Six weeks in Saskatchewan, Alberta and BC where English tourists don’t get to - Part 2
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This is the second report and covers Alberta. There are separate reports for Saskatchewan and British Columbia.
We flew into Edmonton and stopped at Fort Saskatchewan. We spent a day at the Ukrainian Heritage Museum. which is a reconstruction of an Ukrainian village from the 1920s. The houses are nearly all original buildings which have been moved and rebuilt there. The history of the families has been thoroughly researched and staff are in role and have learnt their parts thoroughly (down to the accent and broken English). They are working the land, cooking, cleaning as if it was 1920. It is a bit disconcerting at first as you feel very much as if you are inviting yourself into someone’s house and stopping them from working. They can tell you all the family history, where they came from in Ukraine, how many of the family came, how long it took to get established and details of 1920s life. We went into a sod houses where the family had only been for a month. This was the first house to be built and could be erected in a few days. Life was very much ‘on the edge’ and the line between success and failure was very thin. The children had to look after the family cow and stop it from wandering. The family could not afford to let them go to school – they were an essential part of the work force.
We spent a full day around Fort Edmonton which has a reconstruction of the 1870s Hudson Bay Trading Fort, 1880s, 1910 and 1920 settlement. The interpreters don’t stick rigidly to their role and will broaden the conversation to cover more recent history. We were looking around one of the 1880s houses when a tourist came in and asked the costumed interpreter if she lived there all year. There was was no TV and he asked how she managed without a TV set. Quick as a flash came the reply “what is a TV set?” The guy was at a loss for words at that point and we heard him go out telling his family ‘she lives here all year…. can you imagine it in winter… how do they manage without TV?’
From Fort Saskatchewan we headed into Saskatchewan and spent 3 weeks in the Prairies before heading back into Alberta to the Badlands and Dinosaur Provincial Park. The view before you drop down into the canyon across the badlands is awesome. We hadn’t booked for any of the guided walks but did the drive around the public loop road and trails off it. This took half a day and gave a good introduction to the park. We liked the in situ display of dinosaur bones waiting to be excavated.
We stopped in Drumheller as we wanted to do the self guided drives. We had stopped to look at the Hoodoos on the way in and had a quick look at the outside of Atlas Coal Mine to see the giant tippler and regretted we didn’t have time to visit. We did the Dinosaur trail anticlockwise and thought the scenery and views on the way out along the east side of the canyon better than those back along the west side. The Bleriot Ferry was great fun.
We had read great things about the Royal Tyrell Museum and were expecting a lot. The dinosaur skeletons were stupendous but we were disappointed by the rest of the exhibits, which we felt were superficial. Many of the touch screens weren’t working. The shop was aimed at the kids with toy dinosaurs, tee shirts etc but little for the serious student. This is a major failing for a museum of its reputation.
From the Badlands we headed to Waterton Lakes National Park. Red Rock Canyon and Cameron Lakes roads are excellent drives with short walks off them. The weather was bright and sunny with clear blue skies and superb scenery. There was snow lying around Cameron Lake and we were amazed by the number of bear prints.
We saw a bear cub at the side of Cameron Road and a mother black bear and 2 cubs along the Linnet Lake Nature Trail. We turned a corner a few hundred yards from the car park and came face to face with mum who sniffed us and then ambled off.
From Waterton Lakes we headed into BC and up through the Kootenays before coming back into Alberta at Bow Water Junction to drive Icefields Parkway to Jasper. Johnson Canyon walk was good, especially the upper falls. Be here early as the car park was full by 11am and the walkways busy.
I know this is heresy but we felt Icefields Parkway was one part of the whole holiday which didn’t live up to expectation. The weather was dull and cloudy with a lot of haze which didn’t help. We had already driven Crowsnest Pass, Rogers Pass, Kicking Horse, so perhaps were getting a bit blasé by then. We allowed 2 days for the drive, with an overnight at Saskatchewan Crossing.
I had a leaflet giving distances between sights along the parkway. Even keeping a close check on distance we still managed to miss many. Many smaller sites are not signed or else you are past the parking area before you realise. There are also a lot of trees – very often there is a stunning view which you can’t see for the trees.
It took us a while to get used to the red trees. Much of the forest is old mature forest as over the last 50 years there have been major efforts to suppress and control forest fires. It is now realised this causes problems as cones need the extreme heat of a forest fire before seeds can germinate. There is less ground cover in old forest, so less food and fewer animals. The pine beetle population has boomed and is now a major pest as it attacks older trees. In the first summer the needles turn deep red – the trees stand out against the green and look like autumn colours. The following year the needles fall. The dead trees are referred to as ‘grey’ forest (the colour of the dead, standing wood). Seeds won’t germinate and there are huge swathes of grey forest covering the hillsides.
Like all good tourists we drove up to Lake Louise. The lakeside was throng with tourists. Moraine lake was quieter but by midday parking was getting difficult. We had done the ‘must see’ views here but another time wouldn’t bother. We gave Athabasca Glacier a miss. The car park was full and overflowing with tourists. I also have very mixed views about the trip onto the glacier. I feel we do enough damage to our planet without this. If you want to get close to a glacier Mt Cavell is much better. Mistaya Canyon and Sunwapta Falls, particularly walking to the lower falls, were both worth visiting.
In Jasper, we drove up to Mount Cavell early on a beautifully bright and clear morning. The Path of the Glacier Loop is an easy walk and gets you close to the snout of Mt Cavell Glacier. We did the lower part of the Cavell Meadows path – the top was closed until the snow had melted and the ground dried out. This climbed up the side of the valley with views across to Angel Glacier and down to Mt Cavell Glacier.
Maligne Lake is another nice drive. We didn’t do a lake cruise but did the Moose Loop Trail. Where it gets back to the lake there is an unmarked trail continuing along the lake shore which we followed as far as we could. It wasn’t far from ‘civilisation’ but felt like real wilderness. We sat eating our lunch on the shore miles from anywhere waving at the people on the cruises. Unless you do the cruise or are wanting to walk there isn’t much else apart from the huge restaurant and gift shop.
Coming back, we saw our first ‘bear jam’. We turned a corner to find a coach, several RVs and a dozen cars parked all over the road with people rioting around trying to take pictures. As we wove our way round cars and people we got a glimpse of a black bear that was trying to have a quiet meal down a break in the trees 50 yards off the road. I felt sorry for the bear.
From Jasper we did a big loop back to Edmonton by Grand Cache, Peace River and Slave Lake. This was well off the usual tourist beat. On the way to Grand Cache we called in at William Switzer Provincial Park. We parked by Jarvis Lake and did the new Nature Trail around Kelly’s BAth Tub. We saw plenty of evidence of beavers but no animals. This was a delightful short walk along a good path.
We did a long detour along a gravel road to Rock Lake in Willmore Park, and had the place to ourselves. We also walked to Sulphur Gates just north of Grand Cache for the views down the gorge.
Grand Cache is a small, pleasant, new, industrial settlement. We wished we had allowed an extra night as we would have liked to walk more in this area, especially beyond Sulphur Gates.
The drive up to Grand Prairie (a big, brash modern town) was nice with our last views of the Rockies, before hitting the prairies again. We stopped at the tiny settlement of Sexsmith. This had become very run down until locals undertook a revitalisation program to bring downtown area back to 1920s with wooden frames and boomtown frontages. We went into the hotel for a cup of tea. The young lass behind the counter couldn’t get over our English accents. I think we were the first English people she had met. “I could listen to you all day”. The cook was brought out to listen to us.
Peace River was a pleasant small place in delightful countryside – rolling hills, woods, water as was Slave Lake. We drove back to Edmonton through Swan Hills (depressed mining settlement) and managed to miss the turn for Centre of Alberta Grizzly Bear trail. Fort Assiniboine was a pretty small place. We particularly liked the serpentarium (pile of stones) in the centre of the village which is used by garter snakes. We visited the small museum with its reconstructed fort buildings and then headed for the Klondike (Vega) Ferry and civilisation.
It was a trip to remember. All the planning and research paid off. We had enough time to do everything we wanted and got into areas not on the typical tourist trail. The Canadians were so welcoming and friendly.
A more detailed report for the trip can be read here
The website of pictures from our trip can be seen here
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