currently living in Kleinwalsertal, Austria.
British Columbia, Canada, seemed especially intriguing to us. Nature is at her most generous with mountains, forests, lakes and the ocean, and a climate with all the seasons that we love. All kinds of outdoor activities possible. People are kind and welcoming, and speaking the language is easier for us than in the Alps! More than a destination for travel, we could imagine living here.
Starting from Vancouver after a commitment, our plan had been to explore the nearby mountain ranges with our own bikes, and cover the longer distances with buses. However, not everything happens according to plan… instead we happened upon two road trips. The first was a rainforest tour around Vancouver Island (separate gallery). With a short break in Squamish, we then continued on a second fast-pace road trip to the national parks of the Canadian Rockies; in particular Banff and Jasper.
Their number plates tell a story, and we would come to see truth in it: Welcome to "Beautiful British Columbia"!
A great place for base camp, Squamish is a small town and municipality north of Vancouver, deriving its name from the indigenous people whose homeland includes Squamish and other parts of the west coast.
Squamish town is bordered by Howe Sound to the south and by mountains all around, and the region is hugely popular for outdoor enthusiasts. It is world-famous for the granite rock climbing on the guardian rock dome Stawamus Chief, but also tempts with superb mountainbiking, hiking and trail running, kiteboarding and windsurfing, backcountry skiing in winter and more.
With so many visitors sharing a love for the outdoors, it's also easy to find tour partners or climbing buddies. We met wonderful people at the tiny Zen-hostel in town, having no idea yet that these new friendships would send us on an exciting kayak journey along Squamish River, conjure great company for a hike to Watersprite Lake and offer invaluable help to plan our spontaneous trip to the Canadian Rockies. Had we stayed longer, I'm sure that climbing on the Chief would have been a possibility, too.
The tiny hostel is also where we met Ray. A warm-hearted, truth-telling native son of a chief, he opened our eyes to the indigenous history and the suffering brought on by the government and corporations over many generations. Long into the night, to the flicker of candle light, Ray revealed the still sore open wounds of the "residential schools" that his brothers and sisters were forced to endure, and the battles he has fought and is now fighting for the people and their culture and heritage. Their struggles are linked, too, with the land where they have always lived - ancient rainforests protecting unique ecosystems. Land that should rightfully be theirs is still being pillaged; ancient trees logged and watersheds destroyed. Up until relatively recently, too few even knew or cared about the indigenous rights, and now, much of the abundance and ancient heritage is already lost. But there are still ancient forests worth protecting - and it's up to all of us.
His openness and ability to forgive is awe-inspiring, but theirs is a heartbreaking story that we need to finally listen to, acknowledge and act upon.
BC National Parks
As much as we love Squamish, an itching impulse begged us to move on and explore other parts of BC. It is a 800 kilometer drive north-east to our next goal, Jasper National Park in the Canadian Rocky Mountains - fortunately, much of that long distance is scenic and invites to stop to enjoy the mountain views.
When arriving to the gates of the national parks, one first needs to purchase a permit for every day within them. It's expensive, at least for the number of days we had in mind (6 days) - but if that's the price tag for keeping nature wild it is worthy of our gold.
There are a number of national and provincial parks around. Jasper and Banff National Parks share borders at famous Columbia Icefield, roughly mid-way between Jasper and Banff towns along the Continental Divide. The two parks are linked together by Icefields Parkway, of which Lonely Planet says:
"Considered one of the most scenic drives in North America, the Icefields Pkwy is a mélange of cascading waterfalls and spectacularly carved peaks, whose crowning glory is the glistening Columbia Icefield on the park's southern limit. It measures 230 km from Jasper town to Lake Louise; a 108 km segment of the route traverses Jasper National Park, incorporating some of the region's star attractions."
In truth, it is a remarkable drive in both directions. We decided to start at the north-east corner of Jasper and work our way south along Icefields Parkway, with a few detours. From Banff later on, another highway leads out and back to Vancouver. It will be another 810 kilometers of travel passing through smaller national and provincial parks.
It was now late June, but the Rockies was still under snow at high altitude. As the weather was unstable, we opted to keep mostly to lower altitudes. We'd love to return sometime later in the summer season for a different view of these mountains - perhaps with climbing gear. On the other hand there was no shortage of accessible hikes in June - both parks offer a huge selection of trails for all abilities.
In early morning on our first day in Jasper, we traveled to famous Maligne Lake, hoping to find the water table placid before the winds of day and crowds gathering for their ferry rides. It was a good plan, but the drive itself was too scenic to resist stopping.
Maligne Lake Road is one of the most popular in Jasper. The road runs along the shores of dramatic Medicine Lake, bordered by rocky mountain slopes and (presently) burnt forests. Apart from lakes one may spot wolf, bear, moose or caribou along the road, and we also enjoyed a quick and accessible hike along Maligne Canyon, up to 50 meter deep one of the greatest around. The canyon is crossed with 6 bridges for a better view to its depth and the hike distance easily adjusted to taste - you could probably spend the day there if the usual end destination, Maligne Lake, is too crowded.
Unfortunately, by the time we reached Maligne Lake it had already started raining. Not needing more photos of gray and white, we regrouped with a short hike to Moose Lake (spotting mule deer instead of moose) until it had cleared. Then, the Bald Hills trail led us up and above Maligne Lake to the open summit of Bald Hills, a 10 km climb with 500 meter gain rewarded by fine views all around, not least the lake beneath.
Later that same day, Sulphur Skyline would become our favorite hike of this entire Rockies journey. Starting around 7-8 p.m. we were a bit late to the game, but our legs took off for a refreshing trail run before our heads had sorted out if this was really such a good idea. 700 vertical meters and 50 minutes later, we got to enjoy the setting sun over an indescribable panorama all around. It's a rather remote corner of the park with valleys left as wild as the proud peaks surrounding them. Many mountains are colorful, now lit with the last rays of light shooting through a moody sky. What an end-of-day drama!
To such an eventful day, a long relaxing bath in the Miette Hot Springs, right at the foot of the mountain, is a superb way to end!
While travelling along Icefields Parkway and detours is awe-inspiring, another absolute highlight on our journey was the area around Moraine Lake and Louise Lake. Their lakeshores might be the most well-known and frequented in all of Banff National Park, but there's also abundant hiking in the area. At the Consolation Lakes we were fortunate to come before the buffalo berry season, as apparently it is then required to hike in groups of four people or more. Plain of Six Glaciers trail begins along Louise Lake and climbs to the very foot of Victoria Glacier, perhaps especially intriguing if one has never been up close to one before. Most spectacular to us, though, was the Larch Valley to Paradise Valley hike.
Usually done as separate day hikes, Larch Valley and Paradise Valley are connected by the Sentinel Pass, and a round tour adds up to about 18 km and 730 m gain - fully within the scope of one day for a fit hiker. Leaving our car at the small Paradise Valley lot, we managed to catch a taxi-bus to Moraine Lake where the hike starts. One passes through Larch forest and meadows before the trail begins to climb. The hike soon becomes alpine in character as it follows a switchback path on scree, traversing a few snowfields towards the pass. Although we had started in summer warmth and sunshine, by the time we reached Sentinel Pass it was snowing. As we hurriedly descended into Paradise Valley, the snow turned to hail, and then rain. I would lie to say it was a comfy ride. Nonetheless, the round tour is highly enjoyable given some alpine experience, as it offers dramatic views of pinnacled ridges and high snow-capped summits, glaciers and the bright green larch forests far below.
With this and other little adventures, we had reached the southern end of the park. As the road was coming to an end, so the weather deteriorated - a murky conspiracy to send us back to Vancouver from where we would too soon fly home.
Golden Ears Provincial Park
Even from the first week of planning this trip, we had wanted to run the Howe Sound Crest Trail as a grand finale. Passing several high summits on its course from Vancouver northbound along Howe Sound, the trail, graded "very difficult" is usually done in two or more days. But it would also be possible to run in a long summer's day if only the conditions are good enough. Well, we won't know, because our plans failed and something else would take its place - a signature characteristic of this entire trip. Markus cancelled as he was feeling feverish. Meanwhile I was bursting with energy and had to find something to do alone.
Fortunately, we had spent the night in Golden Ears Provincial Park, and a double-summit tour nearby already poked my attention. Alouette Mountain and Evans Peak can be reached in large part by a shared trail from West Canyon. It's a steep climb to both (and it only gets steeper!), gaining some 1250 meters in total on sometimes very slippery terrain (in part still under snow), but the rewards are superb panoramas over Golden Ears Provincial Park as well as surrounding mountains and Vancouver City.
It happened to be a very hot summer's day, the sun residing alone in a deep blue sky. I was grateful that almost all of the hike is in the shade of forest. And what a forest! Lush green second-growth rainforest with western hemlock, western red cedar and Douglas fir; trees green down to the roots with furry moss and the ground covered by ferns. A balm for the soul. I can highly recommend the hike - if you're up for a very steep climb.
Time, at last, to wrap this journey up. The lessons are too numerous to recount here, but we'll certainly remember walking with awe in the ancient rainforests. The heartbreak at seeing them logged. The excitement of wildlife encounters and gratitude at not meeting a cougar! Another heartbreak at the story of the mistreatment of natives, yet joy of being given their story in trust. Then, picturesque mountain lakes and gratifying mountain hikes. Always accompanied by a slight anxiety of never knowing where to sleep next night… At some point we will most certainly return to the gorgeous wilderness still present in Canada.
British Columbia entices the adventurous traveller: Roofed by several mountain ranges and painted with the greens and blues of forests, lakes and rivers, wilderness persists and is made accessible by and to the booming eco-tourism. Often forgotten is the traditional caretaker of these rich forests - the indigenous that have lived here for ten thousand years. Canada still has to work to close the wounds of mistreated indigenous peoples. Learning to listen and acknowledge, we may yet manage to protect and grow the wilderness that endows BC its allure.