Making tracks ... across Canada (Part 2)
Rail journey aboard the Rocky Mountaineer
Rocky Mountaineer train
Despite all this, we still arose at 05.45 and readied our luggage for our trip on the Rocky Mountaineer from Banff to Vancouver. We arrived at the station on schedule for the planned 08.00 kick off, only to discover that there would be a two hour delay since the trip to Calgary (to turn the train round) and back would take longer than usual because of the weather. The staff of the Rocky Mountaineer successfully commandeered a conference/banqueting room in a local hotel and parked all 600 of us there, with coffee and pastries provided, until it was time to embark on the train.
As if in compensation for the previous day’s weather, we were treated to what we were told was the best day of the entire season: a clear sky of cerulean blue, bright sunshine and the snow glistening on the peaks and slopes of the Rockies – we spent several hours gawping in wonder at this majestic sight.
Rocky Mountains covered in snow
Over the next two days we travelled some 600 miles, stopping overnight and detraining in Kamloops. Along the way we passed a number of splendidly named points, including Skuzzy Creek, Hell’s Gate, Rainbow Canyon, Avalanche Valley and Jaws of Death Gorge). The scenery featured lakes, rivers, gorges, mountains, bridges and forests and the train’s onboard staff kept us entertained with stories of the railway, the places we passed through (for example the station at Lake Louise, built in 1909, featured in the film Doctor Zhivago) and the individuals, both honest and criminal, who featured in the history of the area.
Scenery viewed from aboard the Rocky Mountaineer
Tweedsmuir Bear Lodge, Bella Coola
We arrived in Vancouver in the early evening and after food and sleep, set off for the airport for our flight to Bella Coola en route to Tweedsmuir Bear Lodge. Whilst at the airport we met Gary, who lived in Bella Coola. Like many of the Canadians we met on our journey, he was open, friendly and willing to share his knowledge with complete strangers, which helped pass the period before boarding.
Our flight, in a twin prop, set off under grey skies but about two thirds of the way, and 20 minutes or so before landing, we came out into clear sunshine and were therefore given a wonderful view as the plane wended its way between the Coastal Range mountains before touching down on the airstrip.
Following our transfer to, and lunch at, Tweedsmuir, we set off for our first activity, known as drifting. Basically this involves two people and a guide in a small boat, whose progress down the Atnarko river is mainly determined by the flow of the water. Given the variability of water depth (a couple of feet to a couple of inches), the guide is equipped with an oar to help past the shallow bits … or indeed to assist in evasive action if a bear should get too close! This was a pleasant way of passing an afternoon, and we did have a partial bear sighting – we could see the shape of a bear and its cub in bushes on the shoreline, but not with great clarity, and it scarpered at the sound of our approach. At this point my good lady, in full Cassandra mode, decided that we were unlikely to see any more (probably based on our tiger-hunting experience, when we had a sighting on day one and none on days two to ten!) How wrong she was! We also saw bald eagles and salmon (basically the afternoon covered air, land and water!)
Heron, Tweedsmuir Lodge
The following morning our planned activity was described as a nature walk, which is in reality looking for bears on land and theoretically a rather more nerve-wracking experience, given that the basic safety instruction is not to do what instinct tells you to do if confronted by one, namely turn tail and get the heck out of there. Our guide, Ellie, had a life-long passion for the wilderness and its flora and fauna and had studied wildlife, particularly bears, with some of Canada’s best known naturalists and experts. We found her a fascinating source of knowledge, though we did have to draw her attention to the fact that she had been sent out in charge of 145 years’ worth of British pensioner, meaning that we were not ideally equipped for activities such as scrambling across rock faces.
We nevertheless had an enjoyable morning and finished up at an area called The Confluence (the joining of the Atnarko and Bella Coola rivers), where I achieved what I regard as a significant triumph by spotting a bear before Ellie did (though to be absolutely honest her view may have been obscured!). Bear spotting is not unduly difficult; for much of the time they are wandering about happily in search of food in full view. Failing this the wise tourist focuses on large-ish dark lumps either on land or in bushes. If the lump moves it’s a bear, if it doesn’t it’s a rock or a dead piece of wood! Anyway the bear I spotted heaved itself out from behind the rock where it was partially hidden, and went for a walk… fortunately towards us. Thoughtfully, it took its time, allowing for the tourist photographic experience, until it reached a point almost opposite us, just some 10 yards or so away on the other side of the river. Having posed for further photos it turned round and trundled off back whence it came, and we too trundled off whence we came, in search of lunch. In the afternoon we went drifting again, and were rewarded with further sightings, though rather more distant.
Bear spotting from Tweedsmuir Lodge
Our next day was a full day out with Doug, a laid-back fellow with more than 20 years’ experience, and from whom the expression “Holy Smoke” did not seem out of place. The weather was not at its finest (to be honest it rained for quite a lot of the day) but we checked out the usual bear-sighting spots (and saw a black bear up a tree) and spent some time discussing the life cycle of the salmon, of which there are five different varieties in British Columbia (Chinook, Chum, Coho, Pink and Sockeye) – in many cases the life cycle terminates abruptly when it is spotted by a hungry bear! We drove to Bella Coola, where the main drag down to the water acts as the dividing line between the residences of the First Nations people and those of the European later arrivals. We also visited a slightly spooky forest full of Western Red Cedars.
Our final full day started with another morning of drifting, which turned out to be the most successful – about half way down the stretch of river we rounded a bend and saw, about thirty or so yards away, a large grizzly on a stony low promontory extending into the river. He stayed there for a while, snacking on a passing salmon, before turning and ambling towards us on all fours in the river. In due course he came level with us, about five yards off the port side, before carrying on upstream. This provided one of those moments where the pleasure and joy of the moment clash with the instinct for self-preservation – fortunately the former was the clear winner!
Grizzly bear, Tweedsmuir Lodge
In the afternoon we went for a walk. This should have been in an area called the Tote Road, but given that earlier that day a bear, which had been making a nuisance of itself in Bella Coola, had been transported out to the area and released, it was felt that she might not be in the best of moods, and possibly inclined to take out her frustration on the nearest available tourist! We therefore went instead to the Kettle Ponds, which are glacial depressions formed a fair while ago, surrounded by Douglas firs and with orchids growing in the vicinity. Our little guide book described this walk as easy, having an elevation change of some 80 metres. Apart from this figure being more impressive if translated into 270ft, it conceals the fact that there are a large number of individual ups and downs within it. Anyway, we wheezed our way through it and returned triumphantly to the lodge. This marked the end of our time in the wilderness (something I am finding increasingly more attractive than city life).
The following day we returned to Vancouver, where we spent our first afternoon getting our bearings and wandering down to Canada Wharf (basically the cruise terminal area). The next day we were also left to our own devices, and therefore invested in a “Hop on, Hop off” bus ticket to go and explore the city. We passed through Davie Village, which might possibly be described as the more Bohemian part of town, and then travelled along the waterfront, past civic buildings and sports stadia before disembarking for a look at Chinatown, and more specifically the Dr Sun Yat-Sen classical Chinese Garden. It is indeed a haven of peace and solitude amidst the bustle of the city, and we wandered around it for a while, although skipping the area for which payment was required (a free cup of tea holds no attraction for me!), before deciding to head for Gastown a short distance away.
Vancouver, British Columbia
Gastown is what might be described as a “quaint” area. It is home to individual and quirky boutiques and is so named not because it smells of methane or used to be home to a gasworks, but after John “Gassy Jack” Deighton, an English sailor who was the first settler in what was to become Vancouver. Deighton was a bar owner, and his nickname comes from his garrulous nature and penchant for story-telling – and not from any personal issues. Gastown is also home to the world’s first steam clock, which toots merrily every 15 minutes – sadly out of sync with real time by about 10 minutes!
The next day was our main Vancouver tourist day. We started on a drive-through of the parts of the city we had visited ourselves the previous day before moving on to a stop in Stanley Park. This green and partially forested oasis is almost entirely surrounded by Vancouver harbour. It is also home to nine totem poles (now replicas since the originals have been dispersed to museums) relating to the First Nations people of the area.
We then travelled out of town to the Capilano Suspension Bridge, which has a span of about 450ft across the Capilano canyon some 230ft below. The site has well-laid out trails through the forest, along the cliff face and through the treetops (we decided to skip the latter, given the 100ft ground to treetop differential!)
Capilano Suspension Bridge, Vancouver, British Columbia
After ambling around these paths we returned to the bus for the transfer to our final stop, Granville market. This is home to individual craft shops, as well as the market itself, which is full of stalls selling fish, meat, vegetables, cheeses, charcuterie, cakes, pastries and drinks, leaving me wishing that more places in the UK had such facilities.
The following day we undertook a lengthy expedition to Vancouver Island. This required an early start since the ferry port was an hour away from downtown, and the crossing itself took a further 90 minutes. Once on the island our first stop was Butchart gardens, which were first begun in 1904 and now comprise a sunken garden with a lake, a rose garden, a Japanese garden and an Italian garden. We spent a pleasant hour or so ambling round admiring the flora. We then went into Victoria, the island’s capital, for lunch before touring the city and inspecting its sights and finally returning to Vancouver itself by floatplane – which was considerably quicker than the outbound journey.
Butchart gardens, Vancouver Island, British Columbia
Food was the prime element of our final activity. Having checked out of our hotel, we embarked on a foodie walking tour covering (in order) dim sum, cheese, chowder, macaroons and ice cream (we had to miss the last of these in order to get our transport to the airport). I’m fairly sure that this does not constitute a balanced diet, or indeed a logical sequence, but everything we were offered proved to be extremely tasty and a good way to bid Canada farewell.
What do I conclude from all this? The country has some of the most spectacular scenery I’ve ever seen, its people are laid back and friendly, even the big cities seem gentler than their counterparts elsewhere, their food is robust and plentiful and their wines are perfectly palatable, but they will insist on adulterating beer with alien flavours! Would I go again to visit the parts we missed? You bet!
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