Saturday, August 30, 2008

Cabin-fever – Itchy Feet

Jacob's Tails ... (Back-to-the-Land)"
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Whatever you want to call it . . . we really needed to get away.

Someone suggested that there was a nice little campground in the Elk Valley (in BC) at Sparwood.
Okay – close enough that it was within our fuel budget; an area we had flashed through so many times but never explored; a viable solution.

Elk Valley became our get-away destination.
It took us almost two weeks to get a site for a whole week (so unlike us to even make a reservation) and we had absolutely no idea what we were going to do once we got there (so like us to not plan).

Sparwood didn’t even exist when I was growing up in Lethbridge (or so I thought). I remember Michel, Natal, and even New Michel, but Sparwood? I had never heard of it!! And what I remembered about Michel and Natal was the charcoal coloured houses that sat along the highway and always looked very old, downtrodden and dull. In my mind’s eye, I pictured everyone who came from there as always covered with a fine grey dust no matter how many baths or showers they took.

To me, coal mines were tunnels drilled deep into the side of a hill. Each morning a whole horde of men went into the hole and came out eight hours later even greyer than when they went in. I thought of them as hard working and hard playing men who didn’t live very long because of all the accidents and disease that came along with coal mining.

This venture surprised me and definitely changed my attitude.

I guess I wasn’t the only one who thought this way because in 1967, the Provincial Government of British Columbia actually moved Michel and Natal (people and everything else they could move) to Sparwood, a very small place a few miles to the west. Word has it that the powers that be felt that the Michel/Natal area was not a welcoming site for travellers coming into BC from Alberta, so they created this ideal community to greet the ever increasing hordes of tourists they expected to come to experience Beautiful British Columbia.

Sparwood did exist before this but only as a supplier of tall straight lodge-pole pines that ship-builders on the west coast needed for the masts for their ships – thus the name Sparwood!

Click on the pictures to enlarge them

Getting to the Elk Valley

The only highway from Lethbridge to Sparwood is through the Crowsnest Pass. The highway seems to ride above huge mounds of boulders (some as big as houses) on both sides of the road - remnants of the early 20th century Frank Slide disaster – and then through a series of small communities.

Just like the BC Government did in the Elk Valley, the Alberta Government cleaned up and combined all the small coal communities through the Pass – Coleman, Bellevue, Blairmore, Hillcrest, and Frank. I’m sure this is where I got my ideas about coal mining only being underground (reinforced by the time we spent in Cape Breton). There are no mines anymore but they have preserved a sense of their coal mining history. The Crowsnest Lake is the first sign of the wilderness that await you on the other side of the Alberta/BC border.

The only visible remnant of Michel/Natal is the old Michel Hotel that sits deserted on the eastern edge of the town. We stopped in there one time when the dining room was open and they were trying to fix it up but finally gave up a couple of years ago. It has disintegrated since then and now the pink stucco exterior is totally sun-faded and most of the windows are either broken or boarded up – a dying reminder of the abandoned communities.

Elk Valley

As close as I can figure it, the Elk Valley must be about 100 miles long from the US border almost to Kananaskis Country in Alberta as it sits between the Alberta border and the Kootenay Mountain Range.

Sparwood, the official eastern entrance to the Elk Valley, is bright and new but still dominated by the coal mining industry (even though they’re trying to build up the tourist trade). The Biggest Dump Truck in the World is showcased on the grass outside the Tourist Information Centre.

The only Campground (Mountain Shadows) is nice but limited in size. It is built amongst the lodge-pole pines and gives campers a sense of the rough country.

We did two coal mine tours on this trip. The Elkview operation out of Sparwood was okay, but the smaller Greenhills tour was spectacular – it could be because the guides at Greenhills explained so much more about the area and the operations.

The first thing that astonished me was just how massively huge the open pit quarries are and then how huge the equipment is.

When we saw some deer drinking our of a puddle way below where we stopped, it gave me a chance to see how the 20xzoom worked on the new camera – not bad, eh?

On the Greenhills Operations tour, as we travelled up to an altitude of almost 7000 feet, we got incredible views of the surrounding mountains and wildlife as well as the working of the mine and the huge equipment.

We got a lot closer at Greenhills – talk about feeling like a tiny little ant!!

The mines weren’t the only trips we took – we met Alan & Ina (folks we met in Nanaimo a couple of years ago) in Fernie (the town on the other side of the Valley) and headed up a steep winding wilderness road up to the mountains behind Fernie up to the Island Lake Lodge.

During the winter, the road is impassable but, apparently, the skiing in magnificent. The Lodge picks skiers up in Fernie with the Cat and takes them ‘anywhere you can see up there’ explained the fellow we talked to. They call it Catskiing and they use these huge machines on tracks to take people up to wilderness ski.

In the summer, it becomes a high end retreat complete with a Spa, an incredible view and wilderness hiking trails.

You know, when we spend so much time exploring places away from home, we forget how incredible it is right next door.