Sunday September 10, 2017 (Canada)
The thing about Banff National Park is that it's busy. It's busy at the best of times, but we're in a bit of a perfect storm in that entrance to national parks is free this year thanks to Canada's 150th anniversary. The sky-high prices for hotel and resort accommodation in the area meant that our only option was to find a campground with some availability. Many of them don't take reservations – it's first come first serve only. Roll the dice, here goes nothing!
Not far outside of Calgary is Canmore, AB, which I will declare the gateway to Banff National Park. Maybe they've already done that themselves. If so, I agree. We arrived early with the intention of camping in the Canmore area and making day trips into Banff, but a kind staff member at the Canmore Visitors Centre suggested it was still early enough that we might be able to secure a campsite just outside of Banff proper. Good thinking! We made our way to the Two Jack campground and were delighted to learn that indeed they had campsites available! It was now well past noon and we'd only just gotten set up with a place to sleep, so we had work to do! After setting up the campsite we took the scenic route to Banff town and visited Lake Minnewanka along the way. It's a gorgeous lake just minutes from our campground, and easy to drive alongside in a loop. It was recommended to us by a former Brit we'd hiked with back at Crypt Lake in Waterton Lakes. With his accent, he referred to it as "Lake Mini Wanker". Perhaps the lake gets its name from repercussions related to the water temperature? After taking a few pictures we headed into Banff town to get a feel for it.
It was a zoo. For so much of our trip thus far we've managed to escape crowds. We haven't been in any huge cities or crazy popular tourist areas. Banff was a bit of a rude awakening. The town was rammed with traffic, and finding a parking spot was quite a nerve-wracking affair. Luckily the town still has sections where you can park a car (for free!) for a full day. That makes it really easy to do day trips without being worried about extending your parking.
Sandra's primary interest in Banff was to do some road biking. We'd received a recommendation to ride the Bow Valley Parkway, which is a road running parallel to the Trans-Canada highway from Banff to Lake Louise. The great thing about the parkway is that it's much quiter, and the speed limit is only 60km/h so it's great for cyclists who don't want to deal with cars ripping past them at 110km/h! You get all of the lovely scenery without the feeling of fear and impending doom. We stopped in at Bactrax rentals to see what prices would be like for a day-long road bike rental the following day. Availability limitations meant that they only had one "normal" road bike that would fit us, but they also had a full carbon frame "sexy" road bike at a higher price. Guess who got to ride that one!
We grabbed some linner (lunch/dinner) at the Banff Ave Brewing Company and made our way back to the campsite. Since all we'd really accomplished for the day was to secure bike rentals for the following day, we wanted to do something. Just beside our campsite was the secluded Johnson Lake. It's a very small lake, so you can easily wander around the perimeter in an hour or so. We found a nice tree swing along an elevated path and grabbed some shots of the lake.
The weather during the day had been absolutely gorgeous. Nice and warm! Shorts weather, you know? So it was quite the surprise when my body woke me at about 2am to impolitely inform me that it was absolutely freezing. I've only got a sleeping bag that's rated to seven degrees Celcius. And you know the companies that make these things are pretty generous with what they expect humans to tolerate in terms of discomfort at the low end of the temperature ratings! There's a funny kind of calculus that takes place in the mind of the cold tent sleeper. It goes something along the lines of: "My God it's cold. Oh sure, I've got extra clothing in the tent. But it's all the way down near my feet. And to get to it, I'd have to unzip my sleeping bag, thereby making myself even colder in the process. It's not worth it. I'll just sit here unable to sleep for the remainder of the evening. I have to pee." That's a peek into my inner monologue. Needless to say it wasn't one of my best sleeps. Word to the wise: the temperatures can swing significantly in Banff! I'm going to blame it on being the first time we've really been at any elevation whatsoever on the trip. You decide!
The next morning we headed into town to pick up our bikes and start the trip. The Bow Valley Parkway ride supposedly clocks in at about 45km one way. Sandra and I have done those kinds of distances before… but it's been a while. And we certainly haven't gone that far since Sandra's knee troubles. Time for an experiment!
The ride itself was lovely. Just as you'd expect, really. You're driving along a road in the mountains! We didn't bring any cameras along with us because we wanted to keep the weight as low as possible, so we don't have any pictures. Sorry!
Sandra and I are both fairly stubborn folks. We like to set our minds to something and then do it. We were going to play it by ear to see how things felt as we rode, but we both understood that the secret plan was to do the full tour, there and back! This should have totalled about 90km. At the 45km mark, we still had another 15km to go to get into Lake Louise. Not sure who's doing the math on these road distances! And as much as we enjoyed the wonderful downhills on the way there, each one compounded the feeling of dread at turning around and having to cycle right back up after the turnaround!
But we make it to Lake Louise. We grabbed some food and drink with the intent that it would power us all the way back to Banff. I could sense a dark undercurrent in our chatty voices, though. I was not looking forward to this return trip. I didn't think Sandra was either! Tired. Sore bums. And a 120km round trip instead of the 90km we were expecting. While we were awkwardly wandering in our cycling footwear around the little mini-mall that is Lake Louise "town", we spotted a sign for a free shuttle (!!!) back to Banff. But how would the bikes get back?! Unknown.
The buses went every hour on the hour, so we finished up our sandwiches and drinks and hoped for the best. When the big bus arrived, it looked like disaster. We were hoping there would be some kind of bike rack mounted on the front that we could use, but it was just a big Greyhound-like bus. Our hopes were dashed – it was only foot-traffic getting on. In a last ditch effort, though, Sandra kindly asked the bus driver if it would at all be possible to take us with the bikes… pretty, pretty please… and he agreed! He gently placed our bikes in the cargo area below the bus (I had totally forgotten that those existed!), and off we went on our free ride back to Banff. Hooo boy were we in good spirits! We had managed to escape the clutches of fate. Instead of arriving back in Banff defeated and sore, we arrived with smiles on our faces. I told the bus driver, "Thanks so much! You literally saved our butts!" I was happy with that one.
Now came our final problem for the day: Two Jack campground doesn't have showers. And at this point we were in dire need of showers. But do you know why Banff originally became popular in the late 19th century? What made the town the tourist (hint) "hot spot" that it is today? Hot springs, baby! With our leftover energy from the missing half of the bike ride, we wandered up the 3km hill leading from the town centre to Banff Upper Hot Springs. I'd expected the prices to be exorbitant, but it's only about $7 per person for access to the springs. And the showers, more importantly! What a great finish to a day of hard exercise.
We returned to the campground and headed to bed tired, clean, and better prepared for a night of punishing cold. Socks, thermals, pants, T-shirt, hoodie, down jacket, hat. Check, check, check! Typical sleeping attire! Our plan is to keep camping throughout Banff and Jasper National Parks to keep costs down. We didn't know how cold it was going to be before we signed up for this five day stint. Oops.
Tomorrow we depart for the Columbia Icefields on the way to Jasper!