O Canada! (Athabasca Glacier)

O Canada! (Athabasca Glacier)

by Jennifer Zhan, opinions editor

“Wait, you’re going to write a travel blog about Canada?” my friend asked skeptically. “Isn’t that like, America, just more north?”

I thought about that as the plane began descending through the thin blanket of clouds covering Calgary. It’s not like I expected an icy tundra where residents aimlessly wandered the land, brandishing hockey sticks and maple leaves, but I was eager to catch a first glimpse of our northern neighbor. It was foolish; after all, at midnight, aren’t all cities just groups of light stretching out, twinkling in the darkness?

I had little time to compare urban Canada and a typical American town; the next morning, we wasted no time in driving away. Our vacation included stays in Banff and Jasper National Park, both supposedly among the most beautiful places on Earth.

It was easy to tell when we entered the Canadian Rockies: suddenly we were surrounded by mountains. Because so many people have died while climbing, I thought I would feel small and powerless underneath the jagged peaks. Instead, the mountains were…dare I say, inconspicuous? They were absolutely stunning, of course — it’s just that after the initial wonder, they seemed to fade quietly into the background. They belonged.

I didn’t want to leave the first lake we went to; I wanted to breathe in the crisp mountain air forever, sure that if I took in enough lungfuls, I would never have a problem with asthma again. I felt I could spend an eternity looking out at the water that seemed unable to decide whether it wanted to be green or blue or something in between.

I quickly cheered up. In the Rockies, glaciers and rivers and springs ensure there is no shortage of lakes. We ended up visiting at least 15. While I found nearly every lake (sorry, Lake Vermillion) absolutely beautiful, they began to feel sort of the same. A lake that was a variant of turquoise, trees, hiking trails and of course, mountains in the background…we’d seen too much of a beautiful thing.

If you want to protect yourself from lake desensitization, I still recommend checking out Banff’s Lake Louise (take the Plain of Six Glaciers Trail — it’s a relatively easy hike, and you get a nice view the entire way up and can relax at the teahouse at the top). Like most of the lakes in this area, you can also horseback ride up a trail and rent kayaks or boats. I also suggest Waterfowl Lake in Jasper. If you’re lucky, you’ll see it when it’s light turquoise, one of the most aesthetically pleasing things I’ve ever seen.

 Yes, all of the lakes are this stunning. (Lake Waterfowl)

Yes, all of the lakes are this stunning. (Lake Waterfowl)

Keep in mind, hiking is the main activity wherever you go — these are mountain ranges, after all. If you don’t like nature or want to trailblaze at all, I’d advise against spending money on an airplane ticket. I will say that I think hiking can be fun for everyone, whether you’re really into physical exercise like the rest of my family or if you’re more…uh…reluctant like me.

Sure, you may have to fight your way uphill (my family members would be delighted to recount in high detail just how much I fought). But going downhill feels like flying! And what’s at the end of the trail — whether it’s “inkpots” (where water and air bubble up through sand), a view of a glacier or a lookout point so close to a waterfall you can feel the spray on your face — is totally worth sore muscles.

After a few days of nonstop exploring, my sister suffered a knee injury, and we discovered just how many of the main attractions involved hiking. Not to worry, we found there were still plenty of other things we were able to do.

At the Cave & Basin, I found that while in theory, sulfur springs sound cool, in reality, I couldn’t concentrate on anything but the smell of rotten eggs. I rode a model of the trucks used by scientists living in Antarctica up the second steepest commercial road in North America as our driver cheerfully informed us all the ways we could die outside. I tried glacier water directly from its true source. It was the coldest and cleanest thing I’ve ever tasted. (As a side note, drinking glacier water is supposed to chop ten years off your age, so if I’m not at school next year, it’s because it’s true and I’ve reverted to my four-year-old form.)

The face of pure pain.

The face of pure pain.

Yes, there was plenty to enjoy outside of hiking. We rock-climbed, we kayaked, we relaxed in the hot springs, we walked out on a glass floor suspended 100 feet out from a cliff edge while dangling 900 feet over a canyon, and we even swam in a lake that was four degrees Celsius. (Although I definitely wasn’t enjoying that last activity when I first jumped in.)

And, of course, there was the food, from local to international cuisine. Canada’s diversity surprised me — and I’m not talking about the tourists who came from all over the world. The people working and living there were a mix of nationalities.

But, they shared one thing in common: Canadians are pretty proud of their national parks. Banff and Jasper have taken many safety measures to ensure the parks’ natural beauty and ecology are protected — they have bridges for animals crossing the highway. Wildlife leisurely cross on local roads, where they seem to have accepted that cars will always wait. Trash cans reminded us to “KEEP THE WILD IN WILDLIFE.”

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More powerful than you’d expect.

We were lucky enough to see birds, caribou, several types of goats, a marmot, luckily no bears and hundreds of squirrels and chipmunks. Too many squirrels and chipmunks.  At first, I found them adorable, but by the middle of the trip, when a particularly audacious one actually jumped on my back, I was quite energetic trying to get it to retract its claws from between my shoulder blades. Vacationers beware!

Another heads-up: prepare yourself for the credit card machine. It’s portable, and is brought out after transactions. Instead of swiping your card, you stick it in the machine. And you add a tip by pushing buttons. The first time we encountered it, a lady remarked, “Ah! This is how we know you are Americans! You always have trouble with our machines!” (To be fair, she later gave us a maple leaf stamp and told us we were honorary Canadians for the day.)

The machine was among several things that felt almost familiar. For example, I could only hear the Canadian accent come out on a few words. The speed limits and temperature scared me one morning when I’d forgotten Canada adhered to the metric system. Instead of seeing McDonald’s golden arches in every town, we saw its Canadian equivalent, Tim Horton’s (if you get the chance, go there for breakfast). As a whole, it felt like someone had come into my room and moved all my furniture two inches to the left —  I kind of recognized what I was seeing, but it was still incredibly strange.

I guess I got used to Canada and all its quirks, though, because it was weird returning to College Station. It’s not just that it’s much hotter here, although discovering the AC having died while we were away didn’t assuage my wish for the chilly mountain air of the Rockies. I missed waking up early and charging out to explore until we’d collapse back at the hotel to play cards, read the newspaper or write about everything we’d done that day.

This morning I found myself looking out the window and thinking something seemed off. A few minutes later, I realized it was the absence of the silhouette of mountains surrounding our town. It’s a bit strange going for a drive and not passing a lake or river every five minutes. I’ve even started to miss those dang chipmunks. With the help of Banff and Jasper National Parks, “America, just more north” seems to have won me over.