A Travellerspoint blog

November 2017

Domestic Diversions

Beautiful British Columbia and Adventurous Alberta

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We all have bias. As a traveler, my bias usually leads me to visit foreign countries because I assume I won’t find as much adventure within my own country. My trip to British Columbia (BC) and Alberta (AB) in July, 2017 definitely assured me that Canada can be just as exciting as any other country I’ve visited. Within a week I managed to visit Vancouver and Victoria in BC, and Calgary, Banff, Canmore, and Drumheller in AB. I’m not necessarily suggesting such a rushed approach, but I would recommend visiting all these locales. I arrived in Vancouver on Canada Day, which was festive and also entailed a considerable amount of free food.

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My sister and I started the day exploring the University of British Columbia (UBC) campus, which is full of fascinating exhibits as well as beautiful views including the rose garden, Japanese garden, and Wreck Beach (a nude beach).

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The beach has some stunning views: of the city, and the people. In fact, I approached one particularly handsome man playing assorted sports and asked whether he had ever tried out for The Bachelor. After chatting for a while, and learning that he’s friends with multiple people from the show, my sister and I joined his friend group and ensuing despacito dance party. After having our fill of fun beer and banter, we headed off to Nuba – a Lebanese restaurant near campus. I unexpectedly ran into an old friend who now manages the restaurant, and provided some excellent food suggestions – including a seasoned fried cauliflower dish. Subsequently we visited Kitsilano Beach, which was a fair distance walking but well worth it.

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One thing that always strikes me in Vancouver is how well the people take advantage of, and preserve, the beauty surrounding them – from the mountains to the ocean. Granville Island is another good example of that: you can eat brunch while listening to live music, and hearing activists discuss their plans for environmental conservation. Victoria is another hotbed of activism and natural beauty. It should be noted that the ferry from Vancouver to Victoria is not direct: it’s actually a trek from downtown Vancouver (Skytrain and bus) to get to Tsawwassen (where the ferry is located), and then a bus from Sidney (where the ferry docks) to Victoria proper. The soft-serve ice cream on the ferry (and the potential to view whales) makes it well worth the money. I was lucky enough to also be present for a very romantic proposal wherein my ferry dropped a massive banner asking the proposition of the bride-to-be on the passing ferry. She said “yes”! Stepping off the ferry was just as exciting, as I heard my name called and ran into an individual I hadn’t seen in 7 years who now lives in Toronto (on the other side of the country). Fate surrounds us, but sometimes we forget the potential for it to self-realize. After a delicious lunch with old friends and my sister at Rebar in downtown Victoria, we walked down Douglas Street to Beacon Hill Park, Dallas Road Beach, and back up through Cook Street Village.

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Sadly, there wasn’t enough time to revisit all the tourist spots like the Butchart Gardens or Empress Hotel but I enjoyed the ocean views, as always. In fact, on our return trip to Vancouver my sister and I were privy to sights from the Captain’s headquarters (the bridge) where we watched the ferry (a 550 ft ship) travel through a narrow pass into a serene sunset.

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Calgary was anything but calm. With the Canada 150 celebrations in full effect and the Calgary Stampede about to kick-off, the city was flooded with tourists and their overwhelming enthusiasm. There were some reservations about the exaggerated Canada Day celebrations in Alberta, as the Prime Minister initially forgot to mention Alberta in his speech to the nation; however, I think the more contentious element of the celebration should center on questions of the implications for Indigenous peoples in Canada. BC is different to other Canadian provinces in that there are title claims, not treaties; and I saw more active debate there, but it should be an active discussion in all areas of the country because there is much work still to be done.

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Calgary has a fairly small downtown core, but sprawls. The nicest part of the city, in my opinion, is the Bow River and Prince Island.

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That being said, I think the highlight of Calgary is its proximity to the Rockies more than the contents of the city itself. Within an hour and a half, two friends and I were able to begin our road-trip by leaving Calgary and entering the paradise of Banff, Alberta. Our first stop was naturally a burger joint. Banff has a few choice restaurants, but the two I would certainly recommend are: Eddie’s Burger and the Grizzly Fondue Restaurant. The latter is full of tables (obviously), which each have a phone and a map so that you’re able to call any other table to solicit recommendations about the food or perhaps a date. Banff itself is full of activities for all ages and ability-levels. I particularly enjoyed hiking the Tunnel Drive Trail, as well as viewing a show at the Banff Center for the Performing Arts. It's a quaint little town with a bit of a wild side - in the sense of deer sightings on the street, rather than drunken clubbing nights.

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If you plan to visit Lake Louise and Moraine Lake, I would recommend going incredibly early in the morning and/or choosing a less-popular time of year. In our case, we were unable to visit Moraine Lake because the parking was already full; however, we were fortunate enough to visit Lake Louise. We parked over 1km away from the site and after a brisk walk we finally made it to the Fairmont Hotel. Funnily enough, the majestic hotel had lost power and plumbing so it was a total disaster and made us feel less jealous of the occupants of those seemingly-regal rooms. We chose to hike the Agnes Tea House Trail with its spectacular views and waterfalls, ending in a snow fight (this was glacial territory, after all). I wouldn’t recommend the trail for young children or individuals with accessibility needs, but apart from those demographics I think it’s a fairly straightforward trail.

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Less straightforward were our accommodations in Calgary. Midway through our trip, the boys and I made it back to Calgary for one night in an Airbnb between Banff and Drumheller. We had read the reviews of the house, and had also researched the neighbourhood to ensure that we’d have a safe trip. We never expected to end our evening by fleeing an Airbnb because it was actually owned by a Christian cult. Without going into great detail, I will mention that after doing some further research I found out that the owner has been arrested multiple times and that neither my friends nor I had ever thought to Google the hosts prior to initiating the reservation – a mistake we will never make again. Our next stop that night was a motel nearby, which had availability (our only criteria that late in the game). We had hoped for a more relaxing evening after finding our new accommodation and instead we were met with a power outage, which initially caused me some cult-related paranoid concern (yes, I’ve watched too many horror movies). Suffice it to say, I survived the night.

The latter half of our week was spent in the Drumheller region – Canada’s Badlands. In order to get to Drumheller from Calgary, you basically enjoy an hour and a half of trekking through canola fields. I hadn’t understood canola’s importance to AB’s economy until I saw its prevalence all over the countryside. Drumheller’s economy is driven by a culture of dinosaur kitsch and devotion to the extinct mining culture in the region. The Royal Tyrrell Dinosaur Museum is a short drive from the town of Drumheller, and well worth a day trip. The most important facts I learned were about the intelligence of dinosaurs: stegosaurus was the dumbest dinosaur with the smallest brain in proportion to its body whereas raptors were the smartest (but not Jurassic Park smart). I finally understand why Toronto’s basketball team is the Raps and not the Stegs.

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It’s worth bringing your hiking shoes to Drumheller as Horsethief Canyon and Horseshoe Canyon are both a short drive away. It’s also well worth visiting the Hoodoos – sand and clay figures that have formed over the centuries into shapes that resemble phallic symbols (or vegetables, depending on where your mind wanders). They reminded me of miniature versions of the fairy chimneys in Cappadocia, Turkey.

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The Atlas Coal Mine in East Coulee is an important stop for anyone interested in Canada’s mining history. It has the only standing tipple in Canada, built in 1937. The site was in operation from 1911 to 1984 and the coal was used for heating, cooking, and powering steam locomotives. The older I get the more paranoid I become. I can no longer fault my father for his fear of heights, when I can’t help but feel unsure about climbing into a wooden structure 7 storeys high with only 2 exits that is coated in a highly-flammable substance like coal. Age may not induce paranoia but rather pragmatism, I’m learning.

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I was alarmed (but not surprised) to learn that boys as young as 8 years old would work the position of bone picker in the mine often falling to their deaths or losing their hearing from the aggressive machinery surrounding them. One of the tours we did was conducted by a former miner who started in his tweens and taught us that people mattered less than ponies to the owners of the mines. He also performed some mad science by showing us how calcium carbide mixed with water explodes into fire, which was used to light the mining tunnels.

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When traveling I like the time-travel element in the sense that no place ever exists in a bubble – even if the scenery looks fairly similar over the decades, the social climate has invariably evolved. Apparently Coulee was a booming town in the mining heyday; however, Drumheller and its devotion to dinosaurs picked up the slack in the 1970s when the industry began its march into extinction. I find it fascinating to consider the ethnic mix in these towns because it’s easy to imagine our current world to be the most ripe for migration given our transportation technology, but it was clear that even a century ago a tiny town in rural Alberta like Coulee is proof of past diversity in that it was full of individuals from Portugal, Poland, and a variety of other countries (as evidenced by pay stubs and other employment records maintained by the mines).

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Speaking of diversity, the Calgary Stampede had competitors from all over the world: from Brazil to Australia, cowboys of all backgrounds were drawn to the party (and prize money). The Stampede started on July 7th and the cowboy hats and boots were omnipresent from that day forward.

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After strolling Stephen Street, the boys and I resolved to purchase some cowboy attire in an attempt to blend better. I found a hat I really liked, and happily wore it as we sat on the patio of The Guild and watched the party people pass us by.

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A key component of the Calgary Stampede is the free pancake breakfast phenomenon all over the city. They bring communities together and keep stomachs rotund. We chose to visit an art gallery and listened to some excellent spoken word while enjoying our fried dough.

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We then spent a full day at the Stampede grounds taking pictures, learning about the history of the fair, and also watching a rodeo show (but not the chuck wagon races for ethical reasons). The Calgary Stampede is fraught with moral conundrums: from the treatment of the animals to the depiction of Indigenous peoples. After a plethora of conversations around the fairgrounds with people from the RCMP and local Nations, I came to realize that the organizers have clearly understood the significance of their event and the potential for harm so they’ve tried to combat this by providing educational booths. I won’t comment on whether they’ve addressed all the issues, but I would say that I certainly learned a lot – especially from some of the Blackfoot elders who were very friendly, and also respectfully direct.

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The Calgary Stampede is a mishmash of entertainment and education. My friend Cara met me for a dog show, which fit solely into the entertainment category. We sat under the burning sun watching dogs jump into swimming pools while we sat panting from the heat – I started to question which sentient being is really more intelligent: the cool dog or the overheated human. We quickly escaped into an air conditioned agricultural pavilion after the show, which was a stone’s throw from the international pavilion. This is where I met an older man who politely informed me that, in his informed opinion, Mexico is the prime location for gambling on cock fights. I thanked him for this valuable advice and continued on my way to watch Theory of a Deadman, which was almost as excruciating. After quickly retreating from the Deadman concert (before my eardrums went extinct), Cara and I made our way into another pavilion where I sang a Disney duet with a man in costume. Once my 15 seconds of Snapchat fame came to an end, we ventured off into the city for further fun. The Stampede fills the city with tent parties, as well as packed bars. We decided to check out one of the tent parties, but unfortunately the good music began playing just as we were planning our departure so we only had a few moments to save a horse and ride a cowboy before setting off in search of public transit.

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All the climbing and cowboys was pretty tiring and I had hoped for an early night prior to my departure, which I correctly anticipated may be fraught with challenges. As it happens, my plane lost power while on the runway (unlike the motel, this time I knew it had nothing to do with the Calgarian cult) but was able to safely take off and land after a considerable delay.

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Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to western Canada and the unique culture of the Calgary Stampede. That being said, I have a feeling that’ll be my last rodeo.

Posted by madrugada 15:45 Archived in Canada Tagged victoria ocean hiking mountain calgary alberta banff vancouver bc ferry dinosaurs canmore lake_louise drumheller calgary_stampede western_canada Comments (0)

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