Welcome to Alberta & the Canadian Rockies. On your right you can see many trees. On your left, more trees. Some taller than others. In front of you there are mountains. Ice fields. Lakes. Some are smaller than others. Somewhere in the forest live grizzlies and bighorns. Do you know what bighorns eat? The tour guide, a long-haired Canadian man of Swedish descent who has travelled the world and speaks 7 languages, makes fun of his job. Instead of telling the story of ancient towns and monuments, he has to instruct us about the bears’ habits and the different kinds of conifers – pines, firs, spruces, larches, cedar and hemlock. To him, this is ordinary, but it sounds extraordinary to us.
Calgary, or the light & quiet
Our journey to the Canadian Rockies starts in Calgary, a city renowned for ecotourism, winter sports and rodeo. The main city of Alberta is also considered one of the wealthiest cities in Canada, due to the oil industry and agricolture. However, we do not think of oil or money as we get out of the airport and breathe the fresh, cold Canadian air. Italian summer feels very far away. What a relief. Light is different here, roads are wider and chaos does not exist. There’s something unique about this country, and I can’t wait to explore it.
WHAT TO SEE IN CALGARY
A couple of hours are enough to visit Calgary. On Monday morning, after a shower, the sun shines and the sky is cobalt blue. The skyscrapers reflect in the puddles. Although it’s a working day, the streets are almost empty. Cafés and shops are quiet. As we order a tall expresso at Starbucks, Johnny the tour guide points out the three places we should see in Calgary.
• Calgary Stampede. This annual rodeo and festival is held every year in July, in Calgary, to celebrate agriculture and the western heritage. Speaking of the past, the name Calgary comes from Cala Gherraidh, a beach on a Scottish island. The city thrived on horse breeding and farming before oil was discovered in this area. While we’re here, we also have a look at the hockey stadium, as hockey is one the most popular sports in Western Canada.
• Calgary Tower. This sunny morning, on the observation deck of the Calgary tower, we trace a map of the city seen from above. The City Hall, a four-story building completed in 1911 and designated a national historic site in 1948. The Olympic Plaza, built for the Olympic Games, where you can skate in wintertime. The Bow Building, the tallest building in Canada outside Toronto, designed by architect Norman Foster. More buildings, and houses, and parks. Somewhere on the horizon, the Canadian Rockies.
• Stephen Avenue. Flowers decorate this historic pedestrian street in Downtown Calgary. During the summer, Canadians like to be surrounded by flowers, which bring some colour after the long winters. Soon it becomes clear that one has to get used to a different pace in Calgary. And remember that are many interesting festivals and events that make the city come alive.
The Canadian Rockies
There’s a surprise for you, says Johnny. You’ll go wow! He takes us to the most bizarre place, a sporting goods store just outside of the city. At the entrance, a fireplace and two chairs provide comfort to those who are not exactly shopping lovers. The place is populated by (stuffed) Canadian animals observing the visitors from above. Everyone seems very sporty and athletic in Canada. I almost give in to the temptation of buying new shoes and anorak and try some kind of extreme sport. Almost.
And then we drive to the Canadian Rockies, stopping at Barrier Lake, a blue dam that anticipates the beauty of the lakes we’ll soon get to see. As soon as we reach the Boundary Ranch, in the Kananaskis Country, we are reminded of Ang Lee’s film Brokeback Mountain, that was shot here. Wild landscapes, beautiful horses, cowboys’ traditions and a tasty (vegetarian, for me) burger make this place really special. Calgary is not so far from yet, and still it feels like we’ve entered another world.
Bighorns e forests
And then we start to see the lakes, the emerald lakes that I’ve often seen in travel magazines or documentaries. Two Jack Lake, Minnewanka Lake. Blue and green, silver and aquamarine. I breathe the scent of the pine trees, much more intense here, where nature dominates over man. On the highway there are less cars than animals. In fact, suddenly four bighorns (possibly a family) appear from inside the forest and stare at us for a moment, before making their way to the lake, undisturbed by our presence. Johnny tells us that bridges have been built in order to help the animals cross the road without being hit by cars and trucks.
I try to figure out how this landscape is different from that of the Italian Alps. In both cases, the rock formations arose from the ice fields, pushed by the ocean. There’s no doubt that forests are larger and thicker in Canada, and wilder. The law doesn’t allow people to intervene when fires break out, burning trees. Nature itself will heal the forest. This philosophy reflects in the landscape. We don’t see the cabins that dots the valleys in the Italian Alps, the villages with the pointed bell towers. Two different landscapes that reflect two different cultures. Difference is good. The world is made more interesting by it.
On the Bow River, among old wise trees
We won’t come across anything similar to a village until we get to Banff, a lively town that welcomes us with its ski houses, hotels, shops and flower pots. Banff, the jewel of the Canadian Rockies. I wonder how this place will look like when it starts to snow. The town is part of the Baff National Park and got its name by Lord Stevens, who was born in Banffshire, Scotland. Its history started after the Canadian Pacific Railway was built and the Sulphur Mountain hot springs were discovered; today, only those who work in Banff live in Banff, and the main activity is – unsurprisingly – tourism. Japanese, Chinese, Korean, American, French, English and Italian people fill the main street, going in and out of shops. Taxes are lower in Alberta than in British Columbia, a good reason to buy some warm clothes, in case you need them.
But first we pay a visit to the Fairmont Banff Springs, an imposing hotel that resembles a castle. A sudden shower forces us to seek shelter, waiting for the rain to stop. The air fills with the smell of the rain, of the undergrowth, of the pine needles. Animals are nowhere to be seen. After a while, the sun break through the clouds again. The light is so perfect that we decide to do something that was planned for tomorrow, a rafting trip on the Bow River.
Actually it is a young Canadian man who paddles and take us into an enchanted world of water and trees. Nobody dares to speak. Only the swashing water can be heard. The rives flows placidly between the forest and the rock formations that date back to prehistory. I cannot say the landscape is breathtaking; rather, it feels magical. It conveys a sense of calm, detachment even, and it occurs to me that trees are old, wise creatures that know everything about the world. Trees are my friends. Perhaps this is why I feel so comfortable in their presence. They are family.