Adrienne and I woke up just before 11am, blinking blearily at our mountainous surroundings. Frost covered the ground as we crawled from the tent. We had arrived so late to Jasper National Park the night before that no one had been around to charge an admittance fee, or even check us in to our camp site. We had fortunately thought to print off our camping confirmations and knew our site before arriving.
Protip: ALWAYS have confirmation codes and campsite (etc) numbers on hand, just in case. Campsites sometimes have glitches in their system, are understaffed, or you may just arrive too late to check in properly. That being said, also know the check-out time for the next morning.
Our check-out time was, of course, at 11am. We hurriedly broke down the tent (unpleasant with bare hands and frost coated tent poles) and threw things into the car. We made it to the campground kiosks moments before 11am, only to find that no one mans the “exit” booth. We looked at each other with confusion, and then cruised on by.
“Well. I guess that was a whole lot of panic for nothing. Let’s make coffee,” I said, always a
|Jasper National Park|
priorities person. Adrienne suggested we find somewhere scenic to enjoy our breakfast and dry out our gear (which had been packed wet, again). That gal is always full of good ideas. We cruised north for a few moments until we spied an incredibly picturesque meadow, complete with picnic table, just begging for an impromptu breakfast. We pulled over and began a deliciously luxurious breakfast, gear repacking, and our first warm morning of the trip. The frost was gone from the meadow grass before we had even parked, and I even flirted with the idea of applying sunblock before throwing caution to the wind and preparing coffee, sleeveless, in the 60 degree weather. I live a dangerous life.
|Remnants of a colder time|
After our sunny morning, we hopped back in the car and began our drive south to Banff National Park, our destination for the day. As we left Jasper, we went through another set of park gates where we paid the entrance fee we had unintentionally shirked the night before. Leaving the park, we began what turned out to be one of the most spectacular driving experiences of our entire trip: the Icefields Parkway. This sensational bit of road is approximately 130 miles of gently twisting highway, unimaginably beautiful scenery, and the sort of nature that makes you sit up in your seat and say, “My, God.” We covered the route in a little under three hours with many pauses for photos, to stretch our legs, and to simply stand and stare in amazement at our surroundings.
|Looking south toward Banff|
We arrived in Banff with plenty of time to explore, and so checked into our campsite, changed into less-dirty clothing, and hit the town. Banff is a small-ish winter town, but perhaps is under-appreciated for how lovely it can be during the spring and summer months. As with many parts of Canada, the people were exceptionally friendly, the city well cared for, and the amenities pleasing and easy to find. We heard of another hot springs just outside of town, and so prioritized a visit there that evening (see what I mean about my prioritizing habits?). We spent several generally carefree hours walking around the town, listening to the many languages of foreign visitors, and marveling at the well kept shops. I bought my usual set of postcards to send, and then we headed up the hill to the hot springs.
While they certainly weren’t on par with our Liard Hot Spring experience, they were composed entirely of mineral waters from the springs, and it was delightful to lounge about in the waist-deep hot water for an hour or so. Afterward, we availed ourselves of the bathing facilities (goodbye camping grime!) and headed back to our campsite to enjoy a dinner of instant noodles with onions and avocado/turkey/cheese/Ritz cracker sandwiches. The campsite was slightly less empty than our
|Preparing food in our Banff campsite|
site in Jasper, and it was nice to have some neighbors and something else to look at besides the tent, trees, and each other.
The next morning we awoke and began our drive toward Yellowstone. Leaving Banff was nearly as beautiful as arriving, and we enjoyed the well-kept Canadian highways until just shy of Calgary, where the driving suddenly became much more stressful. Up until now, we’d felt comfortable with the speed limits and other drives. Now, the recommended MPH (or kilometers per hour, as they are posted) approached 80, and seemed to be more of a suggestion than a statute judging by the speeds at which passing cars sped by. Calgary itself, while I’m sure a lovely city, passed in a blur of freeways (yuk) and cement. We were spit out of the construction traffic heading south toward the US/Canadian boarder, and we scanned the radio for something other than country music (to little success) as we readied our passports for inspection.
Now, for whatever reason, I always have an awkward time with US/Canadian Customs. When passing into Canada, we were asked where we were headed.
“We’re going to Yellowstone,” was my reply.
“What’s in Yellowstone?” asked the customs agent.
|Thankfully Adrienne is photogenic enough for both of us|
“Uh…” Quick, think of a good and non-suspicious sounding answer! “Geysers?”
Like I said – awkward. They always ask some question that I can’t believe they’re seriously asking, and I always fumble for the answer. This most recent experience wasn’t much different, with customs threatening to confiscate our green onions until we could show that they had been grown in Mexico and purchased in Alaska. This is the one and only time that I will say “hooray” for a globalized food system.
After customs, we cruised into a new state (for me): Montana. I have long desired to lay eyes on the great plains and prairies of the American West, and I finally was granted that opportunity as we cruised into the low, flat lands of northern Montana. Looking out over the waves of grass, grains, and tiny specks of ranches and farmhouses in the distances gave me a great feeling of nostalgia for what this land must have looked like pre-Western colonization. There is a part of me that yearns wildly for endless, unfenced fields bordered only by mountains and rivers. While modern day Montana doesn’t boast quite such an untamed landscape, I could come close with the still stunning scenery and a little imagination.
We drove most of the day, admiring the slow but steady increase in classic American eateries and the general state of American society. Cowboys, old trucks, twangy accents, conservative politics, and flat terrain. I am always pleased when a place turns out to fit every notion I previously had of it, and Montana achieved near perfection in that manner. I could not have been more pleased by it all. As the evening wore on, we drove into the rain and windy mountains of southern Montana. We stopped just shy of the Wyoming border for groceries, and then crossed into Yellowstone country. The hour was late by the time we passed into Yellowstone National Park proper, and I was very ready to find our campsite and crash. Immediately upon entering the park (from the North entrance), we learned that our campsite was another 20 miles into the park along incredibly dark and winding road.
Protip: book campsites that are nearer to the gate you’re entering through when arriving after dark or when you expect you may be tired. You will thank yourself later.
We wound through the darkness (and passed the 45 degree latitude marker!) trying hard to spot deer in the margins of the road. Adrienne, I will say, was MUCH better at this than I was. On more than one occasion the silence was broken with a shout of “DEER!” or “ELK!” or “EYES!”, as the telltale sign of a headlight-crazed ungulate about to commit suicide on my car hood is the eerie glimmer of their eyes in the dark. We were doing well, slowly crawling toward our campsite amongst Yellowstone’s rocky northern portions, when a new, lower-set pair of eyes glimmered in the distance. I slowed the car, and we peered into the darkness to behold a lone grey wolf ambling out of the night. We stopped, agape, as the canine trotted by the car. If I had rolled my window down, I could have stroked his high back as he passed by the car. As the animal disappeared into the forest, we stared out the window and then at each other. Neither of us had ever seen a wild wolf that close before, and we both realized the extreme magnitude of fortuitous luck that allowed such a sighting. I put the car into drive once more, and we both sat in shocked and awed silence for another few miles.
Then, another pair of eyes. Then, three more. A black bear sow and her three tiny cubs appeared on the road. With our windows down now, we could hear the cubs yowling as their mother herded them across the road. We immediately stopped and shut off the car, leaving only the emergency lights flashing in the case of oncoming traffic. We watched her silhouette disappear into the forest and the sounds of her mothering commands grow faint.
|“For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People”|
The rest of the drive to our campsite was uneventful, but I will never forget the time I saw a wolf in Yellowstone. While we once again arrived too late to check in properly to our campsite, the site managers had left a packet of information with our name and campsite number taped to the office window (along with about a dozen others). Our only responsibility was to check in before the designated time (11am, I think) the next day to let them know we made it and weren’t a no-show (which incurs an additional fee on top of your camping fee).
We quickly and quietly set up the tent so as not to disturb our neighbors, brushed our teeth, and fell asleep amongst the pines.