Canada: Coast to Coast – East into the Rockies

“We came to Canada for the national parks.” – Juan, 27, Mexico

With every trip, there is always the potential for mishaps and delays.  I wasn’t an hour from home when the highway sign flashed that the Coquihalla (Highway 5) was closed south of Merritt.  A truck carrying hazardous materials had caught fire, rerouting all traffic.

That little hiccup sent me, and every other driver heading east, to Highway 1, also known as the Fraser Canyon.  I normally prefer the Fraser Canyon, the road more scenic and engaging as it twists and dips and winds its way along both the Fraser and Thompson rivers.  Unfortunately, the canyon would add two hours to my already planned 7 hour drive, leaving little time to stop along the way.

As I leave Hope and travel beyond Hell’s Gate (literally – it’s the name of a spot in the Fraser Canyon), the temperature begins to climb as the lush rainforest falls behind and I climb Jackass Mountain into the semi-arid grasslands of the Cariboo region.  This is cattle country, the hay fields irrigated from the nearby Thompson River.  Where the irrigation ends, the sage brush takes over.

Thompson River valley

The interminable rain and cold weather that plagued us all spring finally broke and high summer arrived overnight.  It was already 24° celsius by the time I reached Cache Creek and continued to rise as I entered the Shuswap lake district, reaching a steamy 31º at Craigellachie where the last railway spike linking the Atlantic and Pacific was hammered in.

The Last Spike

The craggy peaks of the Rocky Mountains begin to appear, snow-capped and standing like sentinels guarding the passage east.  Despite having travelled this road a half dozen times in my life, I am awed by the rugged beauty of the mountain range that extends the length of British Columbia.  The mountain road that cuts through the granite has its challenges, the remains of mud slides that had closed the highway two weeks earlier still piled along the side of the road near Rogers Pass, a reminder that such wilderness cannot be fully tamed.  I finally make it to Golden after 10 hours on the road, late enough that Gerald from the hostel called to check on my progress.

Mountains at Rogers Pass

I spent my second day at Lake Louise in Banff National Park, the iconic turquoise lake invisible beneath the ice that is only beginning to break up (featured photo).  Considered the birthplace of Canadian mountaineering, the first recorded climbing fatality in North America occurred here when, in 1896, Philip Abbott decided to tackle Mount Lefroy – and failed.  The following year, the Canadian Pacific Railway, which had built a chalet at the foot of the lake, brought Swiss mountaineers to Canada to train and guide climbers.  Mountaineering is still a predominant draw and a 2.4 km hike to the end of the lake takes you to some vertical cliffs, the permanent anchors driven into the stone an indication they’re well used.

Mountaineer Statue

Lake Louise was a summer destination until 1982 when Calgary won the bid for the 1988 Olympics. The resort decided to test out whether or not the area could also be a winter destination and never looked back.  The hiking trails become cross-country ski trails, the ice is cleared for skating, and ice climbing replaces rock climbing for the more adventurous.  None of these appeal to me, my preferred winter activity being a good book in front of a roaring fire, which is why I was there in May and not November.

I had intended to trek the 3.4 km hike to the Teahouse but found the trail snowbound and closed due to the high risk of avalanche from the unseasonably warm weather.  Not that the warmth would last.  Environment Canada issued a warning that there could be up to 10 cm of snow in the region by the following morning and winds in the lowlands up to 100 km/hr.  Weather in the Rockies and across Alberta can change in a heartbeat and if I had to hunker down, it wouldn’t be in the mountains.  I left the mountains behind and descended towards Calgary and the Alberta prairies.

Perhaps I’d have the opportunity to lunch at the Teahouse on my way back.  Weather permitting.


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