can be dealt with before they become a serious problem.

IMG_0047
The fire of 2011 in Slave Lake was a catastrophe that  covered 4700 hectares, destroyed 400 structures and resulted in $700 million dollars worth of damage. It was determined that it was likely the work of an arsonist. The town of Slave Lake has rebuilt, but the effects on part of the landscape will be evident for years to come.

IMG_0037
We followed this path for about half an hour, but between our (my)  worries about confronting a grizzly (heightened by the many warning signs), we lost our nerve and turned back. Time to buy bear spray and feel better equipped to enjoy the wilderness.

We followed fresh moose tracks for about a kilometre – I wish we could have seen him (her) from a safe distance.

IMG_0042
We very reluctantly left Lesser Slave Lake a day early, as it was forecasting extreme thunderstorms.  It gave us another taste of the north that we are keen to return to – next time with our trailer.

From Lesser Slave Lake, we headed south to Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park; a place recommended to us by our friend Laurence. The campgrounds right in the park were solidly booked for the long weekend, so we felt lucky to grab the last spot in a private campground about 20 km. away.

Our camping experiences so far have been wonderful, but they have all been in provincial parks, they are well monitored and contain what we regard as camping essentials – nicely treed private sites, evening campfires and quiet, respectful fellow campers. Our very own nature cocoons.

When we drove into the private campground near Dry Island Buffalo Jump my heart sank. A line-up of camping chairs stretched down the road for about three campsites, filled with adults with drinks in hand. A boisterous game of beanbag toss was in progress. Thwap. Thwap. Thwap – this sound, accompanied by screams and encouraging yells went on for hours.  Music blasted from one of the RV speakers. A table was set up with an eye-watering amount of booze. We backed into our site, and began setting up our tent; knowing there were no other options at this late hour.
We also knew it would get much worse, but we figured they would be shut down by 11:00 pm (the enforced quiet time according to the sign.)  The park was beautiful, set right on the Red Deer River, so we tried to concentrate on the positive, but we couldn’t help but feel envious of the other campers who were situated in quieter areas of the campground.

IMG_0005

To make matters worse, another multi-family party set up right behind us and they carried on long into the night. We enjoyed our days away sightseeing, but our evenings were miserable, and our polite requests to keep the music down were ignored. Our complaint to the park operator fell on deaf ears, since “we can’t ask people to go to bed at 11:00.
These were not bad people; inconsiderate certainly, but just different people looking for different things. We just had the poor luck of landing in a well-known party campground on a long weekend.

IMG_0001
We made up for our disappointing experience in the campground by visiting the surrounding sites, primarily Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park. This is a little-known treasure of a park – very similar in terrain to the Badlands, with hoodoos and coulees, and scrub grasslands to wander for miles. This is also a prime fishing and rafting site.

IMG_0028

We hiked in for about an hour, and then back again, hoping to spot a rattlesnake. We never did see one, but this little fellow visited us when we stopped for a picnic.

IMG_0035

The area around Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park is beautiful.  I’m guessing this countryside would be referred to as High Plains as it is rolling and lush with vast prosperous wheat and grain farms. And of course, this is the land of the famous Alberta beef. The calf was on the other side of the road when we drove by, but she scurried back over to mum for protection as we approached.

A62EE9F3-C533-410B-919F-F9678FBBB4B8
A nearby diversion was Big Valley (pop. 349), and home to the Big Valley Creation Science Museum. It was closed (in spite of the OPEN sign in the window), but plaques around the front lawn left little doubt that evolution was seriously being called into question.

IMG_0006
Just around the corner was recreation of an old wild west town – the Jimmy Jock Boardwalk. Not much going on there besides a fudge shop and a restaurant.

IMG_0002
The original jail was just up the street; big enough for one drunken miscreant to cool his heels for the night.

8C68A23D-17C4-424C-9340-A5F319D0D8C9
At the crest of the hill, the St. Edmunds Anglican Church (circa 1916) held a command post.

18A74D34-4414-41CA-8055-6443DA571366
These small towns and hamlets rely on tourism to help prevent them from dying out entirely, and one enterprise here is courtesy of the Alberta Prairie Railway Excursions. They run old steam or diesel trains between Stettler and Big Valley, and package tours  include the round-trip travel, on-board entertainment, plus a staged hold-up by armed and masked bandits – for the not-inconsiderable sum of $145. Once safely in Big Valley, dinner is served and then passengers return to Stettler – a six hour excursion in total. The trains appear to be packed every time.

IMG_0039
We stopped at DNA Gardens for a visit. This enterprising business sells, among other things, homemade kombucha, fermented vegetables and bat houses. We bought French vanilla ice cream from this self-possessed young woman – another face of Alberta.

IMG_0021
And finally…the town of Vulcan. This town can lay claim to the name long before Star Trek hit the screen – it was named by a CPR surveyor after the Roman God of Fire.

IMG_0008
However, it has capitalized on the Star Trek series by building a themed tourist station, and sure enough – build it, and they will come.  Overpriced merch and  a chance to dress up as Spock – this was not reason enough to leave the highway, but a fun respite on our way to Fort MacLeod.

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:

IMG_1613
And this, the Last Chance Saloon in Wayne, AB, right in the heart of the Badlands.
IMG_1614

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.

IMG_1611

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.

IMG_0319
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:

IMG_1522
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.

IMG_1512

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.

IMG_1527
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.

IMG_1622

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.

IMG_0325
We watched a staff member demonstrate how  bones and fossils are prepared and the delicacy required to avoid damaging them.

IMG_1546
Off to the hoodoos we went!

IMG_0335
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.

IMG_1595
Our view across the Red River.

IMG_1578
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.

IMG_0341

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.

IMG_0347
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.

IMG_1629
One last shot of Horseshoe Canyon.

IMG_1628

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