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THE ALBERTA CLIPPER

June 2001

     "The prairie lights are burning bright, the Chinook wind is a moving in, tomorrow night I'll be Alberta bound" emanated from the cd player as we pulled out of the driveway. It's always been one of my favorite Gordon Lightfoot tunes and it seemed very appropriate for this trip. The van hasn't been getting the greatest gas mileage. I hope that is because of the in town driving. As we leave it is recording a whooping 16.7 mpg. We headed west up IH 94 through the farmland of central Minnesota. This is really pretty country and it is a still morning. We pass dairy farms, turkey farms, horse farms, pig farms, a buffalo farm, a Christmas tree farm and even a grape farm. Wait, that was a vineyard. It is so still that the lakes and ponds are like mirrors scattered along the way. The world is reflected back in the glassiness of the water's surface. There are rolling hills and forests of oak, elm, pine, maple, birch and aspen that slowly give way to the beginning of the long, wide prairie. 


    We turn due north at Fargo, North Dakota. This is the home of those great blues players Johnny Lang and Shannon Curfman. You haven't heard of Shannon? You will. She is only 14 and has a voice way beyond her years as does Johnny. Must be something to do with growing up on the edge of civilization. As we head north the Red River valley flattens out before us. You folks of the southern persuasion may think that I am confused but yes indeed there is a Red River that runs between North Dakota and Minnesota. If you think that you are confused you should feel for this poor river. It is so confused that it runs north and empties into a lake in Manitoba, Canada. This is rich fertile farmland that was once part of the great north woods.


    We get to the border and wait in line to be questioned about our intentions. Oh look, they're taking a German Shephard for a walk and letting him smell all of the automobiles. I don't guess he likes any of them because he never slows down. The shady looking character in the vehicle in front of us got a special invitation to get better acquainted with some Canadian officers. I guess he didn't win at his game of 20 questions. The Canadian border guards have always been extremely polite and had a fascination with guns. Today is no different. "Where are you from?", "Where are you going?", "Got any guns?", "How long are you going to be there?", "Got any pepper spray or guns", "Why are you going there", "Are you all American citizens?", "Do you have any guns, stun guns or any other weapons?", "How many of there are you?", "When were you last in Canada?" and on and on. Marshall wins! He gets a free pass to cross the border without having to empty his vehicle and meet with other polite Canadians.


    Onward into Manitoba for the first time. We are headed to Winnipeg and arrive earlier than we thought. It is around 2:00 pm so we head off in search of a little fun after we check into the hotel. We wind up at the Assininboine Zoo. It is not too bad. It looks as though it was once a very nice zoo but it could use some repair here and there. It is located in a beautiful park along the Assininboine River. We discuss where to eat for dinner. We had passed a promising looking restaurant named Earl's on the way to the park. Amber said she didn't want to "Hurl at Earl's". We don't let this deter us but the packed parking lot does. We go down the road a piece an eat at a chain restaurant. Oh yeah!


    Afterwards we head back to the room and the kids head to the pool. Marshall checks out some Canadian television. He has a real fascination with Canadian commercials. He catches a show about famous Canadians and learns that Leslie Nielsen is from Regina, Saskatchewan. He also learns that the great band, The Guess Who is from where else? Winnipeg, Manitoba. They founded the band in 1964; a mere 37 years ago. Boy, I suddenly feel very, very old.


    The next morning we do a quick breakfast and get a thermos of coffee to go. $1.75 Canadian for a thermos of coffee. Wow! We point the van west and head off across Manitoba. There are trees! It is flat but there is flora. This surprises me since we are north of North Dakota and they have no trees. By the way, North Dakota wants to change their name to just "Dakota" so they won't sound so cold. I think they have spent one too many winters there myself. I'm listening to Canadian radio. It's kind of like National Public Radio on steroids but they have interesting topics. The politicians here are just as stupid as ours are I'm sad to report. I heard one say that he couldn't understand why he couldn't do whatever it was he was wanting to do, just because it would raise some trivial constitutional question. In other words, "I know best so shut up and listen." This won't happen when I become king. I switch to a French speaking station and Gwen seems to enjoy this since I can't argue with them. I find a station with a man after my own heart. He is on a crusade against apostrophe abuse's. Did you catch it? He says apostrophe's are being used when they aren't needed. I find that hard to believe. I wonder if I can pick this up in Minnesota? We pass a road sign that states, "The media provides or manipulates info." Roadside philosophy at it's best! A guy on the radio wants to know why they call it train robbery when no one loses a train. Good question.


    There are a few hitchhikers on the trans-Canada highway. Not something you see much of in the States anymore. I notice at the gas pumps that I am paying roughly $1.20 a gallon in taxes. I guess that goes to cover the free health care that they brag about here. Before we left on the trip, Gwen's mom gave us some Canadian money that she had from years ago. I got several astonished looks when I dropped one and two dollar bills on the counter. These disappeared years ago and were replaced by coins. I love the dual metal two dollar coins. A coin in a coin.


    As we get into western Saskatchewan and notice the beginning of the oil fields and ranches. The hills are getting larger here. We stop in Medicine Hat, Alberta for the night. We are now getting 17.8 mpg. We head on down to the Montana Steakhouse and munch on a dead cow. This is a popular spot for birthdays. They have three celebrations while we are there. Yeah, they come to table, sing you a song and smack you in the face with a cream pie. Amber wants to know if she can have her birthday here.


    Sunday we left Medicine Hat and headed northwest across the ranches and oil fields. Kind of like Texas except with big hills. We can see grey and white clouds in the distance. After a while you start to realize that there are snow capped mountains mixed in with the clouds. We finally top out on a hill and get our first view of the massive Canadian Rockies. We see a road with a cattle guard on it. There is a sign denoting the cattle guard. It says, "Texas gate". Alan and Amber entertain themselves with Alan's original game of, "You Can't Win." A very aptly named game it is, too. You see, he gets to make up the questions and answers. You can't win. "When is my birthday?" Amber gamely responds, "July 27th". The correct answer was, "Macaroni and Cheese". "What's my name?" Amber replies, "Alan". Alan says, "No. It's Wheat Toast". "What color is the sky?" "Blue." "No, it's Miami." You get the drift. You can't win but Amber is the trooper and humors him for about an hour. I refrained from playing, thank you very much.


    We get into the foothills and the legendary town of Calgary, home of the Calgary Stampede, one of the worlds largest rodeos. At one time they were the largest but in recent years I know that Houston has surpassed them with the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Calgary is scattered among the hills. My kind of town. We pass by the former Olympic Park on our way to Banff.


    We work our way into the mountains and we are now getting 19.2 mpg. The mountains are just as amazing as they were 15 years ago when Gwen and Marshall came up here with Sam and Debbie to go skiing. We unload in Banff and decide to walk the town and do a little shopping. This is a beautiful little town nestled in among the mountains and trees. There are some fine shops here; beautiful Canadian jade carvings, animals carved from horn, some of the finest fossils I've ever seen, glass shops, fantastic galleries, and numerous t-shirt and trinket shops. 


    Later we did a little touring around town and saw the "Cave and Basin" hot springs, the grand and glorious Banff Springs Hotel, we drove over Tunnel Mountain and stopped to see the hoodoos. All of this took place in between intermittent showers. We ate at "The Grizzly". You order up raw dead animal chunks for dinner. Gwen had lobster, Amber had beef and free range chicken, Marshall opted for "The Hunter" with buffalo, venison, and wild boar. Alan chickened out and had a steak sandwich. Not a bad choice considering they brought him a juicy steak and a couple of slabs of good bread to slap it between. He forwent the bread and devoured the meat; a true predator, this one. They brought the rest of us our raw meat and a hot rock. You take a chuck of granite, heat it to 650 degrees, throw it on the table, smear it with garlic butter, and throw raw meat on it to cook. Amber thought this was really cool! Alan helped Gwen cook her stuff. We went through several rocks before we were done. It was wonderful.


    Monday morning we rise early and set off in search of food. A real habit on these trips. This town is full of late risers. we only find one small cafe open. What's up with this? It is 6:00 o'clock after all. We eat and motor north toward Lake Louise and the Chateau. The lake is nestled at the foot of several glaciers and is a beautiful powder blue. After some photos we head across the road to the ski area and take the gondola to the top of the mountain. What a view! Gwen and Marshall reminisce about skiing here years ago. We get a couple of snow flurries while we are up here. We head back down and continue our journey north again. There are big beautiful snow and glacier capped mountains all along the way. 


    We pass a tour bus. No, this one was not full of Swedish tourists. The logo on the side of the bus said, "Denture Tours". I thought to myself that these folks must have a real sense of humor. Tours for toothless folks. I would qualify for this tour. These folks could be a lot of fun. Traveling around the country and poking fun at themselves at the same time. I might have to check into this. I slow done and look for a phone number or a web URL. On second look I notice that his says, "Denure Tours". In your best Emily LaTella voice say, "Never mind".


    We head on north and the radio tells me about "Video Opinion." Call in and you can give your opinion for one dollar. This is for concerned Canadian citizens that give a buck. Man I love this radio! We finally reach the Columbia Ice Fields and the Athabasca Glacier. You could put Seattle on top of the ice fields and not cover them. We sign up for the tour and get whisked away in a bus to the side of the glacier. There we transfer to a 6 wheel drive Snow Coach. A tour bus on steroids. We dive down a 32% grade to the glacier. This is a mere 18 degree slope and I used to think that a 6% grade was steep! Right out on the glacier we go. On top of 1000' feet of ice that stretches a cool four miles. Oh, but it is receding every year. Could it be that pesky global warming? If so it started in 1848 when the glacier reached it's furtherest point. I guess it must have been all that horse flatulence heating us up. I never did like danged horses anyway. We got snowed on. I don't know why, it's a toasty 25 degrees out. Glad we all brought coats on our summer vacation! Alan thinks that the Snow Coaches need more horses. They top out at 12 mph. But they will climb nearly straight up though. That's cool! We drift back south, pass some mountain goats and visit Mistaya Canyon. The river running from the lake has gouged out a nice little gorge here. We stop at numerous turn outs for photos on our ride back to Banff. We cruise Banff for awhile, eat and call it a day.


    Tuesday we drove from Banff, across the Rockies, into British Columbia, and down into Montana. It rained 90% of the way. We could not see the tops of any mountains. What a bummer. We caught some great radio in Kalispell and got to listen to hear John Hartford for about an hour. We did enjoy the drive around Flathead Lake. We got into Missoula around three and headed to Herb and Sue's house. These are old friends of Marshall's from the year that he spent here around 1980-81. It is much more crowded than it was 20 years ago but then everywhere is. We chow down and eat some fajitas and get to enjoy some Herb stories. Congratulations are in order for Herb. He just graduated from the University of Montana with a Forestry degree. No small feat for a guy that barely made it out of high school. Marshall and Herb concur that sobriety can really change a guy. This is the first time the two have ever seen each other sober. Weird. No not Herb, the situation.


    Wednesday Sue has to work and we see her off in the morning. Herb is still reveling in the joy of being out of school. Marshall is curious if Herb has started having the dreams about missing major tests, or of not being able to find the classroom on test day, or of not knowing a single answer for the test he is taking. Yep. He's already having them. The joys of higher education. After a breakfast of some of Herb's sourdough pancakes we head off and tour old Fort Missoula. Troops were dispatched from here to deal with Chief Joseph. This is one of the saddest stories in American history that there is. Don't know who Chief Joseph was? Get a copy of Andrew Garcia's book, "A Tough Trip Through Paradise." It is about Andrew, a Mexican from the Rio Grande, his trip to, and life in, Montana and it also contains the story about Chief Joseph's run with old women and children from the American military. The bearded irises are in bloom and the Fort has beds full of hundreds of varieties. There are collections of other items here like portable saw mills and a small museum.


    We take a tour of the Smoke Jumpers training facility. This is where wildfire fighters are taught to jump from airplanes at the altitude of 1,500 feet. The object is to slow you down enough that you don't bounce when you hit the ground. This was Herb's dream until a few well placed sniper's bullets in Viet Nam brought that dream to an end. 


    We left there and went to the National Elk Association. They have some beautiful art here along with mounts of all kinds of animals. They have some of the largest elk racks in the country. We went downtown and ate at "Out to Lunch". An outdoor festival of food booths and music that takes place each Wednesday. The food is good and it is good to see that Missoula is still full of wide eyed kids who believe that all the world is a stage and that they are the major players. Reality will strike them all too soon. That is if they are lucky. Otherwise they'll grow up to be Bill Clinton's. We drive through downtown and pass by Red's bar. This is where Herb, Sam and Marshall lived in 1981. They did occasionally go home to change clothes and shower.


    That night we went up to what used to be the Mansion restaurant. The Mansion burned down years ago but Marshall fondly remembers hanging out there in the past. He even played a few songs in the bar one night. Now it is The Keep and the food is fantastic. The view is still phenomenal as it is located part way up the side of the mountain and overlooks Missoula. We returned back home and Alan talked Herb into showing him how to tie flies. Alan is completely taken with Herb. He is cool! The lesson is hands on and Alan is in heaven. While tying a fly we are regaled with some of Herb's fly fishing stories. Herb has wonderful stories.


    Thursday we killed the morning at Herb's. We checked out his beautiful gardens. He has several hundred bearded irises along with a selection of other fine plants and flowers. Herb and I spend some time playing twenty questions with the PC. We finally say goodbye and roll on down the highway a few miles to Deer Lodge. As we leave Willis Alan Ramsey's wonderful song, "Goodbye To Old Missoula" is playing on the cd player. Willis is depressed because Rosie rejected him; I'm just depressed to be leaving Missoula again. We pass a road sign advertising the "Testicle Festival - Have a ball". Ok? 


    We meet up with Sam who has taken a few days off to spend with us. What a nice guy! Sam and Marshall worked together in the oil fields back in '81 when they were strapping young bucks. Now they are just a couple of old gray white guys. Time marches on and over everything in it's sight. The two have managed to stay in touch over the years. This is no mean feat considering the fact the two never seem to quit moving around. We go out to the Grant-Kohrs Ranch which has been turned into a park/historical site. Sam's dad, Robert, is working here giving folks rides in a wagon behind a team of horses. He is one of the last of a dying breed. A true cowboy for his entire life. It is always a pleasure to see him again. We go for an exclusive ride around the park and then tour the old home. It was left fully intact when the Kohrs moved out. It is a very interesting tour.


    Friday morning we go down and tour the Old Montana State Prison. When we sign up for the tour there is no one else around. All right! A small quite tour. As we get ready to leave, about a dozen punks that look like they belong in prison join us. They are being herded by a couple of "handlers". We meet up with our tour guide. A gentleman who was a guard in this prison for 33 years. He lets us know that he does not follow the scripted tour but is going to tell us how it really was inside of these walls. He is soft spoken with eyes that could cut your heart out. He launches into one of the most fascinating tours that I have ever had in my life. His stories are very graphic and seem to be directed directly at the punks that are with us. At one spot he asks us to leave the grand kids behind and he tells stories that will make your skin crawl. I would not want this man mad at me and I dang sure would not want to be in prison with him as a guard. He leaves nothing to the imagination in this part of the tour. If I was still screwing up in my life this guy would sure make me think twice about it. On the cell block tour our guide had Alan demonstrate the saying, "Walk the line". (see photo at right) After about 2 and 1/2 hours our tour draws to a close. Gwen has been talking with the "handlers" and found out that all of our tour partners are about a gnat's behind from going to prison (I knew it!) and this is a bit of shock therapy. It sure shocked me! The new prison is just up the road a few miles. We went to lunch and killed a few hours until Sam's lady, Angie got of work at around 2:00. 


    We headed east to the Lewis and Clark Caverns. No Lewis and Clark did not find them. It was determined by Teddy Roosevelt, I believe, that there was nothing named for Lewis and Clark so this cavern was. It was a nice little 2 1/2 mile walk through tight hallways and large rooms. 


    When we left there we headed back to Butte to check out the hole. This was the world's largest open pit mine at one time. They hauled a lot of copper out of here in years past. Ground water has been seeping into the pit and you can't see most of it because of this. This is really disappointing. To console ourselves we go attack some fine Montana steaks.


    Saturday morning we roll out bright and early and head back to Maple Grove, Minnesota. We drove it straight back in a mere 17 hour leg. We managed to cover 3507 miles and wound up getting 20.9 mpg at 75 - 80 mph on the way home. Weird. 


                                                                                                            ~ The End ~


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