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Reflections on Canada [Jul. 15th, 2008|10:57 pm]
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A little time has now passed since I returned from Canada and, as promised, some reflections on my trip.

Canada

Canada is simply an amazing country, as I suspect you'll have gathered from previous entries. I think I was most struck by the scale of everything, from the unimaginable vastness of the country, and how spread out everything is, to the heights of the mountains all around. Ah, the mountains. From the first time I drove over from Calgary towards Banff, and could see the mountains appearing on the horizon, I was almost constantly surrounded by them: in all the national parks, on the roads between them, even on the long drive south to Waterton Lakes there was normally a line of mountains snaking along in the distance. One can almost get too accustomed to sights like this, and on occasion it would strike me - there aren't normally mountains all around me!

So Canada certainly has impressive scale, but it also has beauty. This ranges from the obvious - the breathtakingly gorgeous turquoise of the lakes, the forested mountains receding into the hazy distance - to the far more subtle - landscapes covered in tiny, brilliantly coloured wild flowers. Lakes that seem designed to be set sparkling by the bright sun, surrounded by dazzling, pure white snow. The icy wonderment of the glaciers, covered by pale sky-blue streams of water. Waterfalls thundering down from the sky, their base obscured by shimmering clouds of spray. Golden sunset over the water, and a glittering light-show of stars at night.

Accommodation

In keeping with the YHA hostels I've been to in other countries, those in Canada are of the same high standard. I actually only stayed in four: two for only one night each (Calgary and Banff), Maligne Canyon for three days, and Lake Louise for seven days. The three town hostels were all well equipped and comfortable, but inevitably you get less of a feeling of community when there are large numbers of people there. However, you do get to know the people in your dorm. When I had four days in a row at Lake Louise it was quite interesting seeing the progression of people through the dorm: normally it's me that's only staying one night in a place and just passing through, but this time I was the one who remained while everybody else changed. I was able to pass on, and receive, a number of tips about places to visit, finding that, as normal at hostels, we often had similar outlooks. Quite a range of ages at the hostels - a mixture of New Zealand (where most people were young) and England (where most were older).

By far the most interesting hostel, though, was Maligne Canyon, the wilderness hostel out in the forest. Just four little huts, each with six beds - and it was basically full for the time I was there. I'd had a few concerns when booking this hostel, and indeed it was primitive. But far from being a problem this just added to its character. To be fair, I think if I hadn't been able to use the showers in the town hostel my opinion might have been different, and eating in a cafe in town is perhaps hardly roughing it :) But the atmosphere there was just lovely; because there was no television or other distractions there, people would just congregate, either in the kitchen, or outside at the benches. And we would talk, and watch the sun going down. Hear the wind blowing in the trees above, and the river rushing past beside. Draw imperceptibly closer to the fire for protection against the gathering darkness all around. And fend off determined mosquitoes, and compare our bites! And then to wake up there in the morning, with the lovely soft early light glimmering through the trees, and smell the cold freshness in the air. And perhaps to linger awhile, standing in that clearing in the trees, for a few moments of calm and reflection, before heading off to start the busy-ness and excitement of the day.

My two nights camping were also fun - particularly as this was the first time I'd been camping. It probably helped that I was really tired both evenings, so getting to sleep on the hard ground wasn't a problem! And if my tent can survive three thunderstorms and very strong winds, hopefully it can cope with most things!

Driving

This was perhaps the aspect of the trip that I'd been most concerned about in advance (and which I know certain people continued to worry about!). Once I'd got the car at the airport, I sat in it for a few minutes to sort out my maps and route and so on. And then for a few moments considering what I was about to do, thinking "I actually have to drive this thing now!" But after edging carefully around the multi-storey car park that it was in, I emerged onto the streets around the airport, and on into Calgary down the highway, and never looked back! Except in the mirror :) I was really amazed by how easy it was to adjust to driving on the other side. The only thing that was hard was the usual issue of driving round the downtown of a busy city with woeful signs. I think it would certainly have been harder if I'd been in a right-hand drive car, or in a manual transmission. But the automatic made everything far easier :)

So after the initial worries I actually enjoyed the driving - because when you're on a long drive through a national park, the scenery is significantly more interesting than driving around the M25! Yes, you can't fully appreciate it because you've having to concentrate on the road, but you can sneak a number of glances - and there were always lots of laybies in the national parks where you could pull over to have a proper look. Although there were a number of times when I was just itching to take a photo and there was absolutely nowhere to stop!

It was funny how quickly the north American attitude to driving everywhere took hold - such as when I found myself driving down to the shop in Lake Louise, a three minute walk from the hostel. But everything is so designed for cars, that it does just come naturally. And I certainly couldn't have had the holiday I did without my own car. There were some buses, but the freedom to go places when you want would have vanished completely ("where" would have been less of a problem, although I probably couldn't have got everywhere). A particular example would be the Icefields Parkway, which did have buses/coaches down it. But if they did stop at scenic points, it would have been to their schedule, making a walk or a long sit at any point impossible. And I couldn't be doing with that!

Books

I Was pleased with my choice of reading material, reading all seven Narnia books over the trip (finishing The Last Battle in the departure lounge, which was perhaps not the most auspicious of locations). It's interesting to re-read them as an adult, and as a collection too. Certainly I found that the individual stories of each book became less important, and the overall themes stood out far more clearly, with the Christian message standing out like a silver thread linking everything together, woven through the tapestries of all the separate events. And so even The Horse and His Boy, perhaps often regarded as a weak member of the set, had its part to play, with a particularly moving description of our walk of faith. And the mirrored echoes of creation in the first and last books - just lovely.

I don't think I managed to get any Narnia quotes into the blog posts, as perhaps C.S. Lewis is more given to imagery and simpler descriptions than the quotable wordsmithery of Tolkien (who did feature a few times). But the subject matter was certainly eminently suitable for the holiday, as I went on my own journey through the wonders of creation.

Weather

I was exceptionally lucky with the weather, as I was really perhaps a little early in the year to have justifiably hoped for dependable summer conditions. But for about half the time it was sunny and over 30C - almost too hot! I certainly got through a lot of sun-cream, having to keep on applying it during the day, as I could feel myself burning. But it was so reassuring to have so many days when you didn't have to worry about the weather, and you could just go outside and do whatever you had planned.

The first few days were a little greyer, but without any rain. It did get a little wetter in the last few days, with a thunderstorm when I was at Emerald Lake, which I managed to miss by being in the car. And then several thunderstorms when I was at Waterton Lakes, one of which I was caught out in. Having spent most of my second day at Yoho looking at the sky, I think I was getting quite good at predicting what was coming, and I wasn't that surprised when it rained at Waterton, as it had looked dubious all morning. But I had waterproofs, so what was the fuss? - I dried out! I certainly wasn't going to let the weather affect my plans on my last day :)

Wildlife

Well, I wasn't eaten by a bear. Just by mosquitoes - somewhat less glamorous :) I would have liked to have seen a bear from the safety of my car, but it was not to be. However, I did see: a moose, two elk, lots of deer (just wandering around the campsite), a porcupine, two marmots, and uncountable numbers of those little ground squirrels! I was particularly pleased to see the moose, coming as it did at the end of my last day - so fitting that a sight of such an iconic Canadian creature should bring my trip to a close. After entertaining the crowds simply by the majesty of his presence, he turned and splashed off through the lake, bidding us a silent goodbye, and I too walked away, to begin the long journey back to my home.

Comparisons

A few comparisons of Canada with other places I've visited spring to mind. The first would be the Lake District, and in a sense the area that I saw was very similar - mountains, walks, high-up lakes in the middle of mountains. Clearly everything in Canada was on a bigger scale, and also higher up, leading to the snow, for example. But quite a similar character.

The other comparison would be with New Zealand. Now, I should stress that I obviously only saw a fraction of Canada, and clearly it has far more to offer in terms of different environments, notably the coast. But I'm going to go ahead with the comparison, however unfair it may be. Now, when I was travelling around New Zealand, there was a phrase that kept popping into my head, which I'm not sure ever got mentioned at the time: "That's uncommonly beautiful!". Because everything was. And in that phrase perhaps lies the root of the difference I felt: Canada was most definitely awe-some and a stunning example of nature. But I think perhaps the huge-ness that inspired that awe also made it somewhat harder to relate to the place. While in New Zealand, I felt as though I had come Home. As well as the grandeur and extreme beauty of the landscape, this was somewhere I could feel at one with nature, and for a few precious moments at the most special places, feel perfectly happy.

I think there were other factors too. To me, Canada felt very similar in terms of society and culture to the US (in my very limited experience). Just in little things like the layout of cities, styles of shops and motels, restaurants (with compulsory tipping). And while everybody that I met was polite and helpful, there wasn't quite that natural, genuine enthusiasm that I'd found in New Zealand.

All of which is being a bit harsh on Canada, which is still an amazing place that I thoroughly enjoyed visiting. It's just no New Zealand :)

Stats

Distance travelled: 3000km, roughly 2000 miles
National parks visited: 4
Hostels visited: 4
Photos taken: 1574. Which makes the winner of the photo competition, erm, me, as I guessed 1500 :) But I think I should disqualify myself, so the next closest was David S!

Favourites

Best hostel: Maligne Canyon, for all the reasons above.

Best walk: Sulphur Skyline - it was tough, but the views from the top, of mountains as far as the eye could see, were worth every effort expended in getting there.

Best view not captured in a photo: The line of mountains along the horizon on the drive from Calgary to Banff. Firstly there was no place to stop, but even if there had been, they would have looked tiny in a photo. Their sense of intrigue and invitation would have been lost.

Best national park: A hard choice, but I think it has to be Yoho, for the reason that it struck me as a far more mysterious place than the other parks. Partly this was because I had less time to explore it, but also because its sights are more hidden away. They're not that far apart, as the crow flies, as it's a small park, but they lie at the end of different twisting roads, and so journeying to them felt more like a process of discovery. There's a great deal compressed into a small space, with a number of mountains close together. As you wind between them you feel - what mystery could be round the next corner...

Best place: Bow Lake. A simple, magical spot, lacking the crowds of tourists, but having everything that more famous lakes such as Lake Louise have. I could have sat and watched the sparkle on the deep turquoise water for hours (which is not far from the mark!).

Conclusions

And so let me close with two quotes, which sum up the holiday far better than I could. From a Parks Canada sign by Twin Falls in Yoho: "We mount into precipitous forests and into a great quiet, as if the quiet of cathedrals had somehow been brought into the open air."

And from Lake Louise hostel: "Happiness is not a destination, but a manner of travelling".
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Comments:
From: rjw17121903
2008-07-19 12:12 pm (UTC)

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Just three quick words as I actually need to go and find a shower, but:

- Your moose had a sex change - I think it was female earlier :-)

- New Zealand have the best hostels in the world, followed closely by UK and Canada, so you've been lucky in the quality, and not all hostels are as good (I don't think I've been that impressed by any of the Australian hostels for example). I remember the atmosphere of the hostel in Taos, New Mexico was good though...

- ...where next on your travels then? USA, Peru, Iceland, Outer Mongolia??
From: rjw17121903
2008-07-19 12:13 pm (UTC)

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Ooh I should have said, they weren't YHAs in Australia, or the dodgy Spanish hostel I stayed in, which seems to be the key difference...
[User Picture]From: sjr53
2008-07-19 02:00 pm (UTC)

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- Ah yes, I did mean "she"; at least, it didn't have any antlers. But do moose have those?

- New Zealand hostels certainly were pretty amazing. I believe Australia does have a large number of YHAs, I wonder what those are like

- I have a few ideas! Not sure quite how things will work out next year, as we'll be approaching the end stages of the project, and taking lots of time off might not be a good idea. Might do something short-ish, and save up for another big trip the year after. But it's still very up in the air :)
From: rjw17121903
2008-07-22 08:16 am (UTC)

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I have consulted the oracle of wikipedia, and apparently the males have antlers. Don't they fall off each year though, or is that other types of deer? I also didn't know chipmunks were ground squirrels, so maybe I need to brush up on my Canadian wildlife!

Re-reading your 'Reflections on Canada' inspires me to go - it sounds absolutely wonderful. So glad you had a good holiday! I think it's worth saving up for such memorable trips. And every time you forget a little detail, you can re-read your blog :-)
[User Picture]From: sjr53
2008-07-22 05:38 pm (UTC)

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I would think the antlers did fall off; not knowing when the mating season is, this doesn't get us very far :)

The type of squirrel they had mainly there were golden-mantled ground squirrels; compare and contrast http://www.naturalsciences.org/education/Yellowstone/2006/images/Golden-mantled%20Ground%20Squirrel.jpg with my photo and I think you'll see a certain similarity! (Also see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ground_squirrel)

Glad I managed to inspire you, Canada is certainly well worth a visit! I'm still jealous of your forthcoming trip to NZ though, which is an even more wonderful place :)