Alberta snapshot: Johnston Canyon (past the Upper Falls).

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Admission to Canada’s national parks has been free all year as the country celebrates its sesquicentennial, but it’s a gift I hadn’t yet enjoyed…until braving the insane long-weekend crowds in Banff’s Johnston Canyon last Saturday.  Parking was at a premium (thank goodness my brother has a car with a supremely compact exterior and a dimension-bending interior) and the steel catwalks to the spectacular falls were crammed with visitors, but as we ventured past the Upper Falls and headed towards the mineral pools known as the Ink Pots, the throngs thinned out and the scenery kept getting better and better…if such a thing is even possible.  It’s pretty easy to see why everyone is so keen on showing up.

Bankhead rhubarb.

My hubby and I took a quick dash up to Banff National Park this past weekend, and although we didn’t have time to do any serious hiking, we managed to walk some sites we’d never been to before.  The most eye-opening place was the old townsite of Bankhead, a mining community that sprang up in 1903 to extract coal from nearby Cascade Mountain.  Nestled against Lake Minnewanka, Bankhead rapidly boomed – at one point, the town had 900 residents, running water, electricity (and, according to one interpretive sign, tennis courts!).

The glory days all ended abruptly in 1922, when the lease of the parks land from the government ran out.  High costs and declining production further sealed the deal, and the town was shuttered.   By this time, Parks Canada was no longer interested in the mining business, either – its focus had shifted from exploitation of resources to conserving them.  (Indeed, within the decade, mining would be banned in the national park).  The citizens of Bankhead relocated to neighbouring towns:  Banff, Canmore, or Calgary, and all of the buildings in the town were demolished.

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Walking among the industrial ruins of Lower Bankhead gives you a sense of how large the mining operation was, and how many people it took to keep all of the machines running.  Apparently, in 1911, when the mine was at peak production, 450 men yanked 500,000 tons of coal from the mountain.

While we picked our way around the piles of shiny coal slack near the former tipple, my hubby suddenly remarked that the plants growing in the black heaps looked an awful lot like rhubarb.  An interpretive sign confirmed his suspicions – apparently, the immigrant labourers that kept the tipple running day and night had planted rhubarb in their gardens…and all these years later, it is reseeding itself and multiplying all over the landscape, shooting up architectural stalks and flowers, bearing fruit that no one will ever eat because it is carcinogenic.   What an interesting living reminder of a past that most people have long forgotten.  (It may also be a testament to the fact that rhubarb can grow pretty much anywhere!).  😉

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Photo credit – #7 by R. Normandeau