Hey, listen up all of you who told me what a long, difficult drive this would be, how awful the road conditions on the Alaska-Canada Highway are. In your striving to make sure I knew what I was getting myself into, you forgot to mention one thing: the drive is absolutely beautiful! Daisy and I are cruising through rolling green hills, thick forests surrounding hay fields, snow-capped Rocky Mountains showing off to the west, and tall, deep-pink and low, radiant-yellow wildflowers lining the road. I keep exclaiming “Holy cow!” out loud; I’m sure Daisy is thinking the same.
I’m not just saying this because today was the first day since Montana that the skies were clear of smoke. I admit it didn’t hurt that the rain shower that greeted me as I turned north onto the Al-Can left the world sparkling. For the first time in days I could see sky – and not just any sky, but a sky of the purest, deepest, truest blue. For the first time I could see the vibrant greens that surrounded me: from the richest fir bough to the silvery shimmer of the poplar leaves blowing in the breeze. For the first time I could see the snow-laced sedimentary striations of the Rockies and not wonder whether they were just my imagination.
There are over 500 fires burning in western Canada right now, meaning that I’ve moved along faster than I expected. No point in lingering when you can’t see the mountains in detail or take a deep, appreciative breath. But that hasn’t kept me from having a wonderful time. Glacier National Park was only slightly hazy and I had a glorious hike along a river with the most amazingly colored water. Not the typical chalky glacial blue, but an iridescent, lit-from-within, clear celadon with lavender shoulders behind the bubbly white crests as it broke over the polished river rocks.
Then I drove Going-to-the-Sun Road over the Continental Divide, complete with frolicking bighorn sheep, into Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park. I had a leisurely hike up the Red Rock Canyon then camped along the shores of famously beautiful, mountain-ringed Waterton Lake. Waking early the next morning to a smoke-pink sky, I looked up at the Prince of Wales Hotel, its gables and paned windows glistening in the rising sun, and I couldn’t help thinking of a medieval manor looking down on us serfs in the tents below.
As I travelled north, the smoke got so bad that I blew through Banff and continued on to the little town of Field in Yoho National Park. It is on the western side of the mountains and was mostly out of the smoke. I arrived at the campground with thunder and lightning as my escort and decided to look for a roof instead. As luck would have it, I got the only bed left in town. And I do mean bed – a lower bunk in a co-ed room at the hostel. It was a really nice place and the guests were terrific, but the best part was leaving. In the morning, when I said goodbye to the swarthy French guy who had been in the bunk above me, I shook his hand and said, “It was wonderful sleeping with you!” The expression on his face as the double entendre dawned on him and the laughter that followed it was worth it all.
From there I turned back into the smoke, north on the Icefields Parkway through Jasper. A fire had jumped the road the day before. Even through the smoke, with the Rocky Mountains towering above me and the glaciers pushing their aqua ice into the abyss, the drive was stunning. I hope someday to see it the way it is meant to be seen: close up from a trail with the textures brilliantly defined by crystal clear air.
There is a silver-lining to all this smoke: I’m making unbelievably good time. I’m in Fort Nelson already with over a week before I’m due in Fairbanks and only 1,200 miles left to go.
How’s Daisy holding up, you ask? Daisy? She’s doing great! Loving every minute of it. Doesn’t even mind the quarter-inch layer of mosquitos plastered to her front bumper. Or at least she doesn’t mind them any more than I mind the twelve or so mosquito-welts I’ve got in various places – even on the tops of my feet! Dreaded things got to me through my mesh hiking shoes and socks! Forgot to spray them with repellant, darn it. Oh well. Good training for Alaska, where mosquitos are considered the state bird.
What will Daisy and I do with our extra time? Enjoy Liard Hot Springs a couple hours up the road or branch off the beaten path and find a hidden gem maybe. Because it turns out there is another thing no one remembered to mention: Canadians are really nice. I asked the cashier at a diner if she could recommend a hike, and the next thing I knew she had maps out. Then she called her twenty-something, cute and hip son over to show me photos on his phone of the different vistas, which he did with startlingly good humor.
She told me to make sure, since I was hiking alone, to sing along the trail to give the bears fair warning to clear off, so I wouldn’t have to use my bear spray. It’s a recommendation I have received from others since. They are either truly concerned for my safety or they are having the tourist on. But as nice as everyone has been about everything else, I’ve decided to take their advice and am singing along the trail. My current favorite? Red Headed Stranger by Willie Nelson. I thought the bears, maybe even the moose (meese?), might enjoy the funny lyrics and the rousing chorus. I know I am.