Alberta Help Exchange

Posted from Canmore, Alberta, Canada.

(or: Rocky Mountain High, Canada-style)

Photos can be found at the accompanying photo post.

The morning of Sunday, September 4 we bid farewell to our new friends on the organic farm in Saskatchewan and headed west to Alberta.  Although we passed through Regina, we luckily avoided game day traffic as the big Labour Day Classic football match, the annual tradition between the Saskatchewan Roughriders and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, was happening at that time.  Yes, the Roughriders emerged victorious, and yes, Canada celebrates Labour Day on the same day the U.S. does (although those astute readers will no doubt have noticed that those wacky Canadians spell it with a “u”).

After a seven-hour trek, we camped Sunday night near the Saskatchewan/Alberta border at a campground that for some reason was decked out in a Caribbean theme.  Nothing says Canadian prairie like blue plastic palm trees, I suppose.  That night was the coldest yet for us in Maggi, and yet another layer was donned for sleeping.  But the exciting thing was that as we slept above, dancing in our heads were visions of our morning’s breakfast of whole oats and multi-grain cereal, which was fermenting below – a technique we learned from our new farmer friends.  They were lucky enough to use home-produced whey for the fermentation, whereas we had to use vinegar (lemon juice apparently works, too).  The result was pleasantly good; it did not taste like vinegar but the oats were noticeably broken down, resulting in a creamier cereal that was more beneficial to our bodies.

Monday we drove a few more hours and the prairies of Saskatchewan started disappearing as the Canadian Rocky Mountains of Alberta loomed in the approaching distance.  Since we had some extra time we stopped in Calgary.  The city was mostly dead since it was Labour Day, which made it even more fun to explore.  We drove downtown and walked a pedestrian mall (similar to Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis), browsing in bookstores and reading menus of restaurants.  A very nifty city, Calgary was recovering from gay pride weekend (there was still glitter on the streets) and gearing up for the Spruce Gardens Masters Tournament, which has to do with horses jumping over things.  Calgary is a rather “Western” sort of place, with many stores that sell cowboy gear and apparel.  But it also has plenty of art, which was predominantly displayed around town.

That evening we arrived in Canmore, a charming town surrounded by mountains, which was bustling with holiday tourists examining the various independently-owned restaurants, cafes, and shoppes.  We headed to our next residency, a Help Exchange for the next six days in a home amidst all this scenic beauty.  Our host was a woman who is planning to put her house on the market next spring.  Since she is a realtor, she knows exactly what needs to be done in order for that house to be as marketable as possible, and was ready for two strapping young men to come in and get to work.  Thankfully, she settled for us instead.

We spent the week doing house projects with her.  It wasn’t glamorous or exotic but they were actually quite fun, there was a lot of variety, and we learned even more skills to put into our bag of tricks.  We helped landscape the front of the house by positioning rocks and boulders, leveled the all-gravel driveway (lots of shoveling wheelbarrows full of gravel), painted doors and house trim, caulked holes, installed a new (illuminated!) doorbell button, installed weather stripping, stripped and sanded and stained a deck – you get the idea.

Our host always pitched right in and helped us whenever she wasn’t meeting with clients and always fed us way too well.  She was also quite conscientious about our work day, making sure that we did not work over four hours each day, because she wanted us to experience some of the great activities in the area: the trails, the mountains, the views.  And so we did.

After work on Tuesday, we headed to the Grassi Lakes Trail, a beautiful hike through nature with plenty of glorious sights.  It was a modest hike: tennis shoes were sufficient and the elevation gain was only about 540 feet.  On this trail we found some of the clearest waters we have ever seen.  We could literally see fish in the middle of a lake, hanging out and occasionally coming to the surface to look for a snack.  If you threw a stone into the lake, you could watch it fall to the bottom.  We also stumbled upon a rock-climbing class and watched people more ambitious than us attempt to scale a flat, vertical surface.  Good for them.

On Wednesday we attempted a bigger challenge: hiking up an honest-to-goodness mountain, Ha Ling Peak.  Hiking boots were necessary for this 2700-foot gain in elevation.  The hike up took a couple of hours because the terrain was so steep that it the trail was all switchbacks.  It was moderately difficult and very tiring.  Erik made it all the way to the tree line but wasn’t able to continue.  Joe went on, but getting to the top was very tricky and he actually lost the trail at some point and just started scrambling up rocks.  He didn’t get to the peak of Ha Ling because for the life of him couldn’t recover the trail, no matter how hard he looked.  But he made it up to the saddle area between Ha Ling Peak and Miner’s Peak, still a great accomplishment, and was completely awe-struck by the view.  On the other side of the mountain from where the trail was was a steep drop-off and an aerial view of Canmore.  On the way back down, we met a solo hiker with gear to spend the night at the top.  Undoubtedly he had wonderful views of the sunset and the next morning’s sunrise, but hopefully he was prepared for an extremely cold night.

Since Joe aggravated a pre-existing bad knee with the mountain climb, we decided that Thursday would be an easy day at well-known Lake Louise in Banff National Park.  The lake was stunning, surrounded by enormous snow-covered mountains and Victoria Glacier peeking through.  Joe’s knee was feeling better, so we decided to walk the path alongside the lake.  Once at the other end of the lake, despite Erik’s concern for Joe’s knee and the fact that we were only wearing sandals, we decided to continue on the Plain of Six Glaciers hike, ending four miles later at a lookout.  The trail wasn’t too difficult but was a little tiring because of the constant incline.  Joe’s knee felt good.  All was well.  Until…

…We arrived at the famed Tea House 3.5 miles into the hike.  There and only there were we informed that the lookout was closed due to unstable conditions.  So we rested for a while and prepared to head back.  That’s when, for some inexplicable reason, Joe’s other knee went out.  It was incredibly painful, but there was nothing that could be done but head back – pitifully limping back 3.5 miles in sandals on rocky and hilly terrain.  There were no land speed records broken that day.  We were incredibly lucky that Joe’s usually bad knee actually managed the hike rather well.

After arriving back at Uli at 6:30 p.m. and scarfing down the lunch made for us by our host, we drove to Banff.  Banff is like Canmore but a little smaller: a lovely tourist town, surrounded by mountains, made for people who like to shop, eat, hike/bike/ski and be seen.  We drove by the Banff Springs Hotel, which was built in 1888 and is still humungous and amazing and impressive.  Another interesting sight on our drive were the bridges that go over the highway but are built for exclusively for wildlife.  They have trees and grass on them and help to funnel the deer, elk, moose, bears, etc. onto them to prevent the animals from crossing the car-filled roads.  And apparently they work!

Friday was a full day of work (stripping an elevated deck), and because of Joe’s knee issues we settled for an evening walk in downtown Canmore.  But it’s hard to complain about anything when there are mountains everywhere you look.  Saturday was a low-key day since we had to wait until evening to stain the deck.  But our realtor host took us to see two local straw houses (yes, houses made of straw) which were quite fascinating.  Erik thinks a straw house may be an option for the future.  Joe isn’t too sure.

Unfortunately staining the deck wasn’t drama free: while adjusting the plastic sheets that were protecting the lower floor windows, Joe, who apparently needed some extra attention this week, fell five feet from an unsteady ladder.  And landed on a bed of gravel.  And slammed his head on a rock.  Luckily a neighbor who just happened to be a doctor, came over and checked him.  He’ll survive.  His head is fine but his wrist is sore and he is again limping because his left leg was scraped up big time.  But it’s a different kind of limp, just to keep things interesting.  Erik and the host gave the deck one coat and it looked great.  After a dinner of Thai food (prepared by the host’s son, who is a cook in a Thai restaurant), Tiramisu (made by Joe on Friday), laundry, and atlas studying, it was time to prepare for our departure the next morning.

On Sunday morning we had our usual breakfast of oatmeal (not fermented, though) and blueberries, said goodbye to our wonderful and friendly hosts, and began the trip to Nelson, British Columbia.  After a couple of days of exploring the art town of Nelson and some nearby wineries, we will head to Vancouver.  On Friday we will be back in U.S., which means the Canadian leg of our journey is coming to a close.  Sigh.  It will be great to start the next phase of the trip – the last leg before crossing the border into Mexico -but we will be sad to leave magnificent Canada and its people.  Eh?


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3 Responses to Alberta Help Exchange

  1. Aunt Mary & Uncle Bill says:

    Hi Joe and Erik….Sounds like you had another great experience with your host family.. I did shake my head a bit with the knee problem, sounds like a relative thing. you both be more careful…Beautiful scenery again, you will have that eched in you mind forever…. Have a safe trip, and drive careful…stay warm…Love Aunt Mary

  2. GailO says:

    Sure hope everyone’s knees are now recovered, and Joe’s injuries are healed. Take care, you two!

  3. Alice Williams says:

    Hey Joe & Erik,
    Great blog entry today- I hope all is well with the knees, feet, head, etc.

    Your description of the animal bridge reminded me of a friend’s experience in Banff. He was driving a rental car and hit a large animal, totaling the car. He went to town and “turned himself in” to the police, saying “I hit a moose.” Without missing a beat, they informed him that he hit an elk. Apparently, it was mating season. So I guess the bridges aren’t entirely successful.

    Anyway, if you wouldn’t mind, would you share the recipe for fermented cereal? (Or, if you already have, point me to the correct blog.)

    Be careful out there!

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