We left Cow Bay (the waterfront district in Prince Rupert named after Jean Nehring, a Swiss guy, who unloaded a herd of cows here in 1908) on a foggy morning and drove east along Highway 16 known as the Yellowhead Highway. Three main arteries connect this wet part of the world to the rest of Canada: The mighty Skeena River, the CNR rail line, originally called the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, and the Yellowhead Highway often referred to as the Highway of Tears. The 750km stretch of road between Prince Rupert and Prince George has been the location of many murders and disappearances of First Nations women, beginning in 1970. All three arteries run parallel and we passed by 3 km long trains double-stacked with containers.
Our destination was Hazelton and the K’san village in particular. This historic site was the home of the Gitxsan peoples for over 8000 years and is a fantastic showcase of aboriginal culture. Several authentic longhouses fronted by stately totem poles house exhibits from pre-contact to modern times. The Gitxsan – the people of the mist and river – are a very gentle folk and have avoided contact with white Europeans until the 19th century. We were the only people in the large parking lot since there were no tour busses and no tourists. Lucky for us that the site’s museum was open.
We arrived in Smithers’ late afternoon and parked our van in the municipal campground. The townsite was founded in 1913 and sits in a flat, wide valley at the foot of the Hudson Bay mountains, along the Bulkley river. It was once home to several Swiss families, and the wooden carved Alphorn Al is at the apex of Main Street, greeting visitors. Smithers is laid out in a perfect grid and has a definite alpine vibe, with chalet type store fronts, a vibrant ski and hockey culture, including an old type outdoor rink, a weekly farmers market as well as two craft breweries. The wide streets are probably flanked by snowbanks in the winter. Did I mention the fat, green, luscious lawns everywhere? A sure sign of the wet climate around here.
There is Covid awareness here and people do distance and wear masks indoors and although the virus is a constant topic of conversation, people talk about other things, like hikes and the weather. And winter is coming.
We passed through Prince George making a bee line for Jasper in the Northern Rockies. Unlike Smithers, masks are mandatory in public, in and outdoors. People walking, bicycling and even driving cars wear masks. It’s kind of depressing, almost like everybody is sick. The constant spritzing and wiping with bleach in every restaurant is giving me a rash and I’m not sure what it is supposed to accomplish, apart from the constant awareness, that something evil is lurking in the air.
The cold and stark beauty of the surrounding mountains is somewhat reassuring; there is another reference, a different time frame, a geological certainty. Covid-19 may be an annoying blip in cosmic terms but these Rocky Mountains are here to stay.
The fall colours are a palette of yellows, oranges, greens and browns but the rust coloured patches of trees all along the Athabasca valley are dead pines, killed by the mountain pine beetle and ready kindling for the next lightening strike.
Highway 93 south along the Columbia Icefields is surely one of the most spectacular drives anywhere in the world. Flanked by majestic limestone mountains that rise like gigantic waves frozen in time, on both sides of the highway, that winds along the Bow river. The glaciers, are receding steadily, drawing back up the mountains, leaving behind rocks and gravel. There was little traffic and for long times we were the only car winding our way south towards Lake Louise. Even there the famous glacier at the end of the turquoise Lake is a fraction of what it was just a few decades ago. Lake Louise was a busy place, with hundreds of visitors, wearing masks or not, mingling around the spectacular lake. But no tour busses, no foreign mass tourism and yet it still felt like a nature Disneyland. I don’t do well in aimless crowds, unless it’s a football match or a concert, so we snapped a few pictures and split, glad to have been able to drive up to the lake at all.
We drove on to Banff to visit our friends who welcomed us without masks but instead with a drink in hand. Banff is surely one of the most beautiful situated towns anywhere and its mountain style architecture of natural stone and lofty wooden beams makes this outdoor mecca a very pleasant place to stroll about the Galleries, sports shops, restaurants and pubs. The municipal hall hands out packs of 16 masks to residents for free and it will be interesting to see how the merchants and eateries handle the coming winter. Skiing is going to be the sport of choice I’m sure. Where else do people already wear goggles, masks and distance themselves? On the white slopes of course. Après skiing will be another story. As we know, nothing will remain the same and only change will endure.