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July 18, 2009

"Bienvenue au Canada"

It seemed like July 18 would never arrive!  After months of planning what would be the perfect two-week getaway, we were anxious to begin our vacation.  It's amazing how slow time can pass when something that exciting is coming up.

One week before the big day, we began the last of our preparations, by packing.  Now, packing for a two-week vacation is not easy, especially when you're limited to the number of bags you can check...unless, of course, you're willing to pay premium, which we weren't.  The trick, then, was to cram as much as we could into three suitcases and three backpacks and still keep the weight of each bag under fifty pounds - and not forget anything either!

On top of that, we had to find a way to pack our backcountry stove.  According to the TSA's website, backcountry stoves are not permitted in checked luggage unless they have been taken apart and thoroughly cleaned, to the point where they no longer smell like fuel.  Likewise, fuel bottles have to be either brand new or scoured in the same fashion, and they have to be packed with the lid off of it to show that it is clean.  Additionally, both items have to have a note, printed from the TSA's website, attached to them.  The note is a disclaimer, alerting the TSA to the fact that the stove and the fuel bottle have been cleaned to their standards.  Even after all of that, though, there is still the chance that the TSA will confiscate the stove and the bottle; we had heard stories of this happening.  We were fully prepared to buy a new stove in Canada and ship it home, if that was the case.

For the purpose of our trip, we purchased a brand new, larger fuel bottle - one that would hold enough fuel for a two-night backpacking trip - so we didn't have to worry about that bottle smelling like fuel.  The stove, on the other hand, had to be dismantled and allowed to soak for twenty-four hours in a bowl of dish soap and water.  Then, it had to sit for another twenty-four hours to dry out before John could reassemble it.  At that point, we just prayed that it would work once we arrived in Canada, because obviously we couldn't test it without having to go through that process all over again...

It took a lot of packing and re-packing, but in the end, we succeeded in packing everything into the six bags; and everything was under fifty pounds...barely!  When all was said and done, I relaxed in front of my computer and played around on Facebook for a while...

...and that was when I saw something quite surprising!  Dawn Rae - the person who organized the Rocky Point Skydiving Boogie every year - was also flying to Calgary with her daughter Lauren in seven days.  No way!  Throughout the week, she and I sent e-mails back and forth, and we soon discovered that we were all going to be on the same flight to Calgary on July 18!  What a great coincidence!

At long last, July 18 finally arrived.  Since our flight wasn't scheduled to depart until 10:18 a.m. - much later than we usually fly out on vacation, which typically occurs at oh-dark-thirty - we were able to take it easy that morning.  We slept in a little, took our time packing our carry-on bags, and even printed out our boarding passes and paid our luggage fees on-line. 

At 8:00 a.m., Janice arrived at our house to drive us to the airport.  Since we had so much luggage, we insisted that she drive us to the airport in our 4Runner, which was already packed and ready to go; there was no way all those bags would fit in any other vehicle.  (We weren't even sure how they were going to fit in the rental car!) 

As we entered Sky Harbor Airport that morning, we walked into a zoo.  The US Airways counters were completely packed, and there were several workers doing what they could to direct traffic.  We got into what we thought was the right line - the "white" line, for those who checked in on-line but still needed to check bags - but the worker standing at the head of the line directed us to the "green" line across the terminal because we had purchased our tickets on-line.  Okay...

On the way to the "green" line, we ran into Dawn Rae and Lauren, who were heading in the direction from which we had just come.  After exchanging greetings and hugs, Dawn Rae explained that she had just been over at the "green" line but had just been directed to the "white" line because she had already checked in on-line. 

"We did, too, and the lady sent us over the other line!" John groaned.  So we turned around and went as a group back to the white line.  The lady stopped us again, but this time John explained to her that we were already checked in and that she should have asked that in the first place!  She offered no apology for her misinformation but allowed us to enter the line.  (Gee, how nice of her...)

After that, things went much smoother for us.  The line to check our bags was short and sweet, and so was the line to get through security.  Once we were cleared, we sat down near our gate and chatted until it was time to board.

Our flight to Calgary departed on time; and about a half an hour after take-off, Mary and Dawn Rae traded seats - Mary went back to the twelfth row to play with Lauren, and Dawn Rae took Mary's seat in the third row so that she could have some adult conversation with John and me.  We spent most of the three hour flight getting caught up with Dawn Rae and talking about everything from skydiving to work.  She also mentioned that she was going to make one more attempt to get the Rocky Point Skydiving Boogie back off the ground again, in 2010.  She was hoping that, with tourism down in Mexico, the Commandant would be more willing to negotiate with them.  We'll see!

Around 2:15 in the afternoon - local time - our flight landed in Calgary, Alberta; and as soon as we stepped off of the plane, we were ushered down a long hallway towards Customs.  It was in Customs that we got our first taste of the friendliness and efficiency of Canada.  First of all, there was no line to get through Customs - none at all!  We walked right up to the first available window, where we were greeted by a smiling older gentleman who processed our paperwork and stamped our passports.  He had everything done in two minutes - quickly and efficiently - and he was very pleasant the whole time; the smile never left his face. 

From there, we were ushered down another hallway, to baggage claim.  Once we had all six of our bags, we had to be cleared by one more Customs agent, who, like the first agent, was efficient and friendly.  By 2:30, we had cleared Customs completely and were ready to begin our adventure in Canada!

As we left the Customs area, we said good-bye to Dawn Rae and Lauren; they were driving into Saskatchewan right away, to visit Dawn Rae's grandmother.  We, on the other hand, were going in the opposite direction...as soon as we had a rental car and some Canadian cash.

Getting our money exchanged was easy enough; getting our rental car, though, was another story.  The good news was, the rental car facility was located directly across from the terminal, which meant that we didn't have to wait for a shuttle.  The bad news was, the lady processing John's reservation was completely incompetent, and the process took nearly thirty minutes.  On top of that, John had to upgrade us to a larger vehicle - one that would fit all of our luggage - and that only made matters worse.  Mary and I were bored and hungry and annoyed with the brats who were wreaking havoc through the rental car facility.  We were so grateful when he finally walked away from the counter with a set of keys!

Once all of our luggage was crammed inside of our rental car - a Volvo station wagon - we set off to find food.  There weren't many restaurants around the Calgary airport, so we had to settle on Burger King.  It wasn't the best food for us, but at least it hit the spot. 

Having satisfied our hunger, it was time to leave Calgary and drive to Banff National Park, the first stop on our two-week tour.  Unfortunately, neither one of us bothered to pull up the directions on Google maps prior to leaving the house, and we couldn't use our iPhones in Canada - not when we would have to pay international roaming charges - so we had to find a paper map to figure out how to get to the Trans-Canadian Highway (Canada 1).  Fortunately, there was one in the glove box; it wasn't a good one, but at least it got us to where we needed to go.

The Trans-Canadian Highway took us through the city of Calgary.  En route, we passed through downtown Calgary and the park where the Winter Olympics once took place.  Eventually, the buildings gave way to rolling hills and farmlands that seemed to go on forever; and that was when we caught our first glimpse of our destination: the Canadian Rockies. 

The Rocky Mountains stretch from New Mexico to the Yukon in Canada, a span of nearly 3,000 miles.  (Some will argue that the Rockies actually stretch into Mexico and include the Sierra Madre range.)  It is in the Rocky Mountains that you will find the Continental Divide, which is the line from which water will flow either into the Atlantic or the Pacific Ocean - and, in some cases, into the Arctic Ocean as well, as we would soon learn.  (That is known as a Triple Divide.) 

Our adventures have taken us into the Rocky Mountains before.  In 1998, John and I visited the Rocky Mountains in New Mexico, when we camped at Jemez Falls.  In 1999, we spent our honeymoon in the Rocky Mountains of Montana, in Glacier National Park; we even had our first taste of the Canadian Rockies when we spent a day in Waterton Lakes National Park.  And in 2003 and 2006, we spent time in the Colorado Rockies, near Durango and in Rocky Mountain National Park.  In each of these adventures, we have been so impressed with the beauty of the Rockies, these grand purple mountains, capped with glaciers, with peaks as high as 14,000 feet. 

And as we drove into the Canadian Rockies that afternoon, we were awestruck by their beauty, their grandeur.  Everywhere we looked was another impressive peak, another intricate rock formation...and that was only the beginning...

We arrived in Canmore, just outside of Banff National Park, around 4:00 p.m.  The town of Canmore reminded me of Estes Park, CO - a quaint little mountain town with a rustic appeal.  While we were there, we stopped at a local Safeway to buy some supplies - a Styrofoam ice chest, ice, sodas, juice boxes, cereal and milk, and snacks to get us by.  Then, we went next door to the Safeway liquor store to buy a case of Canadian beer.  This would be a necessary evil during our trip; after a difficult hike or a long day, we wanted to indulge a little.  After all, we were on vacation. 

A few minutes after leaving Canmore, we arrived at the Banff National Park gate.  Once again, we were presented with that same friendliness and efficiency that we had encountered in Customs.  The park employee working the gate was very nice and wore a pleasant smile on her face; she greeted us with a friendly "Bonjour!"  We asked her for an annual pass, since we were going to be in the park system for two weeks, and she quickly swiped our credit card and processed the transaction.  In less than one minute, we had our pass and our receipt and were on our way into Banff National Park.

"You know," John said to me, "this wouldn't be a bad place for you and me to retire.  For one thing, it's absolutely beautiful here.  And you could work part-time for the park service, because you can speak both languages."

This was certainly true.  In Canada, as we discovered, most of the signs are bilingual, in English and in French.  For example, the sign at the gate read: "Welcome to Banff National Park" and "Bienvenue au Parc National Banff".  It was kind of fun for me to read the French translations to John and Mary, neither of whom speak the language. 

We continued along the Trans-Canadian Highway until we reached the junction with Highway 1A, which would take us to the Johnston Canyon Inn where we would be staying for the first four nights.  As we merged onto Highway 1A, John and I joked, "So...how do the Canadians say it?  Is it Highway 1-eh?  Or Highway 1A, eh?"  John would later ask this question of one of his Canadian friends...

We arrived at the Johnston Canyon Inn around 4:30 p.m.  As we checked in, we were greeted by a lovely Australian woman, who was very friendly and quick.  Within five minutes, she showed us where to find our cabin, where we could park, where to find the woodpile for our fireplace, and where the restaurant was located.  Then, she gave us the key to our cabin and sent us on our way.  We left the office with a smile on our face; we were really enjoying this!

The view from the front porch of our cabin at Johnston Canyon.  Wow!We were Cabin #1 - a two-bedroom cabin on the edge of the hill and overlooking the trailhead parking lot below.  As we parked our car next to it, we were stunned to see the view that we had.  From our front porch, we had an incredible view of Pilot Mountain.  That was the view that we were going to wake up to every morning; yeah, I could live with that...

We spent the next hour getting settled into our lovely cabin, which was absolutely perfect.  There was a living room with a fireplace, a full kitchen, two bedrooms - one with two single beds, and one with a queen - and a beautiful bathroom complete with a slipper tub.  It had a television set, too, but John resolved that we weren't going to turn it on during our trip; he wanted to see if we could go a whole two weeks without television, starting now.  "Why do you need television when you've got that?" he exclaimed, pointing at the view from our living room window.  He had a good point.

After we were settled in, we started discussing plans for dinner and decided to go into the town of Banff to find a place to eat.  On our way out the door, though, John stopped in his tracks as he passed by his backpack.  "I wonder..." he said, and he opened up his backpack.  To his great surprise, the stove and fuel bottle were both there!  What a relief that we didn't have to buy a new stove!

Mary stands at the Sulphur Mountain overlook.  Again...WOW!On our way into the town of Banff, we stopped at a couple of overlooks, to take in the beauty of the Rockies and to play with the new lens on our Nikon D80.  One of our stops was the Sulphur Mountain Overlook.  From there, we had a stunning view of the Sundance Range, which included Sulphur Mountain; below the range was the Bow River Valley, through which the glacial-green Bow River flowed. 

"Wow, that's a big river!" Mary remarked.  And indeed it was; the rivers in the Canadian Rockies were wide, glacial rivers, with swift currents.

When we arrived in the town of Banff, we immediately spied a very large mule deer, grazing in front of the Brewster Touring Company - our first of many animal sightings during the trip!  We had hopes of seeing as many animals as possible - even bears, as long as we didn't have to see them up close and personal, if you know what I mean.

We had dinner that night at the Rose and Crown Restaurant and Pub, a British-style pub located on Banff Avenue, in the heart of the town of Banff.  There, we had a delightful dinner, served to us by yet another lovely Australian woman who was very friendly and pleasant.  We surmised that Canada must be a prime summer work location for Australians, looking to earn a little extra cash during their school holiday. 

After dinner, we walked around the town of Banff, checking out some of the various shops.  We passed by one where we could sign up for trail rides on horseback; since that was one activity in particular that we wanted to do, we stopped inside and made reservations for Tuesday morning.  Next, we stopped at a toy store, where Mary bought a new Webkinz - a reindeer, otherwise known as a caribou - as a souvenir.  She called him Rocky, in honor of the Rocky Mountains.

"Oh, good, Bootsie will love him!" I exclaimed.  Our cat - who was now one year old - has a certain fascination with Mary's Webkinz toys.  He has a habit of stealing them and taking them into other parts of the house, treating them like they are fresh kill.  It is actually quite disturbing to watch, but it is funny at the same time.  The interesting part is that, he only takes the Webkinz and leaves the other stuffed animals alone.  We wondered what he was going to do, cooped up in the house for two weeks with no Webkinz to steal!

Before leaving Banff, we stopped at a local market to purchase some more snacks, in preparation for the next day's hike.  Then, we returned to our car and drove back to Johnston Canyon, to turn in for the night...

...Wait?  Was it night?  Although it was already nine o'clock in the evening when we left the town of Banff, it was still daylight outside.  John and I were prepared for this, but this was very odd for Mary.  It wasn't dark enough outside to go to bed...and yet, she was so tired...

Nonetheless, despite the fact that we still had daylight, we were able to fall asleep quite easily that night - after all, it had been a busy first day in Canada...

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