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A Path Close to Heaven: Exploring the Canadian Rockies

For years, friends have been saying to me: the best trip I ever took was to the Canadian Rockies. Something about their faces when they say this – a certain dreamy lift of the eyes, a soft smile, a deep sigh — made me remember their words.

And so when fate presented me with an opportunity in the form of a wedding invitation from family to join them in Toronto at the beginning of September, I told my husband: “Let’s go!”

He was all for it. He’s an adventurer like me, and impulsive like me. But when I began at the beginning of July to research hotels in Jasper and Banff, to my shock I found almost everything was filled! Researching further, I realized why: September is just about the most perfect time to visit the area: after the summer heat and bugs, and before the snow, when the trees – like the aspens and the rare larches are turning bright gold all over the mountains.

So, first off, my advice to you is to plan ahead. Six months to a year ahead.

Being an Orthodox Jew, my permanent concern is finding kosher food. Let me say this: you will not find a single kosher restaurant in the entire area except for Karen’s Café in the Calgary JCC. But you will find lots of kosher food on sale in both Edmonton and Calgary. And if you are coming from Toronto, as we were, you can always go to Bathurst St. and stock up on cold cuts and cheese. In any case, you will need to rent a place with a kitchen and a refrigerator with a freezer when you arrive.

There are lots of places that offer that kind of accommodation. I also suggest you consider renting a camper, as there are excellent RV parks everywhere in the area. It has the advantage of allowing you to store your supplies and cook in them instead of schlepping it around in a rented car, which is what we did.

But since we didn’t go that way, I’ll just review what we did do, and how it worked it, which was marvelously.

So, back in July, there were still a few places available on and on private websites. We flew from Toronto to Edmonton. We stayed there one night at the Staybridge Suites in Edmonton.

This hotel was great! They gave us our room at ten in the morning. It had a full kitchen, living room and bedroom. It was located very close to the supermarkets with a full range of kosher food, including frozen meat, as well as kosher cheeses, and many other products. There were two such places: Sobey’s and Andy’s IGA. Sobey’s had EVERYTHING!

After stocking up for our two week stay, the next morning before leaving town we went to Bliss Baked Goods, 10710 142nd Street NW. We got there early while the doughnuts were coming out of the oven! Delicious! But you can only get fresh bread in the afternoon. The owner said she had lots of frozen bread she could give us, and she’d charge us half price. This turned out to be wonderful, as the bread was fantastic, and would last longer. The rye with caraway was my favorite with all those Toronto kosher cold cuts. But the multigrain and marble, the rolls and bagels were all equally great. We ate them to the last crumb and they lasted almost our entire trip. I tried a doughnut … what can I say? Bliss.

Edmonton itself had some interesting scenery. We went to the Historical Village at Fort Edmonton Park, a recreated turn-of-the-century village complete with a steam train and sweet shoppe, tents and tepees. Fascinating.

The trip from Edmonton to Jasper is about three to four hours. Nothing much to see, but an easy ride. Once we hit Jasper and the Rockies, though, we were in awe. The mountains with their foliage and cloud cover were incredible.

For accommodations, we’d taken a two-bedroom cottage at Jasper House Bungalows, which was the only thing available with a kitchen. A place nearby, Bear Creek bungalows, seemed more upscale to me, but they were sold out. We were only two people and didn’t really need two bedrooms, and it was expensive. But that’s all I could find. The second bedroom was more an alcove with a curtain and an extra bed, which we used for our suitcases.

Jasper House Bungalows

The kitchen was more a kitchenette, with the freezer being too small for all my bread. But the hotel kindly agreed to put my freezer items in their own freezer, which saved the day.

The location was wonderful. Jasper House Bungalows is outside the town of Jasper on the Athabasca River. Just a few steps from our little house (which had parking right next to the door) were the forest and the river. If you are there over Shabbat, what a lovely place to take a stroll. I think the location was perfect, near all the hikes we wanted to take.

Because that is what you do in the Rockies. You hike. Even people like me who don’t hike. Because it’s just the best way to see everything. We bought an excellent guidebook: Walks and Easy Hikes in the Canadian Rockies by Graeme Pole. He sums up the hikes – easy, moderate, hard (er). For some reason we chose a fairly long hike for our first one to Kinney Lake in Mount Robson Provincial Park. It’s about ten kilometer round trip. But the view of the lake was magnificent, and there are picnic tables to rest and enjoy the view. I admit on the way back my feet were a bit tired, but I was helped by walking sticks I got in a camping store in Edmonton, and my trusty North Face hiking boots. Please wear hiking boots and carry a back pack on these hikes. Take a fold up rain poncho too. The hike wasn’t strenuous and the sound of the river and numerous lovely sights kept our spirits high.

Kinney Lake

Okay, I was tired (I’m 68), but not exhausted. The next day I was ready for my next hike. We took it easy with much shorter strolls around nearby lakes. In the following days, we drove up to the top of Mt. Edith Cavell with its views of the glacier, and took a short, easy stroll (but dress for snow, It’s COLD up there).

One of my favorite hikes was Valley of the Five Lakes. It’s listed as moderate, but there is a lot of climbing, and we found some Israelis from Hadera who had taken path B and were huffing and puffing. My advice: take path A, which is longer but you see everything, and path B back, it’s shorter. Aside from the long climb up out of the forest, the loop around the five lakes was easy, fun, and beautiful. I LOVED IT.

Spirit Island

And of course you can’t miss a boat ride to Spirit Island on Maligne Lake in Jasper National Park. We took photos, but none of them do that little island justice. You just have to be there and see it on that crystal-clear water, the reflection of the high, snow-covered peaks and fall foliage surrounding it, the pine trees and driftwood and …. You just have to BE THERE, trust me on this.

The town of Jasper is beautiful, quaint and surrounded by mountains. Lots of RV’s. While there are many slightly pricey supermarkets, none has kosher food (but the wine shop did have Israeli wines), so we were again grateful we had stocked up at Sobey’s.

Now, there is one subject I should mention; bears. There are bear warnings everywhere. Because September is the month that bears are up and about stuffing themselves for their long winter hibernation with buffalo berries. The park rangers say to take bear spray and to make a lot of noise when hiking because bears don’t like to be surprised. If they hear you coming they will just get out of your way, you won’t even see them.

A grizzly bear on the road in front of our car

I didn’t buy bear spray. I probably should have for my peace of mind. But if you have to use it, the bear is going to be pretty close. I did encounter a bear, but luckily I was in my car. We were coming around a bend in the highway in Banff National Park and there it was! A young, shiny, furry, grizzly sauntering across the road in front of us. We stopped the car. I was shouting OMG! Until I calmed down enough to remind my husband to reach for his camera. The bear was just looking at us, not moving like he was thinking “Oh, this is interesting.” Finally, he loped off into the forest. Our photos are great.

But after that, I took bear warnings a lot more seriously. And when we went to Glacier National Park (long story, it was out of the way, and we only went because we decided not to include the US Glacier Nation Park on this trip, but I wouldn’t recommend it) and sat and watched a video in the Visitor Center explaining what to do if you meet a bear who is aggressive, we decided not to head out at all. Glacier – the Canadian Glacier – is for real sportsmen, preferably packing guns. Unlike Jasper and Banff, it’s not for hikers like me. The short trails we did try were rough and untended, and absolutely deserted.

Caution: Bears Ahead

Everywhere else, all the trails we took were packed with other people, because there are a million tourists in this area in September, so at no time did I ever feel threatened or frightened. But I did do some singing on the trail, and banged my walking sticks together to let any creatures know we were coming.

Then off we were off to Banff. Just before the Icefields Parkway, we stopped at Athabasca Falls with its narrow gorges and rock formations, and took a look at Sunwapta Falls as well. Worth the stop, clearly.

Sunwapta Falls

This took us through the famous Icefields Parkway. I would like to say this to mankind: Don’t die without seeing the Icefields Parkway. It is as close to being in heaven as you are likely to get on earth. The towering mountains caressed by low lying clouds really reminds you of dreams and fairytales. I won’t even try to describe it, except to say that I have never in my life seen anything like it. That alone was worth the trip. Some stop in the middle to visit the glacier on the special bus that carries you out there. But unless you’ve purchased tickets in advance it can be quite a wait. Instead, we used the rest stop to view the glacier from across the road, drinking hot tea and coffee and eating our sandwiches.

On the way there, we made some detours to gorgeous Moriane Lake and famous Lake Louise with its five-star hotel. You can see larches in Moriane Lake, but then you’ll have to go past the sign which reads “ACCESS RESTRICTED TO FOUR OR MORE” with a big picture of a bear. I didn’t take a step further on that trail as that picture was as close as I wanted to get to a bear, with or without a group.

And then we sped off to Banff.

This is a place like no other. A little town in the middle of a National Park. All the streets are named after animals. Towering mountains provide a glorious backdrop in every direction. Walking through the park in the center of town by the Bow River, you are likely to encounter grazing deer and other creatures who let you come quite close and seem relaxed and at home. The town, which consists of picture-perfect shops selling to-die-for goodies at tourist-crazy prices is great fun.

Lake Louise

There are also many tourist information places with very helpful guides. I was absolutely stumped about how to see the golden larches (I kept mistaking the aspens for larches but one has golden leaves and the other golden pine needles) until I talked to a guide who explained that larches can only be found high up in the mountains. But when I explained no, sorry, wrong tourist for a vertical climb – he was kind enough to steer me in the direction of Sunshine Meadows. At first, I was resistant because it seemed to be commercialized with a tour company insisting you pay to see it. But then I realized the tour company also provided the only bus up the mountain, from which seeing the larches was a simple stroll up the hill. I made the reservations for the bus online, giving a specific date and time, and we arrived in plenty of time. It was all worth it! What scenery! Unforgettable, once-in-a–lifetime.

If you are planning to visit Yoho National Park and Emerald Lake, try to arrange to see the famous Burgess Shale in advance (I’m talking six months to a year, maybe more, it’s restricted).

As for accommodations in Banff town, they are expensive and you’d better try to reserve at least six months ahead. We stayed at Rundlestone Lodge, which had a kitchenette, and it was perfect for us, walking distance to town. Other places with a kitchen are further out, so you’d need to drive in or take a bus. I liked being able to walk everywhere. But it was expensive. So after a few days we drove twenty minutes to nearby Canmore which is a beautiful little town with many suites containing kitchens to choose from at much better prices.

Rock Island Lake with Lyell’s larches in the foreground.

So that’s it, except for the snowy ride back to Calgary, where we got our plane back home. Thinking about it now, you could alternatively come in through Calgary and drive to Banff, then Jasper, and turn around and come back the same way. It would mean two drives on the Icefields Parkway – actually, a real plus.

There is a Jewish community in Calgary, so I suppose stocking up there on kosher food would be an option too.

My last word is this: having been on longer trips to places further away – like Chile, Brazil, and Argentina – I can confidently say that the scenery on this trip was far superior. So if you are based in the US or Canada, I’d say do this trip before you spend fourteen hours on a plane to get to some far-flung nature spot which can’t possibly be more beautiful or exciting than this is, in your own back yard.