Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Jasper National Park

Medicine lake
Originally uploaded by raindog.

This is, without a doubt, the most amazingly beautiful place I've ever been to.

I switched my schedule around a week ago, so I have 4 nights here, instead of 2 as originally planned, and I am soooo thankful that I did, as I had fantastic weather the first day I was here and spent an incredible day driving up and down the Icefields Parkway. On my original schedule I would have been stuck in Winnipeg for a couple of days: Winnipeg is a fine town, but I'd already had two days there and I don't think you need much more than that to see the sights.

Jasper National Park is huge, so I rented a car and went to see Mt Edith Cavell, the Angel Glacier, Athabasca Falls, the Columbia Icefields - including a walk on the Athabasca Glacier, Maligne Canyon, Medicine lake and Maligne Lake. And along the way I saw ground squirrels / chipmunks (not sure which), sheep, some mad female deer who ran into the road right in front of my car, and quite a few male elk. .

As I was leaving my b&b last night to walk into Jasper I got about 500m down the road and passed a little wooded area behind some houses. I saw a female elk in there and went to get a photo - as I got closer I realised the small tree behind her were actually the antlers of a huge male elk who was lying down. The male elk are just coming into rutting season, so they are very, very dangerous at the moment.

It turns out the kids in the houses by these woods were all shut in doors waiting for the elk to go so they could go play in the park. After about 10 mins he eventually got up and went about 20m down the embankment and across to the other side of the highway, where there was another female.

This began about 20 mins of silliness with drivers pulling onto the side of the road, or even just stopping dead in the middle of the road, and getting far too close to the elk in an attempt to get photos. He put his head down and started little charges at a couple of people and a car.

He then crossed the road - straight towards me..which was a little frightening, and headed back up the bank to his original place in the woods, and I managed to get a couple of closer photos before he fixed me with a stern glare, which I took to mean "Don't push your luck sonny".

Magnificent animal - they harm more people than any other animal in the park, but I bet half the people asked for it by getting too close to them.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Northern Exposure

I have returned, intact, from my trip to Churchill, on Hudson Bay, and it was a very interesting experience.

Its a very isolated town (30 hr train journey or expensive charter flight from Winnipeg) of about 800 people, rising to 1200-1300 in polar bear season. That's pretty much all that I knew before I arrived, and I was expecting a quaint little town like in 'Northern Exposure', which is kind of what it is, but in its own different way.

It's a small place - you can walk around it in about 15 mins - and there must only be about 3km of decent roads: once you leave the town itself you're on dirt roads that get worse and worse the further you go. It's a tough place - functional buildings, a lot of which look the same even though they serve different purposes (a 'cocktail lounge' looks identical to the residential houses around it). The place is littered with the corpses of old trucks - school vans particularly - as I guess if something breaks down there's nowhere to take it, so it's left to rot. Outside of bear season - from the end of November onwards - when the tourists have gone and the severe weather is settling in, it must be a hard place to live and work.

It has loads of good points though: mainly the people, who are a really friendly and relaxed lot, and their main hobby seems to be belting around town on quad bikes, which looks great fun. Even though the local bar is a big barn of a place with no atmosphere the restaurants and diners are all full of friendly people who chat to you - generally about bear sightings.

The nature of the area is amazing too: great night skies, including the Northern Lights, thousands of Beluga Whales coming into the river every summer, loads of birds, the bay, the river, lakes and, of course, polar bears.

I went just before polar bear season kicked off, so I didn't see any bears, although there were lots around the outskirts of town as they wait for the bay to freeze over. They are getting bolder and bolder every year it seems - there had been quite a few coming into town this year. Those that come in are tranquilized and transported to the "Polar Bear Jail" outside of town, where they are held until the bay freezes and then released back away from town.

I love walking around places, but you are limited when the bears are around as if you disturb a sleeping bear you can become bear lunch. There were signs around the outskirts of town warning of bears, but I drove out to see the Ithica wreck a few miles out of town and walked down to the shore - a local told me on the way back that that was not a smart thing to do, as they often sleep in the rocks. After that warning I found myself getting halfway to a couple of places and then turning back because of the possibilities of bears. Polar bears are the largest land carnivore and can run at up to 60 km/h...they look cuddly in pictures, but would have no problem making a snack out of a stupid English tourist.

So I missed the bears and, more importantly, they missed me, but I had a great time in Churchill. I took a Tundra Buggy tour, I rented a 4x4 and rode around the place pretending to be an explorer. I think I saw an eagle, and I definitely saw Beluga Whales, which swam alongside and around our boat and then buggered off as soon as you pointed a camera at them :-)

I would like to go back to Churchill for the bear season proper, but also to see the place when it is covered in snow and the bay is frozen over - it must look incredible.

Eat at Earls!

Have you seen that episode of Seinfeld where Elaine notices that all the waitresses at a diner share similar "attributes"? Well, I think I found the equivalent bar/restaurant: Earls, in Winnipeg.

I don't know who Earl is, but his decision to dress his waitresses like Fembots from Austin Powers is a great one, and the fact that they're all gorgeous doesn't hurt either. I went in for a bit of lunch and thought I'd strayed into Hugh Hefner's private bar, in 1964.

But anyway, besides the obvious attractions there, it does good food and serves my current favourite Canadian beer: Alexander Keith's IPA, so it's a winner all round. It also ranks quite highly in my "bizarre holiday conversations" competition, with the following exchange:

Earl's Door Fembot: "Hello sir, where would you like to sit today: bar or lounge?"
Me: "Well, what's the difference?"
Earl's Door Fembot: "Well the bar has a TV, and lounge has a giant moose"
Me: "I'll try the lounge then thanks."