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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Canada

Contrasts in Canada
Jane Anderson

There were no cowboys at Calgary Airport. A small observation, but important to travellers like us, whose total experience of Canada was gleaned from books and films in which, dare I say it, the Mountie always got his man. Brushing aside this early disillusionment, we followed our enigmatic guide, Jesse, to a large coach named Brewster, much like the other thirty or so coaches in the terminal.

It was my sister’s fault. Twenty years ago she took three months out to backpack across Canada. The same year, with two small children, we got as far as a cottage in Devon. Having never met an unfriendly Canadian, now enjoying our empty nest, we opted to follow in Sue’s footsteps. Our leave allowance dictated a much shorter timescale though, and we were forced to depart from tradition by booking on an organised tour. Visions of being led by umbrella-touting guides combined with five-minute visits to "places of interest" had us deeply worried; kind friends asked whether we had booked with Saga, and we both felt the need to smarten up our holiday wardrobes, leaving behind much-loved walking trousers which bore testament to rapid descents in Snowdonia and the Lake District. This time we would travel in style.

Heading out of Calgary, our driver Mike provided a snapshot description of Banff, his home town and our first destination. He told us that if anyone stopped for a coffee there, they became a local; much the same had happened to his wife, a former teacher from Somerset, and her café visit had extended by ten years. He didn’t say much about the scenery. There was no need as, with every kilometre, the mountains were encroaching on the highway, preparing us in a small way for Banff’s dramatic setting. Banff Avenue, running down to the Bow River, twisting up Sulphur Mountain and framed by snow-tipped peaks, was classic picture-postcard material. Our hotel, to all appearances a large Swiss chalet, sat halfway through town, set back from the avenue behind somewhat sparse greenery. Mike explained that it used to have flower borders, but the previous week they had been consumed by a local elk before enraged staff had managed to call the vet for a stun gun. "Are elks dangerous then?" A polite query from the back seat. Mike, the master of the insouciant smile replied "Aw, probably you won’t see any that close". Already Canadian wildlife was raising issues, even before any mention of bears.

Banff was built on a series of hot springs, discovered in 1883 while building the transcontinental railroad. Within two years the area had been designated Canada’s first national park. Mr Brewster senior, of coaches fame, was an enterprising farmer who encouraged his sons to work as tour guides. Tourists initially came to take the cure, but were not averse to a little hunting and fishing as well as plunging into hot, sulphur-encrusted pools. From this the Brewster empire grew, the Banff Springs Hotel a monolithic memorial to their enterprise. It still stands today, despite being built back-to-front, thus affording the kitchen staff a spectacular view of the nearby waterfalls, while paying guests gaze at the mountain road.

Early next morning, we were picked up by a minibus which rattled up a dust track towards the Banff "wildlife corridor". Yannicke, our young guide, had all the charm, elegance and driving skills associated with Frenchmen and we naturally assumed he hailed from Quebec, a city boy led westwards by his enthusiasm for the great outdoors. We were nearly right; he certainly had travelled some distance, and explained that his only regret was the infrequency of his visits home to family in Versailles. Had he just stopped for a coffee?

None of our tour group had opted for this excursion, however we were accompanied by one very serious couple. In late middle age, their mobility was limited by copious amounts of birdwatching equipment, cameras, water bottles and foul weather gear. I felt somewhat ashamed of our Argos binoculars, nevertheless we all saw the same animals; elks, birds of prey and in the distance, a brown bear. Their disgruntled expression deepened throughout the morning, their parting comment to Yannicke voiced their disappointment at not seeing a grizzly close up. Each to their own; I was more than pleased to avoid any in-depth encounters.

Later we saw a bear being airlifted in a trap; these large metal cylinders are baited when a bear starts enjoying life in town. Bruin enters, the door clangs shut and a short time later he is winched by helicopter to be released in a remoter area. Yes, I thought Mike was spinning a tall tale too, but we witnessed the flying bear at first hand.

Banff makes the most of itself; we were there in July, in a heatwave which rendered the hot pools untenable but encouraged picnics in the shade under the Hoodoos, an eerie rock formation on the edge of town. Banff is even busier in winter, when skiers head for Mount Norquay. Tourism rules. After a spectacular gondola trip to the cosmic ray station [disused] on Sulphur Mountain our second evening was given over entirely to eating, purely because Canadian portions would feed an average British family for two days. To have any chance of success in the local restaurants, it was imperative to follow the locals’ lead, and start eating early, usually six pm. Mike recommended his favourite beef house, Bumpers on Banff Avenue, and I ordered a "lady’s steak", recommended for those on diets. It was excellent, and the leftovers sufficient to produce a beef casserole for four.

Before driving to Jasper on the Icefields Parkway, we called in for a last coffee on Banff Avenue. Gazing out of the window I realised why it had a familiar atmosphere. "It’s a bit like Ambleside really. Lakes, mountains, Japanese tourists . . . ." I was startled to hear a reply from the next table "Aye, it is. I’m from Ambleside and I came over to work the ski season two years ago." Blonde, athletic, and fresh complexioned, the speaker had all the appearance of healthy Canadian womanhood. She had obviously also stopped for a coffee in Banff.

A comparison of the populations of Jasper, 4,700 and Banff, 8,721 provides a clue to the contrasts between these settlements, linked by the Parkway, often blocked in winter, and the railroad. In Jasper the highway runs alongside the rail tracks; on arrival our coach was dwarfed by an enormous freight train, swaying gently through the junction. No high speed trains here, and although over three million tourists visit the park area annually,

Jasper’s major employer is the railroad. Some towns in Australia have their "Big Orange" or "Big Salmon". Jasper has her "Big Bear", named, of course, Jasper and we were unaware of his cultural significance until a local explained that he stars in a cartoon strip in one of the Canadian national dailies.

Again dropping out of our tour group, we booked a morning’s white water rafting on the Athabasca River, so early the next day found us on a sandy riverbank upstream from Jasper, attempting to insert ourselves into wetsuits. I viewed the whole outing with trepidation; the guides were both younger than my son and their graphic instructions in the event of capsizing seemed totally superfluous. The river was in full spate, due to its melting glacier, and I fully expected to be swept away, if not entangled with broken branches rolling in the yellow foam. Yet once we launched out into midstream adrenalin took over. Our guide sat in the stern and simply told us when to paddle and when not; strangely enough this worked well. It was immeasurably better when we shouted as well as paddled, and screaming took us even further. Convinced that we would overshoot our landing place and rocket on towards the Pacific, I was very impressed when the second guide appeared at a sandy bay framing a wide bend and waved us in. Half an hour later, drinking hot coffee, we composed tales for our future grandchildren "we just missed the rocks, they would have ripped the raft apart in seconds."

Action adventure over, I felt the need for some culture, so headed into the Jasper-Yellowhead Museum and Archives. A museum volunteer with a pronounced Essex accent welcomed me; one of the few incomers, he’d lived in Jasper thirty years and told me it was nothing like Basildon. I agreed. The museum was running a special exhibition dedicated to bears and anecdotes from the townspeople emphasised just how close to nature they had lived. One arrived home from work, and seeing an elk in the front garden, barged into the house shouting "Don’t go outside! Elk!" At the same time his wife, in the kitchen, watching a brown bear climbing out of her dustbin, was shouting "bear!" Another elderly lady reared two orphaned bear cubs successfully, but had to send them to the zoo when they started playing up in the shops and expecting to be carried everywhere. Yes, I remembered that phase with my children too. Before leaving, we booked onto an afternoon history walk. The leader seemed concerned, especially when I told him I came from York. "Yes, I was there just after the war," he remembered, "it’s pretty old, isn’t it. Did you realise that in 1900 the population of Jasper was three?" I felt that Jasper had packed shedloads of history into a small timespan and told him so, he seemed highly relieved.

Canada Day is 1st July, and by great good luck, we celebrated it in Jasper. We ate some Canada Day Cake in the town park, as did the rest of the population, before reserving a little piece of sidewalk to watch the parade. This ranged from the toddler group clad as miniature Mounties, to the older generation driving mobility scooters in perfect formation. We were surrounded by local families, all of whom had relatives in the parade, paradoxically we felt very much at home. Everybody waved flags yet their nationalism was not aggressive or even buoyed up by pride, it was inclusive and friendly. When the population of Jasper hit the streets an atmosphere of goodwill permeated all. Was this just a Canada Day phenomenon? The drawback of this type of travel is that, unless we return, we’ll never know.

Banff and Jasper, both founded after my grandmother was born, have given us a small insight into living in a young nation. The rest of our journey is still a kaleidoscope of impressions; differing atmospheres, haunting beauty, history and wildlife jostle for attention. Even better our original theory has not been disproved; we have yet to meet a grumpy Canadian. The way forward is obvious; start saving for the next trip.
© Jane Anderson May 2009

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