Banff: Nearly A Petting Zoo

It doesn’t take long to understand the 50 km/hr speed limit posted through Banff National Park. The roads may be quintessential road trip material – twisting, turning and well maintained – but when the first herd of sheep comes within arm’s length of your car, you remember who this park is truly for.

We’d left downtown Calgary that morning with an urge to escape the concrete, the congestion and the crowds. We’d also left with the stern reminder that while Calgary is the land of cowboys, it is also the land of speed cameras. Being reined in by unseen forces may threaten to punch the fun out of a car as quick and smooth as the Mercedes SLK350, yet bringing it to a snail’s pace – for as long as it takes – in order to see spectacular long horned sheep is just fine.

A trek from Calgary to Edmonton is usually a straight forward 3 hours or so. Instead, we would be weaving through the Rocky Mountains, and turning that into over 800 kilometres dominated by solitude and majesty. Because the best drives are never about getting from point A to point B, the lower speed limits in this part of Alberta were welcome.

With spectacular weather leading the way, we dropped the top and headed for Banff. Though an upscale tourist town in every respect (the chain of spanking new SLKs threading through town fit in well), the snow capped peaks clearing the tree line are a continual reminder that we aren’t even a speck in the formation of this natural wonder.

Entering the gates of Banff National Park – more than 6600 square kilometres of wilderness – it’s not long before a group of sheep cluster to the roadside. A couple of youngsters are shepherded to the sidelines by the anxious ewes, but not before Mama makes her presence felt with a rather indignant snoot aimed at my camera.

The turns in the road offer a welcome isolation. While you don’t go far without seeing other vehicles – everything from motorcycles to RVs populate the road – each bend squeezes off the chain, and you’re once again left to yourself. Brake lights ahead can only mean one thing: a member of the home team looking to kick out the visitors.

Most wildlife ambles on by, oblivious or at least unconcerned. A bear, however, comes dangerously close to the road, and finally crosses it. So close, in fact, we ponder putting up the top; this SLK features a large panoramic sunroof (Magic Sky Control) that offers up the open feel without the threat of a bear having easy access to the cabin. Even as we opt to leave it down, a man decides this is the time to pretend that Banff National Park is the world’s largest petting zoo. To my shock, he actually brings his two toddlers out of their car for a closer look.

A steady climb in altitude slips by, until that sunroof is finally a welcome respite from the beginning of drizzle and fog. We’ve left behind Banff at an altitude of about 1300 metres, and risen to 2000 metres as we cross into the Columbia Icefields, and Jasper National Park. Surrounded by mountains peaking at 3700 metres, it is the quiet that crushes everything else. Massive hectares of ice arch up and away from the road; I’m always awed at the fact we can access things like this, but I never get over the feeling that we don’t belong.

It wasn’t until the homestretch toward Edmonton that I finally found a real live cowboy. After mountains and elk and bears and sheep, it was only fitting that Alberta offered up her other famed natural resource. As I took in his hard working pick up, he posed happily beside both vehicles.

He only had eyes for the Mercedes.