Sunday, June 3, 2012

Day 3. Edmonton

I slept like a baby, woke up as early as usual, and remained prone until a shadow crossed the window. Wow, we were going through hills! Not mountains, mind you, but after a day of flatness I was ready to take notice of even the smallest undulations in the topography.

We made it to Edmonton around 7:30 am, and right away I asked if it would be possible to resume the trip the following day. No, so sorry, the next passenger train doesn’t run until three days from now. Rats, I am stuck in this industrial city for three days. I could tell at a glance that the station was in the middle of nowhere, a long way from civilization. So I broke down and rented a car, figuring that at least I could go driving around the country side. I toyed with the idea of going to Calgary, but that is 350 km away.

Instead I headed east, to visit the Elk Island National Park, which has some reputation as a great place to see buffalo, elk, and moose. This is glaciated terrain, underlain by outwash deposit where big hunks of ice melted into kettle lakes. It is popular with the big herbivores because pasture is always green around the kettle lakes. Lo and behold, as soon as I got there I saw some big bison bulls, munching on grass or rolling in the dirt (they “dig” dirt holes very similar to those where Girl likes to rest. I had read somewhere a sign advising not to get to close to the buffalo, because they can charge, so I kept my distance while admiring their massive bulk. I also saw a cow moose along the road, but never got to see a bull.

I wanted to stretch my legs, so I chose a 10 km loop and went for a stroll. Along the way I saw some very fresh bison “cakes”, and lots of tufts of their brown pelt. I was wondering what I would do if I were to come face to face with one of them when, just around a bend, I met the biggest, meanest-looking bull you can imagine. My gracious goodness, he was enormous! Needless to say I stopped dead on my tracks, staring at his little porcine eyes. There was determination in those eyes, and something told me this was one stare-down I was not going to win. So I graciously turned around, made a wide detour through the brush, and continued in my merry way.

Later I went to a living history museum (not unlike the Hessen Museum), that seeks to preserve the heritage of the many Ukranian immigrants who came to settle in Alberta between 1890 and 1930. The Canadian government was encouraging settlement of the west, and offered quarter section lands to European farmers who wanted to escape poverty. Of course they had the idea that all these immigrants would be scattered through the land, and would turn into loyal subjects of the English crown (Canada became its own country sometime around 1860, but they were very much committed to being members of the British Commonwealth). But the Ukranian immigrants wanted to be together, so they all came to Alberta, and for the longest time they remained Ukranians, living in Ukranian villages, and speaking the Ukranian language. Now of course they are well integrated into modern Canada, but in the 1970’s the provincial government figured that this was a part of Canadian history that had to be preserved. So they started collecting buildings from all over Alberta and they have moved it into a museum village, where docents dress the part and the time and try to recreate for the visitors the experience of going back to the 1920’s. Very, very neat.

I came in good time to my hostel, in a lively part Edmonton, where I cooked myself dinner, just in time to catch a local artist who came to entertain the many hostel guests. It is a big hostel, and is pretty packed, so I was happy I had made advanced reservations. This will be home for the next three days.

Day 4. Old Edmonton

Today I did three things. The first one was a visit to Fort Edmonton Park, another living history museum/park (clearly Canadians enjoy re-living history). The park is by the river that runs through the middle of the city (the Saskatchewan river), and of course they are bums and did not open until 10 am. What will a tourist do with himself at 8 am then? Well, the least I could do was to take a brisk walk along the river, enjoy the riparian forest, and speculate about the geology I could see spectacularly displayed on the opposite bank. There seemed to be two units here, so I made the reasonable assumption that the upper unit must be the outwash plain deposits of the Ice Age. But what was below them? It was lighter in color and seemed crudely stratified, so I took a guess and assigned them to the Mesozoic (later, at the Royal Alberta Museum I learned that I had been right, and they were fluvial Cretaceous deposits that have yielded excellent specimens of the herbivore dinosaur Edmontosaurus).

Once they finally opened the park I found it was organized into four distinct areas. The first one was the 1850-1885 time period, when Edmonton was a fur trading post of the Hudson Bay Company. They have reconstructed the fort that doubled as trading post, with all sorts of workshops (blacksmith, cooper, and carpenter to mention but a few). The second area spans 1805 to 1891, when Edmonton was a bucolic little town still conducting fur trade with the First Nations. For this they have brought to site complete buildings. My favorite display was the fur packing outfit, which not only had pelts by the hundreds, but also a huge press that was used to compact the pelts into square, tight bales for ease of transport. Each bale weighted 180 pounds!

The next time period was from 1892 to 1914, when the railroad finally reached Edmonton and the area became inundated by settlers and immigrants. There were so many people that contractors could not build houses fast enough, so vast tent cities sprouted around the old city, where a young, white collar couple might have to live for a couple of years before they could settle down in a regular wooden house. It was a time of great prosperity, only slightly slowed down by World War I, because Canada became a major grain producer to support the British war efforts.

Once the war ended in 1918 Edmonton went through a depression, because now it was producing too much grain and the price plunged to rock bottom. But they recovered fast enough, and in the last section (1914-1929) there were all sorts of improvements such as inexpensive automobiles, cable cars, drugstores, hotels, and even Alberta’s first mosque! Prosperity ended with the Great Depression in 1929, but the museum mercifully spares us the details of those harsh times.

The second thing I did was visit the Royal Alberta Museum, which was dedicated by Queen Elizabeth herself (funny ol’ Dominion of Canada, ey?). It is a combination of natural history museum (cool taxidermy of Canadian fauna, a spectacular display of minerals, and a skeleton of Edmontosaurus) and ethnographic museum. The latter part is really well done, and I enjoyed immersing myself in the details of the long relation between the First Nations and the European settlers. The relation was mostly to the detriment of the natives (they seem to prefer “native” or “aboriginal” over being called “indians”), who surprisingly took it in stride and only rarely made war on the invaders (the war tribes seemed to have remained in what now is the US and northern Mexico). Lots of cool artifacts and pieces of native art, including an excellent display on the construction of tepees and the symbology often used to decorate them.

The third thing I did was to go to Zellers (the local version of Wal-Mart) to buy a bike. It is a nice, pink, girl bike (only a self-assured man would ride a pink bike) with 26-inch tires and 10 speeds, and it will be my expeditionary vehicle to move along the crest of the Rockies. Unfortunately I am not as well prepared as I was for Spain, and will have to bike longer distances between hostels, but now that I have chosen this course of action I look forward to a great trip. I will take the bike with me on the train to Jasper, try to get from Jasper to Banff in three days (about 50 km per day), and will then abandon my pink spaceship there so I can get back to Jasper in the shuttle (unfortunately the shuttle will not carry the bike back). Tomorrow I will test my new wheels with a long ride along the shores of the Saskatchewan River!

Day 5. A lovely bike ride

I must apologize to Edmonton, which so far I have regarded as an industrial/commercial city that did not have much to offer to the tourist. They have the most satisfying network of parks and trails along the Saskatchewan River, which afford the tourist plenty of pretty views of the river and the city, and the student of human nature a kaleidoscope of Canadian society.

I started around 7:30 am, anxious to test my new bike (which proved in all respects to be a trustworthy vehicle), and of course only met old, morning people, just like me. The trails may not be “los caminos de Galicia”, but they are wooded, pleasant, and reasonably flat. Well, they are flat between steep hikes to the top of the river bluff (about 300 feet above the level of the river), and precipitous descents from the bluff to the edge of the water. Keep in mind I was embarking on a round trip, so every exhilarating descent turned into a Calvary on the way back.

As the day progressed I saw the cute girls going for a jog, then the daredevils of both sexes trying to beat their own speed record, the university students going to an exam, and lots and lots of dog walkers. There were Beagles and Saint Bernard’s, Dobermans and Chihuahuas, Retrievers (none as cute as Girl) and Scotties, German Shepherds and Rotties, Spud McKenzies and Boxers, and many more. I really got the feeling that Canadians like their dogs!

Well, there and back was something like 50 km, and I did it in under 7 hours. Admittedly this was in relatively flat terrain, but I figure that with 12 hours of daylight I can do 50 km per day in the mountains.

I went shopping at the end of the day, and got a spare inner tube, a can of inflating goo, a Swizz Army knife, and a helmet. I am ready for adventure!

P.S. I may be incommunicado for the next four days, so please be patient with the next installment.

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