Canadian style camping

After four weeks in Banff it was time to move on. My next destination was Vancouver, where I wanted to visit my friend Ash, who had been in high school with me some twelve years ago. The timing for my visit couldn’t have been much better, as it was over “May long weekend”, where the Monday is off. It’s a very Canadian holiday in itself, celebrating Queen Victoria’s birthday, who was the first sovereign of confederated Canada.

An eleven hour bus ride through beautiful scenery got me to Chilliwack

Ash was planning to go camping with some friends and I was invited to join them. So instead of going all the way to Vancouver, I got off in Chilliwack, where Ash picked me up. Together we picked up a large load of firewood and met the others at the campground at “Cultus Lake Provincial Park”. Mike, Steph and Carly were already there and Daren and Vinny arrived later that night.

“Cultus Lake” in the provincial park of the same name
We joined Daren, Mike, Carly and Steph (and Vinny) at the campground

The “Clear Creek Campground” is located in the middle of an ancient forest with thick layers of moss covering almost every tree. With spring just starting to kick in around Banff, this was a real feast for the eye with numerous different shades of green. And because Canada is so large, there is also a lot of space in between the different campsites. Enough, so that we couldn’t see or hear anything from our neighbors on this booked out campground.

Exploring the ancient forest around our campground
A giant “Douglas Fir Tree” adds to the numerous shades of green

A maximum of three tents per campsite were allowed and with seven people we made full use of that. But since everyone came by car, the others didn’t have any weight or size restrictions. So we ended up with three room-sized tents, each one big enough to house two queen-sized air mattresses. The other super sized camping equipment included camping chairs, four large coolers (drinks, ice cubes and two for food) and three or four cooking units. Now that was professional camping!

Three room-sized tents for seven people
Carly, Steph and Mike had looked after food and cooking equipment

Just recently, Ash had bought a canoe, which he had taken along for this weekend. He had never used it before, so he was eager to try it out. Luckily our campsite was not too far from the water. We grabbed everything we needed and set out for a nice cruise. Needless to say, we used it on both days and never had a problem. We even survived the higher waves created by the countless motor boats and sea-doos on the lake.

Taking Ash’s new canoe out for its (second) maiden voyage
Ash and I had to fight the waves of the motor boats and sea-doos several times

While paddling around the perimeter of the lake, we discovered beautiful beach houses and steep cliffs, where people were jumping into the refreshing waters of the lake. We also saw a guy with futuristic jets under his feet just flying above the water. He made some cool moves and it almost looked like in the movies. Later at our campsite we were happy that all the noise from the lake had stayed behind and we were surrounded by the tranquil forest once again.

Nice beachfront houses along the lake
A futuristic way of moving across the lake

The rest of the time we used for playing Boccia – quite a challenge on a slope with high grass – or playing various card games. Another favorite sport of Canadians seemed to be the campfire. While we managed to burn almost the entire load of slightly moist wood that Ash and I had bought during the first night, the others insisted on getting nine prepacked bundles of dry wood for the next two days. But then again the fire was more of an atmosphere, as we only roasted a dozen marshmallows and burned two packages of “colored flames”.

Daren, Mike and Ash playing Boccia in the deep grass
Keeping the campfire going was an important part of the weekend

Spring time

As soon as the weather forecast promised a few days of sunshine and warmth, I asked my friend Raghu, if he wanted to go on a little road trip to make use of the extra hours that I had accumulated. Raghu is living in Calgary and is still looking for a job, so he didn’t mind going in the middle of the week. He picked me up in Banff and together we continued towards Radium Hot Springs, a town west of “Kootenay National Park”, where the climate is warmer and drier than in Banff.

Raghu joined me for a two day road trip
“Kootenay National Park” was largely affected by bark beetles and forest fires

After a quick stop at the “Paint Pots”, where it was more exciting to navigate around the ocre mud holes than to watch the three slightly blueish colored spring pools, we continued our journey along the “Banff-Windermere Parkway”. The road leads right through the “Kootenay Valley”, which is mostly bare at the moment, despite being covered in evergreen trees. However, bark beetles and forest fires have diminished large areas of the pristine forest, which is only slowly recovering.

The ochre soil has been used by Indians for centuries for painting
The “Paint Pots” were not as spectacular as we had expected

We reached Radium Hot Springs by the late afternoon and set up our tent on one of the campsites overlooking the valley. As there was still some time left until sunset, we decided to go on another little hike to the “Sinclair Creek Waterfall”. A spontaneous extension of our hike led us to the actual hot springs, only accessible through a modern swimming pool. But instead of a concrete pool, we wanted to have a more natural experience, which was waiting for us the next day.

View of the gorge just outside of Radium Hot Springs
The “Sinclair Creek Waterfall”

The next day kept its promise and we had perfect weather throughout the day. We started off with what we thought would be a short hike. At the tourist information, we had been recommended to visit “Mount Swansea” overlooking the “Columbia River Valley”. However, instead of driving almost all the way to the top, we decided to park the car at the bottom to hike up along the southern ridge.

Climbing the southern ridge of “Mount Swansea”
An interesting bird encounter on our way up

The climb was steep up through the forest, but it was nice and quiet. We didn’t encounter any bear, but a very interesting large bird that was suddenly sitting almost right on the trail. And if that wasn’t enough, we were constantly rewarded with amazing views of the valley and the surrounding snow-capped mountains. Only the way down was a bit too steep in our opinion. By the end we had accomplished a solid four hours hike and were quite hungry for some lunch.

It took longer than expected, but we made it to the top!
Amazing views of the “Columbia River Valley”

After an extensive lunch break and another short hike at the “Hodoos” next to Fairmont Hot Springs, we continued our road trip along the “Columbia River” and the “Columbia Lake” until we reached the turnoff for the “Whiteswan Lake Provincial Park”. As we were driving, the valley got narrower and the road led us higher and past the sign for the “Top of the World Provincial Park”. That sounded pretty good, but unfortunately we couldn’t go there, because there is still too much snow. However, we’ll definitely keep it in mind for some other time.

On top of the “Hodoos”, looking down
The “Hodoos” as seen from the bottom

At “Alces Lake”, which is already in the provincial park, we found a nice little campground with a superb view over the lake. We occupied a site, set up our tent and started making dinner. By the time we were finished it was getting dark – the perfect time for a bath in the “Lussier Hot Springs”, free and all natural hot springs, just a few kilometers from our campground. Afterwards we were all warmed up and it was time to go to bed, as it had been a long day.

Great campsite and great dinner!
The “Lussier Hot Springs” have become quite popular with the new access path

The next morning we had a look at “Whiteswan Lake”, before heading back to the “Columbia River Valley”. Here, we wanted to do some more hiking, but the weather had changed and it was all cloudy and rainy. Therefore, we changed our plans and drove back to the “Johnston Canyon”, which had better weather and is much closer to Banff than where we had been before. This was important, as I still had to work the evening shift that day.

The morning at “Whiteswan Lake” looked quite promising
The trail through “Johnston Canyon” leads through a narrow gorge

The canyon was very crowded up to the upper falls, even if it was not a weekend. However, was still worth going and seeing the narrow gorge with the suspended trail at the walls of the canyon. With a bit of time left, we decided to continue our hike to the “Ink Pots”, several spring ponds, which were much more interesting and colorful than the “Paint Pots” on our first day. Eventually we got back to the car and back to Banff with only half an hour behind schedule.

The spring weather had melted most of the ice at the upper falls
The “Ink Pots” were more impressive than the “Paint Pots”

Beautiful Banff

Most of the people who work here at the hostel have been here for a while or are planning to stay for the summer. Therefore, their motivation to get out and explore the area was not the same as mine. If I would stay longer, I probably would have waited for better weather as well. But I didn’t, so quite a few times I put on my coat and went out into the cold on my own.

Banff in spring is definitely not as busy as it was in July 2015
St. Paul’s Church with “Mount Rundle” in the back

However, I wasn’t alone on my very first hike. Katrina, whom I had met already during my first week in Calgary, was in Banff for the weekend and together we decided to climb the locals’ favorite mountain – “Tunnel Mountain”. The walk up is pretty easy and short, which is why most locals run all the way to the top to exercise. From there we had a great overview of Banff and all the places I planned to visit during the next few weeks.

Katrina joined me for my first hike in Banff
Banff from above – the view from “Tunnel Mountain”

A few days later we had a big dump of snow and my hopes for spring had been dampened once more. But instead of hiding inside, I went on a hike through the winter wonderland, which took me along the base of “Tunnel Mountain” to the “Surprise Corner”. The name can be taken quite literally, because the “Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel” can only be seen after turning the corner. The luxury hotel was opened in 1888, but has been remodeled in the early 20th century. At the base of the hotel are the “Bow Falls”, a series of cascades, after which the river lost about 9m in altitude.

The “Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel” on a winters day
The “Bow Falls” as seen from the base

The reason for building the luxury hotel was not only the beautiful mountain scenery, but also the discovery of the hot springs at the bottom of “Sulphur Mountain” during the construction of the Canadian railway. To prevent the exploitation of the hot springs, a protected area was set up around them and Canada’s first national park was born. The original cave with the hot springs can still be visited today and is now specially protected as the “Cave and Basin National Historic Site”.

The original cave is home to an endangered snail species
The “Bow River” carries turquoise glacier water

Another day I set out to climb up “Sanson Peak” on “Sulphur Mountain”. I had originally planned to go with Tristan, but he was sick that day. Instead I went with Endija and his three Spanish friends Tatiana, Marta and Diana, who happened to be going the same day just a bit later. The way up was pretty straight forward, as the path was zigzagging underneath the expensive gondola. Although it had been warm for a few days, there was still a lot of snow, making it quite slippery.

The way up on “Sanson Peak” is still snowy and quite slippery
The descent with the gondola is for free

We reached the top just on time. After taking in the great view of Banff and the surrounding mountains we had a quick look at the old meteorological observatory building from 1903. Then the rain showers really started and urged us to seek refuge in the summit station of the gondola, where we witnessed a perfect rainbow over the “Banff Springs Hotel”. Eventually it was time to go back and this time we used the gondola, as the descent is for free.

Inside the old meteorological observatory building
The weather changed quickly and suddenly we were above the rainbow

One more trail that I discovered on my own was the “Bow Valley Trail”, which I hiked on a nice spring day. First it leads through the forest and along the “Bow River”, but later on it climbs up to a little ridge overlooking the river valley and the majestic “Mount Rundle” in the back. It definitely looked like one of the mountains I would love to climb, but not alone. A little later I had reached the “Hodoos”, pillar-like rock formations, where I left the trail and headed back to the hostel.

Hiking the “Bow Valley Trail”
The “Hodoos” seem rather small and insignificant compared to massive “Mount Rundle”

With just a few days left in Banff I had almost given up on the idea of climbing “Mount Rundle”. But then I met three Canadians at the hostel bar – Adreon, Curtis and TJ – who wanted to climb it the next day. That fitted perfectly with my work schedule, as my shift was starting in the late afternoon. The plan was to go up from Canmore to the “East end of Rundle”. With its 2530m it is about 400m lower than the top of “Mount Rundle” and the chances of snow are therefore much lower.

The “Ha Ling Peak” is a masterpiece of the Canadian Rocky Mountains
The last part of the ascend leads along an exposed ridge

The total ascend is still about 900m from the “Whitemans Pond”, where our car was parked. It may not seem like a lot, but neither Curtis nor TJ had ever climbed a mountain before. The steep trail and the exposed scramble at the ridge close to the top added to the difficulty. However, with sufficient breaks, snacks and “special drinks” all of us made it to the summit in one piece. At that point the wind died down and the sun came out, allowing us to fully enjoy the rewarding view.

We made it to the summit – TJ, Curtis, Adreon and I (from right to left)
The magnificent view from the top of “East end of Rundle”

Hostelling international

One of the things I wanted to do in Canada on my “work & travel” visa was working at a hostel. By now I’ve stayed in so many different hostels around the world that I wanted to have a look behind the scenes. However, I quickly realized that most hostels only hire for the full season, which wouldn’t work for me. But then I found the “work for stay” program of the HI (Hostelling International) Banff Alpine Centre, which requires a minimum stay of two weeks and a valid work visa.

So much for it being spring time – the HI Banff Alpine Centre was covered in snow when I arrived
A cozy common area with fireplace is best for winter days

This seemed to be the perfect thing for me to do. What is even better, is the fact that the hostel is located in the Banff National Park, surrounded by the majestic Rocky Mountains. With my hopes high for spring time being just around the corner, I applied for the program and got on a night bus back through Edmonton and Calgary and on to Banff. The hostel itself is located a bit outside of town, which is ideal for hiking, as the trails start right at the front door. A free bus connects the hostel to downtown, which is helpful for shopping and going out at night.

On one of my shifts I had to help shoveling the snow – with a gorgeous view
The hostel is surrounded by picturesque mountains

When I arrived at the hostel there were several other volunteers or “volleys” as we are called. There were Christian and Anne (Germany), Izzy (Quebec) and Alejandra (Chile). We were soon joined by Henry and Sid (Ireland), Maketa (Czech Republic), Tristan (Australia), Simon (New Zealand) and Endija (Spain). Everyone was looking for work in the area or traveling and working to keep the expenses low. We were all living in the same room and everyone had to work four hours per day in exchange for accommodation.

My home for about four weeks – the volley room

Most of the time we had to help with the housekeeping, which also consists of a very international group of people. Most of them have been here since the fall and have been skiing quite a lot. We would clean the bathrooms, keep the kitchens tidy or help with the laundry. It wasn’t always the best job that we had to do, but it gave me back the feeling of a working routine and a new appreciation of free time, which I had been lacking over the last few months.

Cleaning the bathrooms with Izzy

The best shift was of course helping out in the café. Here we had to keep the kitchen clean, do the dishes, refill the containers, making coffee or roll up the silverware in napkins. And sometimes it would happen that a guest ordered a meal and would only notice that it’s not vegetarian once it was sitting in front of him. So Kate (Australia) or Nathan (Ontario) would have to make a new, vegetarian version and instead of throwing away the other food, we could have it.

In the kitchen with Kate
When Dave is not busy with housekeeping, he might stop by the kitchen for a visit

The hostel has also two fully equipped kitchens, which we also made good use of. Sometimes some of the volleys cooked for the others and another time we made an international potluck dinner, where everyone contributed one dish to the meal. And on other nights we went over to the bar to join one of the weekly activities, such as the pool tournament or karaoke night.

Sharing dinner with Christian, Izzy, Alejandra, Tristan, Anne and Henry
Playing pool in the hostel bar

Planned and unplanned surprises

After a week in Calgary the time had come to head east, further into the prairies. I boarded another bus and got off in Lloydminster. Here, my host sister Melissa was waiting for me. She had known for the last two months, that I would start my trip through Canada out here. As we were waiting for her husband, Roland, and their kids, Faith and Torrie, we drove through town and went for a walk in the “Bud Miller Park”. I was hoping that we wouldn’t bump into Vic and Bev, as that would spoil my birthday surprise.

Melissa helped in hiding me for a few days (Photo by Melissa)

I spent the next few days with Roland, Faith and Torrie on their farm, hiding out and waiting for Bev’s birthday. We chased some chickens, watched Faith’s rugby practice and played some cards. It was a nice, but quiet time. However, by the end of my stay there, all my host brothers and sisters knew that I was there, but luckily everyone played along and nobody said anything.

Chasing chickens with Torrie
Watching Faith at rugby practice

Finally the big day arrived and Melissa managed to set up a lunch date with Vic and Bev. They met at the “Lashburn Golf Club” and somehow I happened to be there, too. It was indeed a big surprise and neither of them had suspected anything. And another surprise was waiting for all of us, as a middle-aged woman suddenly declared that she buy lunch for all twelve customers present at that moment. We thanked her and shared the cream pie, that Melissa had made, with everyone, without getting to know the reason behind this generous gesture.

Vic and Bev didn’t see this one coming – a successful surprise! (Photo by Melissa) 

Afterwards I changed cars and accompanied Vic and Bev to Maidstone, where I had previously gone to high school. This time we went for an award ceremony in the elementary school, where Ryker, my host brother Michael’s youngest son, and Steele, my host brother Ronald’s youngest son got awards for their hard work and their good behavior and sportsmanship in class, while the whole school was watching them.

Ryker is waiting impatiently for his award
Steele was the only one from his grade to receive an award

Over Easter, the weather forecast had predicted a drop in temperature. This proved to be true and with it came another big surprise in form of 20 cm of snow, covering everything with a thick, white blanket, dampening my hopes for spring to come. And instead of mowing a green lawn, I was shoveling mounds of snow, while behind me the ground got covered up again. I was glad that I still had gloves, scarf and hat from Patagonia with me.

Spring in Canada is incomplete without shoveling mounts of snow
The snow appeared over night and almost out of nowhere

After a few days the sun came out again and we tried making the best out of this late-winter weather by going for a walk in the snow. And of course there were all the indoor activities that we could still do, like the farmers market in the “Servus Sports Centre”, which is lacking fresh produce at the moment, but still sells fresh bread, chocolates and other handicraft. It’s very popular with the locals and everyone goes there to discuss the latest news over coffee and cake.

Going for a walk in the warming sunshine with Bev
Locals meet at the weekly farmers market

Another part on the agenda was visiting with my other host brothers and sisters, who came over with their families. Almost everyone had been sick before Easter, but they recovered and were fit as ever, especially Zayne and Ryker, who were chasing each other all over the living room. It was really great to see everyone again!

Todd has the shortest drive, as he lives right next door
Zayne and Brenda are having fun