Rocky Mountain Road Trip Part 3: Okanagan to Banff

Two things learned. I have sub zero interest in being a long haul trucker and owning a RV–well, that would be a sheer nightmare. I realize some places in the world require driving to get to point A, B and B and a half, but, my true self prefers the pedestrian pace and jumping on trains or more planes if need be.

Driving back to Banff from Naramata meant retracing our route–those darn mountains left highway builders scratching plans for alternates. Which meant we’d be on the BC-3 for 54o.04 km back to Cranbrook. That’s 6 hours and 57 minutes of suggested driving time. Even with the prospects of spotting Sasquatch, it’s a hamstring-cramping haul.

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I should hardly bitch–I’m not even the driver! But, as Kim will attest, it’s hard for me to remain awake as the passenger. I yawned 5,467 times as we went higher and higher in elevation. I blamed it on the thin air of the Bonanza Pass at 5,035 feet and the inn’s satiating breakfast frittata. And, perhaps, that 10am wine tasting at Blasted Church in Okanagan Falls.

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Even though there are nearly 100 super accessible roadside wineries in the Okanagan, I like to find the ones that are seemingly wild goose chases. Signage was elusive and the road was more like 15km on a gravel driveway to nowhere. But, what a delight. As their website suggests: “Park your attitude at the farmgate, this winery has no place for traditional wine stuffiness and gravitas. Blasted Church is the Okanagan Valley’s most creative, inspired and fun destination for wine lovers. Blasted Church wines are often celebrated for their divine quality. Our wine labels, however, give heartburn to the most discriminating oenophiles.”

The story behind the Blasted Church is a grand tale involving an actual explosion. The Big Bang Theory was, that if the church was blasted from the interior, the impact would loosen the nails and the church would be easier to disassemble (it was being moved to another location). Oddly it worked, but clearly, do not try this at home.

We spoke with a gentle retired chap who shared behind-the-scenes info about his coveted gig at the winery. He’s at the comfortable age where he doesn’t need money and is happy to step back to allow the younger population a job opportunity. So, he picks up the few days over exams and the back to school crush. Which equals 18 days a year, give or take. Imagine. Kim and I nodded–yes, this would be our dream retirement ‘job.’

The wine list here is a riot: Bible Thumper, Holy Moly, Nothing Sacred, Mixed Blessings–you get the twist. We opted for the Big Bang Theory as a take-away and decided if we had a vineyard and knew how to make wine, this would be our schtick. But, that would probably involve more than 18 days a year and it’s so much easier to lay down $19.50 for somebody else’s dirty work.

We whizzed back through the fruit stands that clog the roadsides to Oliver. If you’ve been through the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario–the BC fruit stands are the equivalent of the smoke and rollies shops in Oshweken. We stopped for fall fair  contest winning peaches and blushing plums and pointed fingers at the brilliant purple peppers, yellow watermelons and syrups squeezed out of every possible fruit.

*Which reminds me–we have some black raspberry syrup for our next lazy Sunday buttermilk pancake session.

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Driving, driving, driving. Oh, and  a new warning outside of the usual elk, moose, mountain goat signage: Watch for sudden weather changes 27 km ahead. Great. As we snaked up the Mt. Everest-esque summit behind crawling logging trucks we watched the temperature on the dash plummet a few degrees every minute. Kim was anticipating a flash freeze as we dipped from 17 to 3 degrees in no time. Now was not the time for elk or moose.

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After the nerve-exhausting climb up and down the mountain pass we were happy to roll into Rossland and Trail. Every house in Rossland had a steeply pitched steel roof. These were snow towns–and, being on the shoulder season of skiing, it also meant that very little was open besides a used tire shop. We had planned on staying in Trail that night but were rather disappointed in the snore of a town.  Possible claims to fame? Kerrin-Lee Gartner who won the downhill Olympic gold in 1992 is from Trail. And, about 1,000 Italian immigrants who moved to the Gulch area. After stepping inside three dodgy restaurants, we settled on the Arlington Hotel Bar and Grill. It’s the kind of place you walk into and everyone turns their head. Day drinkers, Keno, neon, wood panelling and Queen.

Our server was so sweet when I enquired about the “Big Surf” lager. She explained, “It’s one of those micro-things everyone is talking about these days. It’s nice.”

So, we had nice Big Surfs on her urging, a butter-slicked Monte Cristo and chicken caesar wrap. While we waited for our order I went to the hall of fame-type section in the restaurant. There were Garfield cartoons, polaroids of drunk people fishing in the 70s and a few trophies for unknown things. Interesting.

Departing Trail and its glumness, we made the big push to Cranbrook, traversing the Kootenay Summit, 10 degree temperature changes and big horn sheep warnings.

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Cranbrook was equally sleepy–just a long stretch of chain hotels and aging strip malls. It was truly just a crash night and when the Best Western was suggesting $189 a night for a Queen room I was flabbergasted. No, not after our lap of historical luxury at the Naramata Heritage Inn for the same price tag and a lovely frittata.

We reminisced about the crappy horror of a place we stayed in Dakhla, Egypt–the pistachio green walls–the fridge that was hotter than a microwave inside–the wallpaper border of hunting labrador retrievers–the shower that was clogged and flooded the 2 by 2 bathroom–the flickering flourescent lights and Donald Duck decor. Surely we could make the best out of the “Heritage Inn” in Cranbrook with a hot breakfast all for $95 plus tax. (Not sure where the heritage part comes in–it had no visible relation to the Naramata Heritage Inn). The other hotels I had stepped into while Kim kept the car running were the type you’d hide from the FBI in or, kill yourself while listening to Lionel Richie on repeat. It doesn’t take much to make a room pleasing. A white duvet, some throw pillows and a black and white framed photo or two. Why the garage sale-ready prints of flowers and peacocks? Why the floral bedspreads?

For $95 we survived. Don’t even get me started on our three room changes with the TV that hummed louder than the actual TV volume. Or, the blast and rumble of the train all night long. Or, the hot (loosely used term) breakfast in the morning where we actually shook from the vibration of the idling train outside. The servers laughed it off–I thought I was mid-seizure.

Cranbrook to Radium Hot Springs: 142.81km

Kim and I quickly decided that we’d be looking outside of Radium for accommodations that night. Hot rods ripped up and down the main drag–it was the annual classic car show and people were lined up in lawnchairs, all snacked out, watching the parade of suped-up vehicles that would carry on for the weekend. We bought some smoked turkey sandwiches to go and disappeared up the Redstreak Trail, far from the madness.

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The hike started on a full-on 90 degrees angle. Think of the Grouse Grind, Vancouverites. I could only hear my heart in my head for the first 15 minutes. If a bear schemed to come eat us, it would have been the perfect time–our calves burned and our lungs felt sat upon. But, oh, the vistas!

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We took the lower Sinclair Creek Trail after a sandwich pit stop. Kim submerged a few cans of beer in the creek that we were hoping to see blood red Kokanee Salmon running up. The ferocious rush of water and whiskey jacks were a Solitudes soundtrack waiting to happen though. Minus the rumble of the machinery chugging around the nearby sawmill.

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Instant rehab was soon found in the the 102 degree waters of Radium Hot Springs. For $6.70 a person, it’s the cheapest way to happiness. Once we navigated the bighorn sheep in the parking lot it was easy to surrender to the surrounds.

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That night we found a perfect little cabin in Brisco, 27km north of Radium. We were welcomed by a scrappy three-legged dog and a less than social owner.

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The cabin was kitted out with a kitchenette (and a humming fridge that we had to unplug at night so we didn’t go mad–is there a theme with humming things, or what?), a stone fireplace AND an outdoor firepit. An unlimited pile of firewood and an axe = a five hour-long fire for the pyros.

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Kim expertly grilled a Dr. Oetker thin crust pizza by headlamp. The stars–my god, there were a bazillion in Brisco. We drank a Californian merlot–Three Blind Moose, and watched the sky so intently that we both saw a falling star. This would be the perfect snuggle spot for the Perseid meteorite showers in August!

The night air was seriously brisk–at this point I was wearing all the long sleeves I had packed. The chattering red squirrels and their machine gun calls had subsided. It was well after midnight when we doused the fire, having retraced our road trip a few times over each glass of wine in between ping ponging ideas for our next destination. This is how it happens! Innocent fireside chats and suddenly we are flying to the Corn Islands or the Bolivian Salt Flats.

We hurried out of the bungalows in the morning (no Keurigs or thermostats here!). In Radium we just missed the 8-9am $1.00 coffee happy hour at the local deli/bakery. We spent the extra bucks on a stiff Kicking Horse blend and tucked into just-baked blueberry muffins. Cue up Nat Geo–a black bear and her cub meandering alongside the road! There was no time to snap a picture–it was just one of those solid gold life-is-awesome moments that we shared.

Driving back to Banff, the return to the treed mountains was a sharp contrast from our tumbleweed desert trek. With the larch trees in full form (liquid sunshine yellow), I felt like we were transplanted into a miniature train set landscape. Oh, and don’t forget to add the bald eagle catching a ride on a thermal above us.

We did a speed tour of Banff–squishing in a hike along the Spray River behind the regal Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. My contentment level peaked when I had secured two of Evelyn’s mammoth peanut butter and choco chip cookies (the best in Canada–and I’ve tried 86% of cookies available). Kim found a sweet deal on a pair of Scarpa hikers for our Camino de Santiago training  and we still had time to down a pint on the rooftop of the Elk and Oarsmen on Banff Ave.

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And, the birthday revelry continued. We reconnected with my parents and the just-marrieds for a bottle of Veuve (thanks Lynne!)  and apps in the driveway (*Redneck disclaimer: Kiley’s deck was in shade and we were all happy to suck up the  last blast of the western heat wave. I also liked how the seating and table arrangements were comrpised of coolers, bear barrels and a painting that Mark did in highschool on wood).

"Larry, you just clunked me in the head and don't spill my champagne!"

“Larry, you just clunked me in the head and don’t spill my champagne!”

That night we had the perfect send-off. Kiley pulled us outside, bubbling more than the Cliquot. “Listen! The elks are bugling!” With every blast of the train horn in the dead silence of the night, the elks responded with a guttural bugle and whistle.

Yeah, amazing. Rocky Mountain Roadtrip complete. Six days, 10 bottles of Okanagan’s magic, 56 beers, two bears and 1,791km.

 

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2 thoughts on “Rocky Mountain Road Trip Part 3: Okanagan to Banff

  1. Pam Sherwin

    When are you and Kim planning on hiking the Camino?! Can’t wait to read all about your experience! My mum and I hiked it back in 2007…I’d live in Spain if I could! Have a fabulous adventure when the time comes 🙂

  2. Hi Pam,

    We’re scheming the spring or fall of 2016. We’ve read about seven Camino memoirs between us-it’s time to write our own! We keep collecting tidbits from various savvy pilgrims like yourself. Any stand-out gems from your experience? Did you see the recent doc, “Six Ways to Santiago”– http://caminodocumentary.org/
    We’re okay with relocating if we have to–or returning to do the Camino de Ronda along the east coast of Spain.

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