Thursday, August 24, 2006

Titans In Canada

Thursday August 24th, 2006

If the Greek Gods are in Washington, their forebears, the Titans, are certainly in Canada. Up here in the Canadian Rockies, they have redefined, at least for me, rugged beauty. Wow. I mean, the Olympics are tremendous, but Banff and Jasper are spectacular, wet, snowy, soaring, rocky, rugged wonderlands. But I will get back to that in a minute, as the last time we spoke I was in Seattle.

So I picked up Ryan at the airport, went back to Matt's and then we met up with Matt's brother Jason and his roommate Jeff, and went out for a night in West Seattle. Ryan's first words as he got in the car were, "I am not going to drink tonight" ... three hours later we are sitting at the Matador, an awesome bar with an undefined westerny theme, drinking large glasses of crater lake vodka on the rocks after having polished off several beers waiting for the late happy hour to start. On the way in Jeff spied some older girls (actually moms who had come out to their old stomping grounds to relive the past) and about an hour afterwards we found ourselves at a second bar, not as lively, that used to be a Chinese place but is now trying to become hip ... unfortunately they did not get rid of the Chinese themed wall paper or Chinese karaoke area, which no one is using.

The girls, Tracy and her sister, had joined us after stopping off in an alley to get stoned. We are all sitting around a table, talking about Tracie's germophobia, as she is trying to convince me that not shaking hands will prevent you from getting West Nile virus and bird flu ... as a side note, I stopped talking to her here as she realized that I did not agree with her obviously brilliant insights into public health ... when a tall blond walks straight up to Ryan (who is not really talking after the long island ice tea and his two crater lake vodkas)

"Are you with anyone?"

Ryan, "Uh, no."

"Then do you want to dance?"

And that was it, I only saw Ryan once more as he was leaving the bar with Shannon (I found out her name later). He called me at 0930 the next morning to let me know he was coming back to Matt's and we needed to get on the road, but the rest of the night had dragged on an we were exhausted. We got some coffee and fruit (I am a big fan of fresh huckleberries) and such at the local farmers market, then finally hit the road at noon, leaving my newly purchased thermarest mattress behind, something I will only realize at the border crossing, when I will have time to think ...

Getting up to Canada should have taken about 90 minutes, but we were slowed by an accident and only got there around 3:15. At the border, Ryan is worried because his passport always gets him pulled out of line on planes for "random" inspections, but we figure it is Canada so it will be fine. We pull up to the window, after some genius kids who go the wrong way and have to make a U-turn across the border, and start talking to the officer, telling him about the money we have on us, the whiskey in the trunk, pocket knives, etc ... We hand him our passports and this exchange occurs

"So where are you guys headed?" "Calgary. Well actually Banff." "Where are you from?"

"He's from San Diego and I am actually moving from San Diego to New York, and am taking a road trip to get there."

"Why are you going to New York?" "I have a job there, I am going to do AIDS research at Albert Einstein college of Medicine."

"And you have a place there?" "Not yet, but it is being arranged by the university, so the apartment will be read on September 10th."

"So you are moving from San Diego to New York to start a new job, eh?" "Yeah, by way of mos of the western United States.
Figured I would take some time and see all the beautiful parks and such."

"Okay guys, just pull on through and park your car right over there, then head into the office."

Confused, we do as instructed, afraid they think Ryan is a terrorist. It turns out that Ryan is not the problem at all. I am the problem, as I am a homeless, jobless vagrant with only 85$ to my name, as the credit cards I show them mean apparently nothing. As I have told them that I am currently without a home or a job, they have decided I have no ties to the US and may stay in Canada. My family and future, by the way, are not considered ties. I am asked to produce proof of my job in New York, or of my housing, which I cannot do. Who carries that stuff around? Who even prints it out anymore.

I tell them I could show them the email, but the email they have there is not for civilian use. To get the email I would have to drive back to a cyber cafe in the states, print it out and bring it back, at which point the current staff would be off duty and I would have to go through this again. I give them the number at Einstein, but its Sunday so they get no one. And despite a search of the car, after which one of the searching agents surreptitiously tells us he found, "good things (Ryan's itinerary showing we need to get back to the states for him to fly out)", they remain convinced I am a threat to national security. Finally, after sitting there for an hour, thoroughly explaining what post-doctoral work is, why I am going to New York and listening to them whisper about us, I ask if I can have them call my old boss, who knows my new boss and can confirm my story. Another conference allows them to do this, so I give them Howard's phone number and they call him and, although I am sure he was tempted to say he had never heard of me, he convinced them that I was actually a citizen in good standing and they let me into Canada, and even gave us passport stamps, although they would not take a picture with us.

So now it is 4:30 and we have to drive 550 miles to get to Banff. Its a long drive and the directions I printed from Google are not clear and we end up veering off at some point and driving much closer to the US border than intended. This would have been a problem but the roadway is like a park. The fabulous highway, which is really fun to drive in Matilda, veers through huge green mountains and around lakes and waterfalls, its great. At one point we enter what must be Canada's fruit country, as fruit stands dot the sides of the highway. We stop and get far to much fruit (1lb of apricots ... suspiciously still in lb even though we are in Canada ... was 39 cents Canadian), hit up a wrap stop (which astoundingly offers everything on the menu in vegetarian, ah those civilized Canadians) and drive past an incredibly long lake in the Okanagan Lakes area, which by the way is incredible. Lush and beautiful with all kinds of gorgeous little rental houses, boats, fishing, swimming ... gotta get back there. Finally, at 1230 or 0130 at night, not being sure if we crossed into the next time zone, we pull off at Golden and pass out in a motel in which we are to spend less than 9 hours.

We get up and head over to Lake Louise as soon as possible in the morning, going to the information station to learn that Petra, my ex-girlfriends sister who is randomly in Banff the same time I am, is in fact not in Lake Louise and that the hotel she is staying at simply has an address in Lake Louise. So we give up on finding Petra and go secure a campsite, crossing the Texas Gate (Canadian for cattle guard) into a wonderful campsite (free firewood, showers, and an electrified bear fence, not to mention all the hoary marmots you could ask for). We set up and head over to Lake Louise for a hike. The lake is breathtaking, so green it takes you breathe away, like it must have sucked the color out of the forests for miles around. It is actually a little disconcerting, the more you look at it, as the water is SO unnatural, but it turns out the color is from glaciers eroding the surrounding hillsides into the lake. Regardless, the lake, its chateau and the hike are spectacular.

We get up to the plain of 6 glaciers, about 4 miles and 1500' up, where we are very close to Victoria glacier, and can sit, after a bit of a scramble, in a glacial waterfall. The plain is a massive moraine, the rocks and dirt left as glaciers pass over, with 6 (thus the name) glaciers surrounding it. If you have never seen a glacier, and I had not, they are awesome. Massive sheets of white that look like permanently frozen waterfalls stuck to the sides of mountains. Incredible. There is also a fabulous tea house up there, where they helicopter in supplies every spring and make everything fresh each day. From the tea house we move on, climbing up a ridiculous switch back trail (1200' in about a mile) and then down to Lake Agnes, past a second tea house (apparently, back in the 1930's it was civilized to have high tea up here after getting hideously sweaty climbing up over 1000' feet in your finery) and finally down another 2 miles to the lake.

We stop by the town plaza on the way back, pick up some food for dinner and stop in a candy/ice cream shop, where a wonderful lady helps me find the hotel that Petra is staying at, so I can call her and arrange a meeting the next day. While this sounds easy, it took us about two hours to do so as I am unable to successfully use the Canadian phone system, cannot hold or read the coins I have a in desperation accidental call Petras boyfriends business partner in the Czech Republic at 5 am his time ... we get back to camp exhausted, make a quick meal of beans and cheese and pass out. Unfortunately for me the 6lbs of apricots that we got and I ate most of are not dealing with my stomach well, and I am awake most of the night ...
Still, we get up at 6 am and speed up to Petra's hotel along the icefields parkway, getting lost in the incredibly thick fog about 1 km from the hotel. Despite this, the fog is wonderful as the way it settles over the mountains, lakes and glaciers on the sides of the road is amazing.

We do eventually find Petra and Robik and have breakfast with them, which was great. We follow the Czechs from the hotel to Athabasca glacier, on the way to which they stop 8 or 9 times to take pictures by wandering out into the middle of the 2 lane freeway. We finally get to the Icefields visitor center and go out to walk on the glacier, which is a surreal experience, essentially indescribable, the best I can do is like hiking uphill on a giant frozen waterfall.

The Athabasca glacier is receding, but it is still only about 1.5 km from the highway and a small section is roped off for safe walking, the rest being dangerous because of crevasses, as we are informed by about 2 dozen signs on the 0.5 km walk to the glacier. We walk, slide, sway, and clamber 100 feet up the glacier, wave goodbye to Petra and Robik (could not actually hug them as I would have fallen over), take some pictures, watch the other tourists slide down into the mud and then return to the icefields center, to learn about the glacier, which is 70 stories deep at its deepest point, and the Columbia Icefield, the most important natural phenomenon that no one has ever heard of. Seriously, look it up, it provides fresh water for about a 1/3 of north America. Amazing.

The rest of the parkway is also spectacular, although at this point Ryan and I are so tired we actually have to stop to take 45 minute nap in a rest area. We saw a dozen glaciers, some that looked like birds feet, some that looked like hats on the mountains, some that looked like snow slides and step ladders, and all of which were amazing. The Icefields Parkway is almost certainly the most beautiful stretch of road I have ever witnessed, with dozens of massive, severely shaped mountains and pure blue lakes and waterfalls complementing the glaciers in the drive down this glacier carved valley. We stopped several more times for short hikes, saw the Sunwapta and Athabasca waterfalls (incredible falls from glacial run off, most notably just incredibly powerful, which massive amounts of water gush through small rocky canyons, the canyons were carved into odd an beautiful shapes that complemented the falls) and ended the day at Lake Moraine, another gorgeous blue green glacial lake in the Lake Louise area.

We finally get a good nights rest and pack up the next day to head to Banff, stopping on the way to hike out to lower Johnston falls. Beautiful, a scaffold running about 400 feet down on the side of a 500 foot tall granite wall, over a fast moving stream. Trees and mosses everywhere, all highlighted by the sound of the stream rushing over and past a number of boulders and small rapids and falls, ending in a cave so close to the 50 foot falls that the mist soaked your shirt and you could almost touch the waterfall. The only problem was the massive amount of people, many of whom had actually never been in the wilderness before, as attested to by the clacking sounds they made walking out to the falls in heels.
Moving on, in Banff we toured the cave that started Canada's first national park (Banff), check out some Hoodoos (not as cool as in Bryce canyon but still great) and generally appreciated this beautiful tourist trap. Moving on too late in the afternoon, we sped off to Calgary in order to take the fastest route to the border, only to find it impossible to get gas (the gas stations we stopped at would only be accessible from one side of the road and would only allow you to access the freeway via access roads) We also discovered that there were traffic lights on the freeway, which slowed us up quite a bit. By the time we got to Fort MacLeod (birthplace of the mounties), an hour from the US, it was too late to see the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump and no one could direct us to the to the Mountie monument, so we just got some fries at A&W, the ubiquitous Tim Hortons being absent, and got down to the border.

Returning to the US was no problem, they were only concerned about tropical fruits, and we crossed into Montana and headed south. However, as soon as we crossed, there was fresh snow all over the ground, where there had been none 50 feet northward across the border ... this, coupled with the flash flood warning that was in effect as we headed into glacier, convinced us that our time in Montana might be troublesome ... but more on that next time.

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