Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Canada Trip

I wrote a lengthy trip report of Susan and my trip to the Canadian Rockies last week. Here it is, exactly as I wrote in response to another email, interspersed with some photos I took, if I did not email it to you. It was really a great trip.
This started out to be a reply to George's [a grad school bud whom I've been in regular contact with since we got out of school in 1978] account of his recent trip, and then before I knew it, it got to be a pretty long response. So lo, here is the trip report of Susan and my trip to the Canadian Rockies. We got back Sunday. Glad to be home, but a great and memorable trip.

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Great pic of the eagle, bro.

We never got that close to one to get such a good shot, but we did indeed encounter eagles on the trip. Generally our Canadian wildlife sitings were pretty impressive: 4 bear--all black, no grizzlies; elk, white-tailed and mule deer, Canadian geese, bald eagles, osprey, mountain goats, martin, and magpies, a kind of bird I had never seen before, although I was told they are ubiquitous and rather despicable because they bully other birds out of the way and take over. Our tour guide/driver was really knowledgeable about the wildlife. And the botany. And the geography. And other stuff. We learned all kinds of interesting stuff about these things. Habits of bears, Canadian weather, lumbering, the building of the railroads, salmon, Canadian environmental laws, tons of geography facts. One of the really interesting things to me was we lucked into a train that was going through a series of so-called "spiral tunnels" at Kicking Horse Pass above Banff. Our driver turned around and we drove back to the viewpoint to watch this huge train--more than 200 cars and over a mile long--go through these tunnels. At one point--I have pictures--the train is going in three different directions.
Butchart Gardens, Victoria, BC
 Soon as I get through with captions, I'm going to be putting all the pix we took on the trip up on the Net. I have attached one of a black bear that was munching on insects from under a log beside the bus one day. I don't have to tell you that the sights were breath-taking, awesome, gorgeous. You will see. I could easily live in Canada, I discovered . . . well, I didn't just discover, let's say reaffirmed. (I mean, how hard would it be, except for missing Tanya, Mitch, TJ, and Lib, not to live in Oklahoma?) Cold weather has never been such a big deal to me. It was about 80, and people up around Jasper were complaining about the heat. I have to say though, that I would probably not be a great fit with the relentless outdoor-ism of these people. I would see long, cold winters as excellent times to cozy up with big wood fires--btw, several places we saw had fires going in the middle of July! ("people like the way they look," we were told)--drink hot coffee & chocolate, and read, do baseball research, write, etc. Sorta like extended periods in ski lodge. In other words, I'd carry out my normal activities except this time in a country that: a) is crazy about the environment; b) is unrelentingly polite & helpful; c) has drastically fewer right-wing lunatics and handguns per capita; d) has single-payer health insurance; e) enthusiastically embraces diversity; f) is not involved in a state of perpetual warfare; and g) has perfectly bearable weather in the summer, albeit with decidedly higher prices for food, especially out in the hinterlands. They told us that winter in Jasper is six months long. We were told over and over that western Canada had a really cold snowy winter and that it rained the entire month of June. All the rivers and streams were much higher than normal. The salmon, which are normally up in their spawning grounds by now, are being held up by the high water. We were also reminded several times that the weather we enjoyed was just ideal. The mountains are not visible many days out of the year normally because of clouds and fog, weather we remember very well from Germany. But we had not a single instance of bad weather the entire time. No rain. No cold.

Here's a map that shows the whole route. (You will have to use the slider to zoom out from the town of Jasper.) We flew into Calgary on Saturday, the 7th,  and then were on the bus from there to Jasper till Wednesday, 11th. Two days on the train to Vancouver, which is a huge city. 3 million people, and, get this, the majority of them are of Oriental extraction. Chinese came over to build the western railroads, just as they did in US. Also there was a huge influx of Chinese with British passports that came over when PRC took over Hong Kong. But we also met people who came over from Hawaii, various former British protectorates in the Pacific, as well as Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. Vancouver is a huge mixing bowl. A lot of Middle Eastern people there, too: Lebanese, Syrians, Saudis, others. People from all over. It wasn't till we got here that we even laid eyes on a cop. We saw some on the "party" street about a block from our hotel the last night we were there.



The Rocky Mountaineer Train - Picture Postcard at Every Turn
Although there had to have been some political nut cases on this trip among our companions, I wasn't actively aware of any. Indeed, the Americans we had conversations with and all the Canadians, were decidedly of the liberal persuasion, including a sociologist from Dallas who taught at UT-D--I mean what are the odds on on the stern of an industrial-sized ferry on its way to Victoria Island (where we saw the amazing Butchart Gardens) that you're going to run into somebody perfectly politically simpatico? It happened on a chance conversation that I found such a person--and a couple from California who could not get over the political "insanity" of our times? The Victoria trip was the last day in Canada for us, and probably the one we could have skipped. Most of the day we spent going and coming. The city of Victoria at the southern tip of the island appeared to us to be a wonderful place worth exploring, but we hardly had more than 90 minutes there. It was a beautiful sunny day and there were hordes of people out and about. The weather in that place is amazing. We're told that it hardly ever snows there, and doesn't get real cold in winter or real hot in summer. Something to do with a Pacific Ocean current, forget what it's called, that go by there.
The Empress Hotel, Victoria, BC

Best part of traveling is a meeting all kinds of specimens from the diverse, far-flung human tribe from all over the world. In the hotel in Vancouver, we encountered a couple of Nick Saban, Bama-hating Auburn fans whom we thoroughly enjoyed. On the tour with us were two pair of Brits, a couple from Ireland, South Africa, two couples from Australia. Had a long and fascinating discussion with the people from Durban, South Africa, about what it's like to be white in that country now (as you might suspect, they did not care for it much). He is an interior designer, she an accountant. One night in Banff we sat at restaurant next to a couple and their three kids and son-in-law from New Zealand. He was in the dairy business. We learned an awful lot about the earthquake damage there . . . although they live on the northern of the two islands that make up the country. I didn't even know NZ had two islands. One day on the train, we had lunch with a couple of newly-weds from Japan, Yo and Tomoko. They have been married 90 days, and their English is pretty damn good, if you ask me, although they were not fluent. He had this little electronic translator that he would type words into for her on occasion. He does something with computers, she does graphic design. They were both 32 years old. When I was that age, I was at LSU studying history, but there's no way I could have even contemplated such a trip from the fiduciary standpoint. No way. We spent a good deal of time talking on the ferry with a 19-year-old student from Saudi Arabia who was studying English. He is in his second year of two, and he was perfectly conversational. He's studying for a test in English proficiency that will allow him to go to university in Canada which requires a higher score in English than does USA. Susan immediately donned her teacher's hat and launched into a lesson on how to write an essay. I thought he was more interested in the discussion I was trying to have with him about all the expressions in English there are for being drunk and various idiomatic expressions that he had never heard like "shoo-in" and "beating a dead horse." On the way back to Vancouver on the ferry we sat a table with a guy from northwest Germany (up near the Ruhr valley, forget where) who emigrated to Alberta in 2003. He owns a trucking company--4 trucks--and is involved in moving a lot of oil/gas field equipment between the northern Alberta oil fields and Houston. He has been to Oklahoma bunches of times. We learned a lot about the trucking business. I didn't realize that trucks pay fuel taxes in every state over and above the taxes that are included in the fuel they put into their tanks. He reinforced what we had been hearing throughout the trip: that private housing in Canada is very expensive. We saw what we would describe as small houses (1200-1700 sq ft) with nothing fancy about them in Banff, Jasper, and other places that cost well over half a million dollars. And in both places, if you own a house, you don't own the land it's on because you are in the confines of a national park. The towns are both in their respective parks.
Just another day in the Canadian Rockies

This was a great trip. We both had too many cool-weather clothes. Generally the accommodations were just fine. The Fairmont Hotel in Lake Louise was palatial . . . and would have been out of reach for us, but touring put us there. Unfortunately the village of Lake Louise was virtually inaccessible unless you wanted to hoof it up and down a mountain, so you were stuck eating there and paying dearly for the privilege. It was the one place, also, where the room temp was not ideal. No A/C in our room. Just a ceiling fan and a space fan. It cooled down in the evening, but it wasn't comfortable when we first arrived. Worst place we were was a grim little train stop place at Kamloops. Turns out the place is not small, about I think we were there because it was about the only place of any size about halfway to Vancouver where the train could stop. We did not sleep on the train, but got off and got back on in the morning. The spectacular sights did not relent until we were a couple of hours out of Vancouver. We came out of the Thompson River valley and the landscape broadened and flattened out. The 90 minutes into the city was your standard issue urban/industrial ugly. We stayed two nights in the downtown Holiday Inn. It was quite nice. And are you ready for this? Our first night in, I was just in time to catch the Rangers-Mariners game on TV. (Rangers won, but they almost blew the damn game in the 9th.) So I even managed to get a baseball fix on the trip. BTW, the Toronto Blue Jays, the only team Canada can claim in MLB, were a presence in the ads we saw.

Only drawback on the whole trip was concern about pre-op health issues for my 91-year-old mom. But everything turned out fine there, too. She was operated on yesterday, and the procedure was quite successful. So all is good!
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