Travel: Fruits, Wines, and a Weekend Half

Two years ago this past weekend the world was a very different place.

The world was different enough that we had no issues hopping into the car, driving for nearly ten hours straight, and wending our way across the prairies, over the rocky mountain passes, and into the verdant Okanagan Valley in nearby British Columbia.

for whatever one photo is worth:

The official travel excuse was that I had signed up for an October half marathon in Kelowna. Yet my wife has a healthy collection of extended family who have located to the micro-climate over the past ten years and we were due for a visit.

As much as Canada sometimes deserves its reputation as a vast semi-arctic wasteland, even the locale in a radius hundreds of kilometers from where I sit writing this (which is frozen and snow-covered for half the year), there are places in this vast and diverse country which are fertile and lush.

One of those less-often-frozen zones is the Okanagan Valley, a longitudinally positioned string of deep lakes tucked between the high peaks of the continental divide rocky mountains to the east and the lusher coastal mountains nearer to Vancouver to the west.

The weather-stabilizing effects of this location and the nearby water features means that a climate zone amenable to ample fruit tree orchards and sprawling vineyards exists and makes the region both desirable as a home for hundreds of thousands and a tourist destination for multiples more.

I would move there in a heartbeat given the right opportunity, but two years ago we merely wedged ourselves into the tourist category.

Two days in the area was barely enough to get a taste of everything, though.

On Saturday we visited the local famer’s market in the morning, ate lunch on the pier, collected my race package in the park, wandered through a corn maze on a hobby farm, and visited a wine tasting at a vineyard (pictured) along the road to the house where we had set up camp.

On Sunday I toured a twenty-one point one kilometer stretch of waterfront and urban streetways on foot and recorded one of my better half marathon times in the perfect autumn weather, before slipping back to shower, change and pack the car for the push back across the mountains and home.

Our intention was to make it an annual trip.

A run.

A visit.

Good food.

Fresh fruit and great wine.

Somehow though, the last two years has made the world a very different place and, like so many others around that world, even nearby adventures have fallen to the bottom of our possibilities list.

Hiking: Johnston Canyon

During the summer of 2021 we took a pair of casual family vacations to the mountains. The first and more southern of these was a trip to the proximity of Banff National Park. Four nights in Canmore, Alberta a mountain town just outside of the national park boundary served as the staging point for a number of family hiking days in Canada’s keynote wilderness area.

for whatever one photo is worth:

The effort it required us to reach the trailhead of this meandering family hike belied the apparent popularity of this mountain attraction.

Johnston Canyon is among the original generation of tourist hikes in this part of the National Park. Where most hikes in the area are marked by a small parking lot and a wooden sign at the trailhead, Johnston Canyon had a large paved parking lot, a tourist information kiosk, a plumbed bathroom facility, a teahouse, an ice cream shack, a restaurant with a balcony, and sat across the road from a medium-sized hotel. All this roughly thirty kilometers outside of Banff, down a secondary highway (which happened to also be partially closed to accommodate pedestrians and cyclists during the pandemic) requiring a lengthy (but very scenic) drive to reach.

The canyon itself is the showcase of the hike.

A small river with a series of small waterfalls has spent millions of years cutting a jagged gash across the face of the mountain, and the multitude of family hikers walk alongside, into, and over said canyon in an effort to reach the epic upper falls (or further for more adventurous sorts with more time on their hands to complete the extra four kilometers in each direction.)

To assist with the experience of closely encountering the scenery (and likely to avoid losing tourists to off-trail tumbles over cliffs, et cetera) a large stretch of the path is composed of suspended walkways clinging to the cliffs, concrete and steel spiked into the granite and welcoming tourists to explore nature in a kind of sanitized yet surreal safety mode.

We strolled up to the various waterfalls, took many photos, and found ourselves carrying the dog along most of these steel walkways (thank goodness she’s only four kilograms) because the gaps and the noise were a little too overwhelming for her little puppy brain.

On the way up we seemed to be ahead of the bulk of the crowd, only meeting a handful of descending adventurers. But on our own descent we passed literally hundreds of people, usually in groups of two, three or four, often want to meet our dog as they passed, and all slowly making their way to bear witness to and snap a selfie with the marvel of nature.

I find that it is a conflicted sort of thing for me to visit these places.

On the one hand they are popular because they are amazing and accessible and worth visiting, and have been that way for a long time, allowing many people to experience something awesome and inspiring.

On the other hand, the Disneyland-style crowds one can encounter in a popular hiking area spoils the very thing that one goes there to see, the majesty of nature and the tranquility of such an epic space.

Maybe if it wasn’t so hard to reach, it would be more of these all of things, and probably both better and worse for it.

Half Ha Ling

This month marks a year and a half since our local area got caught up in the global pandemic that, among many other things, made world travelling near impossible.

We’ve made up for this by trying to find some room between the bad news, ever-shifting-work-life, and many cancelled plans to get away on some local escapes.

This summer was no exception, and over my blogging break we found ourselves in Canmore, a small town nestled into the Eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains, where numerous small adventures were had, including a certain last minute attempt to climb a very tall mountain.

for whatever one photo is worth:

Stand on the main street of Canmore, Alberta and look towards the towering range of mountains standing to the south of town and you wont help but see a prominent jag of rock protruding high into the sky, standing with a sentry-like pride over the valley below.

That peak had borne many names over the years and stirred it’s share of controversy for the same, but locals now almost uniformly refer to it as Ha Ling Peak.

We spent the better part of a full week in Canmore in July.

We’d rented a small hotel room near the center of town.

We wandered on foot to grab groceries or breakfasts or beer or silly thing tourists buy when they visit small towns on vacation.

We loaded up the car to drive into the wilderness to tackle family-friendly hikes with the puppy and the teenager.

We hiked, relaxed, and ate, avoiding the heat and smoke as much as possible, while trying to make the best out of a local vacation in an admittedly beautiful place to be trapped during a global lockdown.

On the last night of our trip, sitting on a patio eating an early dinner, looking down that same main street, my wife asked me if I’d done everything I’d wanted to on our little family getaway.

”I’d like to climb Ha Ling … someday.” I replied. “But I guess we’re out of time.”

Most people set aside a full day, starting early to climb to the eight hundred meter saddle, and a further slog up to the summit and peak. It was just after five pm and we had at best four hours or daylight left.

“How far could we get tonight?” She asked.

”I’m staying at the hotel with the dog.” The teenager objected.

”We could go up as high as we can and give ourselves an hour to come back down before sunset.” I suggested.

Shortly after six my wife and I were standing at the trailhead in our hiking boots.

There are inherent risks in trying a new trail of moderate difficulty outside of the normally travelled hours. If something goes wrong while you are up and alone on a mountain with an encroaching night… well, that’s bad news.

We knew we wouldn’t reach the summit, but being fit and adventurous we gave ourselves two hours to go up as far as we could then come back down. We agreed: we’d hike until my GPS watch read exactly one hour then we’d turn around and hike back down leaving a good thirty to forty-five minutes of cushion for the sun to set behind the mountains.

And off we went.

About thirty minutes in we’d reached the first viewpoint.

At exactly an hour I could see the second a hundred meters or so ahead on the path.

We reached the half way point up the mountain and a few minutes over the half way point of our agreed time. We took a blurry selfie with light failing on the the smoky vista behind us. And we hiked back down along the slippy path, found the car, and were back at the hotel before the last sliver of sun had vanished behind the rocky crags in the distance.

It may have only been half a goal but it was easily a full adventure.

Reminder: Blogs are not a replacement for professional advice. Please read my note on safety and safe participation.

Local Big

In merely one week I’m going to be packing up that little black truck in the background of this photo and driving north with a cargo of camping gear to spend some quality time in the Alberta wilderness.

(No) thanks to the pandemic it’s been two years since I’ve slept in a tent, and coincidentally that same tent will be pitched on about the same weekend in the same vicinity as when this photo was taken… two years ago.

for whatever one photo is worth:

It’s something of a running joke, or insider gag, that every local road trip through the rural country highways usually involves stopping for at least one photo with something big.

No… BIG.

An oversized bird statue. An obscenely large perogy on a fork. A life-sized UFO landing pad. Or the world-famous giant Easter egg, a Ukrainian pysanka, in Vegreville.

Or, for this example, a few kilometers drive from where we had been camping in the bush, we escaped the rain for a couple hours to meander into Vilna, Alberta for some ice cream and (of course) to pose with the World’s Largest Mushrooms.

Like so many World’s Largest objects scattered around Western Canada, the World’s Largest Mushrooms are a photogenic bit of roadside art propped up in a small park, tucked into a tiny neighbourhood, hidden behind the main street of a pinprick town in the middle of the Alberta prairie.

This is as much a kind of local hubris as anything else. For many of these small little towns, despite their small town beauty and unique identity in vast western expanse, the there is little reason besides a fill of the gas tank or a happenstance need for a meal to veer off the highway into their streets. They are lovely little places, but apart from a green highway sign marking their location as one speeds by at a hundred kilometers per hour, few people turn turn gaze from the road… unless as there occasionally may be, there is a World’s Largest… something… anything to be seen.

With some steel and paint and artistic license, any small town in the middle of nowhere becomes a tourist destination.

An excuse to visit. A reason to stop. A purpose for a day-long country-side road trip with a camera and a sense of local curiosity.

And of course, there is usually some ice cream close by, too.