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Montana, Rt 93, and Kootenay NP

[Note: this blog comes to you via a wifi spot near Lake Louise. Since I have to post this sitting on a bench outdoors, I’m skipping the photos until later. I’ll update this blog with all the pics when I can.]

Before I launch into this blog I should share some background. Eleanor has been talking about visiting Banff for over a decade. It has become, as the result of years of fantasizing about it and seeing photos, an almost mythical destination for her. Being the wonderful husband I am (even though I’m not willing to spring for a night in the hotel as Danine suggested) I promised to get her here.

This helps explain why coming up here is worth the trouble and expense. And believe me, there’s plenty of both involved, especially this time of year. We’ve been routing ourselves since late August specifically to get to this particular spot. Every decision, every stop, and our entire schedule has been oriented toward getting to Banff before the snow made it impossible.

This morning we packed up, said goodbye to Bert and Janie, and began the 300-mile trek north on Rt 93. The trip took over seven hours because it’s almost all “blue highway” and of course we made a lot of stops: dropping off mail in Whitefish, MT, a final US gas stop at Eureka, MT ($2.91 per gallon), crossing the border, and of course the innumerable bathroom stops.

Border crossing is becoming a little more structured these days. We’ve gone into Canada dozens of times, with and without the Airstream, and in the past couple of years it seems that the friendly Canadian officials are becoming more like their US counterparts. They are asking more questions, checking things a bit more often, and taking more time. The crossing still took less than five minutes but I was interested in the fact that the agent asked me twice about weapons and was careful to verify our identities (even to the point of taking a peek at Emma and comparing her to her passport). While passports are technically not required for land travel across the US/Canadian border at this point, it won’t be long before they are.

Route 93 follows the western edge of the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia, so that there’s almost always a view of steep and craggy peaks to the right (heading north). They were green down low with pine and bluish above, lightly frosted with snow. Occasionally we’d see a bright yellow squiggly line winding down the sides of the mountains, caused by the fall foliage of the aspen trees. They follow the avalanche routes, because they grow more quickly than the pines following the scouring of a massive snow slide.

The other color delight is the delicious blue/green water that is found in nearly all the rivers and lakes. It’s a translucent Caribbean blue, but more amazing by being surrounded by sharp granite and pine trees. We don’t yet know why the water here is that color, but I will try to find out.

We picked this day to travel because the weather forecast showed a stretch of good weather for the next four days. This time of year, a snowstorm could make us semi-permanent residents. All of our escape routes involve high mountain passes where tire chains are required for vehicles towing trailers. We don’t have chains and even if we did I don’t want to tow the Airstream on roads that would require chains. So we’re counting on sunshine and will be checking the weather daily for reports of a storm over British Columbia or the Pacific that might suddenly drive us out.

Even today, a fairly decent day with a slight overcast, gave us a hint of how quickly things can change. From Route 93 at Radium Springs, we turned right into the Kootenay National Park and the road began to climb steeply into the mountains. At times the grade reached 10% (with a speed limit of 70 kph, about 35 MPH) and within a few minutes of this the clouds were thick and ominous, with occasional rain spitting down and temperatures falling rapidly into the low 40s.

Things began to go a bit off after we entered Kootenay. The corner gas station in Radium Springs, at the entrance to the park, showed a price of CDN$1.15 per liter (about $4.34 per gallon). Knowing that fuel along Rt 93 had been in the range of $1.02 per liter ($3.81 per gallon), I decided to skip buying gas there. We had 3/8 of tank according to the gauge.

In retrospect, I should have bought 3-4 gallons at the outrageous Radium Springs price just to fatten our fuel margin. Although we had plenty of fuel to travel the remaining 80 miles to Banff under normal highway conditions, I forgot to calculate in a safety margin for the extended climbing we were about to do, and the lower efficiency of the gas engine at high altitude. I also shouldn’t have trusted the fuel gauge, because it is not entirely accurate.

Then things began to go further awry. The campgrounds in all of Kootenay National Park were closed for the season. This mandated that we drive all the way to Banff, leaving no alternative to stop for the night. Occasional rain began to fall. The very early sunset of this northern latitude began to occur at 6:30, made worse by the heavy clouds. The peaks that surrounded us were now largely obscured by clouds. And the fuel gauge started to fall rapidly.

I did a quick calculation when the yellow “low fuel” light went on. We’d traveled 207 miles since the last fillup. If we got 8 MPG (our absolute worst-case fuel economy, reserved for days when we tow against 20-knot headwinds), we’d run out at 224 miles, about 10 miles short of the next fuel station in Banff. If we got 9 MPG, we’d have about two gallons to spare. I don’t like shaving it that close. I was envisioning myself pedaling along the highway breakdown lane in the dark for ten miles, with rain hitting my face, and then hunting down a fuel can and begging a ride back “¦

Fortunately we did make it to Banff without a problem, and when I calculated our economy I found we averaged 9.1 MPG for the route. The tank took 25.4 gallons at $1.00 per liter, for a record-setting fillup of CDN$96. (Canadian and US dollars are only two cents apart now, so figuring the US-Canadian conversion doesn’t make much difference.) It will cost us at least $200 in gas for our trip to Banff, counting side trips, but Eleanor is worth it. She reads this blog, you know.

One Response to “Montana, Rt 93, and Kootenay NP”

  1. Bill Kerfoot Says:


    As I remember from my trips to Canada, the color in the streams and rivers is a result of the “glacial flour”, finely ground rock which is held in suspension in the streams and rivers but settles out in the lakes, hence no unique color in the lakes. The color is amazing when you see it for the first time, just like the Yellowstone river just downstream from Yellowstone falls doesn’t look real or you feel that you can reach out and touch the north rim of the Grand Canyon from the south rim as it looks like a picture.