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Bagpipes and Kootenay

Sunday, 12 September 2004
written by Teresa

We crossed into Canada on the 26th August, exactly two years since starting our travels. We are always pleased by such anniversaries and this particular one more than most as we broadened our horizons by taking the camper into its first foreign country.

Canada is simultaneously familiar and foreign, the familiarity for me coming from both the American and British influences. The pervasive presence of McDonalds, Subway and the Colonel's chicken make it initially unclear that we have successfully traversed the border. The towns are laid out on the familiar grid system and the majority of goods on the supermarket shelves are identical to those found across the States. In spite of this it quickly becomes evident that we are in a Commonwealth Country. While the money mimics the American denominations, the Queens head is firmly embossed on all coins. The British connection is obvious elsewhere, especially on the sweet counter where Smarties and Aero sit side by side with Reese's peanut confectionary. On the next aisle, in amongst the cookies is the best find of all, Hobnob biscuits, just what's needed with a nice cup of tea. As the advertising in Britain goes, One nibble and you're nobbled. And it's true.

North of the border the speed limits appear in kilometers per hour, the metric figures thoughtfully translated into imperial equivalents on the first few signs. Canada is officially bi-lingual, reflecting the French influence that adds a further dimension and distinct character to the country. Every written communication appears in both languages and all official institutions must be able to conduct business in either. Bridge on the River Kootenay Devolution is high on the agenda in the province of Quebec and while the French speakers appear to be fluent in English, the same does not seem to be true the other way round.

We were headed for the Canadian Rockies and traveled north through the province of British Columbia towards Kootenay National Park. The broad open valley of the Kootenay River holding its string of lakes and surrounded by mountains could very easily be mistaken for the Highlands of Scotland with it's brooding weather and atmospheric lochs. Many of the local names reflect the Scottish origins of some early white settlers, the most obvious being Banff, named after the county of Banffshire, Scotland. As if the connection was not obvious enough, one evening not far outside Invermere, we heard the plaintive notes of a bagpipe drifting out across the land. Clearly the associations and heritage are alive and well.

We spent our first night in McLeod Meadows in Kootenay and started to realise that Canadian National Park campgrounds have a couple of distinct characteristics. They charge a small fee for a campfire permit but included in the price is an unlimited amount of wood. While there is a plentiful supply, the pieces are fairly large and as they are stored uncovered in large unruly piles are prone to be damp due to the copious precipitation. Nearly everyone seems to have either a maul or an axe and the sound of splitting wood is virtually continuous during the evening hours as people attempt to stay warm in the dropping temperatures. Another notable feature is that tarpaulins are ubiquitous. We came to recognise the distinctive rustle of them being unfolded as people set up camp and it appears that no self respecting person would be stupid enough to come away without at least one. The blue, green and yellow sheets are strung from the surrounding trees offering some respite from the regular deluges and protecting the less waterproof tents.

As you may have noticed in the previous paragraph, rain featured heavily in our experience. Fast moving clouds seeped down hiding the snow-dusted peaks and rolling over the tree covered slopes in an ever-changing pattern. Our first attempt at a short walk out to Dog Lake ended in a relentless downpour that continued for the following twenty-four hours and such long stretches of rain became familiar over the following three days, as we were held virtually captive in the camper.

Unusual Forest Plant The forest was carpeted with a thick soft hummocky covering of moss dotted with numerous and varied fungi. The luxuriant green layer absorbed sound, leaving the trail almost silent apart from the occasional scampering of a squirrel or the repetitive tapping of woodpeckers. On the edge of the campground, the Kootenay River was frighteningly fast and swollen, it's level risen nearly to the top of it's banks, it's wide course split into numerous channels separated by the islands built up from deposited silt. The waters were grey-green and milky, clouded by the glacial snowmelt that they carry, their depths impenetrable to the eye. In contrast, nearby a small stream entered the main course, its waters crystal clear, the pebbles on its bed perfectly visible, presumably originating in a spring rather than from the perennial ice.

We have arrived in the National Parks during a period of strike action by staff and at McLeod experienced the effects of this in two ways. The first was that pay stations were sealed, staff refusing to collect fees as part of the action and so three out of our four days there were free. The negative side for us is that campgrounds have been closed early as a result of the action and while we were planning to leave McLeod anyway, there are many other campgrounds that we were hoping to get to before the winter closures that we will not now see. Unfortunately for us the ones that are remaining open tend to be the large monster campgrounds with hundreds of sites that in other circumstances we might well avoid.

On the day we moved, the clouds cleared, the sun came out and the temperatures rose sufficiently for a pair of shorts. Sinclair Falls We took the opportunity to walk that afternoon and spent a delightful few hours on the trail down to Sinclair Falls and along the shoulder of the canyon before going to Redstreak campground for the night. The attraction was its proximity to Radium Hot Springs on the western edge of the Park and as always the call of the mineralized water was strong.

This is one of the nicest hot springs we've been to and we've visited a few. The hot pool is enormous with varying depths and ample seating around the edges for lounging in the soporific haze induced by the temperature while sloped edges at the two ends allow you to lie completely immersed in the relaxing waters. The surrounding rocks of the canyon rise immediately up around one side of the pool creating a dramatic setting, the traffic on the nearby road drowned out by the roar of Sinclair Creek rushing through its channeled tunnel. On a chilly morning, the cooler pool was nearly empty allowing us to swim up and down its twenty-five meters uninterrupted. Every now and again we thought we could smell donuts but became convinced that this was a joint olfactory hallucination brought on by empty stomachs. Imagine our delight when we emerged completely relaxed to find freshly made mini-donuts sitting on the counter in the gift shop. They were delicious.

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