The Great Canadian Road Trip: Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan to Banff, Alberta
Day 5 of 20
Free Firewood and Freezing Rain
Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan to Banff, Alberta
- Route: Trans Canada Highway 1 West
- Driving Distance: 9 hours, 828 km
- Favourite Song: Hopeless Wanderer, Mumford & Sons
- Quote of the Day: “To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.” Freya Stark
Moose Jaw to Swift Current
After an interesting conversation with European travellers over a morning meal at Wakamow Heights Bed and Breakfast, it was time to hit the road and say farewell to “The Friendly City” of Moose Jaw. I must have been out of my mind when I mapped out this driving day; 800 km to my campsite in Banff National Park didn’t seem like a big deal during the planning phase of this Canada road trip, but as I headed for the hills I was concerned I wouldn’t make it before dark.
As flat as the Prairies are, there are some interesting sites along the way. There are salt lakes and rivers throughout Saskatchewan, and when you come upon them it looks like snow covering the ground. I was unable to get a photo, but this is an example of what it looks like thanks to a Toronto to Vancouver bike tour blogger.
For practical purposes, salt resources in Saskatchewan may be considered unlimited. The principle source, and the sole source of present production, is the thick, massive halite of the extensive Prairie Formation in the southern half of the province. The Prairie Formation is also the basis for Saskatchewan’s potash mining industry. Government of Saskatchewan
I arrived in Swift Current in just under two hours, and after seeing the state of my car’s front grille and struggling to see through the hundreds of smeared bug splats on my windshield, I decided it was time for my trusted companion to have a bath. I passed a big casino on my way to the car wash; The Living Sky Casino’s architecture was part Las Vegas and part First Nations Longhouse. It would have been fun to throw a twenty in a slot machine, but there was no time for play that day so I continued on my way. I sound like Dr. Seuss.
Photo: Living Sky Casino
Swift Current to the Alberta Border
I enjoyed my time getting to know the Prairies but I was anxious to cross the Alberta border for many reasons. One, the mountains were my happy place and I couldn’t wait to be nestled among them for the next two weeks. Two, I was getting closer and closer to meeting ‘T’ after a very long decade of not seeing his face. Lastly, I was excited to return to sleeping outside, building a fire and making camp coffee.
Speaking of ‘T’ (see Day 4 if you missed the part about a man), I hadn’t heard from him and I was beginning to feel a bit wonky about the whole thing. Meeting someone after not seeing them for almost 10 years was a little out of my comfort zone. No doubt it was outside of his as well, and perhaps was the reason I hadn’t heard from him. I texted him this cheesy picture as I crossed over into his home Province to lighten the mood. I made a deal with myself that if I didn’t hear from him by tomorrow, I’d keep heading west and not look back. If I did hear from him, I’d make the 90 minute backtrack from the campgrounds of Banff to the big city of Calgary for a visit. My favourite Alberta song came on the radio, “Alberta Bound” by Paul Brandt, so I turned it up as I merged back onto Trans Canada Highway 1 West, with 5 hours and 500 kilometres to go.
Calgary to Canmore
The closer I got to Calgary, the more my stomach flipped.
I could see the faint, rugged peaks of the Rockies far off in the distance and as I’d anticipated, it wasn’t long before the mountains grew larger and more magnificent with every mile. The town of Canmore is located one hour west of Calgary on a good traffic day. I fell in love with it the first time “T” showed it to me a decade ago, and I loved it still. Canmore and Kananaskis Country is host to some of the most beautiful scenery I’d ever seen, knew the area was extremely special to him, and as a matter of trivia, was the backdrop for a few of my favourite movies; Mystery Alaska and Legends of the Fall to name a few. I stopped to stock up on a few groceries, grabbed a coffee at a familiar Tim Horton’s, and I leaned up against my car with a view of the 3 Sisters Mountain while I sipped on my extra large coffee. I took a few deep breaths and felt extremely grateful for where I was standing at that very moment.
Photo: Escape to Alberta (The 3 Sisters in early spring)
I had never camped in Banff National Park before and I was excited for the chance to do so. Banff is a post card mountain town and it’s usually full of global tourists 365 days a year. Although I didn’t have time to look around on my way to the campground, I planned to head into town the following morning to walk a small trail beside one of Canada’s iconic castles, The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel.
Canmore to Banff
The weather over the past several days had been nothing short of spectacular but as I got closer to Banff, the closer I got to dark, menacing clouds. I had reserved a spot at the Tunnel Mountain 1 Campground so when I pulled up to the booth, registration was problem free and there was plenty of daylight to spare. The female Park Attendant told me to help myself to the pile of free firewood a short drive away, and when I asked about the clouds, she said no rain had fallen. Yet.
My site was awesome and private. I was surrounded by towering pines that filled the air with their sweet scent and I could see the mountains through the trees. I was in heaven and I had hours worth of campfire to enjoy. It was only 6:30pm by the time I set up camp, so I took a small stroll around my campsite and discovered trails that led into the wilderness in every direction. Now where did I put that bear spray…
Dinner was not elaborate that night; it didn’t need to be. I was so happy that soup and herbal tea with a side of chocolate was gourmet enough for me. The splendour that surrounded me was so delicious that I didn’t need a ton of food to fill up what the scenery already had. I could have stayed there for days, but when I heard the loud crack of thunder at dusk I changed my mind. Just let me get through this night without getting soaked to the bone, I thought.
After several hours of poking at the logs on the fire, the cloudy night sky gave way to a full moon and the trees and mountains glowed in the night’s light. I was thankful for no rain and offered my gratitude by smiling up at the moon. It was approaching midnight by the time I could feel the cold, and I finally gave in to the tiredness that was invading every crevice of my body. After the last log turned to red and white coals, I grabbed some extra clothes for warmth and zipped myself into the tent for the night. Tomorrow was going to be a big day and I didn’t want to look as if I’d been up half the night. As I drifted off to sleep I heard the gentle sound of rain and I felt peaceful. Good timing.
A little while later I awoke to the sound of a torrential downpour. It was 2am and I flicked my flashlight on to do a quick survey of the tent; so far everything was still dry so I fell back to sleep again. I was so tired I didn’t think anything would prevent me from getting a solid 7 hours.
Somewhere around 4am I was awake again and it was raining harder. I shone my flashlight to assess the situation and this time found water pooling in all four corners. The extra clothes, piled neatly in one of them, were already soaked. I grabbed my phone out from under my pillow and put it in my wool jacket pocket. I was sleeping in a full set of clothes and an alpaca sweater that I’d bought at a market in the high Andes of Ecuador earlier that year. Yes, it was that cold. The good news was the spot I’d picked to lay my sleeping bag; it was on slightly higher ground than the corners and figured I had at least 2 inches of water to go before I’d be soaked on all sides. Whilst patting myself on the back for finding the bright side, several loud cracks of thunder made me jump off my sleeping pad. I was somewhere between crying and laughing when the tent’s fly began to flap furiously in the wind. When I heard the rain turn to ice pellets, I pulled the sleeping bag over my head. I crossed every part of my body as I wished for a warm Chinook wind to replace the ferocious, ice cold monsoon that had descended upon me.
Day break came before 7am and I reached for my phone and began to text everyone I knew for some moral support before I had to face the weather and pack up my camp in the downpour. All I could think of was how tired and road weary I was going to look at my reunion. I retrieved my rubber boots from the trunk, grabbed a juice box and a granola bar from one of the bins in the back seat, and stood under my umbrella eating breakfast in the pouring rain. I watched a man and woman pack up their campsite a little further down the road before I heard him tell her to go sit in the car while he took care of it. Pffft. No sense crying over the fact I had to do it myself. I could be out of there in 20 minutes if I was organized, logical and didn’t cry about it.
I had heard from “T” the night before and we’d settled on dinner in Calgary around 6pm. I had an entire day to fill up, so I decided to go into Banff for a morning walk, a better breakfast, and then drive to Lake Louise for and walk around the lake for a few hours. He introduced me to Lake Louise, and I thought it would be poignant to visit it before seeing him again. I know. Sap.
As I packed up my tent, I dressed in waterproof couture from head to toe so I could properly play in the rain. I was so excited about a return trip to Lake Louise and my later dinner date that it didn’t matter that the weather wasn’t perfect. It didn’t matter until the rain turned to snow a few hours later, which is when I realized I had no snow brush, no mittens and no sense of humour.