Crossing the Rockies

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Crossing the Rockies

This Autumn, Debbie Martin decided to fulfil a lifelong dream and visit Canada’s magnificent Rocky Mountain range. From paddling in ice-filled lakes, to braving bear attacks and the Canadian cold, she embraced a particular type of North American grit.

It’s early morning, and I’m standing in a glacier-fed lake amidst drifting chunks of ice. My toes feel as if they are about to snap off and float away. Our tour leader, Greg, gives me the thumbs-up. ‘Didn’t I tell you it would feel great?’ he yells, ‘really refreshing’. Greg, however, is watching a few feet away in warm boots. Not for the first time, I wonder if he’s having a laugh at my expense.

Confronting the elements is not usually my thing - I wince at the cold and, in general, shy away from grizzly bears - but it’s been a long-held dream of mine to visit the Canadian Rockies, so in early autumn I decided to book a plane ticket to Canada, followed by a train ticket into the mountains, and I was on my way. The overnight journey from Vancouver to Jasper takes 18 hours (a short trip by Canadian standards). The seats are comfy enough to doze off on and when I next open my eyes, I’m greeted by the sight of the pre-dawn light shrouding the mountains in a spectral blue. It’s the first of many ‘wow’ moments to come. By afternoon the train rattles into the picturesque town of Jasper. I’m staying at a nearby hostel, where I’ll be joining nine other backpackers on a Moose bus backpackers’ tour across the Rockies.

It’s the job of our friendly tour guide Sara to shuttle us onwards to Banff National Park, stopping off at various hikes along the way. I gaze wordlessly at the view from my window. Icy blue lakes mirror glacierlaced peaks, while deer sip at streams, their antlers gleaming in the morning light. ‘Nice, eh?’ grins Sara. ‘Just think, all this was once under water’. The marine fossils that litter the surrounding peaks prove that Sara is right. This region was below sea level until the ocean floors were heaved upwards by the movement of tectonic plates, driving the seabed above the surface and creating the craggy mountain ranges. These mountains were then further parted by the icy hands of glaciers in our most recent ice-age.

By evening we arrive at our cosy Hostelling International accommodation in Banff. The town itself is your typical alpine tourist retreat: picturesque, green and fringed with snow. The next day I escape to the nearby mineral-laden hot springs, where the waters are a soothing balm to my skin after a hard day of hiking. Quickly refreshed, I’m ready for the next leg of the tour. This time our guide is Greg, a Canadian with typical overflowing enthusiasm for the outdoors. He takes us on to the scenic Lake Louise, the surface of which is an unearthly turquoise colour; the result, Greg explains, of light refracting on the rock dust that floats suspended in the water.

As we hike around the shores we are briefed on the threat of bears in the area. ‘If you see a grizzly, you gotta throw yourself onto the ground and play dead. The bear’ll sniff you and move on... hopefully.’ Needless to say, none of us stray too far from the group.

By evening we arrive at Rampart Creek hostel, which makes up for its lack of showers by boasting a rustic sauna. Tyler, the manager, greets us shyly. Despite his meek appearance he bravely stays here through the dark Canadian winter every year, coping with the cold and solitude. I ask him about his worst experience, expecting tales of hunger, frostbite and rampaging bears. He shudders. ‘Oh man, there was one time when I was woken up in the middle of the night by this weird scratching sound. Turned out it was a mouse trying to build a nest in my dreads. You’re really close to nature up here’.

The following morning we leave for our next wilderness hostel. It’s managed by the mysterious Dominique, who reputedly skis miles cross-country each winter to collect supplies (it’s becoming clear to me that it takes a certain type of person to oversee a remote hostel). For dinner we cook tacos followed by a dessert of marshmallows toasted over the campfire. It’s fantastic North American fare. All too soon it’s time to leave. Although I’ve strolled across glaciers, paddled in freezing waters and hiked to breathtaking viewpoints, I still feel as if I’ve only seen a hummingbird’s wingspan of everything the Rockies has to offer.

The morning bus ride home does reveal one more treat to me though; a last minute elk sighting to check off my rockies to-see list. It’s a huge and magnificent creature, but its proud appearance is spoilt slightly by a large bush caught in its antlers that is making it distinctly irritated. The driver chuckles. ‘Will you be returning to The Rockies’, he asks.
The elk has gone but the sun is squeezing its first rays over the mountain peaks, flooding the country with crisp sunlight. ‘Most definitely’, I murmur, before drifting
off to sleep.

Getting there: Get the train from Vancouver to the Rockies. Travel with VIA Rail in economy from $400 (£208). www.viarail.ca
Getting around: Debbie went with the Moose backpackers tour costing $249 (£129) for a four-day trip. www.moosenetwork.com
Accommodation: Hostelling International hostels are frequent along the route. A dorm room costs from $23 (£12) per night. www.hihostels.com

Rocky Wildlife

• There are 69 indigenous species of mammal in the Canadian Rockies. The most commonly spotted are elk, deer, coyotes and bears.
• It’s not unusual for successful male elks to have their own harems. Elk females choose their favourite males based onto the size of their antlers.
• Deer pizzle (the local name for deer penis) is traditionally believed to be a potent aphrodisiac. Rich in hormones and protein, elements of deer pizzle can nowadays be
purchased in soft gel capsule form.
• Grizzly bears are a common, and worrying sight in the Rockies. Grizzlies are distinguished from their cousins, the black bears, by the hump between their shoulders. This is the bear’s swiping muscle which, coupled with its two inch claws, makes it a deadly creature.
• If confronted by a grizzly bear, lying on the ground and playing dead can be an effective strategy. Try this with a black bear however and it will probably start devouring you. Instead, it’s best to back away slowly whilst making lots of noise.
• Ospreys have opposable talons similar to human thumbs, which are handy for tearing up prey. These impressive birds appear on the Canadian $10 bill.
• Grey jays are widespread in the Rockies and are members of the crow family. They are more commonly known by locals as ‘Whisky Jacks’, a mispronunciation of ‘Wisakedjak’ - the trickster god in indigenous Anishinaabe mythology.
• Wolves are now scarce in the region as they were hunted to near-extinction in the 30s and 50s. If you think you’ve seen a wolf, it’s more likely that you’ve spotted a coyote. How do you tell the difference? Coyotes are more slender than their stockier cousins, and have large pointed ears and narrow muzzles.

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