Posts Tagged ‘canada’

Best roads (so far)

September 12th, 2011 Comments off

I’ve driven on some amazing roads on this trip.  The vast majority of those asphalt (and gravel) ribbons were completely functional, but only a few stand out as being truly exceptional.

#3: Beartooth Highway US-212 (Wyoming and Montana)

This is a famous road that starts in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, goes up a 10,000+ ft mountain pass, and descends into the friendly town of Red Lodge, Montana.  A good chunk of it is above the treeline, and snow is a possibility year-round.

The amazing vistas, the fun twisty curves on the many switchbacks, and the picturesque surroundings combine to make an excellent driving experience.  Better yet, there are numerous spots to pull off the road and soak it all in.  Charles Kuralt called the Beartooth “the most beautiful drive in America.”

#2: Sea-to-Sky Highway BC-99 north of Whistler (British Columbia)

I stumbled upon Highway 99 without knowing its many qualities; I had simply wanted to go to Whistler from Prince George.  I had been on the part of Highway 99 south of Whistler when I went there skiing, but the road to the south has a completely different personality than the one to the north.  Whereas the southern stretch is a 4-lane divided highway for most of its run, the northern part is a 2-lane, sometimes 1-lane, line of tarmac twisting through, up, and down giant mountains.

It winds through forests.  It echoes rivers.  It offers views of trees, rocks, snow, farmland, trains, tunnels, and more.

It’s a playground for sports cars and motorcycles.

It’s a thrill, and it seems to have been completely repaved within the past year or two, so it’s in excellent condition.

I couldn’t erase the smile from my face as I shot Sam through the curves.  It was the one time on the trip that I wished Sam were a WRX instead of an Outback.

#1: Pacific Coast Highway US-101 and CA-1 (Washington, Oregon, and California)

The most beautiful road in the world is actually several roads: start with US-101 in Washington, follow that down until around Eureka, California, then turn off onto CA-1.  Do that, and you will be greatly rewarded.

The magnitude of this road is what sets it apart from the others.  It’s 2000 miles of amazing scenery, scenery that makes everything seem right with the world.

Cruising down the coast with the windows down, the sun shining, and the surf of the Pacific pounding the beaches below the mammoth bluffs?  That’s the recipe for bliss.

It’s an engineering marvel, too.  There are hundreds of bridges.  There are enormous cuts in the cliffs.  Rockfalls, mudslides, floods, and other natural forces all attempt to cover or remove the road on a frequent basis.  On top of all that, many stretches of the road are extremely remote, which further complicates maintenance and non-functional cell phones.

If you ever have to go from Seattle to San Diego, do yourself a favor and drive the entire coast.

Honorable mention: the Alaska Highway (British Columbia, Yukon Territory, and Alaska), the Glenn Highway (Alaska), the Icefields Parkway (Alberta), and Highway 37A (British Columbia)

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Lake Agnes Teahouse

July 29th, 2011 1 comment

The Irish Breakfast tea would have been good anywhere, there was no doubt about that, but what made it exceptional that sunny June day was the environment in which it was being consumed.  Was it the log construction of the building? The nearby ice-dotted lake?  The green expanse of pines falling away endlessly to the valley below? All were essential tones in the symphony of the moment.

I took another sip.  Delicious.

I was at the Lake Agnes teahouse in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada.  There was only one way to get to the teahouse: a 2.5 mile hike up 1200 vertical feet from azure Lake Louise.

Canoes on Lake Louise

It wasn’t a particularly humbling ascent — many old people, overweight people, and old overweight people made it — but the measure of difficulty added immensely to the teahouse experience.  The tea became more than a beverage.  It transformed into a reward, a celebration of a climb conquered.

The Lake Agnes teahouse has been around in one form or another for about a century.  All of the supplies for the surprisingly extensive menu are hiked up by the staff or provisioned by an occasional helicopter drop.

Lake Agnes Teahouse

I picked up my cup and strolled inside the building. There, I found a kitchen and a small seating area. The sweet aroma of fresh cookies filled the interior; baking was done on-site.  The chipper staff of twentysomethings gave everything a lively air, and they were more than happy to dispense good hiking advice in addition to good eats.

Inside the Lake Agnes teahouse

It was a delightful change of pace from the resort environment of Lake Louise.

I returned outside to my table on the porch, the better to enjoy the view and the pleasant weather.  It was still early in the morning and the breeze slightly cool, making the warm rays of the sun welcome teammates to my hot beverage.

Tea and cookie at the Lake Agnes teahouse

The hordes of late-sleeping tourists had yet to attempt their ascents of the trail.  Just a dozen customers were leisurely soaking in the experience with me.  Smiles and relaxation ruled.

Ice-dotted Lake Agnes; a splendid alpine companion

As I munched on an oatmeal-raisin cookie and sipped on my tea (brewed from full-leaf loose leaves), I noticed my table neighbors paying with US currency, something then allowed by the teahouse at the generous rate of par.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Minnesota” they said.

The couple turned out to be Erik Aus and his wife Sue.  Erik was the successful recently retired head coach of the Centennial High School boys hockey team, a tenure that included a state championship in the mid-aughts.  They hailed from Lino Lakes, just a few miles from Fridley, where I had begun my journey.

I chuckled at my luck of running into other Minnesotans in a remote part of Canada.  Another sip of tea was in order.  Delicious tea.

Yukon hockey: done

July 24th, 2011 2 comments

A few days ago, I played the most low-key hockey of the trip so far: a stick-and-puck session at the arena in Whitehorse, Yukon.  The Yukon is technically a territory, so it doesn’t really count in my “every state and every province” goal, but I figured I might as well bag it anyway.

The session was during lunchtime on a weekday, which meant that (yet again) there were mostly kids there.  However, as it was a “family” stick-and-puck, there were a couple of parents, too.

I was the only goalie on the ice.  One of the kids, maybe 10 years old, actually thanked me for showing up, because “It’s a lot more fun to have a goalie to shoot on.”  Glad I could help, kid!

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Hi there, Hyder

July 23rd, 2011 1 comment

Back when I got Sam’s bulging tire replaced in Whitehorse, the guy doing the work, Art, strongly suggested that I visit Hyder, Alaska on my way down to Washington.  “Why not?” I thought.  And so I found myself in Hyder a few days ago.

Here are all the things you need to know about Hyder:

First, all of the good stuff is in neighboring Stewart, BC.  By “good stuff” I mean hotels, stores, gas stations, paved roads… you know, things other than a US Post Office and a bar.  Which brings us to…

Second, the bar there sells shots of Everclear, which is something that can’t be sold in bars in British Columbia.  If you do the shot and keep it down, then you’ve been “hyderized.”  I did not do this.  Why?  Not because of the foul taste.  Rather, it’s because they were using the milder 151-proof Everclear, not the more manly 190-proof variety (which may or may not be legal in Alaska).  I mean, only 75% a.b.v.?  Pfff.  But speaking of legal matters…

Third, you can enter Hyder, Alaska from Canada without a passport.  In fact, there is no US Customs presence whatsoever, nor is there a reporting phone like you might find at some other unstaffed land crossings.  You’re probably technically supposed to report to the nearest customs office, but there are no clear instructions on how to do that.  Going back into Canada, you do need to stop at the Canadian customs house.  I’ve never had a more low-key, relaxed interaction with a customs officer.   An easy re-entry was fine, because earlier I’d had some excitement while…

Entering Hyder, AK. Hard to see: the transition from nicely paved road to severely potholed gravel road.

Fourth, the US Forest Service runs a great grizzly viewing deck just north of Hyder.  The deck is built along a creek that salmon use for spawning.  When the salmon are running, it’s grizzly bear central.  The salmon are late this year, so there haven’t been many bears near the creek.  Still, a mother and her cub showed up to eat some vegetation while I was there.  They were looking quite thin; for their sake, I hope the salmon run starts soon.  Of course, even without the bears, there was plenty to see because…

Mama Grizzly, looking a bit thin and probably wondering where all the salmon are

Grizzly cub scratches an itch

Fifth, the drive into Stewart (and thus Hyder) is one of the most beautiful I’ve experienced.  Smooth, twisty pavement. Countless waterfalls.  Spectacular mountains.  Trees galore.  And plenty of glaciers.

Part of the Bear Glacier near Stewart, BC

Was it worth the detour to visit Stewart and Hyder?  Absolutely.

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Shadow Lake

July 10th, 2011 1 comment

I had spent the morning hiking uphill through an old pine forest.  My route mimed the path of powerful Redearth Creek, a turquoise-colored torrent rushing noisily beside me.   Everything was soaked from the rain that had besieged the area for the previous few days. The muddy trail was a testament to that, but so was the lush green moss carpeting the nearby forest floor.

At the end of my 14 km trek — not particularly taxing, even with 440 m of elevation gain — I came to Re14, the Banff National Park backcountry campground that would be my home for the night.  Like everything else, the campground was saturated.  The area where the park service had set up bear cables was particularly muddy.

Fortunately, there was a small somewhat-dry spot beneath the boughs of three giant lodgepole pines.  There I set up my Tarptent-brand, um, tarp tent.  Then I ventured out to explore nearby Shadow Lake.

Almost immediately after I left the campground on the trail, I stumbled into Shadow Lake Lodge, a collection of a dozen beautiful log cabins in a clearing in the forest.  Glacier-topped Mt. Ball loomed large, dominating the westerly view.  The map had indicated the presence of a lodge, but it offered no other details, not even a name.

The main building at Shadow Lake Lodge

A couple of day hikers were munching on a snack at one of the lodge’s picnic tables.

“What is this place?” I asked.

“Talk to the girls inside the main building. They’ll tell you all about it,” came the reply.

And so I did.  Amy (from Australia) and Yana (from the Czech Republic) explained how the lodge had been in operation since the days of the railroad almost a century earlier.  They told me how they had just opened for the season, so there were not yet many guests.  They invited me to try the lodge’s afternoon tea service.

Yes, afternoon tea.  Despite being in a location that required all guests to make the same hike I had completed that morning, it was not so remote as to be uncivilized. In fact, the lodge provided breakfast, lunch, and a multi-course dinner to the guests staying overnight, in addition to the tea service.

I wasn’t staying at the lodge with its fancy wood walls and roof; I was roughing it, darn it. Thus, afternoon tea cost me $15, but that seemed reasonable for such an extravagance in the backcountry.  The spread was impressive: imported cheeses, various cookies, scones, grapes, vegetables, dip, salsa, chips, apple tart, lemonade, and, of course, tea.  All of the pastries and cookies were baked on site from scratch, so the building itself smelled great.  Okay, maybe the tea service voided my “roughing it” credentials for the day.

The spread at Shadow Lake's afternoon tea

The awkward part about the experience was the lack of other people.  I was the only customer at the tea.  That left me feeling guilty about both not eating much and as well eating as much as I did.  I figured I had to try at least one of everything, but that still left enough food for a dozen non-existent people.  My inner Minnesotan was tormented.  Seemingly sensing the situation, Amy gave me a plastic baggie and told me to take some cookies for later; I happily obliged.  The Minnesotan was mollified.

Kind of lonely...

While I was sipping my second cup of tea and munching on my third helping of goodies, a day hiker came by and reported that he heard several whistles while hiking along Shadow Lake, which was located about 1 km from the lodge. He wasn’t certain that it was a human, but he knew that whistles can be distress signals, and he thought it best to inform somebody rather than let it slide.  That somebody ended up being Amy.

Here’s the thing about Amy: great person, but not exactly experienced in the backcountry.  She had come over from Australia three weeks earlier, seen an ad in the paper in Banff advertising the job at Shadow Lake Lodge, and taken it.  Despite the remoteness of the lodge, backcountry experience in the Canadian Rockies was not a prerequisite for the position.

She wisely decided to defer to the park warden on the matter of the whistling.

The lodge didn’t have a normal telephone, but it did have an old autopatch-style radio telephone.  Amy tinkered with it for a while, but she was having trouble getting it to dial the park warden’s number.  I wasn’t much help beyond offering words of encouragement.  The other staff were all away from the cabins on hikes or something, so it was up to Amy to figure it out.  She briefly considered using the lodge’s Iridium satellite phone, but the phone reported the account being invalid (huh?).  My Globalstar satellite phone would have been another option, but the next satellite pass for its operation was 25 minutes away.

Tea and tart

After 15 more minutes of screwing around, Amy finally figured out the correct sequence of DTMF tones and timing to dial the park’s number.  She related the account of the whistling to the warden.  Much to everybody’s relief, the warden said that it was almost certainly a marmot, not a person.

According to him, marmots make noises that can sound strikingly similar to those produced by artificial human whistles.  Amy and I were surprised by that, so we keyed up a Youtube video of a marmot whistling. (Despite a lack of phone service, the lodge had high-speed internet access, most likely via satellite.)  Listen for yourself.  Imagine hearing just a couple of those bursts, perhaps each for a slightly longer duration; do they not sound at least a bit human?

Later, I went for my own hike along the shore of Shadow Lake.  I got drenched by the restarted rain and chilled by the temperature at altitude; snow dotted the ground beside me. I was enjoying view of the stoic  turquoise waters and the huge glaciers feeding them when I too heard a whistle in the woods.  It was clearly a marmot, but still, the resemblance to a human whistle was enough to make me holler out “Hello! Is anybody there?”  The gentle patter of raindrops was the only reply.

I munched down a cookie and hiked back to my tent.

The view of a ridge near Mt. Ball from camp the next morning