Canada by motorhome: Animal spotting around Banff and Jasper

Andy McSmith and his family hit the road

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The Independent Travel

The England Lionesses have done the country so proud in Canada that they deserve a holiday – and if a holiday exploring wild places of stunning beauty has any appeal, they are in the right place. I took our younger daughter and younger son to Vancouver – site of today's women's World Cup Final – for my nephew's wedding. It was gay wedding: Canada was years ahead of Britain in this respect. One of the most extraordinary moments of our trip to this very modern, very cosmopolitan city – for we British visitors at least – was when a lower deck of the boathouse where the wedding reception was being held was visited by a wild racoon and her three pups. The Canadians were no more impressed than a Londoner would be on seeing an urban fox.

Five hundred miles east of Vancouver, all around Jasper and Banff national parks, there are warnings about Canada's wildlife. On the roads, they warn of the risk of stray deer or elks wandering across the highway. In some campsites, tents and soft-sided vehicles are banned because of the danger of a foraging bear.

Canadians are accustomed to these hazards, but for visitors from the UK, aching to see these native creatures in the wild, the warning signs are a promise that is fulfilled all too rarely. After several days living out of a motorhome, untroubled by wild animals, my teenage daughter indignantly suggested that whoever erected these signs should be reported to the advertising standards authority.

She should have sat in the passenger's seat, instead of fiddling with electronic gear in the back, when we were driving along an almost deserted stretch of the road through the parks. Normally, I kept a cautious distance from any vehicle in front, because the weight of the motorhome and the quantity of glasses, plates and other breakables within made sudden braking inadvisable. However, there was another motorhome ahead going too slowly for my taste, so I drew up close to it with a view to overtaking. Lurking in the nearby woods was a kamikaze elk, who seemingly decided that two motorhomes approaching bumper to bumper made for a felicitous moment to bolt across the highway. It was very nearly elk stew for supper.

There was also one early morning when someone walked through our camp shouting in an urgent tone that there was a bear approaching, meaning that this was no time to be having breakfast in the fresh air – but the animal changed his or her mind and headed off into the woods. The bears are no threat to humans unless the humans do stupid things like leaving food out for them: and once they discover that food can be found near humans, they are likely to be shot before they can hurt anyone.

There is one place near the parks where you can be certain of seeing a grizzly, safely. In the hills above Golden, about 90 miles west of Banff, there is a reserve housing an adult male named Bou (short for Caribou) who was orphaned by a poacher, reared by humans, and released into this huge enclosure where he lives alone, more wild than tame. It is a long walk up the steep hill, but for the lazy, there is a cable car. And further west, in British Columbia, outside Vancouver, there is a spot known locally as the bear supermarket, because when the blueberries ripen, every bear that ever there was will gather there for certain.

My brother-in-law, who is a native Canadian, volunteered to drive us out to see the spectacle, but disappointingly we were stopped short by a chain across a road and a notice that warned us to proceed no further because of "extreme bear activity". We did however strike out into the woods and from a distance saw a mother black bear and club crashing through the undergrowth, presumably on their way to the blueberry festival.

Jasper National Park and Banff National Park, which fill more than 6,850 square miles of rural Alberta, are a single entity for visitors' purposes. The distinction is historic: the smaller Banff National Park dates back to the 19th century. Jasper, Canada's largest national park, was added in 1907. Jasper is a small, attractive town in the northern tip of the park. Banff town is a crowded, commercialised tourist trap, about 150 miles from the US border.

When you enter either of the parks, you pay for the number of nights you propose to spend in both, and you can flip back and forth between if you choose. There is no penalty if you overstay: you simply pay up as you leave. There is a wealth of campsites, and hundreds of miles of trails, if walking is what you want to do.

On our first night, as we arrived at Jasper, we made the mistake of picking the biggest campsite with the largest range of facilities, only to find that we were parked on a packed stretch of Tarmac, on open ground. It was like camping in a car park. Generally, it is better to head for the smaller camps hidden in the woods, even if it means no electricity, and cooking over an open fire.

These parks enclose several lakes, of which the most celebrated is the stunningly beautiful Lake Louise, in Banff, where we passed one night. We also spent a couple of nights alongside a little lake in the south called Two Jack, adjoining the much larger Lake Minnewanka – which does not rhyme with "banker", by the way: it rhymes with "bonker".

Two Jack was beautiful, and so was the wooded campsite we found – but for one hazard. A few weeks earlier, there had been catastrophic flooding that caused the evacuation of downtown Calgary, 70 miles to the east. The direct route to Two Jack was closed when we arrived, even though the waters had receded – though the circular route, on higher ground, was open. The combination of humidity and baking summer heat was ideal for the midges, who gorged themselves on our exposed legs – but do not be put off by that. The locals reassured us that in a normal year you would be more likely to be bothered by bears than by midges.

From Two Jack, it was a short drive to Sulphur Mountain, so named for the sulphur springs on its lower slopes. You can take a cable car to a restaurant near the top, from which location it is a relatively painless walk to the peak, with its staggering views of Banff and the surrounding valley.

We also indulged in some white-water rafting along the Athabasca River, a serene experience interspersed with flashes of excitement when the water got rough. Up in one of the trees we floated past there was an eagle's nest, where an eaglet was waiting for a parent to return.

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A more extraordinary ride was to be had in the Columbia icefield alongside the main road between Jasper and Banff. There you can take a ride on specially constructed vehicles up the mountain side on to a glacier – though before you go up, you descend on the steepest stretch of road anywhere in Canada. It is almost vertical. These specialised buses cost more than C$1m (£509,000) each: the tyres, on wheels whose circumference is almost equal to the average height of an adult human, cost C$5,000 (£2,542) each.

At the top, there is a large circular area of ice that you safely explore. Go beyond its boundaries and the tour operators will not guarantee your safety because of hidden crevasses hundreds of feet deep. Overlooking you is a summit unique in that the rain water which falls there flows into three oceans – the Pacific, Atlantic, and Arctic. A smart idea is to take a water bottle and fill it from one of the streams running down the mountain side.

So, my message to the women of the England football team would be don't take the first plane home: hire a vehicle, head inland, and lose yourself in the vastness and beauty of Canada.

Getting there

The gateway to Alberta is Calgary, served by Air Transat (020 7616 9187; airtransat.co.uk) from Gatwick, Manchester, and Glasgow; and Air Canada (0871 220 1111; aircanada.com) and British Airways (0344 493 0787; ba.com) from Heathrow.

Canadian Affair (020 7616 9933; canadianaffair.com) offers flights from Gatwick, Manchester and Glasgow to Calgary, from where RVs (recreational vehicles) can be picked up. In low season, the MH23 RV with Fraserway costs from £39 per day, and in peak season, from £115 per day. Additional costs include convenience packs at £56pp, and kilometre packs which start from £21 for 100km. These costs are based on an MH23 which sleeps up to five people. Return Economy Class flights from Gatwick to Calgary with Air Transat start from £557pp.

Visiting there

Banff National Park (001 403 762 1550; pc.gc.ca).

Jasper National Park (001 780 852 6176; pc.gc.ca).

More information

travelalberta.co.uk

canada.travel

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