The last time that Donna and I took a two week vacation was in the late '70s to tour the desert Southwest: Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. It seemed that we were about due for a trip. I had traveled across Canada with AT&T some years ago and always wanted to return, so Donna and I planned a trip for last September. We decided to fly into Calgary, rent a car and drive north to Prince George, drop the car off, get onto BC Rail, train to Vancouver, then fly back to San Jose. If it sounds like a nice trip, that's because it was!
Most of the drive portion of our trip from Calgary north was within the Province of Alberta, an area that developed much like our old west. Calgary lies on a plain at the edge of the mountains and is noted for its ranching history. That history survives in the famous annual July rodeo, known as the Calgary Stampede, a major event since 1912.
While in Calgary, we toured Heritage Park, site of a 19th century town reconstruction, a steam railroad and trolley line. We visited downtown Calgary, a metropolitan business center, but wanted to see countryside, not cities, on this trip.
We also visited Canada's Olympic Park, home of the 1988 Winter Olympics, but I was unable to get Donna to try the bungee-jumping. The Calgary games were one of the best Winter Olympics ever. A record 1.9 million tickets were issued for the events and more than 1.6 billion people watched the global television coverage.
Driving north from Calgary on the Transcanadian Highway, you soon find yourself in the Rocky Mountains. These mountains have a similar grandeur to the Colorado Rockies, but the peaks (above) are more jagged in Canada.
Much of the trip was within the borders of the Banff National Forest and Jasper National Forest. These two parks span the distance just north of Calgary to well within the Province of British Columbia to the Northwest. Unfortunately, there is a distinct lack of rest areas ... something which Donna continually pointed out to me throughout the trip.
Once inside the Banff National Forest, our first stop was the town of Banff, with its centerpiece, the Banff Springs Hotel, built in 1888 by the Canadian Pacific Railroad. Railroad president William Cornelius Van Horne said, "If we cannot export the scenery, we will import the tourists!" And they did.
Banff Springs Hotel (above left) and its sister resort to the North, Chateau Lake Louise, built two years later, were designed as civilized destinations to provide upscale comforts amid an awe-inspiring Rocky Mountain adventure. Banff is also known worldwide for its hot sulfur springs (above right), a tourist attraction that is now restored and open to the public once again. The spring water temperature is in excess of 100 degrees Fahrenheit with the sweet smell of sulfur permeating the crisp mountain air.
The center of Banff is a crowded commercial district with a European flavor. It was far more crowded with tourists than five years ago when I was there. We lunched and shopped there, but lodged at the Douglas Fir Resort, just outside of town, where the people are fewer and the elk (below left) stop by to greet you. With the annual rut on, we watched the elk and moose (below right) from our balcony to stay out of harm's way while ospreys flew overhead (below center).
Leaving Banff, we motored for a short period of time to nearby Lake Louise to spend several days at the Post Hotel. The weary traveler finds a soft sofa in front of a roaring fire where he or she can order a brandy or some other appropriate libation. The numbers of tourists begin to dwindle here because the primary interests are skiing and sight-seeing.
Foremost among these glacial encounters is the foot of the Athabascan Glacier, a small portion of the immense Columbia Icefields, at 200 square miles the largest glacial entity in subarctic North America. Nine glacial tongues extend from this icefield. The Athabascan, though immense, is only two percent of the total icefield volume. An interpretive center at the Athabascan helps orient visitors, but fails to offer enough comfort facilities for the massive volume of tourists that visit the icefields. The Columbia Icefields possess a unique feature, at Snow Dome, described as a hydrological apex. If you poured a glass of water onto Snow Dome, some of the water would flow to the Arctic, some to the Pacific, and some to the Atlantic.
One of my fondest memories of Canada is from this town. Upon entering the splendid Chateau Lake Louise, you are in the midst of grandeur. Ahead of you is the old hardwood registration desk. To the left, you see a 14-foot high fan window that looks out onto the most beautiful photographic opportunity that I have ever had (shown above). Centered in the window is the foot of a glacier as it meets the lake. To the right, the alpine forest meets the water. To the left, the mountain moraine drops sharply the lake. A single pine tree appears just to the left of center to bracket the scene. It is breathtaking.
From Lake Louise we drove about six hours north leaving the Banff National Forest and entering the Jasper National Forest. Along the Transcanadian Parkway, there is one beautiful vista after another composed of clear rivers, blue-green lakes, alpine forests, wide plains, high mountains and blue-white glaciers (below).
Passing the icefields, our destination was the Terracana Resort, a small establishment with 18 new, but sparse, cabins and a small restaurant that is owned and operated by Germans, located in Têtè Jean. No telephones. No television. There is not much at all, except a charming place to stay on the Bow River at the end of the salmon spawning season. Unhappy with the cuisine, Donna and I found the places where the locals dine.
Our main purpose, at this point in the trip, was to get to Prince George, nestled in the northern logging country, to pick up BC Rail's Caribou Prospector 11-hour excursion train to North Vancouver. Signs in the Holiday Inn at Prince George warned against opening your hotel room door for anyone without first calling the front desk. We did venture from our hotel room to see the Prince George Railway Museum where visitors are allowed to crawl over, under, around and through all of their engines and rolling stock -- a completely unique experience! I was able to sit in the engineer's seat of a GM F3 diesel, then inspect its engine compartment ... Wow!
The night before our train ride, we found the train station, then returned our rental car. The next morning we taxied to the station and were the first onboard. BC Rail's regular passenger train service is provided using Budd Rail Diesel Cars (RDCs). These are self-propelled cars, with diesel engines and hydraulic transmissions, and capable of being operated as multiple units. These cars were built between 1953 and 1962 for a variety of railroads, including the Canadian National, Canadian Pacific, Great Northern and Reading Railroads.
BC Rail also operates steam excursions from North Vancouver to Squamish, using two locomotives owned by the British Columbia government. Most runs are powered by the famous no. 2860, a Royal Hudson (4-6-4) built by the Montreal Locomotive Works for the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1940.
The scene below shows VIA Rail's Rocky Mountaineer that operates on the same route as the Caribou Prospector, but provides a look at the dramatic terrain of the route (above). The trip takes you through at least four different ecosystems. The high point is an hour-long descent through a huge canyon with sheer drops and passages that wind to hug the mountain walls. The track is maintained as a freight line which explains its good condition for passenger service. It is a thrilling ride, though!
The planned 11-hour ride turned into a 14-hour ride on this trip. An electronic system links the engine controls in each car so that the group of cars, known as a consist, can operate like a train with a single engine. Our car just did not want to follow the orders from the lead car and was attempting to run faster than the cars ahead of us. We found this out while we were in the canyon on the downgrade where braking is important. There were no problems other than the smell of burning transmission fluid. The delay to stop and come up with a solution, which turned out to be putting our car's transmission into neutral, did make the day long.
We were fortunate enough to share the long ride with a group from England that made the whole day enjoyable. They were endowed with the typically wonderful British humor that we have come to love. And, they traveled railroads during their vacations ... a great idea!
We arrived in North Vancouver late at night, then spent several days touring beautiful Stanley Park in North Vancouver and Gastown, the original Vancouver town site.
The Aquarium in Stanley Park merits special mention. It's the largest aquarium in Canada and offers an excellent exhibit of fresh and salt water life in British Columbia. The aquarium includes electric eels whose tank is wired each Christmas to run Christmas tree lights! It is also the home of the first beluga whale to be born in captivity, a pair of big orcas and an energetic white-sided dolphin.
In Gastown, the Victorian architecture has been preserved and, today, houses craft stores, restaurants, and boutiques. Gastown's famous Steam Clock puffs and toots at appointed hours and is really run by steam power. The bronze Gassy Jack statue, honors the local guiding spirit, saloonkeeper Gassy Jack Deighton, whose loquaciousness led to the area's name. One of our favorite television programs, Strange Luck, is shot on location in Gastown.
From Vancouver we flew back to our home in San Jose having enjoyed two wonderful weeks in the nearby Canadian northwest. Thanks for coming along. Donna and I hope that you enjoyed sharing the trip with us!
Copyright ©1996 ThomasLand Partners
San Jose, California, U.S.A.
Updated September 9, 1996