THE LEGEND OF CHIEF MOUNTAIN
Apparently the first white men clambered up Chief Mountain in 1892. When they reached the summit it’s said they stumbled across the bleached skull of a bison. Such a discovery undoubtedly intrigued them: just how did the skull of a bison come to be laid on the summit of this mountain? Located to the east of Glacier National Park, Chief Mountain towers above the plains.This prominent peak certainly impressed Meriwether Lewis of the 1804 Lewis and Clarke Expedition. He took one look at the impressive rock face and named it Tower Mountain. Over the years it has had many names. The native Americans called it Ninaiistako, meaning Chief Mountain. And whilst members of an 1854 state survey dithered over whether this geological blip on the “Backbone of the World” should be marked down as Chief Mountain or King Mountain, early German geographers were more decisive: they declared it Kaiser Peak, knocked back a few schnapps and went on their way. To the tribes of the Blackfoot Indians Chief Mountain is much more than a landmark on the Alberta plains. It is a place of deep spiritual significance where the great warriors, braves like Eagle Head and Iron Breast, came long ago to dream their visions. Legend tells of a Flathead Indian brave who, many moons ago, risked the long and perilous journey from the west. He remained several days on the summit of Chief Mountain, searching for his “medicine vision”. On his long journey he’d carried with him a bison skull on which to lay his head.
HAPPINESS IS A WORKING BOILER
It’s drizzling as we chug over the hills to the Chief Mountain border crossing; the low cloud is doing its best to shroud the mountains. Even so, the weather fails to dampen our spirits, for this border crossing marks a significant moment in our journey from Ushuaia to Alaska: Canada is the 16th and last country to be visited before our final push to Prudhoe Bay. I like to think reaching this point is an achievement in itself, except we don’t need reminding how the end of our journey is rapidly nearing. Since arriving in Buenos Aires in January 2012 the truck has covered some 90,000 kilometres (56,000 miles) in grand style, if exceedingly slowly. But who cares for speed? As they say: it’s all about the journey, not the destination. I’m gripping a thick piece of wood as I write the following: we’ve only suffered 1 puncture, come close to shredding a rather critical wiring loom, broken 2 windscreens and 1 wing mirror and had the rear brake drums skimmed 3 times, due to some weird warping and screeching going on. Small, insignificant things have dropped off. None of it has been too inconvenient. The real killer has been the loss of our Eberspächer boiler (in effect the central heating for the back of our truck) which, since a snowy summer day in Ushuaia, has steadfastly refused to ignite, despite various forms of persuasion … and I’m pretty persuasive with a hammer. Even though we’ve adapted perfectly well to this loss of comfort during the last four years, I can immediately think of three instances when a bit of heating would have definitely worked wonders, such as
… but, as I say, we adapted – water boiled on the gas ring made for an adequate bucket shower and, during our transit of the Andes, a few extra layers and a nip of whatever we had in the cellar did the job.Then we arrive in Canada, where they know a thing or two about keeping warm; making an Eberspächer talk is no longer a dark art. I can’t believe we’ve had to travel 90,000 kilometres to find ourselves a handy plumber. ‘Yeah, we oughta be able to fix that,’ he drawls. Christine wants to hug him. So now, as the sun sets over the forests above Lake Louise, and a chill rises from the floor, I reach over to the switch. CLICK … WHIRR … DRONE … GURGLE. ‘Ooh, it’s lovely and warm in here!’
FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD
Visiting Canada has been a wonderful occasion to catch up with family and friends and to learn a thing or two about them I’d never known before. For instance, I never knew my cousin shared a similar passion for weapons. He’s taken out his collection of World War II hardware, in the form of a fine brace of .303 Lee Enfield rifles and a mark IV Sten gun. I’ve never handled a Sten gun before, a machine gun churned out in great numbers during the war. They dropped thousands of these to the Resistance in France. I lift it to my shoulder, sweeping the muzzle across the sitting room, shattering the TV and drilling the sofa full of lead in a make-believe scene of utter carnage … RATTA-TATA-TAT … and then I realise, because it’s been a warm day and the front door is wide open, my antics are in full view of the Sunday evening public streaming home in their cars. Whoops! We lay the weapons on the sideboard and tuck into our takeaway pizzas. I’m waiting to hear the police siren and the ‘Come out with your hands above your head.’ I reckon it’s time to push off.
We make our getaway along Highway 1 at our customary 80 kph, into the Rockies, through Banff and Lake Louise, hanging a left to Golden and beyond, to the Okanagan Valley, famous for lakes and fruit and wine and big vistas. Of course the middle of August is absolutely not a good time to come here: the whole world is on holiday and quite obviously they’ve chosen to come to Canada. Car parks and campgrounds are groaning under the assault. The Banff and Jasper National Parks might be a vast and wonderful wilderness, they are also dissected by “industrial veins” – by busy highways, rail-roads and a tsunami of tourists. It seems the only way to find the wilderness is to pack a rucksack, don a stout pair of boots and head for distant peaks. From Vernon and through the town of Kelowna the road is akin to a racetrack: RVs, pick-up trucks, Harleys, trailers, saloons, trucks, poodles on leads. The camp-grounds along the lakes not only resemble car parks, they are a vision of charmless mayhem. Am I ranting? No, I’m merely setting the scene, for there’s a glorious solution for those who don’t want to walk a thousand kilometres into the hills for some peace and quiet. And a very good one. Thankfully Canada has thousands of acres of Crown land, criss-crossed by forest tracks, where one can, more or less within reason, set up camp where one wishes. And there’s nobody out here. Not often, anyway. From west of Revelstoke we venture through the forests for a couple of days, dropping down into Vernon for bread and milk and a screening of Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation at the local flix (cracking movie) … and then it’s back to the forest. A day or two later and we brace ourselves for 100 kilometres or so in the Death Race 2000, grab a bit more bread and milk and some of this delicious fruit and head back to the forest. From Oliver we take the gravel forest road towards Baldy Mountain, traversing a First Nations reservation, then climbing the Okanagan Highlands, until we spy a dirt track that is quickly consumed by the forest. We take it, soon passing a cow sitting in the parched, golden grasses, ruminating on a lunchtime delicacy, and a few metres further a young black bear, who eyes us suspiciously, and then a hundred metres further still a glade, which will be our home and garden for the next couple of days … or more. The forest is dappled in light and shadow, a swathe of greens and russets. A crow caws the forest’s gossip. Butterflies and birds go about their business; crickets take to the air, clacking like castanets. Pockets of hot air carry the rich scent of pine and for a while the breeze hisses in the trees. When the wind drops the silence and the warmth press on the glade and the chirping of the birds reigns. In our garden there’s a fire-ring of cobbles and burnt coals and a cluster of rocks. At the perimeter of the glade, all around, the trunks of the pines recede into the forest, to be consumed by the web of branches and the tufts of pine needles, forming an impenetrable barrier between us and the world beyond. Out come the chair, the shades and a hat. Aah, this is more like it! Now, where did that bear go? I knew I should have bought that tank.