A big part of our plan for the Canada road trip was some time in the dark, alone with the stars. Jasper National Park has dark sky preserves we’ve always wanted to visit. Our plans began to get a bit shaky, though, that morning in Edmonton as we saw smoke roll in across the city [see previous post]. We’d heard the reports of the BC wildfires and the possibility that parts of Banff were in flames. A big wind change had brought thick smoke haze over the Rockies into Alberta, and that would mean Jasper and Banff could be smothered in it.
Still, we thought we should try to see at least a part of Canada’s two most famous parks. With help from Sandra and Barry, we planned a route. We’d stay one night in Hinton, near the entrance to Jasper, then travel south along the Athabasca highway through Jasper and Banff and out through Golden along the Trans Canada.
Driving through a few thunderstorms on our way to Hinton, and before we arrived we could see the Rockies, our first real sign that we were close to home. We got there pretty excited, set up the tent and camped for the night.
One thing about us, we get up early. Very early. Anyone who knows us even for a short time, soon understands that we are early to bed and early to rise. Like old people. After a night in Hinton, we got up early as usual and I started up the stove for coffee. And that’s when I saw them. People scrambling out of the campsite, all their stuff packed and crammed on top of their roofs. I watched to see which way they would turn. Right or left? All turned left, toward the main Jasper entrance. What was going on? One after the other, people were fleeing the campsite in their RVs, SUVs and trailers, turning left and speeding off to Jasper. It wasn’t even 5:30 am. Normally, we’re up creeping around while other people are still sleeping. By the time they unzip their tents, we’ve had coffee, meditated for an hour, eaten breakfast and are now loading the car. Not this morning. I felt a bit nervous, like I was missing something important, some piece of information everyone else had and we didn’t.
I pushed that feeling down, deep inside, and made the coffee. But Karen and I both felt a bit more rushed as we watched people continuing to leave. Maybe this is normal? Maybe it’s the over-crowding that was predicted in Canada’s parks for the 150th? Had we escaped the anxiety-ridden, frenetic scramble of the Toronto hamster wheel only to find it here at the foot of the Rockies?
Yes. What we were witnessing was the idiotic race to get a good campsite inside the national park. We had hoped to camp a couple of nights at the Columbia icefield, the Athabasca Glacier. Now we wondered if all we’d see was just a bunch of other people all crowded around the toe of the glacier.
We drove into Jasper and discovered that the smoke that had plagued Edmonton was everywhere. What we had thought was grey sky was actually the haze-obscured mountains of the Rockies. In fact, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, though it felt overcast. As we got nearer, we could see the outlines of the mountains retreating in layers behind each other like the Chinese silk paintings of those pointy mountains in mist. Only, instead of mist, this was the smoke of thousands of hectares of forest burning in British Columbia. It was kind of spectacular, disappointing and ominous, all at the same time.
If you’re planning to visit Jasper or Banff in the summer, here’s some good advice: Don’t. Unless hordes of tourists and buses and big crowds are you’re idea of a getaway, avoid this place. The town of Jasper was crawling with people. We went in to get a phone signal so we could cancel our Prince Rupert ferry and go to the bathroom. We also bought some oatmeal cookies, of course. But the place was like Dundas Square on a Saturday. It’s the opposite of nature. It’s just people and all their mess. We drove out to find Highway 93 and drive south through the park, our hope for dark sky and solitude all but crushed as we waited in traffic for three changes at the intersection lights. Ah, yes. Nature.
The Athabasca highway was alright, though. Smoke haze covered up what must be stunning mountain views and there was a steady line of single-lane traffic snaking along the highway. But it lacked the actual traffic jams back in the town of Jasper. Now we knew what the frenzy was about. Jasper is in its summer rush hour. Hundreds of thousands of tourists in rented RVs, SUVs, trailers and air-conditioned tour buses descend on the park every year. This year, they’re being joined by hundreds of thousands of patriotic Canadians eager to use their free National Park pass. We’re all celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday by streaming out of our crummy cities to cram ourselves into traffic jams in the parks. Yay Canada.
What does this look like? Cruising along at 80 km/h, you come around a curve and suddenly have to slam on the brakes before crashing into two dozen vehicles stopped on both sides of the road and people crowding in the middle of the highway. A Caribou had stepped out of the trees. Because nothing says adventure like a selfie with a large brown quadruped in the background, there’s a traffic jam as every vehicle skids to a stop and people run – literally – with phones and cameras to snap a photo. We swerved around the mess, wove our way carefully through the crowd, and drove on. I wanted desperately to capture a photo of the madness, but it would be out of a desire to mock and judge. So I didn’t. I think we’ve lost the plot as a culture, but, really, Karen and I are no more deserving of a wilderness experience than they are. We have a blog and take photos, we have an Instagram account. It’s not that they’re idiots and we’re not. We’re just all idiots together.
Giving up the expectation that we’d get anything like a real serene nature experience, we were at least able to enjoy the scenery out the car windows, even in the grayish-brown cloak of haze.
It was mid-afternoon when we arrived at the icefield. We knew we were there because there were 50 tour buses in a very large parking lot across from the Athabasca Glacier. We didn’t literally count them, but it looked to be at least a thousand people. We drove by without stopping and headed to the tent sites. We found one or two sites still available, and chose one. It was lovely. The air was very smoky, but we could just make out the ice-capped mountains beyond the glacier. The air was so dry Karen’s hair stood up in the tent. That was entertaining, but also a vivid reminder that campfires were banned for good reason.
We wanted to visit the glacier, but wanted nothing to do with a thousand people. So we decided to do what we do better than other people. We’d go early. Most of the visitors come up the highway on tour buses. A few others pay $2000 a night to stay at the nearby hotel. There’s two of them, actually. There’s an RV campsite nearby and tent-only campsite two kilometers further away. That’s where we stayed. So we went to bed at our usual time, 8:30 and woke up at 4:30 am. It was light when we went to sleep and it was light when we woke up. We got up, made coffees, got in the car and drove down the road to the glacier.
That tiny person you see at the edge of the glacier is Karen, alone.
Where the day before the area was overrun with people and cars and buses, now there was just us. Yuri was the only vehicle. We hiked up the path to the toe of the glacier and just stood there looking at it. It was so quiet. Once in a while there would be the sound of a thunderous crack, and a big boom would echo in the distance. It was the sound of the glacier in slow retreat as it moved across the granite below. Other than that, the only thing we heard was the sound of our boots on the rocky ground. We were in heaven. After crossing a very crowded Canada and seeing so many people in every park and campsite we visited, finally we felt truly alone. Sometimes, on these sabbaticals we take, there are moments when you realize how lucky we are that we get to do this right now. This is our life. And right then it suddenly dawned on both of us that we were just at the beginning of an adventure. We’d only just begun. I love that feeling.
We stayed for about 90 minutes to watch the sunrise crawl up and over the ridge in the distance and bathe the whole area in orange light refracted in the smoky atmosphere. While I stood facing away from the glacier toward the icefield centre across the highway a long way off, I spied a lone motorcyclist speeding toward us. He or she drove all the way in, stopped at the path up to the glacier, then turned away and sped off back down the road. We knew our time was running out. Soon the buses would come and shatter the silence with the voices of two thousand pairs of feet from all over the world.
We sat in Yuri and finished our coffee and ate some bread and peanut butter. Then we drove back to our camp, packed the car and headed south.
By noon, Banff was so crowded the highway was backed up in a rush hour of buses, RVs and cars that snaked along highway 93 headed north to Jasper and the icefield. The haze from the smoke of BC’s wildfires was so thick we could smell it. We’d had enough of this by the time we got to the junction of highway 1. We turned right toward Yoho and the Trans Canada. As we exited the park, we saw the thick haze of the wildfires laying over Golden. We were ready to get to the coast now. I asked Karen to put on some music.
“What do you feel like?” She asked.
“Something nice,” I said. “Arvo Part?”
“AC/DC it is,” she said. “Excellent choice.” She put her feet up on Yuri’s dash and leaned back into her seat.
“Let’s go home,” she said.
I laughed and said, “okay.”
We headed for the smoky horizon with Back in Black turned up to eleven.
It took us ten hours to get to the coast. Our first stop was Maple Ridge for a night then we drove on to Vancouver. That’s where we are now. The road trip and camping across Canada was a kind of dry run for our next adventure. We now know we are ready to fly to the UK, take a bus to Carlisle on the Scottish border and walk south through the Lake Distinct to Ulverston – camping along the way. After a few days of rest, we will make our way to St. Bees to start a longer walk that stretches from the Irish coast to the North Atlantic coast. Oddly enough, they call it the Coast-to-Coast walk. This second trek will take us about nineteen days at a casual pace. We are now getting last minute supplies for this journey, reading the guidebooks and maps and planning our route. We’re also trying to rest a bit and get some much-needed training in before we go. Though there is much to do, the count down is on and it’s going to be a fantastic ride.