Mawlers’ Big Adventure ’04:
Lake Louise to Fort MacLeod

Friday, 20 August 2004

By the Numbers
  • Distance Driven Today: about 717 km
  • Gas Purchased Today: 54.568 litres
  • Total Cracks in Windshield: it appears more stable down south
Wild Woolies
  • Dogs: 3
  • Cats: 2
  • Miniature Donkeys: 2
  • Grasshoppers: millions

Happy 55th Anniversary, Betty and Don.

Today, we are on our way to visit our friends in Fort MacLeod. Actually, they are a few km south of Fort MacLeod, but the mail still goes through the town. We met them on our honeymoon, when we stayed at their bed and breakfast (The Wandering Star), which actually was in Fort MacLeod. We had such a good time, we have been back to see them a couple of times.

Having a good time was a combination of their hospitality, which was fantastic, and our US-based stupidity. We picked their B&B for our first night in Canada following our wedding on the 8th of October. When I called to make arrangements, Wendy said "are you sure you want that weekend?" When I said, "yeah", thinking something like, "that is what I said", she confirmed and I thought no more of it.

And then we arrived in Canada. Everything was quiet and somewhat deserted. After stopping somewhere in a little town to cash from an ATM, we figured it out. We had scheduled our honeymoon to start on Canadian Thanksgiving. Needless to say, when we arrived at The Wandering Star, it was jam-packed with Wayne and Wendy’s friends and relatives. Probably sensing the deer-in-the-headlights look, they invited us in, told us to get a plate, and had us join Thanksgiving dinner. Dinner later led to beer and an intoxicated version of Trivial Pursuit. It was probably the best trip we have ever taken.

Hi guys! Thanks for letting us stay, again.

It is a bit of a drive southeast from Lake Louise to Fort MacLeod, but we have done it before and know it pretty well. Since we are not getting an early start, the smart thing to do, at this point, would be to go straight to our destination.

Instead, we set off west-bound out of Lake Louise, to make a loop through Yoho and Kootenai, two national parks in BC that we have never visited. Besides, merely driving straight from Lake Louise to Fort MacLeod would deprive us of valuable kilometers on the Jeep.

Looney Toons
In the classic Looney Toons cartoon by Chuck Jones, "What’s Opera Doc?", Elmer Fudd sings "yoho toe hoe, yoho toe hoe" in classic Wagnerian parody, while stabbing at Bugs’ rabbit hole. Naturally, this is going through our heads as we approach Yoho National Park.

And then that mutates into various puns about toes, hoes, etc. Most of it is not fit to print.

This route will take us west from Lake Louise through Yoho to Golden, BC, then south to Radium Hot Springs, BC, where we turn west back through Kootenai to Banff. I have no idea how long the loop actually is, but it is probably about 250 km.

Right over the line in Yoho, we see signs for the Spiral Tunnels. Having no idea what that means, we figure we should at least stop and read the signs. It seems that the pass from Yoho to Lake Louise is a bit steep for most trains. The current road more-or-less follows the old rail route and it descends at about an 11% grade.

An innovative way to solve the grade problem was to use a European idea to build two spiral tunnels, allowing the trains to make switch-backs up the pass. The tunnels work just like you are thinking they do: the train enters at the bottom and then turns counter-clockwise, making a full circle. When the engine emerges, from the other end of the tunnel, it is about 15 meters higher than the entrance of the tunnel. It then passes over the lower tunnel entrance on its way up the mountain. In this location, the train then doubles back and goes through a second spiral, which turns clockwise.

We sit there with a growing crowd of people waiting for the opportunity to see a train go through the tunnel that is visible from the road. After about 15 or 20 minutes, we are pretty bored with this process and getting more concerned about the length of the trip, so off we go.

Surprisingly, we do not see the train appear in our rearview mirror, as we pull away. Murphy must be on vacation, too.

From here, it begins to rain, which is really a good thing. If it were sunny, we would pull over at every chance to take pictures. However, with the rain and very low ceiling, the pictures are not that interesting, so we make better time. That is my story and I am sticking to it.

The trip from the Spiral Tunnels to Golden is one of the slowest pieces of road we have ridden. It is very curvy, making right-angle after right-angle turn along steep cliff faces for most of the trip.

This is really beginning to wear on me, as I think about how much time this is adding to our trip. If that were not bad enough, we have to go through a road block. The BC government is pulling over three drivers at a time to ask them a survey about road conditions. The young woman asked me what would make my trip better and I resisted telling her "not having to stop at some survey checkpoint". If they tried this back home, they would be rounded up like some witch hunt and burned at the stake. Grumble, grumble, grumble.

In reality, it only takes about three minutes to pull over and answer their questions, so I should loosen up a bit. Yeah, I will get right on that. Besides, if it only took three minutes, how useful could the questions possibly be?

Fortunately, after turning south in Golden, we leave all traffic and switch-backs behind. I can really put the pedal to the metal out here and Lea Ann can get some proper sleep. Even at somewhat high speed, this place reminds me of the Blue Ridge in Virginia. The main difference is that behind the foothills, real mountains rise up with snow and whatnot. There would be some really nice pictures along this route if that mysterious ball of flame would appear.

In the absence of photographic assistance from the sun, we make it to Radium Hot Springs in no time at all. Compared to Golden, Radium Hot Springs is a serious tourist trap. There are hotels made to look like Bavarian Alpine lodges, miniature golf parks, kinda like the beach. Tacky, actually.

Fortunately, we are only skirting through town, so we turn left to go into Kootenai. As you enter Kootenai on the west side, you go right through a canyon that was carved by the creek that actually runs out from the Radium Hot Spring itself. The road is built over the creek in quite a feat of engineering. It is a bit sad, though, if you stop to think. Fortunately, most people do not stop. And if they do, they definitely do not think.

We do stop and think. We also take pictures, including a shot of what it looks like from the car, when you drive through this little canyon. Full sized 18-wheelers drive through here all the time, so it can get a bit crowded.

Just up the road, we go past the namesake for the town below: Radium Hot Springs. There really is a hot spring here and it is very well developed. This place is not at all like Liard Hot Springs up in far northern BC. We do not even have a minor qualm about passing by without stopping. We are not big fans of crowds and this place is crowded.

Farther up the road, we pass another spring or two and these are much more sparsely attended. If you like springs, I would recommend seeking out one of the many that are just slightly off the beaten path. You can find them all over BC, the Yukon, and Alaska.

This part of the trip has been narrow and winding, but far less traveled than Yoho. Once it begins to straighten out, I start to nod off. Perhaps there has been too much driving?

Not long after we entered Kootenai, Lea Ann joined the land of the wakeful. Once the road straightened out a bit, she started reading. She has managed to read quite a few books on this trip (some quite long) and is now pretty close to the end of Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. As I start to lose consciousness, she suggests that she could read out loud, if that would help keep me awake. I have read this book, but it was 20 years ago (no joke), so it will be pretty fresh. Sure, why not.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is best described as a light and airy read, the feel-good novel of the century. What is it about southern authors and bleak despair? There seems to be a real continuum between the south and Russia. Regardless, it is a well-written novel and helps pass the time.

In fact, Lea Ann reads from somewhere in Kootenai, through Banff, and right down into Calgary. When she finishes, she looks up to find we are caught in traffic; right from one picture of bleak despair to another. Actually, this is my sick and sadistic / masochistic tactic to re-assimilate into society. It is not working.

We skirt around the western edge of Calgary and catch the Deerfoot Trail south toward Fort MacLeod. Given the sprawling "civilization" around us, we are able to call ahead using our cell phones. Wendy gives us a projection of how much time it will take to get from where we are to their house and then we lose the cell connection. Typical, it really is civilization – the technology does not work.

Despite stopping in High River for gas, we make it to Wayne and Wendy’s house in far less than the predicted time. Checking her watch, Wendy simply comments that we drive like she does.

Wayne and Wendy now live on a (relatively) small farm on the high plains, surrounded by wheat fields. It is really a beautiful place; open, quiet, peaceful. Full of grasshoppers. You get out of the car here and they part for you like the Red Sea. Needless to say, just like water, they manage to slip into the house, too.

As always, we are greeted by quite a menagerie. There are the three dogs, the two cats, and the two miniature donkeys. So we retire to the kitchen to talk about what we have all been doing since last we were able to hang out. Wayne has been on the road and… what?

Yes, I said "miniature donkeys". Did that seem unusual somehow? I guess it might. Wendy has a way with animals, so she picked up a couple of miniature donkeys. They really are quite cute, and way too smart. In the few minutes we have been here, they have let themselves out of the pen and started wandering around the yard, so we had to coral them again. I bet that could get old.

Because obligations do not stand still when friends drop in with little or no forethought, Wendy needs to go to Red Deer (between Calgary and Edmonton) tonight. We plan to meet her up there tomorrow night on our way to Edmonton, but tonight we get to talk railroads, business, and politics with Wayne. These are good topics for us, particularly when accompanied by beer, so a good time is had by all.

Taking the dogs and cats out for a walk, we get a nice reminder of how unpredictable weather can be on the high plains. Leaving the house, the wind is light and pleasant. Once out about a half mile, we start seeing lightning flashes in the sky and the wind picks up. We do eventually turn around and by the time we get back to the house, the wind is moving pretty fast. Surprisingly, we do not get wet.

Back at the house, we all recognize the intelligence of going to bed early, since we need to pack and arrange and Wayne has some morning commitments, as well. Naturally, we are up talking until about 2 am, when we finally decide to go to bed and I coax Lea Ann’s now-slumbering body to follow.

see it on a map

The previous installment:
Jasper to Lake Louise

The next installment:
Fort MacLeod to Edmonton

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All materials © 2004 Lea Ann Mawler & Stuart Mawler