Our last year’s North American trip started and ended in the Canadian province of Alberta. I have already written a bit about the stunning Canadian Rockies so here let’s elaborate a bit more about the much less known rest of the province.
After landing in Edmonton we drove straight to Jasper in the Rockies without paying much attention to the surroundings, partly due to miserable weather on that day. But on the way back we had a bit more time to explore.
We entered Alberta driving from Montana via the Caraway border crossing. It is one of the quieter crossings I have ever used between Canada and the US (or anywhere else for that matter). Its few small buildings are visible from miles away when you approach it on the dead straight and empty highway. On the American side there was a sign directing us straight to the Canadian customs where two officers waved us through after one or two questions, a bit surprised seeing two British passports instead of yet another local farmer or rancher. We were the only car crossing at the time. In either direction.
It was a glorious sunny afternoon and the vast blue sky was dotted with only a few specks of white cloud. Perfect weather to admire the open landscapes of the Canadian prairies. The Rocky Mountains were just about visible on the western horizon but we drove across a gently undulating prairie landscape, with very few trees indeed. This is the bread basket of Canada and one of the world’s most important wheat growing regions. Fields stretched for miles in every direction and massive grain trucks were thundering along the empty highways. It all felt a bit like somewhere in Kansas or Nebraska, a quintessentially American landscape.
But if I had to compare Alberta to any of the US states it would undoubtedly be Texas. They actually cover a similar area (more than twice the size of British Isles each), but it wouldn’t be the most important similarity. It is more about the feel of the place. Both territories are booming and their economies, dominated by the oil and other resource industries, are driving big population increases. But the similarities go even deeper. It is about the people’s attitudes. Nowhere else in Canada have I seen more national flags proudly displayed than in Alberta. There are visible on many farms in the countryside and on many buildings in the cities. Albertans seem to be as proud waving their flags as the Texans are. And they also love their huge pick-up trucks as much as their spiritual brothers in Texas. Again, nowhere else in Canada I have seen more of them on the roads. Folks in Alberta also seem to drive the biggest and flashiest trucks in Canada, even if they only use them to commute to work in the cities. Mirror image of Texas if you ask me.
After a pleasant two hour drive from the border we arrived at Calgary where we stopped for a night.
The following day we decided to have a stroll around the city which actually really positively surprised me. Its downtown, located on the south bank of the Bow River, is a dense mix of impressive glass skyscrapers, a testimony to Alberta’s growth in the recent years. The city’s skyline is really photogenic, especially on a crisp and sunny autumn morning when a deep blue sky reflects in the glass towers and contrasts sharply with the yellow leafs of the aspen trees growing along the river. The best views and photo opportunities are from the linear park stretching along the banks of the Bow River. The park is nicely landscaped and very pleasant so we decided to walk as far east as Fort Calgary.
Well, it actually is only a replica of the original fort which was established in 1875 by the North-West Mounted Police, a precursor of the world famous Royal Canadian Mounted Police. It was established to eradicate illicit whiskey traders from the area and prepare the region for orderly settlement. This is probably the biggest difference between settling of the Canadian and the American west. In the US it was a much more spontaneous and messy process, law usually followed the settlement. In Canada the law was often already there when the first settlers arrived.
Nowadays the fort’s replica provides educational opportunities for people interested in the past of the city. We didn’t enter as it was early in the morning and it wasn’t open yet. Instead we turned back west towards the downtown. The downtown itself looks stunning architecturally, as I already mentioned it offers an amazing skyline, but it wasn’t too lively on Sunday morning. In fact it was actually deserted. I didn’t mind as it was easier to photograph the architecture without crowds bumping into us. By mid day we decided to leave the city and head slowly towards Edmonton. I have to say that Calgary might not be as cool and trendy as Vancouver but it is well worth a visit.
We decided not to drive directly to Edmonton but take a detour to the east via the Alberta badlands. It was yet another long drive across the vast, gently rolling, prairies of Alberta. Then, as we were approaching the town of Drumheller, the ground suddenly opened and the landscape become very harsh indeed. It was like moving in 5 minutes from Alberta to Arizona. Strange rock and soil formations create a really striking topography in this part of the province. There are a few viewpoints along the provincial Hwy 9 before it reaches the town and they offer great panoramas of these interesting formations.
The biggest attraction in Drumheller is the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology which hosts Canada’s largest collection of dinosaur fossils. Unfortunately we arrived on a Sunday afternoon so it was already closed. But in the town itself we could still admire the World’s Largest Dinosaur, a 26.2 metres (86 ft) high fibreglass Tyrannosaurus Rex. It is actually much larger than any real T-Rex ever was. It might be kitschy as hell but it is also absolutely awesome. Oddities like that are some of the reasons why I love travelling to Canada and the US.
From Drumheller we drove in a north-westerly direction towards Edmonton. It involved navigating some smaller provincial highways across yet more of the endless wheat fields.
It was a late September and we could see many massive combine harvesters sailing through the fields. Even after the sunset the activity was still going on. These massive machines, brightly lit after dusk, made a weird sight, especially on a night of a total lunar eclipse when the moon turned a Mars-like red. Finally we stopped for a night in the town of Leduc.
The next day we were flying back to Europe from Edmonton. But as we had a few hours to spare we decided to make a quick tour of the city. We started from the Alberta Legislature Building which is located on nicely landscaped grounds on the high bank of the Saskatchewan River. It looks exactly like a dozen or so state capitols in the US. The same grand design, including a massive cupola, and tons of symbolism. We joined a tour led by an enthusiastic guide who was trying really hard to make provincial political history exciting. As much as I love this type of architecture the politics behind it are often quite boring. Still, she was funny and entertaining and got really excited after learning that we came from London. After that she was trying really hard to find similarities between politics in Alberta and British parliamentary system. One can only admire her enthusiasm. On the legislature grounds there is also a marker pointing to a spot where Fort Edmonton was once located as well as monument commemorating Lord Strathcona who drove the last spike finishing the first transcontinental railway. Which actually made Canada a country.
After that we strolled for a while around Edmonton’s downtown. Here I have to admit that I didn’t really like it. Comparing with Calgary it was low, messy, architecturally boring and to be frank, simply quite ugly. To some degree it reminded me of the city of Katowice in my native Poland (at least as it was a few years back, it got better recently). A bit shapeless and soulless, not really worth visiting.
And on this rather underwhelming note we ended our visit to Alberta. Edmonton maybe wasn’t the most impressive city I have ever visited but I really enjoyed Calgary. I could actually see myself living there. And I really love Alberta’s countryside. From the dramatic Rockies to the vast prairies, for me it is North America at its best.