Pierre, Another Dakota Another Capitol

Sept. 18-19, 2012

With another new tire securely stowed, it was safe to continue our journey. We came east across North Dakota and we’ll go west back across South Dakota.

Since we toured the capitol in North Dakota, it only seemed fair to give Pierre, the capitol of South Dakota equal time. By the way, its pronounced “Peer”, this is South Dakota, not France after all.

We stayed at another army corp lakes campground, which means another dam. No tours this time, though. Just a soothing hum off in the distance to put us to sleep.

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Once again, the campground was clean, quiet, and mostly empty. And this time, we got to finish the campfire through to the end.

There wasn’t much else to do in Pierre, so we had a lazy morning before heading out to the capitol. The South Dakota capitol was more of the traditional style, with a big dome, but still very nice.

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Looking up at the dome from inside.

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Another interior shot of the ceiling.

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The best parts of the building were definitely the ceilings and the floors. The floor was hand laid Italian marble. It wasn’t just in the entry, but spread throughout most of the building. That is a lot of small tiles.

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There were so much tile, the job required dozens of artisans. Apparently, it was customary to allow such craftsman to sign their work. However, due the large number of craftsman involved, it was decided that each would be given one “special” blue tile to lay as they wished to represent their signature. There are around 50 or so such tiles scattered throughout the building, and I made it my mission to seek them out. I found about 10 over the hour or so we wandered the building. I have pictures of all of them but I think one should suffice for illustration purposes.

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The building has had some repairs done over its long history, and it wouldn’t be right to simply ignore the craftsman responsible for repairing the tile. So they are given their own special tiles to lay. Their work is identified by heart shaped tiles. They are a little harder to find since they are not a unique color, but we eventually uncovered a few.

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The South Dakota legislature was also out of session, so it was pretty quiet, much like in Bismarck.  After we finished our game of tile hide and seek, We walked a few miles of trails in a park near the capitol grounds.

On the way back to camp, we sampled some of the local cuisine at Zesto’s, a small local favorite soft serve ice cream shop with tasty treats for little money.


We Forgo Our Plans And Go Farther to Fargo

Sept. 17, 2012

Originally we planned to go from Valley City south to South Dakota. However, once parked in Valley City, we noticed that (another) one of our tires is partially shredded and about to self destruct. So on goes the spare, and its off to Fargo to hunt for a tire.

After driving to every tire store in Fargo, and nearby Moorhead Minnesota, there is no tire to be had until tomorrow morning. Close enough. After a night at the local Fairgrounds campground, we were able to pick up our new tire on our way out of town.

If We Gotta Get Nuked, Let It Be In North Dakota

Sept. 15-16, 2012

We’re on the road from Bismarck to Valley City, ND. Along the way is the National Buffalo Museum in Jamestown. The museum is filled with all things buffalo related and there is a small buffalo herd right on the site.

But the real draw for this museum is a rare white buffalo, named White Cloud. The buffalo was born on a nearby farm. The owners recognized its significance to the native peoples and made sure it could be shared by all. The town of Jamestown is very proud of its white buffalo and even throws it a birthday party every year.

Unfortunately for us, the museum has a very buffalo friendly policy for their herd and they are allowed to roam unconstrained on the property. This means, you only get to see them when they feel like wandering near the viewing area. And today was not one of those days.

So while we didn’t get to see White Cloud, there was still Dakota Thunder, The Worlds Largest Buffalo! Need proof, here it is.

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And here’s the great beast. Its no Salem Sue, but still impressive.

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There was a old frontier village outside the museum, which was pretty much closed for the season but you could still walk through. Reen was insisting that we go to more quilt shops, and I was tired, so drastic measures were needed.

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If only we had a spare room at the townhouse…

We pulled into Valley City on the late side, and campground options were limited. We ended up at a small campground attached to a local motel. Not pretty, but cheap and convenient.

The real reason we stopped in Valley City was to visit the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile Site. A large part of the state of North Dakota (and South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming) is peppered with nuclear missile silos. Since the missile sites would be targets in a nuclear confrontation, they put them out in these less populated states. Great for most of us, not so much if you are a local farmer.

This site was part of the 321st Strategic Missile Wing which encompassed an area the size of New Jersey. This wing was deactivated as part of the START treaty. This is the only launch facility (out of 15) that remains in its original form as an historic site. The rest have been filled in with concrete below ground and the buildings sold off.

Here’s what the site looks like from the outside, not much.

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This facility was the control center for a flight of 10 missiles. A small crew lived and worked above ground right in the building. A rotating crew of 2 missileers worked 24 hour shifts below ground at the missile launch controls. The center was designed to remain operational through anything other than a direct nuclear missile hit. It is completely self-sufficient if necessary.

The below ground facilities were two small steel and concrete capsules connected by a passageway. One contained the machinery and the other contained the missile controls. Both were accessed by very large doors.

Door to the machinery room.

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Door to the control room. The hydraulics for this door were hand-pumped from the inside. So you had to be real motivated to open or close that door for anything other than an emergency or to change shifts.

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Everything in the capsules is on a platform supported by giant shock absorbers to minimize damage in an attack.

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This is the control panel for the lower ranked missileer. It contains all the status readouts for the 10 missiles under their control.

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The actual launch key hanging next to where it would be inserted for launch. Under normal conditions, the key would be stored above the console in a red padlocked box.

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This is the commanders console around the corner. He has his own key.

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Everyone knows that both keys need to be turned simultaneously to launch the missiles. However, that was not actually enough to trigger a launch. A missile launch command would be applicable to a set of 50 missiles distributed across 5 launch control facilities. In order for the launch to proceed at least two crews in two facilities needed to complete the launch sequence. Sorry Hollywood, you can’t actually break into a missile facility and launch nuclear missiles.

If all goes to hell and the missileers need to get out of the facility, they have a way but its not easy. First they go through a hatch in the floor, crawl under the floor toward the outside, and then climb a ladder to the escape hatch shown here.

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But that doesn’t get you out quite yet. The hatch leads to a tunnel that only gets you about 5 feet from the surface at some unknown point outside. If you wanted to really get out, you had to dig your way through the last five feet of earth with your bare hands.

The 10 missiles controlled by the site were scattered for miles in the surrounding fields. If it wasn’t for the sign and displays, you would be hard pressed to notice them. All the missiles have been removed and the silos destroyed. There is one site nearby to visit.

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This is the business end. In the event of a launch, that door would be blasted open along those rails in seconds so the missile could launch.

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Bismarck, Capitol of North Dakota

Sept. 12-14, 2012

The march toward the capital of North Dakota begins (and ends) today. There’s a major highway running from Theodore Roosevelt National Park to Bismarck, but we elected to take a parallel scenic route instead. The scenic route keeps us away from the traffic and it lets us see more farms! But the real reason to take the scenic route is to see Salem Sue, the worlds largest Holstein cow.

Read all about Salem Sue.

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Here’s the entrance to Salem Sue. What isn’t obvious in this picture is the sign which says there is no trailer parking. That means to see the old girl we must hike. That dark lump on the hill is where we’re going.

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After a bit of a trek we finally made it to Sue. She is quite the specimen. That’s Reen holding on to Sue’s hoof so she doesn’t blow off the hill; the winds were about 40mph up there.

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Compared to Sue, the rest of the trip to Bismarck was uneventful. We ended up camping at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park about 15 minutes south of the City. It was a very nice park right on the river.

The first day in Bismarck we elected to just relax and hang out in the park. The weather was great, Reen got to do some sewing, and we had a typical camp dinner followed by s’mores around the fire. Unfortunately, we missed the sign about the fire ban due to high evening winds. Ooops! To his credit, the ranger was very nice about telling us to extinguish our fire.

The next day we headed out to explore the capitol. North Dakota has a very nice capitol building. It’s the tallest building in town by far and can pretty much be seen from anywhere. Here’s a shot looking down the large lawn in front of the main buildings.

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Its an art deco style building, though somewhat understated on the outside. There is a little more style on the inside. These chandeliers are inspired by the heads of wheat stalks, something they have plenty of in North Dakota.

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This is the house chamber I believe, lots of nice woodwork. The legislature only meets periodically, for a few months every 2 years I think, so there’s not really much going on.

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The first level had a gallery of paintings depicting notable people from North Dakota. Not sure why, but the less populated states seem to be extra proud of the residents that reach national acclaim.

There’s an observation level at the top of the capitol with lots of pictures of old Bismarck, the old capitol (which burned to the ground) and the building of the new capitol. You also get some nice views of the city.

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We spent the rest of the day in Bismarck taking in the downtown fall arts and crafts festival and doing some shopping at Scheel’s, North Dakotas version of Cabellas. We had picked out a couple of restaurants that looked interesting for dinner but both turned out to be located in the festival area and had decided to remain closed for the festival weekend. We ended up at the Blarney Stone Pub, just around the corner. It was loud and crowded (not surprising since everywhere else was closed), but the food was better than expected.

Before heading out the next morning, we stopped at the visitor center in the state park and took the tour of the reconstructed Mandan Indian village on site. The Lewis and Clark expedition actually passed through this area. Our guide was an real-life scholar who studied these Indians. He was very knowledgeable, but quite opinionated on many issues, and a tad on the arrogant side.

The partially reconstructed On-A-Slant Indian Village. There would have been around 50 such buildings packed in this area.

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Badlands and Grasslands

Sept. 9-11, 2012

We’re off to North Dakota and Theodore Roosevelt National Park. We got a late start after touring the dam in Fort Peck, so it turned into a long day. There wasn’t much new to see along the drive, just miles and miles of farmland. We got in too late to go to the visitor center, so we just headed to the campground, self-registered and had a relaxing evening.

We planned two full days in the park. The high temperatures were forecast around 90 degrees for the first day and around 70 degrees for the second day. Thinking that its probably not going to be fun hiking the “badlands” in 90 degree weather, we decided to do the easy stuff first.

We headed over to the visitor center, watched the park movie and discussed hiking options with the ranger for tomorrow. We headed back to the trailer for lunch before setting out on the park loop road.

The park is not that big, and there is a loop road from which you can see a large part of it, with options for smaller hikes, overlooks, and wildlife viewing.

We got off to a little bit of a slow start due to a small traffic jam.

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After patiently waiting for the bison to git along, we stopped to take a small hike to a high vista point.

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This is another vista point where I snapped this meta-photo.

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While the bison are impossible to miss, these guys are a little harder to find. Two wild horses off in the distance.

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The classic bison shot.

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And Prairie dogs. Lots and lots of prairie dogs. Prairie dogs as far as far as the eye can see. They are fun to watch, but hard to get good pictures of. I’m not sure what this guy was doing, but it looked like he was shadow boxing, swatting his paws wildly in front of his face.

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Here’s something you don’t see every day, a helicopter landing on a truck. The copters were spraying herbicides to control some invasive plants, and this is how they were reloading the chemicals.

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The weatherman kept his word and the next day we woke up to much cooler weather, so we kept to the plan of hiking the park. We chose the Petrified Forest Loop trail, about a 10 or so mile trek. To access the trailhead we had about a 30 minute drive out of the park and over some gravel roads which passed through private ranchland and a bunch of drilling sites just outside the park boundaries. There’s oil in them thar badlands!

Heading out on the trail, its quickly clear that we made the right choice waiting for the cooler day to hike. It would have been brutal in the hot sun.

The trail started out through a mile or two of badlands before getting to the first petrified wood zone. The petrified wood here seemed more fragile than we’ve seen in other places. There weren’t many large pieces and the ground was almost covered in places with small pieces of it. Here’s a couple of the bigger pieces, both stumps.

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Coming out of the petrified forest area, we walked up a hill and got to the top of a mesa and there was nothing but grass.

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And grass, and grass, and grass, and grass…

After a few miles we took a break to eat lunch. Normally, we would look for a nice overlook, or somewhere comfortable to sit and enjoy our sandwiches. We gave up after 20 minutes and just sat down in the grass.

When we continued our hike after lunch, we ran into another bison traffic jam.

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We had to take a wide detour to avoid walking through the herd. We were back on the trail in about a half mile. At this point the trail turned back sharply and into the wind. So now we had a nice 30mph headwind for our next 2 miles or so of grassland. That was fun.

The trail on the grassland was marked by wooden posts every quarter mile or so. And near almost every post could be found a bison wallow. This is a dirt pit where the bison like to roll around on their backs. Bison also like to rub against trees. Our theory was that since there weren’t many trees, the bison were using the posts for rubbing. And what feels good after rubbing, we’re guessing wallowing!

Here’s an example of the post and wallow.

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After fighting the wind for what seemed like hours, we finally got to the point where the grasslands turn back into the badlands.

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After another mile or two through another petrified forest area we were back at the truck and heading back to camp.

The good thing about our campground is that if you don’t feel like heading out into the park to see animals, the animals will come to you!

Turkeys in our campsite.

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An entire herd of bison passed through the campground as well.



Fort Peck, Montana

Sept. 8, 2012

We headed east across Montana toward the town of Fort Peck. Here’s a photo Reen took along the drive.

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You have now seen everything there was to see on this day of driving.

We planned to stop in Fort Peck, do some sight-seeing and then continue on. What is there to see in a town called Fort Peck? A dam and hydroelectric plant of course! We got there too late to catch the last tour so we decided to stay the night.

In addition to building the dam, the army corp of engineers also built a nice campground right on the river next to the dam. The army corp campgrounds, which are mostly near lakes in remote areas, have been recommended to us by other RVers before, but this was the first time we’ve been in a position to stay at one. It turned out to be very nice and inexpensive.

Although we were too late for the tour, the visitor center was still open so we spent an hour or two investigating the museum. What is there to see in the museum at the Fort Peck Dam Visitor Center? Dinosaurs of course! As it turn out, this area of the country is very rich in dinosaur fossils, and more than half of the museum is dedicated to local finds and other related dinosaur information.

This is a full scale T-Rex model, based on a very intact skeleton found nearby. You’re supposed to note that its basically walking on two legs with its tail up in the air to balance its big head. Apparently, its no longer believed that their tails were dragged for support.

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Some more full scale skeletons. It’s a T-Rex chasing down a smaller dinosaur for dinner. These are not actual bones, but rather casts of the actual bones which are stored elsewhere for study.

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The museum also included exhibits and movies regarding the building of the dam, which were very interesting. The dam was built in the 30s during the Roosevelt years as a means to provide jobs. At the time, it was the first dam on the Missouri river and the largest hydraulic fill dam ever built. Its actually on the cover of the very first issue of Life Magazine.

There was literally nothing here before the dam; the army actually built the town before the dam to support the project. At one time, I believe there were upwards of 10000 workers on the project. Today it only takes about 22 to run the entire hydroelectric plant.

There was one major accident during construction, where a large part of the partially built dam gave way, killing a bunch of workers. The project was temporarily suspended, but eventually they decided to continue on to completion.

The next morning, we went back to the museum to get the plant tour. Apparently there aren’t as many power plant geeks as you would expect, an we were the only ones on the the tour. Unfortunately, for security reasons, they did not allow any photos inside the plant.

This is the upstream side of the dam. The dam is pretty much just a pile of mud that was dredged up from the river and pumped into a pile. This side is covered in large boulders to protect against erosion.

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This is the downstream side, just a grassy hill stretching for a couple of miles.

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The highway runs on the top of the dam. For some reason, Reen wanted her picture taken in the middle of this road.

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This is the downstream side of the spillway. It’s a few miles away from the actual dam. The spillway is only used in the rare case when the lake level gets too high. Its only been used 3 times in 80 years. One of those times was yesterday! We could have seen it, but there was no indication it was going on at the visitor center. Missed it by that much [imagine thumb and forefinger held a small distance apart]. Very disappointing.

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Upstream view from the spillway. The end of a very large lake.

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Under normal circumstances the entire river flows through 4 tunnels under the dam. These are the control buildings for the tunnels. Each individual tunnel is supposedly capable of carrying the entire flow of the river if necessary.

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Currently, two tunnels are closed and two are open, each leading to hydroelectric facilities. One tunnel is split to feed two generators and the other is split to three generators. These towers correspond to the two facilities. The generators are below ground. The towers each contain a very large tank of water, called a surge tank, which is used to minimize the effect of sudden flow changes on the structure and the turbine.

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It was an interesting tour overall. I was surprised at how clean the facility was and at how few people were required to run it. We didn’t actually see anyone else working other than our tour guide. Also, much of the original machinery is still in use, having been serviced or reconditioned as necessary over the years. The one unique aspect of this tour, which our guide claimed is available nowhere else, was the chance to touch the actual spinning turbine shaft. You don’t get to do that every day.

Goodbye Canada, Hello USA!

Sept. 7, 2012

Its our turn to begin the solo part of our trip, and we decide to head east out of Calgary for a ways before heading south into Montana. This was our last border crossing but it turned out to be our most annoying. We crossed at a rural location (even by Montana standards) where on a good day they only see about 100 cars.

They didn’t ask us any of the usual questions, and instead were mainly interested in what agricultural products we were carrying. After going down a long list of products, the camper is boarded for inspection. Non-US citrus fruits are apparently a no-no, so the lemons cannot pass. Our other offending fruit is a large box of tomatoes which we had just recently purchased at Costco. We fare a little better this time as only the core of the tomatoes are considered “dangerous”. So the border guard watched as Reen cut the cores out of a dozen or so tomatoes and surrendered them to him. Another agricultural disaster averted. Whew!

Despite the apparent hassle, it really wasn’t a big deal. In fact, of our four major border crossings, this was the only one where the guards would engage us in casual conversation while they went about there duties. At all the others, it felt like any attempts at casual conversation would be treated like joking with the TSA about terrorism.

Regardless, we are glad to be back in the USA, mainly because it means our phones are once again useful devices. Internet for Everyone!

We end up in the town of Havre for the night, at a campground right in town. For some reason, the campground was very crowded with a kind of party atmosphere. We’re not sure why but it made for a pleasant evening.

Celebration, Sadness, and Reflections in Calgary

Sept. 5-6, 2012

Calgary was our first stop in Canada and it will also be our last. Seeing as the campground we stayed at on our first visit left much to be desired, we chose a different location for this visit, the Calgary West campground. The spots we are assigned are a little difficult to get into since they are cut into a hill and the water/electric hookups seem positioned to be as annoying as possible, but its still much better than our previous digs.

It was a short drive in from Banff, so we had time to relax a while, eat dinner and get in a trip to Costco to restock our supplies. Not sure what was going on in Calgary that afternoon, but it seemed like half the population was in Costco that midweek afternoon. The wait to check out was easily an hour+ when we got there. This ended up costing us as we elected to kill the time by extensively browsing the clothing and ending up leaving with equal amounts of clothes and food.

The next day, Brian and Will headed out to explore the town. Having already done the tourist thing here, Reen and I took care of catching up on the other chores that needed to be done. I did the laundry while Reen went out to return a pair of pants to Costco and to get a pedicure. Those nails aren’t going to cut themselves now, are they.

The evening was reserved for our farewell celebration dinner. We have been traveling together with Brian and Will for three months all through Canada and Alaska, and we chose Calgary as the official end of our journey together.

Its no secret that we’ve enjoyed quite a few meals on this trip at breweries and brew pubs along the way, so it seems fitting to have out last meal at another. In this case, it was the Wild Rose Brewery. It’s a little hard to find because its located in an old aircraft hanger on on old barracks site. To enter the general area, which still appears surrounded by tall chain link fencing, you must pass by a very imposing looking guard like building. At first blush, it really doesn’t look like somewhere you are supposed to go, but its all public now. No papers needed. The restaurant had an eclectic menu, but everything we ordered was quite tasty. The beer selection ranged from the traditional to the not so traditional. I tried my very first pineapple flavored beer, which I enjoyed more than I expected. Other than me eating way to much and feeling the effects, it was a fine end to a great trip.

Here’s Brian and Will looking like they didn’t eat too much.


The next morning started like a typical morning, packing up the trucks and campers for the days travel. This time, however, we would not be pulling out together. Brian and Will were hitched up and ready to go first so we said our goodbyes and watched their trailer pull away for the last time.

It was hard, or in Reen’s case impossible, to hold back the tears as they drove away, as this marks the end of our great adventure together. We didn’t really know what to expect from this journey, but it turned out better than either of us could have imagined. Thanks guys for turning our trip into something really special; we will miss you.

On a more personal note, I am grateful for having had the opportunity to spend the past three months hanging out with my brother. I enjoyed every minute of it, and my only regret is not being able to do it sooner. [Don’t worry Brian, I will be snarky again tomorrow.]

Banff and the Icefields Parkway

Sept. 3-4, 2012

It was time to leave Jasper and head south to Banff. Jasper and Banff are connected by the Icefields Parkway which is billed as being one of the most scenic drives in North America.

Our first stop on the parkway was the Athabasca Falls. The falls are only about 40 feet high but the narrow canyon adds to the drama. There are lots of walkways to many different viewpoints of the falls, canyon, and river.

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Our next stop was Icefield Centre. This is the official Parks Canada visitor center for the Icefields parkway. And surprisingly, this is also the only real place you can see any significant amount of ice from the Icefields parkway. The center houses a small interpretive museum about the Icefields, but functions mostly as a giant bus depot for tourists taking the bus tours to the ice field. Even though they have some cool “busses”, which look like someone crossed a monster truck with a tour bus, we elected not to do the tour as it was quite a long wait and we had already been on more extensive glacier treks.

A hint of the ice fields.

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We continued southward and made our next stop at Bow Summit (I think). There we took a short trail to an overlook of a nice glacial meltwater lake (Peyto Lake perhaps?)

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Our last major stop was the town of Lake Louise. There is a very posh resort there sitting on the edge of an alpine lake, with views of a glacier across the lake. Its hard to imagine a more idyllic place.

This is a panorama of the lake, somewhat muted by the lack of sunlight. If there was no fog/mist, there would be a glacier visible in the center between those two mountains. Click the picture to get a bigger view.

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One last picture from the drive. This is Mount Rundle, my favorite peak from the Icefields Parkway.

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This time we chose to stay in the ”big” campground in Banff National Park, the Tunnel Mountain Campground. We chose sites with no hookups, and since the summer season was over, there were no longer any crowds to deal with.

We only have one full day in Banff, so there wasn’t time to do much. Its definitely a place we will return to someday for a more thorough visit.

In the morning we headed out to tour the town on foot. We intended to go to the Banff Park Museum National Historic Site, but unfortunately its not open every day and it was not our lucky day. So we only got to enjoy the architecture of the building, which was built in 1903.

This is the museum, and three locals (photo releases pending) apparently waiting for a bus.

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Close up of the log construction.

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We continued wandering about the town, which definitely feels like an upscale resort town. Here’s a random street, but a very typical mountain view. There aren’t many places you can go and not have a great view.

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We eventually end up at a local café for lunch, where we linger too long due to the free wi-fi access.

Later in the day, Reen and I managed to get a little exercise by taking a nearby hiking trail which was a few miles long and circumnavigated the massive campgrounds.

Nice shot of the mountains from the trail.

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Very nice looking resort as seen from the trail.

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The camping was not quite as nice if you wanted water and electrical hookups. I think we made the right choice choosing the primitive area.

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That night we completed out Canadian Rockies adventure with a trip to the Banff Hot Springs, to once again enjoy a relaxing evening soaking our bodies while simultaneously soaking in the spectacular scenery.

Maureen Meets Her Biggest Fan

Our last night in Jasper we decided to head over to the Jasper Lodge to check it out and hopefully get some internet access. The Lodge is part of a large resort center but still maintains a hint of mountain charm without being tacky.

There is no internet access to be had for free, but we decided to hang out in the large bar-lounge area to enjoy the lodge and a few expensive drinks.

There were a fair number of people coming and going through the lounge, but Reen seemed to catch the eye of one particular inebriated fellow. He walked by a couple times and each time he tried to get her attention. Not knowing what the deal was, Reen would politely smile back. On the last pass, he went out of his way to let Reen know the he was a “big fan”.

What could this mean? Is Reen a celebrity in Canada? Does she have a secret life we’re not aware of? Is she the spitting image of someone famous?

Reen’s not talking, so please comment if you have any information on this mystery. All tips will be kept strictly confidential.