Monthly Archives: August 2012

Deer Lodge? Dear Me!

Ruth and I have stayed in some not-so-grand hotels over the years and we’re used to making do. Website pictures often don’t match reality, and there’s often a discrepancy between price and room quality.   We’ve stayed in palace-like rooms for less than $100 and almost-dungeons for over $200.

On our just completed trip to Alberta, we stayed in a place that went immediately onto our list of 5-worst-of-all-times.  It was called Deer Lodge and I feel sorry for any deer or dear who has to stay there for even one night.  To make matters worse, we had booked this Norman-Bates-horror for Ruth’s cousins too.

Our room was tiny, I estimated 10 feet by 10 feet, and airless. The floor sported industrial-strength, well-used brown carpet.  The walls were half covered with puke green wallpaper with air bubbles.  The other half was bilious beige or brown paint.  The tiny bed, the only kind that would fit, was bracketed by 2 small, distressed chests-of-drawers.  From the bed we faced an exposed clothes rack and an upright chair with a fake fur pillow.  I spent several uncomfortable hours in that chair squinting at print.  The heavy brown duvet on the bed kind of matched the carpet and was like sleeping under cement.  Over the bed was the photo above, three generations of one family, we assumed, enjoying Deer Lodge in the 50s when it was just starting to fade.

The bathroom sink came with a scald warning.  “With our charm comes our original heating and plumbing system.  When using the hot water, please refrain from running any cold water at the same time.”  Charm?   The bathroom floor was large, loose tiles with the grout almost gone.  The bathroom had been painted gold, probably in the 60s.

Other signs made us laugh.  “Apologies for any inconvenience” and, on the Lodge’s stationery, “Where Leisure meets Luxury”.

For this we paid $183.84 to a company called Canadian Rocky Mountain Resorts.

Since we booked through Expedia, I checked when I returned home to see why my normally functioning brain booked it and found almost 150 comments.  Jess from Australia agrees with me:

“The free wi-fi is shocking! Rooms are very loud, hot and uncomfortable. No tvs! The staff are mute! Overall for the price we were extremely disappointed. It was our worst 1 night stay on a 6 week trip of the U.S.A and Canada! The restaurant and cafe on premises is very overpriced for the state of the food. Never again!”

However, most of the comments were positive, like, “Quaint…a little piece of heaven….very enjoyable.”  So I’m wondering if the mute staff that we found so unpleasant took an instant dislike and put us in their worst rooms. Surely, they have better.

Deer Lodge has one undeniable plus–proximity to Lake Louise.


Banff’s Whyte Museum

Five compass experiences abounded on our trip to Alberta.  Jasper Park Lodge is so perfect that for guests it’s like checking into Eden.  The Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies at 111 Bear Street in Banff is another.  During my 3rd visit, I found it newly transformed and better than ever with a new & relatively permanent exhibit, “Gateway to the Rockies”.  Opened only since May 12, 2012, it’s an eclectic exhibit definitely worth a serious browse.

Peter and Catherine Whyte were talented artists.  A skiing sportsman from still pioneer Banff, Peter decided to pursue a career in art and enrolled at the Boston Museum School of Fine Art where he learned cartooning and landscape and portrait painting.  He also met Catherine, a socialite and Rockefeller cohort with a somewhat different background.  Their marriage endured since they shared a love of travel, painting, and Banff.  It says in their bios on, “They painted outdoors within calling distance of each other.”  After Peter died in 1966, indomitable Catherine went hiking in Nepal and then worked on their legacy before dying in 1979.  The Whyte Museum opened in 1968 with Catherine hands-on for 11 years.

In addition to exhibiting Rocky Mountain art and local artifacts, The Whyte also oversees a cluster of 7 Heritage Homes, including the Whyte’s.  Several can be toured.   See “Programs and Events” on its website for details.

Executive Director Michale  Lang has brought “Gateway to the Rockies” to life.  Basically about colorful residents and avid tourists who have come to Banff and fallen in love, “Gateway” is about history, art, wildlife, etc.   I was especially interested in its tribute to World War I & II veterans.  During World War I, Canada, only about 8 million strong, lost 60,661 soldiers and 21 nurses.  During World War II, 1.1 million Canadians were recruited.

Individual exhibits within the new show have names like Horses for Hire & Ascending the Heights, and I learned about Swiss Guides, avalanches, etc.

Other areas of  The Whyte contain temporary exhibitions like the current & excellent “Yellowstone to Yukon:  The Journey of Wildlife and Art” that closes November 15, 2012.

It was at the Whyte that I learned about a person and a project that influenced the rest of my time  in the area.  Parks Canada has developed 30 wildlife crossings over busy highways that have reduced wildlife/vehicle collisions by 80%.  I also fell in love with Peter Dettling’s exceptional, can’t-look-away wildlife photographs like the one above.  Ruth, her cousins, & I liked his work so much that we made a special trip to Terra Magica, his gallery in Canmore.




Banff Bears

In China, it’s the Year of the Dragon, but for Ruth and me it’s the Year of the Bear.  I wrote recently about our bear encounter in Aspen, Colorado, and we saw 2 more in Banff National Park during the past week.

According to the Banff Crag & Canyon newspaper, 16 bears have been killed this year alone in area parks including Kootenay & Yoho.   This is twice the usual yearly average and 12 of the 16 were struck by hit & run vehicles, the others by trains.  The front page of the C & C on Wednesday, August 15 shows a Parks Canada conflict officer trying to convince a black bear in a driveway to leave town.  According to the report, the bear, like the one we saw in Aspen, was climbing trees to escape a crowd of picture takers.

Taking the Lake Louise ski lift up to a Wildlife Interpretive Centre, Ruth & I saw our first bear.  It was just under our feet and shaking a bush that we learned later was a buffaloberry shrub, a prime source of their summer food. The grizzly paid zero attention to us.

We listened to a bear lecture at the Centre and learned that grizzly bears like the one we saw are 90% vegetarian.  The other 10% was, thankfully, not discussed.   We also learned that there are only 60 brown bears left in huge Banff National Park along with 30 black bears.  I questioned this number until I found a Huffington Post article dated August 29, 2012, that confirmed this.  The Post did, however, report that there are 40 to 50 black bears in the Park.

Until this trip to Alberta & British Columbia, I didn’t realize that there are only 3 species of bears in North America–black, brown (also called grizzlies), and polar.  If someone out there knows of another, please let me know.

There has not been an encounter involving a human fatality since 1980, but Parks Canada reports 5 bear attacks in 2 locations in Banff National Park between 1998 and 2005.  All involved hikers alone or in small groups meeting a mama with cubs.

Our 2nd bear sighting was along the Icefields Parkway where we quickly learned that clusters of stopped cars and people with cameras & binoculars meant wildlife sightings.  This roadside bear was also intent on stripping a buffaloberry bush while paying no attention to the crowd it had attracted. Indeed, tourists almost universally ignore warnings to keep their distance from wild animals, and we were no exception.

We also had intimate encounters with elk, mule deer, wolves, bighorn sheep, Columbia ground squirrels, and a cute little critter called a least chipmunk.

More about the incomparable Icefields Parkway soon.


Dead Horse Point

One of the joys of travel is the unexpected find, the destination you knew nothing about that someone tells you about, like Dead Horse Point State Park. Ruth & I were on our way to Canyonlands National Park when Diane encouraged us to check it out.  Time allowed this by late afternoon.

To visit Dead Horse Point, travel 9 miles north of Moab, Utah, on US 191 and turn left on SR 313;  23 miles later you’ll see a sign to turn left for DHP a few miles before the entrance to Canyonlands.

Browsing its excellent visitors’ center, I wondered out loud why I hadn’t heard of Dead Horse Point before and learned that word of mouth was its best sales rep.

In 1959 this State Park, now one of 43 in Utah, came into being.  After seeing it, Ruth and I can’t wait to explore some of the others, like Goblin Valley that Ranger Megan recommended.  And we’re not alone in our admiration of Dead Horse.  Before I checked out exhibits and the film downstairs, I flipped through the Visitor Registration book and read Kentuckians Jim and Margie’s comment, “Like the Grand Canyon. Wow!”  Another visitor simply wrote, “WAAoooo!!”  It’s that kind of place.

A few miles northwest of the Center is the Colorado River Overlook providing a panoramic view of a canyon half the size of Grand in a high, cold desert environment.  From this overlook, we were told, you can see as much of the Colorado River,  2,000 feet below, as anywhere else in its meandering course.   Along its banks are willow and tamarisk trees, the latter introduced and kept as ornamentals when a 1941 flood planted lots of them.  Since they consume their weight in water every day, they’re competition for the 30,000,000 people down river who depend on water that the horses couldn’t get to.

Legend has it that cowboys drove wild  horses across a narrow neck out onto a waterless point where they could see the Colorado below but couldn’t get to it and died of thirst.  The reasons for this mindless cruelty are unknown but provided the name for the Park.

It’s so scenic that Hollywood has repeatedly used DHPSP as a movie set, like John Ford’s Stagecoach, John Wayne’s 1st high-profile role.   Most people think that the final scene of Thelma & Louise was shot at the Grand Canyon, but they’re wrong.  It was filmed here.

Ruth and I didn’t have time for the 3 easy to moderate loop trails or the rim walks, this time.  We also learned that the most satisfying visits include either a sunrise or sunset, and we couldn’t wait for the latter.  So, of course, we’re planning a trip back to Dead Horse next summer.  Maybe even sooner.


South America’s Wild Coast

I love travel books and last week I read a 5 compass one.  My favorites are about places I’m unlikely to experience.  Before I plan a trip abroad, I always check the US Department of State.  I google, click INTERNATIONAL TRAVEL and Select Country or Area.

Today I checked out French Guiana, a subject of the book I’m about to recommend, and learned, “An increase in criminal activity, such as assault, armed robbery, and theft, and in rare instances a stabbing or shooting, has been reported by Americans traveling in French Guiana, particularly its major cities.”  So perhaps it’s better to read John Gimlette’s Wild Coast, published in 2011, than to go there.  At least for now.

In Wild Coast, John Gimlette, an Englishman who practices law too, writes about his 3 month journey to Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana.  Going, at risk, virtually everywhere he could, Gimlette subtitled his book Travels on South America’s Untamed Edge.

He’s a great word master.  Describing the natives along a river, he reported, “They just looked at us as though we were bad weather or hard work.”

Gimlette isn’t the only writer who has covered this mostly unknown part of the world.  In 1595 Sir Walter Raleigh published The Discoverie of the Large, Rich and Beautiful Empire of Guiana in England about his search for El Dorado, the city of gold.  Gimlette, by the way, solves the mystery of this legend. Evelyn Waugh and V. S. Naipaul also visited.

With a 900 mile coast and an impenetrable interior, these 3 countries claim the world’s largest ants, dangerous jaguars, few roads, giant otters, serious sorcerers, many descendants of African slaves, and some of the most important, unknown rivers on the planet.

Gimlette describes Guyana’s capital city, Georgetown, as a tiny, one escalator town with nothing to hide that he was sorry to leave because of its “illusion of familiarity.”  Guyana, “leaking smugglers around the edges” made big news in 1978 when the mass suicide of cult members in Jonestown occurred.  Gillette went there.

He describes Paramaribo, Suriname’s capital, as “the world’s most fanciful city” where he fell in love on the first day and spent the rest of his time wondering why.  He calls Suriname a “peculiar land” due mainly to the colony-minded Dutch and English who failed to tame an area the size of Florida.

In French Guiana’s capital Cayenne, Gimlette “felt like an onlooker at a strange, slightly manic party.”  This country is mostly known for its penal colonies, Devil’s Island and St Laurent du Maroni, made famous by Henri Charrière’s autobiography Papillon.

If you love travel writing, this is among the genre’s best, one of those books that you go without eating and sleeping to finish.