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Memphis Flyer A Northern Loop

A scenic and cultural side trip opens up the wonders of the Canadian Rockies.

By Paul Gerard

OCTOBER 11, 1999:  We faced a decision in Cranbrook.

There we were, in southeastern British Columbia, on our way to Glacier National Park in Montana. Obviously, we were on a scenic and cultural side trip, since B.C. is not on the way to Montana for anybody who started in the U.S.

The Cranbook decision was this: Do we take the relatively direct route, south on Highway 93 back toward Kalispell, Montana, on the western side of Glacier Park? Or do we extend our scenic and cultural loop around the northern edge of the mountains, through B.C. and Alberta, and aim for Glacier's east entrance? It was a pleasant decision to face, for the essence of a road trip is to sip coffee over a map in a place like Cranbrook, British Columbia, on a clear autumn day, trying to decide which way to go from here. We took the road less American, and that made all the difference.

We had gone into Canada just to say we had done so -- and so my buddy Craig could spend some Canadian money he had -- and we had already been reveling in the little differences between the two countries. At the border, the guard asked us if we were going to stay long or look for a job. When we said no to both, he said, "So you're just touring around, eh? Okay, off you go, then."

The first thing that jumped out at us was the speed limit: 110 on the highway! A little math told us that 110 kph was actually about 68 mph, but it was still fun saying things like, "We're coming into a town -- better slow down to 70." We also got a kick from reading that seat belts were "compulsory."

We got a B.C. Rockies tourist brochure in Cranbrook, and after about five minutes of looking through it, I decided I wanted to be reincarnated as a Canadian so I could live in B.C. I already knew the western coast is magnificent, and now I was seeing what the Rockies had to offer: four mountainous national parks, including Yoho with 28 peaks over 10,000 feet (or 3,000 meters), and their own Glacier Park with 400 glaciers. (The locals pronounce that word "glay-see-er," by the way.)

There are also eight provincial parks (think of them as state parks), one of which the brochure referred to as "the 17,000-Ha Elk Lakes Provincial Park." That made us do a double-take. 17,000 Has? Sounds like a lot of laughs, budum-pah! Turns out that's 17,000 hectares, which is something like 42,500 acres. That would be the biggest provincial park I've ever been to, needless to say.

Other options along the road included numerous hot springs, the headwaters of the Columbia River, an enormous railroad museum, historic towns, lakes, ski resorts, the biggest population of bighorn sheep in North America, and literally any outdoor fun you could think of, short of surfing.

Then we saw the thing that made up our minds to stay in Canada. Generally speaking, we were up for a northern loop -- it wasn't like we'd be back in Canada next weekend -- but when we saw that the town of Sparwood, B.C., claimed to have the world's largest dump truck, there was no way we were going to Montana that day.

Yes, the world's largest dump truck, the 350-ton-capacity Terex Titan. It is freakishly large -- and also green, which does not diminish the odd sight that it makes, sitting between the highway and the mall in Sparwood. It's roughly 66 feet long, 26 feet wide, and 23 feet high. The cab is 13 feet off the ground. The fuel tank holds 3,632 litres, which our brochure told us is the same as 800 "imperial gallons."

Leaving the Titan behind, we continued east over the amazingly scenic Crows Nest Pass and into Alberta, which offers more mountainous abundance, several more national parks, and the wonderful town of Banff. We turned south toward the border, only to see a sign that it was closed after 6 p.m. We didn't realize you could or would close borders at night, but this was a U.S. government decision, so it didn't surprise us that much.

Still, we didn't mind spending a night in Canada. That part of it, anyway, is a beautiful place. We pitched our tent beside a glacier-fed creek in the magnificent Waterton Lakes National Park, which straddles the border and combines with Montana's Glacier Park to form Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.

We admired more cultural differences: Every place in Waterton had recycling bins, unlike in Glacier, and the batch of firewood we bought came with a little book of matches that had a Maple Leaf on it. The signs were also bilingual.

After dinner in camp, we watched the sun set and heard coyotes howl, and the lesson for the day was clear: When in doubt, take the scenic route.

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