Kelsey arrived in Canmore on the back of attending a family wedding of her own ('tis the season) and we wasted little time finding a cafe in which to enjoy a leisurely lunch and catch-up. We sat outside in the warm sunshine filling one another in on our most recent adventures, whilst happily munching our way through delicious bagels crammed full of smoked Canadian bacon, cheese, egg and mixed vegetables - no prizes for guessing who was responsible for each of these two separate concoctions.
Kelsey had loaded her car with the necessary particulars, including tent, tarpaulin (to combat the likelihood of rain), sleeping bags, travel stove and her new prize possession, a shiny Rocky Mountain XC bike - the same bike, in fact, that my Mum owns and the next model up from my own dearly beloved Rocky. Before too much envy could set in, Kelsey distracted me with the inevitable trip to a local supermarket for supplies to last our intended three-day camping trip into Kananaskis National Park, the park to the east of Banff National Park, separated by a thin strip of non-park territory within which falls the town of Canmore and assorted other, smaller dwellings. Kelsey is a true travel companion, with a love of food to rival my own, so this was to be no short undertaking. We arrived at the checkout laden down with what appeared to be enough produce, staples, sweets and drink to sustain a small legion of Albertan cowboys, paid for our purchases whilst displaying as much guilt as we could muster, before - somehow - finding space for the veritable banquet in Kelsey's poor vehicle, also known as 'Betsy'.
The drive out east to Kananaskis was beautiful, taking us further down the Bow Valley, past magnificent peaks, including one that looked remarkably like a heart in profile. As we travelled, we witnessed with a growing dread the gathering storm clouds up ahead. The sinking feeling intensified as the first outrageously large drops of rain began to pound against the windscreen of the car. For the first time since contemplating our camping trip (and indeed, this was the first time for a long time during my trip in general), I began to experience a sense of misgiving about our little undertaking. The rain had passed by the time that we reached camp, however, and we were able to set up our tent in warm late afternoon sunshine amongst the fabulous surroundings of our natural campsite. Indeed, the only reminder of our earlier despondency lay underfoot, in the damp grass and floral smells lingering upon the clean air.
Our camp established, a tarp stretched taut from the trees above to catch the worst of any rain, we decided to attempt a challenging hike in the remaining light. As we approached the trailhead, we met three hikers finishing the same route: they cheerily informed us that the walk was taxing but beautiful and that we should expect the entire trip to take us at least four hours. Such an estimate would see us arriving back in camp with very little natural light remaining, if any at all. As we continued on, musing over our calculations, Kelsey took the opportunity to casually inform me that this would be her third attempt to hike the trail, both previous efforts ending when her companions decided against continuing to the peak of the small mountain that we stood to ascend. My sense of foreboding mounted, alongside the darkening aspect of the clouds above.
The initial section of the hike took us through some peaceful woodland, out onto a gorgeous path crossing an open meadow, bedecked with colourful flowers and pleasingly uniform pine trees growing in solitude, distanced from one another and from the tree line of the encroaching woodland. It was whilst we stood in the meadow, happily snapping pictures of the beauty all around us that the first drops of rain announced their arrival. The situation soon dampened considerably and we hurried back under the cover of the trees to avoid the worst of the downpour. We stood contemplating our course of action, the dirt path beneath our feet growing into a lively stream with alarming swiftness. The first deafening boom of thunder took us by surprise; it was with dismay and further alarm that we caught the next flash of lightning and the speedy answering thunder, announcing the close proximity of the flash to our position. Here were we, sheltering in a copse, with an abundance of lightning within two kilometers of our location, an open meadow forming the first section of our route back to camp. Any lingering doubts we harboured still as to our course of action were dispelled with the arrival of a family of four upon the scene, all completely soaked, who cheerfully informed us that the situation would only worsen: they had passed the mid-afternoon sat upon the peak to which we were headed, watching the storm clouds rolling in. We turned tail and darted back the way we had come, in swift pursuit of the departing family (whose children had borne a disarming hint of the Flanders clan of 'The Simpsons' fame). We made it safely across the meadow, utterly drenched by this point and thoroughly enjoying ourselves. We continued to slip-slide our way back down the trail, or small river as it was by now masquerading itself. Back in camp we sought shelter in Betsy, where we cranked up the heater and focused upon closing our noses to the inevitable smell of damp that soon pervaded the cramped space. Ah, a typical summer holiday camping trip anywhere the UK then!
It was as we sat warming up that I checked my pockets to discover, to my consternation, that I had been carrying my passport, which was at this point fairly saturated. Quite fortuitously, I keep this lifeline document in a leather wallet-like case that was a gift to me from Mum and Dad before my trip to South America. The wallet had borne the brunt of the rain and so I placed the whole bundle on top of one of the car radiators and crossed all of my fingers: had the weather permitted, I would perhaps have included also a burnt offering, or a small libation at the very least. Happily, some time later, even my abject sense of smell by this point absolutely offended, the damp mess showed some signs of recovery, with little more than a touch of discolouring at the fold of the wallet to suggest any untoward happening occurring in the first place.
By the time that my passport had abated in its attempts to instigate heart failure within me, two further issues were becoming clarified: we were both feeling rather hungry and the rain was showing little sign of easing up, at all. With a collective sigh, Kelsey and I traded the warm, dry - if quite odiferous - interior of the car for the raging shower of the open air. Kelsey grabbed the stove, I gathered food and an umbrella and we set ourselves to preparing some sort of edible concoction to see us through the ensuing night. Battling the buffeting winds, striving to keep the element alight beneath an increasingly sodden saucepan, manfully attempting to stir the thickening sauce with a plastic spoon, without snapping or melting said spindly piece of cutlery, our bodies wet and cold in spite of and perhaps partly because of my poor positioning of the umbrella, we both found ourselves suddenly, uncontrollably, in hysterics. I cannot remember the last time that I laughed so freely, so willingly, so forcefully: my sides heaved and quite literally began to ache after I found myself unable to stop the rocking guffaws from escaping between my lips; tears of mirth began to mingle with the rain pouring down my face and I found myself gasping for breath. Kelsey was faring little better beside me and, as is always the case with such merriment, once started, we were quite incapable of stopping: just as one of us finally grasped a handle upon our chuckles, the other would let out a shout, a glance, a curse and we would both be off again in full flow. This is what a trip of this magnitude is all about, why countless English men and women subject themselves to the horrors of the British climate every summer, the point indeed of any camping trip or experience in a much more general, all-encompassing manner: we all yearn to become thoroughly drenched in the rain to some point beyond all concern, whilst gamely trying to carry out some mundane procedure such as the preparation of an evening meal and then find ourselves so utterly liberated as to throw away all cares in the face of such a hilariously unlikely situation - Bruce Forsyth has made an enviable career out of just such comic scenarios. We succeeded, eventually, in producing some sort of pasta, of dubious consistency, with which we withdrew triumphantly back into the warm confines of the car to enjoy in blissful serenity.
The rains continued the next day, throwing all possibility of a day in the great outdoors into disarray. We decided instead, at Kelsey's suggestion of course (I had little knowledge of the area), to explore the town of Cochrane, to the north of our campsite and the location, incidentally, of the wedding that Kelsey had attended before meeting me in Canmore. So it was that we contrived to pass a quite surreal day experiencing the small, sleepy yet picturesque town of Cochrane, where not even those people working upon the improvement of the main roads through the town could successfully direct us to the local cinema. We eventually found the desired theatre with the help of the third person we stopped to aid us in our search. The cinema was located in a giant parking lot behind the main shopping centre and it was upon this occasion almost completely deserted: Kelsey and I watched the third installment of the 'Twilight' saga completely alone, the first time that either of us has enjoyed such a scenario. It was quite a thrill - juvenile, I know - to be able to stand up, sit back down, talk normally and laugh out loud at our leisure, without incurring so much as a sound from anywhere in the rest of the cinema. It was also quite liberating to be able to bring Kelsey fully up to speed with what was actually happening on screen, as she has yet to discover the infantile joy of the books, poor girl.
Emerging back out into the weak sunshine of the late afternoon, we took advantage of the break in the rain to complete a very short hike around the rural location of the wedding the previous week, before heading back into town for Albertan steak, followed by ice-cream from a reputedly legendary parlour. The steak was tasty and the ice-cream especially excellent, but that being said, I am such an addict wherever sugar is concerned that when it comes to offerings such as ice-cream, I fear that I am rather reminiscent of Barney when confronted by Duff beer ("just hook it to my veins!"). We took our cold treats outside to enjoy on a bench in the gentle sunlight. The street was all but deserted, the only signs of life gravitating unerringly to the parlour from which we had just exited. This area of downtown Cochrane was populated by wooden structures sporting verandas and olde world shop-signs swinging on rusted chains above simple porches. It seemed that the town had see better days, but was unwilling to let go and fade into oblivion: here and there were hardy reminders of the days when tourists did not so much stumble upon the town, but actually arrived there intentionally, the ice-cream shop featuring heavily I am sure.
Our final day in Kananaskis was much brighter and so we decided once again to attempt a summit of the thrice-aborted (on Kelsey's part at least!) Nahani Ridge trail. This time we were much more successful, reaching our intended peak in just over two hours, the latter half of which time was spent scrambling and climbing up a particularly arduous, technical section of scree and rock. The views from our vantage-point were well worth the effort and we passed a fantastic lunch on top of the world, looking out upon granite peaks and down into verdant valleys. The clouds rolled lazily across an azure sky, but the wind was restless and cold; we dallied only shortly before beginning our descent back into camp. This keen wind, coupled with our previous misfortune at the hands of the weather, led us to break camp a day earlier than originally intended and head back north to Edmonton. We settled upon spending our extra day cycling through some of the city's laudable riverside park, provided that the rain held off.
As it transpired, the day in question dawned warm and bright: we passed an idyllic and energetic day flying along speedy, tarmaced routes and dirt trails populated by treacherous exposed roots, chilling puddles and careless rocks. The river was an ever-present feature, the authorities in Edmonton having the good sense and foresight to section off the land immediately beside the water from commercial development and granting the twin ribbons along both banks to the local government as a public park to be maintained and protected in its natural state. The laudable result is a beautiful, tranquil oasis of calm in the midst of Alberta's provincial capital and within it a veritable treasure trove of exciting bike trails to be discovered. We journeyed far that day and we were both quite exhausted by the time we finally wheeled up to Kelsey's apartment in the early evening. We darted inside, freshened up and sojourned out to Whyte Ave, a popular and eclectic street just one block from Kelsey's current home. Here we wandered lazily, before enjoying a delicious Greek meal al fresco in the last of the day's glorious sunshine.
I remained in town only a few days longer, as Kelsey was by now required back at work, where she typically completes twelve-hour shifts as a nurse in 'Emerge', Canada's equivalent of 'A&E'. Often Kelsey would arrive home late, utterly exhausted yet exultant after a long, hectic day only to then gather herself in an effort to play an energetic host to me, bless her. We did find the time to fit in an evening trip to visit her parents for a family barbeque on the one day that Kels had to work "only" an eight-hour shift at the hospital. It was lovely to see Larry and Linda once more, as well as David and Ted, Kelsey's uncle and grandfather respectively. The food was excellent, the company wonderful as ever and we enjoyed a short, pretty walk through the local neighbourhood after dinner, again made startlingly different by the utter absence of vast snow mounds to which I had previously become accustomed during my Christmas visit.
The days turn quickly, especially when one is revelling in so much happiness and contentment. It soon became time to journey on once more and to strike out for pastures very much new: for the first time, I would pass beyond the limit of Edmonton and reach out into the neighbouring province of Saskatchewan. This route would take me further east in Canada than I had ever previously travelled and so I looked forward to the trip with special excitement. Nonetheless, it was with wistful regret that I was forced once more to wave goodbye to my great friend Kelsey. I had, as ever, enjoyed her company immensely: I am truly blessed to count such luminous spirits as my friends and Kelsey especially. I shall remain forever thankful that she critiqued my dismal culinary efforts that night at Hostel 1004 in Bariloche and for her wonderful companionship since that evening and especially here in Canada, when I faced a lonely Christmas so far from home: a special lady and a special friend indeed.
Best wishes to all!