real life

TRAVEL: Canada.

Lauren exploring Lake Louise

by LAUREN DUBOIS

I’m standing on the side of the road using the telephoto zoom lens of my camera like binoculars to scour the mountaintops.

“Excuse me, but what are you looking at?” asks a hiker with a Nordic accent.

“Do you see anything up there?” he asks.

And before I can answer him, he rushes on “Anything-special?A-bear?” The words fall out of his mouth in a mess of desperation.

I see the hope in his eyes. He’s on the hunt too. Like every other foreigner loitering on roadsides in the Canadian Rockies with impressive camera equipment; he’s looking for bears. We all are.

“Sorry,” I let him down gently. “It’s just some people rock climbing.”

He nods sadly and shuffles back to his car.

It’s day 10 of our trip and I’m still waiting for my bear experience.

It’s my one goal for this two-week tour of British Columbia and Alberta. I WILL SEE A BEAR. By the end of my trip I will have tried: ziplining, hiking, white water rafting, hiking, motor biking, cycling, hiking, driving, gondolas and more hiking; all part of my Canadian Safari.

I’ve done everything right. Followed every instruction.

Step 1: Dress the part

Shopping at Roots

As soon as we hit Vancouver, we head to Roots – the most Canadian of Canada’s retailers. I feel the need to look the part. No bear will avoid me for stinking like a tourist – no way. I’ll be such a local they’ll walk straight up and shake my hand. Plus it gives us our first

wildlife sighting: The beaver. Ok, not actually a beaver, but it has a beaver on its logo. And yes, it makes us giggle.Susannah the Manager at Roots, doesn’t even pretend to misunderstand our sniggering. “Yeah, I know about you Aussies. I know what roots and beavers mean to you,” she grins. She’s so adorable I want to pack her in my new leather satchel. It smells authentic and looks like I’m a hiker who doesn’t carry lip-gloss and a compact mirror everywhere she goes. I’m totally pulling off this new rugged outdoorsy personality. Thank you Roots.

Step 2: Find wildlife hotspots.

Our first stop is Victoria, on Vancouver Island. Our host Avril, at The Inn at Laurel Point tells me:

“People come to Victoria for two things: Butchart Gardens and the Whales.”

The gardens are lovely, but I’ve seen flowers. I have not, however seen a Killer Whale. Sign me up.

Most of the Whale tour operators in Victoria guarantee a whale sighting if you go between May and October.

ADVERTISEMENT

We head out with Eagle Wing Tours, and I‘ll warn you… they take the guarantee seriously. You will not head back in your allotted three-hour time frame if you haven’t seen a whale. They’ll stay out as long as it takes.

About 20 minutes in, we have our first wildlife sighting. We’ve stopped next to a rocky beach to snap away at a bob of seals (yes, that’s the collective noun for seals), or as our skipper Jeff calls them “rock sausages” – as in, tasty morsels that lie around lazily in the sun until a killer whale pops up and helps himself to a ready made snack.  They really are very cute, if not awfully lazy.

A herd of seals

Overhead we hear the bone-chilling cry of a bald eagle. It really is the creepiest sound. A huge bird swoops past and perches in a tree above the seals.  They’re not your average budgie. With a wing span of 2 metres and the ability to carry 6 kilos of cargo in their talons, they’ve been known to take off with cats and small dogs. Our skipper Jeff swears, rangers found a nest not long ago, filled with the collars of SIXTY long lost family pets. Ergh.

We head back out and it’s not long to go before we see the first dorsal fin breach the surface of the water.

I have to remind myself occasionally to put the camera down and actually look at the whales. They’re magnificent. And enormous. Their dorsal fins are taller than the average human. We can’t go closer than 200 metres in the boat, so the best view is through my zoom lens – until one heads straight at the boat. I feel a surge of adrenaline as it almost hits the boat, but then dips under the water and gracefully surfaces out the other side. You can’t top that.

Step 3: Head to the Mountains

Victoria didn’t show us bears, but that’s because it’s an island. With whales. We have to head to the Canadian mainland for bears.

At an ungodly hour, we’re up and waiting for a coach to take us to the train station. We’re catching the Rocky Mountaineer to Whistler. I’m beside myself…. This right here is a bucket list item achieved.

It lives up to the hype. The Rocky Mountaineer is a Canadian must do. You’ll be fed, you’ll be entertained, and you’ll travel along some of the most beautiful coastal scenery

you’ve ever seen.  Sadly the trip is only three hours. It’s longer than by road, which takes a little over an hour,  but it’s the only way to travel to Whistler.

Or, as it’s called by the locals, Whistralia. Thirty percent of Whistler’s population is Australian. The place is crawling with them. You’ll hear an Aussie accent behind every check-in desk, every shop counter and every bar. The mountain resort is a magnet for every gap student and perennial traveller Australia has to offer. Whistler wants it that way too – they target young Aussies to come and work there, because (apparently) Australians are hard workers and give great customer service (must be something in the water. I’m struggling to think of my last good customer service experience in Australia).  But Aussies are valued here, and they fit right in. There’s quite a few who’ve turned up for a winter of working the ski lifts and have never left.

ADVERTISEMENT
Exploring the mountains

It’s not hard to see why. Whistler’s like a winter themed amusement park. Canada’s Disneyland. The place is beautiful, clean and engineered for fun. Every square centimetre is designed to make your holiday enjoyable.

We’ve arrived in September, which is still Summer in North America, so there’s no snow. You’d think that would shut down a ski resort….. But when we step into the village, it’s complete mania.

Summer in Whistler is busier than winter; they’re here for the mountain biking. It’s an extreme biking paradise and the old snow dogs and ski bunnies have been replaced with mad bikers in full body armour coasting about on ridiculously expensive bikes. The ski runs have been replaced with dirt jumps and the lifts have been modified to take bikes to the top.

It looks amazing, but I’m not going up there. My last bike experience ended up with me flying over the handlebars on a flat stretch of road, and leaving me with a chunk of flesh missing from my shin.

I opt instead, for a leisurely afternoon guided ride around the park. Bike hire company, Arbutus Routes send us out with a bloke who laughs at me for two hours straight – I’m Australian and I’m not particularly talented at bike riding. He finds it endlessly amusing. Particularly when I chase down a tourist and knock him off his feet…. Complete accident, I swear.

We then head up for some zip-lining, which despite my coordination difficulties, is surprisingly easy. I mean, they strap you in and you step off the edge of a platform and fly across the top of the forest. But I can also do it upside down… can you!?

While I’m enjoying every single minute and every single bite I eat (pulled pork sandwich, I’ll never forget you…) I still haven’t seen a bear. Everyone keeps telling me I will; passing on their hot tips for the best place to spot them: “on the golf course”, “up on the mountain”, “in the gondola” – apparently they’re about as common as seeing a dead Roo on the side of the Federal Highway.

We choose the gondola and head up to the summit of Blackcomb Mountain. And for a moment, I forget about the bears. For the briefest moment, my mind is blank. I’m fairly sure that’s never happened before in my life. It’s an art form that men have mastered but women have never quite got the hang of. But sitting among the clouds, looking out at a real life screen saver – I’m able to be still and quiet… and calm.  Naturally, as soon as I notice my state of calm, my mind kicks back into gear “Oh my goodness, I’m feeling the peace, I think my mind was just blank! How did I do that? I should try that again…. etc etc etc”

I’m breathing in some crisp mountain air, when I see him. Not a bear – a chipmunk. Possibly the cutest animal in the world. Teeny, cheeky and lightening fast, you can’t help but giggle when you see them. I totally understand why more than one tourist has been caught trying to smuggle them out of Whistler (highly illegal though – best not to try).

ADVERTISEMENT

The next morning we wake at an ungodly hour to go for a hike. I’ve been told that bears are always hanging about in the woods in the morning before the humans come out to play. A two-hour hike through the woods gives me nothing but a slight irritation with squirrels that chatter incessantly (and loudly). I’m sure they were warning the bears off.

I’m starting to think the bears are a myth. Like it’s a big joke the Canadians play on tourists. That, along with “Try a Caesar. You’ll love them!”

A Caesar is a Canadian cocktail – like a Bloody Mary with clam juice in it. CLAM JUICE. And ho! what fun it was for the Canadians to watch me give one a try. Can’t really blame them. I guess it’s much like our delight at watching people screw their faces up on their first taste of vegemite.

The Westin

We’re staying at the Westin – which is one of the biggest resorts at Whistler and an absolute haven (they’ll even lend you some runners if you don’t have any so you can go for a jog. Service!). They also serve candied salmon on the breakfast buffet. Canadians love two foods above all others: salmon and bacon. And candied salmon tastes like a mix between the two. Can’t say I recommend it either (Thanks for the suggestion though Mitchell, I’m glad to have provided you with some amusement.)

I will recommend one eatery – ARAXI. I had, undoubtedly, the best meal of my life at this restaurant. I’m still dreaming of the Albacore Tuna Tataki. And the Raspberry wine! The restaurant only sources its produce from nearby farms – sometimes buying the entire crop from local farmers. Fresh fresh fresh!

The incredibly friendly Aussie girl at the Westin reception (I’m serious – is this where all our good customer service people end up? They’re not at home, that’s for sure) tells us to hit the Mountain biking trails to see some bears. They’re ALWAYS wandering along the bike trails apparently. With my aforementioned poor relationships with bikes, I opt out – but send the Husband up.

If you want to see a grown man act like he’s just learned he has super powers, send him up Whistler Mountain with a bike. I have never seen him so giddy. He’s not great with words at the best of times, but I try and get him to explain what’s so fun about mountain biking and his eyes just go extra wide and he keeps saying “Awesome. Awesome”. He didn’t see a bear, but I’m fairly confident he enjoyed his time on the mountain.

When we have to – very reluctantly- say good-bye to Whistler, we are very lucky to be leaving via Float Plane. If you can only travel to one place in Canada and can only do one really cool thing – go to Whistler (spend a few days – you’ll love it) and then fly back to Vancouver via float plane. The plane is tiny – just four seats – and takes off and lands on water. It stays nice and low over the mountains so you’ll get the most beautiful view of Whistler and Vancouver possible. I spend the whole 40-minute flight with my eyes huge and my jaw open. A local Vancouverite was on the plane with us and I was delighted to see she had the exact same reaction. She’d never done it before and her joy at seeing her own region like that was infectious.

ADVERTISEMENT

Whistler didn’t show us any bears, but the place is so phenomenal, I’ll let it slide. And I’ll be back. Maybe we’ll try Winter next time though…..

Step 4: Hit the road

We only have a quick stop over in Vancouver, which is a big regret of our trip. Vancouver is awesome. Truly truly awesome.  It’s hip, it’s beautiful and the people are priceless. We manage to squeeze in a “food cart tour” with The Tour Guys – except our guide is a girl, Jess, and she’s just about the coolest chick I’ve ever met. We head off to check out the food cart scene in Vancouver. It’s becoming a huge fad in America, and Vancouver is showing the Canadians how it’s done. This is no chiko-roll and hot chips affair either. This is gourmet stuff, served out of the side of a van on the streets of Vancouver. I have freshly made naan bread with butter chicken from SOHO ROAD and the husband has pork belly from Street Meet. Holy mother of all things tasty – this was amazing. I can’t stop thinking about the huge success these food carts would be back home. Any of our major cities would go nuts for them. Do it someone please!

Biking around town

Jess goes above and beyond and takes us on a special, ‘locals only’ tour. It includes some of the seedier areas of Vancouver, but I love it all the more for feeling like I’ve seen behind the Wizard’s curtain, and had a glimpse of the real Vancouver – not just the one that tourists are allowed to see. I’m so grateful – and it makes me love Vancouver more.

The love affair deepens when we meet Shauna, Susie, Trev and Jeff. Four Vancouverites we meet on a bus. They’re loud and hilarious, and like most Canadians start talking the second you make eye contact. As they go to get off the bus, they ask if “the Australians” want to join them for a drink. For some reason, we agree – and proceed to have the funniest night of our whole trip. We’re sitting in a bar on the harbour drinking Tequila and laughing ‘til our faces hurt.  They’re in on the whole bear conspiracy as well, telling us we’ll definitely see one – and also trying to talk me out of looking for a cougar (the animal, not the other kind). I agree not to go looking for cougars when they tell me I won’t survive the encounter. Susie and Trev own a restaurant in Kitsilano and they drag us there just before closing time. It’s an amazing little neighbourhood eatery that does some really special food. I feel like I’ve stepped into an episode of Cheers – there are locals sitting up at the bar eating Beef Carpaccio and chatting to the staff like old friends. We’re introduced to the staff and diners alike, as if we’ve all known each other forever. I wish with all my might that I had a restaurant like this in my neighbourhood. All I have is a KFC. Or maybe I just want to be constantly surrounded by Vancouverites….

ADVERTISEMENT

After our too-short break from the bear hunt in Vancouver, we set off for Alberta – the next province over from British Columbia.  We’re going to be road trippin’ it. People keep telling us the roads of Jasper and Banff national parks are the PRIME spots to find ourselves a bear.

The national parks are filled with cars – and motor homes. It seems the minute you turn 40; you need to find yourself an RV and head to Canada for a road trip. Every scenic spot we stop at has hoards of Aussies wearing leggings and ugg boots, doing the Canadian road trip in extreme comfort. The younger Aussies are in cars. Stupid us… we could have our own couch and toilet!

British Columbia is all about the wilderness, the vibrant cities and the environment. Alberta is about the roads. Long stretches of smooth well maintained roads with jaw dropping scenery on either side.

The Icefields Parkway is marketed as the world’s most beautiful highway, and as we make our way through Jasper and into Banff National Park, I feel sorry for my husband who has driven the whole way. I, on the other hand have had my face pressed to the glass frantically taking in every mental snap shot I can.

We stop in Jasper and straight away book ourselves in for a Harley Davidson tour. Husband gets the back of the bike. I get the sidecar. It’s the best possible way to see Jasper. Our driver Stan takes us on every back road he can think of to help us in our search of a bear. We seem to be coming up empty again, but then we see a huge group of people standing on the side of a road. A sure sign that there’s something lurking in the bushes.

Sure enough, an enormous Elk bull is rubbing his antlers against a tree. Stan warns us to stay back. It’s mating season for the Elk and the men can get a little tetchy if they feel their harem (yes, the collect women. The big boys will have 20 at a time) is under threat. We’ve been warned multiple times to stay at least 100m away from them. They’ve been known to charge at people, and you don’t want to get in the way of an animal carrying 20 kilos of impaling weaponry on their head.

The beautiful view

I move off to the side to snap some shots of the lovely scenery when I hear a rustling in the bushes. Out of the corner I see something moving. I look over and standing there, about 5 meters from my face is an Elk bull. Staring right into my eyes. I’ll be honest; a very unladylike word came out of my mouth. But then I picked up my camera and took a few shots. He tilted his massive head to the side and gave me a look, which I can only describe as “crazy eyes”. I wasn’t sure if moving would be a bad idea.  Suddenly, he swung around and took off across the street. I hadn’t been gored and I had some amazing pics. Success!

Despite Stan’s best efforts we didn’t find a bear. We did see a lot of wildlife though, and got to see the gorgeous wilderness of Jasper from the side-car of a Harley Davidson, which is surprisingly comfortable.

ADVERTISEMENT

Our next effort was not as comfortable. We went white water rafting in a river fed from a glacier. Which means the water was roughly 5 degrees Celsius. Have you ever been smacked in the face with a wave of water that’s barely above freezing point? It’s ….. refreshing. I was so desperate to stay inside the boat that I’m not sure I would have seen a bear if it swam up next to me.

A hot shower and clean clothes after than is heaven.  As I was revelling in my warmness, I heard someone running outside our room window. The husband burst through the door. “WOLVES” he cried, “I just saw wolves!”

He flung himself at my camera and ran back out the door. I ran after him and found him standing forlornly at the edge of the forest with the camera dangling from his hand.

“They’re gone,” he sighed.

I couldn’t decide whether to be excited for him or jealous. In the end, I’ve realised I’m just angry he didn’t get a photo. The disappointment was compounded when every single person we mentioned it to, told us how rare it is to see wolves. If only he’d had the camera with him…. Then it would be almost like I had seen the wolves. I may never forgive him.

My disappointment eased ever so slightly on our drive to Lake Louise the next day. I was in the passenger seat, turned 90 degrees with my hands pressed against the window, keeping a firm and beady eye on the side of the road. I WILL NOT miss a THING. It took about ten minutes before I was banging on the window. STOP!

A lone Coyote was trotting along the roadside. Like a slightly shaggier dingo, he was beautiful.

We spend our time in Lake Louise hiking and canoeing, and generally loitering in the forest hoping to be accosted by a Grizzly. We make friends with some ground squirrels, we hang out with some deer, we see a sheep or two (not normal sheep – they look like goats if you ask me, but Canadians call them sheep. Whatever.) But mainly we fall in love with the Rocky Mountains.

There’s something about mountains. They make you feel so insignificant. I’ve had the same feeling at Kata Tjuta near Uluru. When you’re standing and looking up at these ancient sentinels closing ranks around you, there’s no option but to surrender to their might. You can sigh wistfully at a gorgeous beach or admire a pretty lake – but nothing makes you contemplate the meaning of life like these jagged grey peaks, born millennia ago through the violent crash of tectonic plates.

Saying goodbye to Canada

The Rockies are formidable. Pine trees cling to rock faces, seemingly growing out of thin air, and once you pass through the subalpine and into the alpine – nothing exists. Just dirt and a few scraps of grass. Oh and the squirrels. Those cheeky buggers are everywhere. And there’s the inukshuks – ancient piles of rock, left by the indigenous people as place markers. Also built by tourists wanting a cool photo.

ADVERTISEMENT

On our last morning in Canada, I beg my husband to get up early and take me on one more drive up the mountain to see what we can find. We stop by the side of an open field to take a photo of Banff, stretched out below.

We hear the angry painful cry of an Elk and look down to see a whole heard crossing the field. There’s one massive bull and at least 20 ladies. And then I spot an anomaly – does that lady have antlers? There’s a young buck sneaking along with the group of women. He has two tiny prongs on his head and he’s dancing around one of the does. The little upstart is trying to pick off a girl for himself.

I’m feeling incredibly anxious for him. The men will fight to the death over their women, and he’s so much smaller than the Big Daddy.

A big group of Big Horned Sheep joins the fray and pandemonium hits. The Big boy sees the little punk and a chase ensues, antlers down screaming bloody murder. Sheep are scattered everywhere, ladies are acting all coy and the little one refuses to give up…. I’m holding my breath…. Eventually the boy is run off and the Big Daddy goes back to keeping his women in line.

I didn’t see a bear in Canada, but I’ve just seen a real life David Attenborough special. It’ll do just fine thanks very much.

Thinking about visiting Canada?

BRITISH COLUMBIA:

Adventure World has a Discover Cities, Sea & Sky Package including Vancouver, Victoria and Whistler from $1515.  The package includes 6 nights’ accommodation, return airport transfers, B.C. Ferry from Vancouver – Victoria, Victoria City Tour, Butchart Gardens Admission, Vancouver Trolley Tour, Vancouver Aquarium Admission, Sunset Dinner Cruise in Vancouver, Rocky Mountaineer “Whistler Classic” train from Vancouver to Whistler including breakfast and transfers, Treetop Canopy Walk or Ziptrek Ecotour in Whistler, Luggage handling at hotels.  For further information please go here.
For general information on travelling to British Columbia visit here,

ALBERTA:

Adventure World has a Rustic Cabins in the Canadian Rockies package from $1673.  The package includes 6 nights’ hotel accommodation including taxes, 7 days’ economy car rental, 2 breakfasts, 1 lunch, 2 dinners, 4 hours of horseback riding, admission to Banff Gondola, Lake Minnewanka Cruise, Columbia Icefield Glacier Adventure, National Park fees, Canadian GST, self drive routing, maps, itinerary and general information package.  For further information please go here.
For general information on travelling to Alberta visit www.travelalberta.com and be sure to check out their amazing Remember To Breathe video showcasing the best of the Rocky Mountain province.


CANADA GENERAL:
www.canada.travel

Lauren was graciously hosted by The Canadian Tourism Commission, Tourism British Columbia and Travel Alberta. You can follow Lauren on Twitter here.

Have you been to Canada? Would you ever visit?

00:00 / ???