Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Canadian West

By James T. Carney

The Canadian West is in many ways a continuation of two parts of the American West – the Great Plains [“Visions of the American West (Part 1): Introduction & the Great Plains”] and the Rockies [“…(Part 3): The Mountains”]. When I fled into Calgary, I could see miles and miles of flat, fertile farm land – much like the American states of the Great Plains. The only difference is that the further north one goes – and Calgary is only about 100 miles north of the American border – the shorter the growing season. What has made Calgary has been the Canadian oil boom. Calgary has almost doubled in size in the last twenty years growing from 700,000 people to 1.3 million. The down town area is bigger than Pittsburgh’s – and cleaner.
    One very noticeable new development is the building of numerous high rise apartment buildings right outside the downtown area. I saw at least three new high rise buildings under construction. I suspect that there are a couple of factors driving the rise in downtown living. One is that the suburbs are stretching farther and farther out, which means that one has to spend more and more time commuting over a system that is not characterized by the number of superhighways one might anticipate given the size of the city – although it does seem to have a very good public transportation system using light rail vehicles. I noted that most houses are two-story affairs with the first floor being half underground as a way of reducing heating costs in the winter. It reminded me of how my great-grandfather and his family would in the fall pile dirt against the cabin walls (up to the windows) as a way of insulating it for the winter.
    I found that the population featured a large number of Asians from every country in that continent. I had of course seen that development in the American West Coast and would have expected to see it in Vancouver, but I was really surprised to see it this far inland since Calgary is on the east side of the Rockies and hundreds of miles from the Pacific. Almost all the Caucasians I saw were fair-haired. The number of tall men and women was quite surprising. The people were all extremely friendly and very polite. There are a certain number of Indians in the general area. They are described as members of the First Nations. Canada seems to have avoided the Indian Wars that characterize American history. I suspect that there are two reasons for this. One is that the limited number of Indians and the limited number of settlers meant far less conflict over land. Two, the Hudson Bay Company, which developed the fur trade in Canada, worked with Indian trappers who then became an integral part of the west Canadian economy, while the American Fur Company in the States used white trappers, which left no place in the economic system for the Native Americans.

I came to Calgary a day before my latest Road Scholars trip convened, so that I could see the next to the last day of the Calgary Stampede, which is the biggest event of the year – ever overshadowing the annual visit of the two-times Stanley Cup winners, the Pittsburgh Penguins. This is the world’s biggest rodeo and is manned by over 2,300 volunteers, most of whom have very limited knowledge of what is going on.
    Unfortunately, I don’t like rodeos They remind me of the Winter Olympics – how many times do you want to see people ski down the same slope or ride bareback on a bucking steer or – even worse – see nine chuck wagon races? No nobis domine. [Not unto us, oh Lord.] But I was there.
    Actually, some of the events were more interesting than others. One of the more interesting ones was the calf-roping contests. In some cases, the calf got away either because it was too fast or because the cowboy missed with his rope. In another case the cowboy lassoed the calf but couldn’t throw him down. I also liked the barrel riding, which was done by cowgirls who would ride horses around three barrels. This was a real test of skill. The contest was won last year by a grandmother.

The next day I headed off with a group of my fellow Road Scholars to Cranmore, which is about 50 miles away from Calgary and a few miles outside the Banff National Park. (Actually there are seven parks – four national and three provincial – which are joined together to occupy the high points in the Rockies. The Continental Divide forms the boundary line between the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia, and one day we crossed the boundary line to hike in the Yoho National Park in British Columbia. The rest of the time we were in Banff. Cranmore, which is a little resort town somewhat similar to Zermatt, Switzerland, was the site of our hotel, which served as our base camp and from which we took a bus at 8:00 a.m. every day and to which we returned every late afternoon.
    One problem with the base-camp approach – evident also at Big Bend [“Visions of the American West (Part 2): The Southwest”] – is that we often had to drive an hour or an hour and a half to the hiking location, which meant that we generally had only five and a half to six hours to hike, since we were supposed to be back on the bus at 3:30. The first day we had even less time because when we got to our location and were about to board gondola cars to go up to the shoulder of the mountain, we found out that the trails were closed because of huge smoke coming over the mountains from British Columbia.
    We then went to the location for the second day’s hike, and the next day, finding the fire still present, we went on an unscheduled hike to the Lake Louise area. Lake Louise is supposed to be the most beautiful lake in the Canadian Rockies and is home to a tremendous hotel. Someone told me that it cost $500 a night in the off-season. Yikes. Canada is extremely expensive – I paid $30 (Canadian) for a case of 15 cans of Labatt Beer.)
    Totally unlike our experiences at Great Bend, huge numbers of hikers were on all the trails. On the one by Lake Louise, I thought it was the New York Thruway. Of course, that led from this huge hotel, which is probably the reason there were so many hikers. One of the major problems with wilderness areas is that they can be stressed out by having too many people use them. This is one of the many reasons I am against immigration – both illegal and legal. We have more than enough people in this country already. The guide told us that eight million people live within a day’s drive of the seven parks. Certainly, the Canadians are doing their best to preserve the parks and the wildlife in them from harm from humans. They even have special animal bridges (bypasses) built over the Trans Canadian highway, which is the major east-west road in Canada.
    Indeed, what led to the “discovery” of the Canadian Rockies was the desire of the Canadian (British) government to fend off efforts by some of my Feenian ancestors who, after the American Civil War, wanted to invade Canada and trade it to Britain for Ireland. (None of them were in the real estate business.) So the Canadian government determined that it was necessary to connect British Columbia to the Atlantic provinces, Quebec and Ontario, to unify British North America and fend off the Irish. Building the Canadian Pacific Railroad over the Rockies was a major engineering feat, which opened up the Canadian Rockies to tourism and ultimately opened up the Prairie provinces – Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba – for settlement. Obviously, the hardest part was getting the railroad over the Continental Divide, which was done through a series of tunnels and switchbacks.

    The hiking on all five days was spectacular, with tremendous views of the mountains, particularly once we got above tree line. We had three groups – easy, moderate, and difficult. On the three days when we split into groups, I went with the difficult once and with the moderate twice. My problem is not my ability to travel seven rather thansix miles, or to add another 1,000 feet of ascent, but to do it in the time period allotted. I had been doing some conditioning for several weeks before and found myself in good shape from that standpoint. However, the limitation is that I cannot go as fast as I used to.

This was the fourth trip I have been on with Road Scholars, which is an organization for people over age 55. (Although the age has been lowered to 40, almost everyone I have traveled with has been over 55.) The organization sponsors about 300-400 trips in the U.S. and Canada (plus a few dozen in Europe and South America.) The athletic trips (which include bicycling and kayaking as well as hiking) are a distinct minority. There are five levels of activity – easy, moderate, active, moderately challenging, and challenging. The trips I have taken have all been moderately challenging or challenging. The trips tend to be educational – we had daily lectures on the bus rides – although the educational aspect is probably greater on other trips. Most of the people I have met have been retired or semi-retired. Probably a third of the people have been school teachers, which may reflect the fact that teachers with the summers off have a good deal of time to engage in hiking and camping, and they carry on with these activities after retirement. Generally, women outnumber men – a fact that one of my female companions remarked was due to their greater longevity. Everyone I met has been very friendly, and a nice part of the trip is exchanging stories and experiences with fellow group members.
    Originally, I got into the hiking business (so to speak) because of limited powers of concentration. Two or three days of looking at castles, museums, and cathedrals seemed to wear me out, and I longed for more activity. My first – and favorite trip – was hiking Hadrian’s Wall Path [“Walk of Hadrian’s Wall,” in three parts] from Browness on the Solway to Wall’s End. The territory was extremely varied, ranging from an estuary to high crags to lowlands, and all along the way there were old forts and museums to visit before returning to the trail. This led to my hiking the Inca Trail to Manchu Picchu [“In Peru: On to Machu Picchu”], which was almost too much for me. I had a tremendous time on the trip overall, but once we hit the trail I had no time to explore the old Inca fortresses along the way. Since I had enticed my good friend, John Shortridge from USS [United States Steel], to go with me on that trip, I felt honor-bound to accompany him on my first Road Scholar trip, to the Grand Canyon. The rest has been history. However, while I hope to go to Yellowstone someday, I think that I will focus more on historical trips in the future. I would love to take the Cathar trail from France to Spain over the Pyrenees. We will see what the future will bring.

Copyright © 2017 by James T. Carney


  1. Interesting trip. I went to the Calgary Stampede back in 1975. a bunch of us drove out from Seattle. It was on big party didn't even make the rodeo.

    1. Ed, it doesn't sound as though you ”went to the Calgary Stampede“ after all! You had a stampede of your own inner hooves pounding on you.

    2. I doubt it is anything like when I was there but there where camp grounds all around the town. It was more like a western "Woodstock."

    3. Ed, I've asked Jim whether he noticed any camp grounds when he was there. I'll let you know.

    4. Jim reports:

      I saw no campgrounds and I saw no empty spaces around the Stampede area were one could have had a campground.