Banff was pleasantly accessible and didn’t feel crowded due to the lack of international tourists. A bonus for us visitors, a calamity for the local businesses. It will be a hard winter for many: from shop keepers to students, teachers to restaurateurs. We said farewell to our friends who both are connected to the Banff Centre, the artistic and intellectual heart of the mountain village, which in a normal year would bring in hundreds of artists and students from all over the globe but now sits mute and closed; its staff and students furloughed until past-Covid times it seems.
We drove through Canmore which has grown from a mere 2000 inhabitants 30 years ago to 20’000 today. It’s outside the park and close enough to Calgary for it to be both a recreational and a commuter town, with a life of its own as an alpine destination with grand vistas and access to the major mountains.
Our friends advised us to take Highway 40 south through the Highwood Pass, at 2200 m the highest paved pass in Canada. #40 connects to #22 in Longview, home of the best Beef Jerky. The road follows the continental divide past some of the most spectacular scenery. Snow-capped mountains slowly gave way to the foothills which led us into the gently rolling ranch country in Southern Alberta: a sea of green, dotted with ‘stock’ (cattle) and large swaths of straw yellow and freshly moved fields full of cylinders of hay the size of Smart cars as if a giant had thrown them arbitrarily across the landscape.
We passed Pincher Creek and were amused by the metal cut-outs of cowboys and horses along the road en-route to Waterton Lakes Park, which butts up against Glacier National Park south of the border. The town of Waterton is geared to tourists and we were lucky to be there on the last weekend before it shuts its doors for the winter. Quaint cottages make up the town and souvenir shops and restaurants line the main street, next to the largest of the Waterton lakes. We met our friends from Gibsons in the massive provincial campground that takes up a large part of the town. 100km winds had been forecast and mixed with driving rain it made for a nasty walk home in the dark from the pub. We scrambled into our camper vans, soaked to the bone and happy to be inside. The next day the sun broke through the clouds over top of one of the many 8000ft rocky peaks around us. Waterton is a hiking and horse-riding mecca and already dozens of cars were parked at the many trailheads. We were not alone but glad not to be here in high season. We did a couple of short hikes and got the feel of it. Tumbling waterfalls, red rock canyons, 1.5 billion years in the making, and surrounded by snow covered jagged mountains. What struck me were the forests of charcoaled, dead trees, reminders of the massive fire of 2017 which burnt nearly 40 per cent of the park. The townsite and the famous Prince of Wales hotel escaped unscathed.
We drove on through the Crowsnest Pass, had an in-van lunch at the Fernie ski hill and made it to Cranbrook early afternoon. Once a busy railway hub for all the coal mines it is now a sleepy town with all the usual McServices and strip malls. We checked out the local craft brewery, Heid Out, and marvelled at all those nascent breweries in every town. I never heard of one going broke. There is money in beer. ‘Pretty quiet town,’ I said to the young waitress. From behind her black mask she said with a hint of desperation: ‘Yep, nowhere to go, nothing to do, that’s Cranbrook.’
On the way towards Creston we passed through Yahk, a two-stop hamlet. Two Pump Paul for gas and snacks and Two Scoops Steve for ice cream, when available. It’s claim to fame: the time changes from Mountain Time to Pacific Time. Not sure what time it is in Yahk.
The Salmo Creston pass starts to climb after the fertile Creston flats and the descent after the 1775m summit is equally steep. After a right at Salmo and past the Shambhala festival site and the turnoff to Whitewater ski hill we arrived in Nelson, the Queen city of the Kootenays. Baker Street is surely one of the most vibrant and well-designed main streets of small town Canada. Street scapes in the form of sidewalk lounge areas and cafes make the street a lively social scene. I remember when they built the mall and parking lot on the waterfront and everybody predicted the death of main street.
The one-hour scenic drive along Kootenay Lake ends in the Shangri-La of the Kootenays. Kaslo, home of the original Jazzfest, with its majestic views of the Selkirk and Purcell mountains and the lake and many quaint and restored buildings make this a very special place and a badly kept secret.
We chose the route over Retalac and past Sandon to Nakusp and the Fauquier ferry, then the Monashee pass and through Vernon to Kamloops. Cedar and firs gave way to Ponderosa pines and the lush valley of Shuswap and the north Okanagan morphed into semi-desert close to Kamloops. I changed back into shorts and T-shirt, even though this was the end of September. There were many hours when we forgot all about Covid and politics since we weren’t keeping up with the daily news and instead enjoyed the natural beauty all around us. We truly live in a spectacular province which is full of natural riches from minerals to scenery, from fertile valleys to large lakes and wild rivers and snow-capped mountains. We drove from Kamloops to Lillooet along narrow, winding roads on the edge of canyons and the mighty Fraser river, then along the Duffy lake road to Pemberton and Whistler. The sea to sky Highway down to Horseshoe Bay completed our 4000km B.C. circle tour and we were once again in line for a ferry to take us home to the Sunshine Coast.