Ah, Alberta. The Texas of the north. Cattle ranches and rodeos. Oil sands and Fort McMurray. The Oilers and the Flames. The 1988 Olympics, mon. Yes, Alberta comes with a cowboy hat full of rollercoaster-mall preconceptions. None of which lend a voice to the majesty of sprawling canyon lands or prepares you for that first glimpse of the Rocky Mountains. Alberta - the land - holds a rich and ancient history; From some of the world’s most abundant fossil beds and the First Nations’ traditional hunting and fishing grounds, to the pioneers that would settle a Wild West and lay the foundation for modern industry. Experiencing this province means retracing a path laid by monsters and men.
Our first steps led us through the southern grasslands freckled with pumpjacks, to sprawling farms, glowing green from ample irrigation and warm sun. The highway meandered on and on… until it stopped… and plunged deeply down, leaving the surface of the earth behind. An alien universe opened up below our feet and we found ourselves perched at the edge of a canyon - four miles wide and 325 feet deep. We spent the day in Dinosaur Provincial Park exploring its vague pathways through the worn-away earth. The ground felt strangely hollow underfoot like a movie set and deep crevices just off the beaten path suggested this could be the case. We clambered over and around hoodoos and coulees made of sedimentary layers of sun-dried muck, passed prickly ground-cover cactus and coyote tracks, until finally completing the loop to where we had started. Once the floor of the prehistoric Bear Paw Sea, it still gave the eerie impression that man did not belong here. Further exploration revealed a lush riverside trail with massive cottonwood trees over 200 years old and offered a very close encounter with a heard of mule deer. As contrived as the park’s title may sound, Dinosaur Provincial Park offered an informative and sensory experience which left a lasting impression.
Further up the Red Deer River, we were drawn to the name and reputation of the coal-mining-town-turned-dino-mecca, Drumheller. Clearly the coolest named town in the province, it’s easy to understand why travellers flock to this dusty little hamlet nestled against the walls of the river canyon. What may either delight or disenchant the curious visitor, however, is just how enthusiastically the town has embraced its title as the dinosaur capitol of the world. No doubt a show for the tourists, the streets are dotted with dino statues, business names are plucked from the cretaceous, and “The World’s Largest Dinosaur” - a massive steel and fibreglass T-Rex - towers a commanding 86 feet over it all. Beyond the kitsch, however, lies a remarkable, world-renowned institution: The Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology. Home to a collection of over 130,000 fossils, the tour through endless rooms of fascinating exhibits was memorable. Situated in Midland Provincial Park, it wasn’t hard to find a nearby hike through the hoodoos to burn off our excitement and indulge our inspired curiosity. We crawled between coulees as the sun set, vainly overturning rocks in whimsical hope for prehistoric treasure.
We chose the scenic route towards Calgary and started planning a typical visit to a city: what to see, where to park at night, where to do laundry and groceries, etcetera. Visiting cities typically puts a buzz in the air. There are chores to be done, traffic to navigate, and money to be sapped from our budget. It’s always a little bit stressful. A somewhat tense drive came to an abrupt pause however when Ryan spotted something on the horizon. We pulled over and squinted west. After 4 months and somewhere well over 10,000km of driving, we caught our first glimpse of the Rocky Mountains. I really needed a shower, and I’m pretty sure I was mad at Ryan over something, but this was absolutely show-stopping. We immediately pulled over, high-fived, and couldn’t help mustering a smile for a mountain selfie (amusingly, in which, you cannot make out any mountains). Impatient to reach the foothills, we decided to bypass Calgary and drove on to Bragg Creek at the edge of Kananaskis Country.
This impossibly charming village had tastefully exploited its cowboy heritage. We found free showers, and an independent grocer which knocked two chores off of our list. The surrounding natural area, brimming with wildlife, allowed for river-side picnics and undisturbed boon docking. Rather than navigating the bustle of a major city, we found ourselves completely at ease as I found quiet opportunities to write, and Ryan found legendary trails to ride. It was the hunt for a laundromat that finally turned us back toward Calgary. Words alone do not accurately convey the majesty of the Japanese, Hollywood-themed laundry palace we had the privilege of washing our sweaty underpants in. I wish I could remember its name. If you know it, don’t share it here. It deserves to be a hidden treasure.
With our chore list valiantly annihilated, we went on a Walmart hunt - typical - and found ourselves in an impossible hive of cars, buses and people as we made dinner. Save for spotting a gorgeous snowshoe hare which we at first mistook for a dog (they are BIG), we were in our own little version of hell. Having just come from the absolute serenity of the foothills, we couldn’t think up a reason to stay overnight in the big city. We are sure there is much to see and do in Calgary, and we would have especially loved to see some of our friends, but as we drove into the mountains and the urban static faded away, we knew we had made the right decision.
By the time we reached the narrow pass leading into Canmore, the sun had long set, and the craggy peaks glowed faintly in the moonlight - their mammoth, vigilant faces merely suggested in the darkness. When we opened our eyes the next morning, it wasn’t to the crashing of grocery carts and chugging of engines, but to the arresting view of the Three Sisters towering over a railway town.
We capped our time in Alberta with a family visit, a formidable hike up Mount Lady MacDonald in terrible footwear, and an obligatory visit to famous Lake Louise - still gleaming deeply blue in the late autumn sun. The end-of-season trickle of tour buses in Banff and a warm invitation from more family - this time in Field - propelled us onward up Highway 1, and soon we crossed our final provincial border into beautiful British Columbia.