05.11.2011 - 12.11.2011 -6 °C
“Yeah, let’s hire a car and drive to the Rockies. It’s not winter so we should be okay” – famous last words said by Australians planning a driving trip from Vancouver to Banff, early November.
A sentiment backed up by Vancouverites (including the motorist association), who we now know, rarely experience snow driving.
So we collect our RAV 4 (‘it doesn’t have snow tires – you won’t need them” says the Australian staff member at the hire car office), and start the 900 kilometre/two day drive on the Trans-Canadian Highway to Banff, in the Rocky Mountains. It’s an easy drive on the freeway out of Vancouver, through gorgeous green farmland with red barns, and scenic mountain backdrops.
An hour out of ‘Couver, we notice the “Use winter tyres or carry chains beyond this point 01 Oct – 30 Apr” signs. Gulp. It’s early November and we have neither. Looks okay so far….. not a drop of snow to be seen. As we progress, we see the “Warning: Avalanche Area” sign and “End of Avalanche Area” signs, and we pass through several avalanche tunnels. These signs appear on and off for another hour or so, and we spot our first bit of snow. We pass through tiny towns, with amusing names like Chilliwack, Shuswap and Kamloops. We pass the Gap Valley resort which and looks like a deserted ghost town (closed for winter). The snow starts to get thicker and we can see some pretty high snow-covered peaks in the not too far distance and when we stop for a break, it’s absolutely freezing, with a few spots of snow. Still nothing that terribly worries us – after all, the road is clear.
Heading towards Salmon Arm there’s eagles flying around trees with massive nests bordering the lake, as we make our way into our halfway point. It gets dark early here (4pm), and a quick drive down to the lake lets us watch the gorgeous sunset – it’s just an incredible sight.
Our second day’s drive through an area that looks like the badlands of Canada, Revelstoke and Golden, where we spot a small herd of wild horned goats walking next to the highway - as if they’re heading into town for a beer. Across the amazing bridge at Kicking Horse pass. As we approach Banff, the snow becomes thicker leading up to the road edge, but the road is still clear. It’s quite thick now with most of the countryside covered in snow. Underpasses look like fake snow-domes, with cake-icing-like snow covering rocks. We pass frozen lakes. The township of Banff is quant and we’re staying at a resort 4 klm out of town. On dusk we spot a massive Elk that a park ranger is trying to shoo away from the highway. Our first Rocky Mountains wildlife experience! Okay it’s not a moose, but those Elk are just massive and we’re excited and impressed to have seen one on our first day here.
Whilst in Banff we drive up to the Gondala, which is a collection of cable-run pods shuttling people to the top of Mount Sulphur, for wonderful views across the top of the Rocky Mountains. We see several signs pointing out the distances and directions of international locations, including one advising Canberra is 13,332klms away……. The winds are ferociously cold outside on the viewing platform, and despite the risk of being blown back to Vancouver, we walk the 1 klm snow-covered boardwalk to an old stone weather station. It’s here I’m thankful for my new faux-fur winter boots. Nearby there’s also the hot sulphur springs with an original bathouse built in the 1800’s, but having mailed my swimmers home earlier as the cold set in (and due to lack of real estate in my luggage), we didn’t particularly feel like hiring the hilarious ‘traditional style’ bathers, or the standard speedo types either. Driving back from the Gondola, there’s more wild elk browsing in someone’s front yard!
There’s limited parking in town and you’d be pressed to find a spot for a vehicle during peak season. Given it’s early November, we’re on the cusp of the snow season so it’s not particularly busy and we score a free park next to the Library building. Banff is an easy place to wander around – in winter you just need to watch the very slippery frozen ice on the ground. We make poor attempts at ice skating in our boots several times. There’s a path running alongside Bow River in town, and we amuse ourselves throwing small rocks onto the frozen river, watching them skate across the ice.
We check out the unusual Banff Park Museum, full of taxidermy animals on display in the same way it was in the early 1900’s. We also see an interesting display of pioneer Rocky Mountain women in the nearby Whyte Museum.
On our way back to the car we spot a small deer in someone’s back yard.
I find a ‘fishing on the ice tour’ I want to do, but it’s not quite proper winter and the tour isn’t operating (which is probably a good thing as I don’t particularly want an unplanned ice swim). We put our names down for a wildlife tour (with a Kiwi tour host), but it falls through due to insufficient numbers. If you’re visiting the Rockies and want the big animal experience or the full on winter experience, you’ll need to time it for either mid-summer or mid-winter (along with the millions of other visitors at those times!).
The highlight of our Banff trip was a day visit to the amazing Lake Louise. It’s a 120 klm return drive from Banff to the lake. Whilst the main highway was snow free, the roads leading into Lake Louise had ice and snow on them, but not enough to put us off. Lake Louise is a gorgeous, emerald blue lake seen in plenty of tourist photos. It’s absolutely surrounded by snow now, and parts of the lake are frozen. Soft snowflakes fall on us as we crunch through 30cm deep powder snow from the carpark. The serenity and beauty of the place in winter is something else. There’s an eery silence shattered only by the busload of asian tourists arriving. We enjoy our time wandering a short distance around the Lake, and checking out the grand old Fairmont Chateau. Back in the carpark, very cheeky Clark’s Nutracker birds settle on our side mirrors hoping for a snack. We warm up with a decent latte from a café in the Lake Louise village (served by an Aussie of course!).
There’s plenty of bars and restaurants in Banff, and we treat ourselves one night to a proper restaurant meal of (pork) ribs. We now get why North Americans love this stuff! It’s beautiful food and we eat way too much, but makes a nice change to our usual cheapo diet of canned soup and noodles.
In Weps’ effort to eat her way around the world, we stop for a Canadian ‘delicacy’ known as Beavertails. Basically a dob of donut dough spread flat, and dropped into hot oil for a few minutes, it emerges as a flat, fried piece of dough. It’s smothered in icing sugar and with a wide variety of other sugar toppings (apple, nuttella, chocolate bits).
On our last day we do a guided walk with our Resort enviro person up past the Hoodoos (distinctive geological structures formed by winds) and also spot Juniper berries growing wild (used to make Gin).
We set off for our trip back to Vancouver after four days, calling into the Northern Lights Wildlife Wolf Centre (1.5 hours out of Banff), to get a greater appreciation for these much misunderstood and beautiful animals.
On the way to our overnight point at Revelstoke, we drive through Roger’s Pass – well known for big snowfalls in winter of around 10 metres. It’s also home to the largest mobile avalanche control program in the world (the Canadian Army use howitzers to blast snow and minimise avalanches). There’s been some snow overnight and the road is reduced down to one ice and snow covered lane. We slow down considerably and watch in horror as a van approaching us fishtails on the ice, gripping the road at the last minute and just avoiding a head-on collision. Another local in a pick-up truck overtakes us at an excessive speed, also causing his vehicle to fishtail. We arrive into Revelstoke somewhat shaken, but glad to bo over the worst of it….or so we think.
Our second day’s drive to Vancouver (11.11.11 - surely that's lucky?), we stop at Merritt for fuel. It’s clear with no snow to be seen anywhere, so we set off for the last few hours of our trip. Ten minutes into the drive, we see the massive storm clouds overhead and it starts to rain heavily. The temperature drops as our vehicle climbs up into the mountains. Another ten minutes later we come to a standstill behind miles of traffic on the highway. Probably a car accident we think. Trying to tune into any sort of traffic advice on the radio is impossible, and we don’t have internet or phone access either. For the next half an hour or so, we edge slowly along the highway in the traffic as the snow starts to fall. By 3:30pm, it’s been snowing for around half-an hour and we’ve probably traveled a couple of hundred metres. The snow (and ice) is starting to build up on the road. We watch a small tow-truck pass vehicles in the side lane, which validates our traffic accident theory. Not too further up the road we come across the tow-truck with a small sports car that’s clearly veered off the road because of the ice. Unfortunately the traffic hasn’t cleared and around 4pm, it starts to get dark and the snow is belting down with howling winds.
Three hours later, we’ve traveled a total distance of eight kilometers since initially stopping. It’s dark, and the ice and compressed snow have reduced the highway to one driveable lane. Dozens of large semi-trailers have stopped on the side of the road, fitting snow tires. We roll down the window to talk to a very kind Indian truck driver, who asks if we need food. We’re thankful the RAV has snow defrost, as the snow starts to freeze over our windscreen. Plenty of vehicles pulled off into deep snow rifts at the (only) toilet stop we pass. We decide not to risk getting stuck in the snow overnight, and persist with our tiring and (now) long trip out of the mountains. We see a snow plough travelling on the other side of the highway, and traffic has clearly stopped being permitted to drive on this section of the highway.
We’re now at the start of one of the steepest downhill sections of the Rockies, and with 17 kilometres of one-lane downhill driving ahead of us, it’s the most terrifying drive of our lives. Several police and traffic safety vehicles gradually let through small groups of vehicles to set off down this section of road, once a snow plough has been through.
It’s impossible to drive any faster than 5klm as the vehicle starts to slip and slide. It’s terrifying for both of us as Weps attempts to minimise sudden steering wheel turns or braking to avoid going into a potentially fatal skid. Finally at 10:30pm, we reach the township of Hope (we think it’s aptly named after that drive – “hope I get home”) and stop for a sanity break. It’s still another hour and a half to Vancouver, but we need to have dinner (and a toilet break after 5 hours), and wonder how on earth we managed to get safely through that drive. The gas station attendant tells us there’s an average of five snowstorms in the Rockies each winter, and that apparently was the first one on the season.
The remainder of our drive is (thankfully) event free.
It’s goodbye Canada, and onto a bus bound for Portland, USA.