Have you ever wanted to sell everything you own and just "take off?" Travel the country's back roads, paddle down a meandering stream, experience breath-taking mountain views, walk among 100-year old trees, and just marvel at America's beauty? That is the dream that my partner, Betsy, and I decided to make a reality. This blog describes our adventure. The food we eat, people we meet, sights we see, and the enjoyment we find in traveling.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Destination Tea House - Not Your Average Hike

So this is how our day started off with a hike to…of all places…a tea house.  We left the motorhome at 6 a.m. with sleep still in our eyes but hot coffee in our hands.  A warm flannel shirt helped cut the morning chill.  We knew this popular hike would be filled with people later in the morning and wanted some Rocky Mountain peace to ourselves.  The lure of listening to morning songbirds instead of complaining urban hikers was what propelled us to lace up our shoes before the sun rose over the mountain.
It was hard to leave the serenity of Lake Louise.
The trail begins at the emerald waters of Lake Louise where you leave the bustling Chateau Lake Louise
(a.k.a., the Fairmont Hotel) behind and quickly plunge into the forested and serene part of your journey.  Our plan worked.  We were the only ones on the trail which was surprising as the parking lot the day before in the afternoon looked like a super-sized used car lot.  There was a little apprehension when we passed the “Be Cougar Aware” sign and warned of recent sightings. The most disheartening thing about the sign was that the cat was pouncing.  And then there was the confession I made to Betsy that there was a 1,000 plus foot elevation gain in this 4 ½-mile trail.  She scowled at the revelation but agreed to proceed.

The trail is discouraging and disheartening as every time you look ahead you see UP.  Not straight up mind you, but still it is up.  The quiet walk in the dense woods is worth the pain you feel in your butt and thighs because of the beauty you witness hiking in the Rockies.

Within a kilometer of our final destination our senses were illuminated with the beautiful clear waters of Mirror Lake.  We unleashed the Spirit and let her break the glass-like surface of the lake.  And we were all alone! 

Not a bad view!  And the tea tasted good too.
With a happy, wet dog we proceeded further up and deeper into the woods.  Finally, we emerged at the gorgeous Lake Agnes and laid eyes on the famous tea house that brought us up the mountain well before we had drained the coffee pot.  The original tea house was built in 1905 and replaced with a more modern functional building in 1981.  The outdoor patio was a restful place for our legs while Spirit found the lake a wonderful playground.  Best of all, we were the only people there.  We joked on the way up that the tea house was probably closed on Sunday and that is why no one else was on the trail.  But much to our delight the door was open and we were cheerfully greeted by a nice young cook who had biscuit dough coating her hands.  She informed us that the tea house was not open for another twenty minutes.  We were willing to wait (because after all, we did hike to a tea house) but the nice young cook offered to put on a pot of water for us after she washed her doughy hands.  She was ever so sweet to oblige and we had a great chat with her while the blueberry tea steeped.  Curious, we asked how she got to work every day…did she walk, come by horseback, helicopter, or how.  Nope, she lives up there.  Now we felt bad for intruding so early.  She laughed and said 20 minutes was not that early some people come at 5 a.m. to watch the sunrise.  She threatened to approach them in her pink pj’s and tell them to keep down the noise the cook was sleeping. 

Sorry little Spirit, time to head back down.
It was time to leave so Betsy brought in our empty tea cups and kettle and as she approached the swinging kitchen doors she witnessed the glorious site of a sheet pan of flaky, warm biscuits emerging from a hot oven.  Again, the nice young cook obliged our desire for these gifts from heaven and brought us two biscuits and jam as we sat overlooking a valley all alone.  She nicely served us a good 20 minutes before the tea house was actually open.   Thank you nice young cook. 

I said earlier that the pain of ascending was worth it because of the surrounding natural beauty, but now I am going to correct myself.  It is also the hot home-made biscuit coated with butter and sweet jam that made it worth it.  O.k., so the scenery and biscuit complemented each other and made this a splendid morning that Betsy and I will not soon forget.  As for Spirit…two lakes to swim in, a taste of biscuit, and many pats as we past hordes of people on our descent rocked her little dog world.  

Lake Louise looks milky-green from far above.

Friday, July 26, 2013

"Head Smashed-In" and the "Mounties" - Fort Macleod, Alberta

When I heard of an attraction in Alberta called “Buffalo Jump Head Smashed-In” I just knew we had to go there.  The nearest town to this crazy named UNESCO World Heritage Site was Fort MacLeod, Alberta which had an attraction of its own – a mounted police barracks – perfect, two attractions that could keep us busy for a two-night stopover. 

The museum is built into the hillside and is architecturally impressive.
Buffalo Jump Head Smashed-In is a perfectly descriptive title for a place where Indians actually coerced stampeding bison to jump off a cliff.  This method of hunting was very successful resulting in the death of entire bison herds that often numbered well into the hundreds.  Now that you understand the “jump” part, where does the “Smashed-In” come from.  You might think that it relates to the
violent death that the bison incurred from falling off a rock cliff, but you would be wrong.  It actually comes from a young boy who wanted to witness the bison jump from below the cliff.  The hunt was exceptionally good on that day and more bison made the plunge than expected.  When the tribe began removing the bison for butchering they found the young boy had his head smashed-in from the weight of all the bison.  I am not making this up!  And no, my joyful reunion with wine (after leaving Mormon country) is not causing an imagination explosion.  In fact, this particular jump is just one of many that were used in this area and is thought to be one of the oldest and best preserved jumps in North America.  
Buffalo jumps date back 6,000 years and were an effective technique at killing bison during this time that predates horses and guns.  Other mass killing methods included driving them into corrals and water crossings, but none were as effective.  At the Buffalo Jump Head Smashed-In site alone over 100,000 bison were killed throughout its use.  Today the buffalo jump is commemorated in a five-story interpretive center and trail on the grounds.  

The museum also tells the story of the demise of these once prevalent animals that iconically represent the North American west.  When white man arrived, they slaughtered the bison with their guns as they shot them for sport from horses and trains, often leaving the carcasses where they lay.  Naturalist John J. Audubon commented in 1843 that "before many years the Buffalo, like the Great Auk, will have disappeared..."  While the native people used all parts of the bison, the white man exploited them.

The Interpretive Center shows a great movie entitled “Pis’kun – The Buffalo Jump” that recreates the process of the buffalo jumps.  The bison herd was driven towards the cliff through “drive lanes” defined by evenly spaced cairns with waving branches stuck upright in them.  Since bison don’t see well, this formed a barrier that they would not cross.  As the drive lane got closer to the cliff it narrowed, concentrating this in the specified location.  Bison are protective of their calves and when a lone calf becomes separated the herd moves to protect the calf.  A young Indian man adorns himself in a bison skin to represent the lone calf.  Once he gets the herds attention, he moves down the drive lane.  All the while two other men, dressed in wolf skins, stay behind the herd encouraging them to protect the calf.  Soon a frenzy erupts and the stampeding herd is led down the drive lane, and just before the cliff, the boy dressed as the calf steps outside the drive lane to safety but the bison are left to continue over the cliff.

View from atop the cliff 
This view from below the cliff shows the drop-off which was estimated at 60 feet.
Remember, do not stand under the cliff when the buffalo drive is taking place or you'll
get your head-smashed-in!
Wolf skin with picture of young hunter.

Our next day in Ft. Macleod was not filled with so much death.  Although we have been having fun with the "head smashed-in" phrase.  Such as the other day when we got home from the grocery and our "bread was smashed-in," or the women who cut me off in the parking lot and I threatened "to smash her head-in," or when I made a turkey sandwich with "cranberry sauce smashed-in" the bread. Enough said - I think you get the picture!

Just down the street from the RV park (or dump as we called it) was the Fort Museum of the North West Mounted Police (which adopted the name Royal Canadian Mounted Police in 1920).  The “Mounties” as they are affectionately called established an outpost in 1874 in an attempt to institute law and order to the unsettled western Canadian frontier.  The fort today is a replica of that fort and features a museum, dioramas, riding arena, and Indian exhibits that tell the story of the Mounties and the Indians that lived in the area.

One of the real draws to this museum for us was the "Musical Ride."  One of the first Musical Rides took place in Fort Macleod in 1876.  For 40 years, the museum has featured a Musical Ride that features riders dressed in colorful replica uniforms and executing intricate patterns that exhibit the horsemanship of the Mounties.  The 40-minute performance was entertaining and gave Betsy the chance to get horse smell on her hands (which she likes by the way).

We did like the maple leaf design that is brushed into all the horses rumps.
We had read that historic downtown was a great place for a stroll so we ventured over after our Mountie experience.  The historic downtown has restored buildings dating back to the turn of the century but is extremely dead on a Sunday afternoon.  In fact, I am not sure that it ever gets hoppin’ so our sightseeing was over and off to the grocery we went.  But we did like the town's Mountie humor that was displayed around town.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Ain't No Beer Wagon in Cardston, Alberta

Sometimes we find ourselves in some unusual places.  Ahh, and the things we learn.  Like the other day when we were wandering around a Mormon temple - the first of its kind built outside of the United States.  What were we doing there?  Well, we came to Cardston, Alberta to see the Remington Carriage Museum – an impressive facility with the largest display of horse-drawn carriages in North America (but more on that in a minute, back to the temple) – and ended up driving by the Alberta Temple.  The towering grey granite stone temple is hard to miss as it shines in this rural setting of rolling hills and ranches.  

The temple is constructed of white granite quarried from a site near Kootenai Lakes in Nelson, British Columbia and
every stone was hand-hewn. 

So, us being ones that like to explore, we pulled into the parking lot and strolled up to the entrance.  Quickly we realized our wardrobe of shorts, Life Is Good t-shirts, and Chaco sandals were not the appropriate dress.  The other visitors were decked out in summer sun dresses and suits and ties.  We were not deterred...and proceeded anyway to an "Information Centre" and found a welcoming place that greeted people just like us - non members of the church.  It turns out that only advanced Mormons are allowed to enter the temple so they constructed a visitor center that all are welcome in.  We were greeted by 2 zealous Mormons, but especially nice.  They had been married 58 years, and of course the Mormons believe that you are married for eternity (not just until death do you part), so here's hoping they still get along in their after lives!  We actually learned a lot more about Mormonism, took photos, collected our Book of Mormon that they gave us free of charge (we like freebies) and meandered around the grounds. 

Just so happened we were there when a wedding was taking place; hence, the well-dressed folks.
The announcement to build the temple occurred in 1913 and is only one of three temples worldwide that has no spires.
Our "interpreters" Arlene and Ed.  They were great.
Back at the RV park I started reading my pamphlet on the Prophet Joseph Smith (I wasn't ready for the big blue book yet) and was very intrigued with the story.  I have known Mormons before but was not very familiar with their beliefs or history.  One thing I was familiar with is that they do not drink alcohol or caffeine.  The caffeine I am o.k. with but the alcohol was dampening my spirits since I was out of wine and there were no liquor stores in this predominantly Mormon town.  Oh well, no wine that night but I did have beer.  Our RV park neighbors invited us to go to a live theater production of Annie downtown (put on by the Mormons because they say the actors are really good) but we decided to stay at the campsite, toast the Mormons with beer, and enjoy the campground!  I wonder if “The Book of Mormon” is next up on the marque.
In front of the museum and paddock is a statue of George Woolf .
He was a famous jockey who rode "Seabiscuit" into the record books.

The Museum is named after Don Remington who
donated his personal collection to start the museum.
Now let me return to the carriage museum I mentioned earlier and the real reason we came to this tiny southern Alberta town.  This museum is quite an incredible array of horse-drawn carriages that come in all sizes and shapes ranging from surreys, sleighs, hearses, milk wagons, stagecoaches, “cabs”, and everything in between.  There are over 250 specimens displayed in the 65,000- square-foot museum.  The museum opened in 1995 yet still maintains up-to-date interactive exhibits, videos, artifacts, a working restoration shop, and stables to house a band of horses that draw the carriages.  The museum starts visitors off with an informative movie about the history, use, construction, and operation of horse-drawn transportation.  It even elaborates on the filth and stench that came along with a city full of horses pulling carriages.  There
was even a water carriage built to clean the manure and urine from the streets.  Sorry, I just had to throw that in.

As you meander through the museum you get the feel of being transformed back to a time when ladies wore long skirts, men wore top hats, and transportation was slow and not all that comfortable.  A far cry from today when we buzz down the highway comfortably sitting in air conditioning or, like us, living in our oversized “carriage.”

This "Hotel Coach" (built in 1866) was used to transport guests arriving in Stowe, Vermont from the station to the mountain resort.

Of course, the chuck wagons and sheep wagons would be included in this museum.

It seems the most elaborate carriage is ridden by those who don't even care what it looks like.
The hearse!
Personally, I think these school wagons (the green and black ones on the left) look more like paddy wagons than something used to transport kids to school.  But I'm o.k., with that.
Cardston was settled by Mormons (Charles Ora Card to be exact) in 1887 who came north from Utah in one of Americas' last large wagon migrations and ironically it is the wagon (or carriage) museum that keeps the heritage alive.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Waterton Lakes National Park, Canada

Betsy and I were captivated with Glacier National Park (NP) in Montana and just knew we had to pay a visit to the other half of this International Peace Park - our Canadian neighbor called Waterton Lakes NP.  Together these magnificent spectacles of the Rocky Mountains form the first ever International Peace Park and are the inspiration for numerous other Peace Parks around the world.

The view from atop the Bears Hump trail looking south down Upper Waterton Lake towards
the United States (center) and MiddleWaterton Lake (to the left)
In 1901, when the famous American Conservationist George Bird Grinnell (and the founding father of Glacier NP) proclaimed this area to be the “Crown of the Continent,” he was likely referring to the region’s ecological and geographical importance.  Waters from within these parks are considered the headwaters of the continent and reach as far away as Hudson Bay, the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific ocean.  Waterton Lakes NP was established in 1895 and Glacier NP came along a little later in 1910.  The early founders of these parks realized that no man-made boundary or border can separate the waters and wild things that join these two parks.  Conservationists quickly agreed that an international border “in such a place of grandeur” was artificial and unwanted.  After all, wildlife knows no international boundaries and they don’t carry passports.

Our first day in the park was filled with awesome wildlife sightings that included none other than a black bear with two playful cubs.  I couldn't help but think poor ol’ Waterton NP is up against some pretty tough competition as Glacier NP provided some pretty incredible wildlife sightings including black and grizzly bears, moose, bighorn sheep, elk, and mountain goats with kids…just to name a few. 

What is so spectacular about Waterton Lakes NP is how the rugged mountains tower to the sky over the sparkling aqua blue lakes and sharply contrast the rolling prairies.  In comparison to its American counterpart, Waterton Lakes NP is considerably smaller but offers just as much punch.  The mountains are jagged, rough, and foreboding.  A handful of captivating lakes dot the landscape and exhibit a mesmerizing blue color that you can’t believe exists in nature.

One of the most prominent man-made features of the park is the Prince of Wales Hotel.  The iconic hotel sits perched on a windswept bluff looking down Waterton Lake, over the town, and through the mountainous valley. The stately hotel was completed in 1927 and was the sole Canadian link in a chain of resort hotels built by the Great Northern Railroad supplying new adventures for exploring tourists.

The distinctive green roof of the hotel is one of the identifiable characteristics.  Building the hotel was a challenge, especially the high winds that frequent the area and blew the building off center twice.
The soaring roofs, gables and balconies were designed to convey the appearance of an alpine chalet.
The rustic timber framed interior carries out the alpine chalet theme with a cozy atmosphere.
Hiking trails have given us the opportunity to gawk at natural waterfalls, dip our toes in clear streams, marvel at rock formations and smell the balsam scent that permeates the forests.  Summer brings the wildflowers alive and it is as if they are competing for the “best-in-show” award as they sparkle in the summer sun creating a cascading spectrum of colors.  

While the Bears Hump trail is a short 1.8 miles, the 738-foot elevation gain gives you a good workout.  The view makes the pain worth it.

But, one of the best features of Waterton Lakes NP is the abundant wildlife which is so up-close and personal.  Every day we spent in the park we were treated to another “Wild Kingdom” experience and were lucky enough to see bears every day.  And let’s face it, of all the magnificent sights in these parks, we all want to see the charismatic mega fauna.

Bighorn sheep
Young bison
The tiny town of Waterton is located within the park boundary and a bustling hub for tourists seeking all types of activities.  A quick stroll through town provides everything from eateries, shopping, lodging, water sports, scooter rentals, hiking/biking trails and much more.  We opted for window shopping but were tempted by the ice cream parlor.

Once again we found a place that captivated us for our entire visit and we were sad to leave.  But, by leaving we will find more adventure and, I'm sure, other places that we will enjoy just as much.  So far the Canadian Rockies have not disappointed us.  And Spirit seems to be enjoying herself quite well.

One can never be too cautious around a strange cairn.