By Florence Tramoni, BRN 25559
“The U.S. Rockies are the appetizer, but the Canadian Rockies are the main course.”
A friend told me that last year when I got the email that I had been moved from a two-year waitlist for the Canadian Rocky Mountain Caravan.
The Last Chance Saloon
It was not an understatement.
We — my Jack Russell, Luna, and I — left in early June on a 32-day trip from Oregon, through Montana, Alberta, British Columbia, and home to Oregon through Idaho; the caravan itself was 21 days. There were 20 rigs, and the folks were from all over the U.S. How exciting when our binders were distributed on night one in Drumheller, Alberta. This is the longest continuously running caravan in various formats, in the history of WBCCI caravanning. The degree of organization and careful planning are a testament to that history.
I think food plays a crucial role in making bonds and creating fellowship. This caravan has fine-tuned the meals. First off, we had nine GAMs. These are greet-and-meets, held at a different trailer, and rotating so that you never go to a GAM with the same people.
It was a great way to meet everyone in a smaller setting, with light appetizers and your own beverage. We also had four group cookouts. Everyone was put in a group of five and that group would buy supplies (all reimbursed by the hosts) and make dinner for all 38 of us. It was all laid out in the binder so everyone knew when their turn was, where to shop and what to buy (or you could your own menu). There were always grills, ovens, whatever was needed at the camps to do the cookouts, as well as enough volunteers for anyone who didn’t want to cook! There were two catered dinners, four group dinners out at restaurants and the rest were on your own. Well done!
Big Sky thunderstorm near the Canadian border
Crossing the border
I had some concerns about the border crossing: limits on how much wine I could bring (it was a longer trip after all), dog papers for rabies, COVID test and a certificate of recovery (I had gotten COVID in Paris the month prior and could still test positive).
Anyway, the agent was not interested in any of the papers that I so wanted to show him! However, coming home at the crossing in Idaho, the agents took my limes and eggs — go figure.
I entered Canada after a few days in Glacier National Park, at the border crossing in the Wheatland Country of Alberta. It is an extension of the American Great Plains. If I thought Montana was Big Sky country (which it is), there is even more of it when you cross the border at the Piegan-Carway Border Crossing which connects Babb, Montana with Cardston, Alberta. The roads are long and straight, and the thunderstorms are spectacular and stunning.
The caravan officially started Drumheller, Alberta, the dinosaur capital of the world, once a dinosaur paradise 70-90 million years ago. It is home to the Royal Tyrell Museum of Paleontology, which is one of the world’s largest displays of dinosaur fossils. Scientists come from all over the globe to study the specimens here. A warm, temperate climate meant lush vegetation that was perfect for herbivores, which meant ample prey for the carnivores. Many bones from these animals were buried, and then fossilized. I wish the pictures could express the size of these specimens.
Dinosaur skeleton at the Royal Tyrell Museum of Paleontology
The sedimentary rocks through this region are called the Badlands of Alberta, very similar to the Badlands near the Black Hills of South Dakota. Layers of sediments piled up over millions of years in a warm shallow sea were later thrust up, then eroded when the last glacial recession happened about 12,000 years ago. It makes for cool-looking layered rocks. The one with Luna posing on the mushroom shaped rock is called a hoodoo.
We made a stop at the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Other sites include the Egyptian Pyramids, the Taj Mahal, and Stonehenge.
The buffalo jump was used for 6,000 years by several tribes of the Plains to funnel buffalo over this cliff so they could be skinned and butchered in the valley below.
We then made a stop at the Bar-U Ranch National Historic Site. I had just recently binged “Yellowstone” on Netflix and thought I really knew what big ranch farming was about — not! But this was a cool history lesson about the ranching cowboys in the late 19th and early 20th century. At its peak, the ranch extended over 160,000 acres, with 30,000 head of cattle and 1,000 Percheron horses. Two owners were instrumental in the establishment of the Calgary Stampede. We were allowed to camp on the grass in a double row, half circle. No other group but the Airstream Caravan were allowed to camp at this National Historic Site.
Luna posing on a mushroom-shaped rock called a “hoodoo.”
Hot springs worth seeing
Next stop was Fairmont Hot Springs, Alberta. The springs have been trapped in pools where you pay to get in, but the water is all natural and untainted. These two pools — think big municipal pools — are at 104 degrees and are drained every night, with the natural springs refilling them. One of the locals told a few of us where to go on the river below the campground where that water is drained — and voilà, natural pools in the river! We weren’t the only ones to have heard about this, but there’s something about a “wilder” experience. The temperature was probably around 95 degrees; not real hot, but it was delightful. And free.
Fairmont Hot Springs, Alberta
As we passed Radium Hot Springs on the way to Lake Louise in Banff National Park, the co-pilot got very agitated at the mountain goats having a leisurely stroll across the highway. The caravan leader had told us of a cool section of road where it was worth getting out to take pictures of the trailers as they come through the cut in the cliffs. It was quite a rigamarole to get it done, but this is one my favorite pictures of my rig!
Through the Cliffs en route to Banff National Park
Lake Louise Campground is just a breath away from the British Columbia border. There is little that can be said about what I saw here because it is just too big for words … but breathtaking comes to mind. As we were just arriving in the valley, I was at the wheel, gawking in one instant and tears literally welling up in the next instant at the extreme beauty. It made for an interesting day of driving. It was great to be here for three days to take it in.
A hike to the Lake Agnes Tea House is a must-do. The waters of Moraine Lake, Lake Agnes and Lake Louise have this amazing turquoise color; this is not photoshopped! The water has glacial flour in it, which is ultra-fine rock dust produced by the glaciers rubbing against the bedrock, which stays suspended in the water and then reflects light. A worthwhile stop while at Lake Louise is at Kicking Horse Pass to watch the trains of the Canadian Pacific Railway appear and disappear through the spiral tunnels.
We also took a ride to the top of Lake Louise Ski Resort chairlift. It was very cool to see the interpretive center at the top, not to mention more jaw-dropping scenery of Banff National Park. Oh, and mama and baby grizzly cub picking berries. The area at the top of the chairlift is encircled with an electrified fence — think Jurassic Park — for us humans to visit in safety.
We continued our northward trek from Lake Louise to the Kootenay Plains Ecological Reserve for four days of dry camping. This was my favorite camping location of the caravan. No campground, no electricity, no water. Yes, those little silver dots in the foreground are the Airstreams tucked away in awesome camping spots; plenty of room for all 20 trailers. While the giant mountains and jaw dropping views had been staggering during the previous week, the serenity and spiritual peace of this spot was without question one of the highlights of the trip. We had a spacious area to live in and a huge fire pit for dinner and late evening chit-chat.
Stories to tell
The Kootenay Plains Reserve was our base camp for a day trip to the — wait for it — Athabasca Glacier. OK, I’m going to try to contain myself here because this is what my academic training was in.
In the 90s, I got to work with smart people in Antarctica who were drilling ice cores and crunching numbers to quantify climate change. They already knew what was coming. Anyway, the Athabasca Glacier, like all glaciers today, is a dying breed. In the past 125 years, the Athabasca Glacier has lost half of its volume and receded almost a mile. Glaciers tell the story of a changing climate. There is also the very cool Columbia Icefield Skywalk a couple of miles away. Maybe you’ve been at a similar one at the Grand Canyon. It is a suspended platform where glass is all that separates you from rugged and wild terrain 918 feet below. The walkway swoops out and away from the parking area almost 200 feet. It’s not for everyone!
The Athabasca Glacier
Onward and northward to Jasper National Park. And oh gee, just a grizzly out for a stroll whilst we are passing by in the relative safety of our vehicles. We were fortunate to see grizzlies, safely, on several occasions. Once we began moving through Jasper National Park, the wildlife extravaganza of the trip began. Mountain goat road hazards (they lick the salt from the double yellow line that comes wafting off the local rocks), giant elk posing for the camera and black bears. And all these photos are from the truck; I didn’t have to work to get them.
Views for days
We took a great boat ride on Maligne Lake, not far from the town of Jasper. Amazing azure water, surrounded by 10,000- and 11,000-foot peaks, and three glaciers visible from the lake. Spirit Island, a frequently and very famously photographed islet, was used by the First Nations peoples of the Stoney Nakoda for coming-of-age ceremonies because of its inspired location. I must mention that all along this trip, the guides and local history interpreters we have met have all been extremely well-versed and forthcoming about the way the early Canadian government treated its indigenous people. Canada’s past is equally dark as the U.S. when it comes to what we did to the original inhabitants of this continent.
It was a perfect day followed by a gourmet dinner at the Maligne Canyon Wilderness Kitchen. I highly recommend Jasper town.
We spent three days in Banff, another fabulous mountain town. This is where the shopping is! And many great restaurants as well. Do the Johnston Canyon hike on this stop, and if you are a golfer, treat yourself to a round at the beautiful Fairmont Banff Springs Golf Course. Bring your non-golfing partner to ride in the cart and experience one of the most breathtaking golf courses on the planet. Complete with a moose on the day I played.
We rode the chairlift at Sunshine Village and what a stunning view of the backcountry from the backside! And the Banff gondola at Sulfur Mountain provides a spectacular view of the Banff Valley, town on the left and golf course on the right. We camped at a very large campground on the hill in the middle.
Closing it out
The last stop was in Calgary for the Calgary Stampede, one of the biggest money rodeos in the world. I don’t know much about the rodeo world (well, like I said, I have watched “Yellowstone”) but I just really enjoyed our two nights there. The caravan stayed outside of town and a bus took us to the Stampede during the day once, and for the evening the second day.
The hosts had arranged for dog sitters to come to the trailers several times while we were gone. My favorite events were the First Nations bareback relays and the barrel races. The gal that won the barrel races was 61 years old. What a mentor to the young 20-somethings she competed against!
Elk and grizzly bears posing for the camera at Jasper National Park
It is no accident this is the longest running caravan in WBCCI history. Wally himself ran the first one in 1954. The organization and curation of events is sterling, and I cannot commend our hosts Deane and Judy Collinson from Toronto enough.
Thank you, Collinson’s, for being everything volunteering in the ACI is all about.