When I was a little boy, my wonderful mother told me all of these tales of distant lands where the snow was thick and where grizzly bears roamed wild and free. She told me about glacial waters so impossibly blue, and about mountains so tall and amazing that long before I started travelling and became infected with permanent fernweh (I’m still searching for a cure, ironically) I knew that this would have to be a place I would have to visit in my life. A lot of agonisingly average years later the chance came for me to travel to the country that had taken hostage of my daydreams for over half of my life; Canada.
Needless to say, my expectations were ridiculously high. Luckily, Canada is one of those countries that can just exceed every single one of them. I was on a very tight schedule when I arrived in Banff (due to having too much fun in San Francisco and staying too long (I hope you’re happy Julieta)) as I had a lot of places to see from my mother’s stories with my own eyes, and so I could only stay for a few nights. I arrived in Banff at about 4 am from an overnight bus, feeling like an accordion that couldn’t quite open. I walked to the hostel and asked the poor sleepless night manager if I could leave my backpack with him as I couldn’t check in until the afternoon, after which I asked him where I could watch the sunrise. He told me to go to a small lake just a half hour walk from the town, and asked me if I had bear bells or bear spray with me.
Naive little me had never heard of either bear bells or bear spray, I just presumed that if a bear confronted you that your only hope was the sudden appearance of Iron Man. He handed me a can of the aforementioned spray and instructed me on how to use it in case I came face to face with a grizzly. Now I love bears, they’re probably my favourite animals, but I was trying to control my bowel from creating an embarrassing situation as he told me all of the horror stories he knew. I would be alone after all, in the wilderness, in the dark with nothing but my wits and a can of liquid to stop my imminent death. The adventurer in me and the desire for natural beauty overcame this initial fear and sent me out to watch the sun rise over the most magnificent mountain range I have ever set my eyes upon.
On my way back to the town, no bears killed me. In fact, I was starting to feel disappointed that I hadn’t seen any. I found coffee, had a bite to eat, and returned to the hostel. The same receptionist was still working and he asked me about my morning walk, and then told me about a few more I could do until it was time to check in.
By mid afternoon I had completed three “day hikes”, racked up fifty kilometres, seen exactly zero bears, fallen in love with the nature and finally I checked in. I dumped my backpack on the floor of the crowded room and removed my shoes. I lost a lot of potential friends in that moment. I always complain about the people who ruin hostels for me, and well, I was a hypocrite, and I actually laughed when three people left the room with looks of pure disgust on their faces.
During my hiking on the first day I had grown this strange attraction to one particular mountain, and had stumbled upon the fact that actually I could traverse it. Day two started with me in the tourist information asking about The Rundle. They told me that they wouldn’t recommend it as it was a difficult “scramble” (some weird type of hike which is more like climbing) and that the snow on the top was very hazardous as I could sink down deeper than I expected or get my foot stuck between some rocks and become the main course at the teddy bear’s picnic, but it was possible.
Of course it had to be done. The first section was terrifying as it was definitely the inspiration for a yogi bear cartoon and I was alone, without bear spray this time, and pretty vulnerable. It’s amazing how many inanimate objects look like bears when you’re alone in the Canadian forest. I jumped when I saw a tree. After about an hour of scaring myself shitless I crossed a gully, after which my instructions were simply to “go up”.
The next few hours were the most painful experience of my life. If anybody has ever complained about climbing Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom for all of you uncultured swine who can’t pronounce that), well I challenge you to complain again after summiting The Rundle. Everywhere I looked there were absolutely fantastic opportunities to dramatically kill myself. I could suddenly slip on a narrow ledge and fall down either side to impale myself on a tree. I could pass out from heat exhaustion and slowly roast in the sun. I could break my leg on a boulder or bash my head absolutely anywhere. I could get eaten by marmots. I could be in a one man reenactment of 127 Hours and my pocket knife is by no means impressive enough to cut a tomato, yet alone a human arm. I could choke on the lettuce in my sandwich…
But I swallowed my lettuce and persisted to the start of the snow. It was frozen pretty solid so I had to use some footsteps (that I can only presume were left from the day before as I had seen absolutely nobody else on the hike) to stop myself from slipping all the way back down again. My boots slowly filled with snow. I was hot and cold all at the same time. I wanted another sandwich. It was torture.
But I made it, and when I got to the top I laid on my belly and crawled towards the rim to look down. I legitimately nearly threw up from the sheer height as all my childhood fears of falling came back to me. I nearly cried it was so beautiful. I sat up there long enough to catch frostbite in the arctic winds and then waddled all the way back down, narrowly avoiding death with every step. It may have been scary and painful, but it was probably the most amazing view I have ever seen, and I would do it all again.
I met a few people and we went paddle boarding down the river. I’ve always been one to laugh at the hilarious way paddle boarders fall off so I felt like karma was not going to be on my side, and once I discovered just how cold the water was after dipping my feet in, I knew it was going to end badly. Although I didn’t fall in, my newly acquainted friends all decided to jump in and dragged me with them. The optimist in me wanted to say it was “refreshing”. Actually, it was fucking freezing, albeit a good laugh.
That night they had karaoke on and for every song you sang they would spin a big wheel and whatever shot it landed on would be yours for the drinking. Needless to say, we all put our names down and waited patiently to be called out. This older guy took the stage and sang some Sinatra pitch perfectly to a room in absolute awe of his talent. He was so good they asked him to sing again, and the room erupted with applause. And then they called my name. My heart sank, I knew I couldn’t even be in the same league, and there I was in a room full of expectant ears.
My opening statement was “I’m only in it for the alcohol…” as the music began.
Now Stevie, if ever you read this (it’s funny because he’s blind) I can only apologise from the fathoms of my shattered soul for the sin I committed to your beautiful song “Sir Duke”. I may not have been entirely sober or in control of my vocal chords, but it’s absolutely no excuse for the auditory raping of your timeless music. My only salvation is that I got some free alcohol, but it was salted with the bitter taste of self loathing and disappointment.
I left the next morning to go to Lake Louise, feeling slightly sorry for myself (there is maybe a chance that I sang again and drank a lot more alcohol…) absolutely convinced that nothing could ever be better than Banff. It may have an absolutely ridiculous name but there are hundreds of hikes and walks through unimaginably beautiful and diverse landscapes straight out of the town. I’m sure that if you have a car instead there are thousands of things to see. While the town is a bit of a party place, it only takes minutes to be lost in the wilderness and breathing the clean Canadian air. I rate it sixteen racist pancakes drizzled in maple syrup with a side of crispy bacon.
Oh and I didn’t see any bears, not in Banff at least. Yogi decided to let me live another day.
– Tom @ indieroad