Sunday, June 3, 2012

Day 9. Back to Athabasca Falls 

Parting is sorrowful, but when you leave at 6 am there is no one to be sorrowful with, so I just took off, with the idea that I would go slowly and take many breaks and short walks to make the way back more enjoyable. Truly the morning hours are the best to admire the beauty of the peaks around me, just as the sun kisses for the first time their snow shrouds. The only disappointing part is that I have seen very few animals, and as is now an old joke I keep hoping for my first sighting of a bear. I should add that the last three days I have had perfect weather, overcast for the long bike rides and shining sun for the hikes. Today there is not a single cloud on the sky, so after the cool of the morning it is going to get hot, hot, hot.

My first planned hike was a long one, starting at a ranger station about 15 km from Beauty Creek. I figured I would bike into the parking lot of the station, leave the bike there, and then hike the 6 miles to the crest of the ridge to oversee Lac Maligne. So I turn into the deserted parking lot, and I see a golden shadow moving between the bushes. It is my bear! Yes, my very own bear, and a grizzly to boot! I of course kept a healthy distance between us, but the bear seemed unconcerned about my presence, happy to pluck the berries from the decorative bushes the ranger station has planted. It is quite something to see such a rippling mass of muscle delicately pulling one branch down, to nibble on the tiny fruits. He also stopped from time to time to dig out a grub, or to lick at the decorative stones (maybe seeking some salt). I am delighted to have seen my first bear, but you won’t be surprised to know that I decided to skip the hike I had planned.

I did take a hike later that day, trying to remind myself that if I had not met a bear in 30 years, then there was little chance I would meet a second bear that day (but then again, I have never met a cougar neither). Fortune smiles on the bold, however, and I was rewarded by a sighting of a Canadian Rockies Mountain Goat.

The way back was a lot easier than I had expected, largely because I am going down in elevation and there is more downhill pedaling than uphill trudging. I made it to the hostel by 4 pm, dined on the charity of others (hopefully for the last time this trip), and will spend the afternoon reading at my heart’s content.

Day 10. Back to Jasper

I started on my way back to Jasper at 6:30 am, fully confident I could make it there by 11 am at the latest. Since the train does not leave until 2:30 pm I was going to have plenty of time to wash clothes at a Laundromat, and maybe have a nice lunch (pizza or Chinese?). Now, so far I have been biking on the shoulder of the Promenade des champs de glace (the Icefields Highway), which is very beautiful, has acceptable grades, and makes for easy cycling. But there was something gnawing at my heart about following a man-made road. Here I am, in the ultimate wilderness, and I am always going on a paved road.

A little devil whispered in my ear to the effect that I had time, so why not try a little cross country trekking? My map showed a trail coming off Wabasso Lake, and an outline suggested further detail in the close-up map on the other side. Yes, there it was, and according to the markings it was only 10 miles to the 15 miles I would have to roll on the highway. So there I go, bound for adventure, only to find the most grueling, challenging goat path one could imagine. I pushed on confident on the knowledge that I had a good five hours ahead of me, and even walking I could cover 10 km in less than three hours. The trail went on and on, wearing me down and consuming minutes. How far can the fork in the road be? The map said less than 2 km, but by my reckoning I must had gone at least five. Then I realized that the inset map did not show the whole trail, and that I was much farther away than I had thought. I panicked a bit, but was not ready to go back. Gritting my teeth I pushed onward, afraid I might miss the train.

Mind you, the trail I had taken is beautiful, and I had great views of lakes nested deep in alpine valleys, snow clad peaks, and endless Canadian forest. My brave bike took a lot of punishment, but never let me down, flying down the rough steep slopes and nimbly bouncing by my side on the uphills.

Finally, near the verge of exhaustion I sighted the bridge that would take me over the Athabasca River and unto Jasper. The trail hung precariously on top of the cliff carved by the river, which roared furiously 20 m below me. On the uphill side the slope was very steep, leaving little room to maneuver. Cautiously I decided to walk this last half kilometer, because the smallest slip could have tossed me into the drink. Concentrated as I was on keeping to the narrow trail, it was only in the last moment that I saw the black bear coming opposite to me down the trail. I think he was as surprised as I was, for we both froze in place. Then I started, basso fortissimo, a nervous rendition of The Bear Song (The other day, I met a bear, out in the woods . . .) and the bear took off, straight up the steep hill. I managed to fumble my camera out of its holster, and have the photo to prove it!

Yes, I did make it to Jasper, but just on the nick of time. It was with a grateful sigh that I loaded the bike on the train, definitely ready for a comfortable ride in the train. I now turn from an adventurer to a tourist, and will drag my adieu to the wonderful Canadian Rockies for several hours. We should be in Vancouver tomorrow by 9 am.  

Reflecting about the trip, I would recommend the following route: Fly to Vancouver with your own bike, or rent/buy a bike in Vancouver. Make sure you have panniers to carry all that food you won’t be able to buy in the high mountains. Shop in Vancouver to avoid usury prices. Take the bus to Banff (8 hours; the bike may need to be in a box). Spend 6 to 8 days biking slowly from Banff to Jasper. Make reservations at the youth hostels well in advance, because they get full in the summer. Finally, take the train back from Jasper to Vancouver, and from there fly back home.

Day 11. Vancouver

We are crossing the equivalent to the Central Valley, after 14 hours of descent from the mountains. The views were spectacular, but the real theme of the descent was water. There is so much water here! The smallest waterfall is a wondrous sight, the lakes go on for miles and miles, and the rivers are among the widest and swiftest I have ever beheld. No shortage of fresh water in Canada, eh!? 

Vancouver, which is a beautiful city, welcomed me with open arms and fantastic sunny weather. I may argue that Quebec City is in close competition for the title of the prettiest Canadian city, but there is no question that the embayments of the peninsula where Vancouver has been developed give it an inviting maritime character, not unlike that of San Francisco or Seattle.

The first thing I discovered is that it is bike friendly place, with gentle slopes and all sorts of parks and biking paths. Despite being Wednesday one can see lots of people jogging, biking, or walking their dogs.

I wasted $15 visiting the Science Museum, which is not as extensive or interesting as the Exploratorium, but then had a good time walking the streets of Chinatown. I had lunch there: Jellyfish! I think it is the tendrils that get cooked (boiled probably), and are afterward served cold with sesame seeds and a chili sauce. Interesting, chewy texture, but I don’t think I have to try it again.

Afterward I biked to my hostel, where I got a single room (feels positively luxurious) where I could dump all my stuff and chill down for a bit. I am beginning to be quite tired of my heavy backpack. Later I went for a walk to Granville Island, which is a place devoted to the arts, wholesome food, and sports. The food part is dominated by a very large farmers market (again, not unlike the Kleine Markthalle in Frankfurt) and fancy restaurants. The sport part is dominated by water sports and cycling. Finally, half of the island is devoted to artists’ ateliers, theaters, and galleries. I am very impressed to see how committed to the arts Canadians are.

Finally, being that it is Wednesday and the Stanley Cup is being played, I sat through the fourth game of the Vancouver Canucks against the Boston Bruins. It was not pretty for the Canucks, who lost 0 to 4, but gave me an excuse to go out and see all of Granville Avenue turned into a swarming mass of subdued Canucks enthusiasts. No one was “sad”, because the series is who wins more games in a seven game series, and right now each team has two wins each. It should make for a nail-biting final three games!

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