Sunday, 27 March 2016

Farewell Road Trip (8): The final glaciers, bears and... a pedicure?

I was pretty dedicated to this blog whilst living in Canada - 50 posts detailing animals, birds, parks, campaigns and a lot of roads. After returning in 2013, I wrote up our final road trip, except this very final post. So this is written in March 2016, trying to remember what I can about our final ten days in Canada...

It actually turned into two final adventures in the north. On the way to the first, we saw Adam's only bear of the trip (I was feeling anxious we still hadn't spotted one ten days in), a black bear munching happily by the side of the road.

Our first stop was the very remote Brazeau Lake loop, although a flooded bridge meant it wasn't quite a loop, but three days hiking through some of the most remote and lonely lands which we had encountered. In almost two months we had barely encountered a shower, but we had a good twelve hours of heavy rain on the final evening - necessitating a very early night sitting it out (we're still arguing over what Adam said in the tent that night...).

The next morning we realised how early winter can come in the Rockies; the rain at our campsite had been snow on the hills. It made for a beautiful final day's walking. 

Mark did a great job hitchhiking to collect the car and before we knew it, we were enjoying burgers and beers in Jasper, the northern gateway to the Canadian Rockies.
Not a bad view from our tent

Then on to our second adventure; hurriedly planned in the admin gap whilst in Canmore but to a mountain we had long coveted; Mt Robson. A huge glacier covered massif standing relatively isolated to the western edge of the mountain chain. 

An easy day's walk led to the campground with one of the most spectacular views from any tent spot so far; pine trees framing the glacier tumbling down to the turquoise waters. As it was such an easy walk, we didn't neglect to bring red wine, cheese and biscuits for our evening sit.
The final piccie

We returned the following day and spent the night at the provincial park campground, before starting the final drive west back to Vancouver. 

If you're travelling from Vancouver to the Canadian Rockies, you should definitely take our route (captured here for ease: which takes you past Mt Robson, the huge Wells Gray Provincial Park and then past the beautiful Marble Range Canyon and Joffre Lakes to Pemberton.

Pemberton is the scruffier, friendlier, nicer cousin of the prestigious Whistler ski resort to the South. Its local park, Nairn Falls, was our final night under canvas. 

The following day, the boys climbed whilst I got ready for my return to civilisation, a rather uncharacteristic day of manicure, pedicure and hair cut. It felt strange worrying about whether my nails were dry after so many weeks of washing in water from the kettle from the fire. 

And then the final day, driving down the single best road in the world: the Sea to Sky highway past Whistler, the unbelievably beautiful Howe Sound and finally into North Vancouver. 

Our brilliant and kind friends Dan and Cazz Grima put us up for our final two days, which we mainly spent sorting the huge amount of kit into many different piles. 

And then we flew home.

Looking back almost three years since we left; it was a totally brilliant two years. We learnt so much about ourselves and each other. We saw some of the most beautiful places that the continent has to offer, made great friends, pushed ourselves to run harder, ski faster, drive longer to make the most of every minute.

So if you're wondering whether you should pack up your lives and emigrate, or take that long road trip you've always planned, or, really, do anything that you think you'll regret if you don't: then do it. Don't hesitate. You'll never look back and wished you worked a bit harder or earned a bit more. 

Farewell Road trip (7): Hypothermi​c swims, wolverine hunt and a bit more cake

Lake O'Hara is invariably described as 'the jewel of the Canadian Rockies'. One poor Albertan lady acts as the gatekeeper to that jewel, manning the phone which you must call at 7am precisely three months before your arrival date to book your camp spot and shuttle.  Two hours of hitting redial and we had the booking, but as the most hyped place in the Rockies, could it possibly live up to it?

It did. With multiple unbelievably turquoise lakes ringed by huge sheer mountain faces and only a handful of people able to access the trails every day, it was a hikers paradise. We tried in vain to spot a wolverine (kind of a cross between a bear and an aggressive weasel). They're so rare that normally you don't even consider it a possibility but four were spotted whilst we there. But it will have to remain on our hit list for another day...

We caused much amusement with our British insistence on diving into the glacial fed lakes, although Adam received the gold star for swimming out to a rocky island without dying of hypothermia.  A very civilised back country campground (complete with sinks!), fresh cake from the lodge and a bird talk sealed it as my number 1 Canadian destination recommend.

A final Robyn filled car journey and it was goodbye to Nicola Timmins. My four days of planned relaxation whilst the boys climbed didn't quite pan out as I spent a good chunk of time adminning for my exciting new job and for a new final backpacking trip to Mt Robson. But I did manage to soak up some rays by a lake and solo hike in a grizzly danger area, turning around when I saw the biggest area (about the size of a tennis court) of grizzly diggings I'd ever seen.

Then it was time to pack up and head to our final adventure in the north.

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Farewell Road Trip (6): Cakes, lakes and fossils

Our first stop back in Canada was Calgary, capital of Alberta, a province which styles itself on Texas, just with much colder winters. So cold, in fact that it has constructed 15km of underground walkways to connect its downtown offices and shops, the centre of which was a strange indoor parkland on the third floor of a mall...

Our booking at a youth hostel had been cancelled due to some pretty serious floods, so we paid just $50 extra to stay at a 5 star airport hotel. An ensuite shower felt pretty luxurious after five weeks in a tent and was good preparation for a 7am skype job interview (find out the result below).  We collected our second guest (the third Nicola of the trip) and made our way to a small campground on the eastern slopes of the Canadian Rockies.  

Porcupine defence mechanism: activated
Those of you that own a Bugaboo pram might not know that it is named after a little visited, but world class, climbing destination, hidden from the highway by low hills and 50km of dirt roads. Rain didn't deter us from a 5am start and we breathed a sigh of relief as the weather started clearing as we approached the park. The huge granite spires and tumbling glaciers only become visible a few minutes from the car park, which itself was keenly anticipated. Porcupines are prevalent in the area and attack brake lines and other car bits, so you must build a defensive chicken wire and stick cage before hiking.  That achieved we hiked the short, steep trail to the hut and campground and marvelled that no one in Vancouver seemed to have heard of it.

No Timmins photo is complete without jazz hands
The Western Kootenays was our next stop, about 2 hours east of the Rockies. We love BC, but it is not renowned for the quality of its small towns. But the WK bucka the trend with historic wooden houses and stores, cute cafes and stunning mountain-lake combo backdrops.  Our canoe/hike turned into an all day canoe (not saying who left her hiking shoes in the car) but if you squinted to get rid of the fir trees, the beaches fringing the turquoise water could have been a tropical desert island.

Our penultimate stop with the Timmins was an incredibly steep guided hike to world famous fossil beds. We stood on top of literally thousands of 505 (apparently the 5 is significant) million year old fossils of trilobites, crazy headed shrimps and worms. Beautifully preserved in good enough relief you could make rubbings of them, it was a proper natural history treat (and a great complement to the much 'younger' dinosaur fossils of Utah).

Oh, and I got the job, pretty much my dream job actually, so we found the world's tiniest bottle of champagne to celebrate with.  Next stop: the gem of the Canadian Rockies...

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Farewell Road Trip (5): Victorian splendour and Grizzlywatch (and avoidance) no.2

The tea set at our B&B
When you've spent weeks driving through sagebrush desert, hours on dirt roads and seen only a handful of small mountain towns, it is hard to believe that Montana's capital, Helena (population 28,000), will be an extremely pleasant Victorian town complete with huge gothic parliament building and tree-lined shady streets. But it is exactly that and we'd managed to select the most Victoriana building of them all for our B&B, complete with antique piano and clawfoot bath. We toured the town, drank micro-brewery ale and ate one of our rare meals out at a place so authentically Greek that I kept expecting a skinny stray cat to jump onto the table. So, in summary, a bizarre but very refreshing stopover before our next backpacking adventure...

I'd waited all trip for mountain goats, here they are, at Logan Pass
Mark + bear spray = ready
Glacier National Park in Montana had most well organised and maintained backcountry campgrounds of our trip: each one had a food preparation area well away from tents, a proper pit toilet (sometimes with no roof, but MUCH better than digging a hole) and metal food lockers. The briefing video explained why: a one minute fluffy intro was followed by 25 minutes of 'what to do when a food habituated bear tries to eat you' with a cheery 'have a wonderful time in glacier national park' sign off.  As the national park with the most infamous grizzly attacks (google 'night of the grizzlies') we were pretty highly strung as we headed out, bear spray cans dangling from our packs, especially as we'd seen a grizzly right by the road before we started out. 

Day 1 took us through the Ptarmigan tunnel, blasted through the rock in 1930 to create the satisfying 80km hiking loop we hoped to complete. The sun shone as we forded our final river to our first campground, Cosley Lake, where each campsite had its own private sandy beach from where you could watch the sunset and the brewing thunderstorm.  

The view from our private beach

Me, somewhere, in the brush
The next two days were significantly less warm: heavy overnight rain left the 6ft high brush (yes, taller than me) soaking wet and freezing cold and, at one of our lunch stops, I even climbed into my sleeping bag to try and warm up (we always go very light on clothes knowing this is the option of last resort).  The huge quantifies of bear scat and grizzly diggings, coupled with poor sight lines, meant we spent most of the two days shouting 'hey bear' which, when it got boring, was replaced with the thundercats' and bananaman theme tunes for a change.  

But it was all worth it for the approach to our final campground 'Fifty mountain': walking through the tree-less alpine meadows it seemed you could actually see the famed fifty separate peaks across the park.  And seeing a grizzly, as inevitably happened, was actually pretty magical: a mum and juvenile cub foraging amongst the flowers a nice safe distance from camp.  Instead of the usual retreat to the tents due to cold at 7pm, we sat out till after sunset watching the alpenglow on the mountains.  

A 5am start (yes, we do love them) heralded our final day, 20 miles of incredible mountain views, re-hydrated chocolate cheesecake (actually quite delicious) for breakfast, the biggest bull moose we've ever seen shaking the water off his antlers in a lake and even a cold coke at the Granite Park chalet.  Back in the valley we had much-needed showers and lots of pie (why a hamlet in northern Montana has the world's best pie shop is a mystery, but for proof, just ask Mark to see his newest t-shirt).  

After a good night's sleep and NOT a 5am start we headed north, crossing the border back into the Canada, for the second half of our trip...

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Farewell Road Trip (4): Moosewatch no. 2, Grizzlywatch no.1 and amateur dramatics, Wyoming style

We love guests visiting, especially on road trips. But it piles on the pressure to spot them some North American charismatic megafauna and Nicky Smith was no exception, confiding early in her trip that she would be 'really disappointed not to see a bear'.  I thought this would be be easy: we had practically been stalked by one in Grand Teton the previous summer. So, it was more with a desire to discourage bears than see them, that we set off on the classic Teton Crest trail in Grand Teton National Park.

Two of the three Teton peaks
At least the moose and bison pressure was off: We had watched a mother and calf browse in wetlands for a good half hour the night before the hike, and gotten almost too close to a herd of bison with calves. But we didn't turn down the chance to see a couple of bull moose, and another mum and calf pairing, on our way up Granite Canyon. We slept next to a bubbling creek, complete with dippers hunting for insects, not even ruined by a traumatic midnight nature bathroom visit. 

Best wildflowers of the trip
The next day we ascended to Hurricane Pass through the last remnants of snow for more classic Teton views, then through the most incredible wildflower meadows of our entire two years (its rare you hit them at their absolute best, normally the guidebook says 'delight in the amazing flowers here' as you stare at decaying marigolds).
Our camp spot on Death Canyon shelf ranked as one of the best of the trip; an incredible sunset over one of the huge canyons leading up to the Teton massif. A 6am start meant cold cokes by lunch time at the Jackson Hole gondola and an easy ride down. But, still no bears.

Watching the Wolf Watchers
Three days of 5am starts characterised our next park, Yellowstone, as you need to wake up early and stay up late to spot the wildlife. After bagging a camp spot at sought after Slough Creek (also a favourite with a local grizzly) we set out on our bear-hunt. 

We saw bison swimming across rivers at sunrise, coyotes marking their territory at dusk, a golden eagle chick begging for food, a wolf departing on an evening hunting mission and even a rarely seen American badger snuffling through the undergrowth (oh, and lots of world famous geysers in the world's most active geothermal hotspot). 

I had interrogated waitresses, off duty rangers and even the postmaster for their top bear viewing spots. But, by Nicky's final morning, still not one bear had been sighted and I was now feeling the pressure.

The sun rises over the Hayden valley.  Beautiful, but still no bear...
On our final morning, we drove to Hayden valley and stopped to snap the red rising sun behind a pair of feeding pelicans. As always, we chatted with fellow visitors to obtain wildlife beta and this time struck gold: a bear visible from the next lay-by! Mark navigated through an inconvenient bison herd and there he (or she) was; a huge grizzly foraging in the meadows at sunrise who then obligingly crossed a river and shook out his coat for us. Awesome (although it might have made our mission easier if we'd found out earlier that the locals called this 'Grizzly Overlook'!).
"Grizzly Overlook": I promise you there's a bear in this picture somewhere...

We left Yellowstone and breakfast at a movie-worthy locals' diner heralded our arrival in Cody, Wyoming. The town was created by 'Buffalo Bill' Cody: a Western legend who started as a buffalo hunter/army scout and eventually led a huge theatrical 'Wild West' show around the world (Queen Victoria was a big fan) becoming the first global celebrity in the process. The story is brilliantly told at the Buffalo Bill museum (when the guide book said it was 'world class' we were suspicious, but it was actually excellent) which also charts the demise of the 30 million strong bison herd of the West in the 1850s which numbers just a few thousand left today. 

Yes, it was as bad as it looks...
His story is less brillliantly told, in fact you might say, terribly told, by a group of amateur dramatic locals in a mock shootout in front of the 1905 Victoriana hotel built by Bill in homage to all things English. But we did have the pleasure of meeting two seniors motor cycling across the States (in honour of her eightieth birthday) who demonstrated that new technology can be put to old-school uses by showing us numerous photos of their children on their iPhone 5.

We bid fond farewell to Nicky (at 5am of course) before heading to Montana...

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Farewell Road Trip (3): Bear baffling, gold and whiskey

View from top of Mt Zirkel - still lots of snow at 12,000ft
Our first backpack (overnight hike) was to the Mt Zirkel wilderness. It was a short afternoon hike across stunning wildflower meadows, surrounded by butterflies, to the base of the mountain where we made our camp next to a tarn.  We introduced Nicky to our plastic bear barrel (designed so bears cannot open it or take it away, just stare angrily at the food inside, (it occasionally baffled us too)) and the 'trowel and ziploc bag' approach to bathroom breaks. 

An alarm at 5.30am saw us climb Mt Zirkel (12,182ft/3713m) on another perfect morning with views into the utterly empty wilderness beyond.  On our return we heard howling and barking across the valley - a hiker later told us a pack of coyotes had brought down one of the young elk we'd seen at sunrise.

Miner's Inn Delight's very own bluebird...
A long drive through the Great Basin Desert (it felt a long way from the Vancouver rainforest) brought us to Atlantic City, Wyoming. Part of a trio of old Gold Rush towns (a big cause of settlement in the West), the first town, South Pass City (once the biggest town north of San Francisco) has been fully restored, complete with general store (operational) and brothel (not operational). 

Our town of Atlantic City was still lived in by 'real' people: its original mercantile was still operating in all its 19th century wooden-panelling-and-stuffed-animal glory; it had Wyoming's most essential small town retail outlet, the gun store, run by one 'Wild Bill'; and our B&B, the original 19th century saloon.  The final town, Miner's Delight, has been left to gently disappear into the sage brush; dilapidated wooden cabins with roof slats slapping in the wind and brush growing over the cemetery.

and it's very own whiskey selection...
All reason enough to visit, but as our B&B (Miner's Delight Inn) also had the best whiskey selection in the West and a nest of mountain bluebirds, it seemed only right to spend to stay two nights.  Our middle day was spent exploring the towns and the nearby Red Rock canyon.  On our way back on dirt roads, we pulled over to take a photo and when Mark turned the key, the car wouldn't start.  

It didn't take us long to consider our options: the only nearby deserted house had two barking guard dogs on duty and we had zero mobile phone reception, so I hitched a ride back to our B&B so we could call the AAA.  As the operator couldn't understand where we were (they only seem to know the highways) and we were 30 miles away from the nearest small town, I was sceptical when she said a mechanic would be with us in 15 minutes.  

and our very own miner's cabin
But sure enough, as we all sat downhearted by the car, fearing our road trip was over, a pick-up pulled up containing Wild Bill from the gun store, who doubled up as the town mechanic.  A litre of oil later (Subarus guzzle the stuff on steep roads) and we were on our way, now fully in love with small town Wyoming.  

Next stop: Grand Teton.
The sagebrush desert reclaims one of the miner's cabins

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Farewell Road Trip (2): Cowboys, coyotes and my first mountain summit

The easy hike at the start, as the sun rose
Rocky Mountain National Park, CO, was our home for the second week of the trip. Colorado is the highest US state, on average its elevation is 6,800ft (2070m) above sea level with nearly 20 peaks above the magic 14,000ft (4,300m).  The altitude takes some getting used to, so we planned our first major mountain climb for our fourth day there: the famous Longs Peak, 14,255ft (4,340m). Dire warnings were provided by the guidebook and rangers; most definitely not a hike, it would require some difficult scrambling, with huge sheer drop-offs, where one slip would be fatal.

My nerves and a 2am alarm (you have to be off the summit by noon before the afternoon thunderstorms) meant little sleep.  The first three hours to the boulderfield was an easy headtorch-lit hike. Then it got more interesting: we climbed through 'the keyhole' to start the scramble along narrow ledges, up a gully, along more narrow ledges to reach the final ascent on slabs to the summit. Snow on the slabs blocked the best route up, but after a few sketchy moments we summitted at 9am to a huge sunny windless plateau with dozens of Colorado peaks laid out before us, and hoary marmots sunbathing on the rocks.

We didn't die, yay!
I was not looking forward to the descent with, as it turned out, very good reason. The snow had started melting, coating the rock slabs with water above the 3000ft drop off.  A good quantity of coaxing from Mark later and we were back at the keyhole, feeling the effects of altitude lessen with every step. We celebrated my first proper mountain summit with our first meal out of the trip: deep pan American pizza (if you think of it as a kind of pie it's quite nice). 

Our next few days were less adrenaline filled: drives along the highest paved road in the US, early morning bird watching near the elk 'nursery' meadow, watching three young coyotes streak down a sun dappled hillside, and collecting Nicky Smith late from the airport as we watched a herd of bighorn sheep with lambs cross the road.

Singing the national anthem precedes all N. American events
And a truly American cultural experience: our first rodeo.  The Estes Park rodeo is apparently the best small rodeo in the US, easy to believe as you watch the cowboys (and girls) compete at sunset in front of the mountains. Our favourite events were the female 'trick riders' troupe racing around the stadium and the calf roping round: calf and cowboy are released simultaneously from the gates and the cowboy has to rope the calf, securely tie it and remount the horse in under 14 seconds. Awesome.

A quick stop at the restored Carousel of Happiness in Nederland (best $1 spent of the trip) completed our stay and we headed west to Mt Zirkel.