Friday, August 1, 2014

Trip Report: The Subcompact Culture 10th Wedding Anniversary Canadian Road Adventure Extravaganza

Our '13 Subaru WRX in Glacier National Park en route to Canada. 
Words by Andy Lilienthal. Photos by Mercedes and Andy Lilienthal

A couple of years ago, my mother and uncle did an amazing road trip from Minnesota, up through Canada, and over to Portland, Oregon and back. They told us tales of Montana's gorgeous Going to the Sun Road through Glacier National Park, the amazing waters and surroundings of Lake Louise in Alberta Canada, and the incredibly breathtaking Icefields Parkway from Lake Louise to Japser. Mercedes and I decided that we would take part of this trip for our 10th wedding anniversary, and it was a fantastic adventure full of amazing scenery, fantastic food, a bit of disappointment, and memories that we'll never forget.

Leg 1: Portland to Glacier Under Canvas (Coram, MT)
Our first leg would be one of our longer days. It was from Portland, Oregon to Coram, MT, which is right outside of Glacier National Park. This would take us through the scenic Columbia River Gorge up through Spokane, WA. We decided to take a more scenic off-the-beaten-path route, so we went north up past Coeur d'Alene on US 95 to US 2 which included places such as Libby, which we've been through on Amtrak. It is a very pretty area of the U.S., although despite the speed limit being 70 MPH, people routinely drove 55. Thankfully, the WRX makes short work of passing slow vehicles.

Some of the tepees at Glacier Under Canvas. 
We rolled through Kalispell, MT in the evening and into Glacier Under Canvas, a "glamping" (glamours camping) spot in Coram. While there were indeed glamorous canvas tents, complete with bathrooms, animal skin rugs, and wood stoves, we stayed in a basic canvas tepee. It featured three cots, sleeping bags, and a couple chairs. A canister of bear spray was also in our cone-shaped abode just in case a grizzly decided to investigate the canvas structure whilst we resided there. Thankfully there were no bears. It was cool experience, and quite a bit less expensive than a hotel in the area.

We met several other travelers from places as far away as New Mexico, Florida, and even London while around the nightly campfire that night. And despite the 90-degree daytime temperatures, the night cooled off into the low 50s. Of note: The best morning coffee we had on the trip.

Day 2: Coram, MT to Invermere, BC
Our second day on the road took us through Glacier National Park's Going to the Sun Road to Invermere, British Columbia. Glacier is truly a national treasure.

Amazing scenery along the Going to the Sun Road.
Simply put, the scenery is awe inspiring; the Going to the Sun Road is truly remarkable. Narrow roads cling to cliff sides; some bridges look as if they were built by the Romans. Waterfalls cascade down all around, even sometimes emptying onto the road. We also encountered several miles of wet gravel as there was plenty of road construction in the park. It gave the WRX as nice coating of dirt that remained on the car for the rest of the trip.

A bridge on the Going to the Sun Road
My only regret is that we didn't have more time here, but we could've spent days in Glacier. We did stop at Logan Pass, but needed to travel more than seven hours that day to make it to Invermere, so we had to keep a move on.

I will tell you that the $25 entry fee into Glacier for the Going to the Sun Road is worth every penny and then some. Our photos do no justice; everyone should have the chance to visit Glacier at some point in their lives. We're very fortunate to have done so.

Boat on Saint Mary Lake in Glacier National Park.
With Glacier in our rear-view mirror, we crossed into Alberta at Chief Mountain border crossing. From there, we'd cross more scenery along Canada's HWY 3, aka, the Crowsnest Highway, until we reached HWY 93 north, which would take us to Invermere.

Along this leg, we'd encounter historic places, such as the location of the Frank Slide, which was Canada's deadliest landslide. The slide, which happened in the early 20th century, killed between 70 and 90 residents as 90 million tons of earth fell from the mountainside. We stopped at Columbia Lake—the source of the Columbia River, which runs through Portland and empties at Astoria, Oregon.

Panorama of Windermere Lake in Invermere, BC
Panorama of Windermere Lake in Invermere, BC
The farther north we traveled, the more intense the scenery would become. We eventually stopped in Invermere for the night; a small resort town that is a vacation spot for many Calgary residents. One local said Invermere was The Hamptons of Calgary. We did cool off in Windermere Lake, which was a nice reprieve from the 35 degree heat (we're on the metric system now, folks). FYI, we had one of the best meals in our life at a restaurant called Birchwood. If you're ever in Invermere, you need to go. It isn't cheap, but it's amazing. After waddling out of the restaurant, it was bedtime, and we needed some shuteye.

Leg 3: Invermere to an Unexpected Destination
Day three was our most anticipated day. We'd head through Banff, Lake Louise, and up the world-renowned Icefields Parkway en route to Jasper, Alberta. We got up early and drove through Kootenay National Park, which is also incredible. Again, the farther north we went, the more postcard-like the areas became. There were tons of signs for elk, moose, bear, and mountain goat (of which we saw none). Many locals had said Banff, while beautiful, had become very commercial. However, we figured we should stop anyhow.

Banff was beautiful, and we stopped at Bow Falls outside of the historic Banff Springs Hotel. It was brimming with tourists, but was still very neat. The hotel there is, as my mother puts it, "an amazing pile of rocks." And I'd have to agree. But since we had a lot of things we wanted to see on our way to Jasper, we really didn't spend much time here.

Moraine Lake
The clear blue waters of Moraine Lake.
Next stop was Moraine Lake, which is just southwest of Lake Louise. It was the clearest, bluest water I've ever witnessed. I'm pretty sure most of Canada—as well as a healthy part of Europe and Asia—were visiting the lake, too. If it weren't for the the scenery, you'd think you'd arrived at a Walmart on Black Friday. There were hundreds of people there. We got lucky and found a spot that wasn't 100 km away from the lake.We also encountered my first brand-new Nissan Micra.

We spied this 2014 Nissan Micra in the parking lot at Moraine Lake. 
We'd wanted to do a hike while we were there, hopefully one that involved some scenery. However, upon arriving at the trailhead, there was a sign stating we needed to be hiking in groups of four or more due to grizzly bears frequenting the trails. Canada takes its grizzlies seriously. In fact, if you're found hiking in a group smaller than four people when one of these signs is posted, you'll be fined $5,000. Most places advise carrying bear spray, too. Bear spray is essentially like mace or pepper spray, but in a fire-extinguisher sized container. I'm told it's not always effective, either; you might just piss the bear off.

Moraine Lake blue
An unaltered photo of the water at Moraine Lake. Yes, it's that blue. 
Anyhow, we opted to do the shorter hike around the lake, which was unlike anything I've ever seen. I couldn't stop staring at the water. The photo above has not been color corrected. This is the color of the water when the sun is out. It really gives a meaning to the color aquamarine. We also took pictures of the glaciers in the background with their pointed, silvery tongues shimmering with ice. Everywhere you look was like a postcard that you could buy at the local lodge. Again—amazing.

The Chateau at Lake Louise is a grandiose building!
From Moraine Lake we headed up to the Chateau at Lake Louise. This mega hotel is situated at the base of Lake Louse and looks upon snow and ice-covered glaciers. We had lunch there,and took a brief walk around before heading out. And yes, it also has amazing surroundings. However, it was imperative to make it to the Icefields Parkway with plenty of daylight left. After all, it's supposed to be one of the best drives in the world and has been a bucket list item of mine for years.

This is where things went wrong.

Icefields Parkway closed
The "closed" sign at the beginning of the Icefields Parkway was a big disappointment. 
This sign greeted us as we approached the entrance to the fabled road. Closed? How could it be closed? We drove hundreds of miles to get here and it's closed? I felt like Clark Griswold in "Vacation" when he gets to Walley World after driving across the country only to found out the place is closed for maintenance. (However, I'm sure our WRX is faster than the Family Truckster.)

"Bonjour, hello," said the French-accented Québécois woman in the little hut as we pulled into the toll area. "Where are you headed?"

"Uh, well, we were headed to Jasper," I said already a bit miffed and slightly confused.

"Well, you will not make it there tonight," she said. "There is a large forest fire and it is very close to the road. The Icefields Parkway is closed down."

We looked at the laminated photo they'd posted on the tollbooth window. Yes, it was a huge fire and right by the Parkway. Damn it.

"OK. We have hotel reservations in Jasper tonight," I proclaimed. "Is there another way there?"

"Not really," she said. "There is a nine-hour detour around Calgary if you want to take that. Do you have any camping gear?"

Camping gear? No; we didn't bring any camping gear (this is where a rooftop tent would've come in handy), and it was already 5:00pm. She then proceeded to tell us that we'd best find accommodations, but it might be difficult due to the fact it was high season and the road was closed. Shit. Shit. Shit.

I'm not one that gets disappointed or deflated easily. However, I can't remember being more disappointed in recent times than I was with this road closure. This was really to be one of the highlights of the trip. But what were our options? The woman said they may possibly open the road for a brief period the next morning, but it is not guaranteed to happen. In fact, due to the size of the fire, it might be days or even weeks before the road is opened.

Well, I guess it's time for a plan B, which we needed to hastily formulate. Again, I'm not one that gets easily disappointed, but I must say, I felt pretty defeated. However, we had to do something; we needed a place to stay, and frankly, I'd rather get a move on than hang around here. Thankfully, we had phone and data service in Lake Louise, and were able to cancel our night in Jasper (thankfully, penalty-free), and make for hotel arrangements that night in a different city ... six hours away.

Day 3 Continued: Lake Louise to Kamloops, BC
That city would be Kamloops, a hot aird town in British Columbia. We were actually supposed to head to Kamloops in a couple of days as a stopover on the way to Kelowna. However, due to our predicament, we ended up heading to Kamloops early. According to our semi-trusty GPS, the drive should take about five hours. However, we forgot about the time zone change, so it was more like six hours. The good news was the drive was beautiful (see a theme here)?

The drive was also learning experience. Ignorant of Canada's infrastructure when it came to highways, I'd told Mercedes that the Trans-Canadian Highway to Kamloops would likely be a four-lane Interstate-style motorway all the way there. It should be fast and easy going.

Needless to say, I soon found out Canada does not have an Interstate system like the U.S., and while there were bits of the Trans-Canadian Highway that were four lanes, most were two, and a speed limit never exceeded 100 km/h (62 MPH). This is, as I'm told, due to a couple of things. Firstly, wildlife. Although we didn't see anything other than marmots and one deer, there is wildlife wanting to cross the road, and they cause many accidents. Secondly, since the speed limits do not change during poor weather (think snowy Canadian roads), they have to keep speeds fairly low all year.

snowshed tunnel on the Trans Canadian Highway
Snowshed tunnel on the Trans-Canadian Highway.
It was a long, slow, scenic, drive with plenty of snowshed tunnels. I believe these are made so that in case of an avalanche, the snow will simply go over the top of the roadway/tunnel. It would make sense that this was the case on this road, since it was in a steep, isolated valley. In fact, I didn't fill up in the town of Golden (where I visited my first Tim Hortons and happened upon a drift 240SX on a trailer—see pics at the end of the article), and it was the first time on the entire trip that I was a bit nervous that we wouldn't make it to our next town, wherever the hell that might be.

Between Golden and Revelstoke, BC you really begin to think you're in the middle of nowhere (especially when you have less than a quarter tank of fuel). I kept expecting to see a sign saying that there was a gas station ahead, but it didn't happen. Somewhat amazingly, we—and seemingly everyone else—made the trip, although we all did gas up in Revelstoke. But it certainly was a bit uneasy thinking about running out of gas in the wilderness. We'd filled up at every opportunity throughout the trip. I don't know why I didn't bother here. Probably because I just wanted to get a move on.

We drove and drove and drove, finally arriving in Kamloops at 9:30pm PST (remember, we lost an hour) where it was still a balmy 32 degrees (90 F). However, since it was mid week, we ended up getting a super deal at the Shearaton. I know—roughing it.

You can't drink all day if you don't start in the morning.
True enough. 
Day 4: Kamloops
We actually had a day to kill now that we were in Kamloops a day early. It was actually quite nice not to have to be on the move, and it gave us a chance to explore the city of about 86,000 people. We woke up late, which was wonderful, and went to lunch at The Nobile Pig where we had fantastic beers, great food, and outstanding service.

After we finished our beers and burgers, I asked our cheerful waitress what there was to do in Kamloops. She said there wasn't a ton to do unless you liked golfing. Yeah—not so much. Plus, it was nearly 40 degrees (104 F), so maybe we'd just take in a little local culture. And what a better way to do that then by experiencing the mall. Yes, we went to the mall. It was much like any mall in the U.S., except most of the stores had different names despite selling nearly identical wares. But hey—it was air conditioned. We did find a couple of sporting goods stores that were rather interesting. I hadn't seen that much hockey equipment since, well, living in Minnesota.

Suzuki Carry at Great Canadian Oil Change
A Suzuki Carry from the Great Canadian Oil Change shop.
This might sound silly, but I had three things I wanted to do while in Canada. 1) Go to a Tim Hortons (basically a Canadian Dunkin' Donuts) 2) go to a Lordco (Canadian auto parts chain) and 3) go to a Canadian Tire. I did all within 24 hours. The conclusion was that 1) Tim Hortons is probably good for a lot of things, but a latte wasn't one of them 2) Lordco is the cleanest autoparts store on earth; you could eat off of any surface in the place and 3) Canadian Tire sells a hell of a lot more than just tires. It kind of reminded me of a Fleet Farm or a Coastal Farm and Ranch. It was like a really good auto parts place that sold nearly everything else. Color me impressed.

We did attend the city's Music in the Park that evening as things began to cool off. Every night of the week during the summer, the city hosts a new musical act. It was a great time to kick back, relax and enjoy the surroundings.

Day 5: Kamloops to Kelowna/Penticton
Ogopogo B&B
The Ogopogo B&B: Posh and amazing!
Off we went for a three hour drive to the famed Okanagan Valley—Canadian wine country. This was sort of our second section of the trip. We hit up a number of wineries in the area, which is always a good time. We could see some forest fires in the not-so-far-off landscape, granted they'd still be several miles ... er ... kilometers away. We did notice it was getting fairly smoky, however. We talked with a number of locals about the fires that closed down the Icefields Parkway, and they all said there were a lot of fires going on in Canada at the moment.

The next two nights would be spent at the Ogopogo Bed and Breakfast in Kelowna. This was our splurge. It was amazing, however. Posh room, amazing breakfasts, incredible hospitality—I can't recommend this place enough. We headed for Indian food that night at Dawett, which was equally amazing. Good stuff.

Day 6: Kelowna Area
This was our all-Kelowna area day. We bought a cooler at Canadian Tire to house the wine we were amassing and visited three wineries. At Tantalus Vineyards (our first stop), a guy pulled into the parking lot in a very bad-ass twin-turbo Lotus Esprit V8. Yes please.

Lotus Esprit and Subaru Impreza WRX at winery
A twin-turbo Lotus Esprit V8 and our WRX pose at Tantalus Vineyards in Kelowna, BC.
Anyhow, we went to two other wineries: Quail's Gate and Mission Hills. Mission Hills which has been rated as one of the most beautiful wineries in the world—I believe it. The grounds are simply stunning, and the interior is also fantastic.

Mission Hill Winery
Photo via

We had a great private tasting with their sommelier, Joey, who we found out also has a love for travel. In fact, she'd said she's been to 75 countries and she's only in her 30s. One of our favorite things about traveling is meeting new people and getting to know their story.

early photo of the Smith Creek Fire
Smith Creek Fire in West Kelowna
However, our visit to Mission Hills was somewhat bittersweet as we saw the beginnings of the Smith Creek Fire, which was only about 9.5 km away from where we were in the city of West Kelowna. We could see huge flames and the fire encroaching on a cellphone tower.

The dark smoke was towering hundreds of meters in the air and making the sun a red-orange color. It was very eerie. We actually pulled over to snap some pictures, and as you can see, the fire was rapidly burning. At this point, the fire was about 2–6 hectares (5–15 acres) in size. (A few days after we got back to the U.S. the fire had grown to 280 hectares (692 acres) and was one of hundreds of fires burning in British Columbia alone.) It makes sense, since Canada had been experiencing record heat and was tinder-dry. If a thunderstorm came in, although it'd dump rain, it'd also have lightning that'd start another fire. We learned later that the big fire up near Jasper that closed the Icefields Parkway was set off by a lightning strike.

Despite all the crazy fires, we marked our 10th anniversary with a great meal. We went to a great little French bistro to celebrate with copious amounts of baked onion soup, a pot of the largest mussels I've ever eaten, steak, pear cognac, and all sorts of other edibles and libations. Life was good.

Day 7: Kelowna to Sunshine Valley
When we woke up on this morning, the air outside smelled like a campfire, which is never a good thing unless there's actually a campfire by your sleeping area. The forest fires had grown, and it was the talk of the Okanagan Valley both on TV and radio. As we left Kelowna, we saw four single-seat crop duster-like aircraft dumping water on the Smith Creek Fire. These little planes, which ended up being Air Tractor AT-802 fire-fighting planes, had floats so they could land on Lake Kelowna, scoop up water, and dump it over the raging inferno. I'd never actually witnessed this first-hand, and I must say these guys have nerves of steel and have to be very accurate, too. Our hats definitely go off to these people.

Air Tractors fighting a fire.
An Air Tractor AT-802 releasing its payload over the Smith Creek Fire.
It was a pretty amazing sight to see. There was also a DC-6 fire bomber and a few helicopters. In fact, as we headed south towards Penticton, we saw the planes landing to refuel. It was good timing to see them come in, and it allowed us a closer look at these incredible flying fire extinguishers.

Canadian Air Tractor AT-802 landing
A CONAIR Air Tractor AT-802 coming in to refuel in Penticton, BC. 
We had actually anticipated going all the way from Kelowna to Portland this day and wrapping our trip up. However, some friends in Sunshine Valley, BC offered us room and board this last night, and we couldn't refuse. On the way we stopped in Oliver, BC, the self-proclaimed wine capital of Canada, and had a stop at a winery in the hills. After that, it was back on scenic Highway 3 (the Crowsnest Highway) through Manning Park and into some much cooler temperatures, and to our destination. Here is where we obtained the only real damage to our WRX: A big-ass stone chip, which was kicked up by a semi in a construction zone. Luckily, our friends in Sunshine Valley called ahead to a glass company in Chilliwack, and the owner said we could come in the next day and have it filled for a mere $35.

That night We had a wonderful meal with friends and cracked open a few beers and bottles of wine. We talked about the fires, future travel adventures, Land Rover projects, and U.S. and Canadian politics. Again—life was good.

Mercedes and me
Day 8: Sunshine Valley to Portland
Rain. Finally. It was a cool damp morning, something we hadn't experienced in days, if not weeks. It was extremely refreshing. We just hoped and prayed Kelowna and other parts of Canada were getting some of the much needed moisture. And other than me experiencing my first real migraine, all was good. We bid our gracious hosts farewell and set out to Chilliwack to have the windshield repaired, which took no longer than 30 minutes. From there it was a short drive to the U.S./Canadian boarder, and we jetted home on Interstate 5.

After eight days on the road and logging 2,280 miles (3,669 km), heading home was bittersweet. We learned a lot on this trip. And although Mercedes and I are well versed in traveling together, we still learned a lot about each other, even after 10 years of marriage. We thought about the places we stayed, the cars we saw that you can't get in the States (old and new Nissan Micras, Mitsubishi Delicas, diesel-powered Smart ForTwos), the outstanding food and drink we'd had, and where and when our next trip would be. It would be back to our day jobs on Monday.

Road trips always have a way of making the both of us reexamine our lives and what we want out of them; where we want to be and what we want to do. Heck, Mercedes and I met on a road trip from Minneapolis to Chicago to go to a car show (remember Hot Import Nights?) in the summer of 2000. One thing we pledged to do was to get out more often; prioritize trips. We're best when we're on the road. It's how we met more than 14 years ago; it's what we did for our honeymoon 10 years ago; it's what we'll do more often in the future.


Our driving route
Our approximate route: 2,280 miles (3,669 km).
Inside a tepee at Glacier Under Canvas
The inside of our tepee on night one in Montana.
Bikepacker in Glacier National Park
A "bikepacker" traveling with her dog through Glacier National Park.
Me driving through Glacier.
A marmot
Sadly, the only real wildlife we saw were marmots, aka, ground squirrels. 

Glacier National Park vintage tour bus
One of the historic 1930s-era Glacier National Park buses
Vermillion Lakes
Vermillion Lakes outside of Banff, AB

Glacier in Moraine Lake
The silvery ice on a glacier outside of Moraine Lake in Alberta Canada.
Nissan Drift Car in Golden, Canada
We spotted this drift car in Golden, BC. 
Beer Sampler at Noble Pig in Kamloops
Beer sampler at The Noble Pig in Kamloops, BC

Naan bread
Mercedes with a huge piece of naan (Indian bread) at Dawett in Kelowna.
Mission Hills Winery statue
Statue overlooking Mission Hills Winery in Kelowna, BC.

fire fighting helicopter in Penticton
A fire-fighting helicopter taking off from the Penticton airport on its way to fight the Smith Creek fire.


Ian Cassley said...

What a great road trip. My wife and I really enjoy getting out on the road and have done some of your route although not necessarily on the same trip. I'm sorry you weren't able to get to Jasper. It is a beautiful drive and well worth the time. We've driven it a few times in family haulers but it's still on my bucket list to drive in our hot hatch Festiva. Maybe we could do the drive together!

Looking forward to your next road trip.... and ours!

Thanks for sharing.

Kevin Lester said...

Congrats on the 10 years! Great write up. I felt like I took the adventure with you.

I have never been to Alberta country but chiliwack and kamloops is gorgeous!

May I recommend a adventure: the west coast of Vancouver island. Amazing. Beautiful. And some of the nicest layover places. I did the half island loop. Up the west. Across to great central lake. Down the east. All via the ferry in port angeles -

Ducati Scotty said...

We're planning a 2,000 mile trip soon. Less scenic just going south on 5, less romantic bringing a 4 year old and going to see family. At least I get to go surfing and go to LegoLand.