The Great American Road Trip II - 11 - Loaded for Bear
We escaped from our hotel at 9:48 and gassed up soon afterwards. We went along the Bow Valley Parkway north to Lake Louise and Lake Moraine. We saw more than we could yesterday as far as scenery went, but there were still too many clouds for a completely clear view. We saw a lot of deer as we traveled the Parkway.
The clouds looked a little more clear so we pulled into the Lake Louise parking lot again to see what we could see. We saw a bit more of the mountain-lake scenery than yesterday, with snow-covered, jagged rocks jutting up out of the sides of the lake through into the clouds above, but we could only catch occasional glimpses of the white peaks. After getting more pictures of the clearer lake area, we went towards Lake Moraine.
This time, the road to the lake was open, and we went along the eight-and-a-half-mile-long winding mountain road up to the lake. There were no guardrails and we could see just how much snow accumulated yesterday which was plowed onto the side of the road. The rain turned to slush and then hard snow as we ascended the mountain and the temperature plummeted to freezing.
It took us fourteen minutes to go these fourteen kilometers, but we arrived safe and sound at Lake Moraine. It was larger and prettier than Lake Louise, and due to its altitude and temperature had completely frozen over. The lake juts up against incredibly tall and jagged mountains and was initially carved by a glacier - hence the geological term "moraine" for the lake. (A "moraine" is consolidated loose matter accumulated in one area by the movement of a glacier.) There was snow everywhere and it was gorgeous, if very cold.
Just after noon we headed back downhill. Rain took over from snow as the temperature climbed to a comparatively tropical 1. Rain and snow switched out as the temperature dipped and rose to and from the freezing point. Fortunately we didn't run into any hail, unlike last year's Black Hills experience.
The drive had taken a toll on our gas tank so we stopped for gas in the village of Lake Louise. We were given a coupon by a very polite Korean man at the gas station for sandwiches at a place across the street called the Javalanche. Their club sandwiches featured red bell peppers and cucumbers, which was rather odd.
We took Alberta Route 93, also called the Icefields Parkway after the Columbia Icefields, northbound to Jasper. The Columbia Icefields are about halfway between Lake Louise and Jasper. The temperature reached a balmy 2 as we saw various scenic waterfalls and passed small glaciers. The precipitation would never stop - it would slow to a meager drizzle but would never quite come to a halt. As the temperature fluctuated, so did the kind of precipitation we got.
Bow Lake, which feeds the Bow River, was frozen over. The sun kept up its efforts to poke through the cloud cover but the clouds always won the battle. As we descended into a valley, the mountains around us had ribbons of snow on top of them - kind of like layers of cake. There'd be snow, rocks, and trees, all in strata all the way up the sheer cliff.
It's really quite hard to describe the scenery along the route. We'd enter down into utterly flat valleys carved out by glaciers past, but we hugged one side of the valley. On the other side of the valley, sheer and jagged mountains erupted from the ground all the way into the ever-lessening cloud clover. Just off the right of the road, however, the mountains were like incredibly large hills, clothed from top to bottom in large evergreens. The juxtaposition of these incredibly disparate pieces of scenery make that part of the drive highly eclectic.
At 2:30 we entered the Columbia Icefields area. We saw the Athabasca Glacier as the sun finally burst through the clouds and we saw the first slice of blue sky since the middle of Saskatchewan.
There is a private company that takes large tour buses up onto the Athabasca Glacier and lets people walk around for a few minutes. This by its very nature was something that we absolutely had to do.
For being something out smack-dab in the middle of nowhere, it was like the Olympics; every nationality was represented. However, almost none of them understood English and, as such, disregarded the bus driver's many warnings not to go out onto unchecked glacial ice as they could fall into a crevasse as deep as the Eiffel Tower is tall and would instantly die.
In addition to walking around on a freakin' glacier - which was in and of itself completely awesome, as it is surrounded on three sides by the trademark snowcapped, jagged peaks of the Canadian Rockies - we dipped our hands in frigid, pure glacial water, just now melting after being frozen for thousands of years. The glacier is flowing off from the vast Columbia Icefields, which were just beyond our line of sight up and over the glacier. (The Icefields are so incredibly large that they could pick up the entire city of Vancouver, put in on the Icefields, and still have more than enough room to spare. We did not see them but we got enough of a taste of them after the glacier walk.)
We talked with a Welsh couple who were visiting family in Vancouver as I entertained their precocious 20-month old with Yoder the Duck. He took a liking to the little orange duck and seemed sad when he had to give him back. We also learned more about glaciers than we probably needed to know courtesy of our enthusiastic bus driver, who talked so extensively about glaciers and glacier-related topics that, if his loses his job as an glacier bus driver, he could easily land a gig somewhere as an auctioneer.
At 4:30 we hit the road again and saw more of the strange Rockies/plains/large hills landscape.
A little after 5:00 we saw a massive grizzly bear walking the other direction along the road. While we aren't sure, given its sheer size we think it was a male grizzly. (My parents lived a few years in Alaska before I was born and they both said that it was the largest bear they'd ever seen.)
As we rolled on towards Jasper, the scenery got progressively more gorgeous. The large hills became interspersed with the jagged peaks. Solid white mountains poked out of the occasional spaces between the mountains. The road would go straight for miles and miles, giving scale to the peaks that lay before us. It's hard not to feel small when driving through.
We got plenty of pictures and heard about another bear from some folks at another pullout. Thinking that we were lucky for seeing three bears in two days, we kept on towards Jasper.
At 6:00 sharp we saw a number of cars parked along the side of the road. Pulling off, we saw what they saw: a momma black bear with two cubs that play-fought with each other and climbed up on trees. Tourists would come too close for comfort to the bears, but did not get between the mother and her cubs and thus they did not get eaten. We got tons of pictures as the bears walked into the woods and, having seen six bears (three grizzly, three black) in two days, we felt pretty good about ourselves. Within a few minutes we were in Jasper.
Wanting to continue the scenic drive, we skirted around Jasper and headed up the road towards Patricia and Pyramid Lakes in search of the still-elusive moose. We'd seen six bears when seeing one is uncommon, but we still hadn't seen a moose.
(Side note: Patricia Lake was used during World War II for Operation Habakkuk, which tested the theory of unsinkable ships carved from icebergs. While these ships never actually launched they were tested extensively - as the MythBusters once proved, while the theory has merit on paper, real-life conditions are not conducive to its use in warfare.)
Both lakes were gorgeous and the sky was almost completely clear. We saw a number of mule deer in addition to the lakes, but even though we passed many marshy areas conducive to moose sightings and slowed down in the hopes of catching a glimpse, we still have yet to see a moose.
But don't worry. We'll see moose when we drive the Alaska Highway next year. (To pass the time on the hypothetical drive to Alaska next year, I would tell my parents everything I know about the history of and sights along the highway, then spend the rest listening to the complete works of ABBA and Dire Straits on the iPod. What time remained would be dedicated to making horrible puns.)
After checking into our hotel we went out for some dinner. While driving into the restaurant, we saw about twelve or so large female elk that were either walking near the road or right next to the restaurant, busy stripping off plant leaves. We got up pretty darn close to some - as close as we could to still be safe, but it wasn't all that far away. As we walked to the restaurant, a man came running out and waving his arms at the other tourists, screaming "two bus lengths! If they get scared they'll kill you!"
Strangely enough, this very man ended up being our waiter.
The steaks were excellent but the dessert of maple-walnut ice cream was better than the maple ice cream we first tried (and went back for) last year in Portland.
Pyramid Lake is the furthest north I've ever been and the furthest north we'll go on this journey. (That is, unless we decide to wing it and go up to Alaska.)
Tomorrow: Southbound again to Kamloops in British Columbia.