2012  HIKING, CYCLING,

& RV TRAVEL ADVENTURES

 

   
 
Runtrails' Web Journal
 
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   OH, CANADA! A SUMMARY OF
OUR FIRST THREE DAYS IN ALBERTA

MONDAY, JUNE 4

 
"Kilometers are shorter than miles. Save gas; take your next trip in kilometers."
 
~ Comedian George Carlin
 
 
If it was that easy, we'd be saving a ton of money as we travel through Canada on our way to Alaska.

Canada has used the metric system since the mid-1970s so distances along the highways are marked in kilometers instead of miles. The speed limits are in kilometers per hour. And we heard radio ads for "low-kilometer" used vehicles; we got a chuckle out of that.

Fortunately, Jim and I know kilometers pretty well from 30+ years of running races that are often measured in kilometers.


That one's easy after all the 50K races we've run! We know the limit is 31 MPH.
(It helps that our speedometer is in both kilometers and miles.)

Liters aren't as easy for us and, unfortunately, by the time we convert liters of diesel fuel to gallons, we found we've been paying roughly $4.08-$4.39/gallon through Alberta since we entered the province on Saturday.

Now we're almost in British Columbia. Will the diesel prices get even higher as we journey farther north and west through increasingly remote territory? Probably.

It could be worse -- and was in 2008 when we decided against taking any summer trip at all. This year we're racking up the most miles on a summer trip yet, in spite of the cost of fuel. Life's too short to sit at home or, as a German RVer who is also on his way to Alaska wryly told us, "I don't want to be the richest guy in the cemetery!"

 
Road trip!!! What's wrong with this picture of road work just south of Calgary?
(answer is in bullets halfway down this page)

We heard this week that crude oil prices are "down" to $83/barrel now from over $100/barrel recently. Not sure when that will translate into lower prices at the pump, especially 'way up here. Canada produces a lot of oil and natural gas but most or all of it gets refined elsewhere.

And thanks to the inaction of the current U.S. administration and Congress re: the Keystone Pipeline, Canada is now looking to build a pipeline through its own country to the west coast instead of from Montana to Texas.

You should hear what they say about that up here!

GREAT FALLS, MONTANA TO GRANDE PRAIRIE, ALBERTA

Here's the quickie version:

We left Malmstrom AFB in Great Falls, MT on Saturday morning, passed through customs in two minutes (got really, really lucky), spent the first night in Calgary, drove through Edmonton the second day, spent that night in Whitecourt, and reached the Rotary Club RV Park in Grande Prairie this morning.

Read on for more details.


Nice Rotary Club RV Park by Bear Reservoir in Grande Prairie;
we'd like to stay longer but Alaska beckons . . .

Great Falls to Grande Prairie was a distance of 814 miles, much of it through verdant prairie lands. The farther north and west we drove, the more hilly the terrain, the more forests, and the less traffic we saw.

All this time we've been in Mountain Daylight Savings Time. Tomorrow we cross into Pacific Time. (Alaska will be AK time, four hours later than Eastern.)


View of Grand Prairie's handsome visitor center.  If you need it,
a free RV dump station and potable water are located nearby.

We think Alberta (AB), Canada is pretty cool. There are many similarities to the U.S.:

  • Albertans speak our language. They even pronounce most words like Midwesterners do. We usually can't tell who's Canadian and who's from the Lower 48 states.
  • Alberta businesses take our credit cards. We haven't had to convert any money yet. One day soon we'll need some Canadian loonies ($1 coins) and quarters to do laundry, though.
  • The monetary exchange rate is slightly in our favor right now. It's a moving target. Even though the U.S. banks we're dealing with add in a 3% exchange transaction fee, the sum we pay for the use of our MC and Visa cards still comes up less than the amounts shown on the Canadian receipts we get. We're starting to lose our deer-in-the-headlights look when we see Canadian prices because we know we're actually paying a little less.


Moose warning along four-lane AB 43 between Whitecourt and Grande Prairie

  • Canadians drive on the right side of the road, not the left as in the UK. I've driven in England and Wales, and it was intense in a little car. I can't imagine driving a big RV on the left.

  • Alberta has many of the same brands of items and store, restaurant, motel, and other business chains as the U.S. except in very small towns. They also have their own chain stores and brands. Flying J is about the only U.S. gas station up here, though.

  • WalMart stores in Alberta gladly let RVs park overnight in their parking lots. We spent the first night at a WM in Calgary, the second in Whitecourt. The answer to our query about staying in both places was along the lines of "Of course you can park overnight!" as if there was any question about the practice as there is in some communities in the U.S.

  • TV and radio stations in Calgary and Edmonton talk about U.S. news almost as much as Canadian news.

  • Based on the news coverage we've heard, Albertans apparently follow a lot of U.S. sports teams.

  • They also seem to listen to a lot of U.S. rock 'n roll, country-western, and other music artists. Alberta has more of a "western" flavor than the other provinces (think Calgary Stampede).


Alberta loves visitors.


 Cowboys ride in the grass next to four-lane AB 43.

  • The lush prairie in southern Alberta looks a lot like Montana and the Plains states in the spring after a lot of rain.

  • Farther north in Alberta the lakes, wetlands, and forests thick with pines, spruce, aspens, and paper bark birch trees resemble those in northern Minnesota and New England. We haven't gotten into real mountains or the tundra yet.

  • Great big dandelions are everywhere. <grin>


Dandelions are prolific in Alberta this time of year;  canola is yellow but it isn't up yet.

  • So far our Verizon cell phones work up here, although we're likely to lose service in British Columbia and the Yukon.
  • We had trouble getting WiFi while boondocking in Calgary and Whitecourt but we have a good connection in the campground at Grande Prairie. It's too expensive to switch our MiFi secure internet service for use in Canada so we won't do any online banking or purchases until we get to Alaska (i.e., back in the U.S.). We get an e-mail every time we charge something so we can keep up with our credit card purchases that way and know if someone is using our card numbers fraudulently.

ALBERTAN CHARM & HOSPITALITY

There are enough differences between Alberta and the U.S. to make our first three days in Canada feel somewhat like we're in a "foreign" country, though:

  • The people are very friendly, helpful, and cheerful everywhere we go, and not just the ones whose livelihood we're helping support with tourism.
  • There is total civility on the highways, at least compared to the U.S. In the road construction photo outside Calgary near the beginning of this entry you can see two lanes to the right of the vehicles we're behind. The sign advising traffic to merge left was at least half a mile behind us when I took that picture. In most places in the U.S. impatient, all-about-me drivers would be crowding as far up as they could in those two right lanes, then trying to merge into the far left lane at the very last second. That always drives us nuts. Here, all but one semi and a small group of motorcyclists got in line as soon as they saw the first merge sign and stayed there the whole time it took us to clear about a mile of construction (about 15 minutes of more "stop" than "go"). We were amazed by the civility and self-control shown by 98% of those drivers.

Above and below:  agribusiness is as big an industry in Alberta as oil and gas.
Millions of acres of grains like wheat and canola are grown here.

  • Albertans have a charming obsession with the UK monarchy and the queen's Silver Jubilee even though Canada is no longer under British rule.

  • As mentioned, we're still getting used to the metric system. Although we're good with kilometers because of all the years we ran long-distance races, we need a calculator to convert liters into gallons -- and 18 degrees Celsius still sounds doggone cold! We printed out a cheat sheet with Fahrenheit and Centigrade equivalents to make those calculations easier. We've already started thinking more automatically in terms of Centigrade when we see/read weather predictions. Here's an interesting fact we knew long ago but forgotminus 40 F. is the same as minus 40 C.  Cool, eh?

  • Albertans may pronounce most words the way we do but they don't always spell them the way we do. Examples are the UK spelling for litre, centre, theatre, colour, flavour, etc.

  • We're heard/read that everything costs more in Canada than the U.S. We believe it, and it's not just because of the exchange rate being slightly favorable to U.S. citizens right now. Groceries, supplies, gasoline, and diesel are noticeably higher when we can compare apples to apples (for example, the same things we buy at WalMart regularly). We know we'll pay even more the farther north and west we go because it's more remote territory.

  • Many of the road signs have intuitive symbols that transcend language barriers. We should have more of those in the U.S. Not only are they attractive, most are also easy to quickly understand the first time you see them.

  • We've enjoyed seeing some traditional Inuit stacked stone figures (such as the one above) along the road, in yards, and at the visitor center in Grande Prairie. They resemble humans and are called Inukshuk. We first learned about them at Imperial Dam in southern California last winter. Canadian snowbirds had built them along the desert trails to remind them of home. I liked the concept so much that I built one at our campsite (I included a photo in an earlier entry this year). I hope that wasn't disrespectful of the culture; I built it in admiration of the art form.

  • There is less visual blight along the highways in Alberta than in most places we travel in the U.S. -- many fewer billboards, noticeably less trash.

  • We've seen more warning signs for elk and moose in the last three days than we see in moose territory in the U.S. Too bad we haven't seen any of those critters yet.

  • Then there's that sun which doesn't set until after we've gone to bed at night!

This is last night's sunset in Whitecourt. It was already 10:35 PM. We went to bed before the sun sank below the horizon:

That light-most-of-the-night phenomenon will only get worse as we go farther north and get closer to June 21. We're at about the 56th parallel now and will be going several parallels north of that.

"Land of the Midnight Sun" will be for real pretty soon.

So far we've been tired enough at night to go to sleep at our regular bedtime even though it's still bright outside. (Not much different than the bright lights in WalMart parking lots, after all!) I've been waking up too early in the morning, though. It gets light about 4:15 AM. The light-blocking curtains I added to our bedroom window shades after we bought the Cameo help keep the room a little darker but some light still filters in.

Cody seems more confused by the long hours of daylight than Jim and I are. As soon as it gets light he thinks it's time for breakfast. Of course, he plays the starved-dog role most of the time, so his behavior isn't all that different now.


We could see the snow-capped peaks in Banff and/or Jasper NPs under the clouds as we drove north
toward Calgary. We want to come back in the fall or next summer to see those beautiful parks.

Although Calgary and Edmonton looked very interesting, we zipped on through those cities because our goal is to get to Alaska as soon as reasonably possible.

But because we may return a different route in the fall, we will do some touristy things as we head to Alaska.

MORE ABOUT CUSTOMS

We've been stressing out about border crossings for months. We'll be going back and forth across the U.S. and Canadian borders a minimum of four times, more if we visit Haines, Hyder, and/or Skagway, AK on the way back in the fall.

We did a lot of research while we were in Virginia and pretty well knew what documents we needed and what items we could and couldn't take into Canada on our first encounter with customs agents when driving an RV.


Weather-worn house (and outhouse) along AB 43

We've heard/read stories of problematic border crossings from RVers who have driven to Alaska. What we dreaded was the hassle a thorough inspection of our camper and truck would involve. If you're selected for an inspection you have to open the slides, unlock all inside and outside doors/drawers, and allow the agents free reign of your vehicle(s) while you and your dog(s) stay somewhere else.

Sounds like fun, eh?

We gathered all the documents we knew we might need (passports, vehicle registrations, proof of vehicle insurance that's valid in Canada, Cody's vet information, etc.), a couple bottles of prescription sleeping pills and pain meds, and our big new can of bear spray. We had them in the truck with us so they'd be handy.

Long story short, our border crossing from Sweet Grass, MT to Coutts, AB was uneventful.

There were only two vehicles in front of us. We waited about ten minutes to pull up to the window after the RV in front of us pulled out (a Class A motorhome towing a pick-up truck, shown below). We noted that it had to pull over in another area ahead of us, apparently for an inspection. One of the cars in the lane to the right of us also had to go to the same place.


The folks in the RV in front of us weren't so lucky.

Then it was our turn to pull up to the window.

The customs agent asked Jim about ten questions that we expected -- and didn't ask some that we expected -- and waved us through in less than two minutes. Whew!!!

I can't begin to tell you how relieved we were to avoid the intrusion and hassle of an inspection.

We believe inspections are mostly random (OK, we're done with that vehicle, give us another one to inspect) and partly based on IDs or answers that raise alarms.

I do know that our feelings for Canada were enhanced by our border experience, whether that's a valid correlation or not. Next time, like when we cross into Alaska, we may not be so lucky.


Welcome to Canada, indeed!

I may eventually expound on our customs experience in another entry.

For now, our best advice if you'll be crossing a U.S. or Canadian border in your personal vehicle is to do your research so you know what to expect, have the proper documents handy, be prepared for a thorough vehicle/RV search, and don't try to sneak in anything that isn't allowed (including too much of things that are allowed but in limited quantities).

Take the whole process very seriously. Customs  officials have even more power than TSA agents to affect your travel plans.

GRANDE PRAIRIE IS GRAND

We really like Grande Prairie, a city of about 50,000 people in far western AB near the British Columbia (BC) border.


Unique brick building designed by Aboriginal architect Douglas Cardinal
on the campus of a regional college in Grande Prairie

The weather was so nice this morning that we decided to stop after only 179 miles and stay overnight in a nice Rotary Club campground next to the Bear Creek Reservoir instead of driving a little farther to Dawson Creek, BC today.

That's part of our MO this trip -- less driving per day than we usually do in the Lower 48 and lots of flexibility re: where we stay and how long.

After we settled in we got out into the warm sunshine (70 F. = 21 C.) for some exercise on the Bear Creek Greenway, one of the nicest urban multi-use paths we've found in our travels.


There are numerous bridges on the Bear Creek multi-use trail. This one is by the lake.


Jim rides over one of the bridges spanning Bear Creek.

The hilly, paved path loops around the large reservoir, goes past a smaller lake, and follows Bear Creek for several miles downstream. It runs through long, linear Muskoseepi Park and is part open grass and part secluded shade in forests.

There were signs warning us about bears in the woods but we didn't see any. There are several dirt single-track foot trails through the wooded areas and many spur trails to residential neighborhoods.

Jim rode his bike 20+ miles. I rode about half of that with him, then walked Cody for several miles. It was a nice break from all the driving we've done.

HEADING FOR BC

We still have another 89 km, I mean 55 miles, to go in Alberta before reaching the border of British Columbia.

We have a rather short drive tomorrow of just over 100 miles. Our goal is to reach Dawson Creek, BC, where we'll spend at least one predicted rainy day. Dawson Creek is Mile O of the famed Alaska Highway, the eastern route to Alaska.

I think we'll start feeling even more like we're on our way to Alaska once we get on that highway.


View from the Bear Creek Trail of historic buildings at the Grande Prairie Museum

I'll write another summary after we get through British Columbia and into the Yukon Territory. Go back to the topics page and watch for that entry to appear in a few days.

I plan to fill in more details and photos of our trip through Alberta in the future. I'll probably highlight the newest entries in red so folks can find them more easily.

Happy trails,

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the ultra Lab

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2012 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil

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