Remember to Breathe – it’s Alberta

By | Category: Travel destinations
Both of us segwaying along the river in Edmonton

Both of us segwaying along the river in Edmonton

With a beaming smile that splendidly broke through the cloudy day, my almost 88-year-old mother rode her segway down the wide trail at Louise McKinney Riverfront Park in Edmonton, Alberta. Just moments before, she had decidedly planted her 4’11” frame in front of 6-foot-something Joe Riel, the engaging guide for River Valley Adventure Company. She declared that she would not even try to ride the segway. “I’m just too old. I can’t risk falling!” she said.

Joe urged her, oh-so-sweetly, “just listen to the little lesson. Just try standing on it for a photo.” Next thing we knew, she was not only standing on it, but was deftly turning on her new-found “seg legs,” and the three of us were gliding off.

The gorgeously lush park, adjacent to downtown Edmonton, is the entrée to the North Saskatchewan River Valley, North America’s longest expanse of urban parkland.  Joe took us down wide paths alongside the flowing river to Edmonton’s gorgeous Chinese gardens (full of poppies, roses and peonies,) Chinese gazebo and Riverfront Plaza and Promenade. We didn’t even notice the light drizzle. As Joe said, our “segway smiles” never stopped.

a mountain goat in the Jasper National Park

a mountain goat in the Jasper National Park

Alberta is one of Canada’s most beautiful provinces, so idyllic, in fact, that the tourism slogan for Travel Alberta is “remember to breathe.” It is the gateway to the Canadian Rockies, home to the mountain towns of Jasper and Banff and the spectacular 144-mile-long Icefields Parkway, one of the world’s most celebrated scenic byways through the heart of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site. It is also where pleasant, culturally-rich cities such as Edmonton and Calgary draw in travellers from around the globe for such mammoth events as Edmonton’s International Fringe Festival and Calgary’s Stampede each year. Canada’s fourth most populous province, Alberta has just over four million residents and 255,500 square miles in area. It isbounded by the provinces of British Columbia to the west and Saskatchewan to the east, the Northwest Territories to the north, and the U.S. state of Montana to the south.

We flew into Edmonton, a pretty, clean and flower-bedecked, pedestrian-friendly city with hip, artsy neighbourhoods like Old Strathcona and 124th Street, large woodsy parks, an excellent public transportation system and a nice, tidy airport with baggage carousels adorned with Edmonton Oilers’ hockey memorabilia. There’s plenty to do, see and eat in Edmonton, and we explored happily.

animals roam freely

animals roam freely

A highlight was our visit to Elk Island National Park, the only fenced-in national park in Canada, 28 miles east of Edmonton. Here, North America’s only genetically pure, disease-free ‘wood’ bison herd lives. Brought from Montana in 1907, the 400-or so member herd of the woolly brown giants roams freely – in fact, we drove slowly right through them, spread out across the Bison Loop road, seemingly without a care. We listened to the “baas” of the adorable babies and the grunts of their moms, walking slowly by us, as little ones frolicked in the meadow – it was magical. It’s recommended to get to Elk Island (actually NOT an island) early, before the gate officially opens at ten, and then pay the entrance fee in the honour box, to view bison out in the open. Later, when it gets hot, they’ll head out for the shade of the trees and aren’t as visible.

Early evenings are also good times – and by the way, summer darkness doesn’t arrive until a delightful 10:30-11 p.m. in Alberta, since it’s so far north! The ‘rut’ season, best for viewing aggressive male behaviour, is from mid-July to mid-August. Astontin Lake is a placid, deep blue expanse, just beckoning visitors to rent its yellow canoes. There are numerous hiking trails and camping is offered, as well as many festivals and special events.

one of the interpreters at the Ukrainian ​ Cultural Heritage  Village

one of the interpreters at the Ukrainian ​ Cultural Heritage Village

Nearby, the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village pays homage to the estimated one million Canadians of Ukrainian descent (Edmonton has the highest concentration.) This exceedingly well-done “living museum” took us back to the late 1800’s, with 30 authentic buildings dating from that era, including a wooden grain elevator, blacksmith’s shop, three churches, (including a circa 1927 beautiful onion-domed Ukrainian Greek Orthodox church,) general store, etc. What makes the Village unique from others of its kind is the passion and dedication of the trained interpreters who make it “real.” Indeed, many are professional actors, and their costumes, Ukrainian accents (and even language) seemed to be the real McCoy. An authentic, ample, scrumptious lunch (served 11-4) of pierogies, cucumber salad, cabbage rolls, Ukrainian sausage and borscht is served al fresco (or indoors) for an additional $11.

The VIA Rail Canada system is a delightful way to transverse Canada, with modern, comfortable cars and truly well-prepared chef-created cuisine. We opted to take VIA from Edmonton to Jasper and happily relaxed in the panorama car for some five hours. Arriving in the Jasper station, we quickly rented a car to continue our journey in the Canadian Rockies.

Jasper is a small, blissfully non-commercial town situated inside Jasper National Park, one of Canada’s 15 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Step inside the 100-year-old visitors centre to find out about the myriad of things to do here – hiking, rafting, hot springs, wildlife tours, horseback riding, boating, camping, festivals, bear safety tips (yes, they are abundant here!) and… Harley motorcycle tours. The park is renowned for its 8,100-foot-high SkyTram, the longest and highest guided aerial tramway in Canada, with expansive views of six mountain ranges, glacial-fed lakes and its annual Dark Sky Festival (October 17-26.) At almost 11,000 square kilometres, Jasper National Park is the second largest Dark Sky Preserve in the world and has nearly zero-light pollution.

now motorbikes for the pair of us

now motorbikes for the pair of us

In Jasper, we had another, even more astonishing experience than the segway when my tiny, motorcycle-hating mother radically changed her mind and pulled on black leather chaps, jacket and shades and climbed carefully into a Harley Davidson sidecar. Dressed likewise, I sat behind Gordon Jones, our professional driver from Jasper Motorcycle Tours, and wrapped my arms around his waist. Off we went, with a loud roar, eliciting stares and waves from bemused tourists on the street. This eight-year-old, woman-owned, sidecar outfitting business takes about 60 folks out a day, some in their ‘90’s!

One, two and three hour tours are offered and patrons can rent bikes and ride by themselves as well, with a motorcycle license. Note: there is a helmet law in Canada. “We don’t go roaring up to the animals,” Gordon told us. “We just coast up.” While we did, indeed, see a mother black bear and two cubs just about twenty feet into the forest, my biggest shock came when I looked down at my mother, finding her inner James Dean. Absolutely enthralled, she said, “This is the last thing I’d ever dreamt of doing. I don’t even recognize myself! I LOVE it!” Facebook was busy that night with posted images of us – and you bet we’d both do it again! We then went to a ‘don’t miss’ restaurant the cycle folks recommended. The L&W is a true find – a jungle of tropical trees and vines have almost taken over this Greek eatery, which dishes up delectable pizzas, salads, burgers and authentic Greek cuisine. Even if you don’t eat there, take a look!

Jasper

Jasper

Jasper is where the famed Icefields Parkway begins. This 142-mile stretch is truly a showstopper – with many roadside outlooks to view the gorgeous waterfalls, incredible views, wildlife and mesmerising turquoise lakes, coloured naturally by hydrogen sulphide and algae. New this year is the Glacier Skywalk, an addition to the VERY popular Columbia Icefield Glacier Adventure, both offered at the Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre on the parkway. Be prepared for long lines and international crowds and consider buying advance tickets. The Skywalk cliff-edge walkway leads to a glass-floor platform from which viewers can see stunning mountain and glacial vistas, while the drop below them plummets 918 feet to the Sunwapta Valley. This breath-taking experience can be augmented by the 80-minute Glacier Adventure, in which passengers take enormous Ice Explorer vehicles directly onto the glacier, even stepping out if desired to walk on the ice.

Lake Louise

Lake Louise

Don’t even think of passing by Lake Louise, one of the world’s most exquisite sites. My mother said she could not remember seeing anything so impossibly perfect ever before. A brilliantly turquoise alpine lake, sided and backed by glacier-topped mountain peaks, and fronted by the castle-like Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, rainbows of flowers on all sides, what could be more beautiful? Indeed, some 10-16,000 visitors come each day in the summer to view it. Come early to avoid those crowds, and if you take one of the many hikes there, you’ll likely escape them as well. Most are just star-struck gazing at the view, understandably. If you like, visit the glorious hotel for a bite, or take in high tea (a very pampering and delicious respite.)

celebrating Canada Day in Banff

celebrating Canada Day in Banff

Our last days were spent in the friendly, clean town of Banff – where we enjoyed seeing how Canadians celebrate Canada Day on July 1. Banff is a delight – with a pretty hot springs pool up on the mountain canoeing, a bevy of shops, excellent world-class restaurants, the blissful ‘Hoo Doo’ hiking trail up on Tunnel Mountain, and various worthwhile museums. We spent a day enjoying the festivities of Canada Day, including ethnic dances in the town park, a charming parade, various booths, and people watching (red and white maple-leaf costumes galore.) We felt welcome and included. At eleven, when the sun finally set, the town gazed up at spectacular fireworks.

My mother shares my passion for wildlife viewing, so I thought a trip to Alberta would be a perfect “multi-generational trip” to share with her. I was right – in just one week, we saw black bears, grizzlies, bison, elk, mountain goats, big horn sheep, deer, ravens (and can only imagine how many caribou, moose, marmots, picas, eagles, mountain lions and others were spying on us!) My mom surprised me, and most of all, herself, with her suddenly adventuresome spirit, participating in some activities that she had either never done, or had experienced decades before. Alberta’s incredibly dense forests, emerald green meadows and exquisite natural beauty motivated her to take chances, to see and do. And somehow, yes, we remembered to breathe.

For more about Alberta, click here.

 

 

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