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alberta trip report part 1: the theme was bighorns

2006-06-15 - 10:10 p.m.

© 2006 by Elaine Radford
male bighorn

Tuesday, June 6, 2006

I don't know how many people can say that their vacation was cancelled because of emergency medical personnel performing triage on the baggage claim of their airport, but probably it's too many by this time of century. In any case, everyone was great about refunding our frequent flyer miles and cancelling our reservations for our trip to Alberta which was inconveniently scheduled to start just days after Katrina made landfall. Frequent flyer miles are not so easy to cash in 2006 as in 2005, but a lot of people have a lot bigger problems, and, after some scrambling, we were finally on our way to see the mountains.

The free flight was scheduled for very early in the morning -- and it got re-scheduled to even earlier. Don't you hate when they do that? However, we arrived in Calgary without much incident, where we discovered that our rental car company -- which had advised me to phone them to pick us up at the airport -- had actually themselves moved into the airport. You can't get much easier than that. Almost before we knew it, we were underway in a new Toyota Corolla (yes, they still make them!) with 26 kilometers on the meter.

© 2006 by Elaine Radford
johnston canyon

We stopped in an Irish pub along Highway 1 in Calgary, where they had two different channels showing poker tournaments, one in Europe for euros and one somewhere I've forgotten for good old-fashioned dollars. I couldn't believe that there were enough poker programs to support two channels, but maybe they're hurting for filler on Canadian TV. In any case, I ordered the bison burger that came with a terrific onion soup. My drink was called "The Twisted Martini" -- Absolut Mandarin and Grand Marnier.

It was a clear summer day, with several raptors to be seen as we drove out of Calgary. The best was the light morph Ferruginous Hawk being pounded by a corvid -- crow or raven, I never thought to check the shape of the tail to be sure, I was looking at that humongous white hawk. A dark morph flew pretty low over the rental car. There were the usual Red-Tails perched along the road too. But traffic was almost of a Mandeville level of horrible, and poor Roger had to keep his eyes on the road, so I don't think he got to enjoy most of the raptor sideshow.

Our suite in Canmore was spectacular -- a kitchen as big as mine (OK, that isn't saying much), a nice living room with a gas fireplace, a big barbecue pit on the patio, and a decent sized bathroom. After our long day of travel, we made a point of soaking in the outdoor hot tub and then unwinding by the fire. I think I even managed to cook up something terribly healthy and low carb in the kitchen, but now I can't remember what.

© 2006 by Elaine Radford
the glacier behind lake louise does look like a painted backdrop, creating a sense of unreality

Wednesday, June 7

Hotel/condo hell in Canmore is no more than three or four kilometers from an entrance gate to Banff National Park, so don't believe the doubters who insist you have to pay $300 a night to stay in Banff. We were at the gate and purchasing an annual park pass before we could catch our breaths. Once we went to Las Vegas and spent just hours poking around some park squinting way off in the distance at some Bighorn Sheep, so we decided to make our first stop a trail around Lake Minnewanka that included a salt lick to attract them. Let's cut to the chase right now. Do not bother to go anywhere or to schedule anything out of a fear of not seeing Bighorn Sheep. You don't have to find them. They will find you.

As we strolled around the lake, catching sight of our first pair of Common Loons, actually arrayed in the classic breeding plumage you see in all of the photographs instead of the drab dress they don for wintering in Lake Ponchartrain, we caught sight of a large mammal swimming submerged to its neck. I thought moose -- for some reason I have always been convinced that moose like to swim -- but a closer approach proved that it was a Mule Deer.

The access to the sheep salt lick was closed to the public, so we slunk off in defeat -- only to encounter a huge mixed herd of male, female, and young Bighorns alongside the road. We figure that the salt spread around in winter to keep the roads clear is what attracts them, because they pretty much turned out to line the roads all the way from Banff to Hinton. But maybe I'm getting ahead of myself.

Our next stop was the short Hoodoos trail in Banff. There are supposedly lots of Hoodoos in Alberta, but I was concerned that we wouldn't get to see any others because of the sheer size of the province, so we made a point of investigating these. They're a bit like Lot's wife turned to salt, well, if she was several large people turned to sand instead of salt, but you could see how myths and legends get started. As we looked down over the marshy river, we saw several mother Elk urging their young ones to cross the water. Some of the babies were quite reluctant to put their feet in the cold water, and I honestly can't blame them! But it was so cute to watch the drama from above.

© 2006 by Elaine Radford
banff hoodoos

We dined in another Irish Pub in Banff, but it wasn't as good as the first one. It wasn't at all bad though. The first one was just a little too good with the insanely perfected onion soup, creating impossible expectations. So I forgot the food, although I do remember that they had an excellent local ale. Then we headed out for Johnston Canyon. DH surprised me by wanting to continue on from the dramatic lower falls to the equally dramatic -- but further out -- Upper Falls. Along a scenic path, we were pretty much badgered every step of the way by adorable golden-mantled ground squirrels. They know they're cute and can't understand why no one is making with the hand-outs, although a huge sign scolding tourists for even thinking about feeding a cute l'il ground squirrel is probably to blame.

© 2006 by Elaine Radford
i have seen some worthless, pinchpenny tourists in my day but you guys take the damn cake, won't anyone give a little gratuity to a golden-mantled ground squirrel with this high degree of cute?

After our hike, we took a scenic drive to Lake Louise, enjoying such sights as the dramatic Castle Mountain. Arriving at the lake, we bought tickets to ride the gondola up the mountain overlooking the lakes. You won't believe me, but directly under Tower # 8, a huge grizzly bear was digging, so that we had a perfect overhead view. I joked that he was a terroristic bear, looking to bring down the tram full of tourists as a publicity stunt.

Oh, and the tram stopped for about five minutes in the middle of both trips, going up and coming down. Not funny, guys. Not funny at all. But especially not funny when you're wondering how you're going to climb down with a big ole grizzly down there rooting for you to fall. Heck, a bear can't live on termites and berries alone.

© 2006 by Elaine Radford
detail, castle mountain
In the evening, I tried the second of the two hot tubs at our hotel -- the one supposedly overlooking the mountains. Actually, as soon as you sat down, the trees were so close in that you couldn't see the mountains. And the water was not as warm as the hot tub on the parking lot side of the hotel either. But you don't know until you try. A light dinner and a glass of white wine -- OK, two glasses of white wine -- by the fire finished the day.

Thursday, June 8

It rains quite a lot in Alberta. I guess I knew that, since I was somewhat concerned that last June they had some severe flooding of the Bow River -- well, not severe compared to the entire destruction by water of entire parishes and counties and cities and towns, but bad enough to spoil people's entire day, certainly -- but now I really know it. It's a cold rain, too. Brrrr. I'm glad we brought our jackets, no matter how silly we may have felt in the New Orleans and Houston airports.

Since my faithful fans know that a little cloud of raindrops follows me wherever I go, you will not be surprised to learn that we simply ignored the rain and went about the business of entertaining ourselves in the great, if soggy, outdoors. In the morning, we hiked through the Fenlands and then on to the Vermillion Lakes. The Elk were out, of course, but I was surprised that there weren't more birds. Hey, it rains in Louisiana too, or at least it used to, before the drought, but our birds just mule-headedly go about their business unless they're pretty sure it's going to stop in a reasonable amount of time. You can even check and see what the birds are doing here, and if they're waiting it out, you can be pretty sure the rain is about to quit. The Alberta birds weren't all cowering wimps afraid of a little damp though. The Osprey cruised by to give us a great view, and a handsome pair of Bald Eagles ruled the lakes from a dead tree that showed them off to perfection.

© 2006 by Elaine Radford
if i was to mention every cute l'il baby bighorn i saw, i'd be typing all week

Then it was off to enjoy the beautiful sights of Lake Moraine and Lake Louise. Here on the shores of oft-photographed Lake Louise, we enjoyed great views of our life Clark's Nutcrackers, including some young fledglings. We also stopped for lunch in a restaurant in Lake Louise village, where because of the damp, I unabashedly ordered not one but two Irish coffees. I also had some garlic shrimp but I noticed for the first (but not the last) time that in Alberta they don't know that you should saute the garlic in butter or olive first, before you do another thing, to take the sulphur out. Either that, or they just sell an extremely sharp, bitter garlic to that province. My garlic tiger shrimp weren't bad, they just weren't as good as they could have been if the garlic had been properly sweetened by a little sauteeing in a quality butter or oil. I sure couldn't complain about the Irish coffee though.

At some point along the way, DH expressed a concern that he had only seen female Elk, and I think he was starting to get a little worried. No sooner said than attended to. There are a bazillion legal turn-offs and parking spots in Banff and Jasper National Park, and if you see cars and RVs and even entire tour buses parked illegally in the road, it's because somebody has spotted some major wildlife. Sure enough, we looked over, and there were two male Elk with fine racks of beautifully proportioned antlers.

© 2006 by Elaine Radford
you think it's easy carrying this headgear around all day, you try it bunky

Back at the condo, DH barbequed some steaks on the grill, and then I headed out for another soak in the hot tub -- the less scenic, but much hotter and more soothing one this time. Ahhhhh. A Canadian whiskey by the fire took off any remaining chill.

© 2006 by Elaine Radford
ok, one more baby bighorn, but only cause he's too cute
You have just finished reading Part 1 of my Alberta trip report to Banff and Jasper National Parks. Part 2 is coming soon.

© 2006 by Elaine Radford
too cold for boatin' at lake moraine

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