Thursday, June 27, 2019

12 June - Whistler to Victoria - Day 39 of TCE

The room in the Pinnacle Hotel had been extremely comfortable. Last evening I was told that the 84 rooms that the property has are almost every day sold out, be it winter or summer. The manager, who hailed from Sri Lanka, told me that when the previous day had started there were plenty of rooms yet to be booked. However, by late evening they were sold out. I was witness to the snaking queues at the check-in counter yesterday even as I was checking in. In winter large groups descend into Whistler for skiing. The groups are block booked into hotels by tour agencies. The advantage with such groups is that they stay for a minimum of 7 days. In keeping with the requirement of such arrivals the room is furnished amply with arrangements for cooking and serving. Besides, the hotel has laundry facilities for inmates. I was surprised to see a jaccuzi in the bedroom apart from the en suite complements. The balcony of the room is meant for those who want to appreciate the quiet of the city and spent some time in contemplation.

I had an afternoon sailing from Departure Bay to Horseshoe Bay for the transit from Victoria to Vancouver. Therefore, I did not initially plan to leave before 10 am. However, when I went through the ferry schedule I noticed that there is an earlier sailing at 11 am. Since I had nothing left to do at that hour in the city I left the hotel, after breakfast, by 8.30 am. Driving leisurely on the Sky to Sea route from the scenic Whistler mountain premise through Squamish and Howe Sound with breath-taking views of the mountains on one side and islands and seas on the other, I reached what I thought was the BC ferries terminal in Horseshoe Bay. However, the premises looked different from where I had been last month. At a ferry counter a gentleman handed me a pre-printed sheet showing directions for vehicles to the loading terminal and cautioned me not to follow the GPS directions! The pre-printed slip spoke out loudly that every now and then people land up in the wrong place, guided by their GPS! I had landed in Horseshoe Village, which was the terminal meant for foot passengers to report to.

Even after taking the rather long detour to the vehicle terminal I reached just after 10 am. The warden at the head of the queue told me that the 11 am ferry had been delayed due to a medical emergency on board and that I would be able to take the delayed sailing past noon. That was surely a stroke of good luck – the delayed sailing and slot availability – which I have experienced all through the expedition. The chance to sail early from Horseshoe Bay implied that I could be at the final destination a couple of hours before the originally scheduled time. The behemoth of a ferry loaded more than 300 vehicles and sailed at a half hour past noon and deposited me in Departure Bay almost at the stroke of 2 pm.
It was the culmination of a dream. I arrived at the Mile Zero Monument at 1602 hours signifying the successful completion of the second leg of the TCE from Mile One Center, St. John's, Newfoundland to Mile Zero Monument, Victoria, British Columbia in 466 hours and 45 minutes. The round trip between Victoria and St. John's was completed in 942 hours. Possibly, a never before done trip and certainly not by an Indian. A proud moment and time to thank the Almighty, family, friends and well-wishers for support, guidance and appreciation.

There was a lot of construction activity near the Monument site and I was doubtful if I would find parking in the vicinity to complete the photo formalities. As luck would have it, I found a space beside the Terry Fox monument. A mother and son on a stroll in the area obliged me with photographs and shared a few moments with me before I left the Monument with a great sense of achievement. The thirteenth expedition of Record Drive had been successfully completed. There had not been any glitches in the planning and scheduling of the expedition that had led to major deviations. Yes, there had been a couple of times when I had to think on my feet and make alternate arrangements. That was minor as compared to show stopper incidents.

To deal with any eventuality I invariably carry a tent and sleeping bag, so that a wayside or the car could become a decent overnight halt. But, over the past six international expeditions I have never had an occasion to use them. Therefore, to put them to use I had reserved a campground for the night halt in Victoria. I did not have any prior experience using a campground and therefore, I did not know what to expect. The tent slot, almost behind the Butchart Gardens, was in the Gardenside Acres Tent and Breakfast Campground property of Janet and Scott, a most delightful couple. Janet, who checked me in told me the options I could choose from. I chose a slot in front of the house, which was closer to the toilet and shower facilities, both makeshift ones. The campground operated only between mid-May and September, after which it would get too cold to tenting.

What does one do with an abandoned limestone quarry and a defunct cement factory? Turn it into one of the most amazing gardens in the world that has been in bloom for more than 100 years, as was the vision and perseverance of a couple of individuals and continued by successive generations. Jennie Butchart started a tradition in 1904 that continues to this day. She turned all challenges to beautify the worked-out quarry into unique garden features with the help of professional advice and personal assistance. The garden was started with collection of Robert and Jennie Butchart from their travels around the world and got gradually extended to the world famous Garden that it is today. More than a million visitors experience the lovely blooms annually, which became a National Historic Site of Canada upon turning a 100 years in 2004.

The deep Sunken Garden Lake was developed to breed trout that used to respond to Mr Butchart's handclaps, it is said. The Ross Fountain, whose water rises to over 70 feet, was installed by a third generation successor with the help of his plumber and electrician to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Garden in 1964. The vast manicured garden, where everything has a place and everything is in its place, has a Concert Lawn, a fireworks display area, the Ross Carousal, a magnificent Dragon Fountain, the Fountain of Three Sturgeons from where one gets a magnificent view of the erstwhile Butchart Residence and a superb gift and souvenir shop.

The 22 hectare Gardens within a 55 hectare estate comprise many segments and cannot be covered in less than two hours, even for a very casual visit. The Star Pond was originally meant for the ornamental ducks of Jennie Butchart. A frog fountain is at the centre of the pond. From there one can access the Italian garden, one of the most formal in the grounds, which is located in the erstwhile tennis court of the Butcharts. The Rose garden had varieties from mostly North America and Europe, but the gorgeous colours and smells were divine. When I visit such awesome blooms I wish common digital camera technology had incorporate the touch and smell features too. While visuals features can be at least approximated through a photo the experience of smell is completely lost. The Mediterranean and Japanese gardens are other showpieces in the Garden. The boat landing area and the cove are exceptional view points in the setting sun.

When the lights come on the Garden takes on a different feel. Flowers, shrubs and trees turn into highlights. The apt place to complete the Garden experience is the Seed and Gift Store. The many pieces are absolute beauties and there are so many to choose from and the staff helped me let go of my purse, forget loosening their strings! All in all, a most awesome experience and a great tribute to the vision of a very unique human being that graced this planet.

11 June - Clearwater to Whistler - Day 38 of TCE

If yesterday had been the path to Haven, today was a peek at the hallowed sanctuary. The Rockies stood proud and tall draped in glorious hues of green with the rivers and lakes embellishing her with borders of emerald green, blue and brown. The ribboned roads were mere folds between the drape and the borders. Oh, the drive was an experience never to be forgotten. With the summer heat beating down, the mountains, or most of them, had shed their snowy ornaments, letting the melt make their way across her curves. There were small crowns of snow on the Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, popular for skiing during the winter months. The history of Canadian Pacific Railway is inextricably intertwined with that of the Trans Canada Highway. The former opened up most passes for the latter. Sights of massive pythons trains, often with more than 150 wagons, snaking across the glorious landscape of the country are proud and awe inspiring ones for a former railwayman from India.

As I was driving into Whistler I noticed a ‘rainfall’ of pollens. They were everywhere and had settled on sidewalks and water bodies. Later, I found staff engaged in sweeping them off the porch and sidewalks of hotels. One of them told me that this is a problem peculiar to the summer months. Dried seeds of wild dandelion waft into the valley from the mountains and all that they can do is to gather them and put them along with waste for disposal.

I was booked to stay at the centrally located Pinnacle Hotel in Whistler. The properties in Whistler are pricey and therefore, it had taken me a while to identify one that would suit my pocket. When I was checking in to the hotel I was told that a private car park of the hotel would down me by another C$ 22 plus taxes. Having experienced over the past six weeks that public parking is safe I was given direction to one that was just five minutes away from the hotel. Once the bags were deposited in the large and well-appointed room I drove the car to the parking lot. I was taken aback by the large parking lots operated by the city authorities. 15 different lots have been developed to park vehicles of different types. Lot 4 is facility for parking cars, which to my mind could accommodate over 500 cars. All the public parking lots were free parking areas till 14 June, I was told. I got a free slot easily and walked back to the hotel.

The popularity of Whistler can be gauged from the fact that the town has 10,000 rooms, all of them booked out the year around! While skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, tobogganing and ski jumping in the Olympic Park (Whistler was a venue of the 2010 Vancouver Winter and Para Olympic Games) other winter activities fill up the season from November to April, mountain biking, kayaking and hiking fill up the rest of the year. Its proximity to Vancouver, which is just over an hour's drive, is a saleable USP.

The hub of Whistler is a pedestrian only village with large number of hotels (including a pod hotel), activity centres, bike and equipment rental shops, cafes, restaurants and grocery shops. The most sought after activity in the village centre seemed to be mountain cycling. Ski lifts took the cyclists and their cycles up to the crest of the Whistler Mountain. A popular ski slope in winter had transformed into a mountain trail for cyclists in summer. It is this transformation that has made Whistler a popular ‘go-to’ destination all the year round. The Peak2Peak gondola is a major tourist attraction in Whistler, which is the first lift to link two side by side mountains of Whistler and Blackcomb. It also held the world record for the longest free span between ropeway towers – 3.03 kilometres - till 2017. The gondola at 1430 feet is still the highest point above ground.

The end is near. With just one more day to go for the successful completion of the second leg of the Trans Canada Expedition, Whistler provided the right setting to introspect and think back on the past six weeks.

10 June - Edmonton to Clearwater - Day 37 of TCE

Perched on the banks of the North Saskatchewan River, the capital of Alberta Province, Edmonton is a staging point for oil projects in Alberta and vast diamond mining operations in the Northwest Territories. In that sense the city is truly the “Gateway to the North”, as it is commonly referred to. It is also nicknamed “Canada’s Festival City” for the numerous festivals the city hosts all the year round. The Ramada Hotel had been comfortable and centrally located. Being on the TCH it was an easy time navigating to the route that would take me to Clearwater.

If I had been told early in my life that the path to Haven was at least half as scenic as the one from Edmonton to Clearwater I may have led a life with at least half the transgressions or even less! I know it is a bit too late in the day to even think about it; life is far too gone. Understandably, the route would have been more picturesque in the winter months, but the Rockies with snow still on them and crystal clear lakes reflecting their awesomeness and beauty at every turn of the road was a paradisiacal encounter.

Driving through the Jasper National Park on the Yellowhead Highway, where I had been on the Icefields Parkway and Athabasca glacier visit during my stay in Banff, was a gorgeous experience. It is the largest National Park in the Canadian Rockies and has diverse attractions such as glaciers, hot springs, lakes, waterfalls and mountains. Signboards warn people from getting off their vehicles as they are likely to encounter animals that may not be too friendly. A pack of reindeer were harassed by a large group of tourists till a warden landed up to lay down the rules! Suffice to say that the majority of tourists on the route seemed to be Chinese and Indians, who either don't read what is written or conveniently ignore it.

Clearwater had not been the originally intended night halt. Not having found an affordable place to stay in Jasper I redrew the plans and located the Country Inn on the TCH. Owned by Sheikh Rashid, who has resettled here from Pakistan, the prized property has an RV Park, rooms and a restaurant, that was yet to open. He told me that the place would be choc-a-bloc in a few days. He suggested a drive to a few falls on the road to the Clearwater Lake. I was skeptical of the suggestion because he had said it with such nonchalance, perhaps to get rid of a buttonholing bore, I presumed.

But, what a couple of hours it turned out to be. The Wells Gray Provincial Park is a unique ecosystem in Canada. Located in British Columbia, it has more than 20 volcanic features, 200 plus lakes, over 40 waterfalls, 1.3 million acres of wilderness, a temperate rain forest, home to Myrtle Lake North America' largest paddle only lake, where bear and moose sightings are common. Despite the steady drizzle I drove to three falls located within the park that could be accessed by car.

The first was the Spahats Falls, taller than the Niagara at 73 metres. All these falls have been formed from tectonic shifts, settlement of lava and glacier action over millions of years. Dawson Falls is known as little Niagara, on the Murtle River. The falls has four tiers and with the River in full flow with glacial melt, the sight was awesome. The Helmcken Falls was the star of the evening, though. The 460 feet waterfall is a sight that feasts the eyes. The fall is within a spherical gorge that keeps the spray in a circular motion. With a double rainbow the views turned magical.

When I was driving back to the Inn I was witness to one of the brightest rainbows I have ever seen. All the colours could be distinctly seen. Dinner was at Hop 'N Hog, a boutique eatery. Full to capacity and overflowing, I devoured a delectable burger with pulled pork and beef while sipping on a peg of Captain Morgan spiced rum. What I expected to be a plain Jane overnight halt turned out to be a guided tour of the bounty of Nature.

12 June - Whistler to Victoria - Day 39 of TCE

The room in the Pinnacle Hotel had been extremely comfortable. Last evening I was told that the 84 rooms that the property has are almost...