Posts tagged Alberta

From a Breakdown in Brandon to the Mountains in Banff

Nothing like breaking down on the side of the highway at night when it’s freezing out. We had a minor setback in Brandon before zooming through the prairies to reach Calgary and lust over the mountains in Banff and Canmore, Alberta.

Where did we leave off? Oh right, we were on a mission to drive through the prairies as quickly as possible. Leaving Thunder Bay that morning and making a few stops along the way, we were making great progress by reaching Brandon by nightfall…that is, until we started smelling burning rubber and saw smoke coming from under the hood. Fun! Truthfully, we haven’t had a breakdown in quite some time so we weren’t all that surprised. Naturally it was below 0 temperatures and the wind was violent when we had to pull over along the Trans Canada and check out the situation. It seemed that one of our belts had snapped, which was shitty news since we had just replaced them not long ago. Thanks to my dad’s suggestion, we kept our old belts just in case and thought we’d be in the clear by swapping the broken one out with our old one. Nope. After several attempts to get the tension right, we realized that the unit it was wrapping around was ceased and was just continuing to smoulder and smell gross. The question now wasn’t as much about how we were going to replace this part as it was about identifying what the part even was. With no help from CAA (we’re mad at you, CAA), a kind stranger pulled over on the side of the highway asking if we were alright and offered to tow us to a nearby gas station. That’s one great thing about being in the prairies – people are super nice and everyone has a truck. Long story short, it was an air pump (or smog pump), which is a part added in these older vehicles to help reduce emissions but virtually does nothing by today’s standards. In knowing that leaving the belt off would do nothing but increase our horsepower, we threw the broken belt in the trash can and got back on the road.

Generic Van Life - Banff Canmore Justin Russian Hat
Here’s a photo of Justin in a Russian hat to deflect the attention from the stress of a breakdown

We had a nice rest area scoped out in Broadview, Saskatchewan but once we arrived well after midnight, the gate was locked and we felt a second hit of dejection. Our bodies were also very confused after driving through two time zones in one day (Sask doesn’t observe Daylight Savings Time) so we pulled into a nearby truck stop and hunkered down for the night to prepare for another long day of driving to follow. After a surprisingly quiet sleep, we got back on the highway and jetted through Regina, Swift Current and Medicine Hat before finally making it to Calgary and getting a chance to slow down for a few days and hangout with friends and family. Making the two long days of driving worth it was getting to meet Justin’s mom’s two new kittens that could put a smile even on Ebenezer Scrooge’s face.

Generic Van Life - Banff Canmore Kitten
KITTEN!!!!!

With some major stroke of luck, we had clear skies and warm, sunny days the whole time we were in Calgary, sitting comfortable in double digit temperatures for over a week. As anyone who lives in their vehicle knows, that makes life much more pleasant for sleeping and pretty much just being alive in general. Even with the warm days, we were so bogged down with a huge workload that we spent most of our time behind our computer screens. We did, however, get to spend plenty of time with Justin’s brother’s puppy who doesn’t look like much of a puppy anymore but is still just as wild. Is it showing that I have major pet fever?

Generic Van Life - Banff Canmore Banjo
Grown up Banjo, one of our favourite buds

With so much time spent working, we took an overnight trip to Banff National Park to give ourselves a mini vacation and recharge a bit. If you’ve ever seen a postcard of Canada, it was probably taken in Banff. It’s Canada’s first National Park and is absolutely gorgeous from every direction. No doubt the Rockies are pretty epic the whole way down, but there’s something special about Banff. We started by driving through the foothills to Kananaskis Country and making Lake Louise our first stop. We’ve both been to Banff before but never at this time of year; October is shoulder season and is known to be the quietest month of the year. This was great news for us because the volume of tourists can often get a little out of hand when you have to time every photo just right in order to not get someone else’s family in the background.

Generic Van Life - Banff Canmore Mt Rundle
Mt Rundle, Banff’s most iconic mountain

Unfortunately the weather was a little overcast and grey but Lake Louise still glimmered with its vibrant blue-green waters. The canoes and kayaks had been put away for the season and were replaced by a bit more than a dusting of snow on the mountains and surrounding grounds. Despite the cooler temperatures and not-so-sunny skies, there were still bare shouldered brides and busloads of foreigners all checking out the Albertan staple. Moraine Lake, another photoshop-looking mountain lake, is usually the next stop but access was sadly already closed for the season.

Generic Van Life - Banff Canmore Lake Louise
Lake Louise looks too beautiful to be real

On a whim, we decided to go on the Banff Gondola since there’s a special rate for Alberta residents (who can turn down a deal?) and we figured it’d be one of the only times where we’d actually get our own cable car and not have to wait in line. As cheap as I am (I prefer economical), this was worth paying full price for. The ride up Sulphur Mountain gave us an awesome view of the mountains but the view from the top was kind of mind blowing. There’s a fairly big building where you get off the gondola with a gift shop and restaurant and all that jazz, and the start of a 2 km (1.24 mi) walking trail – which is pretty much ALL stairs – that takes you to the Sanson’s Peak. At the summit of the mountain, you have an incredible panoramic view of the entire park and the town of Banff nestled amongst the towering peaks.

Generic Van Life - Banff Canmore Sulphur Mountain Lookout
Amazing view of the mountains from Sanson’s Peak
Generic Van Life - Banff Canmore Gondola Walkway
Pretty epic walkway up to Sanson’s Peak from the Banff Gondola on Sulphur Mountain

With the quick change in elevation, things got majorly cold so we were happy to return to ground level and find some good food after working up quite an appetite. Another praise to shoulder season, we were able to find free parking downtown where we could stroll around Banff Ave and the other animal-named streets without having to shimmy through hoards of tourists. We had some pretty tasty BBQ and cocktails at Park Distillery and left downtown with full bellies and lighter wallets. We headed into Canmore for the night, which is the neighbouring town outside of the National Park boundaries where a lot of people who work in Banff live (which, I might add, is like 95% Australians). We parked in a designated RV parking zone in downtown Canmore that was clearly a very popular spot for travellers and vehicle dwellers alike. We had the best time in Banff and lucked out being able to end the night within walking distance of a bar for a nightcap (or two…).

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A rare sight…downtown Banff not swarmed with tourists!
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Not a bad view to wake up to in downtown Canmore

On our way back to Calgary, we stopped at Elbow Falls in Kananaskis and marvelled at how low the water levels were. Normally a pretty majestic waterfall, there was still a solid stream going but it was surrounded by dried up riverbeds that you could walk right on to. Sadly, they say the area really hasn’t been the same after the 2013 flood but in any case, it still is pretty.

Generic Van Life - Banff Canmore Elbow Falls
Elbow Falls in Bragg Creek surrounded by dry riverbeds

Keeping our eyes on the forecast, we spent our last couple days in Alberta starting our winter prep for the van. We bought a roll of Reflectix and made insulating panels for all the windows and sealed off any gaps. We tied up some more loose ends repair-wise and very reluctantly, traded in our cassette player (it was hardly working) for a newfangled stereo. Clementine is slowly making her way into the 21st century but still boasts plenty of 80s charm. Snow was on the ground when we left Calgary so we knew it was time to move and hopefully get as much of our mountain driving done before the weather starts to turn in BC. We had our fair share of cold weather last year in Alberta but escaped it by going south; this year, we’re staying in Canada and hoping to do everything we can to comfortably winterize. Stay tuned for a blog about winterizing tips for vanlifers – you’ll never cherish wool socks so much.

Generic Van Life - Banff Canmore Reflectix
Cutting our Reflectix to size for our window panels. Liquor bottles always make good weights.

Coming Full Circle in Alberta

Returning to where we started our van journey in and around Calgary, Alberta.

Alberta is where the van magic started; our van is from here, we renovated it here (in the dead of winter I might add) and we started our 6-month long drive (and counting) from here. As cool as it was coming back into Canada through BC, entering Alberta was a pretty big milestone for us. We’ve done and seen A LOT of stuff since we’ve been away and it’s pretty great to know that we, and Clementine, have made it successfully without being dead broke or, just dead.

Generic Van Life - Alberta Crowsnest Pass
The Rockies never seem to get old. Even though they’re like really, really old.

You’d be hard pressed to find a boring or dull route into Alberta from BC since you’ve got some pretty special mountains to pass through. As mentioned in our last post, we took the Crowsnest Highway the whole way through BC until we reached the crazy gorgeous Crowsnest Pass in Alberta. Crystal clear lakes and snow capped mountains surround you as you drive and try to feverishly take it all in since in a matter of minutes, the landscape changes to the good ol’ prairies – yawn. Anyway, not far from the border is the town of Frank, which is a pretty interesting place to stop. Basically, hundreds of years ago, a crazy rockslide completely buried this little town and it was left as a field of rubble. They say there’s gold and all kinds of things under those rocks since the slide destroyed banks and other important buildings but I think the no-digging policy is pretty firm. Bummer.

Generic Van Life - Alberta Frank's Slide
Turtle Mountain: the culprit of the rockslide that buried a town in 1903

After catching up with some friends and family, we made the voyage to middle-of-nowhere-ville, Alberta for a music and van festival. Yes, I said van festival. It’s called Vantopia and is where people from Western Canada and elsewhere bring their crazy souped up vintage vans to hangout and party. I think we could easily say we were some of the only ones that actually live in our van because most of these other ones definitely stay in the garage for most of the year and only come out to be shown off. We’re talking full white polar bear interiors, custom wooden rims and even fully operational bars, all in 70s and 80s vans in the most pristine condition. It was a farmer’s field full of vanners and it was wicked. We set up our matching awnings with our friends’ van and made a giant van complex but were too busy getting wasted to take a photo of it – oops!

Generic Van Life - Alberta Vantopia
One of the only surviving photos (…and it sucks. Sorry.) of when we just arrived and barely anyone was there

We spent the next couple weeks hanging out with family, eating good food and catching up on some repairs and maintenance. We were so stoked to borrow a timing gun from a friend and fix our ongoing engine issue in minutes. We can now go up hills without having to go logging truck pace and all just in time for us to embark on the flattest part of our journey through the prairies– perfect timing! Ha. As great of a time as we had with the humans we hadn’t seen in months, the highlight of our time in Calgary was definitely meeting Justin’s brother’s new puppy, Banjo. This is totally unrelated to anything travel or van related but he’s just too damn cute not to acknowledge. He’s a little border collie and is an absolute wildman. But you can’t stay mad at him because he’s just SO CUTE!! (Photo evidence below)

Generic Van Life - Alberta Banjo
GAHH!!! Don’t you just want to squeeze him?!

Just as we were getting ready to leave Calgary, we noticed that our fridge had decided to stop cooling. We had propane, it was getting a steady flow of power and we always make sure to keep it level so this became a real headache. Long story short, we ended up being able to replace what was causing the problem with a $7 part from an electronics store and were back in business. This was really frustrating and stressful and delayed our departure by a few aggravating days but all in all, we got it sorted and were finally able to buy groceries again, yay! RV fridges are really expensive and finicky so I wrote a very detailed post about what happened to our fridge and how to troubleshoot if you’re experiencing issues with yours. All that and more here.

Generic Van Life-RV Fridge Troubleshooting-Upside Down Fridge
Repeatedly turning the fridge upside down was one of the many methods we messed with

With a cold fridge full of overpriced Canadian beer, we were ready to hit the road again and keep truckin’ east. We made a stop not far from the Saskatchewan border in Sunnynook, Alberta at a lovely free campground on a dam reservoir. It was all fine and dandy with the exception of the playground that’s so rusty that it makes horror movie-level sounds as children play on it. Swings that sound like creaky shrieks and children’s laughter just don’t go all that well together when you don’t want to have nightmares. Aside from that, we enjoyed our last peaceful night in Alberta before exploring some new ground (for me) in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Our next commitment is to be in Northern Ontario for the beginning of July so we have about two weeks to drive 19 hours, which is more than manageable and will give us plenty of time to get lost in all those canola fields. Oh yeah, we borrowed a camera from Justin’s mom so we’ll be stepping up our photo game on our blogs and camping directory. Be sure to follow along as we uncover new spots all the time!

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Peaceful prairie camping in Sunnynook, Alberta

Following the Crowsnest through Interior BC

Snaking around hairpin turns in Osoyoos before venturing into the mountains on the Crowsnest Highway through Castlegar, Creston and Fernie, British Columbia. 

The time had come for us to veer away from the gorgeous Pacific coast that we had spent the last two months conquering and head into the interior, bidding farewell to the ocean for a while until we reach the Atlantic. From Princeton, we started on the Crowsnest Highway, which we’d be taking the whole way through to Alberta. Most people opt for the other route through Golden, BC to Banff, AB but that’s precisely why we didn’t – it gets crazy packed with tourists all summer and luckily, we’ve both done it before. The Crowsnest Highway is also incredibly beautiful and far less busy, which is great for us since Clemmie doesn’t exactly love going up hills. Anyway, we settled into another camping spot along the Similkameen River not far from Hedley and took cover as massive swarms of baby mosquitoes tried to gobble us up. I didn’t mind having to stay inside because after spending a week in the city, I got sick. Interestingly enough, neither of us have been sick at all since we’ve hit the road (even in the winter) and have been spending so much time outside but after a week of close quarters with lots of humans, it got me good.     

Generic Van Life - Crowsnest Highway Similkameen River
It’s hard to find bad views in the mountains. This was our spot on the Similkameen River, between Hedley and Keremeos.

We carried on into picturesque wine country where it was 30°C/86°F and everything was in full bloom. If you’ve never been to Osoyoos before, do yourself a favour and go. It’s a magical valley within the Okanagan area that seems like it could be the setting of a Disney movie with lush greenery amongst a background of snow-capped mountains. There’s a killer lookout point as you leave town that gives a view of the whole valley and the switchbacks you just drove up to get there. This led us toward Anarchist Mountain (great name), where we camped a night at yet another one of BC’s awesome recreation areas called Jolly Creek. We had our share of struggles in the winter when it was so cold that we’d wake up with frost on our phone screens and our dish soap would be frozen but now that summer was coming into full swing, a whole new set of challenges were arising. We’ve got a small fan but with no airflow, it kinda just pushes the warm air around. The only cure for that is to sit outside in the heat and remember the times we nearly froze when running out of propane in the middle of the night in -30° and stop complaining.

Generic Van Life - Crowsnest Highway Osoyoos
Could Osoyoos get any prettier?

The van didn’t want to start up the next morning which further solidified our inkling that the ignition timing was out of sync and the drive through the mountains would be a slow crawl until we could fix it in Calgary. With most of our day spent fiddling with spark plugs, we made a brief stop in Grand Forks before hunkering down for the night at a spot called Mud Lake. Because of the elevation, there was still snow on the ground even though it was over 30°C/86°F and sunny; for the first time ever, we had a snowball fight in shorts and sandals and it was something out of every Canadian child’s dreams.

Generic Van Life - Crowsnest Highway Mud Lake
Sunshine and snow at Mud Lake

The next morning had me waking up dead sick but luckily we were on our way to Creston where we’d be visiting some family for some much-needed TLC and home cookin’. We stopped in Castlegar to trade in my oregano oil for extra strength Buckley’s before making the trek through the Kootenays via Salmo Pass. This was really hard on Clementine because it was the longest and probably the tallest mountain we’d climbed so far. Alongside the logging trucks, we slowly creeped up to the snowy summit where we had to stop for roadwork. Turns out there was a massive mud slide just a week prior where a couple from Saskatchewan got pushed off the cliff and had to find their way out of the mud and get airlifted out…YIKES. Anyway, we eventually made it to Creston (mud-free) where we spent a few days relaxing and chowing down on lots of fresh, local asparagus (asparagus tourism, anyone?).

Generic Van Life - Crowsnest Highway Salmo Pass
No shortage of bad views on the Kootenay Pass from Salmo to Creston

With some rest and lots of cold medicine, I was feeling alive again and ready to keep truckin’. We made a stop in Cranbrook to get some groceries and got caught in a vicious mountain thunderstorm that actually made the power go out at Walmart. You know it’s intense when even Walmart is down. Once it passed and order was restored in the universe, we made our way toward Fernie for our last couple nights in British Columbia. By this time, we’d been on the road for six months and had barely seen any wildlife aside from the usual suspects of deer and possums. Not far out of Cranbrook near Joffre, we had our first bear sighting. Unfortunately, it was dead on the side of the road with its tongue hanging out and was not at all pleasant to look at…neither was the smashed up car that hit it. We passed the scene of the crime and spent the night at Wapiti Lake where we camped lakeside to the soundtrack of elk mating calls. When we were exploring the forest a bit, we found a bag of deer legs dumped on the ground. This was pretty weird and creepy so we retreated back to the van and tried not to let our minds wander.

Generic Van Life - Crowsnest Highway Wapiti Lake
When a lovely lakeside camping spot turns into…
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A creepy deer massacre!!

Fernie is a wicked little mountain town not far from the Alberta border. It’s a hotspot in the winter for skiing and snowboarding but is equally beautiful in the summer where sidewalk patios give way to a view of the snowy Lizard Range Mountains. The Three Sisters are a heavily photographed mountain chain that you can see clearly, right from downtown. After putting in some work hours at a café, we grabbed some Fernie brews and headed up Mount Hosmer where we’d spend our last night in BC. Hartley Lake is a small emerald green lake nestled among the mountain tops that made for an awesome camping spot. You really can’t beat mountain-fed lakes and the peacefulness that surrounds them. We spotted two beavers swimming around but when we walked around to get a closer look, the one we gathered was the male protecting the pregnant female started jumping out of the water to make some major splashes to scare us off. Ok beaver, it worked. We’ll keep to our side and you can keep to yours.

Generic Van Life - Crowsnest Highway Hartley Lake
Beautiful Hartley Lake on Mt. Hosmer, about 20 minutes away from Fernie

After a quiet night’s rest, we gathered our things to make our way toward Calgary, where we started our journey six months ago. Of course, Clementine didn’t want to go home and decided yet again, she didn’t want to start. She eventually got going after the usual fiddling so we were anxious to get to Calgary to catch up on the overdue repairs and tuning. Returning to Alberta was coming full circle from where we bought and renovated the van and it felt great to know we’ve made it such a long way. We’re stoked to keep heading east through Canada and check out tons of cool spots along the way. Keep checking our camping directory as we add new spots all the time!

Generic Van Life - Crowsnest Highway Sparwood Truck
Bonus! Check out “The World’s Largest Truck” in Sparwood on your way out of BC. It’s definitely not small…

Drumheller: Land of Dinos and Van Dwellers

The Land Before [our first] Time [camping in the van] in Drumheller, Alberta

For our first little adventure, we took advantage of one of the first nights where temperatures weren’t severely below freezing and drove about 1.5 hours Northeast of Calgary to a town called Drumheller. If you like dinosaur statues in various costumes and sizes scattered throughout town, then this is the place for you. In fact, Drumheller boasts the largest dinosaur (model) IN THE WORLD! Now how many people can say they’ve seen that?!

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Hockey arena for scale…that’s one big dinosaur!

We perused the interwebz a little bit before going to see if there were any known good spots to park for the night and came across Horsethief Canyon. The view looked sweet and although Justin lived in Alberta for ten years previously, he had never been there. It’s about a 15 minute drive north of town and apparently coined its name from illegal horse smuggling between Alberta and USA. Juicy. After driving along the Red Deer River, past the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology (which surprisingly isn’t pronounced “ty-rell”), we were right in the thick of the Badlands. If it weren’t for the lingering snow, the landscape could have passed for Arizona. This was pretty trippy for me, who has only ever visited the Ontario badlands, which look more like rolling red sand dunes than desert canyons.

Generic Van Life - Drumheller Parked View
Cracked a beer and we felt like we’re at home.

The parking lot was nice and empty. I imagine it’s a popular day trip in the summertime but end of November temperatures left us with the place to ourselves. This was an awesome spot to park the van because it’s quiet and secluded but still within a 15 min drive of town if you need to grab food or take a gas station poop.

After getting settled in for the evening, we noticed a weather alert for a windstorm. Some 100 km/h winds would be paying us a visit and they were certainly beginning to make their presence known. We moved the van slightly away from the edge of the canyon where the winds were able to hit us head on, as opposed to from the side like they were while we were eating dinner and rocking like a canoe. My mom later added, “as long as it was just the winds that were rocking the van” …ugh. It was a slightly tumultuous slumber that night as my mind switched on paranoia mode and raced through different outcomes of us falling into the canyon with no one around to notice that we’ve died. I might have gotten a little ahead of myself and forgotten that we weigh over 6000 lbs empty. On that note, the winds died down around 4am and we woke up to a lovely sunrise peaking over the rocky relief. All in all, it was a great first trip and allowed us to really test how the flow of the van is working for us (and how well the furnace works). I think our next trip will be even better!

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Evening sunset over Dinosaur Valley.

If you’re curious to know more about Drumheller or the surrounding Badlands area, pop us a comment or message and let’s chat!