Chapter 19. Alberta
(Bert) Leaving High Level, I am immediately struck by the change in scenery. Vast grain fields span flat land edged by large plots of tall trees dominated by aspen. Hundreds of round hay bales are rolled in alfalfa fields starting to show renewed second or third growth. One would think we had reached the grasslands of the Prairie States. Yet closer inspection shows this is all agricultural lands cut from dense forests. We travel through miles of Mennonite farms and here it is more obvious how the land is still being cleared. Felled trees and piled brush form long columns between rough stubble in preparation for future farm fields.
We turn from the highway and take a country road toward Fort Vermilion in hopes of finding migrating geese and ducks along the Peace River. At the river we take a gravel road, but after an hour of more farmlands we have seen few birds, except for our first Blue Jays and Cedar Waxwings since Texas. Then at Gull Lake–really a large marsh with open water between two rivers–we see at least a thousand Canada Geese and many ducks too distant to identify. In a few weeks, tens of thousands of geese and ducks will travel this flyway.
Now that we have wandered so far afield, we continue to take secondary roads to reach the main highway again. This is better birding and I stop to photograph a Ruffed Grouse trying to cross the road. My best bird comes when we stop for a late lunch before taking the La Crete ferry. An American Three-toed Woodpecker is attacking the bark of a spruce and is in good photographic position.
We stop short of the city of Peace River, camping at a provincial park. After
sitting around a campfire, we return to the RV to find that the electricity is
out, or maybe it was never on. I check the electrical box and it does not
register current, so we change campsites. This box shows power, but when I plug
in our electrical cord, nothing works. I plug in the refrigerator directly and
that works okay. I check fuses and trip switches but nothing is blown or
tripped. Then Shari unscrews the panel to the electrical distribution box that
holds the switches. The heavy wires to several of the poles are melted and the
connection is broken!
(Bert) Surprisingly, Shari is first out of bed this morning. When I roll out in semi-darkness, she announces we are going out for breakfast. At the burgeoning city of Peace River, we stop at Tim Horton’s, a favorite for Shari that somehow we have missed visiting so far this year in Canada. Perhaps it is because we have been in the boonies and not near cities.
Shari is keen on seeing world’s largest bee. I am expecting a bee hive factory of some unknown description. Instead, all we find is a giant outdoor model of a honey bee. Shari takes a half dozen photos. Then we are off again in search of more birding sites. We find an excellent birding trail, a mile of paths and boardwalk through a marsh. Surprisingly, I find nesting Barn Swallows. It must be their second or third try to still be on the nest in September. Three crowd in the nest, although they look large enough to fledge. For a late season day, the birding is quite good and I find Ruddy Ducks, many coots including juveniles, five swans, five Northern Harriers hunting over the marsh, and perhaps as many as 5000 Canada Geese on the distant lake.
Our destination is Lesser Slave Lake, a place we visited in 1998. We drive along the length of the lake for a half hour. Pillows of white clouds span sky the prettiest shade of blue: sky blue. So, it is surprising that the lake is so ominously dark gray as if it is stirred with mud. White caps move across the water like a conveyor belt propelled by the strong winds. We camp for the night very close to the lake but within a tall forest swayed by powerful winds that whistle through the Trembling Aspen.
With an AC power outage in the RV, I string a long extension cord from the campsite outlet through the RV window and up to the cords for the microwave, coffee maker and other appliances. One at a time Shari plugs in an appliance to prepare dinner. We retire early to avoid taxing the coach batteries with power for lights.
(Bert) Three White-tailed Deer bound through the woods as we leave the Lesser Slave Lake campground. We drive to the bird banding station and I recognize the wooded area adjacent to the shore where the mist nets are strung and I remember the small building where the captured birds were banded, weighed, and measured before being released. This is the place where Jim and I assisted in bird banding in 1998. Nicole tells me she is doing a bird census for the next half hour and will check the nets thereafter. Although the winds have died down, they still have strength enough to churn white caps on incoming waves. I say “Grebe” to Nicole and she responds “Red-necked” as we study a bird floating in a calmer part of the surf. We tally Least Flycatcher, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Great Blue Heron, a flock of Cedar Waxwings, and another of American Pipits. Then we check the nets, finding all of them barren. Earlier, at 6:30 AM, Nicole had banded four migrant thrushes: Swainson’s and Gray-cheeked. I study the white board at the banding station; they have banded 1002 birds since July 12 and Ovenbird, at 172, tops the list. We talk about spring migration and, specifically, I ask about Canada Warbler, a species I have read is threatened and has experienced an 85% population decline over the past 40 years, apparently owing to breeding habitat loss and degradation. Lesser Slave Lake is a haven for Canada Warblers, as Nicole says they are one of the most banded species in spring. She tells me their average arrival date and peak period, a date range I keep in mind if we return to this reserve next spring.
I say goodbye to Nicole and we drive nearly non-stop to Edmonton, a city we’ve visited many times. Building construction and booming expansion is obvious, as it has been throughout the Alberta we have seen this year. No sign of a recession here. Then again, Canada did not make the housing and banking mistakes that the U.S. did and it also has bountiful oil, gas, and mineral deposits.
Shari has located an RV repair shop and we take in our electrically-wounded RV. A technician looks at our breaker box and studies the burnt wires. The current carrying wires are intact, though the ground wires are badly damaged. He says we must have plugged into an electrical box with reverse polarity. Thinking back, it must have been the commercial campground at High Level. Without dismantling the cabinetry and getting at the electrical system, the technician cannot determine if the invertor/convertor has blown. We decide not to wait in Canada for the repairs and will head to Colorado instead. For now, though, we camp at a park we have stayed before, on Edmonton’s outskirts, and again extend an extension cord through the window. Rather than preparing dinner, we go out for pizza at one of our favorite restaurants, Boston Pizza.
(Bert) The endless, treeless high plains–at 3500 ft. elevation–of southern Alberta whiz by as we speed easterly along Trans Canada 1. Over the years we have driven the entire length of Trans Canada 1, through all of the provinces, from Vancouver Island to St. John’s, Newfoundland. By late afternoon we are near the Saskatchewan border and turn south to Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, a huge park with multiple campgrounds and bridging two provinces. We climb to 4700-ft., entering a sparsely wooded extensive ridge and a lake that contrasts sharply to the monotony of the plains. We will spend the night at the highest point of land between Labrador and the Rocky Mountains. I build my last Canada campfire. As we sit around the crackling fire, watching dinner cooking, a Gray Catbird calls persistently from the tall grass.
(Shari) I TOLD him NOT to bring them. BUT no, he had to anyway. He said it was all right. I was afraid that they would cause an issue and we would be stopped at the border and our whole RV would be checked and searched from top to bottom and they would find our other treasures (if any). But oh, nooooo. He knows best. Well guess what?
(Bert) Journal writing is about to end, but I have one more story to tell. In mid-morning we reach the Montana border at Wild Horse, a name for the location of the building sites, but not a town with even one house (or horse). We have eaten all of the prohibited fruits and vegetables, consumed all excess alcohol except three or four bottles of beer, have no firearms, and should be innocent of all charges. To be more than honest, I tell the agent I have carefully trimmed all bark from my split logs and he is welcome to inspect them. Wow, did that set up red flags!
(Shari) We get a crabby border agent and he finds out about our wood. (So goes my theory that the women agents are the crabby ones.) This guy is a doosie and he even hollers at his employee within our presence. The first question out of his mouth is where we live. Answer: Texas. So far, so good! Next he asks how long we were in Canada. Answer: 1 month. We are on a roll. Then he asks about our purpose for going to Canada. Bert tells him too much about how we went to Alaska and now are in Canada I assume expecting the guard to make the leap that we have to travel through Canada to get back home. With impatience in his voice, the guard asks, “Again, I repeat, what was your purpose in Canada? Answer: to see Northwest Territories. We readily answer his questions about fruit and vegetables and firearms. Bert even volunteers that we had firewood. He was that sure of himself.
(Bert) I say, “I’ve brought across clean firewood before and the agent merely inspects it.” He says I can’t bring it across no matter what and calls to his assistant to hand him a piece of paper. The assistant attempts to read the pertinent section, but the agent gruffly tells him, “Just give it to me!” Then he points to the lines that say the wood must be lumber that has been pressure treated and with an origin tag. I mention the sign a hundred feet before the border that states “Do not bring across firewood that is not cleared of bark” or some such similar wording. He retorts, “On what side of the border is the sign.” I admit defeat and prepare to hand over the banned, prohibited, treacherous firewood. He quickly retorts, “No, let’s do this by the book,” and tells me to make a U-turn and return the wood to Canada. Meanwhile he will hold our passports. I start the diesel engine and begin my departure. He shouts, “Slow down!” not recognizing that the diesel makes a lot of noise inside a building just to get from 0 to 3 mph.
(Shari) Well, Oh no! YOU CAN NOT BRING IN FIREWOOD. Even if it has the bark removed. Then to make matters worse my husband disagrees with him. I sweetly tell him just to be quiet and let it be. No, he has to make his point. You readers that know him, know what I mean. Well, we are marched back to Canada with our passports held hostage to deposit our bundle of wood in their bin. Of course, the Canadian guard has to inspect us now and Bert apparently shows his displeasure and we are grilled some more. Bert cools down and just now realizes he is getting himself into trouble by being so upset over a bunch of sticks. So what if he spent 15 min. splitting them. The guard asks if Bert is upset with him. Bert says no. The guard asks more questions like do we have pepper spray and again asks if Bert is upset with him. Finally Bert admits he is upset with the U.S. border guard, not the Canadian one.
(Bert) I make the U-turn and park before the Canada customs office and get out to take the firewood to the yellow bin appropriately marked firewood. Immediately, a Canadian officer jumps out of the building and orders me to get back in the RV and stop in front of him. I do as I am told. When he asks for our passports, I tell him we don’t have them and begin my explanation, but he can clearly tell I am agitated. He asks if I am angry at him. Shari tells me to calm down.
Now the Canadian agent starts in on the routine questions and asks if we have firearms. We say no. He asks about mace and Shari answers we have bear spray. The agent wants to see it. He peels off the jacket on the can and reads the contents and slowly hands it back to Shari. He tells me to make a U-turn and put the firewood in the yellow box.
As we drive back to the U.S. side Shari wonders what else the agitated agent will ask for and whether he now will want to do a full RV search. Fortunately, the agent simply hands back our passports and wishes us a good day.
(Shari) The guard lets us pass to empty our bag of wood and go back to the U.S. side. We get back to the U.S. guard and he asks one more question, I forget what it is then hands us our passports, and tells us to have a good day. Whew! Our treasures are safe. He never asked about alcohol or firearms or cigarettes or pepper spray or ... Should we go back?????
(Bert) I’d probably still be in a funk, except 10 feet beyond the Wyoming
border station I stop to watch four Sharp-tailed Grouse cross the highway and my
mind takes a detour.
(Shari) We travel the rest of the day to end at a Wal-Mart where camping
costs us $96. Only $60 is for groceries that replenished the pantry, $18 is for
a haircut, and $18 for a battery powered lamp. We are without our generator and
with the longer nights and cloudy days our solar panels cannot keep up with our
I love to travel but also love to sit in one place. We have had a wonderful, pretty terrific summer. Nonetheless, I am ready to stay put and enjoy creature comforts like all the hot water I want to use, not having to shut off the pump after every use, being able to watch TV, having 3G network capability on my iPhone and not having to watch which appliances I use for fear of blowing a fuse. I sure am sick of these same old clothes too. So we are headed to Breckenridge for a couple of weeks before making a mad dash home to Texas. We will be without the ability to run our A/C so it will be a mad dash for sure.
One more thing after being in Canada for over a month, of all our travels Canada is nice but there is nothing better than being in the good ol’ USA. As I said on my Facebook post: this is the best country in the world no matter who is president.
Epilogue Table of Contents