My Crown of the Continent Roadtrip
Day one: Crown of the Continent ‘circle tour.’
Left Lethbridge late in the afternoon, on a day so hot it’s expected to break records. Perfect, since I’m heading for the mountains and cooler air.
As I approach the Crowsnest Pass it hardly seems like I’m about to transit the famed Rocky Mountains. Rolling prairie gradually gives way to pastoral hills, with lovely streams and rivers cutting deep channels in the earth.
The Crowsnest is the lowest pass thru the Rockies for hundreds of miles, and has been used for centuries to move goods and people. For the natives, it was a trading route. During prohibition, liquor was smuggled into the US from here. Today, the Pass’ geography is still essential to its modern users – gas and power lines run through here, connecting BC and Alberta.
As I drive through the hamlet of Coleman, it’s obvious that ‘coal’ is still part of life here. A working mine sits next to a hollowed out shell of a building left over from prior efforts.
A man walks home in the evening air, sunlight glinting off the long fly fishing pole he carries. On the other side of the two lane highway, a few feet on, golf carts zip around the Crowsnest course. Recreational contrasts in a town with a working coal mine.
I’m almost through the built up part of the pass – if you can call it that – when traffic is suddenly at a standstill. Cars pull up individually to a flagman standing in the road. Most then make a u-turn and head back past me down the highway.
This is not a good sign. I pull up to the flagman and ask if he’s got a sore throat, what with explaining the same situation to car after car.
“No, not yet,” he grins. “But I just started.”
So what’s going on?
“Accident up ahead. And they’re telling me it’s going to be closed for two hours, minimum. So if you can find something to do for a couple of hours?”
I’d noticed a sign for a snowmobile area on the road to the right of where he was standing. “Is there a campsite up there?”
“Oh yeah,” he says, “ but it’s not a good one. Just a flat spot. You know, random camping.” “Thanks,” I said, and promptly swung off in that direction.
And so here I sit, writing off the day. Beside a small fire in a pit, by a rushing stream, as the sun goes down behind the trees.
I have found, it seems, the ATV and shooting capital of the Crowsnest Pass. There are probably 50 RV’s in this ‘flat place,” and the sounds of motorcycles, atv’s, and gunshots punctuate the rushing of the stream. And yet it’s very civilized. Very polite. Everyone nods as they pass. Nobody’s speeding around.
I had a Miller Genuine draft and an exotic bagged salad for a quick dinner. You know – roughing it. That brings a smile to my face.
Sitting here, laptop on lap, Keb Mo on the ipod, it’s as comfortable as my living room. More so, with the smell of smoke, and pine, and real air.
Time to enjoy the evening, before I crawl into my tent and let the water lull me to sleep. That is, of course, unless the civility of this place only lasts ‘til the sun goes down... In which case I’ll have to drink more beer.
Tomorrow, I cross the border south of Fernie, and head for West Glacier. Plan on being there in time for the “Canada Day” celebrations our Montana neighbours are throwing.
Day Two. Eureka, Montana.
Crossed the border this morning, and am immediately struck by the contrasts. The highway south from Elkford to the US border is amazing – wide and smooth and perfectly comfortable at 70 miles per hour. As soon as I get past customs, tho, it’s a different story. A narrow, bumpy, two-lane highway heads me for Eureka.
Hmm. Are the Americans trying to tell me something?
Eureka is 7 miles south of the border. And, thankfully, the road has improved markedly! So do the highway builder’s want to keep people from driving TO the border, or dissuade Canadians from coming FROM? I’ll never know.
I do know that, in BC, having great highways is considered a point of pride, and was a centerpiece of government policy during much of the 60’s and 70’s. You may be driving through one mountain range after another, but you’ll dang well do it on good roads!
Turns out I actually AM welcomed, at least by the folks who run the Front Porch coffee shop in Eureka. “We like people from the border,” says the man behind the counter.
And another contrast quickly presents itself. Here, a big, delicious piece of fresh quiche and a cup of the famous Montana Coffee Traders coffee comes to $5.25. Earlier, I’d spent over $4 at the Cinnamon Bear in Coleman for a decent coffee and a small cinnamon bun. America’s value proposition is looking pretty good!
The brother of the café’s owner comes up to talk to me. Turns out he’s from California, and is in town for a niece’s wedding. The 3rd niece in three years to get married here - and his brother has three more! He’s hoping not to have to make another trip next year.
“So what’s our dollar worth up there?” he asks me, “A dollar eighteen?”
I never cease to be amazed at how much more attention we Canadians pay to what’s what in America than the other way around. “Heck no,” I reply, ”Our dollar’s worth over 98 cents right now, and a few months ago was worth a dollar four US.”
He seems surprised by that, and goes on to tell me that his flooring company in California has just been taken over by a Canadian company – Domtar – who, he says, are the biggest manufacturer of hard flooring in the world. The change in management styles is remarkable, he says, but he doesn’t explain why.
Speaking later with Sara, one of the owners, she tells me that traffic has been really slow so far this summer. Could be the lousy spring weather, could be the price of gas. Who knows, but in her first year in business, she’s worried that the prime summer season is already a third over and business has been slow.
“We get mostly Canadians,” she says.
Day Three. Afternoon.
Sitting in the “Glacier Haven Inn” located on the highway pass between West and East Glacier. I’ve had to come this way because, even though it’s July 1st, ‘Going to the Sun’ road still isn’t open. Seventy foot deep snow banks can have a chilling effect on a highway, apparently!
It’s a bummer, tho, because it means I’ll have to drive that windy, twisty, cattle trail of a road from East Glacier up to the border again. Once was an adventure. This, my third time, is just a chore. 25 miles an hour is about average.
(As it turned out, the road opened on the same morning that I wrote this.)
I’ve stopped here because I thought it would be nice to stay on the westward slope of the Rockies another night, and enjoy the cooler, wetter air that lives here. With the rumbling thunder that’s going on outside, it seems like it could be truly wetter before long.
Woke up to wet streets already this morning after a pleasant night in the “Grand Hotel” in downtown Kalispell . Drove up to Glacier Park Headquarters about thirty miles away for a noon hour presentation by Steve Thompson about the “Crown of the Continent.” Steve is the man behind the Crown initiative, and his presentations are entertaining and informative about the tremendous history and wonderfully unique aspects of this ecosystem.
After that, I dropped in on the gorgeous Travel Alberta info centre right by the underpass entrance to Glacier Park. They were celebrating Canada Day with free dogs and cake. Yay for my province – it’s hard to argue with a free lunch.
Just killed a mosquito in my room. The somewhat fastidious little lady who runs the joint says it’s an unusual year for the little buggers. Hardly surprising, with the incredibly wet spring weather experienced on both sides of the border. We had snow in June, I think, in Lethbridge – like a six inch dump!
And now here’s more thundershowers building up. Welcome, really, after yesterdays 94 degrees Fahrenheit – a new record for Kalispell!
So the Marias Pass is the mirror of the Crowsnest, really. It’s easy to spot the lowest passes through any given mountain range- just look for a railroad and you’re there.
But to get here – wow! The #2 highway from Kalispell/Whitefish to the park entrance passes thru some truly beautiful, lush intimate little dells and valleys. And best of all, they are populated with Montana Coffee Traders outlets. Really the ONLY flavored coffee I’d ever recommend. How they get the black cherry and huckleberry flavor into the coffee, I don’t know, but it makes a great cup without the sense of artificial additives that most flavored coffee’s have.
And now the rain has begun. I love the smell of a summer thundershower, specially when it’s accented by the lilacs outside the window. Then there’s the sound. So relaxing. Just makes you want to cuddle up inside with a good book or movie. So that is what I’m going to do…
Day Four - East Glacier, Montana.
Gorged on HBO last night, while the rain poured down, the thunder and the trains rumbled by, and the highway gradually became still.
Now it’s breakfast at the Whistle Stop Café. It’s world famous. Says so, right there on the sign! I await the arrival of my huckleberry-filled French toast. Sounds yummy. Managed to score some Coffee Traders cherry flavored beans at the grocery store, since I missed the last actual cafe on the west side of the park.
OH MY GOSH! Maybe they really are famous – cause that was some kick-ass French Toast! Deep fried, with a huckleberry kinda cream cheesy filling. Dee-lish! The hostess, who’s Russian, tells me it’s her favorite.
It’s strange, coming out of Marias pass. You’ve climbed and climbed, on a windy, twisting mountain highway with a few hairy curves, passing back and forth over forks of the Flathead River, and suddenly you’re at the end of the pass. The ground opens out and you’re in cattle country. Thing is, you don’t seem to really go back DOWN. You just climb over the Rockies and get to the rolling flat.
It really makes it clear just how high up the great plains of Alberta and Montana are!
Quite a different trip, today in the rain, compared to last summer when I came through here – the forest fires were so close to the road that I could see open flames on bluffs over the highway, and the big RV park in the pass was a base for fire fighters – lots and lots of fire fighters!
They say global warming is going to mean a lot more fires in the years to come. And, of course, a lot fewer glaciers. Glacier National Park has already lost over three quarters of its glaciers, and its predicted they’ll all be gone by 2030, or earlier..
As a kid, growing up in the interior of British Columbia, I would never have imagined that the glaciers would disappear so fast. They were just THERE, every time we drove through the Rockies to visit my sisters in Calgary.
And now they’re gone.
And the valleys have a haze of smog and smoke. Valleys hundreds of miles from the nearest big city, filled with smoke! Sure – it’s not bad smog, from a city perspective, but I remember when the air was so clean it cut like a knife in your eyes and lungs. When to breath it was to feel God’s presence on earth. When the valleys of the Kootenay’s seemed so remote, and pristine, and pure, that you felt good just knowing they were part of your province, your home, your country.
Later: Drove up Hwy 464 from Browning to Babb near the border. What a relief! A lovely, straight hiway through the heart of the Blackfoot lands. I stopped near the “Leaning Tree” lodge on Duck Lake just to appreciate the view of the cloud-cloaked mountains and the beautiful, lush rolling hills I was driving through. The wildflowers were out in abundance, and the rich fescue grasslands of the Rocky foothills are green and lush. The air was like nectar, tinged with green, growing things and the faint scent of flowers!
At Babb, I turn left onto the Chief Mountain road to cross the border near Waterton Park. The road is a wonderful journey through hills, forests, with groups of cattle munching contentedly beside, and sometimes on, the road. Keep your eyes open!
After spending a few hours in Waterton, the sun finally shows up as the clouds blow out, and the evening turns beautiful. The village of Waterton is unique, in that it’s in the middle of a national park, and yet has all the services and amenities you’d expect in any well equipped tourist town. AND it’s smack dab between a deep mountain lake and the deep mountains.
As I leave Waterton to head for home in Lethbridge, the symbolism of Chief Mountain strikes me once again. Located just inside Montana, the castle-like shape dominates the horizon for miles. Sacred to the Indians on both sides of the border, the mountain today stands as a marker of intersecting worlds: Canada/US, white/Indian, native/visitor. And that it straddles the border, with its beauty and imposing presence, is a perfect symbol of what the “Crown of the Continent” is all about – something that transcends borders. That all people can admire. That was sacred, is sacred, and will continue to BE sacred for millennia to come.
With any luck, this whole ‘geotraveller’ concept will catch on, and the Crown of the Continent will continue to be the wonderfully pristine place I’ve just circled.
Allen R. Gibson. July 2008.
Points of Interest and Highlights along the Drive
Best Places to Go
Waterton Lakes National Park. Going to the Sun road. West Glacier. Eureka, Montana. Fernie, BC.
Best Times to Go
Spring and fall would be great, as the tourist traffic would be less. But high summer is hard to resist, what with jumping in lakes and rivers whenever you get too hot on the road!
What You Should Know Before You Go
Gas up in Alberta and Montana for cheaper prices, and note that some stretches of road are pretty empty. Be prepared to take care of yourself in the event of an emergency. Cell service is spotty.
The Crown area has a wonderful, natural 'circle tour' that you can take to visit all three jurisdictions contained in the Crown ecosystem: Alberta, B.C., and Montana. On the printed Crown of the Continent MapGuide, it's identified as the Peace Park Loop.
So I decided to explore this route myself, and what follows is the story of my journey 'around the Crown."