Canada. It seemed a world away. Amp had been several times of course since his parents emigrated in 2008, but I hadn’t travelled further than a school trip across the channel to France, in my entire 25years! Many people found this lack of tourism hard to comprehend, their holiday memories being filled with the sun, sea and sand, and exotic adventures of far-flung countries, or at least the more popular of European beaches. But it’s a case of priorities you see – there is so much wonderful scenery and exploration to be had within this magical island we call Britain and Home, and I still have a long list of things to see. None-the-less, with some gentle pressure from the honouree-in-laws, persuasion by my better-half, and a blind eye towards the bank balance, I was convinced that a summer adventure to Canada would be a must-do, unforgettable, and totally amazing experience. They weren’t wrong.
There were a few obstacles to get past; firstly I had to renew my passport, after that we had to buy suitcases as neither of us had anything suitable, and then there was the decision of what to pack. Finally, we had to get on a plane for a nine-hour flight. Yep, a plane, you know, one of those big metal tube things on wings that I had only ever previously viewed from the vantage point of frowning up at the noise they made as they passed overhead destined for either Gatwick or some far away holiday destination on the front of a glossy magazine. [At this point I should say a big “Thank You!” to Simon & Sally for providing taxi service too and from the airport at each end of the trip! We also need to thank Peter, Lyn and David for housing, feeding, driving and entertaining us throughout our stay.]
There is nothing like flying to give you a whole new perspective on our world. I remember writing in my diary, all the classic clichés of the patchwork green and pleasant land below us as the plane climbed, and how it looked like the play-mat we used to race our toy cars across as children (and I marched my toy farm animals across causing traffic jams!). At one point on the journey I looked down over the wing edge and to my surprise, under the clouds I could see huge flows of ice; the northern world of polar bears and seals and narwhals I imagined!
Our destination was Calgary airport, Alberta, from where we had a drive of over an hour to Delburne, a small town on the outskirts of which is the acreage Amp’s parents call home. Pete and Lin live here along with their younger son David, two+ dogs, four cats, and wide wide open skies. A now rather dishevelled but proudly old, Dutch-style barn dominates the south of the plot, alongside the slough (small lake), whilst a stand of trees the family call the New Forest, gathers on the northern boundary. Beyond the trees and bisected by the road, is a beautiful lake. Prairie dogs pop up from holes in the southern lawn, disappearing again all too quickly at any sign of movement, to the enduring frustration of Luna, the younger of the two collie dogs.
Life in Canada, or at least in the corner of Alberta that we got to know, is laid back and slower. There is a powerful sense of freedom generated by the open space and extended skies, that somehow seems to translate into a general feeling of happiness, relaxed wellbeing and positive energy. Or perhaps that is just being on holiday.
I saw a beaver on the first evening, swimming in the lake across the road, and the next morning the sound of birds and the flicking movement of wings drew me outside and immediately had me distracted and transfixed. A Northern Flicker was one of the highlights early in the holiday, and one that left a souvenir in the form of a loose feather dropped on the grass for me to slip into the pages of my diary and bring home as a keepsake. American Robins flocked in the trees and bushes of the ‘New Forest’, eyeing up the heavy crop of ripening berries to be found there.
Before our visit, my image of Canada was of the frozen north, the places featured on nature documentaries and such like. But of course the country is so extensive that it covers six time zones, and the UK could fit into the province of Alberta twice. And this was the last two weeks of August, high summer in Alberta.
The area we were staying is nearly the same latitude as the UK, but a much higher altitude, approx. 3500ft above sea level. It was hot, sunny and dusty. The skies seemed endless and being High Prairie, much of the land was cloaked in golden oceans of wheat. The landscape was jewelled with lakes. Some were more like inland seas, glassy and vast, others were mud-edged or choked with bull-rushes. Trees hustled the water, but were sparse elsewhere. They crowded the waters edge, leafy and green at first but those at the front, perhaps greedy for the cool water, seemed to encroached too far into the lake and drowned, their grey bare forms standing to hold back their companions. Outside the regimented grid-system cities and large towns, habitation seems haphazard. As though someone has been dropping handfuls of monopoly houses here and there, always accompanied by trees.
The long weekend passed and our second week started with a solar eclipse. A rare occasion in itself, made all the more exciting by the perfectly timed arrival of a litter of seven puppies to Luna’s Mum, the family’s older collie, the lovely Misty. Being born at the peak of a solar eclipse is certainly an unusual claim to fame!
Later that week we took a day trip into the Bad Lands where the landscape offers a vision back through time to the ages of dinosaurs. We visited the Royal Tyrell Museum at DrumHeller, but it wasn’t only inside the museum that we saw impressive sights – although a towering predatory skeleton is a rather hard sight to beat! The area of Alberta has a strange geology. The rocks are sedimentary, meaning they were laid down in layers of mud and sand and silt before being crushed and forming stone. Subsequent geological phenomena resulted in these layers being tilted and buckled, eroded and exposed, creating a surreal land of peaks, towers, columns, pillars and gorges of striped rock. It is a dry and arid place, with little vegetation.
Beyond the lake and gardens around the Royal Tyrell Museum, ‘The Bad lands’ are a daunting and intimidating landscape
On the Wednesday, we said goodbye to the very cute and enrapturing puppies, and left the family behind for a few days on our own. We had two nights booked at a hotel in Canmore, in order to explore Banff National Park. Keen to make the most of our limited time, we had booked activities for each day, relying on the expertise of local guides to ensure we saw the very best Banff had to offer.
It was a three-hour drive from Delburne to Banff, at some point during which, roughly halfway, the mountains appeared. They didn’t creep up, slowly revealing themselves inch by inch over the distant horizon, instead we looked up from navigating a tricky junction on the highway and there they were; grey etchings, rocky peaks, impressive, fully formed and seemingly touchable. Of course in reality, they were at that time still many tens of miles away. If the mountains were impressive in those first few moments, that feeling didn’t diminish, but maybe even expanded, as we found ourselves eventually in amongst their gigantic stony-faced forms.
Our first activity was that evening, a mini-bus facilitated wildlife safari tour around the areas surrounding Banff town. A herd of Elk were using the clearing cut through the forest for power cables, to forage for tasty herbage. A mountain meadow provided a vantage point over the town and the alpine reaches, plus talk of Bears, Prairie Dogs and Coyotes. A Big Horn Sheep observed us from its high position on a jutting rock and a White Tailed Deer pronked away into the forest from the roadside. Toward the end of the evening we witnessed the shocking and surprising sight of a large male Elk attempting to attack a jogger on the towns recreation grounds. Luckily in this case no one was badly injured, but it was a sobering reminder as to why we were entrusting in the knowledge of our guide.
Back at out hotel room we fell asleep with a view of the mountains, and were unreasonably and illogically surprised to see they were still there when we woke the next morning.
Our activity this day was a guided hike through the mountains to Stanley Glacier. On joining our group (two Australian couples and our guide who as it turned out originated from Derby, UK!) we were told that the planned route was currently closed due to forest fires, so an alternative had been arranged. This would be a 7 mile/11km hike along Johnsons Canyon, taking in the dramatic rock formations and waterfalls, and a climb through the forests to an area within the mountains where fresh water springs bubbled up in deep blue tinted circular pools known as the Ink Pots. Leaving the car park the path crosses a river, which would prove to be our companion for most of the hike. Almost immediately the path began to climb uphill. It was paved and easy walking, and many other tourists were alongside us; it was clearly a popular trail. I have to admit I hesitated when the path became a raised walkway along the side of the canyon, suspended above the river, but very soon the dramatic scenery had me distracted from the seemingly precarious position and we marvelled at the crystal clear waters, the towering trees and the rock formations that seemed perched to collapse yet locked in time. A waterfall carved a deep plunge pool, and set camera triggers stuttering. Once we continued from the waterfall, the crowds thinned out, and then after a second set of falls the visitors dispersed further. We had been walking gradually uphill, but we were told now that we had reached the steeper section of the trail, where we would turn away from the river and climb the zigzag path through the forest. All around us was green, grey and brown. The conifer trees stretched upwards, their trunks and branches dripping with lichens. The long tassels of lichen spoke of excellent air quality, as these unique life forms are very sensitive to pollution and are very slow to grow. The hill pulled on muscles unused for too many months, and we dragged the fresh but thin mountain air deep into our lungs. A red squirrel skittered up a tree at the edge of the path, providing an excuse to pause and rest. Wild roses grew all along the sides of the trail. They grow all over the province, giving Alberta the nickname ‘Wild Rose County’. We were too late for the blooms, but hips were forming and it had clearly been a good flowering season. Other wildflowers made the most of the slight increase in light available at the edge of the trees where the trail cut through the forest; Asters, Fireweed, Buffalo-berry, Heart-leaved Arnica, Cluster-berry, and Juniper.
The trail pulled onwards and upwards until we emerged into sunshine and a wide valley supported by mountains. It was a sub-alpine meadow, bisected by the gravel-lined river. The river was fed by melt water from a glacier near its source, but here fresh water bubbled up through sand, filling circular pools of deep blue, which overflowed and joined and found its way to join the river. These were the Ink Pots. Butterflies and bees delighted in the meadows flowers, making the most of the short summer season. Despite the exhausting climb, the mountaintops still towered above us, their full volume hard to fathom. The main mountain range we could see was called the Saw Back Mountains due to its ragged toothed formation.
Lunch was eaten in the sunshine and we started the retracing of the trail back down to the canyon and along the river. We gathered momentum down hill. Even though we had gazed and gazed on the way up, the canyon still took our breath away with its majesty. We were only half a mile from the end when the weather broke. It started with just a few drops that found their way through the tree branches and down the back of our collars. Within minuets the rain began to pour and brought with it lightning and rolls of thunder. Rather un-nerving when we were walking on a wet metal walkway, high on a mountainside, under extremely tall trees, in a forest fire risk region! But of course, we were not in any real danger of anything but a good old-fashioned soaking!
We could still feel the muscle ache the following day when we arrived at the ranch for our third and final activity. We had booked onto a 3-hour horse ride, I was excited but Amp was rather less enthusiastic. It was many years since either of us had been on the back of a horse. I was paired with a liver chestnut horse called Wisers. He was a good boy, and we got on with each other ok.
The trail proved arduous, and 3 hours was possibly a little ambitious on our part, but despite the discomfort I found the adventure thrilling and a real confidence boost. With Wisers knowledge of the mountains and his own feet, we scales mountain tracks scattered with shale, and tiptoes over fallen logs and down steep inclines. Amp’s horse was less co-ordinated and stumbled frequently, adding to Amps pain and complaints, but he persevered and hung in there through till the end – even if neither of us could walk by lunch time!
Then of course, there was the long drive back do Delburne.
The remainder of the holiday was spent sightseeing and exploring the local area. Amp and I took the dogs for early morning walks when the weather was cool, and whiled away the long afternoons in collapsed in deck chairs, watching the sunset reflect on the waters of West Lake.
The day we left Canada we woke to see the sun, which was hanging low in the sky, glowing red. The old proverb ‘red sky in the morning, shepherds warning’ that supposedly forecasts poor weather, did not quite apply in this case. The haze that diffused the sun’s light yet trapped its heat, was not a benign mist we were told, but smoke drifting across the many miles from the wild forest fires in British Columbia.
The aspen and willow trees held leaves that were showing the first hint of yellow and temperatures were dropping quickly when darkness fell at night. Summer still held the throne, but soon autumn, or ‘fall’, would indeed arrive, perhaps not long after our departure, and behind it would come the winter snows. The snows will put out the fires for this year, but next summer will bring hot weather once again and other patches of forest will burn.
The red sun seemed an ominous sight, plus a poignant reminder of the vastness, power and strangeness of this landscape, compared to our homeland on the other side of the globe.