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Monday, October 8, 2018

Coming home to a place she’d never been before*: Jasper and Banff National Parks

“Hey, petrol is cheap,” T. said when we pulled up at our first gas station in Canada. We were renting a car for our week in Alberta. Gently, I reminded her that although the price looked cheap for a gallon of gasoline, it’s sold in litres up here. Ouch!

You never know what you’re going to get with T. Sometimes she’s all “I’m a pensioner, where’s my discount?” Next thing, she’s ziplining or getting me to bike across the Golden Gate Bridge. And so it was that, at the Columbia Icefield between Jasper and Banff, she talked me into a guided “ice walk” on the Athabasca Glacier. 

I wasn’t sure I wanted to walk on the glacier. I pictured teetering along on solid ice, and as anyone who’s seen me try to skate would know, I don’t do ice. We were provided with mini-spikes to put on our boots—not crampons, but a rubber attachment with a mini version of metal spikes, for when we walked on the glacier. Apparently people who run and hike all winter use these. I was hooked.
The glacier from its "toe"
It was really walking on snow rather than ice. And although offers all sorts of layers you may not have brought with you, from rain pants to extra gloves, I found that once we were walking I quickly warmed up. The temperature was only around freezing and the snow was falling steadily, though lightly. Our guide, Forrest, said it was “a special day on the ice.”

It certainly was. Sometimes I couldn’t see anything but to follow the people in front of me in the path. We got to walk all around the glacier, safely avoiding crevasses, some fifty meters deep! (Or did he say 500?)

The features of the glacier are awesome, but like most glaciers it is receding, and may not be around in fifty years. Signs leading up to the lip of the glacier show where the ice reached to in recent decades. Our guide asked if anyone in the group had been born since 1982,
or since 2000. Stop it, Forrest, I thought from the back of the line. Some of us were born in the parking lot.

The ice walk was amazing, one of the highlights of my travels. C$100 for three hours turned out to be money very well spent (you obviously cannot walk the glacier without a guide, for safety reasons). On a sunny day it would be a very different experience, as you could look up and see the icefall. There were times when all we could see was white! Winter had come early, Albertans assured us. We knew this the morning we arrived in Jasper, when snow flurries greeted our arrival. 

There was some time between picking up our rental car and checking into our motel in Hinton, about an hour north of Jasper. So we took a leisurely drive part way down the Icefields Parkway, one of the highest and most scenic drives in the world. Unlike the Going-to-the-Sun Road, however, the Icefields Parkway (Alberta Highway 93 between Jasper and Banff) doesn’t wind around cliffs, but is pretty straightforward driving. It’s an extraordinarily good road, maintained, as we learned, by constant construction (in one spot or another) during the short summer.

On our first leg of the train journey we’d had a group of fourteen in our coach. I think they were from China (it’s a good guess wherever you travel these days), but couldn’t be certain what language they were speaking. In any case, it was amusing to find them following us wherever we went. Not just out of the train when we stopped at Kamloops, and they couldn't wait to stand by the tracks and smoke cigarettes (why else get out for “fresh air”?!) We saw them at the place we found breakfast, we saw them at stops along the parkway.

We even saw them at supper, when, through the unseasonable cold and snow, we went to get a steak and some Antler Ale. This was back in Hinton, where we were staying at the Pines Motel. I was pleasantly surprised by how nice the rooms were there: nice touches like a bathtub and underfloor heating! Sometimes a motel with a couch and microwave feels like one of life’s greatest pleasures—at least after hours of snowy walking on the glacier.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. It wasn’t snowing the day we hiked Maligne Canyon. This is a lovely walk across as many bridges as you care to cross (handily numbered First to Sixth) and along a ridge above the Maligne River.

The next day, we drove south from Hinton again to Maligne Lake, and hiked the first part of the Skyline Trail.
If you hike the whole trail, it takes you above the treeline (hence the name) and two or three days. We contented ourselves with an out-and-back to Lorraine and Mona Lakes. 

If you don’t see wild mammals between Hinton and Jasper, you are unfortunate indeed. Every time we rounded a bend there were elk or bighorn sheep grazing, or sometimes licking right in the middle of the road. It is their habitat and people defer to them.
Bighorn sheep
Young moose
The day we hiked from Maligne Lake, we saw a different type of animal crossing sign: caribou. Based on this warning, we are pretty sure that is what we saw a bit further down the road.
The caribou appears on the back of the quarter.
Caribou is another name for reindeer (in Alaska, typically, they’re eager to sell you sausage made out of this). I hadn’t know before that unlike other deer, both male and female caribou grow antlers. So all this time, Santa Claus’s team may have been coed. Just like a dogsled team.

We had several days in Jasper National Park, but we also wanted to visit its adjacent neighbour, Banff. Banff was the third national park in the world, and seems to provide slightly less for its visitors than Jasper. Maybe I was spoiled by facilities at every stop and trailhead in the northern park. At Lake Louise, one of the most visited national park sites in Canada, we struggled even to find a public washroom. They sure don’t want you to use the one in the Chateau Lake Louise. 

Mirror Lake
The lake itself, though, is postcard perfect. And Lake Louise is just the first of a series you can hike to—provided you are happy to walk relentlessly uphill. But it was a beautiful sunny day and the trail was only slippery in a few places. Armed with our hiking sticks, we reached alpine Mirror Lake and then our goal, Lake Agnes Teahouse.

Lake Agnes was not a letdown, but the teahouse sure was. To be fair, it was very busy, but there was nowhere to order; the signs instruct people to sit down and wait for someone to take their order. No one ever came. I mean no one ever even came out and acknowledged our presence, never mind took an order. And if you’re not going to hire more staff, teahouse folks, at least shovel the snow off the hundred steps to your washroom at the top of a steep hill. It was the only really slippery place on the whole trail. Don’t staff have to use it?

If you pack your own snacks, though, you’ll enjoy just sitting and having a look at Lake Agnes.

We were glad to get back down to Lake Louise. I think people canoeing on this picture-perfect lake may be the iconic Canadian image.

Back in the day, there were two rail companies that crossed Canada to the west. One, CN, we have already established built tracks on the northern route, via Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and Edmonton, Alberta. The original (whose equipment, funnily enough, VIA Rail uses today on the CN route) was Canadian Pacific. That railroad used the southern route via Regina and Calgary. In the old days travelers piled into Banff and its Springs Hotel from Royal Canadian Pacific trains. 
Nowadays, the only train that uses the Banff and Lake Louise stations is the Rocky Mountaineer, a pricy tourist train. Lake Louise station does house a restaurant though, and we had a look round. It’s one of Canada’s only remaining log railway stations. Even the bench out front seemed classically comfortable.

Dining car, old CP railroad

Between Lake Louise and Banff there are two highways. The Bow Valley Parkway is slower, but much more scenic. We took it a couple of times but did not see any wildlife. For that, you should drive north of Jasper, where we saw herds of something literally every time.

We stayed a couple of nights in Banff, in another HI hostel. This one was nice too, with a $7 lasagna special in the bar (and $3 shots). We were in a dorm for six, though, and this turned out to be a bit much. I am fairly certain we had a variety of religions represented in the room, which was not a problem, except whatever two young women's religion was they got up at the crack of arse to light candles. T. said they were putting plastic bags on top! I didn't know any of this; I just smelled something perfumey and wondered why anyone had plugged in an air freshener at 4:00 in the morning.
Not a bad view, though
Something else I've noticed the few times I've stayed in hostels is the packing habits of certain hosteling young women: Everything in their suitcases is wrapped in plastic. Not regular plastic bags, like we're destroying the oceans with, but the kind hard candy is wrapped in. Packing and unpacking, for these gals, involves hours of crumpling and uncrumpling--slowly, torturously, so as not to disturb others, I guess. Boy were we glad to get back to the Pines Motel, where the proprietor welcomed us back like old friends!

Now I know I've gotten a bit obsessive about this, but I was so happy to be wearing my fleece as a mid layer while we were hiking. It was cold and there was snow on the ground, but the sun was out and we worked up a sweat hiking uphill. Unlike cotton, the fleece kept me warm when we stopped, and dried out instead of giving me a chill. Wish I'd gotten this right on Kili summit night!

Speaking of layers, there was a lovely layer of snow on the ground when we woke up on our last day in Hinton. The snow was swirling outside, as it had been on our ice walk, but driving didn't seem dangerous. We found that we really liked Hinton and were most disappointed to find that the Canadian Steakout, our supper place of choice, isn't a chain and we couldn't find it anywhere else.

The Steakout was so good we went there twice (they don't serve only steak). I got a kick out of their menu, which flagged tiger shrimp pasta as "vegetarian." I guess in Alberta, if it isn't beef, it's veggie! The place was so popular we had to sit at the bar in front of three TVs. One was showing Canadian football, one a preseason Toronto Maple Leafs hockey game, and the third, for some reason, a religious channel. I found it a little distracting to lift my eyes from the bar and see teachings about leprosy or marriage guidance popping up next to Johnny Manziel. But the best thing about the Steakout was the wall decorations.

This is a jersey signed by the entire Canadian women's hockey
team that won gold at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. Between that and Randy Bachman's guitar (of bands The Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive), it was like the whole country was telling me "Welcome home."

Who knew we'd end up enjoying Hinton so much? We just thought it was a more affordable place to stay than Jasper. But the Canadian was coming through town again, so we had to return our car and catch the train. We got going early that morning because we'd seen forecast of snow accumulation.

It wasn't cold enough to make scraping the windshield difficult--good thing T. still had her key card from the ship to use. On the way to Jasper the road was rather dicey. We were following a minivan when we saw it slowly slide off the road in front of us. Fortunately, no one was driving fast and the van came to no harm in a snow bank, but the women inside were shaken up. I think they were Canadian, but they had no boots on, no winter coats, nothing. We and another driver stayed with them until we were sure their heat was working and a tow truck was on its way.

Our last glimpse of Hinton was from the train which, delayed by an hour or so, rolled back northeast to where we had just come from. By now the mountains just looked beautifully frosted and we were glad not to be on the road. I even spotted an elk from the window--there are so many in Jasper National Park I was spoiled for choice as to pictures.
Here's one I saw earlier.
*John Denver, "Rocky Mountain High"

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Type 2 travel: across Canada by train

Somewhere on the second leg of our rail journey from Vancouver to Toronto, a young American woman came up to me in the observation car, where I was (perhaps unforgivably) looking at a book. I knew she was American because she asked “Traveling somewhere?” and went on to tell me a large part of the story of her life, which she was on the road to figure out. Before the rail part of her journey, she had literally been on the road, biking much of the Pacific Northwest coast. She explained to me that there is “type 1 fun,” when you have fun at the time and also have fun remembering the fun later. Type 2 fun, like her bicycle journey, is more about doing it at the time, knowing that the fun will come later, in remembering. I think her train trip, in which she was on the second of three days, was turning into type 2 fun for her.

There are also two types of travel. One is when you have to get to a wedding, a meeting, or are just eager to see your family again. That kind of travel is primarily about getting where you want to go. You don’t particularly care how you get there, but you do want the trip to be over as quickly as possible. This is how I feel about airplanes. They may be the fastest type of travel, but they’re not pleasant, and if I experience delays with a flight then the whole point of it is gone.

The other type of travel is primarily what we have been doing: road trips, slow boats, and now a cross-Canada rail journey. Let me be the first to emphasize that trains in Canada are not fast, and this one in particular is notorious for not running on time, for reasons I’ll mention. If you expect a high-speed train like in Europe, you will be disappointed. And if you want to get from, say, Jasper to Edmonton, Alberta in the least amount of time, you are better off driving even compared with the on-time schedule of the train.

The Canadian, as this classic train is known, is not about getting somewhere fast or on time. It is definitely type 2 travel, where the journey is at least as important as the destination. Enjoying the Canadian depends on your expectations. If, like me, you are eager to feast your eyes on the changing landscape of Canada out a train window, without worrying about when you’ll reach the next station, then you’ll enjoy the journey.
The Canadian appears on the back of the $10 bill.
VIA Rail, the passenger service of Canada, alerts passengers on its home page to the likelihood of delays. The reason is that VIA does not own the tracks; they are owned by Canadian National, which today is a freight company. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from neoliberal economics, it’s that free movement of goods is important, whereas free movement of people is to be restricted. That is what happens on CN’s tracks. A lot of times (though, as we discovered, not always), when a miles-long freight train is passing through, the passenger train just has to wait on a siding. 

Every blog post, article, and TV show extolling the Canadian will also tell you to expect significant delays. And that there is no WiFi and, given the remote country the train is passing through, often no phone signal either. If you don’t know this in advance, you may feel miserably stuck on the train. If, on the other hand, you want a 1950s experience in classic ’50s train cars, you’re like me and will be happy to put your phone away.
Restaurant car
I have been wanting to cross Canada by train since I immigrated here in the year 2000. Back then, a sleeping compartment or berth on the Canadian cost between four and five hundred dollars, which was too much. As a result, I never did it. Today an economy class ticket (i.e., a reclining seat) costs that much. Guess how we’re traveling?

All those posts, articles, and shows I mentioned are also from the perspective of sleeper class. They make it sound like a cruise on rails: gourmet dinners, an attendant making up your berth, no doubt with a bilingual chocolate on the pillow. And maybe in sleeper class it is like that. But our cruise is over, and no one ever seems to blog about their trip on the Canadian in a seat, though that is how most people must travel (the sleeper tickets were sold out months in advance). So here I am, back online, to tell you what it’s like to cross five provinces and 4,467 km eastbound on VIA Rail #2. Here are my top tips:

  1. As VIA Rail states, do not book onward travel or anything time-dependent on the day of arrival. Build an extra day into your schedule so you don’t stress. If you don’t have that kind of time or just want to get there, this is not the trip for you.
  2. Get up in the dome car and enjoy the all-around views. Almost the whole route is scenic, and there’s no better way to appreciate the vastness and variety of the Canadian landscape.
    Fraser Valley, BC
  3. Before you go, pack or download plenty of tunes if you like to listen to those, or books so you’ll have something to read. I didn’t end up reading much, but I did listen to my new Buffy Sainte-Marie albums and a lot of The Tragically Hip. k.d. lang kept popping up on the iPod, too.
  4. The food on the Canadian, even in economy where it’s not included, is really good. I don’t know how s/he does it in a tiny galley, but there is a chef who cooks meals fresh to order. There is also a surprising selection of beer and wine, all domestic bien sûr.
Nonetheless, we packed plenty of snacks and took sandwiches, etc., especially for our third and longest leg between Saskatchewan and Ontario. The food is good value for money, but you will not want to depend on buying it all the time, and some of the stations have basically nothing to offer no matter what time you pass through them.
5. Let the WiFi go. Do you know the attention my guidebook attracted, with its paper maps and things I could look up, or had planned in advance? A frustrated guy who was getting to Edmonton later than expected took a picture of my map (with his useless phone, naturally). Other passengers spent short breaks in train stations trying frantically to get WiFi, which was often not good. They reminded me of one of my teammates on Kilimanjaro who seemed to spend the whole trek trying to get a phone signal. He even photobombed another hiker’s summit picture, holding his phone up to the sky. I know he missed his family, but did he not tell his wife he was going to climb a mountain?
Rear view from the dome car
I did actually turn my phone on at one point during each leg of our journey: to show my ticket. We hadn’t gotten around to finding a printer, so I had the e-mails on my old BlackBerry, the phone I barely use but which is not cool enough for anybody to steal. Remember how cell phones originally started out as huge bricks, then became smaller and smaller, and are now giant again? “I miss those little BlackBerrys,” the conductor said—but note, she could scan my ticket fine on the small screen. Here’s tip #6 for free: Don’t update or upgrade anything as long as the old thing works. Saves SO much money.

Oh, and #7. Take a comfortable change of clothes on the overnight train. An alternate pair of sandals or shoes you can slip on and off is great (you can’t walk around the train without shoes for safety reasons). Also, layers! Have a sweatshirt or something to slip on for extra warmth, because the temperature varies from car to car. Have another fleece or something to use as a pillow. Basically, carry on whatever you need to be comfortable on the train, as well as if you get off the train at stops (Canada can be cold).
Front view from dome car
Does this sound like hard work? Why have I been dreaming about this journey longer than any other adventure we’ve been on in the past two (or for me, 18) years? I love Canada. Falling in love is not rational and, unlike what I believed growing up, loving a country does not mean believing it’s objectively superior to all other countries. It is just the way that I feel. Loving a country other than the one I was born in is not like bigamy; it is more, as Chaim Potok put it, like loving both a mother and a father. I became a landed immigrant and threw myself into my new country, and it was a success. I love snow, classic Canadian rock, even hockey. I love the way people talk and the fact that they don’t, always. Even some of the annoying things are endearing to me. That is love.

So I didn’t just want to see the west of Canada, which I'd never gotten around to before. I wanted to stop along the way and explore it. One, because it would have been a shame to ride through, for example, the Canadian Rockies without taking time to go out and see them. And two, because the train is scheduled to take five days between Vancouver and Toronto. Although we were prepared to spend four nights on a train, we did not want to spend four in a row!
Rocky Mountains, BC/Alberta border

I’ve spent nights on trains several times before. It used to be possible to get a sleeper train from Toronto to Montréal, and T. and I also traveled to Montréal aboard the Ocean, VIA Rail’s overnight train that rolls from Halifax, Nova Scotia through New Brunswick and Québec. From those journeys and our berths on a Thai train, I did not remember sleeping on a train being significantly more comfortable lying down than in a reclining seat. I kept waking up anyway, and the seats on trains are far more comfortable and roomy than on a bus (which, in turn, is much better than a plane). So I was happy to book seats in economy, again, with the expectation that we could be hours late getting into our first stop, Jasper.

We stopped off for a week in Jasper and that deserves a post of its own. We spread the five-day train journey over two weeks. Just to say here, it was a good way to do the trip. There were people on each train who were going all the way through but I think it would have had diminishing returns, at least in economy class.
Oil derrick, Alberta
I do recommend economy, though, if you want to see a different side of Canada. There’s a whole other Canada beyond the cities, obviously, and you not only see it from the train windows, but you can meet it, too. I had supposed the Canadian was largely a tourist train but that’s probably only true of sleeper class. Canadians joined our train along the way, from a university kid who regularly takes the train to Winnipeg, to a hunting party and a couple of railroad workers who took over the dome car in Ontario for a while. Talking to them was interesting. They’re from Ontario, yet a thousand kilometers from anywhere I’d been. Toronto, for them, was an overnight trip.

So take the Canadian, but take it slowly and in stages. It crosses five provinces and four time zones, with four distinct landscapes. Eastbound, from following the Fraser River in British Columbia to the mountainous border with Alberta, the tracks wind through the prairies by the second day. On the third morning you’ll reach the boreal forest of northwest Ontario, and by the last day you’ll wake up on the Canadian Shield, a billion-year-old expanse of exposed bedrock that covers much of North America, from the Great Lakes to Hudson Bay.
Train distances still use miles, from the original mileposts.

We planned a week in Jasper, getting off the train one Saturday and leaving the next. Wouldn’t you know, we were early! The train from Vancouver didn’t seem to experience any freight-related delays at all. I woke up on Saturday morning, looked out the window (it wasn’t very light yet), and saw that were arriving in a town. I don’t know what there was to see just west of Jasper, because we were already there.

And that’s my 8th tip, for the train journey if not for life. Sometimes, surprises are pleasant ones. Sometimes you’re all prepared to take your time and be comfortable, and you wake up already in the Rockies. So be prepared for your expectations to be exceeded too. Alberta certainly exceeded mine.
Spoiler alert: After all the adventures on this and the two subsequent legs of our train journey, let it be known that the Canadian arrived into Toronto only 42 minutes behind schedule. "Not too bad," as they say around here.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Sheroes: Seward to Vancouver

Our last day in Alaska, the ship docked early in the morning in the port of Seward. I was in the glass-sided elevator, going down for disembarkation, when one of the other passengers pointed out the window to a harbor seal. Just swimming around, enjoying itself. It was a nice end to the cruise!

It had rained overnight, but the weather in Seward was quite mild. Just as well, as we weren’t sure how we were going to spend the day before our bus to Anchorage in the evening. Seward looked quite small; the downtown is visible from the cruise terminal, around a bend in the waterfront. Right away T. spotted a sign in the terminal for “Alaskan Bag Lady.” We figured we could use her services.

The Bag Lady’s deal is that for $8 per large bag ($6 for ours) she would lock the bags in her van and deliver them to the small boat harbor later (where all the buses leave from). So we were free to wander around town, unencumbered by our large backpacks. They are really quite comfortable when we’re wearing them, and don’t feel heavy, but for $6 we were more than happy to check them for the day. A free shuttle bus also runs from the terminal so there’s really no excuse not to spend the day in town.

I really liked Seward. It’s the starting point of the historic Iditarod Trail, which predates the modern dogsled race. Alaskan Native villages were connected by the trail for centuries; historically, it ran through the (now abandoned) town of Iditarod. Today, Seward is quite proud of the Iditarod Historic Trail. You can watch a film about it, back to back with a film about the 1964 earthquake and tsunami, for a small donation at the library.
Seward public library and community center
If you are ever in Seward, I cannot recommend the library highly enough. It’s a delightful building, with big windows to look out of—if you can tear yourself away from a good book, that is. The facilities are good, there’s free WiFi, a sunny garden, and a museum downstairs that charges $4. Otherwise, it’s free. Had the weather been worse, we probably would have stayed there all day.

We also got a delicious lunch of crab chowder, salmon L.T. (a variation on the B.L.T. sandwich), and Alaskan beer. The only difficulty was adjusting to having to pay for meals individually, as we’d been spoiled on the ship! When we got back to the harbor the Alaskan Bag Lady was waiting for us, and turned out to be quite a character. She showed us where everyone brought their catch to clean fish, and where the leftovers went, much to the delight of mammals in the harbor. We even saw an otter thanks to her.

Sadly, we had to leave Alaska, which meant a flight out of Anchorage International Airport. To get there, we’d booked a bus that took us on the Seward Highway, classed as a scenic byway. It was, and there are probably times when you can see a lot of wildlife out the bus windows. The mountains are glaciated (i.e., non-volcanic) and reminded me of mountains in Wales or Scotland. They were reflected, crystal clear, in the lakes of Chugach National Forest. And closer to Anchorage, sunset on the Turnagain Arm just seemed to go on forever. The only problem was we couldn’t stop and take pictures.
Out the bus window--not great
Our bus driver did her best to enlighten us with commentary. Did you know, for instance, that Alaska has three million lakes, and most of them don’t even have names? That gives you some idea of the scale of the state.

The bus would have taken us directly to the airport, but we had to stop in downtown Anchorage so T. could get a pin at the Hard Rock Cafe. If she hasn’t told you about her habit I don’t want to spoil it for you, but suffice it to say there are three cities we’ve been to that have Hard Rock Cafes but, for one reason or another, we did not get a pin from them. They are Athens, Cape Town, and Chiang Mai. Guess I know where we’ll be going back to if we ever circle the globe again.

So we ended up in a taxi driven by Rocky Chongkuk, whose son is over in Europe with the  Air Force. I thought, I am really going to miss these characters. Like Hawaii, Alaska is far enough from the other states that it kind of has its own thing going—a really casual thing. I mean when we got to the check-in desk for Alaska Airlines, the woman asked for our names. Our names! She might never have asked for our I.D. at all, except that we were flying back to Canada so she needed to check our passports. Eventually.

Anchorage is not like other airports. For one thing, there is a lot of taxidermy. Everywhere you go in the airport there are stuffed birds or animals, and I have to admit, I don’t see the appeal. I’m not against hunting, and I certainly don’t have a problem with eating what you kill (like the Alaska Bag Lady who told us her boss had a bear-hunting license, so they split a bear). If you’re going to eat meat, there are worse ways to produce it. But a trophy on the wall? Don’t get it, myself.

But there are also kind of charming things, like a vending machine that sold wool socks, hats, and other warm things. All made out of buffalo wool, if you want to call it that. And then there’s this picture of the late Susan Butcher.

I mentioned the modern Iditarod. It is one of the only athletic events in the world in which men and women compete together in the same race—as do male and female sled dogs, sometimes on the same team. And so it was that in a period of six years, the Iditarod was won by a woman five times. Four of those victories went to Susan Butcher's team, which also held the Iditarod speed record from 1986-92.

Now since we’d sailed up from Vancouver, you’d think we could fly directly back there from Anchorage, but it was not to be. The airline flew us all the way back to Portland, for a connection that took all night. I liked Portland, as you know, but falling asleep on a row of airport seats is not the ideal way to experience a city. Still, I don’t doubt the signs at PDX that claim it’s “America’s nicest airport.” There was the no sales tax, for one thing. And when a latecomer hurried up to the gate (where we were hanging out) to catch his flight, the gate agent said to him, “Don’t worry.” Don’t worry? Is this an airport, and are we still in the United States?
Not stuffed, then

If I thought that was a nice note to leave the country on, imagine what it felt like to land back in Vancouver. T. came with me through the citizens’ line, indicating that she planned to stay in Canada about four months. “What’s the purpose of your visit?” an immigration agent asked.

“Traveling around,” I said.

“Thank you.” And we’re in. No stamp, nothing but a beeline for the airport Tim Hortons, where I stood in the doughnut line and started talking to a woman whose son lives in Brisbane. (She noticed my Gold Coast shirt.) She’s from Toronto. I already felt like I was home.

Baby snowsuit
It was rainy in Vancouver. I’d thought that was normal, but our Airbnb hostess said that it had been dry all summer (the parched grass was evidence of that). It rained most of the time we were there, though. We spent one rainy day shopping, first for the inevitable Hard Rock pin, which in Vancouver means a slog to a casino in the suburbs, and then at Mountain Equipment Co-op, a cross-Canada delight.

We don’t shop much because we just don’t. Also the budget, plus the one-in, one-out rule of items in our backpacks. But we’re in Canada now and don’t expect to be wearing shorts and T-shirts all the time.

The rain didn’t stop us from traveling around town. Buses in Vancouver must be the friendliest on earth. Nearly everyone says “Hi” and “Thank you” to the bus drivers, and nearly all the drivers are friendly in turn. It is just as well, because some of the places we went, like Lynn Canyon, took quite a long time to reach by public transportation.

Lynn Canyon is kind of hidden away in North Vancouver, which is part of the appeal. You would never know you were in a city there, hiking through the woods. Unlike a slightly longer suspension bridge that charges tourists more than C$40, the bridge at Lynn Canyon is free.

Then we went the other way, south of downtown, to Granville Island. There’s a public market there, with an international food court. Naturally, we ended up with fish and chips.

We went to Chinatown and back to Gastown, where we’d stayed at the Cambie Hostel for one night on our way up to Alaska. We even stopped at the hostel bar for a beer. Moosehead, union made in New Brunswick.
Very polite plea for recognition, historic Chinatown

At Canada Place, where we’d boarded the ship, it started to rain again. But you could still see the mountains, and we got a rainbow.

The day the weather finally broke, we went back to Waterfront and walked along the Coal Harbor seawall and all the way around Stanley Park. Stanley Park is the rainforest heart of Vancouver, and probably interesting in the middle. We did see the famous totem poles, but otherwise stuck to the seawall.

I have to say that I was not that impressed with Vancouver. Considering I’ve always heard what a wonderful city it is to live in, I expected a Portland of the north, and for biking that may be true. I get that it has both the ocean and the mountains and, for a Canadian city, a moderate climate. If you like rain, that is.

Maybe, T. suggested, we were just jaded after coming from Alaska. Maybe after seeing stunning views every day, the like of which we’d never seen before, a city was just going to look like a city. I can see myself going back to Vancouver, but only as a base for something we didn’t get to explore, such as the Sea to Sky highway to Whistler, or the coast around Prince Rupert. Or Vancouver Island, which I had really intended to get to one day.

Why didn’t we? Well, partly because the ferry to Victoria turned out to be a more ambitious day trip, in terms of time, than I had realized, but also because of the budget. Which I had blown on a day at Vancouver’s first annual Skookum Festival, in Stanley Park in the rain. And why had we stood in the mud at the front of a festival stage, at our age? Because, on the day we arrived in Vancouver, I saw that Buffy Sainte-Marie was playing there.

Buffy, or Dr. Sainte-Marie as we perhaps should call her, is a Cree from Saskatchewan who grew up and launched her career in the U.S.A. She has probably done more than any other artist to raise awareness about Native issues in North America, but my lifelong admiration for her goes far beyond that. When I can't find words (it has happened), Buffy Sainte-Marie’s music is what I turn to. It goes deep in the soul, and I would venture to say that hers is a prophetic voice. At 77, she is still winning Junos (Canada’s highest music awards) and rocking the house.

Buffy never wanted, in her words, to be "that Indian girl who makes us cry” about the wrongs of history. Even her most hard-hitting songs, some of which she’s re-recorded on her latest album, are primarily about the state of communities today, and what practical action we can take to improve them. "No matter where you came from," as she said to us.

I didn’t know the newer material but I was foot-stomping and singing along with the rest of the crowd, to uplifting anthems like “You Got To Run” and “Carry It On.” And then there was “Up Where We Belong,” which won Buffy a songwriting Oscar, or “Until It’s Time For You To Go” which was recorded by Elvis Presley (she successfully kept her rights to the song from Elvis’s “people”). I got a kick out of her biographer’s introduction which also included Buffy’s years on Sesame Street, during my childhood. She broke ground there by breastfeeding her baby son on TV, but what I will always remember is that she was the only character who believed Big Bird when he told her of the existence of his friend whom no one else could see. In this as in so many ways, Buffy was a pioneer. We could see Mr. Snuffleupagus, and eventually, the show stopped sending the message that adults would not believe when a child told them the truth.

If you’ve felt bummed since 2017, I highly recommend Medicine Songs, the new Juno-winning album. It is good for the soul. Only Buffy could write the theme for Soldier Blue, a movie about Americans’ brutal history with indigenous people (in theatres for a few days under Richard Nixon), and make it an inspiring song about love of country. 

“When the news stories get me down
I take a drink
Of freedom to think
Of my [North] America from toe to crown”
—“Soldier Blue”

Here's the antiwar song that got her blacklisted from radio during the Johnson and Nixon administrations.