West Canada, juli 2018

Oh my God, this is epic


The hosts request if we want to keep the garden door closed, “because of the dog”. It seems like a perfectly normal and reasonable request. But is it? Because in the small print of our AirBnB, I read that the bin is inside because of the bears. So something tells me that this whole dog thing doesn’t even exist, and that the closing of the garden door is to separate visitors from the bears. But of course you can’t write that down, the tourists would run away screaming. Welcome to Canada!

It’s not that we are naive, oh no. Of course there are bears here. It was the exact reason we didn’t have the courage to go to this place for years. The Atlantic coastal provinces on the other side of Canada were just about okay. Over there, bears exist only in theory. But not so in Squamish, British Columbia. Here, you have to be on your guard even in the average residential area. Before you know it, in a deadly mix of jet lag and a sense of duty, you take out the rubbish bags and suddenly find yourself facing a three-metre tall bear. Game over!

The question arises: what made us volunteer to go to Canada? The answer: bear bells. I got them as a present on Father’s Day and they were supposed to literally and figuratively chase bears off our path. But even that turned out to be theory. Canadians call those things dinner bells, for bears that is. But we only learned that when the tickets to Canada had already been booked.

The day before yesterday, we flew from Amsterdam to Calgary. After a night in a comfortable hotel and a short morning flight, we hopped into our rental car in Vancouver. Rarely did the start of a holiday go so smoothly. And the weather has been magnificent, it has to be said. In every holiday there is one of those moments, when for the first time you not only know you are on holiday, but also feel that you are on holiday. It’s as if a switch is turned on in your brain. That moment arrives when we drive out of town over the Lion’s Gate Bridge to the Sea-to-Sky highway. To the left is the ocean, to the right the mountains. And along the road is a sign: “Next 60 km: bears. Do not feed.”

We’ll be holidaying here for about three weeks. Roughly the first half we will travel on Vancouver Island. The second half we move inland, into the Canadian Rockies. But before boarding the ferry to Vancouver Island, we will have a little warm-up on the mainland: Whistler. In winter, this is a very popular ski resort. We’ll see what it looks like in summer.


Still completely jet-lagged, we are up at six in the morning. Awfully early, but being on time has its advantages. Yesterday we took the Sea-to-Sky Gondola, on the way from Vancouver to Squamish. Quite beautiful, but it was very crowded at the top – it looked like an amusement park. And Whistler will be just as crowded, if not more so. From the middle of town, we take the gondola to Whistler Mountain. Below us, we see the occasional mountain biker cycling down the mountain. Once at the top, we transfer to the Peak 2 Peak Gondola. This cable car takes us from Whistler Mountain to Blackcomb Mountain and back. There are two poles on both peaks, and in between them is a cable that spans a good three thousand metres. Because there is a valley between the two peaks, you will float quite high above the ground, much more so than with conventional valley-peak cable cars. Of course, this cable will hang far from horizontal, otherwise the tension forces would be incalculable. Tell that to the physicist in me. But still: at a certain point you dangle over four hundred metres above the ground. I got sweaty hands at the mere thought. But as often happens, reality turns out to be not too bad. A man suffers most from the suffering he fears.

In this world of steel cables and engineering feats, you would almost forget that you are in or actually above the wilderness. The food chain around Whistler is home to around 60 black bears. Someone has calculated that you are never more than eight hundred metres from a bear here. What I found surprising to read: the ski slopes, yet often scarring the landscape in the eyes of nature-loving people, seem to be great for the bear population. On the one hand, the tree-free strips are good for the supply of berries, which bears feast on, and on the other hand, the proximity of a forest edge on either side provides plenty of safety for a mother bear with cubs. (Just keep this in mind if you are racing down the mountain on your mountain bike along that strip of land). As we take a short circular walk on Blackcomb Mountain, we come face to face with another, slightly less terrifying inhabitant of the wilderness: the mountain marmot. Whistler even owes its name to this inhabitant, because of the whistling sound it makes. This little creature is far from shy and allows itself to be examined closely.

Back on Whistler Mountain, we take a chairlift further up. At the top is a footbridge over a snow-covered basin. Spectacular, but the crowds at the top evoke associations with yesterday’s Sea-To-Sky experience. Ellen suggests that we hike back to the gondola instead of taking the chairlift back down. “Excellent,” I say. I was sneakily reluctant to sit in a chairlift facing the valley anyway. What follows, however, is an extremely exhausting descent on foot. It takes much longer than we anticipated; the children are completely exhausted. The fact that there is snow along had path is only a small consolation for them. Red algae is growing on the snow, which means we are not allowed to touch it, under penalty of intestinal problems. What also doesn’t help is that one of my hiking gave up on top of the mountain. The sole suddenly came off. In the cafeteria on top of Blackcomb we taped it up with half a roll of duct tape, but with every step I live in fear that this emergency Band-aid will break. If so, it will be one hell of a trek altogether. Fortunately, the tape holds, and back in Whistler we immediately buy new hiking boots. Plenty on offer, Whistler is one big outdoor sports shop. A salient detail is that Teun also had a defective shoe this morning. His pair of shoes was a discarded pair from his grandmother, so it was no big deal that the sole came off. And besides, we were still at the car, just in time to get his spare shoes. But all in all, it’s a reminder to check your equipment before heading out. Because in nature, duct tape is not always at hand, let alone a shoe shop. After all this hiking stuff, it’s about time for our first-ever dip in Canada’s inland waters. Alpha Lake has the premiere. It’s cold! And mighty great!

Vancouver Island – Ucluelet and Tofino

“Undersized vehicle” is written on our ferry ticket. Canadians are just like Americans when it comes to dimensions of things. A little motorhome here is the size of a scheduled bus, and an average plate of food will easily feed three orphanages. And Vancouver Island, the piece of Canada just off the west coast is almost as big as the whole of the Netherlands. In Canada, our Toyoto Corolla counts as undersized. We are not intimidated by this and are very happy with the car. The four of us fit in it easily and the boot even holds all our luggage. And we present ourselves with a challenge for this holiday: find something that is smaller in Canada than at home.

The ferry arrives in Nanaimo. The drive from here up north is not very picturesque. That changes when we cross from the east coast to the west coast. We traverse the mountain range that cuts across the island. Heavily forested slopes line the left and right sides of the road. Halfway through, we stop at Cathedral Grove, part of MacMillan Provincial Park. On both sides of the road you can enter the forest to gaze at ancient and towering trees. The largest Douglas fir is seventy-six metres tall, nine metres in circumference and over eight hundred years old. A scenic path has been laid out and information boards have been set up, but otherwise you mainly see nature at work here. Fallen trees feed the natural cycle; nothing is being cleared away. Three hundred years ago, a major fire made room for most of the trees we see today. More recently, in 1997, a New Year’s storm wreaked havoc here. At the beginning of the path there is a warning to watch out for falling trees, especially in strong winds. The best tip for not getting a tree on your head – apart from not going – is to keep a steady pace. But that’s a bit of a challenge, with our tree-clambering son completely in his element here.

On the west coast of Vancouver Island sits Ucluelet – we are allowed to say Ukee. Our cottage is in a small residential area, but when you look out of the window, you imagine yourself living in the jungle. A surfboard is suspended on the wall. And the other half of the house is occupied by people who strongly give the impression that their lives revolve entirely around surfing. It’s a lovely little house and a nice place to stay for three nights.

One of the best things about Ukee itself, besides having coffee at Zoe’s Bakery, is the aquarium. Don’t expect a mega aquarium with whale sharks; this one falls into the small but nice category. Although, small? In one of the aquariums resides a huge squid that changes colour every so often. Almost as fascinating – evolution in progress? – are the six-pointed starfish that have been popping up more and more in local waters in recent years. This is a catch-and-release aquarium: everything that swims here has been caught locally and will also be released at the end of the season. Equally special is that the aquarium is interactive. That means you get to carefully touch and lift some starfish and other critters. But perhaps the biggest success factor is the staff: knowledgeable young guys and girls who will patiently answer all your questions.

Between Ukee and the more north-lying Tofino is part of the Pacific Rim National Park. At the beachfront visitor centre, we pick up our National Park pass. This is a good deal: for about ninety euros, we are allowed to visit every National Park in Canada for the entire holiday – in fact, for a whole year. The beach is beautiful but the sea is not suitable for swimming; it has a reputation for being very dangerous due to rip currents. Fortunately, there is plenty to do on the beach: it is full of washed-up tree trunks; ideal for building huts.

In Tofino, we take a water taxi to Meares Island, an uninhabited islet where we hike a section of the Big Trees Trail. The man who ferries us back a few hours later confesses that he has difficulty keeping his eyes open. He has spent the last two nights camping in the National Park with his dog, among howling wolves. As he recounts this, he revs the engine and we fly away. We nearly fall off the beat. The kids love it. “Oh my god, this is epic,” says our five-year-old daughter.
What a stark contrast with the next day. After some deliberation, we gifted ourselves a boat trip to go bear watching. The choice was between whales and bears, and the bears won. Before setting sail, the captain of this “bear boat” and his shipmate slash nature guide Céline take ample time to brief us on all the certifications and safety measures they comply with, as ordered by the Canadian government. When they finish talking, a gentleman asks if there are any vomit bags on board. Answer: yes, but you’re not going to need them. Another lady notes with shock that she forgot to bring any water; she did not expect to be away from home for a few hours. She too is suitably reassured. Once all the risks have been identified, we set sail. As we paddle along at a snail´s pace, we intently scan the coastline in search of black bears. This is a species found only on Vancouver Island – I have read that there are 12,000 of them, which is about one for every 60 inhabitants. The beasts are attracted by the specific smell of the strip of coast that is constantly getting wet and dry due to the tides. This is where the bears will be looking for crabs under the stones. For a while it seems like it will be an unsuccessful trip, but after a while we have some success. On a small beach, we see a bear scurrying around. According to Céline, it is an adolescent of between three and five years old. Given the direction of the wind, it must smell our presence, but it calmly keeps on grazing, which is a sign that he doesn´t see us as a danger. After a while, several more boats arrive at this spot. Apparently, the news is spreading fast. What else do we see on this boat trip? Three American bald eagles, a river otter, and a couple of seals lounging on a rock. Those seals are prey for killer whales, and you would say that they are relatively safe lying on that rock, but strangely enough, as soon as a killer whale is near, they enter the water. The reasoning of those seals is supposedly that they are more comfortable in the water than on land. What went wrong in evolution here? On the way back, we sail past a salmon farm at sea. Owned by a Norwegian company, the farm is controversial. On the one hand, farmed salmon is a good idea against overfishing and provides jobs for the region; on the other hand, they breed Atlantic salmon there using a lice pesticide that actually affects the native chinook salmon. All in all, an educational boat trip. Even for Tessel: “Is salmon made of fish?”

Alert Bay, Cormorant Island

From Ukee, we drive to Port McNeill, in the northeast of Vancouver Island. On the map, it looks like a short stretch but it is a hefty drive, one of the longer ones on our trip. When we finally get there, we still have to take the ferry to Cormorant Island. On this island, four square kilometres small and with barely a thousand inhabitants, Ellen has booked a houseboat for three nights. “Home of the killer whale,” we read as we drive off the ferry. What worries us, more than those killer whales, is that the owner of the houseboat, a certain Eric, has not responded to our emails at all. The reservation and payment had already been completed many months ago, and since then it has been eerily quiet. Fortunately, we quickly locate the houseboat in the marina next to the ferry. But there is no one there. And the boat looks craggy and uninhabitable. Also, no one answers the phone. Mmm, suspicious. We try the tourist office.

“WHAT did you say you booked? A boat? A b-o-a-t?!?” The lady from the tourist office is agitated. She has the gaze of a goalkeeper about to stop a penalty, pulling out the full arsenal of psychological warfare. We quickly change the approach. Whether she might know if there is a place with Wi-Fi, where we can check our mail… “Wi-Fi? Haha. No. No! We. Don’t. Have. Wi. Fi. Nobody has Wi-Fi on this island. Nobody!!!” We give up. Two minutes’ walk from the Tourist Intimidation office is the office of the harbour master. He is a lot more friendly. “The password is fishhook. Feel free to grab a chair.” As we search for the reservation details, we explain what our problem is. The harbour master is able to tell us that the houseboat changed hands three months ago. So that was after we made our reservation. “And oh yes.” He bows conspiratorially towards us. “Eric is no longer with Tricia. He’s back with Ellen.”

Eric opens the door. He appears friendly, he is in his sixties. It was a five-minute drive to his house; he lives near the airport on the other side of the island. We explain that we came all the way from the Netherlands, with two small children, to spend some nights in his houseboat. Within 30 seconds, a few things become clear: (1) that it is indeed no longer his boat, (2) that it is surprising that we were able to make a booking after all, (3) that on reflection, it is not so surprising after all, because “a woman” had messed with several of his accounts six months ago and took money from him, while he himself was in a coma, more or less given up, in a Vietnamese hospital. And (4) that we are welcome to sleep in the caravan in his yard for as long as we wish. We accept the offer, and while we run some errands, Eric and his wife prepare the caravan. Only when we return do we see that we are camping right on the edge of the runway. Eric and Ellen live in the hangar.

At first glance, it all looks a bit messy. There are car parts everywhere. But it’s the good kind of mess. A closer look reveals that the fine art of hustling is practised here. The occasional islander comes by to ask if his car has been repaired yet, and Eric says he once delivered a sea container full of stray wood to a theme park in Brussels. There are chickens running around and eggs are being sold, and there is a vegetable garden with a greenhouse where broccoli, potatoes, strawberries and raspberries are grown. We actually feel right at home here. The children love the raspberry bushes. Ellen and Teun play aeroplane on the landing strip, they think it’s fine, since it looks very unused. Eric tells them they are on camera and that he is now obliged to report the incident. Whoops. Fortunately, he does not seem very dutiful. The next day, a plane actually lands on the runway. You know something like this can happen – especially on a runway – and yet it makes a big impression.

Twice we take a walk around the island. Despite its small size, once we even manage to get lost. We swim at a secluded beach and by the harbour; the water is ice-cold but it’s becoming something of a tradition that we don’t let that stop us. On Saturday, there’s a local holiday; it’s nice and lively, with a fair and face painting and things like that. And we visit the U’Mista cultural centre, a museum about the culture of the “First Nations”, the common term in Canada for the country’s original inhabitants. A major part of the museum is dedicated to the Potluck, the tradition of giving gifts, usually in the form of masks. On Sunday, we say goodbye to Eric and Ellen and take the ferry back to Port McNeill.

Before we take the long road back to Campbell River, we make a side trip to Telegraph Cove. This used to be a remote fishing village with a telegraph station. Today it is a very touristy place. We visit the Whale Interpretative Centre, which is great fun because of the enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff. On the wall is a family tree of killer whales. One of the most remarkable things we learn is that killer whales appear to live in three language groups that do not mate with each other.

Quadra Island

In Campbell River, we take the ferry to Quadra Island, one of the Discovery Islands located between Vancouver Island and the mainland. Here we are guests of Carol and Jamie. They relocated here from Victoria thirteen years ago, and it is hard not to envy them. They have a plot of land that includes a tiny house in addition to their own house and a spotless holiday cottage. One of their sons, who is a student, sometimes likes to seek shelter there. Next to their house is a vegetable garden with all kinds of herbs, edible flowers and lemon cucumber. And palm cabbage, ideal for healthy smoothies. Behind the house, goats graze in a clearing surrounded by trees. In the middle is a muddy pool. If you look closely, you can see tiny green frogs jumping around. So what about the bears here? I ask quasi-nonchalantly; you don’t want to appear too scared in such a first conversation. “Oh, they’re not here permanently,” Carol says. “They swim over from Vancouver Island in August, for the berries.” According to my watch, it’s 29 July. Nothing to worry about, then.

Early in the morning, Tessel is asked to join Carol and the goats for a walk. Rural life has taken hold of us. Then the internet connection also breaks down. The whole island is offline. Shops and restaurants suddenly cannot process payments. Jamie and Carol sit by the pond with a beer in hand; working from home is out of the question right now. But our children take a hare hit. They are at their wits’ end, completely upset. “Is the Wi-Fi back on?” is the first thing Teun asks when he comes down the stairs the next morning. (“No.”) Ellen had recited a news report to us earlier this holiday about a Japanese child who had been put out of the car by his father very briefly as an educational standoff. The child unexpectedly got lost and had to survive in the wilderness for two days. Tessel’s reaction: “Did he have anything to do? Did he have his tablet with him? And did he have wi-fi?”

Anyway. A breakdown like this does help to drag your kids into the offline world. We go swimming at Rebecca Spit. There are many oysters on the seabed. We consider taking some back to the cottage; Teun and I love oysters. In a burst of realism, we decide that picking free oysters is too good to be true. A wise choice. The Canadian government warns on the internet about Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSP). It is caused by red algae that is indeed found in oysters. PSP can be deadly, it paralyses your breathing muscles. And if you are really unlucky, you will also be fined for not having a fishing licence.

A little further up north on Quadra island, we find paradise. A few minutes’ stroll from the road there is a large rocky outcrop next to a small lake. The water is clean and not too cold, the sun is shining, the view is great and there are hardly any insects. Everything is just so right here. A nice lady who has finished swimming donates her air mattress to us. Hallelujah!

A trip we planned well in advance is sunset canoeing. In the afternoon, we report to the canoe rental in Heriot Bay. We split ourselves between two canoes. Detailed instructions follow, after which we paddle along the coast with our guide. It’s amazing! Every now and then we see a seal’s head rise above the water. Teun thinks he sees a whale on the other side of the shore, which doesn’t even sound that crazy to me, but the more plausible explanation is a seal playing around wildly. We stop on an island halfway through the trip, and an arsenal of snacks is whipped out. Gliding across the water is truly fantastic, and there are few sports that combine this so well with a gourmet vibe. The only thing is that canoeing itself is so darn uncomfortable. You have to work way too hard with your arms, while your legs get bored to death. And you don’t seem to be getting anywhere. And what about when a bear comes after you? Would things suddenly speed up in that case? How fast does a bear swim, or canoe? And what does canoeing do to your mental health? “Canada is a canoe route” a wise man once said. I’ll sleep on it one more night before becoming a Canadian.


The next day, we have to get up at six o’clock. Otherwise we will miss the ferry back to Vancouver Island, and consequently the one to the mainland. After Vancouver, an entirely new landscape unfolds. Highway 1 takes us through a valley that looks a little bit Asian to us; if you look through your eyelashes you can imagine the rice paddies. The road then heads up into the mountains. Near Hope, we catch a glimpse of a spectacular box canyon to the left of the road. Meanwhile, hordes of trucks sneak up the mountain. They travel almost at walking pace, often heavily loaded with tree trunks. But as they descend they easily overtake you at 130 km/h. It’s pretty scary when that happens.

Driving all the way to Revelstoke would be too long in one day, so we spend the night in Kamloops. We sleep in a mediocre motel, with a small swimming pool. Kamloops is a rather uninspiring town. It doesn’t help that we catch the first raindrops of this holiday. But in the evening we are pleasantly surprised by The Noble Pig Brewery, a microbrewery where it turns out you can also have fantastic food. The atmosphere is fantastic. At The Pig, the whole family is involved in the experience. And that’s nice because Teun, Tessel and Ellen do not drink IPA for various reasons. As a souvenir, we buy a “mug”, the beer version of the coffee-to-go cup.


After a freezing night in the motel – we didn’t know how to turn off the air conditioning – and a final dip in the pool, we drive the remaining stretch to Revelstoke. Along the way, we see deer and table mountains, but perhaps the most startling are the ultra-long freight trains. My first attempt to count the number of wagons ends in failure. Those trains are longer than my attention span. Eventually I succeed: 155 wagons in a single train, plus three locomotives: one at the front, one at the back and one in the middle. The length of such a train apparently can even go up to four kilometres. Imagine that they have to plough through the snow-covered mountains in winter. Revelstoke breathes trains. The town even owes its name to it: Lord Revelstoke was the banker who saved the Canadian Pacific Railway from bankruptcy in 1885. The railway museum gives a great insight into how this railway has influenced history. For instance, the rise of railways led to improved accuracy of timekeeping and also to the standardisation of time zones. The host in our AirBnB, a young guy, tells us that he used to work as a conductor on such a train for a while at the beginning of his career.

Nowadays, Revelstoke is mostly known as a ski resort. Since it is summer now, we have to do without the metre-thick layers of snow. We drive up the ‘Meadows in the Sky’ mountain road. It is very crowded at the summit. We are being eaten alive by mosquitoes and flies. Besides that, the threat of bears is a little too concrete for our taste to be able to stroll around leisurely. “Grizzly Bear in Area!” reads a sign near the car park. That may afcourse be a standard warning that is permanently there, but a little further on there is a whiteboard with all the recent bear sightings. They really are here. After a brief hike, we drive back down.

A bigger success is the Pipe Mountain Coaster. The idea is simple: you take a gondola up the mountain and then whizz back down on a monorail, in something like a bobsled. Teun and Ellen travel alone, Tessel sits on my lap. Braking is the only thing to do… or not do. The speed record is a few minutes, I am told, “but you definitely wanna go slower than that.” And that’s right. Because while you can’t derail, I guess, you do get shaken up when you pick up speed. Nevertheless, it’s great fun. We go up one more time just for a look around. When we reach the top, thick thunderclouds are forming and a strong wind starts blowing. The staff decides rather abruptly that the gondola must be closed…and that we “must” take the coaster down. The kids love this! It soon turns out to be too good to be true. We have to wait until the storm passes and the gondola turns again.

The next morning, Teun is not feeling well. Ellen takes Tessel on an outing to the Enchanted Forest on her own. In the afternoon Teun is feeling a bit better, and together go sight-seeing in the town of Revelstoke, with its cosy Farmers Market and the fancy restaurants. And we get a ticket from an over-eager parking enforcement officer for parking our car in the wrong direction. We are very surprised this is not allowed, that’s not a thing in our own country.


After two days in Revelstoke, we drive towards Golden over Rogers Pass. On the way, we see plumes of smoke in the forests, clearly forest fires. Golden is an unremarkable town, say Revelstoke without the buzz. Once again, we spend the night in a lovely AirBnB cottage. Our host is a soft-spoken man with a slight Southern European accent. He has a big car parked outside the door with a gun in it, and around the garden is a wired fence with electricity on it. Mafia? No, he is a Park Ranger. And that fence is there to protect the chickens and the dogs. From bears, because they sometimes wander into the village in Golden.

The next day we wake up bright and early. We are going rafting on the Kicking Horse River that runs trough Yoho National Park. It involves quite a bit of work before we actually float on the water: check-in, put on wetsuits and shoes, hand in car keys… And then a ride on a school bus. That ride, according to A-J, our guide, is by far the most dangerous part of the whole trip. Nevertheless, extensive safety instructions follow when we stand fully equipped at the river bank. His instructions are peppered with unlikely drowning-related events that do well in nightmares. And then the inevitable moment arrives when you think: what are we getting ourselves into? Tessel has one-and-a-half swimming certificates, the ink is still wet. On the other hand: it’s a family rafting trip. They do this every day. And we, together with another family, are invited to join A-J in a raft, which instils confidence. The first rapid immediately is the most violent, but A-J guides us through it skilfully and with unbridled enthusiasm. He points out Bob, a fallen tree that has been rocking back and forth in the flowing water for a few years. Halfway through, we arrive at a quiet spot in the river. “Swimming is allowed!” A-J’s typical humour; he just explained to us that the water was in a glacier three hours ago and the temperature is a mere four degrees. But Teun has selective hearing and jumps in, as do the girls from the other family. They have wetsuits on, but still. After a few minutes, we drag them back into the boat. Finally, after about an hour of paddling, we go ashore. A barbecue lunch is waiting for us there, which is surprisingly tasty. In that regard, rafting is like canoeing, but without the canoeing.

The following day we head to Kicking Horse Mountain. We take the gondola up. The hiking at the summit is somewhat disappointing. There is a path over a ledge, with a lot of loose gravel. There are people who ride over it on mountain bikes, but that’s not my thing. When Teun slips, we decide it is wiser to go back. We have a drink among the chipmunks on a terrace with a view, and take the gondola down. In the evening, we drive to Emerald Lake. When we arrive, it is quite crowded. The whole world seems to be picnicking here. After an hour, the place is much quieter. Emerald Lake was high on Ellen’s bucket list, in terms of photography. And rightly so. The lake looks beautiful in between two rain showers.

Yoho NP

Ellen has booked three different wilderness hostels for the coming nights. These are very basic hostels in the middle of nature. Number one is in Yoho NP. The drive there is enjoyable, with short stops at Wapta Falls for a hike and at Faeder Lake for a swim and picnic. The highlight of the day is Takakkaw falls. The sun is shining brightly, which helps. The waterfall is a stone’s throw from our hostel. A footpath takes you as close as you want; the question seems to be mainly how wet you want to get. When we are done sightseeing, it’s time to check into the Whisky Jack Wilderness hostel. I don’t know about you, but for me that name conjures up associations with shaggy bearded guys and blonde bimbos drinking liquor late into the night in a noisy, smoky bar. You can hear a “but” coming: there is no bar here. And in terms of rough and loud and bearded and blonde, we must come from us. There is, however, a communal kitchen where a few couples and lonely hikers modestly prepare and eat their one-pot meals. If there is talk at all, it is almost in a whisper. This is a hostel for hikers, for serious nature lovers. It also takes some getting used to the basic amenities. Running water is a luxury here; most wilderness hostels don’t have any. But the atmosphere is extremely friendly. And so is the price, for that matter, as you pay top dollar for a normal tourist hotel in this region. After dinner, we watch the sunset. And then we rush off to go to sleep in our dormitory. Because we have to get up early the next morning if we want to be one step ahead of the tourist mobs.

But what is early? Our first roommate leaves his warm bed as early as a quarter past four. We try to get some sleep for a little longer. The last roommates get up at half past six, and so do we. It’s rush hour in the kitchen. We are the last ones left in the building by seven am. We quickly scratch the ice off the car window and drive straight to Moraine Lake. We are too late, the car park is already completely full at a quarter to eight in the morning. So we drive on to Lake Louise, where it also is quite busy. But the lake is beautiful; this is a popular attraction for a reason. At the edge of the lake, someone is vlogging. With great difficulty, he is trying to position his mobile phone in such a way that only he and the lake are in the picture. “Hi everyone, I’m sitting here all alone, contemplating life…” What an idiot. Ellen laughs, loud enough to be heard by all his followers. We leave the vlogger behind and take a hike up the mountain, via Mirror Lake, to the teahouse at Lake Agnes. It’s a brisk climb. As we hike back, many adults with sweat on their foreheads ask us how far it is to the top. We are proud of our offspring.

Icefield Parkway en Jasper

We take the Icefield Parkway north to Jasper National Park. A spectacular landscape of snow-capped peaks and glaciers unfolds. The sun shines brightly and the weather is crisp. Three days we get to stay in this area. We are staying, as I wrote before, two more nights in wilderness hostels before we allow ourselves some luxury again. The first night is at the Athabasca Wilderness Hostel, in a room with sixteen beds. That sounds intense but most of the beds are empty. And what’s more: you don’t have to share the shower here. Because there isn’t one. There is no running water at all. Our second hostel in Jasper is the Maligne Canyon Wilderness Hostel. While there, the manager urges us not to spill any crumbs and never to let our children walk alone between car, kitchen, sleeping cabin, and toilet – not even for a very short distance. For the first time during this holiday, the bear reports have been scaled up to the “this is where you sleep and over there by that tree yesterday a grizzly bear walked with two cubs” level. How the mesh in the bedroom window is going to keep those bears away, by the way, is beyond me. But sometimes you just have to surrender to the peace and confidence your host exudes. He doesn’t want his visitors to get eaten either, I guess.

When we are not sleeping, we swim, for instance in Horseshoe Lake, a beautiful little lake hidden among the rocks where the fish nibble at your toes, and where we can only get our son out of the water with great effort. And we take a swim in Maligne Lake. We also wander around Athabasca Falls and Maligne Canyon, and spend a morning at Miette Hot Springs. The latter looks more like an outdoor swimming pool than you’d hope for when hearing the words Hot and Spring.

What about our wildlife encounters in Jasper? Deer along the road is more or less a daily occurrence. Once, we spot a couple of bears crossing the highway about a hundred metres in front of us. The most interactive animal encounter we have had, is that a small unidentified animal managed to slip into our car and eat our emergency supply of granola bars. (We could tell from the finely shredded foil that it was not one of our children. Although it would be a perverse form of evolution if human children learned to shred the foil in such a way that they could blame it on a rodent).

Finally, if we are talking about interacting with the animal kingdom, I have to mention the rodeo. I advise vegans to go for a cup of coffee instead of reading this. A retired volunteer at the tourist information center in Jasper persuades us to buy tickets for the Jasper Heritage Rodeo. In the late afternoon, a bus picks us up and takes us to the arena just outside town. Imagine a sandpit with a sturdy fence around it, a well-filled grandstand, a burger joint, an enthusiastic presenter and a clown warming up the crowd. The annual rodeo in Calgary is world-famous; this one here is a small one. Yet here, too, all are pros and they are competing for prizes. Behind the grounds stand their trucks and caravans with which they travel the continent from rodeo to rodeo. What follows is a series of eight competitive events with names like Novice Bareback, The Down Roping, Ladies Barrels and Bull Riding. The aim is usually either to stay on the back of an animal for as long as possible or, from a riding position, to lasso another animal, usually a calf, as quickly as possible and bring it to the ground and tie it together with its legs. Successful attempts succeed within seconds. When we wait for the bus to take us back afterwards, someone from the organisation tells us that this was probably the last rodeo and that this tradition is coming to an end after almost a hundred years. The reason is permit issues. It will no doubt play a role in the background that this form of entertainment is controversial in the current era. Nevertheless, it is an impressive demonstration of old-fashioned cowboy skills. And that, as far as we can see, it is being done very professionally.

As we drive back south along the Icefield Parkway, the bright sunny weather has given way to a heavy haze. The cause is wildfires that have been going on for days in Canada and the US. Four hundred fires and blazes are now said to be raging in British Columbia alone. Halfway along the Parkway, we take aour up the Columbia Icefield. In a superbus with giant wheels, we drive along the steepest dirt road in North America to the start of the Athabasca glacier. A bus like this costs $1.3 million, a tyre costs four to five grand. We get to scramble around on top of the glacier for a while, up to the ribbon beyond which you risk disappearing into a 60-metre-deep crevasse. The glacier itself is two hundred metres deep and five kilometres long. Did I mention before that we are impressed with the tour guides in Canada? Without exception, they are all very knowledgeable, enthusiastic and full of humour. Just look at this guide, still a youngster, she could have been my daughter. While lecturing us on glaciology, she single-handedly drives that superbus up the glacier. Take it from me: that is not a given when you have my genes. Anyway. She rounds off her story: “If you enjoyed the trip, my name is Emma, if you didn’t, my name is Dakota.” The tragedy is that her humour and expertise is lost in translation. The bus is in fact full of Japanese people who barely understand five words of English. After the glacier tour, we take a walk around the Skywalk – a glass platform suspended above the gorge; not for the faint-hearted – and then we continue our journey along the Icefield Parkway.

Lake Louise, Banff and Kananaskis

We spend a night in Lake Louise, down town. Two hundred euros we paid to sleep here. It is by far the most expensive accommodation of our holiday. It’s nothing special; apart from the jacuzzi, this is an extremely average motel. While booking, months ago, we thought that after three wilderness hostels, we would crave a little comfort. Now that the time has come, our Maslov pyramid has been completely turned upside down. In fact, the need for hot showers seem to have disappeared. Maybe it’s because of all the splashing around in glacial lakes. And heat? Heavily overrated. What does remain in the pyramid is good food. We dine in the old train station, with bison balls, snails, steak and Moscow Mule.

From Lake Louise, we head to Johnstone Canyon, right through Banff National Park. It is even hazier than the past few days and also a bit cooler. “Teeming with wildlife” writes our guidebook about this route, so we are on edge, but we see nothing at all. Johnstone Canyon is a bit of a disappointment after all the beautiful experiences of the past few days. It is very crowded, there are kilometres of parked cars. We walk along the canyon for a bit until we have had enough of the traffic jams, and turn around. We drive on to Banff, looking for lunch, shops and hot springs. But again, it is far too busy, we don’t even manage to park our car. We drive on to Canmore, where we have lunch and shop. Our last night’s stay before the flight back home is at the Kananaskis wilderness hostel. The usual subdued atmosphere of hikers among each other is momentarily displaced by a somewhat noisy family and a couple of blokes with boastful outdoor stories. It creates a nice buzz, though. What also stands out are the separate dormitories for men and women. Hugely old-fashioned, or actually very much of our time?

On Sunday, we drive to Calgary. The forest fires in the wider area are now so intense that you can actually smell the fire. An asthma warning is also in effect. The mountains around us have given way to rolling meadows. Unlike in Banff NP, tourists are nowhere to be seen here. To end the holiday, we treat the children to a visit to the Calaway amusement park.

At last, we return the car. We had a wonderful holiday, we saw beautiful things and had unforgettable experiences. Last but not least, we have not been eaten by bears. We have driven four thousand kilometres, quite a distance, and yet we have only travelled a very small part of this gigantic country. This enormous size perhaps explains why Canadians talk more often about their state, about BC or Alberta for instance, than about Canada. The country as a whole seems too big to comprehend. That reminds me that our goal was to discover something that is smaller in Canada than it is at home in our little chilly country. The answer comes naturally when, after three-and-a-half weeks, we are back home and sleep in our own bed, a bed in which you can stretch out without your toes peeking over the edge. That it! The beds are smaller in Canada.