The Alberta Story

So, in February 2015 the company that I was working for was bought by a bigger company, and by May, I was laid off. Don’t fret! I has been looking forward to that day for quite some time and immediately set into motion plans I had made for the road trip to end all roads trips. If there was a national or state park this side of Kansas that I had ever thought about visiting, I was going to go to it. I was camping the whole time to save money and because I WANTED TO! I wanted to be out in it – out in the woods, out in the desert, out in the mountains, out in the canyons, out in the wild – for as long as possible. I dried food, kitted meals, packed and repacked the car and worked on taking just what I needed.

I REALLY wanted to go to the southwest. Monument Valley had been the landscape that inspired this whole thing. But when I was ready to go it was July. The southwest in July? Nope! North was the answer. North to Alberta and Banff and Yoho and Jasper and all that. That was the answer.

Banff was destination #1. I got a camping spot for a week in a campground surrounded by electrified wire fence because bears, bears, bears. I hiked my rear off in Banff. I went for an evening hike around Lake Moraine on my first night there only to find a newlywed couple in a canoe paddling around the lake. It’s a thing, I guess! Later in the week I hiked to a tea hut 3 miles into the wilderness to eat some chocolate cake and biscuits and, of course, drink some tea. I heard and felt the rumbles from glaciers calving deep in the mountains. It’s a sound that combines excitement with terror and makes all the fine hairs on your neck stand up.

Banff was my first taste of Canadian trail hospitality. When I ran into groups of other hikers, the second thing they would say to me was, “Hike with us!” The first thing was, “Are you hiking alone? Cool!” Everyone was curious about an American woman hiking and camping alone in Canada.

I spent a month in Alberta. Little did I know that my week in Banff would contain 4 out of the 6 completely dry days of the entire month. Lots of rain, some snow, lot and lots more rain and the edge of a tornado was on the horizon. I feel the need to state again, and for the record, that it was JULY. It snowed in JULY. JULY.

After Banff, I went up to Yoho. The Yoho campground is first-come-first-served, all spots are walk in and this place is very busy on the weekends. The parking area is about a quarter mile from the campground, but the park service provides big two wheeled carts to haul your gear in & out. I got lucky with a site facing Takakkaw Falls, a 1250’ waterfall that makes your eyes pop out while you mumble words like whoa, wow and gosh. My top two hikes for the entire 4 month camping trip were in Yoho. The Whaleback trail and The Iceline Trail. Get. Outta. Town. Those two trails were hard (Whaleback was a 21k round trip), but oooooooohhhhhhh man. Gorgeous. Spectacular. Phenomenal. Unforgettable. Whoa. Wow. Gosh.

I decided to do The Whaleback backwards. That way I could do the switchbacks late in the morning before the heat came rolling in. Just as I was cresting the last switchback, I saw this group of about 8 hikers taking a group photo on this tear jerking-ly scenic ledge. A woman was trying to stabilize her point ‘n’ shoot on a pile of rocks, and it kept tipping over when she pressed the shutter. I shuffled over and said to her, “Hey! I heard you were having trouble getting this group photo so I came right up!” I took their picture and hiked with them the rest of the day. They were a meet-up hiking club out of Edmonton. The woman who I joked with was a member of the Alpine Club of Canadian, which meant they got to stay at a backcountry hut. They were a ton of fun. It was a bummer when our trails finally went different ways.

I didn’t intend to do as much of the Iceline as I did (which was the whole thing). I was looking for a cutoff trail that would save me mile and miles, but I missed it. Not complaining – at all. I got to see some things that are making me smile as I write this, but early on I got caught in gusting wind, pouring rain and blowing fog. The storm blew through which gave me a sunny chunk of time to dry out, but the rains came back at the end of the hike for the long, flat stretch to the campground. When I finally rolled in, with about an hour of light left, the campground was quiet in the heavy rain. Just as I walked by the tent next to mine, the man in the tent zipped open his door and said, “Oh good. I was getting worried. Must have been a great hike! Tell me about it tomorrow.” This guy and his family had waved and said hello the day before, and I’d briefly chatted with him at the dish sink. Canadians campers are awesome.

After Yoho I doubled back south to catch some camping near Johnson Canyon and Lake Minnewanka. The rains kept up and caused landslides in Johnson Canyon so I missed that. I moved over the Two Jacks Campground near Minnewanka to camp in the rain over there. Early one morning, I had a strange encounter with a goat on a bridge. I was driving around to check out the other campgrounds when I saw this tall, scraggly goat walking down the middle of the bridge. I stopped the car and just sat there in my lane. The goat walked right at me. When it was about 15’ away, it stopped, stared at me, leaned forward, stood on all four of its tippy hooves and bared its teeth at me. I put the car in reverse and backed the hell away. What in the heck does that mean? I just sat there trying to look sweet and innocent. Anyway, the goat moved to the other lane and walked by me. I didn’t make eye contact. That guy was in the mood to kick ass, and I was in the mood to drink coffee so…he wins.

After all that I figured I’d head north to Jasper. I spent one night on the Icefields Parkway at the Waterfowl Lakes CG. That was the night it snowed. Mid-July. I wore all of my clothes that night, even my raincoat over my t-shirt, hoodie and puffy coat. I was like a little sausage in my cold, tight sleeping bag that night.

When I checked into the Jasper CG, the ranger told me that I should avoid being alone in the campground at night. Grizzles were actively hunting elk calves in the campground around dusk and later so…you know, don’t walk around at sunset or at night looking like a baby elk. Sooooo, I was alone. In general, I was hoping I looked nothing like a baby elk no matter what I was doing. I was an early tooth brusher and bathroom user that week. I didn’t see a single bear the whole time so I must have been doing something right.

That week I enjoyed the urban sprawl of Jasper. (Just in case you didn’t know, that was a joke.) I hit the used book store and scored hard! I did laundry, took showers, attended the Canadian National Parks festival (it was their 100 year anniversary) and geeked out with a ranger over caribou hair/fur specifically and about antlers in general.

I took a memorable hike up to the Sulfur Skyline Trail. I was in the middle of some tight, dense switchbacks (hiking alone this time) and heard a GIANT snort from a large mystery animal on the switchback below me. The giant snort was followed by a loud and alarmed, “Whoa!” from a male hiker. Then I heard fast movement and branches cracking, but I couldn’t tell if the mystery animal was coming at me up the hill or sideways or what…so I crouched in an athletic ready stance and waited on my tippy toes. The sound tapered off. Nothing happened. I resumed breathing and finished out the hike. The reward comes in two phases. #1: The views are spectacular. #2: Miette Hot Springs at the bottom of the trail. When I got back to the car, I dumped my pack, grabbed my suit, showered, hopped in the hot spring, showered again (!!) and watched all the mountain goats in the parking lot rub their rears on cars to pull off their winter coats. It was a good day. It rained every night I was in Jasper though. At the end of my week there, I decided that I needed to dry the heck out. I was going south.

I arrived in Dinosaur National Park in the badlands of the Canadian prairie lands where it was SUNNY and NOT RAINING! It was glorious. I put up my tent and made sure to stake it out so there wouldn’t even be a wet wrinkle left. I set out all of my gear to dry, too, then went for a hike around the badlands near the campground, cooked some dinner and, finally, didn’t feel clammy for the first time in weeks. Ahhhhh. Glorious.

A year or so prior to this trip, I chatted with a retired Canadian school teacher at a B&B in Vancouver, B.C. about Canadian National Parks (went up to see Fleetwood Mac. You heard me. EVERYONE was there, meaning everyone in the band, which is a long way to brag about seeing Stevie Nicks.) Dinosaur had been on my list ever since that talk with the retired Canadian school teacher. Cattle rustlers used the box canyons in the twisty badlands to hide cattle. The rustlers left behind all sorts of cowboy relics that’s still out there today. This was right up my alley.

After a completely warm and dry night of camping and a lazy morning of sitting in the sun while blissing out on the fact that all of my gear was still dry, I took off for the city of Drumheller. Around two and a half hours later I pulled up to the parking lot for Horseshoe Canyon. I had been listening to the local public radio station. It’s Canadian Public Radio! It’s awesome! Just as I went to turn off the car, an announcement came over the radio. There was a tornado warning in Calgary, about an hour and a half west of where I was in Drumheller. It was moving fast, bringing damaging winds, raining down golf ball size hail and should be in Drumheller within the hour. If you were caught outside during the tornado they recommended that you lay in a ditch so the wind didn’t blow you away. I guess you’d just have to take the beating from the hail while you were in the ditch… None of that sounded fun. As I sat in the car listening to the warning, I looked in my rear view mirror which was facing west. I saw an angry black band of weather on the horizon. I got out of the car, took one picture, got back in the car and drove like heck towards Dinosaur.

My car and my tent were my home at that point. The thought of either being caught in damaging winds or being pummeled by golf ball size hail was, you know, BS! Every few seconds my eyes would slip to my rearview mirror. A band of chaos as black as a black hole rode the horizon. This went on for 45 minutes or so until the winds caught up to me. It was moving fast. As the wind ran up behind, over, around and past Lady Bird, she shook, shimmied and lurched in unpredictable ways. I kept imagining my tent, my poor tent, with my nicely laid out ThermaRest, sleeping bag, pillow, book, pajamas and spare clothes all doing summersaults over the Alberta plains towards Montana. The thought made me squirm.

When I pulled into Dinosaur, the dust was flying and the trees were bending. As I entered the campground area, I was surprised to see tents bigger than mine still standing. Granted, those campers had re-parked their giant trucks or rigs in an effort to block wind damage to their nylon palaces (aka Coleman 8 person 2 room tents).

When I pulled into my spot, I was surprised to see my tent was still there. It was flat though, like the poles just flopped over, and the rain fly was flap, flap, flapping in the wind. The tent was actually doing a decent impression of chop on a lake. I parked Lady Bird so she could take the brunt of the wind as I inspected the tent. The wind was gusting heavily, and I held my hat on my head as I walked up. I was so tankful I had staked the tent down to dry. Something wasn’t right. I grabbed for a pole to lift the flat tent back up and that’s when I realized what had happened.

The fly is less porous than regular nylon. The surface of the rain fly had provided enough resistance to the wind that tent could not hold its convex shape. Instead, it became concave. The tent poles couldn’t go from convex to concave while in a nylon sleeve that was designed to make them go convex. That left one thing for the poles to do. Snap. Snap in the sleeve and push their ragged, jagged, sharp little edges through whatever bit of nylon might be in front of them. The tent was there all right, but it was ribbons. If you’ve ever been camping, you know a hole in the tent is hell. Actual rips and tears…Yeah, your tent is dead to you. This tent was dead to me. All my nicely laid out stuff was still in there though! And it was full of sand from the Alberta plains!

I drove over to the Ranger Station to ask about the nearest sporting goods store. I was informed that there was a Canadian Tire in a nearby town. After seeing the look on my face, the Ranger explained that Canadian Tire is more than just tires. Pretty soon I was in the tent aisle walking past a vast amount of nylon palace size tents down to the two person tent section. There were 2 two person tents to choose from. Me, the new tent and a giant bag of Reece’s Pieces went back to Dinosaur, this time to air out the new nylon scent of my shiny new tent.

I had had enough of Dinosaur, so the next day I packed up and headed out for Waterton Lakes National Park on the boarder of Glacier National Park in Montana. It was Sunday so I figured I could score a spot from a weekend warrior even if I arrived mid-day. Nope! Turns out that the early bird gets the worm AND the camping spot. I would have to luck into a spot at a perimeter campground somewhere around there. I was getting nervous around 3pm when I had been though about 6 little pocket campgrounds with zero luck. Then I saw a sign for a campground 16 miles down a packed earth & gravel road. I rolled the dice and got lucky. There were two spots left & I got one. I set up the new tent, cooked some dinner, read a book and drank a beer(s). The next day I would break for Waterton super early and score a spot for sure. It rained that night.

In the morning I woke up to a sound that I had never woken up to before. Mooing. Loud mooing. Nearby mooing. Really nearby mooing. The morning was a still, damp and chilly. The light was in mid-change from not quite light to almost light and there was all this mooing. It was obviously time to make some coffee.

Turns out I was in a free range area, and it was a free range free for all. The cows I heard were in the woods about 100 yards behind my camp spot, but they weren’t the only cows. There were other cows. As I drove the 16 miles back to the main roads, I passed running cows, playing cows, resting cows, chill cows, staring cows, cows that wouldn’t move out of the road, cows that stiffly moved two inches at a time while staring me down as I drove by, irrational cows, belligerent cows and cows with authority defiant disorder.

Sure enough, I scored a great little spot in Waterton that morning. Good thing, too, because just after I got there it started lightly raining. I decided it was a town day. Laundry, book store, grocery store and dry indoor spaces sounded great. I pulled out my cooler and food box to take stock and organize for the town trip. Just as I was getting ready to pack the car again, my campsite neighbors backed out of their spot and stopped in front of mine. They sat there a minute, then the truck window rolled down. A woman called to me. “’We’re going into town. Do you need some ice?” Have I mentioned that I love camping in Canada? Even if it rains every single day, it’s still really good.

The trip to town was fruitful. I also ate the heck out of some fried chicken. I was booked passage on a boat that takes you up Upper Waterton Lake to the Crypt Lake trailhead. Crypt Lake is an icon of Wateron Lakes NP, partly because it’s so hard to get to – unless you take the boat. But the boat only sails twice a day so if you miss the boat…well, don’t miss the boat.

After another rainy night, I was ready for a sunny hike to Crypt Lake. The boat was full of all sorts of hikers, but I ended up hiking with a bunch of newbie gal Rangers from Dinosaur! There’s a cool portion of the trail just before the lake where you have to scramble up a steel rod ladder bolted to the rock, stoop, duck walk and squirm your way through a tight and dim natural tunnel, only to pop out on the other side where you have to shimmy down a steel rod ladder back to the trail. It’s pretty great. Lots of people stop once they are at Crypt Lake for lunch, rest, pics, but there’s a short-ish trail that goes around the lake. The cool part is when you are at the very most southern part, you are technically in the U.S. You can cross the border without Border Control! Ha!

I didn’t have much time to rest since I had illegally crossed the border. Plus, I really didn’t want to miss the boat back to town. I hustled down the trail with a new group, and made it with plenty of time. The boat ended up wait past our launch time for two older ladies from Montana that we KNEW were still on the trail. They showed up to – literally – to a boat load of sighs of relief.

I got back to my campsite earlier than normal. For a while there, as I sat by my campfire and read my book, I thought I was going to have a night without rain. Just for a while though. The light changed and I knew. I quickly got my dinner cooking. Not quick enough though. I ended up eating pasta that could only dream of being al dente one day. I was hunched over with my raincoat hood up so my little bag of pasta didn’t fill with rain water. My camp spot neighbors were in their trailer, and I could see them in there playing cards. The woman looked over at me as I finished eating. She gave me a sad, sad look then reached up to close the blinds. It was a pitiful sight. I could feel it.

The next day I hiked the #3 hike of my entire trip. The Carthew-Alderson trail. This was a gem! I met Harold and Linda early on and hiked with them all day. Harold told me a story about trying to put up his tent in a wind/rain storm in the Canadian Rockies before it blew off a ledge and across the valley. We bonded instantly.

This Carthew-Alderson trail though….whoa. So fun. Dotted with cobalt blue alpine lakes set in granite cirques, dense evergreen forest that gives way to barren ridges of shale slabs, full face views of geologically fascinating mountains and peak-a-boo views of the plains. This. Trail. Is. Great. The wind was so nuts on the ridge that you had to make sure to put one foot in front of the other with purpose. If you just walked all willy-nilly-normal-like, the wind would blow your leg perpendicular to the trail and you are on a RIDGE. Not good. I switched out my ball cap for a beanie and it almost blew the beanie off my head!

When I got back to my campsite that night, it wasn’t raining! I started a fire, opened a beer, made some dinner, grabbed my book and basked in the dry air. My campsite neighbor walked by on the way to the restroom. We did the head nod thing. On his way back he slowed down and waved. He wanted to talk to me. I looked up at him and nodded again so he walked into my campsite. “Where do you go every day?” he asked. “Hiking!” I answered. He invited me over to their campsite for a beer. I guess I had been a topic of conversation over there: A lady on her own who disappears all day, eats sad meals in the rain and does it all over again. They were friends with the campsite next to them so I ended up visiting with 6 people who wanted to know all about what I was doing, where I had been, where I was going next and what the heck I was doing camping all by myself. They kept giving me Bud Lights so they heard all about Banff, Yoho, the Icefields Parkway, Jasper and Dinosaur. They even heard stories about my side trips to Shuswap Lake, Glacier National Park of Canada, Revelstoke National Park and Spray Valley Provincial Park between the big parks. The only thing that saved them from more stories, and me from more Bud Light, was the rain.

A day or so later I was driving south to the Montana border and Glacier National Park. My month long adventure in Alberta was at an end. As I drove south I wondered what would be in store for me if I decided to stay a little longer. More tornadoes? Snow again? Earthquake? Does Alberta have volcanoes? I knew there would be rain for sure. Southbound sounded good.

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