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A mother-daughter alpine adventure in Alberta, Canada

07/26/2014 12:00 AM

07/30/2014 8:08 AM

Often it’s the unexpected triumphs that make for the most memorable travel memories. One of mine happened recently at Louise McKinney Riverfront Park in Edmonton, Alberta, where I witnessed my almost 88-year-old mother riding a Segway, wreathed in smiles.

Moments earlier, she had obstinately refused the activity, planting her 4-foot-11 frame in front of a 6-foot-something Joe Riel — our engaging guide for River Valley Adventure Company — and declaring that she was simply too old and couldn’t risk a fall.

Ever-so-sweetly, Joe urged her to consider the possibility. “Just listen to the little lesson,” he said. “Just try standing on it for a photo.”

Next thing we knew, she had moved past standing and was deftly turning on her new “Seg legs.” From there, it was just a matter of time before the three of us were gliding off on a scenic adventure.

The gorgeously lush park, adjacent to downtown Edmonton, is the entree to the North Saskatchewan River Valley, North America’s longest expanse of urban parkland — 22 times the size of New York’s Central Park.

Joe took us down wide paths alongside the flowing river to Edmonton’s gorgeous Chinese gardens (full of poppies, roses and peonies), Chinese gazebo and Riverfront Plaza and Promenade. We didn’t even notice the light drizzle. Later, our guide noted that our “Segway smiles” never stopped.

Alberta is one of Canada’s most beautiful provinces — so idyllic, in fact, that the tourism slogan for Travel Alberta is “remember to breathe.” As the gateway to the Canadian Rockies, it is home to the mountain towns of Jasper and Banff and the spectacular 144-mile-long Icefields Parkway, one of the world’s most celebrated scenic byways, which runs through the heart of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site.

It is also where pleasant, culturally rich cities such as Edmonton and Calgary attract travelers from around the globe for such mammoth events as Edmonton’s International Fringe Festival and Calgary’s Stampede each year.

As Canada’s fourth most populous province, Alberta has just over 4 million residents in an area spanning 255,500 square miles. It is bounded by the provinces of British Columbia to the west and Saskatchewan to the east, the Northwest Territories to the north, and Montana to the south.

We flew into Edmonton, a pretty, clean, flower-bedecked, pedestrian-friendly city with hip, artsy neighborhoods like Old Strathcona and 124th Street, large woodsy parks, an excellent public transportation system and a nice, tidy airport with baggage carousels adorned with Edmonton Oilers hockey memorabilia. There’s plenty to do, see and eat in Edmonton, and we explored happily.

A highlight was our visit to Elk Island National Park, the only fenced-in national park in Canada, 28 miles east of Edmonton. Here, North America’s only genetically pure, disease-free “wood” bison herd lives.

Brought from Montana in 1907, the 400-or-so member herd of the wooly brown giants roams freely — in fact, we drove slowly right through it, spread out across the Bison Loop road, seemingly without a care. We listened to the “baas” of the adorable babies and the grunts of their moms, walking slowly by us, as little ones frolicked in the meadow — it was magical.

It’s recommended to get to Elk Island (actually NOT an island) early, before the gate officially opens at 10 (pay the entrance fee in the honor box) to best view bison out in the open. Later, when it gets hot, they’ll head for the shade of the trees and aren’t as visible.

Early evening is also a good time to visit — summer darkness doesn’t arrive until a delightful 10:30-11 p.m. in Alberta, because it’s so far north.

Astotin Lake is a placid, deep blue expanse, beckoning visitors to rent its yellow canoes. There are numerous hiking trails, and camping is offered, as well as many festivals and special events.

Nearby, the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village pays homage to the estimated 1 million Canadians of Ukrainian descent (Edmonton has the highest concentration). This exceedingly well-done “living museum” took us back to the late 1800s, with 30 authentic buildings dating from that era, including a wooden grain elevator, blacksmith’s shop, three churches, (including a beautiful circa 1927 onion-domed Ukrainian Greek Orthodox church,) general store, etc.

What makes the village unique from others of its kind is the passion and dedication of the trained interpreters who make it “real.” Indeed, many are professional actors, and their costumes and Ukrainian accents (and even language) seemed to be the real McCoy.

For an additional $11, an authentic, ample, scrumptious lunch of pierogi, cucumber salad, cabbage rolls, Ukrainian sausage and borscht is served alfresco (or indoors) 11 a.m.-4 p.m.

The VIA Rail Canada system is a delightful way to transverse Canada, with modern, comfortable cars and truly well-prepared, chef-created cuisine. We opted to take VIA from Edmonton to Jasper and happily relaxed in the panorama car for some five hours.

Arriving in the Jasper station, we quickly rented a car to continue our journey in the Canadian Rockies. Jasper is a small, blissfully noncommercial town situated inside Jasper National Park, one of Canada’s 15 UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Step inside the 100-year-old visitors center to find out about myriad things to do here — hiking, rafting, visiting hot springs, seeing wildlife, horseback riding, boating and camping, Even Harley motorcycle tours are offered.

Bears are abundant here, so guides offer plenty of bear safety tips, and the park is renowned for its 8,100-foot-high SkyTram, the longest and highest guided aerial tramway in Canada, with expansive views of six mountain ranges and glacial-fed lakes.

At almost 11,000 square kilometers, Jasper National Park is the second largest Dark Sky Preserve in the world and has nearly zero light pollution.

In Jasper, my mother astonished me once again by switching gears from her motorcycle-hating ways and pulling on black leather chaps, a jacket and shades to climb into a Harley-Davidson sidecar. Dressed likewise, I sat behind Gordon Jones, our professional driver from Jasper Motorcycle Tours, and off we went, with a loud roar, eliciting stares and waves from bemused tourists.

This 8-year-old, female-owned sidecar outfitting business accommodates about 60 folks a day. Tours range from 1 to 3 hours, and patrons who have a motorcycle license may rent bikes and ride by themselves. Note: Helmets are required in Canada.

“We don’t go roaring up to the animals,” Gordon told us. “We just coast up.”

While we did, indeed, see a black bear and her two cubs just about 20 feet into the forest, my biggest shock came when I looked down at my mother, finding her inner James Dean. She was enthralled and said, “This is the last thing I’d ever dreamt of doing. I don’t even recognize myself! I LOVE it!”

We kept Facebook busy that night with new motorcycle mama photo postings, but not before we caught a meal at a “don’t miss” place the cycle folks recommended, Jasper’s L&W Restaurant. A jungle of tropical trees and vines have almost taken over this Greek eatery, which dishes up delectable pizzas, salads, burgers and authentic Greek cuisine. Even if you don’t eat there, drive by and take a look.

Jasper is where the famed Icefields Parkway begins. This stretch is truly a showstopper — with many roadside pullouts to view the waterfalls and wildlife. The lakes here are almost turquoise, colored naturally by hydrogen sulfide and algae.

New this year is the Glacier Skywalk, an addition to the ever-popular Columbia Icefield Glacier Adventure, both offered at the Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Centre on the parkway. Long lines and international crowds are a routine part of this scene, so buying tickets in advance is a wise move.

The Skywalk cliff-edge walkway leads to a glass-floor platform that provides stunning mountain and glacial vistas 918 feet above the Sunwapta Valley. Some visitors augment this breathtaking experience with an 80-minute Glacier Adventure that involves riding enormous Ice Explorer vehicles directly onto the glacier, and even stopping to step onto the ice if desired.

Next on our itinerary was Lake Louise, one of the world’s most exquisite sites. My mother said she could not remember ever seeing anything so impossibly perfect. The brilliantly-colored alpine lake, sided and backed by glacier-topped mountain peaks, is fronted by the castlelike Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, and surrounded by a rainbows of flowers.

Some 10,000-16,000 visitors come each day in the summer to view the lake. Crowds are lighter in the mornings, and if you take advantage of one of the many hike options, you’ll escape them as well. For refreshments, the glorious hotel offers a very pampering and delicious respite that includes, of course, high tea.

Our last days of the trip were spent in the friendly, clean town of Banff, a welcoming spot with a pretty hot springs pool up on the mountain. It’s an easy place to relax and keep busy, with activities such as canoeing and a tour of the blissful “Hoo Doo” hiking trail up on Tunnel Mountain, as well as civilized pursuits among a bevy of shops, excellent world-class restaurants and various worthwhile museums.

My mother shares my passion for wildlife viewing, so I had thought a trip to Alberta would be perfect to share with her, and, boy, was I right.

In just one week, we saw black bears, grizzlies, bison, elk, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, deer and ravens — and we can only imagine how many caribou, moose, marmots, pikas, eagles, mountain lions and others spied on us.

Our time immersed in Alberta’s incredibly dense forests, emerald green meadows and exquisite natural beauty inspired an adventurous spirit in both of us, and, yes, somehow we remembered to breathe.

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