JAIMIE VERNON – MY SUMMER HOLIDAY 1975, Part 4 – The FINAL CHAPTER
In the middle of June 1975 my grandmother yanked me out of school so that she could give me the eye-opening experience of a lifetime – a road trip across Canada. Six days and 2,438 miles later we were putting around on the Alberta side of the Rocky Mountains.
We left the Diamond Hotel just outside the entrance to Jasper Park and headed south along the Hwy. 16 fork of Trans-Canada Highway and snaked down past Celestine Lake where the highway would begin its parallel run next to the Athabasca River eventually revealing the western stretch of the mighty Fraser River. We were now in Jasper National Park proper.
The first stop was the lookout point for Mt. Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies at 12,972 feet. Thing is the mountain is in British Columbia. It’s a prominent scenic view from the Alberta side where we stood. It is believed to be named after 19th Century merchant Colin Robertson, who worked for the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company though. Meanwhile, The Texqakallt people who originally inhabited the area, call it Yuh-hai-has-kun – The Mountain of the Spiral Road.
Next stop was Athabasca Falls which are small but spectacular once you realize the water flows as strongly as Niagara Falls in a very confined space. By this point we had abandoned Hwy 16 – our first foray off the beaten path of the Trans-Canada Highway. We’d meet up with it again at our next destination, Banff, but Icefield Parkway (Hwy 93) between the two National Parks was beyond breathtaking.
As we had seen on the previous day at the top of the Jasper Park entrance, the wildlife within the mountain range was plentiful – eagles, hawks, mountain goats, bears, deer, elk, caribou, and moose among them. It was a protected reserve where the animals ruled and the tourists demurred. Our next stop was Sunwapta Falls (an Assiniboine word meaning “stoney”) which was unique in that it was not one, but two waterfalls, and contained water run-off from the Athabasca Glacier nearby. We spent our visit having lunch and enjoying the sunshine.
Farther south, as we came into the entrance of Banff National Park we hit the next on our tour of scenic waterfalls at a place called Bridal Veil Falls. Unlike the two previous stops this waterfall was more on the order of a Niagara Falls – not as wide, but nearly ten times taller at 1,200 feet (though most of it is obscured by trees and underbrush). Still, the 400 feet of falls we could see was nothing to sneeze at.
Back onto the Icefield Highway we went and at supper time we found ourselves at Glacier National Park, home of the Columbia Icefield – which contains a true, blue (or white) slice of prehistoric glacier. This was the real deal, kids. And a sight this 12 year old could not possibly process. We’ve seen snowy mountains and skiing hills in our time, but a giant hockey rink a thousand feet wide was beyond imagination.
A road leads to the foot of the Athabasca Glacier and the hourly tours gathered in the gift shop where various sizes of snow vehicles – bobcats, tractors and snowtrucks would take you to the ice and snow. My grandmother and I opted for one of the snowtrucks – which sat 8 people and allowed us a more personal tour with our driver.
We spent about an hour on the ice cap just soaking in the heat and the bright, sunny day – yes, it was a balmy June evening despite the ice at our feet and the snow peaked mountain ridges surrounding us. It seemed surreal. It would also be a unique experience because the glacier was melting. Slowly receding as, historically, all glaciers do but ultimately the prevailing global warming in the 40 years since our visit has nearly erased the glacier. I count my blessings that I got the chance to see it during its magnificent glory years.
The daylight followed us for a few more hours after leaving the Glacier National Park as we headed back into Banff proper. The thing about the mountains in the summer is the sun doesn’t really set until around 10PM so it gave us plenty of light to drive through the rugged mountain pass. Granny was on a tight budget and we weren’t able to stay at the legendary Banff Springs Hotel but we did find another impressive chalet-styled lodging called the Ptarmigan Inn which still exists today. We crashed for the night.
The next day was going to be a lot less hectic. We were booked into the Ptarmigan for another night so that we could use it has home base for day excursions. It was Day 8 of our trip and we headed to Sulphur Mountain to take in the gondola lift experience. We ate breakfast in the restaurant on the mountain top and explored all around the summit. It was never going to impress me as much as the glacier, but the visit was amazing none the less. It was my first real 360 degree view of the entire Rocky Mountain range. At 8,041 feet it was a fairly tall peak. And at the 7,500 foot mark you could observe how truly small the humans in the town of Banff, and elsewhere, really were.
The gondola ride was the main attraction. I’ve never been skiing so I imagine this view of the mountainside would be tiresome after awhile, but as a curious young lad I hopped around the gondola car like a dog in a GMC pick-up truck on the highway. I moved from window to window snapping pictures and admiring the view – an endless stream of forest and wildlife below.
My diary shows that it was the only thing we did that day, but I do recall driving around just looking at Mother Nature around Banff National Park itself; catching glimpses of the wildlife which had become common place by this point. We returned to town and searched for a place to have dinner. I remember specifically walking into one town that looked like a summer camp lodge – swinging saloon doors and all.
But my Granny stopped us both about five feet inside the doors, sniffed the air and said “I don’t like the smell of this place”. I was 12, I had no idea what that meant. Stale beer? Cigarette smoke? I spoke to her about it years later and she was honest with me. She could smell the sweat and body odour of working class miners and Native Canadians. She didn’t want me in a room full of men that were probably drunk and rowdy while we ate. I’m not sure if it was true or there was some underlying racial reason. I didn’t hold it against her. She was trying to protect me. We ate elsewhere and called it a night.
The next morning we got up and left around 10AM – a far cry from the 4AM starts we’d been having throughout the trip – and caught the southern fork of the Trans-Canada Highway heading back east along Route 1. We were now below Calgary and had to wend our way north-east toward the barren, rocky plains of the Alberta interior. Grandma was full of surprises. I never asked where we were going. She had a plan and wanted me to experience everything we could in a very short amount of time. The next stop was different. Very different. No more mountains. But there was a remote connection to that glacier we’d seen.
Drumheller, Alberta is located in one of the largest dinosaur fossil ranges in Canada. Its geography is nicknamed The Badlands – ancient oyster beds that were once at the bottom of a massive prehistoric glacial lake. There are so many fossils there that it’s protected land and the park is now a haven for paleontologists from all over the world. The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto curates it and its top scientists take up residence there. To date, less than 1/3 of its estimated contents have been unearthed.
But, 40 years ago it was a goofy theme park. From the barren hills sporting papier mache pterodactyls (and at least one out of place Jesus statue specifically put there to please the Creationists) to the foot path littered with not-to-scale T-Rex’s and triceratops, it was a tacky wonderland of Flintstones proportions.
I didn’t care. It was f*cking dinosaurs, man! One had to imagine these creatures tromping around the shoreline of this monumental lake region – chewing up the scenery, and each other. It was awesome.
Following our adventure in Jurassic Stark we crossed the Red Deer River (on a turn-of-the-century wooden pallet ferry) and booted it as far as we could across Alberta to begin the first leg of our trip home. The majority of what Grandma wanted to show me was done. We’d travelled across the middle of the prairies and the trek home would take us back down across the border towns on Trans-Canada Route 1. We saw a few interesting scenic things along the way but by the time we got near the Ontario border again we were treading familiar ground.
It was an absolute the thrill of a lifetime. It was the beginning of dozens more trips like it that I have taken as an adult – though I have never made it back across Canada again by car except during an ill-fated attempt by my parents to replicate the Granny trip in 1977 heading to the East Coast (that nightmarish, but quaint, story will have to wait for another time). One day I will head west again by car and I’ll take Granny’s spirit with me for the ride.
Jaimie’s column appears every Saturday
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Jaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 33 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 16 years. He is also the author of the recently released Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia and a collection of his most popular ‘Don’t Believe A Word I Say’ columns called ‘Life’s A Canadian…BLOG’ is now available at Amazon.com http://gwntertainment.wix.com/jaimievernon