Calgary, sans Stampede

Photos to follow!

Canada’s a big place, and up until now, I’d only been in a very small part of it.  In my life, I’ve never been west (in Canada) of Toronto, which is pretty far east.  So, when I had the opportunity to spend a week’s TDY in Calgary, I jumped at it.

Calgary, like Denver,  sits just to the east of the Rocky Mountains (a little further away, as I learned on my drive to the mountains, but certainly in the vicinity.)  It was home of the 1988 Winter Olympics (more on that later) and for the past 100 years, of the Calgary Stampede, which had the bad taste to end just before I got there.  Like Denver, it’s at altitude.  Calgary is the kilometer-high city (actually a bit over a kilometer) and the altitude and normal dryness of the air results in a climate which even when warm in the daytime, cools significantly at night.

Arriving Saturday around lunchtime, I proceeded to get lost at least three, maybe four (depending on how you count) times on my way to my home away from home.  That was with Google Maps directions.  I finally headed dead reckoning for the general vicinity of where I knew the house was, hoping to find a familiar sounding street.  That worked, although I took a few laps around the block to find the house kinda hidden behind some hedges.  Calgary, in spite of downtown being a conventional grid, seems determined to make sure it’s hard to get to there from here, using a combination of having both numbered streets and avenues, random one way streets,  places where the grid ends, light rail only roads and construction to keep you paying attention.

Sunday, I headed out at 0 dark 30 (two hours time change, remember, so I was awake anyway) for the mountains.  What was my plan?  Drive west until I found them!  The way to do that is on the Trans-Canada, and I had seen the exit for it on my way from the Airport.  When I took the exit from the highway, I was suprised to find that, at least in this section, the Trans-Canada was more Route 66 than I-66.  In other words – it was a regular surface road with traffic lights, railroad crossings and such instead of the expected limited access highway.  Eventually it cleared Calgary and became what I had expected for the most part, divided highway headed West.  Just about the time that happens, appearing to your left at the top of a hill is what, after a few seconds, you realize are the ski jumping towers from 1988 (also the bobsled, luge and ice arenas, but it takes a while longer to realize that.)

It’s about now you really begin to sense the mountains coming up, and notice a few things:

  1. They are very steep, more so than the ones in Colorado
  2. They are very “Rocky”, grey stone from about a third of the way up to the tip.  It really jumps out at you, even at a distance.

Just keep driving, and eventually you come to the last stop before entering the National Park…Canmore.  I didn’t stop there because which exit to take wasn’t obvious from the Trans-Canada and it was still very early in the morning, and all I really needed was batteries for the camera.  A few miles up the road, and you enter Banff National Park.  Like in the U.S., you pay for access to the National Parks these days.  They’re worth it, but you shouldn’t have to pay for things like National Parks, Interstate Highways and other federal institutions you have already paid taxes toward (I feel the same about Passports).  Of course, I’ve paid nothing toward the Canadian National Park system, so charge away!  They didn’t ask my nationality at the gate.

In order to appreciate parks you have to appreciate parks.  It’s about the scenery.  It’s about the experience.  It’s about the quiet and the beauty and the unusual.  This isn’t Disney World (or Disneyland…Canadians can’t seem to keep them straight), it’s mile and miles of mountains, streams, lakes and trees with just occasional interruptions for the town of Banff or the hotel at Lake Louise.  In fact, they warn you to keep your car topped off before entering parts of the park because there are no gas stations for long stretches (that’s true out of the park too…we’ll get to that.)

Pretty soon you realize you’re not only driving into the mountains, but up.  It’s nothing obvious, but the peaks start to be snowcapped and the temperature starts to drop (I wish cars came with altimeters!).  By the time you get to Banff (yes, the town’s inside the park) the temperature had dropped almost ten degrees Celcicus.  Nothing was open in Banff except the Tim Horton’s (still looking for batteries),  so I had a coffee and apple fritter and pressed on.

The next place to get off and hunt for batteries was Lake Louise.  I eventually bought some there at a gas station, and it is better left unsaid what batteries cost in the only place open in the middle of a no-competition zone, but I wanted to take pictures, and the little red battery low symbol was flashing ominously.  With what gas cost, I didn’t buy any.

Lake Louise is a glacier-fed wonder. And on that note, we’ll take a break.

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