28/05/2013 - 03/06/2013
On the 28th May we took a bus from Edmonton to Banff. This was the start of our adventure in the Rocky Mountains. Banff's a really nice little town, albeit incredibly touristy. We lost count of how many times we heard English accents. It reminded me quite a bit of Queenstown in New Zealand, but without the whole bungy jumping element. We arrived fairly late so just went for food and then a brief walk. For food we went to a great vegetarian place called Nourish. Their portions are really big as they're designed for sharing, so we had the gourmet falafel and also some nachos between us. Their nachos are their signature dish and are fairly spectacular. You get the traditional beans and cheese and such like, but then there's also a load of fruit on there. I think there are about 27 toppings in total, if not slightly more. You'd imagine that strawberries with melted cheese on would be pretty gross, but it worked surprisingly well.
On our brief walk in the area near the hostel we managed to see Ground Squirrels and a Mule Deer. We'd not even heard of Ground Squirrels before, so had to ask the receptionist in the hostel what they were - they looked like a cross between regular squirrels and meerkats. We also weren't sure what the Mule Deer was at the time, so we were cautious to keep a safe distance. We also carried a stick around in case of bears or something else scary, but thankfully we were fine.
Here's a Ground Squirrel:
The hostel we stayed in was the HI Alpine Centre, which was pretty decent, though the dorm room hadn't been cleaned that well (or recently at least). They also had a weird thing whereby you only got a free pancake breakfast if you booked through booking.com (I think - though this also seemed to include Hostelworld). Happily this meant that we did get it, but it seemed kinda unfair that other people didn't. I dunno, maybe we were charged a higher rate or something. Or they just wanted to keep us sweet so we'd give them a good review! Is that cynical?
We only had the 1 full day in Banff before starting on our 4 day bus tour with the Moose network. We went for a walk to Bow Falls and saw some more Mule Deer, plus had a better explore of the town. One really good thing about the hostel we stayed in is that you get use of a free bus pass.
The following day was the start of our group adventure in the Rockies. We thought we'd have plenty of time to get our free pancake breakfast first, but as there was just the one guy working in the restaurant (taking orders and doing all the cooking), it took quite a long time to actually get our pancakes, so we had to wolf down as much as possible in about 3 minutes. We then got to meet our tour guide and fellow passengers. You travel around in a minibus, so it's not like a whole coach load of people, which is good. Ryan was our guide and he was awesome - really laid back and friendly. Our fellow passengers were an English girl, an English guy (travelling separately), 3 Swiss girls (travelling together) and a couple from Singapore. Everyone was really nice and we got on really well as a group, which is rather useful when you're spending 4 days together. After introductions, our first mission was to buy food. We all agreed that it made sense to buy and cook meals as a group, so we were split up into breakfast, lunch and dinner teams and set loose in a supermarket. It felt a bit like being on some strange kind of game show. Or a really non-taxing episode of The Apprentice! I was on the dinner team and we managed to gather together the ingredients for a veggie stir-fry. After that we set off on our adventure.
My memory of the specific places we went is pretty bad, so apologies for any vagueness. We stopped in a few places and walked around, taking in the scenery. It was sadly quite rainy on our first 2 days of the bus tour, though it didn't impact us too negatively. The rain often seemed to hold off for a while when we were outside, so that was quite considerate. We generally couldn't see the mountain tops though. One place we did stop on that first day was Lake Louise. This was the one place in the Rockies that everyone had raved about and told us was amazing, so our expectations for it were pretty high. Maybe partly because of that and partly due to the bad weather, we were pretty underwhelmed. It's a nice enough lake, don't get me wrong, but it was far less spectacular than pretty much everywhere else we went during our 4 day trip. Infact it became a bit of a running joke: "yep, this is better than Lake Louise". I think another reason why it was underwhelming was because it was so touristy, with a big hotel right up next to it.
The moose bus tours are classed as adventure tours, so they're more about being travellers than tourists. We didn't spend a huge amount of time on the bus and we did a lot of hiking, which was great. We also got to see a lot of wildlife, quite often at the side of the road. You'd know there was something ahead as you'd see what's referred to as a 'bear jam'. This is when a load of tourists pull their cars over in order to get out and take photos of some animal (not necessarily a bear, though obviously they're desirable to see). We'd pull over as well, but we'd stay within the bus to take our photos, as that's the safe, sensible and respectful thing to do. Wild animals can easily get spooked and attack you, or you can easily spook them and cause them distress. As well as viewing the various animals, we also marvelled at the stupidity of some people getting right up close, quite often with their small children. Over the duration of the trip we got to see an array of animals, including deer, elk, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, a moose and some black bears.
On our first two nights we stayed in wilderness hostels, so called because you're out in the wilderness (strangely enough). This means no showers and no flush toilets. And you need to be on the lookout for bears! On our first night we stayed at Rampart Creek:
We had a good dinner and then spent most of the evening talking about the possibility of running into a bear on the way to the toilet and how it felt a bit like we were in a horror film. Thankfully we all survived the night and no-one was hindered by wildlife on their way to wee.
On the second day we headed into the Columbia Icefield to check out the glaciers. We had a good long walk in that area, then headed on to a waterfall. We all climbed part way up it, then the more adventurous ones in the group (which was actually most of the group, though not me as I'm a total wuss) kept climbing up to the top. That was quite exhausting (even just watching!), plus it was raining, so after a brief trip to get some warm drinks, we treated ourselves to some time at the hot springs. That doubled as both a nice relaxing afternoon and also a good opportunity to shower.
That night we stayed at Athabasca Falls, our second wilderness hostel:
We had a barbecue with some beef and some bison. I'd previously had bison in Cuba and found it pretty tough as it had possibly been overcooked, so it was good to get to try it again. It was cooked much more rare this time, which is how I like my meat, so it was definitely more enjoyable. I still found it much tougher than beef though. That night we also got to see the Northern Lights! That was really exciting as I've never seen them before. They weren't really strong in the sky, so not as spectacular as a lot of the photos you see, but they were still pretty impressive.
On our third day the sun finally appeared. Hoorah! We took full advantage of it and managed to fit in a lot. To start off we went to Athabasca Falls and walked all around there. Then we headed to a pier where you can stick your feet in the water and get one of those fish pedicures (but for free!). Sadly my feet were covered in plasters, due to blisters, so I didn't join in. We then headed to Maligne Canyon, where Ryan dropped us off at one end, then took Fenton (the bus) up to the other end to meet us there. Of course, being the only trek where we didn't have our guide with us, this ended up being the one trek where we encountered a bear. It wasn't far ahead of us, though it was just a small black bear, thankfully, not a grizzly (though it would have been cool to have seen a grizzly at some point on the trip). We all stopped, of course, not wanting to get too close. It ran off, though in the direction of the path we were heading towards, so we were slightly concerned we might round the corner and find it sitting there. As we were being cautious and keeping our distance, a couple came up the trail behind us. We told them there was a bear ahead, so that they could be equally cautious, but the lady just said "we're not interested in bears" and kept walking. Strange. The bear had totally scarpered anyway, so we continued on to the end of the trail where Ryan was waiting (and juggling). Of course it then started raining as we had our lunch (it rained during all our lunches at some point), but there was a handy tree to shelter under and stop our sandwiches getting soggy.
Before heading to the hostel in Jasper we had a final hike up to a lookout point. As well as the awesome view, we got to see some sheep and a chipmunk. The hostel we stayed in in Jasper was a bit disappointing really after the quiet secluded wilderness hostels. There were just the 2 massive dorms, one of which was female-only, though I stayed in the mixed gender one so I could be with Jamie. We were put in a fairly cramped and dark corner of the dorm, which didn't really help our slightly negative opinion of it. Not that it really mattered much as we didn't exactly spend much time there. We had a while for showering and such like but then we headed into town for food and drinks. The word 'town' might suggest it was sizeable, but it was smaller than Banff and Banff was pretty small. Not that size matters (*insert own joke here*). We had a good night out, drinking some drinks and playing some pool. We were mostly playing doubles and Jamie and I went undefeated. More down to Jamie than me, granted, but I'll still happily take some credit.
On our fourth and final day we headed back to Banff. The Swiss girls stayed in Jasper, so it was sad to lose them, but we gained a German guy instead! We went on a hike up through some waterfalls at Beauty Creek in the morning, then went and had lunch by the weeping mountain:
In the afternoon we walked up through some snow to reach a lookout point for an amazingly blue lake, which was pretty spectacular. Ryan said he'd never seen it so blue. Annoyingly I can't remember what it was called, but look at how blue it was:
Once we were back in Banff we checked into the Same Sun hostel, which was pretty decent. Our dorm room looked like it used to be a hotel suite or something, as it was split into different rooms and had a TV, fireplace and notices about a hot tub (though no actual hot tub, alas). Our meal was also included, so that acted as a good final group activity.
Jamie and I still had most of the following day in Banff as we were then catching a late overnight bus to Vancouver. The weather wasn't brilliant but we still went for a nice walk up to the caves. Sadly the caves weren't actually open (we managed to go there the one day they're closed), but we got to see a bit of the geothermal activity in the area. Plus we got to see an Elk. Then when we went and got dinner I decided to order an Elk burger! Yes, I admired the beauty of an animal and then got curious as to what it might taste like. Although, as it was in burger form, the taste wasn't as strong as it would likely have been in steak form or something like that. There was a subtle difference to beef, but if I'd not known it was Elk and had been told it was beef I wouldn't have doubted it. After dinner we headed to the Greyhound station to catch our overnight bus.