I love road trips, even mini ones. There is something wonderfully liberating about a map and an empty stretch of open road. Our time in the Rockies was never meant to be anything more than a lazy prelude to the Yellowknife project though, a mini road trip as it were, to break us in gently for what was to come. As it turned out it was far more productive than either me or Phil could have imagined. Over the space of three days we travelled in excess of 700 kilometres, encountered a bear, a hippy tree surgeon and, in Phil’s case, the Canadian police. We drove through some of the most breathtaking landscapes in North America and, in a bizarre turn of events, were even treated to the surreal spectacle of Jesus being beaten on the arse with a large cucumber!
The original plan had been to stay in and around Calgary, so that Phil could sort film out in readiness for Yellowknife. As with the best of travel plans though that particular horse never even made it to the starting gate. We ditched the airport hotel in favour of a car and headed west, towards the towering peaks of the Rockies. Part of the expansive range of mountains that stretch from Mexico up to the snowy peaks of northern Canada, the Rockies are aptly named. Blanketed in forests of pine and studded with iridescent lakes and turquoise rivers, these jagged giants boast some of the highest and most impressive mountains in North America. Given our limited time before continuing on to Yellowknife, we had decided that a little adventure in Banff National Park might prove satisfying to the spirit and the soul, so we headed that first night for the shabby chic splendour of the Banff Voyager Inn.
Early the next morning we continued along the Trans Canada Highway towards Lake Louise, one of the abiding symbols of the Rockies. A breathtaking blend of turquoise water, snow, ice and rock, this place had been attracting visitors since the latter years of the 19th century, but the morning we got there the frost was thankfully thicker on the ground than the tourists. The plan had been to meet up with an old mate of mine from my trek leading days, who now lived in Lake Louise. Dave had come to Canada on an extended sabbatical from work and never gone back. I can’t say that I blamed him. I could think of far worse places to end up than on the shores of Lake Louise, working for a rafting company running trips down the Kicking Horse River. Dave thankfully arrived in time to save me and Phil from overdosing on coffee and beef jerky and we headed off towards Radium Springs, home to Rolf, the hippie wood carver.
I had come across this guy whilst doing some research on the area. I had first been attracted by the word ‘eccentric, which is always a bonus in my book. The fact that he also lived with a herd of goats, in a rambling wooden stockade on the edge of town, was an added bonus. He didn’t disappoint. Rolf Heer opened the door to us looking like Osama bin Laden in a pink wooly hat! Swiss by birth, he has spent the past 40 years dividing his time between working as a tree surgeon, carving wooden faces with a chainsaw and travelling through some of the more ‘interesting’ regions of our planet dressed like the Taliban. His place was most definitely a work in progress. Imagine if you will a three dimensional representation of a mischievous and slightly unhinged mind, complete with an array of grotesque faces, novelty doors that squirt water and a workshop that looked like a charnel house on acid.
I could happily have spent the afternoon listening to him ramble on about his friends in the Taliban, his arrest in China for border ‘irregularities’ and his life as a tree carver. But we had a date with Jesus! Dave had told us about some carvings of the crucifixion on the hillside above the town and to be honest I think both me and Phil had assumed that they would be quirky, in keeping with Rolf and his ‘Home of a Thousand Faces’. What we weren’t expecting though was what we found dotted amongst the trees above the town. It was the Stations of the Cross, but not as I had ever seen before. I may be wrong, but I am pretty sure that Jesus was at no time beaten with a courgette. Neither can I ever remember an incident during his last hours when he was offered solace by Jabba the Hutt. Apparently though he was and I have the pictures to prove it. I think all three of us left that hill slightly unsettled by what we had just been a party to.
We were still feeling a bit unusual when we saw the bear. It was Phil’s fault. He had seen an old Ford buried amongst the trees and wanted to stop. By the time I had dropped him off and turned around to pick him up he had been savaged by midges and was mincing around in the bushes trying to look cool and professional. As he headed back towards the car a big black bear wandered out in front of us and ambled into the trees close to where he had been stood. Dave and I just looked at each other. Phil jumped back into the car. The bear didn’t even give us a second glance. It would seem that bears do indeed shit in the woods…it’s photographers who shit themselves!
Our ambling loop back to Lake Louise then took us via a natural bridge that had been carved out of the rocks by the torrents of water that cascade down from the mountains. I have no idea what this must look like in full flow, but even at the end of summer it was an impressive sight. The river channeled into the rocks and through a narrow gap in a swirling maelstrom of foam and turquoise death. The same thought struck me and Phil at the same instant. We wanted to jump into it! Seriously. We both stood on the top of the bridge looking down into the water, trying to judge how deep it was. People began to move away from us…I think they thought we were entering into some sort of watery suicide pact. Common sense did prevail in the end though, mainly because we weren’t sure if we could make it through the jacuzzi of death, and we continued back to Lake Louise.
The following day we left the mountains behind and headed back to Calgary. I was sorry to say goodbye to the Rockies, but the call of the wild north was ringing in our ears. It had been a good few days and the perfect start for what was, hopefully, to come. Phil in true style had one last stab at notoriety before we left Alberta behind though. Whilst the rest of the city was sleeping, he decided to trawl the suburban underbelly of Calgary with his camera. What could possibly go wrong? I mean, a grown man in t-shirt and shorts, taking photographs of alleyways at 3.00 in the morning, what could be more natural? The police were called…let’s just leave it at that…
To be continued…