Snapshots of the Rockies

So that’s it then. Final day. And outside the window, as I blog from our hotel room in Canmore, the mist and rain – make that sleet – has rolled down yesterday’s stunning view of ‘the three sisters’, the town’s iconic mountain peaks, like a curtain gently but firmly coming down on our three-week adventure. As though the Rocky Mountain gods themselves are calling time.

‘That’s all folks! Time to go home.’

The clag might lift for an encore yet, but they’re right. It’s time to go. But we’ll be back for another show. And soon.

And so, for now, some closing ‘snapshots’ from our journey through the Rockies.

A tourist’s guide to selfie snapping

First, as we’re talking snapshots, the selfie snappers are everywhere, getting in the way of the view. Ignoring the view, dammit. There must be entire server farms, somewhere deep in the Arizona desert or iced up in the Arctic Circle, chock to the rafters with pouting selfies – face upon gurning face captured for eternity, to the exclusion of all else, including the stunning views they selfied in front of.

So without further ado, here is my tourist’s guide to selfie snapping, based entirely on my extensive three-week study.

The first rule, of course, is: buy your stick. You are still young, I know. But set out on that tour of the world and you will discover – just like your ‘old’ pa – that your arms are indeed too short for everyday life. You need a stick.

Your stick can be short (suitable for single person usage), or long (suitable for groups of four or more). It might even be extensible.

Travelling alone? Simply stop frequently and at random, muzz the hair up a bit – apply lippie, if appropriate – and pout. Or walk along – for minutes at a time (as long as you want, really) – stick up front. Muzzing and smiling as you go. Even better, zoom right in so that face of yours FILLS the screen.

Travelling in a group? The bigger the better. Always choose the narrowest part of the path to frame your photo. Don’t worry about the crowds building up on either side. You have right of passage: you have a selfie stick. Everyone else will wait politely – regardless of nationality – as you rotate through the group, each taking it in turns to hold the stick. As before, so little of the beautiful place in which you are standing will be evident in the shot, you could be anywhere in the world. But I guess that hardly matters.

You’re welcome.

Value added taxes…

Unlike the UK, where VAT is added before you get to the pay desk, here it’s added at the point of purchase – so the display price is lower than the final bill. It’s caught us by surprise a couple of times. And it varies between British Columbia and Alberta.

In Alberta, you simply pay the 5% Goods and Services Tax, the value-added tax levied by the federal government. In BC, you also get the 7% Provincial Sales Tax levied by the province. Which, we were told in Banff, leads a lot of people to nip across the border for a better deal. Either way, it’s better than the 20% we pay at home.

…plus healthcare charge

Further east, we hear, an independent restaurant in Toronto has begun adding a third charge to their bills.

With so many young people now spending a huge chunk of their working lives in seasonal work, maybe never achieving a permanent post, Heather Mee, who co-owns Emma’s Country Kitchen, didn’t want her staff to have to worry about paying for healthcare essentials, such as a dental appointments or orthotics. The 3% surcharge will cover the cost of a suitable benefits plan – although customers can opt out of paying the average 43 cents extra.

Admirably, other restaurants are thinking of following suit. I wonder whether this could catch on the in UK? Doubtless one of my readers will have a view 😉

Service with a smile

Young people are certainly at the coal-face of the tourist trade here. Passing through the various hotels, information centres and visitor attractions, we’ve been impressed by the string of relentlessly cheerful, always helpful youngsters we’ve had to deal with. Okay, maybe they have a vested interest. No sooner have we passed, perhaps, their smiles do a ‘Melania’, dropping like a stone. But I doubt it, for it’s not just on the frontline of tourism.

Called to a halt along the highway, between Golden and Lake Louise, the young man in high vis carrying the Stop/Go paddle strolled purposefully towards us as we rolled to a stop. The Gremlin wound down his window in anticipation of who knows what.

Who knows what, it turned out, was a smiling apology for the hold up, reassurance that ‘we’ll have you on your way soon, Sir’.

For several minutes, we chatted about our trip, where we’d been and where we were headed, about his 5.30am start to a long 13-hour day at the bridge construction, about the weather…

When the voice on his radio signalled the change to Go, he wished us well and safe journey.

A similar discourse with a highway worker in England, I cannot imagine.

At Emerald Lake Lodge, the bearded young man in the check shirt needed us not to park where we’d pulled up, because they were expecting a log delivery.

‘I think I might just ask you to park over there, Sir, on the other side. Thank you.’ Politely delivered with an unsolicited, very helpful guide to checking in (it wasn’t immediately obvious).

So much nicer than the grunted ‘Sorry mate you can’t leave it there’ we’re accustomed to.

Clean as a whistle

No half-chewed chicken buckets spilling across the grass verges here – or half empty, heavily branded coffee cups stuffed into hedgerows. The substantial, heavily-lidded garbage bins (usually side-by-side with recycling bins) remain firmly shut. We’ve even seen them getting a wipe down and a spray with disinfectant and deodoriser. And the reason? Bears. Hungry bears.

Maybe we should introduce a couple of grizzlies back home? Not to eat the litter, you understand, but deter it.

Rattling elks

The presence of bears and elks drives the retail trade in souvenirs and the bear necessities (sorry) – ‘Yes! We have bear spray!’ signs a regular sight – and endlessly fascinates visitors.

Despite prominent warnings not to approach wildlife, much less feed them (that sugary snack you’re chucking their way might just kill them), we’ve witnessed a number of instances.

GroundSquirrel, Rockies, Lake Louise
A Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel (I think!) nibbles on leftovers, chucked by a passing tourist along the path at Lake Louise

But tourists anxious for that cute squirrel or stunning elk shot might be putting themselves more at risk than they realise. As a Banff man discovered last week.

According to the Rocky Mountain Outlook, a cow elk protecting her newborn calf charged the man, kicking him in the head twice, leaving him briefly unconscious, when he inadvertently got too close.

‘He saw the cow, maybe even the calf’, says Bill Hunt, head of resource conservation for Banff National Park, ‘and tried to do everything right and give them enough room, but he didn’t give enough space. The cow elk came after him.’

The man fled, almost making it far enough away that the cow elk appeared to be giving up, but then he slipped and fell.

‘As soon as he went down,’ says Hunt, ‘she came and kicked him’.

Calves are defenceless to predators for their first three weeks, so a mother will keep her newborn well hidden in the bushes, standing guard from a distance – often as much as forty feet away.

She’ll be nonchalant, adds Hunt, but very much still watching, so someone could very easily be on a collision course with a calf, completely unaware. He recommends keeping a distance of ‘three bus lengths’.

‘If you see a cow [elk] right now and it’s on its own and doesn’t have a calf, there’s a good chance it has a calf in the woods. Back away the way you came and give a wide berth’.

Oh, and if you think that tin box on wheels is protection, as we did, think again. Bull elks have been known to ram motorists who got a little too close for comfort.

Okay. Point taken.

Trees. Did I mention trees?

Trees, as you’ll have guessed by now, are everywhere. As far as the eye can see. So sad to hear that many Canadian trees are falling prey to the deadly Mountain Pine Beetle.

Used to seeing the slowly changing colours of autumn back home in Cumbria, growing splashes of red filling the green, it didn’t register at first, the pools of red peppering the forest swathes. But this is spring, not autumn. Well, spring in the mountains, at least. Summer has yet to fledge.

The beetle colonises pine trees, before literally bleeding them dry. Turning their hosts first orange, then red, then grey, ghostly skeletons of their former selves. Females attack first, releasing pheromones that attract more females and males to the tree. The female beetles then lay their eggs along the sides of vertical galleries they excavate in the inner bark of the tree.

It’s the construction of these galleries which sounds the death knell, thanks to the fungal symbionts carried by these beetle diggers in their mouthparts. The fungi colonise the inner bark and sapwood, changing the moisture and chemistry of the tree tissue. The newly hatched larvae chomp away on the fungal spores before emerging and dispersing to a new host, leaving behind a dying tree.

As if this weren’t enough, white pine blister rust – native to China and accidentally introduced into North America around the turn of the twentieth century – is causing serious damage to the American white pines.

There are only two ways to contain either: suppression by forest fire and extreme cold. Faced with a warming climate and the need to protect communities and wildlife from forest fire, scientists are now using ‘prescribed fires’ to contain the threat and create open sunny sites where new forest can seed and grow.

…and back to the garbage…

You know I love a bit of junk mail, what with my recent newfound son and a hundred ways to stay firm. Nigerian princes not so much lately. But it always intrigues me how it changes tone as I travel. Since first plugging into the wifi here, mine has mostly focused on killing toenail fungus, ‘losing that belly fat’ and how to spot ‘your coming heart attack’. Nice.

It’s a telling snapshot. Rub the glaze from that glowing picture of super-healthy outdoorsiness and there’s another Canada, where the food on your over-sized dinner plate is frequently enough to satisfy two healthy adults, where you’re hard-pressed to find lunch at a tourist destination which doesn’t come inside a tasteless bread bun with a side of soggy fries. And it’s extra sugar or syrup with everything, including pizza.

But my favourite has to be the magnificently alliterative Horace Harrington, whose ‘hair grow tips’ promise to ‘regrow my hair by weekend’. I think you’ll find, Horace, that this is what we in the UK call ‘a wig’.

It’s also clear we’re not too far from the US border (along which, I have it on good authority, the Canadians plan to build a wall, to stem the flow of escaping American citizens). The tellingly titled ‘National Concealed’ exhorts me to ‘qualify to carry a gun legally’, before ‘they’ change the law. Apparently, you can now qualify online for a ‘multi-state, concealed weapons permit’, valid in 25 US states. Chilling.

Finally, some folklore

Canada is steeped in folklore, thanks to a rich aboriginal history. When I first visited Canada, incidentally, forty-odd years ago, the term ‘Native American Indian’ seemed more in use. Now ‘aboriginal’ is seen as the correct collective noun for First Nations, Inuit and Métis.

Native American, Indian Chief, Lake Louise, Rockies
First Nation chief entertaining the crowds at a now unfrozen Lake Louise

Those Three Sisters – now entirely hidden behind that thickening foggy curtain – have their own colourful tale to tell.

According to legend, says the British Columbia Folklore Society, ‘many years ago a young Indian chief found great difficulty in choosing a bride. There were three very talented and beautiful maidens to choose from. The older chiefs asked the gods to aid them.’

But the Indian gods considered indecision a grievous sin for which the punishment was severe.

‘The young chief was turned into a mountain where, each day, he could look at what he could never have. The maidens’ grief was so great that all three prayed that they might be turned into mountains also. Their prayers were answered.’

So now, as visitors to Canmore gaze at the Three Sisters and Proctor Mountain they are looking up at those three maidens and the young chief.

Maybe next time they will gaze back down at us.

Thank you, Canada. It’s been fun.

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