(07th. – 31st. October, 2015)
Saying our goodbyes to the Yukon on the 7th of October we started heading south on the Stewart-Cassiar highway. We didn’t want to drive too long after the late night the day before and it appeared as though we wouldn’t have to search for a wild camping spot either. We stopped at the Boya Lake Provincial Park, mostly out of curiosity, to see if the park was still open this time of year. As we drove the road leading to the park we spotted a bobcat strolling along the roadway; it was probably quite surprised to see tourists so late in the year and bolted for the woods before we had a chance to snap a photo.
As we finally arrived at the park we were surprised to find that it was actually open, and as of the 1st of October they weren’t charging a camping fee anymore! We didn’t think about it too long before choosing the best spot along the lakeshore – of course we could choose whichever spot we wanted being the only guests. We started a campfire and cooked the two fish we were given the day before. The sunset shone with a wonderful play of color; and as darkness settled the northern lights danced in the distance. Travelling can be such a wonderful life experience! We were in a great mood and came to the realization that being out of season has it’s own rewards. We fantasized how we could, from now on, simply drive from one park to the other every campground would be better than the one before and of course all for the low, low price of free! But we couldn’t have been farther from reality. Such wonderful fantasies could only possibly come even remotely true in the sparsely populated regions of the north. Farther south everything was blocked by huge gates locked with massive padlocks and chains…
A Change in the Weather
The next morning it was warmer than it had been for a while and a fine drizzle was falling, though with temperatures hovering around the freezing mark that mixture isn’t exactly safe. It didn’t take too long for the drizzle to increase into a light rain, which promptly froze on contact! We hadn’t expected that especially since the temperatures we were getting were always way under the freezing point not to mention that it hadn’t actually rained in ages. We watched as everything started to get a thin coating of ice and asked ourselves if we were about to be stuck here for a while. “Wait and see” was what we first thought and went about preparing and having breakfast. Though, after breakfast things hadn’t seemed to have improved any but never the less we decided to check the situation out on the main highway and then take it from there. At the highway we found that we were actually very lucky. The road that led to the park was recently renewed and very smooth, which provided a great base for the ice rink that it now was. The road going south, however, was a much older road with a very rough surface and a lot more traction, so driving with extreme care we continued on our way.
In the course of the day it warmed even more and the light rain turned into a steady rain that didn’t stop… for days and days. Thick gray clouds covered the mountains and valleys and from the views that we were told were spectacular we saw absolutely nothing. Somehow it all seemed a bit familiar to us. Didn’t we have this weather on the way up north through BC? We asked ourselves if it always poured with rain in BC when we were there? And so with the constant rain came a low point for us. It hit us both and we found ourselves in a kind of funk. The sudden change in the weather – leaving the north where we had such an intense, adventurous and wonderful experience left us feeling empty and a bit down; ugly power lines along the highway, increased traffic and the loss of the wonderful peace and quiet of the north all helped to pull us even further down. As we finally reached the little village of Smithers we were shocked. It’s not even really anything big; big enough for a shopping center and fast food restaurants – nothing foreign – but suddenly it was all too much; too chaotic, too dirty, too loud and too fake. We felt totally out of place and would have rather simply turned around and headed back north. We quickly took care of the essentials like grocery shopping, e-mails and showers and left as soon as we could. It took quite a while before we managed to find our balance again.
For travelers with a limited budget who like simple camping BC has a lot to offer. They have something, which we hadn’t seen anywhere else, Recreation Sites. Scattered all through the province is a huge network of locally managed sites, sometimes in the form of a trailhead parking with picnic tables, others as huge mountain bike parks and yet others on a lake for fishing and most of them have some sort of rustic camping. Best of all most are free! We were, of course, very happy about our discovery and drove from one Recreation Site to the next. As with anything else you can have good and bad luck. Depending on how much effort the local community and members put into their site (and how the visitors treated it) the camping areas were wonderful and well kept and sometimes also run down or abandoned. Though mostly we had good luck and got to enjoy lots of free camping.
The rain finally stopped and it got warm enough that we moved back into the roof top tent; at least for two nights – a nice change to the rather tight quarters we have in the Landy. A couple of times we (mostly me) were kind of spooked out at the fact that we were camping in the middle of nowhere in a pitch black forest or some out of the way lake. We were, after all, driving the “Highway of Tears”. On this particular stretch of highway there were a bunch of murders of mostly young women during the 70’s and 80’s. Most recently a young women went missing and the posters are still plastered all over the place. Unexpectedly we even ended up at the lake where she was last seen and promptly turned around, we certainly weren’t going to camp there. Although all of the missing women were travelling alone it was enough fodder for my imagination that from then on I didn’t want to go to the toilet alone after dark…
We ended up having bad luck with the recreation site that we had picked, firstly it was very difficult to find and secondly when we did find the site it appeared to be abandoned and overgrown so we had to continue on. Of course, as it has so often happened on our trip while looking for a spot to camp, it started to get dark. Not having any luck finding anything we were hungry, tired and annoyed. Though just before the border to Alberta we stumbled upon “Abernathys”. A real original truck stop diner! It’s just south on the Yellowhead highway and we highly recommend it! Yummy home cooked meals and of course with trucker sized portions with a small price tag all in a classic diner atmosphere. We were so thrilled with supper that we came back the next day for breakfast. We did manage to find a spot to camp at a trailhead parking not too far away, though directly next to the highway, at that point with a full belly we didn’t care too much and went straight to bed.
The Rockies, Alberta
After a huge breakfast at Abernathys we headed off once again towards Alberta. We passed Mount Robson – the tallest mountain in the Canadian Rockies – before reaching the entrance to the park and arrived in the town of Jasper in the early afternoon. Wanting to stay in Jasper we were happy to find a Hostel not too far from town, which as it turns out is rather rare in Canada, and decided to book a room for two nights. The hostel has a large common room with an adjoining kitchen, and fireplace. During the evenings the common room would fill with a broad variety of people from all walks of life and nationalities and we had some really interesting conversations with some very well traveled people.
Jasper National Park, a Hikers Paradise
The forecast for the next few days promised clear skies and it was good to finally put our hiking boots to good use once again, after all we were in Rocky Mountains! At the picturesque Maligne Lake we climbed the Bald Hills and were rewarded with a spectacular panorama. The trail up to the hills was marked as “Frequented by Grizzly Bears” and a number of signs warned hikers of that fact. We didn’t see any bears but we saw plenty of scat, which testified to fact that they truly did frequent the area. I couldn’t, at first, believe what I was seeing, the trail was practically plastered with it, but upon closer inspection it looked like piles of whole berries! At this time of year the Bears were stuffing themselves with berries, but I was having trouble believing the fact that they were coming out the other end looking pretty much the same as going in. My Vet brain couldn’t make sense of eating something and not bothering to digest it fully, then again I’ve never had a Grizzly as a patient and have to admit that I don’t really have a clue. With all the signs we saw there must have been more than one bear in the area that’s for sure! We had bear spray with us but didn’t fancy the idea of surprising a bear; that would definitely have ruined the day…
As for camping in the park we realized once again that out of season has it’s advantages. All of the campgrounds were closed in the park and of course everywhere else had no camping signs, which we chose to simply ignore, after all, where else were we supposed to camp? Besides with the temperatures the way they were we were sleeping in the Landy and were not very obvious. Just a few kilometers from Maligne Lake we found a nice little picnic spot and decided to spend the night. The next morning a ranger came by and said, “You know you aren’t supposed to be camping here right?” “Yes actually, but we did anyway”, answered Gary promptly. The ranger smirked at the prompt cheeky answer, but since we leaving anyway he didn’t say anything more. During the high season it probably would have turned out quite differently…
On the way south over the Icefield Parkway we discovered another picturesque camping spot, this time we weren’t the only ones who were to spend the night despite the no camping signs…We hiked to the somewhat remote Geraldine Lake and the next day made our way to the famous Columbia Ice field. In summer this place must be a mad house! The tourist thing to do here is apparently to ride onto the glacier with some kind of “Monster bus”. The tires alone are almost as tall as the Landy and by the number of busses parked at the terminal it gave us a hint as to what it must be like when the temperatures were warmer. We pulled up along side one of the busses and took a photo before driving a little farther to a trail head and hiking up the nearby mountain where we got a spectacular view of the Glacier.
Banff National Park
On the way to Lake Louise we passed through a part of the Rocky Mountains that looked very different to what we had seen to date. The road led us along huge jagged cliffs and towering walls that gave us a hint as to where the name “The Rocky Mountains” came from. We decided to stay at the local Youth Hostel in Lake Louise – only in the Rockies can you find so many Youth Hostels in Canada everywhere else they have sadly become very rare. The next day we visited the lake where the fancy Fairmont hotel dominated the shoreline. The lake shone turquoise blue reflecting the surrounding rock walls and was perfectly framed by mountains and forests – a real wonder of nature! It wasn’t really surprising to learn that the first Fairmont hotel was built here shortly after the Europeans learned of the lake. We hiked to the beautifully located “Tea House” (sadly closed this late in the season) and then farther to a nearby lookout where the beautiful intense colors of the lake truly sparkled. A truly fantastic day!
In Banff we managed to get a really good price for a room at the “Banff Boutique Inn” (which we can recommend) thanks to the shoulder season and arriving in the middle of the week! The room was really comfortable and staff very friendly and helpful; breakfast included a variety of locally baked breads and home made cookies. We really enjoyed out little bit of luxury! As we headed out to stroll into town we passed a football field and had to look twice. What at first we thought were cows in the fading light turned out to be a herd of Elk right in the middle of town! There must have been more than 50 animals grazing on the field and right next to a popular skater park.
A Taste of winter
After leaving Banff and making our way to Yoho National Park, which is just over the border in BC, the temperatures at night took a nosedive into the minus double digits once again like we had in the Yukon at the beginning of October. We also noticed that it was getting dark earlier too so we tended to escape the cold and dark into our warm Landy. Thankfully we thought ahead and loaded a bunch of films on an external drive so that we could watch on our laptop and so we started watching the Harry Potter series of films. For a while now we had noticed that not only the campgrounds were closed but also more and more of the rest areas including the toilets – even when they are simply an outhouse! We also experienced the same in Yoho even with a major highway passing through the middle of the park. We were beginning to wonder if we would find a place to spend the night when we passed a rest area that someone decided to open. Apparently someone decided to cut the chain that blocked the entrance to the rest area so we took advantage of our luck and spent the night. Before leaving Yoho we visited Emerald Lake and strolled around in the late autumn afternoon sun and hiked in the nearby mountains.
Buck Naked in the Forest
We were tipped off that there are some natural hot springs in the backcountry south of Revelstoke by a nice lady at the recreation center. We hadn’t seen a hot spring that came even close to our time at Liard River Hot Springs. Most are very civilized and the only way to tell the difference between them and a pool is by the sulfur smell; they also have a rather expensive entry fee. Since that isn’t exactly our style we hadn’t been in a Hot Springs since. Now that we had learned about Halfway River Hot Springs, which is supposed to be somewhere way back in the woods, we were keen to check them out. The only way to reach them is over a 20km very badly maintained gravel road. We thought that it being the middle of the week we would have the hot springs to ourselves and thereby be able to enjoy them “aux naturel”. People in the USA and Canada have a very different view of nudity and tend to be quite conservative. Even in a sauna you have to wear a swimsuit, which for Germans is not only quite uncommon and could even be considered a faux pas. It seemed quite silly to us to have to wear our swimsuits in a hot spring way out in the middle of nowhere. And so we were rather disappointed when we arrived at the hot springs only to see other cars parked, oh well so much for that idea. We certainly wouldn’t want to upset anyone so accepted the fact and with swimsuit in hand made our way down to the springs. As we approached the springs however, we suddenly saw something white flash through the trees. Was that a naked bum we just saw? It was! There in the two homemade pools were two couples enjoying the warmth wearing only their birthday suits! They also thought that it was pretty silly to worry about swimsuits in the middle of the forest as they later told us. So, happy to meet similarly minded people we shed our clothes and hopped into the bathwater warm water. It’s really something to be sitting in a hot pool when the air temperatures are cool and so we spent almost the entire afternoon enjoying the heat. We cooled ourselves in the nearby ice-cold river and felt totally refreshed! As so often in life the best things are free and priceless!
We took the back roads to the south west of BC staying away from the Trans Canada or larger highways mostly to avoid the big trucks but also because it’s simply more scenic and stress free driving. It was a bit odd for us however, to once again be passing through little villages and towns every few kilometers after spending so long in the relative uninhabited north were several hundred kilometers stretched between two villages. The little town of Kaslo was particularly picturesque and we stopped to wander around and picnicked by a viewpoint enjoying the fall sun. Our drive farther south and west led us through an ever-changing weather and landscape until we finally reached Osoyoos right next to the US border. We drove over a small mountain pass and suddenly the landscape changed dramatically! The style of housing changed too to a style more suitable to an arid climate looking almost like one would expect to see in Spain or Italy. The whole area had a more southern flare giving it an almost foreign feeling. If you saw photos you certainly wouldn’t think you were in Canada anymore! This area is the last tip of the Sonoran Desert that runs as far south as Mexico. The area around Osoyoos – Okenagen – is also well known for its orchards, wine and exceptional honey. We passed one fruit stand after another and with all the fresh fruit and veggies offered we couldn’t resist especially so late in the year. We bought apples, pears, honey, veggies and some fresh pressed apple juice. The weather though, couldn’t seem to make up its mind what to do. It first poured then the sun came out then suddenly it stormed with thunder and lighting like in summer and then finally changed to a cold gray drizzle. We didn’t dawdle too much longer taking the ferry to Vancouver Island a couple of days later.
More Photos on Flickr: Alberta and British Columbia