Ralph's Blog

July 2015 - Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada

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OK, since we started on our adventures we have crossed the Rockies four times, once in the Southwest, once in the Utah/Colorado area and twice along I90 in the north. Words like impressive or magnificent hardly express how big and grand the Rockies are. I spent six years living in the Endless Mountains of Pennsylvania; I know this to be hyperbole - Endless Molehills would be truth in advertising, but the local Chambers of Commerce would not be pleased.

The advertising flak that came up with Big Sky, now there's a guy who knows what he's talking about. Throw in some puffy white clouds and some delicately frosted peaks and you have a picture just screaming for a postcard. Believe it or not, you can become blasť about spectacular scenery, especially if you're hauling eight tons of trailer down a steep and curvy mountain road.

So I was pleasantly surprised to have my sense of wonder renewed by the Canadian Rockies. The mountains we have seen before were seen from wide, fertile valleys. They were more of a looming presence in the distance; fuzzy with green stuff topped with white stuff that resolves into trees and snow as you get closer. I think of the Rockies kind of like this picture from Arizona in 2015:

The mountains around Banff are, well, pointy. They don't loom so much as rise out of the fuzzy green stuff you're driving through, sharply defined and bloody big when seen from the deep, narrow valleys.

Then there are the lakes, with an achingly blue hue that is like no place else on earth. (Well, at least I've never seen anything like it, but I'm hardly a world traveler.) The ubiquitous informational signs tell you the color comes from rock flour ground up by the glaciers that feed the lakes.

You drive through endless, steep sided valleys with rocky peaks surrounding you. Some of the rivers are calm, others are raging torrents of unimaginable power, roaring and foaming.

There are vistas in every direction as long as you are not smack up against the side of a towering cliff.

It's an area that encourages distracted driving. You want to look at all this scenery but your really need to be watching the road and the road signs and the GPS and - well you should get the idea.

Finding the campground proved a bit of a challenge. Judy insisted we should turn at the sign for Lake Louise Village, Jolene the GPS insisted we should go straight toward the Lake Louise Overflow Camping. I listened to Jolene, who took us to the closed back entrance to the Lake Louise Campground. I also had to listen to Judy telling me to listen to my wife and not some soulless machine. So we had to find a place to turn around and go back to the Lake Louise Village to enter the Lake Louise Campground, which is near Lake Louise but not really on Lake Louise. The only people that can be on Lake Louise are the ones who can afford the rent for a room in one of the two gigantic hotels by the shore. (Rents start at $650 Canadian and go up from there. That's for one night in the cheap rooms, folks!) Ah, the unspoiled wilderness in the National Park. Actually, they do a great job of keeping it unspoiled considering the millions of visitors that pass through annually.

On our first day we got to get up close and personal with a caribou, who was calmly grazing by a viewpoint by all the wildflowers.

Even more interesting was the crazy lady posing along with the caribou.

There is an abundance of wildlife up there for the viewing, including some of the humans.

We rode the cable car up to the top of the ski lifts and walked around a bit on the trails. To do so you have to pass through an electrified gate with many warning signs that you are entering Bear Country. The view was worth it and didn't include any bears.

We did see one bear on our way back down, but he refused to face us, so here is the bare end of the bear, the best I could do.

The ski lodge is beautiful, very rustic and inviting. We had the early morning brunch before riding the gondola and enjoyed it.

Interestingly enough, the lawns are infested with ground squirrels, happily digging holes everywhere you look. Destructive to landscape but very cute.

So, here we are in the midst of some of the most spectacular mountains around. What are we going to do? Find a cave, of course. Cave & Basin National Historic Site is pretty small as caves go, but very interesting.

Just as Yellowstone was the USA's first National Park, Cave & Basin is Canada's first National Park. The hole in the ground was discovered in 1883 by some railroad workers. Underneath was a sulfur-smelling pool, so naturally it got developed as a health spa. I never could figure out how stinky water makes people think it will make them healthier, but the building and the above ground basin eventually morphed into a large swimming pool and major recreational attraction. Sadly, the swimming pool is no longer there, victim of modern bacterial counts and, ironically, health risks from the water.

Before I tell you about the tour provided by an very enthusiastic and creative Park Ranger, I have to pause for a picture of another cute kid who shared the tour. She has nothing to do with anything else, but she was awfully cute.

Donning a series of hats and doing her best voice impersonations, (not Mel Blanc, but who cares?) she described how the place came to be, what the early days were like and how the Park was founded. We saw a tent much like the workers lived in, a reconstruction of the rough hotel they started to cash in on the place.

Back then, if you wanted to take a health-giving bath you were lowered into a hole in the ground with a rope, which our intrepid guide simulated quite nicely. No, she didn't let any of us go down the hole - you can walk into the place via a tunnel that has since been carved.

That's her as Prime Minister John A MacDonald (in the top hat) reading the proclamation that made the place a park.

After the PM had proclaimed the place officially a park, we walked in and saw the cave, small but quite pretty. The picture is a bit out of focus, it was dark in there and my auto focus got confused. The other picture is the outline of the former pool, now bricked in and a large gathering place.

Moraine Lake

Since the road to Lake Louise was still full of tourists, we opted to see nearby Moraine Lake first. The drive up through the mountains was spectacular,

The evening was very still and the water perfectly flat, reflecting the surrounding peaks. We did get to watch as an adventurous father crossed the logjam at the exit of the lake with his daughter, perhaps becoming a log roller or lumberjack in his mind as he traversed the logs.

The Spiral Tunnel

One of the more fascinating things we found was the Spiral Tunnel for the transcontinental railroad. When British Columbia joined Confederation in 1871, it was on the condition that Prime Minister John A. Macdonald would build a railway to link the province to the rest of the country. Getting large trains over the mountains was a formidable task, and the Big Hill was one of the most challenging. After several runaway trains and other accidents, they borrowed the idea of a spiral tunnel from the Swiss.

This involved blasting about a mile and a half of tunnel during an era where worker safety was definitely not a consideration. Boxcars of dynamite was used, and then the workers shoveled out the rock by hand. When a worker's shovel hit a chunk of unexploded dynamite and was blown to kingdom come, it was just one more cost of doing business. You can follow this link for some interesting information on how the tunnel was built back in 1909.

I found this diagram on line that makes it a bit more obvious as to what the spiral tunnel is like.

We were on hand to watch one of the trains go through the upper spiral, that's all one train in the picture below.

There wasn't a train going through the lower spiral, but here are some pictures of it.

Interestingly enough, the grade the tunnel bypasses is rated at 4.5% and was a major obstacle to running the trains. These days I negotiate 6% and 7% grades with our trailer and the big diesel pickup without much effort, just clicking the downshift lever and letting the engine do the work as we go downhill safely. Things have changed quite a bit since 1909.

All Kinds of Lakes and Mountains

We saw so many spectacular sights I haven't a hope of keeping track of which shot is which, so I'll just present some of my favorite photos and leave it at that.

Along the way we saw this goat on a hillside. Talk about protective coloration, there were two of them up there and we almost missed them.

 

That last one is yet another shot of some cute kids. We made it to yet another continental divide, this one between the Arctic and the Pacific. That's us on either side of the divide.

Lake Louise at Last

On the last day we finally made it to Lake Louise around sunset when the crowds had gone home. That's it below, along with a picture of a cute adult just to show you I'm not exclusively taking pictures of cute kids.

Next up - onward to the Canadian Prairies.

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