Craving a change from Canada’s coastal states – his head beset with fantasies of burly mountain men – Uwern Jong takes a drive through the province of Alberta to its capital Edmonton, where everything is bigger, better and more worldly than in the rest of the country. At least, that’s the word on the street.
I’m browsing the junk food in a gas station somewhere off the David Thompson Highway in Alberta – aisle upon fluorescent-tube-lit aisle of chip bags and supersize chocolate bars. It’s the kind of place you really only see in North American road-trip movies – retro 1980s fittings, dusty windows, a little bell that dings in almost-sinister expectation every time the door pushes open and sets the lights a-flicker. You know the kind of thing.
Above the entrance, as if it could tumble and hit you on the head at any time, is a badly tuned TV crackling with what I can just about make out is an ice-hockey match. Watching earnestly from behind the counter is a butch woman in a lumberjack shirt with cut-off sleeves. If we were in America, her clashing red baseball cap would most probably read ‘MAGA’, but this is the heart of Canada – one of the world’s friendliest and most welcoming countries to OutThere visitors, according to a recent industry survey – so instead it says ‘Love All, Serve All’, a well-worn, much-loved souvenir from her last holiday at the Hard Rock Casino in Vegas.
In the far corner of the store is an ATM that looks as if it’s been kicked in the side a dozen times. It even produces a dial-up internet tone as it decides whether or not to spit me out some money. It doesn’t; and, dutifully, my phone rings. It’s my bank. A lovely woman from a call-centre in India is on the other end of the line.
“Mr. Jong, are you travelling at the moment?” Unwittingly deadpan, she adds, “We picked up some activity at an ATM in the middle of nowhere”.
I hear a feverish click-clack of a keyboard. I imagine she’s googling ‘Didsbury, Alberta’, as there’s a short pause before she says, “Canada”. Then, in the way call-centre staff are trained to make conversation, she asks, “Are you in Canada? I hear it’s very cold there”.
She’s right: it’s -3C and the first day of October. I often wonder why people live in this climate. And why the Scottish and the Irish moved out here to start with. They must’ve been really desperate – or really tough. I imagine it was a little bit of both or perhaps it felt like home. But, as a wise friend from Sweden tells me all the time, ‘There’s no such thing as cold; just bad clothing’.
Perhaps that explains why the handsome young lad with piercing blue eyes that I came face to face with at the Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site yesterday was wearing a wolfskin hat. No, let me tell you that again – a wolf’s-head hat. Eyes, whiskers, ears, the lot. Doubtless Métis (a descendant of the mixed-heritage European and First-Nations people), he’d also donned a shawl fashioned from a vintage Hudson’s Bay Company blanket. He looked as snug as a bug in a rug as he happily demonstrated the culture of his ancestors to the merry band of frozen visitors. He couldn’t, however, light a fire with a flint, despite several embarrassing attempts. He may have looked the part, but he wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in the savage conditions of central Canada in the 1800s.
This part of the country is oddly interesting. On most of my journeys on the North American continent, I’ve tended to hug the coast – British Columbia is more than an acquaintance and Ontario is an old friend. But, sped on by the notion of hirsute fur-trappers, I decided that this time I was going to head inland to Alberta.
The past few days have been quirky, to say the least. I’ve learned the steps of a somewhat erratic Irish-jig-like Métis dance (I did well, although, I’m told, not – as niche dance-offs go – to competition standard). Taught by community elders dressed in ancestral costumes, much like something out of Dickensian East London, I’ve mixed up potions from the fruits and twigs of the forests (I mused at the time that these woodland medicines could have fought off disease from the Great Stink there). The quality of life in Victorian England might also have been improved if they’d had the magic charms I was taught to tie together and smoke over embers to ward off evil spirits. The smoking, of course, only happened when Mr. Wolf’s-Head finally got the fire going. Flames raging, I watched as he fried bannock in an iron skillet and regaled us with one-sided tales of the hardship and resilience of those who came to seek their fortune in the fur-trade out here. If only the walls of the fortress ruins they left behind could talk, I felt sure there would be another side to the stories.
My visit to Alberta so far has also seen me get up close and personal with a herd of buffalo – or bison, as they call them here – at Elk Island National Park, where a conservation programme takes care of the great beasts. I’ve tried camping out in a tepee – for all of 10 minutes, before retreating to a warm, luxurious log cabin at Prairie Creek Inn, where the gourmet restaurant serves up a nostalgic retro 1980s European menu. I spent the after-dinner hours there propping up the bar, sipping red wine and talking into the wee hours to the chef (come on, did you think for one minute there’d be internet out here?). He lamented the underlying conservatism of central Canada and was apologetic for all the challenges the country’s facing – politics, race relations, the cold. Canadians, I’ve noticed, tend to apologise for everything, without stopping to recognise that, in relative terms, they have it good.
From my short time here, I surmise that Alberta is as ‘Canadiana’ as it gets. For those into experiential travel, it’s pretty mind-opening and deeply fascinating, not to mention jaw-droppingly beautiful – the scenery is stunning. Before I got here, I’d seen just a handful of Canada’s ‘Red Chairs’ – the sign with two wooden deckchairs-with-a-view they use to designate areas of outstanding natural beauty. Out here in the ‘wilds’ of Alberta, I’ve seen countless.
But, for all the province’s rural magnificence, the city slicker in me has been thumping his fists hard at my Dora-the-Explorer exterior. So you can imagine my ‘relief’ when I see ahead of me the majestic arc of the Walterdale Bridge stretching over the North Saskatchewan River Valley and the skyline of the glass skyscrapers beyond. Edmonton – civilisation, at last, and, so they say, the sunniest spot in the whole of Canada.
Whether there’s any truth in this meteorological hearsay, Edmontonians certainly have a sunny disposition. They’ll proudly tell you its history, from the building of forts by the Hudson’s Bay Company to the post-WWII oil-boom. They’ll tell you how they once met – or know by a degree of separation – famous fellow Edmontonians k. d. lang and Michael J Fox.