Friends In High Places

I’m writing this in the back of Gina as we chug our way along the ‘Highway Through Hell’ to Vancouver. I didn’t call it that, the locals did. The first uphill has lasted 25 minutes so far. Poor Gina. We almost broke her in Nelson a couple of days ago actually. Fancying a hike out of town we attempted to take her up a 16km road so steep, bumpy and windy she started to make pitiful whining noises, like a broken kettle. We were forced to abandon her at the side and continue to the car park by foot, before ascending further above the tree line for some sandwiches near Lake Kokanee. It was a tough walk as we’d all been struck by the hangover bug doing the rounds in the hostel. Quite a collection of oddballs at the hostel as per usual, including a bloke on crutches who claimed to have seen Bigfoot. Upon further questioning it was revealed he had only heard Bigfoot, which seemed a little unconvincing to me. A bit like saying you once smelled Nessie. It reminded me of a bloke we met in Whitehorse who had seen loads of aliens. They always appeared at night in a spaceship that hovered above glaciers because “the aliens needed clean drinking water.” Suddenly the truth behind the shrinkage of the world’s glaciers was revealed! Amazing stuff marijuana.

We’ve been incredibly fortunate meeting other people though, with Ciaran and his missus Katie looking after us superbly in Banff. We played indoor football with all their chums, where the toll of 3 weeks on the road was cruelly exposed. It took about 3 days to recover. With both Ciaran and Katie working in hotels, they managed to put us in a very posh lodge for a night with access to hot tubs and saunas, while their pal Karl got us complimentary tickets on the Sulphur Hill gondola. The summit overlooked Banff and featured a weather station built in the 19th century that was manned by the same guy for 40 years. Sometimes it got so stormy up there the stone walls started to crack – this was before the gondola existed obviously, so there wasn’t exactly an easy way down.

From Banff it was a rather long soujourn to Nelson, which featured a brief ferry ride across a lake. I misread the ferry timetable so we arrived 10 minutes late. A two hour wait in the darkness playing headers (current record – 28) followed and we were finally on our way. The harsh crags of the Rockies gave way to rolling valleys and actual farmland and the hippy commune that is Nelson greeted us like the corpulent ghost of Lyttelton, New Zealand. Coffee houses, art deco organic vegetable shops, lots of guitar players and more coffee houses distracted us for a couple of days while our German hitchhiker looked for jobs to supplement the working part of her working holiday visa.

And now, with Gina heading triumphantly downhill (she drives much like the train in Dumbo) it is with a prominent doff of the cap we say thanks to Craig ‘Noodles’ Galloway and his lovely wife Shona for putting us up (or putting up with us) in Kelowna. Craig took us on a world tour of his whisky cabinet while we struggled with scrabble. He also introduced us to a local drink called a Caesars, which is effectively a Bloody Mary with sausages in it. The barmaid who served us looked like Audrey Hepburn though (cue me trying to impress her with my travel tales and her revealing she’d basically been everywhere I was hoping to see) so that was a plus.

Onwards to Vancouver then, where more old friends await and we finally bid farewell to ‘Zie German’ and indeed, to big old Canada!

Jasper The Friendly Host

“What’s the difference between an elk and a deer?” Asked G inquisitively. The hostel manager peered up from his laptop sneering, “Oh, I don’t know, that they’re different species? It’s like telling the difference between a cat and a dog.” So I showed him a picture we’d taken of an animal with antlers next to a lake. He paused for a moment before identifying it as an elk. “It has a browner neck and deers have a whiter ass.” Unconvinced that he’d ever seen a cat and dog in the same room we set off to Sulphur Summit, a grey mass of sharp rock that sits near Jasper and rather conveniently has hot springs at it’s base. It was to be our second trip to hot springs in Canada, the first being in Liard River on the Yukon border with British Columbia (whose welcome sign reads – “Welcome to British Columbia – The Best Place on Earth” – modest).

hot and springy

hot and springy

an elk apparently

an elk apparently

G the uber tourist getting his arse in the way

G the uber tourist getting his arse in the way

During that visit we came face to face with our second moose, this time a full-blown textbook bull moose, with antlers like climbing frames and legs like redwoods. We ran quickly and informed the nearest Canadian who took heed of our frantic warning like someone hearing of a blue bottle in their conservatory.

Later, we had to slalom through a bustling herd of bison, about a hundred strong. Round the corner a stricken lorry sat at the side of the highway, it’s whole front bashed in, bumper dashed across the tarmac. A rather more stricken bison lay in the hard shoulder. Wildlife is everywhere here, unfortunately humans are too!

Sulphur Summit in Jasper

Sulphur Summit in Jasper

Gina has been clocking in unbelievable mileage since crossing into Canada. As we’ve been heading south it has certainly felt like we’ve been outrunning winter. The routine for a few days was: Wake up to a carpet of snow. Drive south until sunshine and greenery in the afternoon. Sleep in a motel last seen in Dallas Buyer’s Club. Wake up to a carpet of snow. We’re now in Banff, sleeping my old friend Ciaran’s floor. The drive from Jasper was properly ridiculous. It holds up to the mantle of “World’s Prettiest Drive” rather well. Last night was Canadian thanksgiving, so we ate tacos and drank beer called Black Ice, which tastes of air but is 6.2%. Today’s plan is to go mountain biking and play indoor football with some locals – good job I brought my tiny 1995 Blackburn Rovers shorts. Game on!

Tok the Tok

Ah karma, you cruel little mistress you! In my last post I dared to laugh in the face of the Alaskan winter.  Silly.  Upon waking up in Glenallen (calling it a one horse town would be of great disservice to the horse) to a blanket of snow that was growing to duvet-levels under the perennial downfall, I realised how lucky we’d been over the past 2 weeks. Sunshine! In Alaska! In October! It was indeed a fluke. G took command of Gina like a great polar explorer though. The studded tyres we bought by complete accident proved their worth on the unpisted highway and we crunched confidently eastwards towards Tok. It was a long drive. Alaska is big. In the back, the Germans read out Spanish numbers from our Dorling Kinglsey phrase book and we repeated them, surely putting us in good stead for Mexico and beyond. The scenery had altered from the dramatic mountains and confident firs and pines of Kennai, to timid little saplings poking out of the snow, praying humbly for more sunshine. It was not to be. Tok sits on the last major junction before the border, go north to certain hyperthermia or go east to the land of maple syrup. Gina had had enough (she’s an old bird) so we pulled into a motel for the night. Tok made Glenallen look like Las Vegas. It was a one shrew town. Maybe a one vole town. We found the one open diner called Fast Eddie’s and ate a pile of pizza that should have fed us for a week. Even after we’d all been silenced into submission by the cheese influx there was comfortably enough left over for a doggy bag that kept us going the whole next day. You’d comfort eat too if you lived in Tok.

The next day’s weather was warmer and we strode buoyantly into Canada and the fabled Yukon territory, where Jack London camped out and saw enough to write ‘Call of the Wild’ among others. The border guard seemed more interested in our journey south rather than our passports and we continued on to Haines Junction. The plan was to get to Whitehorse but Gina had other ideas. It turns out she doesn’t enjoy being thrashed through gravel pot holes for a number of hours and let us know this with the ‘Check Engine’ beacon flickering desperately as I veered her up another hill. So we let her cool down for an hour, threw stones into an impossibly blue lake and nursed her to the nearest hub of civilisation. She’s doing well all things considering. Sure, the windscreen has a decorative full-width crack, the boot has to be held open with a stick (nicknamed the trunk tree) and her petrol cap is kept shut with a well-placed stone in the hinge, but the girl has guts. We’re quietly confident she’ll make California. Very quietly mind.

Whitehorse was our final destination and we dropped Petra off at the airport so she could fly home. We’re now down to one German. Upon dropping her off we picked up all her luggage (or so we thought) from the hostel and afterwards did some WalMart supplies shopping (the place sold guns, knives and kayaks but no fruit or veg) and moseyed around the town, which falls somewhere between an old gold-rush settlement and a washed-up tourist trap. We got back to the hostel to plot our onward trip only to find the owner and a bunch of backpackers in near hysteria. Someone had stolen a Korean girl’s backpack with all her travel documents and other worldly possessions and she was due to catch a flight in two hours! Crime in Whitehorse! The Korean girl was in full panic-mode. How would she get home? The owner was busy phoning embassies across Canada to aid her.   I casually checked Gina’s boot (safely implementing the trunk tree first of course) and plucked a strange red bag from her innards. “Who’s is this?” I enquired innocently. We were then subjected to a tirade of abuse and guilt as the Korean girl snatched it off us jubilantly and the hostel owner berated us for taking other people’s stuff without checking. It appeared we’d taken one bag too many for Petra’s departure. A free lift to the airport for the relieved Korean and some apology beers for all other aggrieved parties later, we all agreed that hindsight was a wonderful thing, ate some of G’s “wonder dish” veggie curry and are now planning to walk into the hills at midnight to catch the Northern Lights. We just need those snow clouds to clear…. Next stop, Walton Lake and hot springs!