Friday, July 31, 2020

Summer vacation days 6-8 - Lower Lake and Sibbald Lake campgrounds

A short while before we pulled into our campsite at the Lower Lake it started to rain. We thought to unload the car and realized that would be a bad idea, better to sit it out and hope it ended soon. When the first break in the clouds came, we raced to put up the tents like it was a game show. Within 10 minutes we had both up including ours wrapped in tarps. Yay!

This was, hands-down, the best camping experience of the trip. We have learned some hard lessons about choosing distances to water and bathrooms, walk-in vs. pull-in, and campground amenities. This one had drinking water, and it was right by our campsite. Our site also had a tiny creek running through it, which was both pretty and a nice source of white noise. Terry and I took a few short walks to various points around the campground - this one had several hikes that started from the grounds - and admired the lake and the mountains. The campground next door had showers (!!!) and for next year we want to aim for that one. Right now I think my tolerance for not showering is about 3 nights, during this trip we only had two consecutive campground nights so we didn't push that threshold.

Although we have become expert on the speedy tent setup, the other efforts of putting together a campsite and making it livable have led us to swear that in the future we will only camp if it is at least 2 nights but preferably 3-4. Excepting our next camping adventure, as it is only one night and the campground has no availability the day before or after. Oops.

It stayed dry enough for dinner and s'mores, but started raining a bit before bedtime and this is when the downside to having two tents really showed itself. The going back and forth for goodnight rituals became a big wet pain. The sound of the rain on the tent was nice, and things only got a bit wet on the edges or where things touched the outside of the tent. We hadn't staked the rain shields because of the gravel pads we had to set up on - next trip we will carry better stakes and a hammer or mallet to drive them in - and if they has been held away from the tent body I am pretty sure things would have stayed a bit drier. As it was, it wasn't a big deal.

The next morning was gray and grumpy. We did a short hike that nobody appreciated, broke up camp, and headed out to the next place.

Sibbald Lake is mentioned here as a good beach to visit from Calgary. It being more in the prairie than the mountains we'd been in all week, we figured it might be warmer and a dip could be possible. It's really cute that the article mentions digging in the sand and there being a beach. We circumnavigated the entire pond. This is not a thing, or if it is a thing it is in the part of the waterfront set aside for the Boys and Girls Club. We did walk through it because we were already halfway through before we saw signs telling us it was private property, so we wandered quickly, but only noticed one sandy bit that could hold maybe 5 people. And a guy was fishing there, below the sign asking people not to trespass or fish. As we were trespassing, I shouldn't really get too judgy.

By the time that jaunt was over it was close enough to checkin time to head to our campsite and set up. As we used our provisions and realized we weren't getting into clean clothing every day, the number of bags and bins we needed to unearth each day got a bit smaller, and setting up camp got a bit faster and easier. The major downside of this campground for us is that we were as far from the bathrooms as we could possibly be. This could explain why all campsites were full except for about 3-4 that flanked us. It was almost a 20 minute round trip.

As our last day on the road, we had an "anything goes" attitude. I didn't make anyone hike anything. And of course there were s'mores after dinner.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Summer vacation days 5-6 - mostly driving, but a little Fernie

We decided not to cancel our hotel reservation in Fernie, British Columbia, when we modified our trip. That was pretty dumb, in hindsight, as it was a lot of backtracking and driving to get there and from there to the next place. We spent one night there. On the other hand,it was informative and we definitely want to go back for a full weekend or more. We decided to take the scenic route driving, so stayed on route 40 rather than the less gravelly and slightly smoother and faster route 22. That was eye-opening and useful because the advice on Crown land camping is often "drive along route 40 and find a good looking spot". We saw a ton of campers and tents relatively close off the road, or further back we'd catch glimpses through a break in trees. Actually seeing where people set up and what the setup looked like was helpful in planning if we ever want to try this ourselves. Crown land camping is basically just total backcountry, go into the woods and find somewhere to pitch a tent camping. Called crown land because it's government land, technically still held by the Crown. I think you need a permit to do this and finding a spot can be tricky - apparently the best spots are way back from the road and some get overrun and you have to find somewhere else. It also appears to be mostly folks with campers, rather than tenters like us.

But I digress.

The hotel in Fernie had an indoor pool with waterslide and when we first got there (about 20 minutes after checkin) the four of us were the only people in the area. I left them to go shower - the first one in 3 days - and apparently more people did come later. When we left later to go to dinner it was pretty full, definitely past the 12 person capacity the hotel requested. There is practically no COVID in BC so often we were the only ones in masks anywhere we went wearing one.

Our neighbor is either from Fernie, or lived there for some portion of his life, and had a list of recommendations we could never get to in the span of time we planned to be there. We dined at a recommended restaurant, then started a little hike but didn't get far, and ended up with ice cream. A number of benches outside various restaurants are actually old ski lift chairs, a testament to the fact that Fernie is apparently more a skiing hub than a summertime destination. Next day we walked around the main street area - 2nd Ave - bought some chocolate - and hit the road. In the nearby town of Sparwood is "the largest truck in the world" and we stopped for photos. Also because it was in the same parking lot as our bank and we needed cash for buying firewood at campsites.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Summer vacation days 3-5 - Etherington Creek Provincial Park

We got to the campsite around 6pm and top priority was simultaneously setting up the tents and getting the cooking started. Oh, and we had opted for the tent-only walk-in section so the site was a few minutes' walk from the car. Terry got the kids started on setting up the tents, he started getting the coals hot and the marinaded chicken onto the shashlik skewers (we had bought a portable shashlik setup either in Russia or Kazakhstan, we forget which. It's pretty awesome) while I shuttled bins and backpacks from the car to the site. Being essentially novice campers we packed both too much and too little. We have now realized that for camping the priority items are (1) tent; (2) sleeping bags; (3) a source of heat; and (4) camp chairs.  We did not have room for the camp chairs and went without the whole week. It was a definite downer.

A number of rookie mistakes dogged this week's camping experience - many relating to attire and equipment. We had no idea how cold it would actually get at night. We didn't realize how cold the air mattress would get. We did not know how great the gap would be between the heat rating of the sleeping bags and the actual warmth it provided at low temperatures - although we did know enough to be skeptical so I guess that's a half point for us. Terry and I probably slept a total of 3.5 hours the first night, having a hard time falling asleep in the first place, then waking to the cold, then thinking to try one thing to get warmer, and dozing off, waking up cold, and thinking to try some other thing. At least we got all the kinks out in one night, so the standard setup every night thereafter was air mattress, with the waterproof-on-one-side picnic blanket between that and the sleeping bags. Then the extra sleeping bag (we did know to bring some extra warmth) unzipped and spread over both of us. Also, it was a summer tent (for camping in July! hahahahaha!) This means it had a lot (LOT) of mesh/venting. Yes, a rain shield, but that is for the rain. Not the wind, not the freezing-or-below temps. We sacrificed three tarps to essentially wrap the tent and create something like insulation.  Note, I also slept in the following: wool socks, flannel pj bottoms, a T shirt, long sleeved T shirt, and thin wool sweater. Some nights I also had my flannel button down and I think one night I also had my fleece jacket. Next time camping I am bringing a beanie hat. With all these modifications it was pretty cozy and we slept decently well. I have alluded to this a couple of times but it cannot be emphasized enough: during the night the temperature dropped below freezing. Inside the tent. We had a little thermometer. If someone said to me, "let's go camping in sub-zero (Celsius) temps" I would have said "hells no". And yet.

During the first night there was a point around midnight where both Terry and I needed the bathroom so we wandered up to the facilities together. On the way back he pointed up ... it was a clear night, the campsite was pitch black and in the middle of nowhere, and I have never seen so many stars.

We decided the next night we'd get the kids up to stargaze. Given that when we went to sleep around 10:30pm there was still light in the sky we decided to have bedtime as usual, and then set the alarm. We figured 11:30pm would be late enough to be sure of darkness. Yeah, this is the downside to northern latitudes in the summer. It was another clear night - the only other one of the trip so we were lucky! We were probably only out for about 20 minutes, but it was magical. We pointed at the few constellations we knew and tried to figure out which blinking bright things were the planets (if any).  Then trudged back up to bed.

During the day in between the velvet nights, the kids read, roamed the campground, and generally hung out and relaxed. They build a little shelter/lean to out of tarps and some rope and the picnic blanket and a lot of the clothespins we brilliantly thought to bring (Terry's idea, so I can call it brilliant). Due to my chilly and horrid sleep the first night I took a couple of naps in the sun and watched prairie dogs in the field. We roasted marshmallows and ate s'mores. Terry and I sipped from adult beverages by the campfire after dinner. We had no cell phone service. This was definitely the kind of camping experience I had hoped we'd have. Although it would have been better with camp chairs.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Summer vacation days 2 and 3 - Waterton

The next morning we headed out to what was supposed to be the highlight of a trip to Waterton - Red Rock Canyon. Well, our kids have an innate ability to be miserable and fight-y and whiny during "highlights" and this was no exception. The iconic part where most photos are taken was packed with people and we wandered around other parts of the canyon. "We" meaning Terry and me, and to be fair this part was lovely. Thinking to cut our losses, we headed back before lunchtime and stopped at the Copper Mine picnic area to eat lunch (picnic area = tables but no bathrooms). A little creek runs by the picnic area and ... yep. We spent hours playing in the creek and among the rocks, and enjoying the small waterfall downstream. This was probably only 3 miles from Red Rock.

When we got back to town, we wandered to a little waterfall in town that was only a few blocks away. Terry and the kids went to look for a creek to play in while I took a small hike alongside the waterfall. Dinner was the Mexican place in town that was surprisingly good.

I should also mention we saw and enjoyed watching prairie dogs once again. Having seen them in Banff and Waterton and never in Calgary, they seem to be more like "mountain dogs" or "foothill dogs" than having any actual ties to the prairie.

From Waterton we would head to our first camping adventure. We didn't want to get to the campsite before checkin time, because we're still green and thought there were people checking us in and paying attention to such things.

First thing in the morning we retraced the previous day's steps to some particularly scenic spots and tried for family photos. It remains to be seen if any of them came out well. At least we bribed the kids well enough that nobody would look too grumpy in the shots. We tackled the Bear Hump mountain next. It was less elevation than Tunnel Mountain but attained in a fraction of the time, so I was still huffing and puffing and swearing to start running when we got back to Calgary. It was a good trek and relatively short as hikes go. Stunning views from the top and a vicious wind.

As we still had some time after this hike, we checked out Driftwood Beach on our way out of town. Once again, what we thought would be a quick stop entranced the children. Alex decided to put her outdoor camp knowledge from last year to good use and started constructing a lean-to with the driftwood - there were already several along the beach, but she wanted her own. Terry and I looked for the perfect walking stick for each family member until we saw the sign that warned against taking any of the wood from the beach. Darn.

Because the kids were having such a good time we stayed later than planned and thus got to the campsite later than planned. More on that next.

Of note: We have every intention of returning to Waterton, the mountains are as beautiful as any of the other Alberta attractions and it is as cute a town and relaxed an atmosphere as any of the other mountain getaways we've visited.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Summer vacation - a rocky start

Our original plan for a July vacation involved spending a few days in Waterton, then crossing the border into Glacier National Park and making a loop through British Columbia on our way home. As we didn't want to (1) head home immediately and (2) quarantine for 15 days after spending no more than 4 days in the USA, we had to change our plans.

Enter operation do-we-like-camping?

Days 1 and 2 were in a hotel in Waterton. It is a national park like Banff and Jasper, but nobody outside Alberta seems to know about it. I could call that fact a big loss, but then it means it is less crowded when I want to go so maybe that isn't a bad thing?

Our first morning started off terribly. We needed stuff for staying in hotels and stuff for camping. And we have never camped with the kids. In the first packing attempt we didn't even come close to getting everything into the car. We had to rethink, rearrange, and employ the rooftop carrier our friends loaned us for the cross-country trip. Yes, we spent one week with the same amount of stuff we had for a week of driving plus a month or so of living in Calgary.

With that hiccup and leaving hours later than planned, the day could have gone south quickly. But somehow we all kept our good humor. Our stop at Tim Horton's for treats that we ate, after our sandwiches, sitting on a grassy area in the warm-but-not-hot sunshine next to the parking lot of Timmy's probably helped the good mood.

We had planned to drive through the Bison Paddock drive-through on our way into town. When we got there it turned out there were no bison to be seen this season, or at least at this time. Disappointed, we went to the end of the little dirt road to turn around and found a little hiking area that went past a pond and tons of wildflowers. We really hit the jackpot with the timing of this trip, as so many beautiful wildflowers were around everywhere we went (although not quite in sufficient numbers to show up well in photos).

When we got to the hotel the room wasn't quite ready  so we decided to wander around the town - it's cute and entirely walkable. We ended up at the rocky beach where the kids proceeded to entertain themselves for something more than an hour. The rocks were stunning, a rainbow of colors. They were a decent facsimile of the colorful rocks we would have seen at Macdonald Lake in Montana if we had been able to get to Glacier.

After checkin it was time to think about dinner. Of the recommended places two were closed, one didn't allow minors, and with hot dogs listed twice on our camping rotation someone vetoed the hot dog place even though he could have gotten their apparently tasty falafel, called something like the not-dog. Dinner was meh, the ice cream afterwards was the best of the trip.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Socially Distant Banff, part 3 (and final)

After a particularly miserable night's sleep, we packed up and checked out. We decided to visit a couple of Banff's recommended lakes and figured we'd be home for lunch.

Vermillion Lakes puzzled us a bit. There seems to be no actual path along the waterways. COVID restrictions meant we couldn't just pull off on the side of the road by the openings in the trees with views of the water. We saw a number of cyclists race past and a few people launching watercraft. Maybe the draw of the lake is being on the lake? We couldn't really tell.

Onward and upward, they say. On our way to the second stop we passed a herd of mountain goats that seemed unsure whether they wanted to cross the road or not. The babies were pretty darned cute. We pulled over and departed the vehicle for some photos (as did several others. This kind of thing happens frequently in the park).

We had visited Lake Minnewanka in winter, and thus had to make a comparison trip to see whether we preferred its summertime activities. The deep blue of the water and the green of the vegetation is a very different experience compared to the whites and blues of winter. We wandered around the shore and over the rocks, stopping to note just how very cold the water still was. And, as it turned out, we were still there at lunchtime. The number of unoccupied picnic tables spoke to the reluctance of hoards to, well, horde. The parking lot was completely full as we departed, though, so it seems that morning is the prime time to show up. 

To round out our wildlife safari, on our way back to the highway we encountered a couple of herds of elk. They had been way back across a field when we passed them the first time, but on our return they had apparently decided to see what the commotion was all about. Once again we pulled over to get a better shot. When we looked back, one of the elk had decided to cross the road, then forgot what she was doing in the middle. Happily, we were able to get by and continue our journey home.

Still no bears. I'd like to see a bear - from my car.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Socially Distant Banff Part 2

Next day we woke to an overcast sky, threatening rain. Terry and Alex took advantage of the hotel's free bike rental for guests and raced away for their morning adventure with a plan to meet back at the hotel for lunch. Zoltan and I walked over to the Cascade of Time garden, which was certainly pretty but perhaps not quite as spectacular as the mountains.  It may not have helped that the waterfalls into the many pools were not running and various parts were taped off - no entry. We got caught in the downpour on our way back to the hotel and got to test how well the hiking pants dried after a soaking - thumbs up! Zoltan also announced that he had splashed in a number of puddles and the new hiking shoes are apparently waterproof - we had not known that.

With the rain coming down even harder after we ate, the kids got lost in their own pixelated worlds while Terry and I watched the weather worriedly, hoping it would not be a full rainy day inside. And our prayers were answered. Before 3pm the sun was back out....

And thus began our Tunnel Mountain Trail hike. Easily the highlight of the weekend. It has switchbacks and a super steep climb (although the 3 month old beagle we cooed over made it up himself without being carried) and wow are we (the adults) out of shape. It was good motivation for getting into shape. Alex practically ran up the mountain, which made us proud and hopeful as she tends toward the lounge-on-the-couch-and-read-all-day when we let her. Somewhere, somehow, she has developed muscles.

From the top are spectacular views of Banff and the surrounding mountains and the river and the whole valley. There are also a pair of the Parks Canada red chairs looking out at one of the many beautiful views. We caught our breath and ate our snacks at a proper distance from other small groups doing the same, then set off back down the hill.  

Monday, July 6, 2020

Socially Distant Banff, Part 1

Banff needs our tourism. With the reopening of the town and the preferences for staying-in-your-own-province tourism, we were able to snag a somewhat last minute hotel reservation that included two rooms and a kitchenette. Friday was no holiday for Canadians so the town was much emptier at the start of our long weekend than it got as the weekend wore on. As we'd all recently acquired hiking clothing and shoes it was also a good opportunity to start breaking things in before our upcoming epic camping road trip. And celebrate that the kids are now my shoe size, so when they grow out of their (apparently very comfortable hiking boots) they will be MINE.

We started the trip with a short hike around Middle Lake. It was absolutely stunning with the wildflowers blooming everywhere. It was humbling and frustrating to know that there was no way to properly capture the colors and depths with camera lens, so I stared around and willed myself to commit the beauty to memory. There just happened to be a picnic table free just before the return to the parking lot, so we could soak in the view a bit longer while eating lunch. Whatever else happened, it was a great start to the trip.

Our attempt at a second short hike on the outskirts of Banff was dashed due to flooding, so we decided to try the hotel and hope we could check in early. No such luck. We let the kids hang out and read while we took a wander around the hotel neighborhood. We managed to find a little prairie dog village and enjoyed watching them run around.

Dinner was at Park Distillery, and was as yummy as we remembered. We were a bit nervous as it was the very first time we'd eaten inside a restaurant in four months. Not only was the city of Banff accommodating - the main street was closed to car traffic and open-sided tents were set up in the middle of the road for breezy, socially-distant dining but the restaurant itself, where our table was, kept things very distant. We ended up at the very front of the restaurant where the enormous, garage-door windows were open so we were essentially eating outside in the breeze.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Finally back to the mountains

For three months there was COVID. Just when restrictions lifted, we used the opening of the mechanic's to get the car fixed - the problem was OK for us to move around the city (our weekly trip to the grocery store) but potentially not safe enough to drive an hour out of the city. So that takes a couple of weeks. Then a weekend with pouring rain. Then Terry does who-knows-what to his foot and can barely walk.

Because he was still not 100% from that last one, we picked a spot where he could walk or sit as much as he liked. Forgetmenot Pond is stunning. The pond itself is pretty small, only about 15 minutes to circumnavigate it. It was a perfect spot for a picnic, some pretty pictures, and I got to walk a few times around and admire the views from all angles.

On our way back we stopped to check out this ram, just hanging out on the side of the road.

We also stopped to see Elbow Falls. It's a very short walk from the parking lot to the falls, and Zoltan and I took a small adventure climbing up on a side path into the woods a bit.

It was not a particularly strenuous day and yet when we got home we were absolutely beat. All that mountain air, I guess? And the COVID getting-out-of-shape?