One of my father’s favourite movies is National Lampoon’s Vacation. There’s a scene in the film that my father loved to emulate on every vacation we took when we were kids. In the film, there’s Chevy Chase and his family driving down the highway to the fabled WallyWorld. Chase points out the window and says, “Hey kids, look! A deer!” The kids look out the window, awestruck at the wildlife. Chase then asks, “Did everyone see it?” The kids all say yes, and Chase pulls this clipboard off the dashboard. On the clipboard is a sheet of paper labelled “Family Vacation Checklist.” He goes down the list and checks off “see deer.” That just always made my father laugh.
And, of course, it was déjà vu all over again this past August, when we went on vacation in David Thompson Country. David Thompson Country is this forgotten gem of the Canadian Rockies. It’s a stretch along Highway 11, extending from Rocky Mountain House to the Banff National Park border. Along the way, you’ll find the typical mountain views, a variety of pretty little campgrounds, and the centerpiece, Lake Abraham, the reservoir formed by the Big Horn Dam. But we were heading to the fabled David Thompson Resort.
The David Thompson Resort is a 1960’s era roadside motel in the heart of David Thompson Country. In addition to its motel, it has a pool, restaurant, gas station, gift shop, and mini-gold course. But, when we were kids, what always stood out about the place was the playground, boasting a 30-foot high rocket ship with an incredibly long slide coming down from the top of that rocket. When you’re 8 years old, it’s the Mecca of playgrounds. We never went there often when I was young, with Jasper National Park simply being more accessible. But the memories of that rocket ship are forever burned into my brain. And that’s kind of why it was chosen for this vacation.
What originally started as a humble camping trip where my folks would be able to hang out with my brother and his kids soon spiralled out of control to be a large group consisting of my parents, my sister, my sister’s on-again/off-again boyfriend and his kids from his first marriage, my aunt and uncle and their two kids, and my brother, all alone, not able to get his kids from his soon-to-be-ex-wife. With a group this size, the usual hanging around the campsite just wouldn’t do. Luckily, just 30 minutes away is that spectre of the Rockies, that magical place where I always boast that my grandmother worked at when she was a teenager, the Columbia Icefields.
It was about 10 years ago that the Columbia Icefields boasted of building their “new building.” A joint effort between Parks Canada and Brewster Buslines, the Columbia Icefields Centre is this massive complex consisting of a motel, restaurant, gift shop, the Icefields Interpretive Centre and the terminal where you can depart for your ride upon the glacier. I’d never really been to the Columbia Icefields Centre, having only stopped at it for all of 10 minutes about 6 years ago. This was my first time where I’d actually spent a day there, and I can now say with absolutely no shadow of a doubt that it is now the one place on Earth that I hate the most.
The parking lot is completely insane. And inside is worse. It’s wall-to-wall people. You can barely move. It’s a completely intolerable crowd. Plus, it’s full of that much mocked and much maligned tourist demographic: the Japanese tourist group. I look at Japanese tourist groups in a whole new light now, mainly because I’m afraid I’ll run into someone I taught. Being a guy who never really enjoyed crowds to begin with, I started finding the entire building to be suffocating. It was less and less an interpretive centre, and more and more an airport terminal. The gift shops, the monitors all over the place telling you when the next ice tour leaves, and even a currency exchange counter. I went outside to get some fresh air and take in the view, but there wasn’t much difference. Everyone, from all walks of life around the world, clamouring to see a glacier.
The crowds. My beloved Rocky Mountains are intolerably crowded now. I was doing the classic Maligne Canyon walk and was passed by a man with a cigarette in one hand and a cup of Starbucks coffee in the other. A quick side trip to Bow Lake just completely blew my mind. Not the scenery, but the crowds. I found the mass of people, cramming onto that little viewpoint to see the lake, just even more spellbinding than the view itself. After staring at this mass for a few minutes, I started hearing the Hinterland Who’s Who music, and a familiar narrator.
The Rocky Mountain Tourist migrates from all over the world to Jasper and Banff every year. They make their homes in temporary lodges known as “motels” and travel in mass herds using the “bus.” The Rocky Mountain Tourist can be identified by their loud shirts and Starbucks coffee cups. The Rocky Mountain Tourist is generally considered to be a pest, and should not be approached unless you a familiar with their native language.
We returned to the David Thompson Resort that evening as I began to contemplate what I saw that day. But, my contemplative meditations were interrupted when a camper across the row came in with his 50-foot long 5th wheel trailer and started cussing out the heavens because he took a turn to sharp and sideswiped a tree. Wanting to collect my thoughts, I started walking around the campsite and saw row after row of massive motor homes and hulking trailers. There was hardly a tent to be seen. I sat down to share my finding with my brother. He just kind of nodded. As an electrician, he’d wired in his fair share of campgrounds these days. He mentioned that these RV owners really don’t like having all these trees and wilderness in the way. Just give them a few square feet of concrete where it’s easy to park, and easy access to the electrical, water, and sewage hook-ups. People these days want their campgrounds to be acres and acres of asphalt.
I sat by the campfire, reflecting on everything I’d seen, and I just started growing disgusted with the whole tourism industry. At first, my anger was directed towards the environmentalists. Our out-of-control tourism industry all started with the environmentalists. 12 years ago or so, whenever a coal mine was closed down or hundreds of acres of prime timber wasn’t cut down because it was an owl habitat, and suddenly, hundreds of people were left unemployed, what did the environmentalists say to those unemployed people? “Tourism will save your town! And tourism is much more environmentally friendly! No animals are harmed! No trees need to be cut down! Tourism is the one, true, environmentally friendly industry!”
Here we are now, 12 years later, and what has this environmentally friendly industry brought us? People driving off the countryside in their SUVs, hauling a 50-foot 5th wheel trailer fully outfitted with TV and DVD players, scattering Tim Horton’s coffee cups and timbits boxes out the windows and into the ditches. Gas and energy consumption has increased, and all that wilderness that they fought so hard to protect is now being bulldozed to make way for campgrounds, hotels, gift shops, and more Tim Horton’s!
But then I realized that it’s not fair to blame the environmentalists. This has been going on long before environmentalism became a movement. Upon seeing the Rocky Mountains for the first time in the 1890s, the president of the CPR made the infamous declaration, “If we can’t export the scenery, we’ll import the tourists.” He built the Banff Springs Hotel and the Chateau Lake Louise and started advertising the hell out of them as tourism destinations. For a little more than a century now, we’ve been advertising these places as being exclusive, little, out-of-the-way regions and if you go, you’ll be inducted into some exclusive little club. But, because of the explosion of modern technology, getting to these little out of the way places has become easier than ever.
It’s gone from exclusivity to the Chevy Chase mentality. They hook their houses up behind the SUV just so they can go check off “see a mountain.” They have no more respect for the environment around them, they just want to get another check on the list.
Everyone in our group just kind of left at their own pace, and soon, it was just Mom, Dad and me. As we were driving home, Dad had a brainstorm. “Hey! Why don’t we stop at the Rocky Mountain House National Historical Site?” I was all for this idea.
When I was a kid, daytrips to the Rocky Mountain House National Historical Site were quite common. The last time I was there had to be a class trip in 1992. See, Rocky Mountain House was home to the last Hudson’s Bay Company fort in Western Canada. The fort has long since crumbled, and all that remains are the two stone chimneys from the commissioner’s house. Anyway, the ruins of the fort and the surrounding acres are now in the care of Parks Canada. They have a tiny bit of a museum on the site, and you can go for hikes to see what life was like in the 1870s. I always enjoyed it when I was a kid, and was eager to return.
At the Rocky Mountain House National Historical Site, I was treated to the experience that I wanted from the mountains, but didn’t get. Here was something that hadn’t changed since I was 8 years old. The crowds were still modest. The museum display hadn’t changed at all. And the walks around the grounds were still very relaxing. And you learned something, too. This was exactly the kind of getaway I was looking for.
But sadly, that’s turned into a bit of a problem for the place. When my Dad suggested we stop in and check it out, there was a bit of direness in his voice. For you see, in the past few years, Parks Canada has toyed with the notion of closing the place down. It just doesn’t draw in the people like it used to, and the upkeep is getting rather expensive. We chatted a bit with some of the attendants on duty. Yes, the lack of people is a bit of a problem, and their funding has been greatly cut over the years. But, they’re finding ways to survive. Like most other museums, they now have a much greater dependence on private donations and volunteers. They have a “Friends of…” society that’s quite active. Most of the re-creationists on that day came from a Calgary-based Métis organization, who believed that the Rocky Mountain House National Historical Site still serves as illustrating a part of Métis heritage.
I left there feeling somewhat saddened at the whole tourist experience. Here was a good, decent tourist site that sadly needed a boost in attendance. But, if they were to do more, they would most likely lose that which still makes them special. If they allow in the massive RVs, odds are what makes it special will be squashed. But they need more of that if they want to survive.
The tourist economy is now driven by the bigger and the better. We need the bigger RVs. We need to have more tourists. We need to get to the exclusive sites like the Rocky Mountains, but the damage caused by millions upon millions of people marching through there is immeasurable. And those little, out-of-the-way places that we enjoyed so much when we are children are getting crushed; passed over on the way to the bigger and the better.
We continued onwards towards home. The vacation was over, and I was more divided on my attitudes towards the tourism industry that I ever was. It all goes back to National Lampoon’s Vacation and the checklists. We have to find a balance. We have to quit being so dedicated to our checklists and learn once again that being a tourist is so much more than checking off “see deer.” It’s the side trips, the Rocky Mountain House Historical Sites that help make that integral difference: the difference between being a tourist, and going on vacation.