A bonus walk in Wonderland

An unexpected hitch in an itinerary doesn’t have to mean frustration or disappointment. When it happens to me at Lake Louise in the Canadian Rockies I consider it a blessing. Can you imagine a finer place to have to stay a little bit longer?

View from 485, Chateau Lake Louise

View from my hotel room

With no room available for me in Banff, I take full advantage of my ‘bonus’ day at the lake, starting with a hearty breakfast at the splendid Chateau Lake Louise to fuel my hike into the spectacular surrounding countryside.

I’m walking up the valley to the Plain of the Six Glaciers. This adventure along the “teahouse trail” will swallow up most of my day, exactly according to plan.

Once I get beyond the head of the lake I slow down to dawdle at leisure along a trail curling through dense forest. Eventually it spills from the trees onto a jigsaw landscape of scree, silt, avalanche chutes and terminal moraine.

Pica seen on hike

Curious pica

As I step carefully over a clutch of small boulders my eye catches a scurry of movement, a flash of brown to my left. I freeze mid-step. A tiny pika pops its head above a nearby rock. This tiny, furry cousin of the rabbit studies me warily for a few seconds, then ducks back and is gone. Or so I think.

Moments later it reappears, nervously twitching its whiskers while eyeing me curiously. Moving ever so slowly I point my camera and snatch a photo before it again vanishes.

Every step along the trail takes me closer to a superb view of the Victoria Glacier. Spectacular enough when seen through binoculars from the lake, from this new vantage point the 90 metre thick ice sheet is truly awesome. I also have a stupendous view down the valley to the landmark hotel standing like a miniature confection beside turquoise water. The sweep of landscape is overpowering.
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The view back to Lake Louise

The trail gets steeper and forms a zig-zag as I near my destination, the tea house at the Plain of Six Glaciers. This log cabin cafe is run by hotel staff who lug all the food and drink up here once a week.

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Six Glaciers tea room

I spend a couple of idyllic hours admiring the gallery of surrounding mountains and hanging glaciers, munching on sandwiches and gazing at ice-dusted peaks. As lunch breaks go, it’s got to be one of the best ever.

All too soon I need to think about heading back. Half way down the valley I take an alternate return route. This takes me to a point where I leave the trail for the brief but strenuous upward surge to Lake Agnes. By now it’s time for afternoon tea at another charming tea house which, being much closer to Lake Louise, gets a lot more visitors than its sister at the top of the trail.

From Lake Agnes it’s a pleasant descent along a trail passing though tall, thick forest to reach the lake shore. Long before twilight I’m back where I started and eager for a rest after having turned my unexpected bonus day into a hike made in heaven.

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Best lunch spot in the world, perhaps?

A fine Swedish habit

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Fika time in Uppsala

One thing is certain in Sweden. You don’t explore the streets for very long before you are hankering for a fika. This urge comes on strong largely because in the generally chilly weather the act of fika swiftly becomes an imperative. It’s no struggle whatsoever to succumb to this delightful local practice.

Invert the two syllables of the word and you’ll immediately understand. Fika (ka-fi) is an institution in this friendly, convivial country. In Uppsala, in particular, we are never far from a cosy, warm, comfortable cafe in which to indulge our instantly-acquired Scandanavian habit.

But fika is so much more than simply having a quick cup of coffee. Fika almost always involves sharing lively conversation while, at the same time, nibbling on delightful small pastries called bulle – Swedish for “boulders”. The prime specimens are flavoured with cinnamon or cardomum.

The finest examples of kanelbulle and kardemummabulle that we tasted were at Rosendal, a greenhouse-style cafe set amid a community agricultural project on the island of Djurgarden in Stockholm. But that particular outdoors excursion is the basis of another Scandinavian yarn.

Meanwhile, on this cold and wet Uppsala day, having paid a visit to the splendid cathedral and marvelled at its extraordinary collection of Medieval vestments, our first fika stop is at Ofvandals (Sysslomangaten 5), which has been a legend ever since opening in 1878.

The cafe is popular with all ages but is a particular favourite among Uppsala University students who generally impart a sparkling vibrancy to the streets of this lovely old Swedish town.

IMG_0173Later in the day we stop for a second fika, this time at Caffe Linne Hornan (Svatsbackgaten 22). It’s on a corner across from the city gardens made famous by association with Sweden’s most famous professor, Carl Linneaus.

Having no fixed agenda we spend more time than the usual fika break lounging in comfy armchairs enjoying the convivial atmosphere and simple, elegant creature comforts that are a natural feature of Swedish cafes. Bravely, we resist overindulging on the chocolate cakes, lemon slices and other rich pastries and confections displayed before our eyes in glass cabinets.

Another fabulous choice for fika in Uppsala is Guntherska Hovkonditoriet (Ostra Agatan 31) where everything is made in-house. On our second day in town we sip our coffee beneath chandeliers while watching artisans make chocolates and other mouth-watering seductions.

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Guntherska Hovkonditoriet

Guntherska is also the perfect place to try one of those huge, fresh North Sea shrimp sandwiches that are a staple of the Swedish diet. But this is only possible if you have learnt the golden rule of fika: go lightly on all those tempting, tasty boulders!

Some fika trivia:  

The city of Kalmar was the first to set a Swedish fika record when on 6 June, 2007, 2,620 people sat down together for a fika. In 2009, a Swedish coffee company organized a fika tour in ten different cities to break the record: Östersund was crowned the new Swedish fika champions for having 3,563 people at fika on 30 May that year. 

– courtesy Wikipedia

Whitehorse raw – best bar none

A pithy quote scrawled on a wall in the Klondike Rib & Salmon BBQ is my introduction to “dining in the oldest operating building in Whitehorse”. It says, “Be grateful for luck, pay the thunder no mind – listen to the birds, and don’t hate whiskey.”  That sounds like reasonable advice.

It’s my first meal since arriving in the Yukon capital and I find this popular restaurant, open only during summer, is packed at an early evening hour. I wash down my halibut and chips with draft Yukon Gold while musing about my surroundings.

I’d imagined Whitehorse to be a rowdy frontier town in keeping with its gold rush history and location in northern Canada where many a hard man has ventured in search of gold and glory. Given this history of struggle, suffering and disappointment I’d expected to find a town that truly tests one’s mettle.

To the contrary, I find myself in a rather docile and very tidy town, a sense of order and respectability pervading its wide streets. This calm repose is only slightly jarred by the stream of testosterone-fuelled big-wheeled trucks and enormous house-sized RVs that trundle through town en route to wide open spaces further north.

Instead of raucous saloons and rumbling in the streets what I find is a colourful mural of old times decorating one alley wall along with cosy, modern cafes serving cappucinos and gluten-free muffins. Instead of Deadwood it seems I’ve ended up with Yukon Lite!

Yukon 98 hotel WhitehorseFor any sense of frontier spirit I need to go where Tourism Yukon suggests we don’t. So in the company of Canadians Robin Esrock and Ken Hegan, brothers-in-arms at the GoMedia travel writers’ get-together, I make tracks for the 98 Hotel Bar.

The setting is perfect. A brace of rifles hang above the bar. The pelts of various animals are stapled to the opposite wall. They include a wolf, wolverine and lynx.

Hunched along the bar or sitting around the rooms low wooden tables are a dozen flint-eyed denizens who seemed screwed to their chairs. Everyone turns to stare as we interlopers walk in. It feels like anything might happen – and soon it does.

We take seats at a table in the rear and the owner ambles over to introduce herself. “Hi boys, I’m Angel, where you all from?”

We tip our hats, introduce ourselves and state our business, which is seeking a taste of an unadulterated Whitehorse, and we then order beers. We’re chatting away with amiable Angel when suddenly there’s a commotion and shouting at another table.

“S’cuse me gents,” says Angel. She and another beefy lady from behind the bar approach a customer, lift him off his chair and throw him to the floor, after which they pick him up and toss him through the front door onto the street. Just like in the movies!

Angel returns to our table, totally unperturbed. Meekly we inquire what happened. Did the guy refuse to pay his tab, perhaps?

“Nope, he’d drunk too much,” she says. “We have a policy of responsible consumption here.”

Angel also tells us that a special “grandfather clause” in local legislation allows her to open her bar at 9 in the morning. She points out that some of her customers, those who’ve slid to the bottom of the social totem pole, often have nowhere else to go at that time.

Thus we learn that the 98 Hotel offers much more than just drinks and a few simple rooms out the back. It also provides a needed social service, offering at least some comfort to the less fortunate. We raise our glasses to that and Angel pins yellow badges to our shirts. She’s made us honorary members of the 98 Hotel Breakfast Club.

Most definitely north of ordinary

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High above Kluane

The Yukon is not the largest of Canada’s Territories. That title goes to Nunavut.  It’s is not even one of Canada’s ‘big boys’, ranked ninth in size of the country’s 13 provinces and territories. But extending over 482,443 square kilometres, give or take a few, means The Yukon is plenty big enough for me. So big in fact that I can hardly believe my eyes.

Many catchy slogans have been conjured about this territory. Air North, which flies to some truly extraordinary places, came up with the brilliant “north of ordinary”. After spending an all-too-brief time in this gigantic Territory I fancy adding my own slogan: “Yukon hardly believe it!”

My wonky word play does at least capture my feelings after exploring a minute fraction of this truly stupendous landscape. My travels include more than 1000 kilometres behind the wheel, as well as flights over gigantic ice fields, above snow-clad mountains and over countless lakes, large and small, hidden deep amid vast expanses of pristine boreal forest.

The single most vivid impression, that which truly sparks the most compelling sense of wonder, is the fact that there is almost nobody out there.

The Yukon total population hovers somewhere around 37,000 and most of these territorians live either in or close to the tiny capital of Whitehorse. Which sort of leaves the rest of this amazing wilderness devoid of human habitation.

The grizzly and the black bear, the wolves and wolverines, lynx, moose, caribou, beaver, mountain sheep and myriad other creatures, large and small, essentially have the place all to themselves. Isn’t that fantastic?

Yukon flight noteI also love the frontier spirit I encounter everywhere. The Yukon inhabitants think of themselves as living a world apart from the rest of Canada and, for them, to venture elsewhere means “going outside”.

The spirit of adventure that I encounter everywhere is epitomised in this amusing child’s note I see pinned to a cork-board at Haines Junction just before I take an amazing scenic flight over the glaciers and mountains of Kluane National Park.

And now, having had the good fortune to meet Into The Arctic artist-adventurer extraordinaire Cory Trepanier while in Whitehorse and watching a presentation of where he’s been and what he’s done, I’m far too embarrassed to consider myself much of a traveller, let alone adventurer.

yukon 1I’ve barely scratched the surface of the vast northern Canadian outdoors yet my brief encounter with the immense natural grandeur of The Yukon leaves me humbled.

It also totally re-energises my sense of awe and for that alone I will forever be grateful.