Mike, our new driver, introduces us to the features of our bus; we have four seats each! We begin with a tour of a deserted Calgary. Few people live downtown, although attempts are being made to encourage people back to live in the centre. Although Calgary is larger than Edmonton, the latter is the provincial capital of Alberta. Calgary has made money from the oil and gas industry. Instead of an underground system it has above ground walkways, like covered bridges, connecting buildings. We are able to see the winter Olympics’ facilities from 1988. This was the year made famous by Eddie the Eagle and the Jamaican bob sleigh team. Although it took Montréal thirty five years to pay off the debt incurred by the staging of the 1976 summer Olympics, Calgary made a fortune from the winter Olympics of 1988. We see the ski jumps at Canmore. As competitors now jump 25-30 metres further, these runs are no longer suitable for international competition. We stop at the Olympic Park and watch some ice hockey in progress, although lacrosse, brought over from France, is the national sport.
The Blackfoot confederacy of five First Nations’ tribes were attracted to what is now Calgary, at the confluence of the Bow and Elbow rivers, close to the rivers themselves and the nearby cliffs, suitable for buffalo jumps, which made it ideal for winter settlement. In the 1860s, American whisky traders tried to exchange adulterated whisky and other goods with First Nations tribes. This unbalanced trade was to the detriment of the First Nations people. They were susceptible to alcohol and this led to drunkenness and inter-tribal conflict. Chief Crowfoot, early settler Sam Livingstone and missionary Rev George MacDougall expressed concerns but these were ignored until the 1873 massacre of Cypress Hill when 23 indigenous people were slaughtered. As a result, F division of the North West Mounted Police set up log-built Bow Fort in 1875 as a base for the small troop of men patrolling the area from Edmonton, 200 miles to the north, to Fort MacLeod, which is 100 miles further south. James MacLeod, the commissioner of the North West Mounted Police, gave the name of his birthplace, a bay on the Isle of Mull, to Calgary. Calgary earned the nickname ‘cow town’. Before exploitation by the Europeans, there were 200 million head of bison in North America but these were decimated within a decade in the 1870s. By 1884, the town of Calgary had grown up but this timber-built town was burnt down two years later; the town was then rebuilt from yellow sandstone. Between 1896 and 1914 free land grants were offered as inducements to settle in the west.
Next is a visit to Fort Calgary, a very interesting museum where we could have spent much longer. Amelia explains the history of the area and Chris finds himself dressed as a mountie. Recruits to the North West Mounted Police got a land grant of 160 acres after three years’ service. Their iconic red jackets, the king’s colours, distinguished them from those in the US who had blue jackets. Nowadays red jackets are only worn for ceremonial purposes.
We see the Calgary tower, which was built in 1967 to celebrate the centenary of confederation; initially it was called ‘husky tower’. It is 626 feet high and the Olympic flame was lit from the top during the Olympics. It has now been replaced as the tallest building in Calgary by The Bow. We then visit the grounds where the Calgary Stampede, ‘the biggest outdoor show on earth’, is held. The Stampede, a ten day event in July, attracts a million people. It was started by Guy Weadick in 1912 as a competition for ranch hands. It now begins with a free breakfast and parade. The Saddledome stadium is appropriately shaped.
Our journey takes us alongside the Bow River and the route of the Canadian Pacific Railway to Banff and the Rockies. We are on Highway 1, which traverses 4800 miles from St. John’s, Newfoundland to Victoria and is the world’s second longest highway. George Stevens, the first president of the Canadian Pacific Railway, came from Banff in Scotland and gave its name to the town. The Cascade Mountain looms over us and epitomises Banff. The aspen trees are skeleton-like as they have already lost their leaves and the landscape looks barren and dry with yellows and browns.
The Reservations set aside for the First Nations people are often on very poor soil. Traditionally, the First Nations burnt land to cause the bison to stampede over a cliff to escape the fire. The Blackfoot were so named because their feet were blackened from running over the cinders. Alternatively, bison were stalked and frightening into stampeding over ‘jumps’. The Spanish introduced horses to North America in the sixteenth century. This and the use of rifles changed the way in which bison were hunted. Here we are in the land of the Stoney, or ‘stone boilers’, First Nations tribe, so named because they cooked using the warmth from stones that had been heated in boiling water. The hoardings we have seen are only allowed on First Nations land and they get rent.
Banff is the highest town in Canada, at 4537 feet above sea level. Streets are named for Canadian animals and we spot some elk in the river. Banff has a very different character from other places we have visited and it displays its identity as a ski resort. A high proportion of the businesses here are owned by Japanese. We stop for a meal and Chris once again goes for something local, with elk and bison meatloaf; I stick to half a chicken, of proportions that would make an emu look small.
We take an eight minute gondola ride to a height of 7500 feet up Sulphur Mountain. Did I mention that I don’t like heights? This activity was scheduled for Tuesday but the gondola is closed for building work then. The views are spectacular and although the timing means we do not get very long at the top, it was well worth it. As we descend to the lower terminal, the cars inexplicably stop for five minutes to everyone’s consternation. We were only about 30 feet from the ground and would have been the next car to land but some of our fellow travellers who were left suspended, swaying in the wind higher up were beginning to panic.