30 September 2018

Northwest Passage — Pt. 7: Banff National Park: Lake Louise OMG

If you learn only one word from me and my crappy travel blog post, it should be 'Banff'. Banff National Park in the Alberta, Canada Rockies.

And the summertime highlight of that park is Lake Louise. (There is, apparently, great skiing there in the wintertime also.)

Lake Louise is pricey, especially the Fairmont Chateau which commands the spot. We camped some 55 kilometers away on the outskirts of Banff town for like $40/night Canadian, drove in early, arriving before 8:00. Even so, we got one of the last parking spots. Otherwise, we would have had to park about 10 km away and ride a shuttle. Instead of fixing breakfast in our camper as we did every other morning, we splurged and ate at the Chateau's breakfast buffet. Fresh caught smoked local smoked salmon, waffles, bacon, coffee, and pretty much anything you might ever want for breakfast fueled our long day's hike. Totally worth it.

Walking out of the Chateau's restaurant toward the lake, I gasped. It was one of those rare moments in my life when I had to stop walking and catch my breath at the beauty and splendor of the setting. Took my breath away—I know, a cliche, but dammit, it happened. High, distant glaciers were emerging from the low mists rising out of the turquoise colored lake. I'd never seen anything quite like it in my life. The first picture below is that moment. Taken with iPhone X camera, it cannot possibly capture the moment but does serve as a reminder.

For the previous couple of days, the sky was brown and cloudy from the forest fires. Once we crossed into the Banff high country, a large bowl surrounded by high, glaciated peaks, the skies cleared. This was, except for Victoria, the clearest, most perfect day of the trip.

I hiked about ten miles, about 2000' of elevation. The fam took an extra loop and hiked a bit longer and higher. Once again, I found myself hiking alone, at the sort of pace I prefer so don't have to watch each foot placement and can take in everything around me and even take a few snapshots. Occasionally, I would hear the boom and crash of a distant avalanche.

At the top of one hike sits the Teahouse on the Plain of Six Glaciers. They serve hot tea and soups. Supplies are hiked in daily by staff. Every week or so, propane and other supplies are helicoptered in. There's a sign on the porch requesting hikers to carry out garbage bags.

If you ever get the chance...

(Click pics to embiggen)

A moment of awe.
Let's go hiking.
Lake Louise from the trail.
Just can't get enough.
Heading higher. We reached a level with the bottom of the glacier you can see there.
The iconic hiking picture from Lake Louise, Banff, and the Canadian Rockies. (At least to my mind)
Currently the wallpaper on my computer.
If you enlarge the picture, you can see the narrow, rocky trail cut into the side of the hill.
Ever looked under the lip of a glacier? (For scale, it's about 10-12 ft high)
Gaining some elevation.
The Chateau across the lake on the return trip.
The color of the water! (Canoe in the lake for scale)
Cooling off our tired feet after a long day of hiking.
Last longing look at lingering sunlight hitting the eastern peak above Lake Louise.
One of many wildlife crossing structures over the TransCanada pioneered by Banff NP. Used by moose, elk, deer, bear, and many smaller animals.
Banff town sign, so as not to forget.

16 September 2018

Northwest Passage — Pt. 6: Yoho National Park

Yoho National Park in British Columbia, Canada, is one of several contiguous national and provincial parks along the BC/Alberta line in the Canadian Rockies. We tried to hit as many of them as we could in the limited time we had.

First stop: Yoho, a Cree name for awe and wonder. Ayup! It's lesser known than Banff and Jasper, but is a premier hiking destination. It's home to the second highest waterfall in Canada, Takakkaw Falls at some 1250 feet. Takakkaw is another Cree word; it means something like "That's pretty spectacular." And again, Ayup!

The nearest parking lot from the TransCanada highway is close to the falls. But once you get away from that short walk, the crowds thin out. We hiked a total of about five miles into the Yoho Valley along the river (and, of course, back out). The easy to moderate trail pretty much follows the river, and there are plenty of cascades and falls and vistas.

At one of the falls, I walked out onto a rock ledge to take a selfie (see below) and the rest of the crew thought I went on ahead. They left me alone by the river thinking they were trying to catch up to me. I thought they'd turned around to head back to the car and the falls, so I hiked the five miles out by myself. They abandoned me on my birthday!! However, the walk back, alone, in the awesome beauty of the park and the Rockies was a spiritual experience. Transcendent. One of the greatest hikes of my life. There's something about being in nature, away from all human-made sounds except your own footfalls and your breathing. Peaceful. Inspirational. Exhilarating.

Also, this was not the only time I got separated from the family while hiking on this vacation. Hmmmm. But more about that later. (click pics below to embiggen slideshow)

Approaching Takakkaw Falls, glacial melt water pouring into the Yoho Valley.
Takakkaw Falls from the base.
The glacial river descends into Yoho Valley.
Trailhead into Yoho Valley. Note the mixture of clouds and smoke from distant forest fires.
One last longing look back at the magnificence of the falls in the distance as we head off into the Yoho Valley.
Let's go!
The river widens, the color of my shirt (see below).
Some ups!
Hiking in the West is different.
Taking a selfie as the family abandons me!
Cascades and falls.
At the end of the day, dinner in Banff, Alberta, a lovely resort town.
Banff sunset, colored by smoke from distant fires.

10 September 2018

Northwest Passage — Pt 5: Okanagan Valley: Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee

Here's something you might not know: Canada has one of the best wine-growing regions in North America. Mind. Blown. Before I headed up to British Columbia and Alberta several of my friends told me I had to sample the wines from Okanagan Valley. Sure, I thought. I live in Atlanta and have family in North Carolina, and the wines from here are nothing special. I'd also sampled the wines from Southern Ontario. I'm glad my prejudices did not prevail.

The region around Kelowna, a popular resort town on Okanagan Lake, has hundreds of wineries and a wealth of varieties of wines. Many are excellent. I can vouch for a couple bottle of eminently drinkable Pinot Noir. The climate is ideal and it sits in a rain shadow from the Coastal Mountains. And the soil is rich. Its latitude is roughly the same as the Champagne region of France. The reason you've not heard of it—unless you've been there—is due to strict export laws. They cannot export Okanagan wine to the U.S. nor, I'm told, to other provinces. Too bad. Yet, to Canadians they're legendary.

Also: it's September. If you have a bag of cherries in your fridge now, take a look at where they were grown. The bag in my crisper is from Kelowna, our first stop after renting our camper on the outskirts of Vancouver—a drive of about 400 km.

Once we got inland from the coast, we started encountering smoke from the record-level forest fires. It obscured the skies and dimmed the horizon and mountain tops on many days—with notable exceptions.

The second night we got closed out of a campground in Canada's Glacier National Park, but found a private campground nearby on lovely, massive Kinbasket Lake—a pleasant drive of about 320 km. Twilight brought a bald eagle up the adjacent creek and dawn the call of a lone loon before its song was drowned out by the croaking of omnipresent ravens. The campground was set between the lake and a railroad track, and the trains coming through at night shook the camper. The whole scene put me in mind of Denis Johnson's magnificent novella Train Dreams which is set not far south of Kinbasket Lake.

(Click pics to embiggen.)

Haze and smoke from forest fires obscure the sun.
Hazy twilight at Okanagan Lake. Spo-Dee-O-Dee!
In the U.S., the 'Golden Spike' linking the transcontinental railroad at Pike's Peak is a big deal. Its twin here is a modest roadside attraction. Canada, amirite?
Advice we heard on more than one occasion.
Heading toward Glacier National Park and the Canadian Rockies: glaciers and smoke from forest fires. Nearby we saw helicopters dipping buckets in the river to dump on the fires. (See next pic)
Mist from the river and smoky haze on the mountain top.
Kinbasket Lake. And yes, the lake is really that color naturally.
Hummingbird feeder at the lodge at Kinbasket Lake.

04 September 2018

Northwest Passage - Pt. 4: Vancouver: Multiple Cultures

Spent two days in Vancouver, BC, staying in an AirBnB in the centrally located Kitsilano neighborhood. The first thing you note in the residential areas of BC are the hedges. Nearly every home has a neatly shorn hedge of some kind—short or high—separating it from the street.

Highlights of the stay included a morning at the Museum of Anthropology on the campus of University of British Columbia. It is probably the premier repository of First Nations cultural artifacts in the world. There is a growing sensitivity in BC about the historical injustices done to indigenous peoples there. Though, like all North American culture, it still has its problems, it's a damn sight better than the way Native Americans and their culture have been treated here in the U.S. For example, the highway road signs now list both the English (or French) city names as well as the First Nations' place names.

The aesthetic of the artwork is unique and easily recognizable around the world. The Seahawk on the helmet of the Seattle American football team is an example. And there is a growing interest in updating the indigenous art forms. Bill Reid is one of the foremost and earliest practitioners. There is an entire room at the MoA dedicated to his work.

Vancouver is a sprawling city and has a terrific public transportation network. We trained and bussed all over town. No Über of Lyft there, however. We also walked a fair amount, from the downtown to Chinatown to Gastown to Stanley Park. Some observations:

• Marijuana becomes legal nationwide in October of this year. Weed stores operate fairly openly now, knowing the Mounties are not going to bust them a month ahead of its legalization. The smell of pot is nearly as prevalent here as in Seattle.

• Chinatown is adjacent to what I can only call the skid row of the city, a neighborhood of Methadone and Naloxone clinics and needle exchanges—all public and free, I might add. I was taken aback at the number of people, mostly young, sprawled out on the sidewalk or seeking help at the doors of the clinics. (No pics, out of respect) Yet, you turn a corner, walk a half block, and you're in one of the trendiest, upscale restaurant, gallery, and boutique areas of the city: Gastown. The juxtaposition is bracing.

• Walk another half-mile or so and you come to the harbour (that's how they spell it) with its cruise ships and convention centers and major hotel and restaurant chains. A few blocks on you reach what I call the graveyard of massive condo buildings which, I'm given to understand, are more than half empty. They seem to go on forever around what's called False Creek. Most have been scooped up by Chinese nationals seeking to expatriate money. Real estate prices here are out of sight, and working class folks have been driven to the outlying areas. The boom in condo buildings and yachts in the harbour does not feel sustainable—but that's my own observation.

• Stanley Park is filled with runners, dog walkers, skaters, and strollers. It's where downtown Vancouver gathers to enjoy the long, lovely summer evenings—politely.

A few pics (click to embiggen):

Contemporary interpretation of First Nations mask
Traditional First Nations "Transformation" Mask
Traditional First Nations "Transformation" Mask
Bill Reid, "Raven and the First Men" (emerging from an oyster shell, balls and all). Iconic.
Contemporary indigenous art
Basket Weave Motorcycle (from Pacific Islands)
More Culture
China Town Gate
Memorial Garden
'Gassy' Jack, presiding over the Gastown District
A near-infinity of empty, expensive condos along the harbour, mostly Chinese-owned
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