Hello and a belated hello indeed. It has been a whole month since I last wrote here, promising an increased output. Alas, I have once again fallen short of my stated aim and to compound my sense of guilt, logging onto my faithful blog-page this afternoon I have stumbled across three recent message-board posts. Alongside the much-appreciated festive message from Aunty Sue, Uncle Steve and my amazing cousins Jo and Ali, this brings my message-count up to the lofty figure of four in the new(ish) year. Still, this remains a higher count than my corresponding blog output over the same time period, so it is time to raise the bar, so to type. We shall all be glad (and yes, I certainly consider myself among this number) to read that the next handful of postings promise to be leaner, more concise, though - hopefully - continuing along similar lines of detail and delivery; it is simply the content covered that I hope to break down into more managable segments. I shall be aided to some degree in implementing this sleeker standard by the geographical rhythm pulsing through the following entries, as I move around Alberta, from Edmonton on to Jasper, Lake Louise via Canmore and, finally, Calgary. Each of these wonderful areas merits its own special focus of attention and so, without further delay, let us delve into the treats offered up by my three-day jaunt to Jasper in the company of a whole contingent of Tutts, along with my fantastic friends, Kelsey and Seb.
We set out for the small, sleepy town of Jasper, some four hours of driving to the west of Edmonton, the morning after Boxing Day, mercifully allowing a period of rest and recovery in the aftermath of our titanic festive celebrations. At various points in this morning-long journey, I could be found map-reading, conversation-contributing, vista-marvelling or slumbering peacefully in the back seat of Kelsey's trusty vehicle, "Betsy". We conducted a customary pit-stop at 'Tim Hortons', the Canadians among us feeling the deeply-bred and urgent need for caffeine remarkably early in our trip and later enjoyed a wholesome lunch in view of the majestic Rocky Mountains; those sturdy, noble buttresses, rising solemnly to caress heavenly curves. I remain utterly captivated by these towering bedrocks, not just of nature in all of its splendid beauty, but also of collective Canadian conscience, ranging from local painted artistry to national and international company names.
We checked into our modest, homely motel in the early afternoon and headed straight back out onto the wintry roads and made for the Fairmont Lodge, nestled among a veritable winter wonderland of snow-capped peaks, ice-coated evergreens and besides a vast, frozen lake. Here, we three amigos trod our own paths: Kelsey took to the back-trails on her cross-country skis, Seb loped off with his rucksack and camera and I made for the petrified lake, intent upon my first encounter with lake-top ice-skating. I was accompanied upon this momentous foray by Aaron, Kelsey's earnest and extremely likeable younger brother (actually only a little younger than myself), who proved a warm, welcoming host equal to his 'big sis' and became in firm friend during our short time together over only a few days. We enjoyed a jolly, yet rather intensive skate around the outer oval of the impromptu ice-rink, which incorporated a couple of popular hockey-rinks within its embrace, crowded with enthusiastic youngsters perfecting their skills - they certainly demonstrated superior abilities to this poor foreigner! Skating for the first time in over a year (not since the seasonal outdoor "ice-rink" established every Christmas upon Parker's Piece in Cambridge and that hardly ideal preparation), I took a circuit or two in which to find my 'ice-legs' and was absolutely no match for Aaron, cheerily informing me of his previous hockey-playing days as he stroked out ahead of his hesitant English companion. We were later joined by Kelsey's younger sister Janine and her husband Jerrad, along with their five-month-old apple of every Tutt's eye, baby Kael. Before you form too many fantastical impressions of just what lengths to which Canadians are willing to brave in an effort to prepare their offspring for the mad, quasi-religious fanaticism that is ice-hockey, Kael was safely ensconced in a mound of blankets within his baby-buggy, but still; what an outing! Jerrad and Janine had no scruples about carting Kael, buggy and all, around the ice for a healthy (well, actually that depends upon one's stance - I was quite fatigued by this point, thank you very much) number of laps.
After wearying each other sufficiently upon the ice, we all retired back inside the Lodge for hot chocolate and to rendezvous with the rest of the clan before heading back to our own lodgings in convoy. The evening comprised of an outing to a local brew-house, where we enjoyed tasty beer crafted onsite (not unusually for this part of the world, the 'pub' doubled as a small-scale brewery) and yet more exposure to hockey-madness, this time in the guise of popular local team the Edmonton Oilers (famous once upon a time for their near-legendary success under the guidance of 'The Great One' - yes, he really is called that here - Wayne Gretzky). The Oilers, bless, are not having the best of seasons and struggled in this game against bitter "local" rivals the Calgary Flames (located only some eight hours drive away to the south). I was far too tired to add to the grumblings of those locals engrossed within the televised ice-side entertainment and we soon left for bed, conscious of the big chunk of skiing that lay stretched out before us the following day.
As mentioned in my previous posting, Santa Claus - in the generous guise of my dear friend Kelsey - had seen fit to gift me a ski-pass for Marmot Basin, the ski area around Jasper. All that remained was for us all to grab what ski-gear we deemed necessary and take to the slopes! I was very excited; I have downhill skied only once before, on a memorable trip with Nottingham University to the premier resort of Val d'Isere in ther French Alps and that some three years previously. Inevitably, all those within my company had been brought up eating and sleeping on skis, carving, jumping, riding proud upon their edges. Meanwhile, I was displaying a hesitancy far beyond even that projected upon the ice the previous afternoon: Linda, Kelsey's wonderful, yet rather trepid mother, insisted upon my taking to the most childish of baby-slopes (the decline was so slight that I had to push off with my ski-poles to build up any forward motion) before I could convince her that my taking the ski-lift up with everyone else would not be the worst decision of my trip. In fairness, it was not only Linda who needed a degree of conviction; I myself felt ill at ease initially and somewhat overtaken by the heady rush of adrenalin (neither fight nor flight seem particularly strong options when one is so unaccustomed to the cumbersome trappings of six-foot planked strapped upon each foot). Nonetheless, I swallowed whatever apprehension was struggling to vent itself and headed for the lift along with the others.
After a tricky initial descent, I was painfully conscious of the superior skills of just about everyone else present. At this point, I would have been quite happy to have slunk off alone down some of the less challenging runs, in some noble effort to "build up my confidence", whilst allowing the others a freer rein with their own descents. This was not to be the case, as Kelsey's father Larry, the very epitome of smoothness upon skis, took it upon himself to guide me down the next run, offering advice over his rapidly receding shoulder as he went. I tried gamely to adjust, to bend in time to his effortless rhythm, to keep up and to listen: I was so busy concentrating and talking frenetically to myself in some deluded attempt to reassure my put-upon soul that I failed to notice the ridiculously steep gradient and hefty bumps until it was far too late to remedy the situation in any way that would not result in a sizeable buising to my ego as well as my physical being. Larry, in his wisdom, had guided me - intentionally - down a black run, on only my second descent of the day. The motif 'kill or cure' certainly surfaced in my mind over the course of the next few runs - indeed, it does even now, as I recount the sorry tale from the comfortable safety of my kitchen table here in Vancouver. In fact, whilst such a ploy could well have back-fired quite spectacularly (and upon me in particular, of course), actually I rather enjoyed my successful, if wholly ungainly, descent and was able to build upon the consequent confidence boost for the rest of the day, mixing glorious, heady runs with my friends alongside carefully contemplative solo runs at a more moderate, thoughtful speed late in the afternoon.
This day also brought with it my initial and long-anticipated introduction to one of the highest and proudest of Canadian culinary creations, 'poutine'. This French-Canadian delight is typically Gallic in its express, shamelessly obvious aim of causing instantaneous cardiac arrest for anyone so naive as to attempt eating it (ahem). A hearty, warming, yet surprisingly basic dish, 'poutine' is quite simply chips (or 'French fries' here, of course), liberally smothered with cheese curds and gravy. Heart-stoppingly good, especially after a taxing day upon the hill. Paying little heed to my protesting head and heart (alarmed even at the sight of such a gastronomic monster), I wolfed the helping down, with only scant help from Kelsey and plentiful derisive remarks from Seb, who abstained even from hearing the full explanation of the offering, let alone actually sampling it. Heavenly.
The day and trip was rounded off with a tasty meal in the room shared by Larry, Linda, Janine, Jerrad and Kael back at the motel and preceded by a luxurious visit to the motel's outdoor hot-tubs, sunk into a frost- and snow-stricken ground. Ahhh; lying back in the soothing, restive warm waters, listening to the comforting, conversational murmur of close friends and contemplating a highly successful re-introduction to the slopes, life certainly felt good... very good.
The following day promised another long road-trip, this time all the way south to Calgary. Furthermore, we were as yet undecided upon which route to take, each favouring the incredibly scenic Icefield Parkway, which Seb had yet to experience, if only the weather could improve. Still, such issues lay a sleep away; before that even, they lay a final, fabulous farewell meal away, as we enjoyed our slight remaining time with the rest of the Tutts, with Aaron, Larry, Linda, Jerrad, Janine and Kael: wonderful friends, fantastic hosts and the greatest surrogate family to call upon at Christmas-time.
Best wishes to all!