Trans-Canada Road Trip

Road Trip Ahead

June 21, 2011

Today, I begin a 2 1/2 week road trip from Washington State up to British Columbia, across the various Canadian provinces to Ontario, and then back into the U.S. around Minnesota or Michigan to attend the annual Holsclaw family renion in south central Wisconsin.  On July 3, I’ll point my Ford west and head through Minnesota and across the high plains to return back to Puget Sound country sometime around July 8 or 9th.

My new car is loaded with camping gear, various camera equipment (including my new Panasonic G3, which I love dearly now), my usual assortment of “travel clothes”, and a cooler which will soon be loaded up with beer and food — beer is expensive in Canada, so I’ll need to stock up before I cross the border this afternoon.

The journey will take me through some vast landscapes North of the Border.  I plan to post – when I am able – some of my thoughts and images along the way.

Join me as I get in the car this afternoon and explore another new adventure.

Cache Creek, BC

June 22, 2011

Southern British Columbia

Southern British Columbia

This morning, I awake to a gorgeous day in Cache Creek, British Columbia. After fighting two fairly significant construction delays in Washington (I don’t want to hear about our state’s budget woes after all the construction I saw), I crossed the border at the wee birder post in Sumas, WA. The Canadian border agent was very curious why I was going all the way up and through Canada to get to Wisconsin… “Good question”, I replied, and told her that this wasn’t the first time I’d heard this question. She asked me how much alcohol I had, and I told her (2 twelve packs of Twilight Ale) and if I had any weapons or firearms. She wanted to know when was the last time i visited Canada (which, of course she knew by scanning my passport through the system). I believed my last time in Canada was for the Winter Olympics last year, and told her as such. She was curious if I was the registered owner if my car. I wonder if they ask that to motorists with nicer/newer cars. And, she wanted to know how much cash I had (USD200). She asked if I had access to more funds, and I said, yes. At last, I got the green light to proceed.

Within a minute or two, I was on Trans-Canada Hwy 1 which goes clear across the country from Victoria to the Maritime Provinces. I passed a couple camper trucks from Oregon. At Hope, the road veers sharply to the north and turns into a smaller two lane highway as it snakes it’s way through the Fraser River Canyon. I pulled off at a provincial visitor center to inquire about the route and maps (I already have the excellent AAA map, but was interested in the “official” provincial map. Alas, they don’t give away maps, anymore. Yet the woman was most friendly and had great tips on the route up to Kamloops. I thanked her and set out up Hwy 1 along the Canadian Pacific railway and directly following the Fraser River.

Most of the route was most scenic, and the topography was much drier than I imagined. A good stopping off point, it seemed was Cache Creek, where Hwy 1 veers back East towards Kamloops and Jasper, Alberta. I found a decent private campground for $20 and quickly set up camp. Not wanting (nor having all the food yet) to cook, I drove the 1 km back into town (which is very tiny) and found a Greek restaurant recommended by the campground owners. I fancied sitting outside, which was a big mistake as I got nearly eaten alive by mosquitoes! The food, however, was great… a huge lamb roast with lemon rice, Greek salad, and baked skinless potato.

After dinner, I drove back to camp and thoroughly applied bug spray before sitting down to my mosquito candle and read the Economist on my iPad while drinking a couple of those Twilight Ales I had smuggled in. The young couple next to me were listening t the radio from their car, a decent station, but a tad too loud. I didn’t mind so much, though. By far most of the other campers were RVs.

This morning, I awoke to fairly warm temps and completely blue skies. I made some coffee, had cereal (I bought some ice when I went into town last night for the beer and got some expensive milk) and sat for a few minutes as I ate and soaked in the great atmosphere of camping. All around me people were breaking camp…the young BC couple next to me, on the other side of me was a middle aged burly tattooed couple with a Harley Davidson each. It was amusing to listen to them speak in French…not what I expect when I think of Quebecers. I opted not to ask them of the recent trouncing the Bloc Quebecois suffered in the general election last month. Across from me was a German family in a rented RV. The husband was cleaning the RV with a big hose as the wife was folding up the lawn chairs. Such a great international crowd, and I’m the only (as far as I can tell) only American here. I imagine there will be even more diversity once I get into the great national parks later today in the Canadian Rockies. By now, 10 am, the campground is emptying. This really is a drive through campground/town. No reason for anyone to stay here. Kind of melancholic for those who live here… Yet for me, I need to get in the Ford and over to Jasper National Park!

Jasper National Park – Alberta

June 24, 2011

First off – sorry for not having photos posted…I had them ready to go on my laptop to use at this Wifi Internet Cafe, yet the connection was crawling on my laptop, so I switched to a regular PC that this place has, yet no photos!  Sorry – maybe I’ll post in Banff.

Mt. Robson

Mt. Robson

I’ve spent the past couple days in one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen in my entire life — Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada.  I was not prepared for the jaw-dropping views everywhere I look.
I arrived here two days ago – after my journey from Seattle to Cache Creek, B.C.  That next morning at Cache Creek, I drove to Kamloops along Trans-Canada Hwy 1.  It was a fairly decent sized town with big box stores – so I picked up some provisions, gased up the car (paying around C$1.249 / liter), took out some cash from a ScotiaBank (they have an agreement with Bank of America, so I don’t get charged int’l. transaction fees), and had a quick picnic lunch down at the Riverside Park.  It couldn’t have been a better temperature day – with temps in the mid-80s, no humidity and clear blue skies…quite a wonderful mountain air day.  After my little picnic, I set out for Jasper – 499 km away.  I don’t know why I didn’t think it was that far away.

Route 5 took me up the western flank of the Canadian Rockies.  The journey was quite nice – with gorgeous views along the way.  The route follows closely the Canadian Pacific railway as it snakes its way up from Kamloops to Prince George.  I was amazed at the amount of semi-truck traffic, many of them with huge grates on their cabs – presumably to keep away the numerous wildlife which tends to get out on the highway here.  It seems that everything in these far northern Canadian towns has to be trucked or trained to them – and vice versa, I’m sure.  Nothing seems to be made where it is consumed.

About halfway up, I came across a hazard sign that read “Accident Scene Ahead”.  Sure enough, within 3 km or so, I saw RCMP patrol cars with their lights flashing and a huge Caterpillar tractor was pulling a Greyhound bus out of a swamp.  In my entire life, I’d never before seen a submerged vehicle being pulled from a swamp, much less a Greyhound bus (it was half submerged by the time I saw it).  Thankfully, I didn’t see any victims – but the windshield appeared to be completely removed.  It struck me, since I saw several Greyhound buses going up and down this route.

Finally, I had reached the intersection of route 5 and route 16.  This was as far North as I was going to get as route 16 heads due East and into Alberta.  Within about 20 minutes, I came across one of the most stunning scenes I’d ever seen in my life — Mt. Robson.  This is the crown jewel (and tallest) of the Canadian Rockies.  Not since I’d seen Mt. Rainier for the first time was I so amazed at a mountain (OK, the Grand Tetons also struck me).  I pulled over at the first rest area/view point I saw – which was actually dedicated to Mt. Terry Fox.  I had kinda remembered hearing about the name Terry Fox – and it was when I saw the little display at the rest area describing him and his attempt at running across Canada (together with that famous picture of him running with his artificial leg) that I remembered who he was.  Pretty cool that they named a mountain after him.  Though – I was here to see Mt. Robson, where I took some more photos.

A few km later, I was at the Mt. Robson visitor center, where I pulled in for some more snaps.  I didn’t spend long here, as I needed to get over to Jasper, find my campground, and set up camp.   After crossing the Continental Divide, I was officially in Alberta.  I pulled over to take photos of the various signs (of Alberta, Mt. Robson Scenic Area, and British Columbia) and then got back in the car.  I was soon greeted by a friendly woman at the National Park toll booth who asked how many days I intended to stay at Jasper.  I told her “three”, and then she asked if I was going down to Banff.  I said, “Yes, for 2 nights”.  The price for this was C$49-something.  I figured I’d get a pass to the parks – yet here you pay on a nightly basis.  Oh well…it was worth it.

Within 20-30 mins, I was at my campground and quickly set up camp.  I had purchased a fire permit for one night (for C$8.80) which allowed me unlimited use of their own firewood at my campsite.  I went to this HUGE log pile and took some wood to try to make a fire…key word is “try”.  For the life of me, I couldn’t get the fire going.  The campsite next to mine… with 3 couples of people whose language I couldn’t pinpoint offered to help me.  One of them men brought over some smaller chunks of wood which he had chopped from the big chunks from the pile.  I thanked him, and set out lighting this…to no avail.  Finally, another man from the group came over with a handful of twigs and sticks.  He set about lighting the fire for me – as he explained that he/they were from Czech Republic and apologized that his English wasn’t that good.  I told him that his English was pretty good (it was).  Sure enough, my fire was blazing..I thanked him, and he rejoined his group of Czech mates.  I made a hamburger on my camp stove and ate it with some potato chips and a couple beers as I watched the fire burn.  The weather was much cooler than Kamloops…and it was very bright out.  I sat out in the daylight until 11 PM.  I couldn’t believe it.

The next day (yesterday), I got up and made my breakfast of Cheerios and coffee.  Before setting out for town, a man driving a huge 4-door diesel pickup truck pulling a huge motor boat was trying to maneouvre through the winding lanes of the tent-area of the campground.  I had no idea why he was in this area…he couldn’t make the turn between me and the Czech’s campsite, so he got out and looked at the scene…and uttered “Well, shee-it” in a southern drawl.  I looked at his license plates and noticed they were from Alabama.  We talked a bit about ways to get his truck and boat out (he was trying to find a shortcut out of the campground apparently), and he eventually got it out.  After this fun, I wanted to get some sightseeing in, but it was very cloudy, even rainy.  So, I went to the park visitor center in Jasper (only 3 km away) for advice on trails and the weather forecast.  The friendly park guide gave me a couple ideas, so I went with them (to Maligne Canyon and Maligne Lake).  I stopped by the official park shop before setting out for some merchandise–I always like buying stuff from the official national park shops instead of the privates ones.

I set out in the rain to Maligne Canyon – which was a short drive from town.  I got out and walked the beautiful canyon (only about 5-10 feet wide in most areas,,,yet very deep) and crossed numerous bridges that had been built for tourists.  Along the way, I heard French, British English, Canadian English, German, and sometimes American English.  People were all very friendly.  This really an international destination.  I was very much in vacation mode by now.  🙂

After the Canyon, I drove down the road to Maligne Lake – along the way I saw cars pulled over taking photos of a huge elk (or maybe a mule deer).  I put the new telephoto lens on my Panasonic G3 and took some snaps of this huge buck.  Further down the road, a national park truck with flashing lights was directing people to stay in their cars as two bears were feeding off the side of the road – yet we could take pictures.  By the time I found the bears in the woods, they had run off into the thick of the forest.  The route to Maligne was truly stunning and gorgeous, even in the rain, fog, and clouds.  I could only imagine how beautiful it must be on a sunny day!

Maligne Lake

Maligne Lake

I made it to the lake where I walked around and took some photos of this classic old boat house and of some men who were canoeing with their dog.  One of the men had a big red umbrella propped up to keep him dry – though I’m not sure how much good it did.

After seeing the lake, I got back in the car and drove back.  Shortly, I found a huge number of cars pulled over and people gawking out over a meadow…a bear was out feeding on the grass with her three cubs!  What a tremendous site.  I clicked away at the camera and that telephoto lens…by now, I was _so_ glad that I got that lens.  I also laughed at these young cubs as they frollicked in the field so close to the people.  A ranger who was observing both the bears and the tourists mentioned that these cubs were born in Feb and the mama bear was using us as a shield against prying males.  So – it was a symbiotic relationship.  I spent maybe 20 minutes there and then got back in the car, only to find another bear down the road.  This one was right on the side of the road, so I got out and snapped away…some people were getting very scared of it, but the bear was totally content eating her grass.  No cubs for this one.  I got fairly close to it, but when she started wandering around a bit (not in a menacing way, mind you), I got back in the car and then opened up my panaramic moon roof and stood outside it – a la safari style – and took pictures as she came right up to my car and ate grass.  So cool!!

It was raining more heavily (and the inside of my car getting wetter), so I closed the window and drove off.  I got back to town and picked up a couple more provisions at the expensive little grocery store in Jasper.  Back at camp, I offloaded pics from my memory cards to my computers (my mac and my work one, for a backup) and re-charged my camera batteries in the campground bathrooms (a trick I had seen done at Yellowstone a couple years ago).  For dinner, I had my usual Thursday night pasta/wine night – which was quite nice, as it had mostly quit raining.  I sat out on my camping recliner chair and wrote in my journal in the daylight until 10:45 before I finally called it a night.  All in all – a very tremendous day, even with the rain.  The wildlife really made for a phenomenal day.

This morning, I awoke and had my Cheerios and coffee and noticed the Czechs packing up their large campsite.  They were off to Alaska – quite a long road ahead for them!  A new couple from Ontario had arrived on my other neighboring campsite.  I set out to the Mount Edith Cavell area just south of town – yet I missed my turn and ended up going further south on the Icefields Parkway than I intended, yet I’m glad I did as I went to the Athabasca Falls – which I wasn’t intending on doing.  Towards the falls, I stopped at a beautiful viewpoint and talked to a British couple who had pulled up behind me and were interested in me taking photos with my tripod.  The man asked if I liked my Ford Cougar…I wasn’t sure what he was talking about, and he said that in the UK, my car is called a KUGR (he even spelled it out, so as to not mix me up with the old Mercury Cougar car line).  Interesting, I thought.

Next stop was the falls…I’m so glad I went as these falls are not the tallest in the world, but they are very very powerful, and people can get up close and person with them – walking over them on bridges and then downstream below.  I spent about 45 minutes there walking around and taking numerous photos before having a picnic lunch in my car at the parking lot.

Back on the road, I did go to Mt. Edith Cavell where I got out and hiked in this stunning gorgeous beautiful area of rocks, glaciers, and mountains.  It was partly sunny day, so perfect hiking weather.  I took many many photos and just watched the life of the glaciers unfold.

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Beautiful scenery of Jasper National Park

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A bear near the roadway to Edith Cavell Glacier hike

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Edith Cavell Glacier hike

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I headed back to town to refill my gas tank (so I won’t have to wait in line tomorrow morning with all the big RVs) before going to the campsite for a much needed shower.  It was much quieter without the Czechs – though I really enjoyed them as one of them played the guitar and they sang Czech folks songs into the night on the two nights I saw them.  Their replacement is a middle aged couple in a rented car with Alberta plates and a cheap tent they had probably just bought.  The Ontario couple on the other side of me is gone.

I’m now back in town at one of the only internet cafes.  Now that I’m done posting, I’m going to spoil myself and go to the Jasper Brewery for some microbrews and a proper non-camp dinner.

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Jasper National Park

Tomorrow, I set out to Banff via the Icefields parkway – this may be one of the most beautiful drives in the world, so I’ve read.  I’m very excited about the upcoming drive.  In fact, I’m also considering staying longer in Banff than two nights, since I am so totally enamored by the Canadian Rockies… I’ve even been thinking of changing the proposed itinerary of my journey to go directly to Minnesota from Ontario to my reunion, then as I make my way back across the U.S., I may spend a couple days in Glacier National Park in Montana… ahh, so much still to see and do on my truly glorious road trip!

Alberta to Regina

June 29, 2011

I’ve decided to cough up the dough for a room at a hostel in Regina, Saskatchewan.  I needed a bit of a break from camping – plus I seriously needed electricity, laundry facilities, Wi-Fi, and a trip to an apparently _awesome_ microbrewery called Bushwakker a few blocks from the hostel.

So much has happened since I last posted.  I’ve hiked various places in Jasper and Banff.  It seems my favorite of those two is Jasper.  Maybe it’s because I spent more time there — or the more natural feel to the place.  After posting the last time, I went to the Jasper Brewery for a couple pints (proper-sized pints, mind you…not the American size) and a delicious cheeseburger.  At the bar, I struck up a conversation with a German guy who was curious about my studying of the maps I had pored out on the bar in front of me.  He asked what I was planning – and I told him of the journey I had ahead..and how I needed to think carefully of where and when I’m going to see places.  He found it interesting, and he also told of his travels in Canada so far (which included landing in Vancouver on the day of the hockey riots!).

After the bar, I went to the campsite for my last night.  The next day, I awoke early and quickly broke camp…it was kind of cloudy out, yet I wanted to get a chance at some early morning photography along my way down to Jasper via the Ice Fields Parkway (or, as it is written more romantically in French …”La Promenade des Glaciers”.  I pulled over at a couple places for some morning shots.

Driving towards the Icefield Parkway

Driving towards the Ice Fields Parkway

Truly, a stunning morning, even with all the clouds.  The drive down the Ice Fields Parkway is 230 km of the more spectacular scenery a person can probably drive anywhere on the planet.  I am so blessed to have been able to drive this route and view the literally jaw-dropping scenery.  I’ll post more pictures to this blog when I get home…for some reason, typepad (my blog provider) is taking about 5 minutes to upload each image…that is not good.

I reached the Columbia Ice Fields Center about 8:30 AM.  The visitor center itself was open, but it wasn’t staffed until 9.  A group of about 20 Japanese tourists were already in full arctic gear and cameras at the ready to go on their Ice Fields tour.  Tours can be booked from here on these great big machines that climb up onto the tongue of the Athabasca Glacier.  These machines are specially built for glacial travel (not a big market, I’m sure) and are located in Canada and one is apparently in Antarctica which the Americans use for scientific purposes.  When the center officially opened at 9, I bought a ticket for the first available tour, which was 9:30.  Since it was still pretty early (there’s no main town near here as it is between Jasper and Banff, so only early risers get here this early) my tour was only a dozen people or so.  A young blond guy collected our tickets as we got on the large bus to the location where we would board the glacial machines.  I figured he was just collecting tickets – yet when everyone was on the bus, he jumped into the cab and started talking to us on the PA system and drove the bus.  Usually, bus drivers are retired men…but it was amusing to watch this college kid drive the large tour bus up and down the dirt roads.  He had this west-coast surfer, stoner flair – which was very fun.  I had wondered if he would also be driving the big glacial explorer machine, too… it turns out he did not drive it.  A retired Japanese accountant named Sami (short for Masami) was our jokster driver of the big glacial machine that plied every so slowly down a 33% grade dirt road onto the surface of the glacier itself!  Amazing the power that this machine had to descend down such a steep slope.  Along the way, Sami would tell us jokes and comment on the nearby surroundings.  A mountain in the distance (Mt. Snow Dome) was pointed out as it is a triple continental divide — waters melting off the glaciers on this mountain flow either into the Pacific via the Columbia, the Atlantic (via the North Saskatchewan River flowing into the Hudson), or the Arctic (via the Athabasca River).  After 20 minutes or so drive on this lumbering machine, we reached a “parking lot” plowed onto the glacier and got out of the vehicle to walk around.  There are most certainly restrictions as to where tourists can walk – as going too far astray can mean death by falling into a crevasse.  We had about 25 minutes to walk around, feel the cold winds coming down directly off the glacier, feel the snowfall on our faces, smell the completely utterly clean air, and view this most beautiful and oh-so-easy-yet-oh-so-wild site.  Driving back to the collection area to return to the bus driven by the young college kid, we met 5 or 6 other ice vehicles plying their way to the glacier “parking lot”…each one full of tourists.  I’m so glad I got to explore it when I did with only a dozen other people.

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The small group of tourists walking on the Columbia Glacier

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Columbia Glacier

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A group of three big buses headed down to the huge Columbia Glacier

Back at the visitor center, I picked up a couple trinkets at the gift shop and made way down the Ice Fields Parkway towards Lake Louise.  Along the way, I stopped at various turn-outs for photos.  I even was taking some photos from the car since I wanted to record how beautiful the views were while just driving.  The road is not mean as a major thoroughfare between Jasper and Banff – rather it really is just a road for tourists going at a leisurely pace and stopping every so often for photos.  A few times along the way, people had stopped en masse along the side of the road to take picture sof wildlife.  It got to a point that I quit stopping for wildlife photos as there were just so many bear and elk that I had already seen (plus, I wanted to get to Lake Louise).  At one point – where I wish I did stop but didn’t since it was on a very narrow stretch of the road along an avalanche chute, I saw a guy taking a picture of a mountain goat who was licking the side of the road (they apparently love licking the salt which is sprayed in winter time).  I wish I would have stopped there as that was the only time I saw a mountain goat while in the Canadian Rockies.

I got to a little hike called Peyto Lake which is north of Lake Louise a bit.  Lonely Planet really recommended this stop, so I pulled into the busy parking lot and got out of the car for a short 20-30 minute hike to the viewing area.  And what views! (again, I can’t post photos on this blog now, due to typepad’s slow performance, yet they are on my Facebook page and will be on flickr when I get back).  The lake at the base of this mountain is cobalt blue – even in the very foggy conditions it was a beautiful site.  The area itself is beautiful, too, as there was a light snowfall on the trail to the viewing deck.  Such a pretty little trail.  I tried to hike down to the lake, itself, yet stopped after about 30 minutes of hiking down a steep trail which no other tourists were on (they came, saw, took photos, and left).  I kept thinking/hearing in my mind grizzly bears, and got nervous enough to turn around and hike way back out of the trail to the area where all the tourists were and then walked back to the car.  There – I made my usual turkey sandwich and potato chip lunch while a raven watched me intently to see if I would drop anything (I did not) and then drove off to Lake Louise.

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Headed towards Banff National Park

At Lake Louise, I stopped at the main site – the Chateau Lake Louise which is a very famous Fairmont luxury hotel perched on the shores of this truly sublime glacier lake.  There were so many tourists milling about the area.  I wanted to climb up to the Lake Agnes Tea House – a fairly healthy yet short hike (about 7 km round trip with 367 meter elevation gain).  Though, it was 5 PM and I watned to get down to Banff town to my campsite at the Tunnel Mountain campground to set up camp.  So – I drove to the National Park visitor center sub-station at Lake Louise and inquired about trails for the next day.  The woman gave me some tips, and a couple excellent free maps and I was off to Banff via a side road which took in some more wildlife grazing along the side of the road.

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Lake Louise

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Lake Agnes Teahouse hike

I got to Tunnel Mountain and set up camp.  No more firewood for me – as the quality of the Parks Canada firewood is just not good and it requires too much energy to chop it up and keep it going.  Plus – I wasn’t at my campsite usually very long as I was out hiking or exploring until sunset each night.  The campground was huge – much bigger than Wapiti up in Jasper – and full of tourists from around the globe, including many group sites (even an Intrepid tour, which is a company I’m thinking of taking a safari with to Tanzania this winter).  After setting up camp, I plugged my camera battery into the men’s bathroom electric socket and drove down to downtown Banff.  This was the most unusual national park town I’d ever seen.  Throughout the little downtown area in pretty alpine buildings are a cluster of stores that would make the most jaded shoppper envious – everything from a Hudson’s Bay Company branch, The Gap, The Body Shop, Tony Roma’s, Starbucks, Billabong, Roots, The North Face, Tim Horton’s, The Keg are all there in their quaint little shops.  I simply couldn’t believe the variety of shops.  Of course, there were countless small souvenir shops selling all manner of Banff and Canadian trinkets.  The park’s main visitor center had closed, so I just milled about the streets taking in some shopping on this very very busy Saturday night.  I got a couple things (including a Banff North Face shirt!) and then headed back up to the campsite.  I debated getting a bite to eat here, but was just turned off by the vast amounts of people eating at the packed and overpriced restaurants. Instead, I went to camp and opened a can of chili and had it with a couple beers.  When I went to the bathroom to fetch my camera battery and charger – I found that it was gone!  Someone had stolen it from the bathroom!  I couldn’t believe it – both the audacity for someone to take it, but also my stupidity in thinking that it was safe to keep a battery and charger at these bathrooms (though I’d seen it done at campgrounds everywhere).  I went back to the car and wrote up a couple notes on my journal pages to ask “whoever borrowed” my camera battery and charger to return it.  At least I had a spare battery and a whole other camera system.  I figured I could make due with the remaining charge on the new Panasonic G3 camera until I get to a bigger town (such as Calgary) where a camera shop may have batteries.

The next morning, I got up and went into town to see the main visitor center for some hikes.  I wanted to run by the rangers some of the hikes which the woman at Lake Louise had mentioned.  They gave me even more tips – and bear/wildlife advice, too.  Being alone, I didn’t want to get too far out in the wildnerness in case I did encounter a hungry bear.  I then asked if there was a camera shop in town…and of course there was!  So, I went to it and waited in a line of other tourists who had 1) run out of memory card space or 2) forgot to bring their chargers.  I bet that camera shop (which was well stocked, I might add) makes a fortune off people like them and me who have something happen to their cameras or accessories.  I told the clerk what had happened and asked if they had batteries and chargers for my camera and showed her the spare battery which I had with me.  She looked and came back to say that they didn’t as it was such a new camera.  However, they did have this special charger unit which can plug into a car cigarette lighter and a wall socket.  It also can charge any type of removable batttery – so long as it wasn’t a Sony.  She even took my battery and demoed the model that they even use to charge people’s batteries who bring them to the shop.  She also did the same for my Canon 40D battery – which I had with me.  Such a device!  I bought it as it would solve my problems of the missing G3 camera battery/charger and also allow me to charge the cameras while I was driving around (and not worry about putting it in campground bathrooms).

From there, I drove up to Lake Louise and hiked up to the Lake Agnes tea house.  I encountered so many tourists who were trying to make the trek up or down the mountain – many people dressed only in street clothes.  Others, like me, were dressed in day-hiking gear and prepared.  I passed a lot of people going up – so this was a trail full of amateurs.  🙂  After about an hour climb, I made it to Mirror Lake which was truly outstanding – though it was extremely hazy, so the views were not 100%.  Yet, they were still quite beautiful.  I snapped a bunch of photos and walked around the little area.  I stopped at the littel 1920s-era tea house for a hot chocolate and an apple crumble – but the service was so incredibly slow — I waited at my table and wrote in my journal for 15 minutes before giving up and leaving.  I wasn’t real upset about it since it was a tiny little alpine tea house with wood-fired stove and one server doing all the work for the entire place.  I just needed to get going as I had another hike to do later in the day to Johnson Canyon and it was mid-afternoon by now.

Back down the trail I went and passed people trying to climb their way up.  Just about every person/group I saw all said “Hello” or “G’day” or “Hi” depending on their English capabilities.  It was fun to pick out people’s home countries by the way they would say “Hi” to me.  I also got a big kick out of the couple Japanese tour groups I met or passed.  Each Japanese tourist was decked out in the finest hiking gear as if they were planning to summit Mt. Rainier.  Granted, I had a decent stash of day-hiking gear – yet I just got a kick out of the Japanese tourists I would meet.

I quickly made it down the mountian and to Lake Louise again where I went into the Fairmont hotel itself and quickly left.  It was so posh and exuberant with a harpist playing in the marbled lobby, a statue of Queen Victoria herself gracing the elegant staircase in the foyer and people in business attire having high tea.  I felt so out of place in my hiking gear and smelling not-so-well. I could just imagine the Queen of England turning a corner and strolling around this hotel with the Duke of Edinburgh (in fact, I’m sure she has stayed here in the past when she’s visited Canada).  And then it struck me — the past several vacations I’ve taken have all been to former British colonies…Canada, India, Scotland, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong.  What a vast empire the British had back in the heyday leading up to WWI.  Yet – after this thought, I left and went to the car to make my usual turkey sandwich lunch.

Johnson Canyon was my next step – a very easy hike through a gorgeous canyon to two waterfall sites.  It was after 5 PM on a Sunday, so the trail was pretty quiet.  I met quite a few people who were coming off the trail to the little hostel/snack bar at the trail head for ice cream (what a way to end a hike!).  I lumbered along the beautiful pretty forested area until I got to the canyon itself where catwalks had been built to take people into the canyon and directly over the rushing water at areas.  I passed a young guy with a very fancy camera/tripod set up taking photos.  At the lower falls, I encountered a retired British couple and asked them if they would take my photo with the waterfall in the background.  The woman said that her husband should do it he “takes photos for a living”.  He admired my Panasonic G3 camera and told me that he had trialed this out for Panasonic before it was released to production and liked it.  We chatted about photography a bit and then I thanked him and went on my way to the 2nd set of falls further up the trail.  This stretch was a bit more challenging (though still very short and quite easy for me) so there were not as many people on it.  It’s amazing how tourists seem to disappear from national parks once you set out on a hike, even short ones.  I noticed this at Yellowstone a couple years ago.  99% of the people set out only in their cars to explore the parks – yet the real beauty is a short hike away.  Granted – there really is such a huge amount of beauty to see even from the comforts of a car or RV or Harley in the Canadian Rockies.  I made it to the upper falls which were very impressive, and I had it all to myself so I watched the water for a little while before another hiker came up and I left back down the trail.

At the car, I got in and set off back to Banff town.  I wanted to fuel up for the next day, shower, and eat.  As I pulled through the campground, I noticed how quiet and empty it was… most of the people from the night before had left.  The middle-aged couple from Alaska who were across from me were still there – I greeted them and remarked at how quiet it was.  The man laughed and said that he’d surely get some good sleep.  I went to the bathroom/shower building and made a check for my camera battery — just in case.  I noticed that my hand-written pleas for the camera battery return were gone and nothing was put back.  Still – I was content that I had my car charger now (which works great, by the way!) and took a nice short hot shower.  When I got out of the shower and to the sink area, I noticed that the camera battery and the charger and one of my hand-written notes was plugged into a wall outlet!  Whoever had “borrowed” it returned it.  I couldn’t believe it.  Surely, I thought it was gone for good and I’d have to cought up for a 2nd battery (the G3 camera really really does eat up battery during the day).  What a relief it was!  I quickly snatched it out of the plug-in and returned to my campsite for a can of Spaghettios and a beer while I pored over the maps for my next day’s journey.

That night got fairly cold, so I snuggled in my sleeping bag and even used a spare blanket that I had brought for just such cold mountain nights.  I got up the next day at the crack of dawn to break camp.  I went into town for some Internet surfing at a wonderful coffee shop which hadn’t seen many customers yet (it was 7 am or so) and then I drove off into the hinterlands of Alberta.  I made great time to Calgary – though going through it was tough since Canada doesn’t believe in putting freeways through it’s major cities.  I was headed to Drumheller and the Royal Tyrell Dinosaur Museum – which was still a couple hours away.  I was making great time until I had to turn off of the Trans-Canaday Hwy 1 to take smaller provincial roads up to rural Drumheller – and I encountered 30 km of construction to make the two lane road I was on into a four-lane road.  After waiting and driving slowly through this, I found more construction further down the road for another 20 or 30 km.  It’s obvious that Prime Minister Steve Harper is treating his hometown province well with cash for roads and highways.  Being a petro-state helps, too…as all that vast oil from the Alberta tar sands brings in cash for the province and the country (also gas is much much cheaper in Alberta than in B.C.).

Finally, I got to tiny little Drumheller where I stopped at the visitor center and saw the “World’s Largest Dinosaur” and snapped some photos.  The place was near a public swimming pool which was full of kids, so I quickly left and drove the route out into the country to the museum.  The landscape was beautiful – much like the Badlands of South Dakota – in fact, they call it the Alberta Bad Lands.  This is prime dino country – and the area is full of dinosaur digs.  The museum was, to put it mildly…fascinating.  I really studied the exhibits and learned quite a bit more about dinosaurs than I imagined.  Unfortunately, there were a couple school groups there, too rushing around to try to find clues to quizzes which the teachers had given them.  They really weren’t observing the exhibits at all…just running around trying to find the answers to these questions on pieces of paper and then going to the next question…without even looking at the exhibit.  I don’t know why teachers do this.  Someone should actually walk the students through the museum and talk them through it.  I spent a good couple hours there and then got back in the car for a turkey sandwich lunch and then drove off in the vast Alberta prairie to the Dinosaur Provincial Park – which was my destination for the night.  I’d read about this park and how popular it was, so I was hoping for a campsite – though being a Monday night, I figured it was OK…sure enough it was!  I got a wonderful spot near the side of the mesas – one of the most beautiful camp sites I’ve ever pitched a tent in North America (along the Inca Trail in Peru were my best camp sites ever).  I went out on a short hike up into the mesa and took some photos…sunset was approaching, so I waited for that before going back to camp for dinner and rest.  The mosquitoes were out in full force, some like I’ve never seen before.  My bug spray, the Repel anti-bug candle and even my mosquito handkerchief wrapped around my neck didn’t work.  These bugs were far more numerous than anywhere else I’ve encountered mosquitoes…it was most unpleasant, so I quickly cooked and ate dinner and then went inside the tent to finish up reading/planning for the night.

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Getting chased by dinosaurs in Drumheller, Alta

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The next morning (yesterday), I got up before sunrise and rushed to a beautiful site overlooking the canyon and took a bunch of sunrise photos…some truly stunning shots, I hope!  I then went back to camp where everyone was still sleeping and quickly packed up everything (while the mosquitoes were out in more than full force and worse than the night before) and drove back to Trans-Canada Hwy 1 about 50 km away and got gas, coffee, water – and then headed due East to Regina.

I passed through and briefly drove through Medicine Hat, AB and Moose Jaw, SK before getting to Regina.  The Saskatchewan visitor information center had some great maps of central Regina – and they also recommended the RCMP Heritage Museum.  That was my first stop – and it was a wonderful exhibit of the history and culture of the RCMP…such a proud and honest policing agency.  They had historical photos and artifacts from throughout the force’s history.  It was around 4 PM (and it closed at 6), so it was just me and a group of 8 Quebecers in the museum.  When I finished up, I drove to the youth hostel downtown and inquired about a bed.  It turns out that all the beds were taken (on a Tuesday night in Regina??!!) yet the private family room was available for C$68 so I took it!  All the main chain hotels in town were charging more than C$99 (according to the various guidebooks and AAA book I had) so I figured this was a good deal, plus I had my own room, and free Wi-Fi, and a cheap laundry downstairs in the basement.  I needed a roof over my head for the night and to have a break from camping.  I checked in and set up shop in my room to download photos to the computers, recharge all my batteries in computers, iPads, cameras, do much-needed laundry, and just rest.  One of my main goals of Regina was to visit Bushwakker brewery – which Lonely Planet highly recommended.  I walked the mosquito-ridden 20 minute walk through the small downtown area to the brewery across the CP tracks from downtown and sat down at the bar.  An older man was talking/flirting with the bartender.  The man greeted me and introduced me to the bartender – Chelsea.  She seemd to be half interested/half-annoyed at this guy…so I ordered a Regina Pale Ale and pulled out my maps to plot the next day’s route (which is now today).  The man asked my name and where I was headed, and I told him “to Winnipeg tomorrow”, and he said it was 5 hours away (which was closer than I thought, so that’s good).  I told him I had a goal of south central Wisconsin by Friday night as he told me to relax and enjoy the scenery of Canada rather than pore over maps.  After hearing my deadline, he underestood and gave me some suggested routes.  He and I continued to talk of travel.  He was a retired corporate pilot who’s lived in Regina for over 20 years (the bartender was a native of Saskatoon).  I asked them if there were any must-see sites in Winnipeg.  The bartender, Chelsea, mentioned that if I came back later this year, I could go watch the Jets “not that they’re back”.  I had no idea what she was talking about – so I asked what that was/they were.  And, she was happy to tell me that Winnipeg is getting an NHL team again, the Jets.  I then thought about it for a moment and realized that Saskatchewan does not have an NHL team, so I asked who people here rooted for…they both said that there is no natural affinity to any team – some people up north root for the Oilers over in Edmonton while down here, some root for the Flames, or the Maple Leafs.  Interesting, I thought…maybe there’ll be some new Jets fans someday.  We also talked photography and a lot about Canadian politics and the global economy.  I had quite a few beers talking to him, and he drove me back to the hostel as it was around 11:30 by the time we left.  That is one of the best parts of travel…to get out and meet the real locals and get a feel for a place.  I can say that I’ve definitely done that in Regina and Saskatchewan.

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Bleriot Ferry – Alberta

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Old Red Barn – Alberta

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Dinosaur Provincial Park

This morning, I’m up and packed ready to set out to Winnipeg and beyond.  I need to figure out where I’m going to dip back into the U.S. tomorrow – perhaps Int’l. Falls, MN and then down via Duluth.  Still – there’s a bit of time to figure that out as I had to Manitoba today!

The Mini Apple

July 4, 2011

Happy 4th of July!  My road trip is starting to wind down – my car is pointed due west and I’m itchin’ to start smelling the salty air and pine trees of Seattle.  First – I have to cross the American Great Plains – ugh.

The past few days have been good.  After leaving Regina, Saskatchewan late last week (and the location of my most recent post), I had a couple “positioning days” as they might say in the cruise ship industry.  I just needed to get from point A (Regina) to point B (Mauston, WI for the family reunion).  I flew threw the prairies of Saskatchewan and Manitoba with a detour through Winnipeg to see that city.  It was a very pleasant town – quite a bit bigger than Regina with a historic and pretty downtown area.  I stopped at the provincial legislative building for some photos of Queen Victoria.

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I got a bit turned around in downtown Winnipeg – yet managed to find my way out of town on Trans-Canada Hwy 1 after passing by the corner of Portage and Main.

From there – it was a straight shot over to Whiteshell Provincial Park.  The tourist information folks at the Manitoba visitor center earlier had suggested I camp there.  I flew through the vast prairies and collected about 20 pounds of bugs on my windshield and front of my car.  Some of the bugs I hit were quite large and made a noticeable sound when they’d splatter on my windsheild.

At the provincial park, just on the far eastern side of Manitoba, I set up camp and made some canned Irish stew for dinner with a beer while studying my route for the next day.  I decided on a plan which would take me through the Lake of the Woods area in southwest Ontario and then cross the American border at Int’l. Falls, MN.  With the route planned, I got some good sleep and awoke early the next day to break camp and head out.

The drive to Int’l. Falls was quite pretty.  As soon as I crossed Ontario, I saw a black bear eating grass on the side of the road.  Yet, no one here was stopping to take photos.  It must be a regular occurence.  I finally turned off Trans-Canada Hwy 1 shortly after passing a sign that marked the mid-way point east-to-west in Canada.  I had driven literally across half of the 2nd biggest country in the world!  The drive down Lake of the Woods territory offered lots of hardwood tree forests and many lakes.   The name of the game here in boating and fishing tourism.  I stopped at a vast old timey gift shop straight out of the ’50s – though I wasn’t compelled to buy anything.

Once I got to the border crossing at Ft Frances, Ontario, I got turned around.  There is a vast pulp mill along the river before getting to Int’l. Falls.  I didn’t think the border crossing point would be near that area – so I drove a bit further away from it – yet no border check point.  I then noticed a sign marked with “TRUCK ROUTE TO USA”, so I followed it.  It turns out that the border crossing at Ft Frances/Int’l. Falls is literally right in the middle of this pulp mill with lumber trucks and railroad lines all snaking around the line of cars trying to cross into the U.S.  It’s probably the ugliest/foulest American border crossing I’ve seen.

I had now been to my 50th state!  In Int’l. Falls, I got gas (yeah, cheap gas again!) and drove down to Voyageurs National Park.  There – I made a stop at the Visitor Center and asked about some hikes.  The rangers gave me a couple ideas and a map.  After eating a picnic lunch on the shore of one of the lakes, I drove to a trailhead and set out for a small hike to see an overlook and a Great Blue Heron rookery.  The trail, however, was quite unmainted and very muddy.  I didn’t go more than 30-40 yards before turning around and heading to the car.

I wanted to get to the North shore drive along Lake Superior and find a camp site for the night at a state park along the lake – so I had a good 3-4 hours drive ahead of me and it was after lunch time.  With the goal in mind, I set out along state highway 1 through the Superior National Forest and numerous little towns catering to the boaters, fishers, hunters, and canoers (canoeists?).  Except for possibly the canoing part, I didn’t have much interest in general boating and certainly not fishing nor hunting.  So – I couldn’t imagine myself spending too much time in that area.

After a winding drive through the pretty forest along a fairly lonely road, I had my first view of Lake Superior!  What a beauty.  It seemed to go on forever across the horizon.  I pulled over at a viewing area and drove up a bluff to view the lake and a huge iron ore plant.  This lake really is a working lake with the huge ships that ply its waters and railroads that go all around it hauling ore, grain, lumber.  Quite a powerful sight.

I was back on the route 61 headed south and enjoying the pretty views of the water.  At a big construction project where I was delayed by the flagger, I phoned one of the state park’s I wanted to camp out at 30 miles north of Duluth.  I figure I’d ask if they had any tent sites available.  The man on the phone said that they had zero sites available and that the park was closed.  “Closed?”, I asked.  He told me that the state government had just shut down a couple hours earlier and that people in the campgrounds had to break camp and leave since all the state parks would be closing.  I couldn’t believe it – on the busiest camping weekend of the year, the Minnesota state parks would be closed!  Selfish politicians.  I asked him if there were any other areas he recommended and he mentioned a city campground in Two Harbor, MN which is where I went next.  That campground (run by the city, so it was open) had a tent site left wedged in between the large RV sites.  I got it without questioning it…especially since I was there for only one night.  The site turned out to be quite nice.  The campground was perched on a bluff overlooking the lake and my site had a view of the water.  It was chilly out and quite pleasant (after the heat of the prairies).

Since it was Thursday, I had a pasta and wine night (plus, I wanted to free up the big space in my ice chest taken up by the spaghetti sauce jar).  It was wonderful to sit in a cool mosquito-free environment and enjoy the camping night with my pasta and wine and the maps for the next day.

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On the shore of Lake Superior

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Just because I’m car camping doesn’t mean I can’t do my pasta and wine night

I woke up early the next morning to catch the sunrise (which I looked up on my phone to be at 05:15 on Friday July 1).  I unzipped my tent hatch and sprung out with my camera only to see nothing but thick fog.  The entire area was socked in my fog and it was beautifully chilly – about 53 degrees, according to my car thermometer later in the morning.  Darn – I’d miss the sunrise.  Since I was up, I broke camp, ate my cereal and milk breakfast with instant coffee, showered, and started driving down to Duluth.  On the side of the road in the little town was an espresso stand, so I stopped in for a proper coffee to go.  All along the way to Duluth, fog obscured the lake.  In fact, I didn’t even see much of Duluth due to the fog.  I could tell that it is a _very_ hilly city, though as it is built along the bluffs overlooking the lake.  I could only imagine how difficult it must be to drive or walk around those hills in February when they surely ice up!

By mid-morning, I crossed into Wisconsin and drove down a good stretch of pretty farmland and rolling hills.  The temperature had reached 97 degrees!  I went from 51 to 97 in a few hours.  I stopped at a huge Wal Mart and got some provisions and made a picnic lunch in a cemetery (it was the only shady area I could find in that town).  Before getting to the family reunion in Mauston, I wanted to swing by the Leinenkugel’s brewery in Chippewa Falls, WI.  That detour set me back a couple hours – but it was a very enjoyable tour followed up by some shopping in the “Leine Lodge” huge gift shop.  Quite an impressive little brewery tour.

After the fun and hot/sweaty brewery tour, I dashed down the freeway to Mauston where I spent a wonderful couple days with my family.  It was great to hear old stories again, listen to new ones – and share some of my own stories from my travels.  Saturday was a full day of a boat tour on the Wisconsin River, food/family at the Holsclaw’s, and a hike on the bluffs overlooking the farm.  What a really wonderful reunion it was!

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Wisconsin Dells

Yesterday morning, I got up went to the Super 8 breakfast lounge for some cereal and to say “good bye” to the family members who were staying at the hotel (quite a few of them) and did some work-work on my laptop in the hotel before packing up and setting out around 11.  I had a late start to the road, though I needed to get some work done and I was only driving a few hours up to Minneapolis.  I drove up the old river road from La Cross, Wisc across the Mississippi and up US 61 to the Twin Cities.  There, I stopped at Mall of America for some browsing and siteseeing.  Of course, I’d always heard about this mall once it had opened and was curious about it.  It turns out that the shopping part of the mall is just like any other mall such as Bellevue Square in Washington.  What makes this mall so big is the huge theme park inside with roller coaster, log rides, arcades, and other carnival rides.  It was pretty fun to watch for a few minutes – but I soon tired of the screaming and the crowds.  At a Starbucks in the mall, I used the free WiFi and my iPad to look up a hotel room in downtown Minneapolis.  I wanted to have a true city experience here, so I got a nice room at the Marriott downtown with my AAA discount.  On the way to the hotel from the Mall, I detoured to see the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul where Garrison Keilor does the “Prairie Home Companion” audio show each Saturday evening and I saw the locked-up Minnesota State Capitol.  Someone was camping out on the grounds of the capitol with a sign urging the governor to continue his fight against the Republican legislature.

The sun was low in the day, so I drove back to downtown Minneapolis and checked into the hotel.  I dropped off the couple bags I brought with me and then set out to explore a bit of downtown.  Some sort of boy’s high school volleyball tournament was going on, so throngs of people were walking around downtown.  It was a very very pleasant evening, so I sat at a nice outdoor gastro-pub and had some walley with fries and a couple local craft beers.  It was fun to sit outside and write in my journal while taking in the very busy street scene.  After dinner, I had a couple bars along Hennepin Ave before walking the couple blocks back to the hotel.

Camera 360

Mary Tyler Moore throwing her hat in downtown Minneapolis

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MN State Capitol – St. Paul

Today, I’m going to head due West and get through as much of North Dakota as I can — hopefully to the Bismarck area.  After that, I’m not sure of what I want to see in Montana (I picked up a Montana guidebook at the Mall of America, so I’ll have choices to make when I get closer).

I’m headed West !!

Billings to Glacier

July 6, 2011

Today – I will ascend up to the Rocky Mountains once again.  It should be a glorious day after 8 days on the prairies and forests and lakes of the middle sections of North America.

From Minneapolis two days ago, I drove across the state of Minnesota and halfway through North Dakota to end my 4th of July in Bismarck, ND.  I was curious about the flooding which I’d been hearing about for the past several days on my trip.  Sure enough, a small section of I-94 had required speed limits of 25 MPH in order to drive carefully through some water which had spilled over the freeway.

I set up camp at the local KOA (the Abraham Lincoln State Park which I wanted to stay at was flooded, so no campsites were available).  The owners of this private campground were very friendly and the crowds were decent.  A large family of native Indians were camping at the site near me in their RV – yet by 9 PM they had hooked up their RV to their large truck and headed out.  I was wondering if perhaps their house/reservation was flooded and they were camping on this campground temporarily.

During the evening, I heard numerous firecrackers around the campground (thankfully, none were _in_ the campground).  I noticed the sunset which I saw filtered through the trees surrounding the campground was one of the most beautiful I had ever seen.  Normally, I would have gotten in my car and sped off to shoot some sunset photos.  Yet, I was so tired from my late night the previous night and from the long drive that I didn’t even bother to do that, nor to watch the city’s fireworks display on the capitol.  With my earplugs, I even managed to sleep all through the main fireworks.

Yesterday morning, I awoke a bit late – around 8 am – and quickly broke camp and ate some cereal.  I didn’t bother making coffee as I didn’t want to “waste” the time of boiling the water for the coffee.  I wanted to shower, get coffee on the road, fill up gas, and quickly see the state capitol before headed to Montana.  I had to make a decision as to which way to go through Montana towards Glacier.

I found a Starbucks and got some much-needed espresso and filled my tank up with gas.  The capitol was nearby, so I drove around it and took a couple pictures.  The capitol is so unusual.  In this city without skyscrapers, it is the tallest building around (I counted 20 stories) and is not at all the style of a typical state capitol.  It is, indeed, a beautiful art deco building – which I imagine was built in the early 30s.

After seeing the capitol and a nice statue of Sakakawea and her kid, I got onto I-94 and headed west.  I drove my usual speed limit + 10%.  In North Dakota (and Montana) that can really get you going far quickly.  After a couple hours, I stopped at a Rest Area overlooking Teddy Roosevelt National Park and spent some time wandering around, taking photos, visiting the information center.

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North Dakota State Capitol

I wish I had more time to explore more of this park, especially at sunrise and sunset to see the beautiful lighting effects on the colors.  Though, time is getting dearer now, and I had to get going into Montana.  Once I crossed the state line, I stopped at the visitor information center outside Wibaux, MT.  A friendly Montanan woman helped me decide on some routes to Glacier area.  The quickest would be to cut across state highway 200, yet some historic towns and landmarks were on I-94.  I kinda had my heart set on going the freeway route to visit a couple sites along the way.  That route took me quite a bit longer than I’d liked, but I’m glad I did it.  I stopped in a couple old timey Western towns.  You’d think they were out of a movie backlot, yet they’re real towns with real people.  Some of these little towns have populations less than 1000 – yet they had anywhere from 5-10 bars/taverns.  I guess there’s not much else to do once the cowboys have rustled up their cattle.  At Miles City, I stopped at the outstanding Range Riders Museum.  This fairly large museum told the story of living in Montana during the great cowboy days of the 1870s-1880s.  Many artifacts and photos were on display, diaramas, a huge gun collection (which was most interesting as it had been donated by an old man who collected these guns since 1927 and he personally wrote some of the descriptions of the artifacts on display which made it seem like he was walking you through the gun collection himself).

I spent an hour and a half at this place – eating into my driving time.  Yet, I’m very happy that I saw this museum.  I learned qutie a bit more about cowboy life than I expected.  After another hour or so, I stopped at Pompey’s Monument, which is 30 miles outside Billings.  When Lewis and Clark came back across the U.S. to St. Louis – they split up and explored a couple different routes.  Capt. Clark took the southern Yellowstone route and found this large rock sitting in this valley.  He and his party ascended it, and he even carved his name in the sandstone.  To this day, his name is still there!  His name has been covered in glass and is under 24 hour video surveillance.  I wanted to see this historical treasure – so I paid the entrance fee and wandered around the nice visitor’s center before strolling through the yards (the picnic area was severaly flooded by the Yellowstone River) and climbed up a set of stairs to see his carving.  Quite amazing that this is still preserved.  I’m very happy to have seen this.

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After seeing this area for 45 minutes or so, I decided to head to Billings for the night rather than driving to Bozeman.  Billings was only 20 minutes away and Bozeman was 2 1/2 hours.  Being 6:30 PM, I figured I’d find a hotel (it was kinda too hot to camp) downtown and a microbrewery for brews and dinner.  In town, I found this wonderful little old hotel in downtown called the Dude Rancher Lodge.  The place was right out of a 1950s western national park architecture book.  Such a treasure for this city.  It was built in 1949 and is now on the National Register.  Thankfully, they’ve installed air-conditioning and modern washrooms and beds.  Everything else is the same as it was in the 50s.  I checked in and walked a bit around downtown before finding the Montana Brewing Company about 4 blocks away.  I settled in at the bar and pulled out my maps.  I swear this is the best conversation starter.  No sooner had I sipped my IPA when the man sitting next to me asked about my travels.  I explained where I’d been.  When I got to the part about driving through the boundary waters canoeing area in ON/MN – his eyes lit up and he told me about his experiences canoeing.  He had been a guide for 20 years at a camp ground near Int’l. Falls.  In fact, he even led his two twin sons and two of their buddies on a 61 day adventure in the Canadian arctic along the rivers in NW Territories to the Arctic Ocean – in canoes!  We sat and talked for a couple hours about this great adventure.  By 11, I headed out and walked to the hotel and crashed for the night.

Montana State Capitol - Helena

Montana State Capitol – Helena

Today, I am setting out (a bit late, as I slept in again) to get as close to Glacier National Park as I can.  The only planned stop before then is the state capitol in Helena (Bozeman will have to wait for another trip).  I have a couple options to get up there from Helena – so I’ll let my mood and the highway help me make that decision later today.  The one problem is that the beautiful Going To The Sky highway through Glacier Park is closed due to snow, and I’m hearing that it won’t be opened all year.  So, I need to figure out ways to see some beautiful areas south of the park.  No worries – I’ve got plenty of tourist/guide info to study as I get closer.

It’s off to the Rockies I go!!

Glacier to Seattle

July 9, 2011

Yesterday (Friday), I sat in the Ford dealership in Kalispell, MT awaiting my car to get an oil change and did some writing.  In the waiting room with me were a retired couple from Chehalis, WA and a man next to me who’s from Olympia, WA, and this younger gal from Texas.  Quite a fun chat we had as we watched the president deliver his jobs report and the impending Space Shuttle launch.  My car needed its 5k service (plus rotation of tires) and a new Ford dealer has apparently opened in Kalispell, so it seemed to be a great place to do the serivce as I made my way across the Bitterroots over the Columbia Plateau and across the Cascades to Puget Sound country.

After get an unfortunate late start to leaving Billings a couple days ago, I drove across south central Montana through Bozeman and up to Helena.  I ran into some of the worst construction in various areas along my chosen route.  One stretch for 9 miles on a state highway had just been oiled with a thick layer of gravel put on top.  I drove 35 mph following a group of five other cars getting rocks and tar thrown up at me.  I had about 1/4 of rock tarred onto my wheels by the time I got out of the construction.  And, as anyone who’s driven through Montana can also say, I got a couple small chips on my windshield – though thankfully nothing serious.  Battle scars from my road trip, I guess.

At Helena, I quickly stopped at this beautiful old cathedral downtown which seemed like something from Koln, Germany.  I also stopped at the capitol (which is not in the downtown core, interestingly) and walked around inside.  I felt like looking up the governor to complain about all the road construction I’d encountered in MT – but I imagine he wouldn’t want to hear complaints about it as he’s sucking up all that federal money to pay for these projects.

After breezing through Helena, I made a last-minute decision to take some backroad state highways up the west side of the continental divide along some large lakes and state parks.  I decided on camping out at a nice private campground along the lake in Seeley Lake.  Quite a pretty little spot, alas I was just there for an overnight with no exploring.  After cooking some Beef-A-Roni and having a beer or two, I crashed in the tent.

Yesterday morning, I got up and took a nice shower at the campground facilities before setting out to Glacier National Park – which was only a couple hours away.  The drive up was quite pleasant.  In West Glacier, I decided to get a tent site at the very very nice KOA campground.  I set up my tent and made a sandwich for lunch at the site before going into the park.  The Going to the Sun highway was closed after 16 miles (meaning, the beautiful sections at Logan Pass are closed due to heavy snow) – yet I still wanted to explore as much I could.  Since the pass was closed, all the tourists were also figuring out how to spend their time in the few areas open – which meant those areas were packed jam full of tourists from all over the U.S.  I noticed that there weren’t nearly as many foreign tourists as I saw in the beautiful parks of Jasper and Banff.

I poked around the Apgar Village visitor center and a couple shops for trinkets.  I debated taking a tour on one of the classic red White Motor Company tour buses – yet declined as I wanted to do a small hike.

I drove up the Going to the Sun road as far as I could – stopping at the busy Lake McDonald Lodge to tour it.  There were swarms of people milling about the beautiful grand foyer with old carvings and mounted animals.

After exploring the lodge and the “backyard” boat launch, I drove up to the furthest extent of Going to the Sun road about 16 miles up to the Avalanche Lake trailhead.  Being the end of the line for the road, this place was beyond packed with so many tourists trying to get in one of the two hikes there – an easy boardwalk hike through old growth cedar trees and a very wonderful 2 mile each way (with only 500 feet elevation gain!) to a truly outstanding beautiful lake.  I did both hikes.  I wasn’t too worried about wildlife since there were so many people on the trails.  Normally, I wouldn’t want to hike in a place like Glacier by myself.  I figured, rightly, though that today would be perfectly OK due to the number of people to ensure safety.  I hiked the two miles in 45-50 minutes or so, passing many people on the way up.

At the lake, I was stunned at the beauty.  Something about it was much more scenic than Lake Louise in Banff.  After hanging out and snapping lots of photos, I set out back down the trail and met quite a few people who were still headed up.  I noticed the skies turning darker with rain clouds approaching.  Back at the trailhead, all hell broke loose and a major wind and thunderstorm blew through the area.  I couldn’t believe how quickly the weather turned.  It is the mountains, after all.  The same thing happens here in WA on hikes.  I’m glad I made it back to the car before the storm hit.

I drove back down the road and stopped to look at Lake McDonald in this storm.  Huge waves were crashing onto the shore as if it were Lake Michigan in October.  Quite amazing.

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Lake MacDonald – Glacier National Park

I had a few hours until sunset (which was a question even if I’d see it due to the storm), so I stopped at a local watering hole and sat at the bar with my maps.  Again – the maps started up a conversation with the man sitting next to me.  He was a retired guy from Indiana.  He and his wife stay the summers in Glacier.  We sat and talked and talked and talked about U.S. travel.  It was wonderful to share travel stories with him.  He and his wife seem to have explored quite a bit of this beautiful country.  Around 9 PM, I noticed the skies were breaking up a bit.  Sunset was 9:39 PM, so I decided to pay my tab and go back to Lake McDonald for some sunset shots.  Boy – am I sure glad I did.  The way the sunset hit the lingering thunderstorm clouds and the mountain and the lake reflection.  It was truly a phenomenal sunset.

After snapping tons of photos with the tripod and enjoying the pleasant cool atmosphere, I went to a different watering hole (the one I previously was at closed at 10 PM) and found that they do not take debit cards.  I only had $6 in paper currency left as I hadn’t seen a Bank of America ATM machine since Minneapolis.  So – without paper currency, I went back to my tent site, quickly cooked a pot of canned spaghetti, had a beer, washed the dishes and went to sleep.  It was a damp dark night – yet I was very very happy with the day.

The next day (the last day of my trip), I awoke at 5 AM, jumped out of bed, looked at the sky (which wasn’t 100% cloudy), got in the car and drove back to the Lake McDonald viewing point where I watched sunset.  The sunrise was not nearly as dramatic as the sunset, though I’m glad I saw it.

I had decided the night before to set out to go back to Seattle after these sunrise photos.  I had one more stop to get the oil changed in my car (I had racked up nearly 5000 miles so far on the trip!).  The oil change was quicker than I thought, which is good.  I set out down some back highways from Kalispell down western Montana to I-90.  After getting on I-90, I drove across the Bitterroot Mountain range which divides Idaho and Montana, the panhandle of Idaho, and the entire state of Washington.  Quite a long day!  But – I made it back in time for happy hour at the Bottle Neck!

The trip was absolutely fantastic – more than I could have expected.  Now – I am relaxing at home this weekend and preparing for a long work week ahead.

Thanks for sticking along with me on my road trip adventure.

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