As you may remember, we had as an objective to get to the famous national parks of Banff and Jasper in the Canadian Rockies before the start of the Canadian US and European summer holidays in July. Due to the bad weather in the region mid June and the detour we did to avoid this weather, we arrived a bit later and so we got to experience one reasonably calm week and one week of real ‘summer madness’.
Before arriving in Banff National Park (the most famous and oldest of all NP in Canada) we explored a bit of Kootenay NP. We went for a soak in the Radium Hot Springs and did a couple of short hikes. The first hike we did was to ‘Paint Pots’ a beautiful and very colorful hike but one we will always remember as the hike where we just missed a great wildlife sighting. Depending on who you ask within the family, we were “really lucky” or “incredibly unlucky’. While we were walking back to the van, a couple came to us to tell us to “keep a close eye on the kids”. They had been walking a couple of minutes behind us. Just after we had crossed the river at the beginning of the hike (and had gone around the corner), they were crossing the bridge but had to walk back because a cougar (aka Puma aka Mountain Lion) was crossing from the other side. Cougars are very hard to spot so we really missed something there! But as the guy who had to retrace his steps on the bridge told us: “you might not have seen the cougar, but the cougar definitely saw you guys”.
When we got to the next hike, a couple of kilometers down the road, there were all kind of warning signs “cougar in area”. We kept our eyes peeled during the hike but realized this was most probably the cougar we just missed earlier. And that it was a couple of kms away by now.
Once in the Banff National Park proper, we wanted to start with some hikes in the most popular area of the whole park: Lake Louise and Lake Moraine. Both lakes and surroundings are incredibly beautiful and so everybody wants to see them. This has caused major traffic jams in the past. So since this year Lake Moraine can only be reached by shuttle and Lake Louise has become very expensive to park. Moreover the road is also closed most of the day because the parking is full. There is a shuttle service provided by the park but tickets were sold out until September! Luckily a limited number of ‘last minute’ tickets are available at 8 am two days before. So in true ‘Tomorrowland style’ we were ready at 8 am to catch these seats and it was a nerve wrecking affair! Websites crashing, payments refused, shopping carts that disappear, tickets sold out and then available again, missing confirmation mails. We got the whole experience! But in the end we got the tickets for the two days we wanted.
And the hikes were amazing: Hiking from Lake Louise to Agnes Teahouse and the Big Beehive on the first day. The next day we got on the early morning shuttle to Lake Moraine. This is probably the most beautiful of all the lakes we saw in Canada. And because we got there so early we were able to see the nice reflections of the surrounding peaks…and we avoided the hundreds of other visitors that were fighting for some space in the afternoon. We spent most of the day hiking up to the gorgeous Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass. These are hikes that are classified as ‘advanced or difficult’ but the kids tackle them like they are a walk in the park. And they really enjoy the amazed looks and congratulations they get from the other hikers. We love it because we can basically do whatever hike we want. If they are exhausted at the end of the day then most probably so are we! Together with Lucie, I (Jan) even started dreaming of multiday camping trip in the mountain. We still had some ‘convincing’ work cut out for us, as Caro and Leon were not really convinced that camping in a tent in ‘bear country’ was so appealing.
We took a break from Banff NP to visit the neighboring but much less visited Yoho National Park. After all the hiking it was time for some relaxing and planning of the next week. After some rest and investigation we found a ‘tent camping’ hike in Banff that was suggested for ‘novice backpackers’. That did not mean it was an easy hike though (25 km and +/- 1300m elevation) so we decided to first do a last test with the kids before tackling this adventure. That test was the ‘Iceline trail’ in Yoho NP (18 km and 900 something in elevation). The weather was again outstanding and it was another gorgeous hike right under the glaciers that also passed several awesome waterfalls. Leon got a big ‘bonus’ when we met an (amateur) archeologist who pointed out some fossilized dino remains that were revealed by the retreating glaciers. Some of the fossils even had some of the dino bones left in them. Even the parents became a bit dino crazy at this point. At the end of the day the kids were exhausted (as were we!) but they had passed the test and were ready for a camping trip!
We headed back to Banff National Park to prepare for the trip that would be a first camping hike for the kids. It would also be the first camping trip in ‘bear country’ for us. And with that come a lot of things to keep in mind. Especially since our hike would take us through ‘prime grizzly bear habitat’. We did some last shopping in Banff town and then set off for Lake Minnewakka where we wanted to do the ‘Alymer Look out’ walk (about 25 km over two days). We brought our big trekking backpacks from home but it was still a bit of a puzzle to fit a tent, sleeping pads & bags, cooking gear, food and clothes for 4 into two packs. Luckily the kids volunteered to carry their own clothes in their own backpack (because they wanted to be real backpackers too).
This was the end of June and we read that 2 weeks later the campground would be closed for the summer and the access to the trail would be restricted “to avoid conflicts with Grizzly bears”. This was not the most reassuring thing to hear for some of us. But looking at the Canadian statistics, the odds of ‘contact with a bear resulting in injury or death’ are actually very very low. This can largely be attributed to the great work that Canadian ‘outdoor recreation’ organizations are doing in creating ‘bear awareness’ with travellers.
So before heading out, we did some studying and there are quite a few rules to follow:
- No food or toiletries in or anywhere near the tents
- Cooking and eating at least 200 m from the tent
- Always be aware of bears around the campsite
- Carry bear spray (and know how to use it)
- Make a lot of noise when passing through dense vegetation or at blind corners.
And then there is also a whole lot of instructions on what to do in case (in spite of the above) an attack would happen. There are pretty complex decision trees on what to do based on the type of bear (black or grizzly), the ‘type’ of attack (‘defensive’ or ‘predatory’), and the duration of the attack. But I am not sure how many people would be able to run through these decision trees in the couple of seconds before an attack happens. The old rule of “If it’s black -fight back and if it’s brown, stay down” was too confusing as the ‘black bear’ comes in all kind of colors and the Grizzly can be a very dark brown.
Anyway with all these rules in mind we set out on a sunny and very hot morning, talking very loud (usually not an issue with Lucie on our team) and singing songs. We got to the campsite, set up camp (following all the rules) and then went on a hike to the lookout. Once back in camp it was dinner time. We were lucky to meet some experienced local hikers that were able to give some tips and tricks and we also had a good look at the gear they were using (our camping cooking gear is almost 15 years old and technology has clearly moved on). They also gave some reassurance about the whole ‘bear situation’. They pointed out why the campsite was going to be closed two weeks later: the whole place was full of berries (the favorite late summer snack of our furry friends). But these berries were far from ripe and so it would take quite some time before the grizzlies would come down the mountains for their snack.
More or less reassured (some more than the others) we went to sleep while (being close to midsummer) the sun was still pretty high in the sky. We did wake up a couple of times and once there was clearly an animal walking around the tent. But this turned out to be a curious young deer. In the end the kids slept like babies, the parents a bit less so. The return hike the next day was rather uneventful (not a bear or other animal to be seen) until we got to the parking lot where we saw the whole lot was empty and taped off. Apparently rangers were trying to catch a ‘problem bear’ in the lot. We did not stick around for these festivities as we were going to tackle the next part of the Rocky Mountains National Parks trail: the Icefield Parkway; the highway to Jasper National Park.
This highway is advertised as one of the best drives in Canada and it did not disappoint. It was however the first time we realized how busy this region really gets in summer; people queuing to see a waterfall or to take a picture with the famous Peyto lake. We did a couple of short hikes and got close to some glaciers for the first time on our trip. The Icefields information center had a really great movie, explaining global warming to kids. The next morning, they could see the impact for themselves when we walked up to the glacier and saw the markers of where the glacier used to be the last 100 years.
Near Jasper we did a couple of side trips to Mt. Edith Cavell and Maligne lake. We saw our first elk on the road to Maligne and also found them on our campground (where they were blocking the access to the bathrooms).
But…by now it was the first week of July and it was really time to start moving North if we wanted to spend some time in Yukon and Alaska. So from Jasper NP we looked for the quickest route to Dawson Creek, the official starting point of the Alaska Highway.