Monday, July 31, 2006

Victory Over Ants

Shorts for a while, since I have a lot of work to do in August. A whole lot. This is good, because July was lean, mainly because I decided not to park myself in front of my iMac for the first two weeks of the month. It’s also bad because, well, it’s work, and summer does its level best to encourage indolence.

When we returned from our trip, big black ants had infested the house in large numbers. We’ve always had a few, but for some reason they’d decided it was party time while we were gone. We couldn’t smash ’em fast enough, and I knew I had to drop the Bomb on them when one crawled on my pillow on the couch while I was lying there, and onto (but not quite into) my ear.

The Bomb for ants means a visit by professional exterminator. I’d been resisting it, but the time had come. He came late last week, a friendly fellow who looked something like Dr. Skoda on Law & Order, and did his spraying. We still see a few ants, but they’re stragglers who have the ant-shakes, so I know the poison’s working. With any luck, we won’t see any more healthy ants till next spring, if then.


Sunday, July 30, 2006

David Thompson, Canadian

One more thing about Canada, though not about my trip. If possible I like to pick up a book of local interest when I go somewhere. This time I bought Epic Wanderer, subtitled “David Thompson and the Mapping of the Canadian West,” by D’Arcy Jenish. I burned through it in the days after we got back.

It’s well written, but that’s not the only reason I liked it. It fills a blank for me. I’m much more familiar with explorations of the US West than those of western Canada.

From Anchor Canada, the publisher: “Less celebrated than his contemporaries Lewis and Clark, Thompson spent nearly three decades (1784-1812) surveying and mapping over 1.2 million square miles of largely uncharted Indian territory. Traveling across the prairies, over the Rockies and on to the Pacific, Thompson transformed the raw data of his explorations into a map of the Canadian West. Measuring ten feet by seven feet, and laid out with astonishing accuracy, the map became essential to the politicians and diplomats who would decide upon the future of the rich and promising lands of the West. Yet its creator worked without personal glory and died in penniless obscurity.”

Thompson also thought that British diplomats were taking the easy way out (being weenies, even) when they agreed to 49 degrees North as the border west from Lake of the Woods, Minn. If he’d had his way—and nobody asked him, even though he’d made the best map of the territory north of the Columbia River—what we call the state of Washington would be Canadian, and the map of the Lower 48 (Lower 47?) would, to our eyes, look a bite had been taken out of the Northwest.


Friday, July 28, 2006

Odds and Odds

Enough about Alberta and North Dakota, except for unsorted tidbits.

Some may prefer satellite radio, or their CD or MP3 collections for long drives, but I still like to reel in radio from distant stations as we pass by. You never know what weird things you’ll hear, for one thing, but it’s also a way of feeling like you’re elsewhere as you hear the first fuzzy signals from a city on your route, still miles ahead.

An inordinate number of US stations were having ’70s flashback weekends: “That ’70s Weekend,” that sort of thing. 107.9 in Madison, Wis., calls itself the Big Cheese. Which made me think of other agri-nicknames for radio stations, such as An Apple a Day (Michigan) or Spud of the Air (Idaho).

Driving between the North and South units of Theodore Roosevelt NP, we picked up an Indian broadcast. Chants. Didn’t listen long enough to hear any kind of station identification, though.

In Canada, there were commercial stations, and very serious CBC stations—One and Two, like the BBC only not as many. Inevitably, even in the broad expanses of Anglophone prairie Canada, there would be a French CBC broadcast too, but I could listen to some of those Quebecois radio-dames for quite a spell.

Roger Maris was from Fargo. He has a handsome monument at the entrance to Lindenwood Park that, among other things, details all the homers of his record 61* season in 1961. I’m glad to report that he hit one on the day I was born.

Bonanzaville, USA, a museum of old structures in West Fargo, has a fine collection of oddities from the past. My favorites were a round bank safe that looked like an enormous diving helmet, and the former Arthur, ND, town hall and cinema, which has secular-themed stained glass windows. One featured a presidential (bearded) Abraham Lincoln dozing in a chair in front of a potbellied stove in winter, complete with a hound dog sleeping at his feet.

The U.S. Interstate system is officially the Eisenhower Interstate System, which is fitting. But as I saw wildflowers in some of the medians, especially the lovely greens and yellows along I-29 in ND, it occurred to me that it ought to be the Ladybird Johnson Median System.

St. Jean Baptiste, a hamlet in southern Manitoba, has a billboard telling all that it’s the Soup Pea Capital of Canada.

Across the length of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and the prairie parts of Alberta, the canola crop near the Trans-Canadian Highway was in bloom in early July. Carpets of gold.

Saskatchewan has a really cool flag. It looks more like the flag of a Caribbean nation. I hadn’t paid much attention to it before visiting, but I’ve long liked the BC flag too. Alberta’s looks better on the web site than it does on the flagpole.

“When I see a Tim Hortons, I’m stopping right away,” I told everyone just before we got to Canada. I’d first tried Tim Hortons in Montreal four years ago. It’s a behemoth Canadian coffee and doughnut chain, numbering 2,600 outlets in Canada and about 300 in the US, mostly in northeastern states. All of the Tim Hortons doughnuts I’ve had are good, but its maple varieties are primo. Yuriko says the coffee is too. The first one I saw was in Brandon, Saskatchewan, and we stopped there all right. Visited two others while in country.

It always takes some getting used to, driving in kilometers. But I like the fact that kilometers are shorter than miles, which makes (for example) 200km to the next place not so bad, since it’s really only 120 miles. The conversion to miles isn’t too hard, only half plus ten percent. For a while, I converted kilometers into miles in my head to figure out how long it would take to get to a certain place based on our speed in miles per hour, but then I realized that was an extra step: if you’re going 120 km/hour and its 240 km to go, there’s no need to involve miles to come up with two hours.

Gas averaged roughly C$1.10 per liter at the pump in Canada, except for the gouging at Saskatchewan Crossing, on the Saskatchewan River in Alberta: $1.35 per liter. The first time we bought gas I converted to more familiar terms. Roughly. C$1.10 = US$1. One gallon is just shy of four liters. So it was (gasp) nearly US$4 a gallon. So I quit doing conversions, and just paid.

Smitty’s is a chain of family restaurants north of the border. In our experience with only one of them, in Jasper, it’s a lot like Denny’s. My tolerance for mediocre food was sore tested at Smitty’s. Ugh.

The Bear Claw Bakery in Jasper, on the other hand, is the right choice for Sunday morning pastries when in that town. Mmm.

The Wapiti campground, which I’ve praised elsewhere, had a bonus feature. It was possible to take a walk within the campground near the Athabasca River and completely lose sight of the campsites, tents, RVs, everything manmade.

It’s also possible to find really good Vietnamese food near downtown Calgary, in a district called Chinatown on the maps. I had the quail with fried rice, Yuriko had pho.

Medicine Hat, Alberta, claims the world’s tallest teepee. Of course we had to see that, which was easy, since it’s right next to the Trans-Canadian Highway, and at 215 feet high, impossible to miss. The Eiffel Tower it ain’t, but it is a sizable metal construct shaped like a teepee without the buffalo robe covering: a big teepee skeleton. Each leg was affixed with a round mural depicting idealized First Nation themes, somewhat above eye level. But there was nothing in the way of signage to tell us why it’s in Medicine Hat or who made it.

In North Dakota, signs along US 85 tell you that you’re driving on the CANAM Highway, which I figured out fairly quickly meant the Canadian-American Highway. I was glad to know it—I like named roads, and the more obscure the better. Unlike the big-hairy-deal Route 66, there isn’t much on line about the CANAM Highway. But I did find a pic of the signs, and a brief description: “The CANAM (Canadian/American) highway begins in the deserts of Texas and makes it way north through New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Saskatchewan before it ends at the edge of Reindeer Lake. It is a paved highway to La Ronge; gravel north of there.”

July 13 was the first day of the MacKenzie, ND, County Fair, and the citizens of Watford City put on a parade down the town’s main street at noon. Ranger Todd, who shared his knowledge of buffalo with us that morning, also tipped us off about that. We got there just in time for it, about ten minute’s worth of vehicles representing businesses and nonprofits (no marching bands). Riders in the vehicles threw candy as they went by, mostly lollipops and Tootsie roll variations. Lilly and Ann both collected hatfuls, and it made their day.


Thursday, July 27, 2006

Various Borders

Canada’s the easy and (relatively) cheap way to satisfy that urge to visit another country, at least for those of us in the North. I hadn’t been out of the country since before Ann was born, so it was about time too.

The efforts by both federal governments to tighten up the border between the two is counterproductive nonsense. What are they going to do, build guard towers every 500 meters, as there used to be between the Germanys? (All in the east, and it sure did keep the terrorists out.) You’d think the entirety of Canada and United States would be the unit to defend against overseas terrorists.

But crossing the border, both ways, wasn’t really much of an issue for us this time. We crossed into Canada July 3 at the terminus of I-29 in extreme northeastern North Dakota/southern Manitoba. You’re advised to slow down as you approach the customs hut on the Canadian side, and the actual border is marked by a stone next to the road that says that this is the 49th parallel and border.

A small marker, and I almost missed it. I wanted to ask the Canadian customs officers if I could go back and stand next to it, straddling the two nations, but it’s better not to make odd requests of such officials. They called us into the building, where they examined our passports, politely asked us a few questions about our intentions in Canada, and we politely answered. It was a clean, well-lit place with picture posters of CANADA here and there on the wall like at a travel agency. The only other person there besides the Canadian civil servants was a young, bearded fellow who was explaining something about living with relatives somewhere in the country; I think he was in for a much longer visit with customs than we had, which was about 15 minutes.

We returned to the United States on the evening of July 12, at the Port of Fortuna, in extreme northwestern North Dakota/southern Saskatchewan. I was a little more apprehensive that time, since this is a rural border crossing, and who knows what a bored border guard might require of us. There was one person at the border station, a man about my age in uniform (now part of Homeland Security) who did, indeed, look a little bored. It was about an hour before quitting time, it seems, since the station wasn’t open 24 hours.

We were his only “customers.” He asked a few questions, and took a cursory look in the back of the van, packed with camping equipment and other debris. I repressed the sarcasm urge when he asked if these were my children. I did not say: “No sir, we find it very entertaining to drive long distances with little kids, so we rented some.” Pretty soon, he’d decided (correctly) that we were no threat to the well being of the USA, so we were back in.

The interprovincial border between Manitoba and Saskatchewan was a disappointment, since it wasn’t marked in any way on the Trans-Canadian Highway. I want a sign or something. Alberta had one entering from Saskatchewan, but even better was the marker between Alberta and British Columbia, which also marked the border between Banff and Kootenay national parks, and the Continental Divide as well.

That border sported three flagpoles—flying the provincial flags on their respective sides, with the Maple Leaf between them -- a large sign that mentioned the Continental Divide, and a large stone marker that mentioned the provinces. This is my kind of border, one with a little ceremony but no international border formalities. Sure, it’s only an imaginary line. But a lot of other things people fuss about are imaginary. I can be a border aficionado if I want.

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Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Wapiti &c.

“You are now in a bear habitat,” a number of signs posted at Wapiti campground, a couple of miles from Jasper Townsite, said in English and below that in French. Also included were stern bilingual warnings about staying clear of bears, not feeding bears, etc., with the unwritten message being, don’t be a moron who mistakes real bears for Yogi and Boo-Boo.

We didn’t see any bears at Wapiti, though there were plenty of elk, which could also clean your clock if you acted threatening or weird in their vicinity. Elk or no elk, Wapiti quickly became my favorite campsite anywhere, edging out other favorites such as the walk-in site at Pete’s Lake in Michigan with its view of starlight on the lake or Bastrop State Park, which evokes a little high school nostalgia for me.

Wapiti’s an enormous wooded campground, 366 sites spread on a large piece of real estate between the road to Jasper Townsite and the Athabasca River. It’s also bounded on one side by a creek, which I later found out was called Whister’s Creek, and we got a site next to the creek that included plenty of tall trees and a flat spot among them just big enough for the tent.

We parked some folding chairs creekside, which made a fine place to read. It was rapid and rocky, meaning great sport for Lilly and Ann in stone tossing. Even better than any of that was the constant low rush of the water, recorded versions of which people pay money for. By itself it was soothing to fall asleep to, but it also had the bonus of drowning out noise from our neighbors on either side, who weren’t that near anyway. No distant caterwauling or radio noise from people who just have to have their Retro-80s! Superstation! Flashback! Weekend! playing in the middle of a national park.

The campsite at the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt NP was shady and quiet, too, because there weren’t many people there. People go to South Dakota. People go to Yellowstone, Glacier and the Grand Tetons. North Dakota? I asked a park ranger about the low number of visitors, and she said yep, TR NP’s an unknown jewel of the park system. I agree.

A thunderstorm greeted us on our arrival in that part of North Dakota. We’d started the day, July 12, in a motel in Medicine Hat, Alberta, and didn’t particularly make haste on the drive that took us back across part of Saskatchewan and into North Dakota. By the time we stopped for gas in Williston, ND, it was almost dark and we could see an angry-looking storm off to the east. Just the thing you want to see when you’re planning to pitch a tent not far away, to the southeast.

But we pressed on, and the darker it got, the more terrific the lightning became. The country around there isn’t completely flat, but it’s flat enough to let you see for miles—boiling dark clouds lit up by bolts. Best lightning show I’d seen in years. The girls were so scared they covered themselves up with a blanket. So scared they actually shared the blanket without argument.

Sleeping in the car wasn’t something I really wanted to do, since I have long legs, and as soon as we got to the campsite, I put up the tent as fast as I could. It rained a little but mostly I had lightning and thunder to content with. There were trees around, and the time between the flash and the rumble was fairly long, so I figured I was fairly safe. We piled into the tent and listened to more thunder and watched everything light up with spooky blue lightning light for a while. When we woke up the next morning, the sky was clear and the ground wasn’t wet.

After our very first day of driving, the long Schaumburg to Fargo run on July 1, we arrived at Lindenwood Park, which is along the west bank of the Red River of the North just across from Moorhead, Minn. It’s a Fargo municipal park, and yet has campsites, a couple of rows for RVs near the river, and space for tents right on the river. I’d called ahead a couple of weeks before but was told that the tent sites had flooded. “It’s been raining a lot here,” the attendant said.

So I wasn’t sure we’d be able to camp there, but the river was down by the time we got there, so we got a site for a reasonable $12.50 a night next to the river. It didn’t have a picnic table, so we took (and cooked) our meals on the ground. Not many rocks were at hand to throw in the river, so the kids pried loose pieces of earth from a nearby spot that had been flooded, then dried and cracked, and used those. We had some mosquitoes, but not as many as I would have thought.

Our neighbor was a minor pest, though. A wiry, grizzled fellow in his 50s who was bicycling long distance, he was eager to make conversation, beginning while I was putting up the tent, including almost immediately oblique comments on my skills at it. “So this is the first time you’ve put up the tent, huh?” I might have answered him as a younger man, but I didn’t bother, especially since I was busy actually putting up the tent at the time. (The answer: I’d put it up in Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Montana, all successfully enough to shield my family from rain and wind and bugs.)

Later conversations with the man, which luckily weren’t that extensive, made me think he was just one of those people who had a knack for saying mildly irritating things, probably without realizing it, so I won’t be too hard on him. Still, like the Red River mosquitoes, I wasn’t sad to leave him behind.

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Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Alpine Tundra

I don’t ride on cable cars that often, and there aren’t many fatal cable-car accidents, so it’s a fairly safe bet that I’ll eventually die from something a lot more ordinary than a snapped cable-car line, such as the Big Elephant stepping on my chest.

Still, when I’m riding a cable car I can’t help but wonder about the sturdiness of that single cable that holds everything up, including whatever’s left of my lifespan. I can’t call it fear, since I board cable cars without hesitation, just a heightened awareness of contingency. Especially when the car crosses over the wheels of a support tower and bumps and wobbles.

The Jasper Tramway cable-car service is the easy way up Whistler’s Mountain, a peak near Jasper Townsite. It’s a steep ride, rising more than 3,000 feet (just under 1,000 meters), but even so it doesn’t take you to the top of the mountain, only most of the way up, well above the tree line. It’s also a tight ride, since the cars are fairly small, and about 20 people at a time jam in. It helps to be tall if you want to see the view of the mountainside glide by, first the spiky treetops, then rock rubble above the treeline.

If I wanted to rave about the view from Mt. Whistler, I could. I’d switch on the scenic-view adjective generator, and out would come fantastic, amazing, extraordinary, that sort of thing, but that doesn’t help readers visualize very well. Try this, then: Imagine standing on rocky soil rolling down and away from your feet (with some boulders thrown in), then imagine everything else you see is mountains, because it’s a fairly clear day. Some peaks are snow- and glacier-capped, others brown, others tree covered, yet others hazy in the distance, just mountain after mountain after mountain. I hadn’t seen anything like it since I took a funicular up the side of one of the mountains near Innsbruck.

The cable-car terminus, as I mentioned, wasn’t at the top. But rocky, dusty, seemingly barren trails lead from there to the top. We knew that Lilly and Ann wouldn’t want to make the climb. So Yuriko and I took turns going only part way up, a wise decision, because it probably would have taken each of us an hour to make the climb and come back, and it isn’t a good idea to leave your partner so long with children who have little to do.

I went up a few hundred more feet, taking necessary rests because I’m a fat man, and the sun was strong. Of course I continued to enjoy the mountain view. But more than that, I discovered the alpine tundra. The trail wasn’t barren at all.

Probably I saw alpine tundra in the Alps, on that same hike above Innsbruck. But I don’t remember, and I wouldn’t have known much about it anyway. I once imagined that tundra, either the Arctic or the alpine variety, was a sort of moss that covered everything. I still don’t know a lot about tundra, but I do know that it encompasses a wild variety of plants, a sort of forest in miniature.

And so it was on the side of Mt. Whistler. Once I started looking at the patches of tundra here and there along the trails, I started noticing all sorts of plant varieties, greenery as well as itty-bitty flowers, colorful but lost in the grays and browns of the mountain, unless you were paying attention.

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Monday, July 24, 2006

Deep Time & Space-Alien Barbecue

After taking in the view of Moraine Lake and the Valley of the Ten Peaks in Banff NP (see July 20), I walked down the feature known as the Rockpile on its other side, away from the vista. The view from that side was nice enough, two forested mountain ranges right and left forming a broad valley, but it isn’t the kind of view that winds up on many postcards.

A sign part way down pointed out that during the most recent Ice Age, the entire valley was full of ice. An illustration of the mountains showed no valley, only ice up to near to peaks. It gave me pause, because however imperfectly, I could look out from there and imagine the valley full of ice. Where I stood was once thousands of feet under ice.

Geologically speaking, that glaciation wasn’t very long ago -- ending 10,000 years ago, maybe. But it made me think about Deep Time, a concept analogous in some ways to Deep Space, and one that’s fascinated me for years. The Rockies themselves inspired that kind of musing even better, since their age in the low 100s of millions of years represents some serious time, though I understand that they’re mostly a youthful range compared to the Appalachians.

Which made me speculate, again, that we’ve never been visited by intelligent creatures from other worlds, nor are we likely to be. It isn’t just a matter of the vastness of space, though that’s surely a barrier. Maybe more important, we’ve missed each other in the deepness of time.

Of course, there’s no way to know for sure, and the idea of space aliens sure can be fun. Ask the proprietors of Space Aliens, a theme restaurant concept we first spotted in Bismarck, ND.

Space Aliens Grill & Bar, a sign said above a small billboard of a space-alien face. You know the sort, an anthropomorphic mug with two bug eyes, a nose and mouth, all bulbous and rounded and hairless. Under that was a smaller sign that said “Earthlings Welcome.” The signs pointed to a space-alien decorated restaurant building just off I-94. We’d already eaten lunch, and we had some driving to do that afternoon, but I liked the idea and made note of it.

Hey, if something as fatuous as the Rain Forest Café can be a hit, so can Space Aliens. We saw another advertised near Fargo, and when we got in to St. Cloud, Minn., that night at about 8:30, after checking into our motel we went looking for somewhere to eat and there it was: Space Aliens. Earthlings Welcome.

I’m not one to sneer at serendipity, so we went. The décor was a little amateurish, with bulbous space aliens on the walls here and there, doing things like flying cartoon space ships, and looking like they might have been painted by the founders’ art student cousin to save money. More fun were the Weekly World News articles, all with space-alien subjects, framed and hanging on the walls. From the one in the men’s room, I learned that George W. Bush had had strong space alien support in his bid for re-election in 2004. (Gives new meaning to "resident alien.")

There were also collections of space alien bric-a-brac, most of it behind glass, and SF TV and movie tie-in junk, mostly from very famous confections like the original Star Trek, Lost in Space and E.T. Guess they couldn’t find anything from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Elsewhere there was a game room and bar, which also sported smatterings of space-alien doodads.

I’m happy to say that the food, which tended toward heavy meat and had goofball alien-sounding menu names, was really good. We had a selection of barbecued items: beef ribs, pulled pork, chicken, sausage. Not the very best I’ve ever had, but very tasty all the same, with fine sides. I asked the waitress about the chain, and she said there were four, the three I’d seen, plus one elsewhere in Minnesota. So maybe Space Aliens will expand nationwide. You heard about it here first. I can see the ads. SPACE ALIENS! COMING TO YOUR TOWN! “We come in peace. Maybe.”

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Sunday, July 23, 2006


The only creature I run into regularly while camping is one or another kind of mosquito. The weather had been dryish in Jasper NP, so there weren’t that many there. Things had been even drier at Theodore Roosevelt NP, and we encountered only a very few hardy mosquitoes who managed to survive wrigglerhood in the risk-of-wildfire badlands this summer.

The plains near Regina, Saskatchewan, were another story. On the evening of July 3, we found a private campground a few miles east of Regina for a reasonable C$14. The place was sparse with people, probably since the Canada Day long weekend was winding down, but well populated with blood-drinking vermin. Their main diet likely came from the livestock on the surrounding ranches, but they weren’t above snacking on human beings. Once a cloud of them followed me, so I had to zig-zag back to our camp to lose them. Others buzzed intensely around the tent door until I sprayed it with Off.

Prairie-dog town hardly describes the colonies we saw next to the single road in the South Unit of TR NP. A couple of prairie-dog cities is more like it, with suburban prairie-dog sprawl thrown in. The more you looked, the more of them you saw, and the more holes in the ground you saw. I understand that some prairie dogs act as guards for the colonies, and I believe it too. One little fellow eyed us pretty closely the entire time we were admiring his hometown.

Elsewhere in TR NP we came across the small group of wild horses which, contrary to popular image of creatures spirited and running free as the wind, looked pretty much like any saddle- and bridle-less horses eating grass. The difference, I guess, would be in what they do when people come near. We didn’t get near enough to test this, but I suspect that they would behave like most wild animals and get the hell away from people.

On the morning of July 13, we took in a ranger presentation about buffalo, near our campsite (at the amphitheater, as park literature called it—a collection of benches facing a table). Fairly interesting, especially right at the end, when a bull bison wandered by, as if on cue. He showed no interest in us.

We saw buffalo elsewhere in the park from time to time, mostly lounging around on hillsides. That’s the life. No Indian nor white hunters to worry about, though the ranger did say that every few years the Park Service culls the herds of its older and more infirm members, taking the part of buffalo predators that no longer roam the park. So it’s the life of Logan, sort of.

And I don’t care what zoologists and park rangers say. I plan to use American bison and buffalo interchangeably. Those creatures are buffalo, and they can share the name with bovines in Asia and Africa without confusion. The U.S. minted buffalo, not bison, nickels from 1913 to 1938, and it’s buffalo soldiers, buffalo wings, and Buffalo, NY.

Back in Jasper NP, we saw a lot of elk. We stayed in a campground called Wapiti, which I’ve read means “elk” in Shawnee, and that was a fitting name, because they wandered through every day we were there, sometimes picturesquely (to us) next to the fast-flowing Whistlers Creek.

In Kootenay NP on July 6, we stopped for a walk to the Paint Pots, where iron-rich springs bubble up through small pools, coloring the surrounding ground a Georgia orange, or, as the guide signs call it, ochre. Apparently both Indians and white men used the pigmentation in pre-park days, with some of the latter’s mining tools still littering the site. At the end of the trail, a couple of near-circular pools were a remarkably gaudy green, because of certain other minerals within (I forget what).

On the return, Yuriko and Lilly went ahead of Ann and I, because Ann’s easily distracted, and because Lilly wanted to go back to a riverside and throw rocks. En route, Ann and I sat on a bench facing a stretch of pools and ochre ground. Behind us were some woods.

Ann was standing on the bench looking back into the woods when she said, “Bear. Bear. Look!”

I looked, and about 100 feet away was a black bear, standing up and looking at us. About a second later, he turned away and disappeared.

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Friday, July 21, 2006

No Mashing the Maple-Leaf Penny

I’ll pick up again with scenic wonders of the Canadian Rockies and even North Dakota on Sunday or, the weekend proves really busy, Monday. Today I have to take up the topic of elongated souvenir pennies in Canada.

Most of my life, I’d ignored those machines, usually found at tourist destinations, that mash pennies into souvenirs. But while we were in Florida early last year, Lilly started asking for them, and I mashed her a few from the Kennedy Space Center, the Florida Aquarium in Tampa and so on.

By the time we went to Yellowstone last August, she’d become a collector, mostly pennies from machines she found herself, but also a few from machines that I’d encountered, such as one at the Central Park Zoo when I was there by myself last September. At that zoo, I also bought her an album in which to keep her mashed pennies, since by then we had quite a few knocking around loose. I’m happy buy her mashed pennies because, like postcards, it’s a fairly cheap way to get place-specific mementos. She now has 22 from seven U.S. states and one Canadian province.

Lilly kept an eye out for mash machines on this trip. True to zoo form, there was one at the Red River Zoo in Fargo. Would there be any in Canada? Sure enough, there were. Same concept, same kind of hand-crank equipment, but a couple of differences. For one thing, each souvenir cent cost C$1, or about US90¢, while the U.S. price is 50¢ (or 51¢, counting the penny you take out of circulation). So it cost a loonie. A little annoying, but I was willing to pay.

But that wasn’t the peculiar thing. Each penny-mashing machines that I saw in Canada sported a tray built into the side, like a coin-return tray, except that it was full of U.S. cents. A small sign said to use these for making souvenir pennies. So we did.

This week, while wasting time on the Internet, I came across a web site dedicated to the mashed-penny hobby. According to that site, in Canada it’s unlawful to mutilate currency for any reason, as opposed to in the U.S., where it’s illegal only for fraudulent purposes. Just another example of the regulatory-happy Canadian federal government, eh? Anyway, to avoid legal entanglements, the owners of the penny-mashers in the Great White North stock ’em with cheap yet spanking-new copper-coated/zinc-base portraits of Abe Lincoln, which visitors to Canadian tourist attractions are free to mash to their heart’s content.

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Thursday, July 20, 2006

Water Features

While I encourage everyone to take a look at the following links, they’re only photos, just ghosts of the glories you see with your own eyes at these places.

Moraine Lake and the Valley of the Ten Peaks. The Canadians were so impressed by a view from a feature called the Rockpile near Moraine Lake that a representation of it used to appear on the back of nation’s $20 bill. We opted for seeing this lake instead of the nearby, and probably more crowded, Lake Louise, since it was late afternoon and we were running out of energy.

Moraine Lake was crowded enough, but for good reason. It was a short but steep walk up from the parking lot to the top of the Rockpile, which is a large agglomeration of rocky earth either created by an ancient avalanche, or the remains left by glaciers that used to cover the area. In any case, it overlooks one end of the lake, with the blue water—really blue, so blue I can’t quite remember it in my mind’s eye, I so rarely see anything like it—stretching out under a procession of high peaks. Those were the ten peaks, though I didn’t count them.

Peyto Lake. Another mountain lake, considerably further up the road from Moraine Lake and at the end of a somewhat longer walk, some of it on a fairly steep grade. I was worried that Lilly wouldn’t want to finish the walk, but she found amusement in seeking out some of the footpaths that branched off from but ultimately paralleled the paved path.

Even without a scenic vista at the end, this would have been a good walk, through a partly wooded, heavily flowered landscape. Indian paintbrush along the way, so vivid in warm reds, was a favorite, but there were many more blooms in other colors whose names I didn’t know, not that it mattered. According to one of the interpretation signs, flowers this high in altitude make the most of their short blooming season with profuseness, and it showed in July.

Peyto was an even more ethereal blue than Moraine, an irregular patch of blue among the earth hues of the surrounding mountains. We were at such a high perch that we could see not only the entire outline of the lake and mountains in the distance for many miles, but also the source of the lake—a glacier. Meltwater comes off the glacier in almost a flat sheet, rather than rivulets or waterfalls, and slides into Peyto.

Which must make it an exceptionally cold lake, even in high summer. I’m certain that people have visited the lake, and crossed in boats, and even taken icy lunatic plunges into it occasionally, but when I saw it, no one was around. There were no roads to it, and no visible structures, which compared nicely with the development around Moraine.

From my view, Peyto looked remote, so much so you could imagine a time before any human being had ever visited, even paleo-Indians. Then again, the area was probably covered completely with ice back before people crossed the Bering Strait, but that kind of chronological thinking has no place when you’re being awed by something.

Athabasca Falls. A mighty river, the Athabasca. I became acquainted with it on this trip. It rises from the Columbia Icefield within Jasper NP, gathers tributaries along the way, and flows into the distant Lake Athabasca in northern Alberta and Saskatchewan, which itself eventually empties into the Arctic Ocean. So every time I saw the Athabasca, I saw water destined for the Arctic. Not the vast Pacific, which needs no more water, nor the Atlantic by way of the greedy Mississippi, but the remote, nearly unimaginable Arctic.

The Athabasca also served as a highway for Indians, Hudson’s Bay Co. men, and other assorted entrepreneurs and explorers of early Canada, so it’s a river with echoes of both prehistory and history. And it’s fast, at least in Jasper NP. I’m used to the sluggish rivers of the Midwest, not swift currents like the Athabasca.

At one point near the Icefields Parkway, the entire weight and energy of this river suddenly come to a precipice and fall more than 60 feet. Yuriko stared at the falls for a long time and offered the thought that this was much more impressive than Niagara Falls, and I see her point. Niagara is a circus lion. Athabasca is the thing in the wild.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

First Class, or With Kids

Without my children, the Canadian Rockies would have been a quieter, and possibly more expansive trip, but I can’t imagine not taking them. On the whole, they’ve adapted well to the long drives, and enjoyed the destinations. Even if it didn’t always seem that way.

One of our first walks away from the car in Banff NP was at Johnston Creek, a fast-running river, really, through a steep canyon of its own making. The path is partly a standard trail beaten on the ground alongside the river. In other places, catwalks served as the trail, some of them nailed into the side of the canyon wall and overhanging a long drop into the angry current.

A fine walk, one featuring raw rock faces, clinging plants, tall trees, wildflowers, and a steady but not overwhelming flow of other walkers, since it’s one of the closer trails to Banff Townsite. For a while, Lilly and her mother were ahead of us on this trail—so I had Ann in tow, or rather she had me, since in places I wasn’t about to let her wander too much ahead or behind, especially on those catwalks. It would have taken some doing to go up and over the edge, but it could have been done.

Just above the creek’s Lower Falls, which are an intense rush of water into a circular pool below, Ann found what she’d been looking for along the trail, a supply of small rocks. Into the torrent they went, and while that was going on, she had no inclination to go near the edge, which was fenced anyway. I took it as an opportunity to relax, and for a while we both enjoyed the place. There’s no law, after all, that says that on a hike you have to keep going, going, going.

The Upper Falls are about a mile beyond the Lower, and en route to them, Ann went with her mother, and I accompanied Lilly. Though shaded by pines and other trees most of the time, it was hot, and she complained about that. Soon, she was complaining about the distance we had to walk – do we have to walk so far? Why are we walking so far? The sort of answers I tend to give, such as you can’t see much if you don’t walk, don’t really satisfy an eight-year-old, though with any luck the idea will be embedded somewhere so that when she’s older, she’ll feel the same way.

The path was moderately steep just ahead of the Upper Falls, and she started clinging to my arm, a serious annoyance. I told her not to pull on me like an anchor. She did it anyway, and was in full whine mode. Here we were, taking a fine foray into exceptional territory, and it was lost on her.

Until we got to the Upper Falls, that is. A towering waterfall spills from a cliff over a tall section of the canyon, seemly made even taller by the full-grown pines ringing the edge of the canyon like spectators. The human spectators can see the falls from an overhang of the catwalk, close enough that a bit of the roaring spray is a constant in your face. The whining stopping, the complaining evaporated. She stared at the falls and the canyon around them, wanted to take pictures, and wasn’t in a hurry to leave.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Banff v. Jasper

Before we left for Canada, I consulted with a friend who knows the Canadian Rockies well, and regarding Banff Townsite, which is in the national park of the same name, he used the word, “nightmare.”

I’d already planned not to stay in the town of Banff, warned by other sources about crowds and the high cost of accommodation in summer. Instead, to explore Banff NP, we spent three nights at a motel, the Drake Inn, in Canmore, a town just outside the park’s boundary to the south. The Drake was decidedly plain, but had a delightful location along Policeman’s Creek, which runs through the town and which has a plank walkway on one of its banks—not a wilderness walk in any sense, but a pleasant morningtime stroll among pines and twittering birds and the gurgle of a creek.

Canmore had its shopping street, partly living off tourists, but it was still a fairly sedate place. Banff Township was not. “Nightmare” might be too strong of a word, but after an hour or so on the teeming sidewalks of Banff, a town saturated with retail space, I was ready to leave. Several streets in Banff not only feed off out-of-towners, but cater to the sort of person who considers shopping an essential part of any trip, or who might even travel just to shop someplace new. I won’t mock that sort of mindset (though I’m tempted), but I certainly don’t share it, and Yuriko doesn’t either, at least not much.

But there was something in Banff both Yuriko and I did want to see: the Banff Springs Hotel. You can’t very well come to Banff NP and not see it. That would be like going to Singapore and passing on the Raffles.

So we went into Banff Townsite and sought out the hotel, one of the grand old railroad hotels of Canada, and actually part of the reason Banff eventually became a national park. The railroad and its hotel were instrumental in bringing people to the area in the early days, many of whom no doubt help shape Canada’s parks policy in the early 1900s.

It’s an impressive pile o’ stones indeed, particularly the backside, which commands an extraordinary view. Canned histories of the hotel would have you believe that the builders got it backwards, and that the front should have faced the mountain vista, but I don’t think so. The entrance is the workaday side of a hotel like this. The back is where guests can lounge around and soak in the view.

Later, we spent time at Jasper Townsite, the main town in Jasper NP, a much more likable place than Banff. Both are ringed by forests and mountains, but Jasper feels more remote. Which it is, since it’s further from the Trans-Canadian Highway than Banff. It’s also smaller, less crowded and really has only two shopping streets, the main drag Connaught Dr. and the parallel Patricia St. Jasper reminded me of Flagstaff, Ariz., because both towns have a main street fronted by businesses on one side and by a rail line on the other, complete with a railroad station—a fine old restored station in the case of Jasper.

But Jasper had more going for it than a passing similarity to Flagstaff. You might ask, who needs a town in a wilderness national park, especially when you aren’t even staying there, but camping a few miles away? A family of four does. In Jasper we bought groceries and gas and ice cream, ate a few meals, did our laundry, bought and mailed a fair number of postcards, and let the kids play at a well-appointed municipal park a few blocks from the main street, something that often interested them more than the prospect of walking another couple of miles in the woods, no matter how promising the scenery.

We also spent a short while at the town’s log-cabin visitor center, sitting around on its front-porch benching looking out onto a pleasant lawn and beyond that to the train station. On other occasion, I had the chance to wander around the back streets of the town by myself, and enjoyed the sight of two churches, both little jewels of construction, each set at 45-degree angles to their street—which was the same street, the curiously named Geikie St. Two blocks apart, it was almost as if the two church buildings were facing off: one Anglican, the other Lutheran.

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Monday, July 17, 2006

From Alberta to Zap

We had a lot of linear space to deal with on this trip. Driving sanely — no all-nighters two nights in a row, for example — it takes roughly three long days, maybe 10 to 12 hours of driving each day, to reach the Canadian Rockies from metro Chicago, including the inevitable stops (which are more frequent with children in the backseat). Stacking three days like that in a row would seriously tedious, but fortunately we had the luxury of two weeks’ time, so we were able to include one “rest” day going and coming.

Alberta, then, was the major destination, famed in tourist lore and literature, and lately featured as a starring backdrop in Brokeback Mountain, passing for Wyoming. But we also had a minor destination: North Dakota, famed for not much.

Still, the state had much to recommend it to us. It was roughly halfway, we’d never visited it before, and for that matter not a lot of other people visit ND, which makes it an appealing little gear to whirl next to the big-gear destination of Alberta. Seven days and eights nights in different parts of Alberta were thus complemented by four nights and three days in ND.

When we finally encountered the Canadian Rockies, entering Banff National Park on the morning of July 5, I thought about all the other mountains I’d ever seen. The Colorado Rockies and assorted western ranges from West Texas to Idaho; various Appalachian ranges from Tennessee to New England; the Swiss and Tyrolean Alps; the Japanese Alps and the mountains of Hokkaido; the range that forms the spine of Korea; even the Yablonovyy Range on the east shore of Lake Baikal, a spectre in the distance, as if the Colorado Rockies were set next to Lake Michigan, though later I learned that the Yablonovyy are nowhere near that large.

Impressive, each and every range. But not as impressive as the mountains in front of me last week. What is it about the Canadian Rockies? Their massiveness? The mix of barren-topped peaks with lower, wooded ones? They way they soak up the sunsets? The periodic sight of glaciers? The ribbony waterfalls, sometimes in cascades that looked like the mountain was melting? The certain knowledge that, despite a few roads and certain amenities, that these are wild places given over to wild creatures and wild weather?

On the afternoon of July 7, we reached Jasper National Park by way of the Icefields Parkway, a two-lane road connecting the two parks, and a travel event in and of itself—easily one of the most remarkable drives I’ve ever taken. By then we’d taken walks around Banff NP to see forested ground and waterfalls and swift rivers passing through gorges and by meadows with outbursts of wildflowers. And we’d visited some hot springs and taken a side trip into Kootenay National Park in BC.

In Jasper NP, we ogled more mountains, took more walks, visited another hot spring, rode a cable car nearly to the top of a mountain, and backtracked down the Icefields Parkway one day to take a bus ride on a glacier.

As for North Dakota, we broke that destination in two parts as well. After a hard drive from Chicago, we spent two nights and a day in Fargo, where we found plenty to do, such as visit a museum that had collected old-time buildings from all over that part of Dakota, and a small zoo that featured, among other critters, a South American terrible poison-dart frog (really, that was its common name in English).

Returning from the mountains, we spent another two nights in far western North Dakota, ultimately seeing both parts of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The North and South Units, the Park Service calls them, something very different from mountains. Badlands. Quite beautiful in places, including along I-94, for those who believe that the Interstate’s completely monotonous.

Returning across ND, I couldn’t resist two final stops in the state. One stop was in Bismarck, for a few minutes at the state capitol, a domeless structure that reminded me of the Daily Planet building without the orb. The other place was Zap, ND, site of a queer incident in 1969. It wasn’t really much out of the way, so I stopped, just to say I’d been to Zap, ND.

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Sunday, July 16, 2006

Four States and Four Provinces

This morning I spent some time looking at my serious atlas, an early 2000s edition of the DK World Atlas, as opposed to the road atlases I’ve been consulting daily since we drove off toward the Canadian Rockies on July 1. It was a sort of review of the territory we crossed, the flat farmlands of northern Illinois, central Wisconsin and Minnesota, and eastern North Dakota, on the U.S. side; and southern Manitoba and Saskatchewan north of border, much the same sort of territory. But I also took another look at our goal for the trip, the mountainous Alberta and British Columbia.

We made it. We returned late last night after a total drive, over 15 days, of 4,849 miles, or 7,758 or so kilometers, to acknowledge the Canadian way of measuring roads.

We trended northwest on the way out. Schaumburg, Illinois, our starting point, is slightly north of 42 degrees North latitude and slightly west of 88 degrees West. A small town called Pocahontas, Alberta, was as far north as we got—about 53.2 degrees North. Our westernmost ultima, just west of Jasper Townsite, Alberta, was at about 118.4 degrees West. This shift in our position on the Earth’s surface was most noticeable in the length of daylight. It didn’t get dark near Jasper till after 11, whereas in northern Illinois it’s now just after 9.

I could (and may yet) describe many marvelous things, especially those in the Rockies, for the terrain offers up marvels seemingly without effort and sometimes without pause. But what strikes me as truly astonishing, at least from a human point of view, is that my family and I, who have no special skills when it comes to exploring, can back out of our driveway and follow macadamized roads all the way to Banff, Jasper and Kootenay national parks in Canada. This might bother Earth First!, but it doesn’t bother me. My driveway is connected to marvels.

Alas, it was a more costly trip than it would have been, say, in 1999, when the U.S. dollar was strong versus the Canadian, and the price of gas was historically low. No more. The Canadian dollar is strong, and as everyone knows, gas is high, in real terms about as high as it’s ever been. Gas was even higher in Canada, though it’s sold in liters and Canadian dollars, so it took some calculation to figure that out.

So, to sum up: very long drives, a lousy exchange rate, high fuel costs. Was it worth it? Was it ever.