Friday, 15 March 2013

Canada; gone but not forgotten

Howdy partners, I am now in the US of A writing from the very rainy city of Seattle.

Country number 1 has come and gone and it passed me by in a blur of snow and maple syrup.

So let's recap on the final few weeks of our time in Canada.
It goes without saying that there were more days spent on the slopes testing ourselves amongst the moguls and the jumps and for those of you who haven't yet seen our fabulous success with those aforementioned snow skills then click on the link below:

We were now at the weekend of Feb 16th and this was a Canadian public holiday meaning 'Family Weekend' in Banff ie. shitloads of tourists and snotty nosed kids getting in the way. Fortunately for us there was not one available hotel, B&B or hostel room in the whole town so we were forced to relocate to nearby Canmore for the Saturday night. It had been quite a while since I had been on a decent Leo Sayer (all dayer) so for me Canmore would be the perfect opportunity to get on it. After a short 20min bus ride between towns, checking into our hostel and then a wasted hour whilst AJ looked around the shops we hit our first pub of the day at about 3pm.
The bar was full of interesting locals, some of which made themselves known to us such as an ex-pat from the UK who had been living here for some 30 years and no longer keeps in contact with his family because "why should I visit them in the UK if they can't be bothered to come and visit me?" Once he had downed yet another beer off he went to his night job at the liquor store! Hmm, I reckon some of the stock may disappear from time to time.

In the early evening we slid from our bar stools and made our way down to the Drake Inn and this is where the real characters were to be found.
We were quite content to sit there and people watch but it turned out that we had been the ones under the microscope. A young twenty-something girl approached us from behind and declared that she thought we were such a cute couple and that is was great. As I turned to face her she looked a little perplexed and it soon became apparent that yes, she thought we were a cute couple, but a cute lesbian couple. Obviously we found this funny and it has not been the first time that I have been mistaken for a girl because of the hair but I am now thinking that maybe I should trim the locks as according to someone else in the Drake Inn it wasn't surprising that I was mistaken for a girl as I did have a very unique look! Still not sure if that was an insult.

It turned out that this young girl was herself a lezza and she introduced us to her ex, a fifty-something real estate millionaire who even though had been dumped by the pretty young girl still insisted on being around to 'look after' her once she had had too much to drink. Hmmmm, sounds like date rape without the drugs.
Later on that evening a complete random stumbled over to Arancha who was sitting on a bar stool and she plonked her ample handbag onto AJ's lap and asked her to hold it whilst she sorted through it. This woman was completely bonkers and ranged from touching and stroking Arancha's face to showing us photos of her boyfriend's arse and photos of her sons in a stoned state who she had been to jail for, but was so very proud of them! WTF.

We awoke on Sunday morning to the perfect winter scene and the snow did not stop falling for the entire day but as it was still public holiday we would need to wait until the Tuesday to enjoy the freshly fallen powder.
When we did get back to the slopes it was a nice to change to find ourselves on the yet to be explored Norquay mountain. The conditions were not the best as there had been limited snowfall on this side of the valley which meant that we were in for an icy time on the lower slopes leaving us with no alternative but to finally test ourselves on double black diamond runs - those allotted for experts.
Standing at the top of these slopes and looking down unable to see the bottom because they seemed to bend over themselves is very daunting especially as you have to carve a path down through moguls that are 2 to 3 feet tall but carve our way down we did and with some relief when we finally arrived at the base of the mountain. There was a real sense of achievement once we had completed the once untouchable double diamond run knowing that there was no longer any part of any ski mountain that we could not attempt (apart from those hardcore runs where personal avalanche alarms are required), so we spent the afternoon doing the same runs with each one becoming that little bit easier

For the rest of that week we continued to push the boundaries of our snow capabilities as we tackled numerous parts of the mountain that we didn't believe possible at first, many of which were practically uninhabited because the majority chose to ski / board the standard runs. To me it felt as though we were now really skiing and having daily adventures that would long live in the traveling memory. The only problem with launching yourself down a slope that feels vertical in its tangent or weaving in and out of tall and sturdy pine trees whilst on a 70 degree downhill is that the percentage of time spent on your back, arse or sprawled out on your front is increased dramatically, none more so than when I lost it on an ungraded slope and began to slide uncontrollably and headfirst down the mountain towards a worried looking Arancha who was perched on the edge of the precipice (not quite but it felt like it). Somehow I did manage to come to a stop and then completely knackered myself by scrambling back up to collect a ski that was left behind.
Fun though!

We were back around to Saturday and that meant 2 days off the slopes away from the weekend crowds.
After a lazy morning we took a gentle stroll out of the town to the Banff Springs Hotel, a sister hotel to the Chateau Lake Louise mentioned in a previous post. Basically it was the dog's ball-bags of a hotel with a view across the mountains and wilderness to match.
A superb fish and chip lunch was followed up by a few drinks and a some pool back in Banff. The resulting tipsiness led to Arancha making a 10pm Canadian time call to her sister in Australia (4pm the next day local time) and singing Lionel Richie's "Hello, is it me you're looking for..." as the receiver was picked up.
We had no idea who the groggy sounding guy was on the other end of the line but it seems that AJ entered the UK dialling code and not the Australian one. Result: AJ drunkenly singing to a random bloke at 5am UK time, and it was a Sunday morning. Poor man.

The following Wednesday was Arancha's birthday. I won't say how she was but I can say that she is getting on!
We celebrated by not taking a packed lunch up onto the mountain! Woo hoo.
We continued the celebrations by not having a Lean Cuisine microwavable meal for dinner. F*ck yeah!
Instead I took her out for dinner to the Grizzly Fondue Restaurant and we indulged ourselves in a 4 course meal and a bottle of wine. It's weird, when you are working you take eating out for granted but it is strange how quickly it all changes once you are a bum. This was a real treat for us and for that reason we probably enjoyed it all the more.
Course 1 - salad, who cares
Course 2 - cheese fondue with fresh garlic and bread
Course 3 - I had the 'Hunter' fondue - Venison, Buffalo and Wild Boar
                 AJ had the seafood fondue - Lobster, Prawn and Scallops
As always we shared our food so that we got to try it all
Course 4 - chocolate fondue with fresh fruit for dipping

All in all a great meal and it was topped off by 2 mini birthday cheesecakes and candles back in the hotel room. Before you think that we are pigs we ate the cakes the following day!

Friday March 1st was our last ski day in Banff after 6 great weeks but it was now definitely time for us to move on; we were becoming stagnant.
Our last day on the slopes was such good fun. The snow was falling like I have never seen before which meant bad visibility so we were forced to spend our day cutting and carving in and out of a brilliant tree route.
It snowed so heavily that day that 41cm fell over a 24 hour period. Trust that to be our last day so that we couldn't reap the benefits of such a snow dump!

Our final day in Banff was just an exercise in time wasting before we boarded the 8:30pm Greyhound journey from hell - a completely full 14 hour drive throughout the night to Vancouver. We of course had the seats with the limited leg room, even for 5 footers like ourselves and I reckon I got between 3 - 4 hours of broken sleep; which in the grand scheme of things isn't all that bad when you don't exactly have to get up for work any time soon.

We arrived mid morning and fortunately the hostel was only a 5 min walk from the station; unfortunately it was a complete shithole but it would have to do.
We moseyed around the city all day and I have to say that on first impressions Vancouver has it all. The city itself has a real look and feel of Melbourne combined with Hong Kong (due to its harbour but of course without the balmy climate), it is based over numerous pockets of land with the Pacific Ocean gently lapping up against the numerous beaches, national parklands and harbours with the all important Rocky Mountains up close and personal to the north and east of the city providing great ski access.

We stood around watching the sea planes coming into and out of the harbour and visited Gastown, the founding area of Vancouver. We had already noted that Canada's homeless population seemed to be here in this one city, and that is not surprising when you consider that Vancouver is one of the country's most temperate cities during the harsh winters; however we did not plan on walking into the middle of what seemed to be a homeless only market. They were literally haggling for a dollar over this piece of shit or that piece of tat and I have no idea where they get it from but they all seemed to be wasted on a number of substances.
I don't know why I found it so funny but I heard one guy asked how he was and in one sentence he replied; "..don't know, erm good, er, not bad." Clearly covering all the bases!
The only other thing worth mentioning about that day was walking around the Chinese garden and a bird dropping a large piece of soggy bread into my hair which got all tangled - yuk.

This particular visit to Vancouver was only a stop over and the next morning we boarded yet another Greyhound bus and made our way to the infamous ski destination of Whistler Village. If the drive from Banff to Jasper is one of the top 5 in the world then the drive from Vancouver to Whistler must also be in the top 5 or least the top 10. The coastal road along the Pacific Ocean dotted with pine covered islands with the snowy Rocky mountains rising up in the distance was spectacular.
We only got around to booking our accommodation in Whistler 5 minutes before we boarded the bus and it worked out perfectly for us. For 4 nights we stayed in the woods in a Yurt, a portable, bent wood-framed dwelling structure traditionally used by nomads in the steppes of Central Asia. Essentially it looked like a circular tepee with the added bonus of a perspex roof top allowing views of the nightly skies. Now a tent in the snowy woods does not sound like the best way to spend a few days but it was pure luxury as far as we were concerned. There was ample heating, a sofa, dining table and the most comfortable bed to date. Also due to its location it is quite common in the summer months to share the path with brown and black bears which would be a sight to behold.

Whistler itself is a snow sports lover's heaven, so much so that you can ski down the mountain for 2,000 metres and literally step off of the snow straight onto the village high street. The village is very alpine European in style and has that same feel to it as a ski town in Austria - especially when it comes to the après ski!
Whistler was also the location for some of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games and based on what we saw I can only imagine what the atmosphere would've been like during that time.

For the next 2 days we enjoyed the delights of the twin mountains. Day 1 was spent on Blackcomb Mountain and the sheer depth of snow made it very difficult for me to get down with any grace. A sign of how confident we were now getting was that for our very first run on an unfamiliar mountain we got off at the very top and then hiked up a little further so that we could ski the Blackcomb Glacier and then 10.5km back down to the start - what a run!!
The next day we explored Whistler Mountain but only after we took the world record breaking Peak2Peak cable car that links the 2 mountains and anybody with a fear of heights would not enjoy this ride.
Whistler Mountain had some of the best tree runs that I have ever been on but it was also a pleasure to ski the Olympic run from peak to base.

Whilst in Whistler we also had the seriously good fortune to stumble right into the path of the first moose to be spotted in the village in a number of years; an impressively large beast.

Before we knew it our ski time had officially come to an end and we were back in Vancouver for a final few days in Canada.
There was so much to do in Vancouver that we were spoilt for choice but we did as follows:
  • Day 1 - walk over to the public market on the arty Granville Island - there we had possibly the best fish and chips ever, watched a seal frolic in the harbour and bought some fresh produce so that we could finally have some healthy dinners. From there we took a gentle 2 hour walk back home along the waters edge in the setting early spring sun
  • Day 2 - we hired bicycles and rode around the perimeter of Stanley Park, situated to the NW of the city centre looking out over the Pacific Ocean before cycling through the interior to explore the rainforests within. We also explored Beaver Lake but unfortunately the actual beavers were sleeping the day away in the huge lodge situated in the middle of the lake. Still, the local turtles were visible basking in the afternoon sun as well as a number of eagles circling high above us 
  • Day 3 - we met up with a Canadian friend, Francoise whom I had met when I was in Nepal in Dec 2010. She was someone that I met on my first trek in the Himalayas and who I travelled around the Chitwan National Park with to hunt (purely to view) rhino's. It was really nice to catch up with someone that I had met in another time and place in another completely random location
I must also mention one particular guy who was staying with us at our hostel. For those of you who read my blog from my previous worldly trip and my time at Mt Everest will recall a chance meeting with an inspirational guy who was determined to become the first cyclist to make it to the top of said mountain.
Well Demche, a Macedonian born Canadian could have ben his older brother. This 'mature' traveller was just ending his 6 month cycling trip that took him through the mountains of Pakistan, through western and central China, across to Hawaii where he spent among other things 45 days camping on the side of a mountain because he could and then finally around western Canada. This guy had some real stories to tell, such as sliding uncontrollably down a glacier to certain death before he remembered to spread his body out to control and stop his slide before slowly but surely edging along to the safety of some more rigid rocks. As far as I am concerned he should be writing the blog and it is always good to see that no matter what age you are you can keep doing it!

And there we are, just 4 days short of 2 months in Canada was at an end. I managed to complete 26 days of skiing, skied in 5 different locations, saw glaciers, ice fields, walked through an ice canyon, saw coyotes, elk, moose and Muse in concert but what I didn't get to see was the northern lights, any species of bear or wolf or a bleeding maple leaf - so I guess I will have to come back.
Canada is country that has it all for lovers of the outdoors and nature at its most raw and beautiful and we only saw the south western quarter of the world's second largest country. There is so much left to explore but it must wait for the foreseeable future as we are heading south and south some more!

I will leave you with some final footage of our time in the snow although it isn't quite as entertaining as the one above, laters:


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