Western Canada: Mountains, Lakes and Wilderness

diariesof-canada-Lake-Louise-Chateau-Fairmont

I think it’s safe to say that many of us owe quite a lot to our parents. After all, they bring us into this world, wipe our bums, raise us and teach us to take our first steps. And many parents even do much more for their kids; maybe they help you build your house or help in raising the grandchildren etc, etc…

Therefore, from time to time, you might think about giving a little something back. No matter if it’s just a hug and a thank you or a brand-new Mercedes; show your gratefulness and appreciation. They worked (and often sacrificed) quite a lot for you.

So, when Nadine’s dad told us a few years back he had wished all his life to see Canada, we knew we had to take that man to the land of ice hockey, bears, good manners and poutine.

But first, we had to find out what my father in law’s idea of Canada was. Since it is the second largest country in the world one might easily end up at the wrong corner of a man’s dream. He told us he wanted to see mountains, glaciers, turquoise blue lakes and bears. After that, it was pretty clear it had to be the western coast of Canada because there, you’ll find all of the aforementioned things in abundance.

diariesof-canada-Mount-Rainier

Finally, at the end of September in 2016, we left for what was going to be a three-week road trip to some of the major landmarks of western Canada. As I said, Canada is huge so plan on having some time since you have to drive pretty long distances. After some research we decided to go at the beginning of fall season because when it came to Canada, Nadine and I had pictures of a block house in the woods, covered in snow in our mind. We got that, rest assured, but in hindsight I think we chose the wrong season to go. But more on that later…

We landed in Vancouver and left for Vancouver Island immediately the morning after our arrival. Not because we didn’t want to see the city but because we had planned a three-day stay in Vancouver at the end of our trip. Right now, we were looking for some adventure and wilderness.

Our first stop was Tofino, located in the middle of the western coast of Vancouver Island, North America’s largest pacific island. This is a 280 km drive but it takes roughly six hours to get there. First, because you have to get to the island by ferry and second because there’s just one road leading to Tofino and many timber trucks driving on it. But Tofino is definitely worth a visit since it is famous for whale watching and beautiful rugged coastlines. It’s said to be pretty crowded during spring and summer but since we went off-season, Tofino was quiet and charming.

Seal
Curious seal approaching our boat

We did a very spectacular whale watching tour on a high-speed zodiac and saw several grey whales, otters, bald headed eagles and sea lions. Later that day, we added a bear watching tour (remember: dad wanted to see bears) taking us around some of the myriads of small islands surrounding Tofino and saw several black bears. In fact, when the tide is low the bears come to the shore in order to topple the rocks and find crabs that hide beneath the rocks. Now if you see how easily a black bear can topple a rock the size of a large medicine ball, just imagine what it can do with your coconut.

Black bear
Black bear toppling the rocks to find crab

Here’s some free advice: if you’re going to Canada and plan on doing some hiking, be prepared and inform yourself on how to behave in case of a bear encounter. They usually are very calm and not interested in you at all but tend to go berserk when they smell food or if their cubs are around. And the cubs are very playful and inquisitive so do the math for yourself. Mama bear usually doesn’t care if you tell her it actually was the cubs that approached you first and not the other way around. For a more graphic and visual explanation, watch Di Caprio’s The Revenant. Or maybe don’t, you might prefer to stay at home or go on a cruise ship.

diariesof-canada-Long-Beach
Prepared for a long stroll on Long Beach

If you’re in Tofino, make sure to visit the fabulous wild beaches. They are pretty popular among surfers in summer but they are absolutely beautiful, rough and wild at any time of the year. Take a little stroll in the morning or evening, you won’t regret it.

And here comes a little insider’s tip you should absolutely consider; when you’re driving on Pacific Rim Highway (4) from Tofino heading south along Long Beach, you’ll pass a little trail called Rainforest Trail. This is a loop on a wooden boardwalk leading trough the rainforest. It is absolutely fabulous. I’ve been to many forest and jungles in my life but nothing comes close to the beauty of this. But beware; the planks of the boardwalk are quite slippery since they are constantly wet (RAINforest, remember?).

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Don’t miss the incredible Rainforest Trail
After Tofino, we drove all the way down to the city of Victoria, the main city of Vancouver Island at the most southernmost tip of the island. It’s a very beautiful, small city and if you’re going to the island make sure to visit it and stay there overnight.

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Orcas, the apex predators of the sea

We booked a second whale watching tour because here, chances were great to see my secret reason for coming to Canada. Orcas! The apex predators of the sea. And since I’m kind of a lucky guy when it comes to wildlife encounters (just read my article about the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica), we saw a nice pod of transient Orcas.

After returning on the mainland of British Columbia, our first stop was Kelowna, a city of 120,000 at Lake Okanangan. Okanangan Valley has a very mild climate with a relatively dry summer, so the Valley is Canada’s top wine region. Now if you count in the lake and the surrounding mountains, you’ll probably understand why Kelowna is a magnet for year-round tourism. Things to do include mountain biking, skiing, hiking, water-sports, etc. etc. We stayed for two nights and cycled the Myra Canyon Trestles Trail, an old kettle railway with two tunnels and eighteen trestle bridges that are truly spectacular. The bridges are exactly like you can see them in every western movie and make a good picture opportunity.

Lake Louise, Canada’s Visit Card

After Kelowna, we drove all the way to Banff, a small, beautiful (and posh) town located just over the border to the district of Alberta. Banff, as well, is a tourist hotspot so there literally is an abundance of activities to do around here. I recommend the Banff Gondolas which bring you up to the peak of Sulphur Mountains. The view is breathtaking.

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Amazing view over Bannf

But there’s another thing you should absolutely visit if you happen to be in Banff: Lake Louise. You might never have heard the name but you’ll very probably have seen it numerous times. Lake Louise with its azure waters in front of the soaring mountains and the Victoria glacier are probably the most photographed landscape in all of Canada. In fact, if you simply picture-google Canada you’ll find a picture of Lake Louise at the top. And if you think; “hell, that’s gorgeous”, be assured it’s even more beautiful if you see it ‘in the flesh’.

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What’s the Right Season?

But here’s why I think we chose the wrong season to go to Canada; we visited quite a few famous lakes on this trip but only had a clear blue sky and sunshine at Lake Louise. Most of the other days were grey and soggy or we had snowfall. You can’t find the right words to describe the azure colour of these lakes when the sun is shining. If you see it in pictures you might think it is photoshopped. But it isn’t, it simply is fabulous. You can actually see the white rock flour that is ground by the glaciers and ends up in the lake but it only shines in azure blue colours when the sun hits the surface of the lake. Otherwise the lake looks a tad milky. Still beautiful, but not the high-def, 4K colour explosion you had in mind.

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Icefields Parkway is located above the hamlet of Lake Louise

Just above the hamlet of Lake Louise is where you find Icefields Parkway, Canada’s top attraction rated as one of the most beautiful roads on earth. Not a bad thing to integrate into your road trip, right? Icefields Parkway is a 230 kilometre stretch of Highway 93, leading from Lake Louise in the south to Jasper in the north. If, like Nadine’s dad, you’ve dreamed of seeing Canada this is the place to go! There literally is a new postcard picture behind every bend and corner. There are so many places to see, so many hikes to do and so many things to photograph or simply watch in awe that I have to pick out a single one or maybe two in order to keep this an article and not a book.

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Icefields Parkway
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Icefields Parkway

We had booked an overnight stop at Columbia Icefield. Here, you can board a gigantic, enormous six-by-six bus that drives you onto the Athabasca Glacier. If you’ve ever wanted to walk on a glacier, here’s where you can do it. When we arrived at Columbia Icefield, our scheduled trip to the glacier had to be postponed to the following day since the staff had been surprised by abundant…snowfall!

Athabasca Glacier
We were surprised by snow storms when visiting the incredible Athabasca Glacier

Who would have thought Canadians could be surprised by snowfall?!? More so; Canadians living in a place called Icefields Parkway! But anyway; the problem is to make the spot you can actually walk on safe and clear of snow since the white powder tends to cover deadly crevices. This didn’t stop some dumb people from jumping over the barrier tape in order to make a nice snow angel for their fancy Instagram page. Stupid is as stupid does, right Forrest?

Athabasca Ice Explorer
The Athabasca Ice Explorer that would take us on a tour on the glacier

Over the whole three days we spent on Icefields Parkway, I wished I had come in spring with a bigger chance of sunshine. The 230 km are breathtaking, I can only imagine how much better it has to be with sunshine. I have to admit I might consider going back one day in order to see all of it with clear blue skies.

Anyway, Icefields Parkway leads you to a town called Jasperat the northern end of the scenic route. It’s a nice little town with plenty of activities to do and, if you’re interested in some sky gazing, Jasper National Park is the second largest Dark Sky Preserve in the world. Unfortunately, not much to see if the sky is mostly clouded night and day.

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Jasper National Park

Our journey continued over Kamloops down to the town of Whistler. Yes, I know what you think; you’ve heard that name before. Let me shine a little light on your memory: Winter Olympics 2010. See?

Whistler-Blackcomb is the largest ski resort in North America. And if you’re more into mountain biking you might know that, in summer, Whistler has the biggest bike park on earth. To sum it up: it’s a nice little town full of sports shops. I think I never saw so many mountain bikes in one place. Neither do I ski or ride mountain bikes but at least I ate the best fish tacos in Whistler. Actually, better than in Mexico itself. But then, I had the best Pizza (made by a Japanese guy who learned to make Mozzarella in Italy and opened a Pizzeria in Hanoi) in Vietnam so I guess that’s globalization, right?

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But in fact, the road to and from Whistler is the main attraction if you’re not into winter sports or bike trails. The famous sea-to-sky highway, leading from Pemberton in the north over Whistler all the way down to Vancouver. I have to admit I liked it even more than Icefields Parkway so if you’re going to Canada, make sure to drive this stretch of tarmac. It’s only a mere 153 km but it will take you some time since you’ll definitely stop more than once to take pictures. Maybe have an overnight break in Whistler; I heard they got excellent fish tacos there. But beware: you’ll find quite a bunch of small and medium rocks, originating from landslides, on the road.

As I said in the beginning, our journey ended in Vancouver; the nice, clean and relaxed capital of British Columbia. We visited some museums, feasted on our last salmon (if you ever had Canadian salmon you’ll never see the ones you can get here with the same eyes) and appreciated Canada. They’re friendly people, that’s for sure. A nice place to be.

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Totempole
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Haida Masks

Oh, and don’t come home without trying their national dish: Poutine. French fries topped with brown gravy and cheese. Not exactly haute cuisine but you might be surprised how good it is, accompanied by a cold beer or cider, after a long day of hiking in the woods.

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