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Journey to the far side of the world - 2

After arriving in style in Banff we stayed for two nights in a chalet-type bed and breakfast hotel. This was a short pleasant walk from the main street, and I had forgotten just how beautiful the town is, with Mts Rundle and Norquay, Cascade Mountain and Sulphur Mountain rising majestically around it. It was quiet too, mid-April was the tail end of the skiing season and a tad too early for the summer walkers and mountaineers. Whilst the weather was dry, it was overcast for most of the time. We didn’t have to travel too far to find the wildlife, there were elk in the town centre near the Bow river bridge and they seemed to be unperturbed by the curious bi-peds looking to get close-up pictures. I wonder if Banff has a problem with urban elk in the same way UK cities now seem to have with foxes? I doubt if their digestive systems have adapted to take advantage of bin-raking, but I did hear that bear are not unknown in the town.

Something that everyone wanted to do was bathe in the thermal baths. A short drive up the hill from the town centre took us to the Upper Hot Springs. Here an outdoor swimming pool was constructed in 1886 at the outflow of a mountain hot water spring. For a reasonable fee one can bathe there in water heated naturally to 39 deg. C, and with a wonderful open air view to the mountains all around the town. After 10 minutes or so of being slowly poached it was nice to sit out of the water and chill in the cool mountain air (and in the winter enjoy the snowflakes too) before immersing oneself again. Very relaxing and civilised. We had the pool to ourselves as we arrived at 10.00 which is the daily opening time. By 10.30 it was starting to fill, and by 11.15 when we left it was getting busy. A really special experience.


Upper Hot Springs, Banff

Next, it was off to Lake Louise, the resort an hour’s drive upstream from Banff. We took the old road, 1A which runs parallel to Highway 1, the Trans-Canada Highway. When we had been in Victoria we had seen Milepost 0, the starting point of the TCH (unless you are 8,030km away in St John’s, Newfoundland where they think it starts too); I am not sure if the 8,030km includes the ferry distances between Nanaimo and Vancouver, and between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, but even so that is an impressively long road. Travelling through the forests on 1A we saw a fair bit of wildlife, and at one point came to an open view of the Bow River with the mountains giving a lovely backdrop to the railway and river, and there was a layby and information point there. This turned out to be “Morant’s Curve”, where the Canadian Pacific Railway photographer took some of his best known publicity shots, used in posters extolling the scenic delights of train travel through the Rockies. Whilst we paused there a train’s whistle was heard in the distance and soon a 2km long double-stack container eastbound freight came into view. This took nearly three minutes to trundle past and certainly shattered the tranquil mountain peace. Even with modern digital Nikon wizardry my shot was nowhere as good as Morant’s – judge for yourself!


 Nicholas Morant, c1955                                                         Alastair Fyfe, 2017

We parked at Lake Louise Hotel (another former CP “Chateau” style hotel) and went for a walk around the frozen lake. When Elaine and I visited there in 1990 it had been late summer and the green grass, bright flowers, crystal clear blue lake and the glacier at the far end were a glorious sight. But in late April the thaw had not arrived and the lake was still frozen over and with the snow on the ground there was a monochrome feel to the place. Not the same beauty in winter at all. But certainly a grand opportunity for outdoor curling, with a rather well appointed clubhouse to boot. However when we were there, there was no sign of such civilised activity. Ach well, it was still pretty and beats anything that Saudi Arabia could offer. We returned to Banff via the TCH and met up with the England Ladies curling team for an enjoyable evening meal. They too had decided to indulge in altitude training and had also visited the thermal baths and Lake Louise during the day.

On the Friday it was time to head for Lethbridge and get ready for the competition. But there was a choice of routes to take – the three hour journey east out of the mountains then south skirting the foothills. Part of this route is known as the “Cowboy Trail” and is scenic. It passes through countryside where much of the film “Brokeback Mountain” was shot. As we had two cars some in our party went that way, and others went with me on the longer – but more mountainous – six hour journey via the Columbia Valley. This route took us west then south through the Kootenay National Park to Radium Hot Springs, Windermere, Fort Steele then east over the Crowsnest Pass and out of the mountains to Lethbridge. We enjoyed lovely scenery with morning clouds rising off mountain sides and tops. Lunch was taken in a friendly bakery/café in Radium, and then a pleasant drive down the wide (in places) Columbia Valley.

We took a slight detour to visit the town of Cranbrook BC. This was so Elaine and I could visit the namesake of the town in Kent (UK) where we lived in the 2000’s. Whilst it is a regional centre, it doesn’t have much to commend itself to tourists compared to Banff and Kamloops. That said, I was on a mission to find the fire station, as I had been a retained firefighter in Cranbrook (Kent) for our seven years there, and wanted to see what the Canadian equivalent was like. We found it after a little searching (Mr Google who knows everything helped).There were staff there, and after I explained where I was from and why I had an interest there, the sense of brotherhood that exists between firefighters came out and my friend and I were treated royally and given a grand tour of the premises and equipment. One thing that I learned was that Cranbrook station’s sphere of operations “fireground” is restricted to the city limits, as it is funded by the city taxes. There is a BC Provincial fire station a short distance outside the city limits and this covers the rural areas. Neither service is insured to operate in each other’s territory, and it takes the declaration of a State of Emergency for the boundaries to be crossed. There is the occasional bizarre situation of a Provincial emergency vehicle elbowing its way through the city en route to a rural emergency on the other side. As a result the BC Cranbrook fire guys have a lot of equipment that a station serving a community of the same size in the UK would not have, as we are able to call specialist vehicles and kit in from a strategic point that serves a wider area. For such a civilised country as Canada, their system seems to be strangely inefficient.  

As we were not going to reach Lethbridge in time for dinner we asked our new friends in Cranbrook if they could recommend a nice place to eat en route. They suggested a “curry house” in Fernie, an hours drive east on the western approach to the Crowsnest. (Note, dear reader, that the Canadians are terribly politically correct and refer to the original inhabitants of their country as “First Nation People”. Therefore we were subjected to disapproving looks when we asked where the Indian Restaurant was when we reached Fernie). Fernie is a winter sports town serving a region where people are too short on time or money to head to the really high and better known ski resorts in the Rockies, and it reminded me – in a passing moment – of Aviemore which is frequented by mainly Scots who haven’t gone to the Alps for their skiing. That said, the “curry house” served us a lovely meal and we finished our journey to Lethbridge in a contented manner.

Lethbridge itself is a small city in Southern Alberta, about 170km southeast of Calgary and not far from the USA border with Montana. It is a clean, quiet place of about 100,000 souls. It was founded on the site of the curiously named Fort Whoop-Up and grew up around coal mining and agriculture. At the western edge of the Prairies it is in the rain shadow of the Rockies, and water for irrigation is taken on canals and aqueducts from the upper stretches of the Old Man River (yes, really) to feed the fields and livestock farms. There is a small, but informative city museum in Lethbridge which gives an intersting history of the area. The only geographical feature of note is the one mile long and 100m high trestle railway bridge over the Old Man - the largest such structure in the world. It it still part of the CPR and on the route heading towards the Crowsnest.  The predominant traffic was coal heading west for export from Vancouver.


Lethbridge "High Level" viaduct

The purpose in going to Lethbridge was to represent England once again at the World Seniors Curling competition. This is the fourth time I have had that honour, but unfortunately the results on the ice were not of the standard that I had hoped for and we won only one of our six group games. We had a tough section with Canada, Scotland, Russia and New Zealand amongst others in it, but I had hoped we could have done better. But we had a great time socially, catching up with old friends and adversaries.


Trying - but losing. Courtesy World Curling Federation.

On the ice at the same time was the World Mixed Doubles competition, with 2018 Winter Olympic qualifying points at stake. Scotland was nominated to collect any points won which would count towards the Team GB qualification, and needed to come eighth or better to qualify. They had a superb group section, winning all their games, and in the last 16 knock-out were unfortunately paired against Canada, who had struggled to qualify out of their section, losing two games and just squeaking past England 6-5. But with a home crowd and knowing that if they lost there would be humiliation for them, the Canadian pair produced their A-game and beat the Scots, thus ensuring that there was no Olympic berth for Bruce and Gina. I felt so sorry for them, they had done everything right – but that is competitive sport. Also unlucky were my brother Neil and niece Alison who were representing Ireland and also went out at the same stage, albeit they had qualified for the last 16 by the skin of their teeth and were put out 3-6 by Korea, one of the medal favourites. (Ireland was not playing under the GB+NI banner but as the whole country, and could have secured an Olympic spot had they beaten Korea).

The Canadians made it to the final where they faced Switzerland and cruised to a comfortable lead, going into the last end 5-2 up. Without last stone advantage, the Canadians were lying nicely with two counters well guarded, and it seemed as if the Swiss would have no way of shifting them and then lying for the three they needed to tie and take the game to an extra end. But then the Canadians chose the suicide shot, and instead of doing something harmless, managed to wick off an outlying stone and bounce their two shots out and leave the Swiss with three stones, and which they made into four with the last rock played. Unbelievable stuff, and you could have heard a pin drop in the stadium – for 1/10th of a second when the players and spectators from all of the other 38 countries present let out a huge roar that I will remember for a long time. On a personal note I felt really sorry for Joanne, the Canadian player, who suffered a momentary lapse of judgement that seized a defeat from the jaws of victory which was of Devon Loch proportions. She is a nice person, and put an incredibly brave face on things at the closing banquet later that night. She and partner Reid will have their chance at the Olympics though, and I wish them well. I was also delighted that my friends Oona and Tomi from Finland have qualified for the Olympics, and in the absence of GB or Ireland, I shall be cheering them on in Pyeongchang, Korea next February. On TV.

We flew back to the UK with KLM from Calgary via Amsterdam thence to Edinburgh. After 24 hours rest Elaine and I flew to Southampton for a family funeral in Bournemouth, then back to Biggar the next day. It was nice to get home, but all too soon Saturday came and it was back to Riyadh for me, flying with Air France via CDG.

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