Sometime's life's best experiences take you by surprise. It's why I've made it my personal policy to always say yes to unique opportunities. So, when my mom emailed me the link to a Stanford Travel Study trip to an eco lodge well north of the Arctic Circle and told me my dad couldn't go, I just said, "let's do it!"
By saying yes to adventures, you also often encounter an amazing amount of serendipity. The best way to get to Arctic Canada from the west coast of the US is to fly through Calgary, and our dates perfectly aligned so that we would be there for the final weekend of Stampede - one of the biggest rodeo events on the planet. Obviously, we took this as a sign and extended our trip!
I can't do justice to this trip in one short blog post, so I'm going to break it up into a couple of parts. Today: our adventure at the Calgary Stampede and exploration of Yellowknife, the jumping-off point for our Arctic expedition.
My limited knowledge of Calgary came from stories I've heard about Stampede from horsey people (I briefly learned to ride gymkhana races in another life) and the Disney classic film Cool Runnings about the 1988 Winter Olympics. As it turns out, Calgary reminds me of a hybrid of Denver and Houston: a modern city built on oil money in the middle of the plains featuring a high rise downtown and significant suburban sprawl. There's clearly a lot going on there as evidence by the modern indicators of prosperity: a burgeoning food scene, a million condo buildings going up, and plentiful Ubers.
We had a great dinner at Rouge (fresh, local ingredients prepared expertly on the pretty patio of a historic home in the beautiful Inglewood neighborhood) the first night, followed by the heroic portions and epic kimchi hollandaise of brunch at Anju the next morning. Appropriately fortified, it was on to the Stampede!
Calgary Stampede is basically a combination of a huge rodeo and a massive state fair. All the fried foods you could ever wish for are on site, plus tons of agricultural exhibits and acres of livestock barns. My mom did her research ahead of time and got us tickets in the stands to the actual rodeo events in the afternoon, which were so worth it: I had never actually seen bronco or bull riding in person, and it was so thrilling I watched most of it through my fingers. We each picked a decadent fair food for dinner (spicy custom mac and cheese for me, poutine for my mom in honor of our Canadian hosts) and followed it up with fried cookie dough to share which was EVERYTHING wrong and delicious in this life! We rounded out the evening by watching the Stampede Spectacular, which was basically a mini version of closing ceremonies at the Olympics. We were both impressed by the theme of the show - "We Are Better Together" featuring many of the cultures that make up modern Canada and enthusiastically supported by the crowd - and wistful that such a progressive theme would never be featured at a similarly rural/conservative leaning event at home in the US.
If you go to the Calgary Stampede:
- Book your hotel early. We booked months ahead and the boutique hotel my mom wanted was already full so we ended up at the Fairmont. It is perfectly fine, but overpriced for a relatively under-remodeled old hotel (good bathrooms though!).
- Dress for the heat and potential thunderstorms. We both wore light cotton sundresses and flat shoes and carried rain shells and although we wilted slightly we were happy campers! If I had tried to cowgirl it up in jeans and boots I would have been sweltering, and I felt for the riders in their heavy leather chaps.
- Once you're at the Stampede grounds, plan to stay until you go home for the day. The lines to enter only increase as the day goes on.
- Fly Air Canada if you are a United customer with status - Star Alliance gold gets you into priority check-in and security lanes as well as the Maple Leaf Lounge. Bonus: Global Entry also works for immigration in Canada, both arriving and leaving!
The official Stanford Travel/Study trip began in Yellowknife, Northern Territories, because it has Canada's northernmost airport served by major commercial airlines. We really didn't know what to expect here, to be perfectly honest. It's a bigger city than we imagined, about 25,000 people, and has a definite frontier town feel. It's built for the harsh winter weather: buildings are square, sturdy, and no-nonsense. The biggest industry in the area remains mining, so there's cash on hand - as we saw in our exploration of a very high end grocery and homewares store - but the legacy of mistreatment of First Nations and Inuit peoples is also pretty obvious in the form of substance abuse issues and social stratification. Food and alcohol are expensive, since everything must be trucked in over vast distances: a head of organic broccoli was on sale for $7.95 CDN!
Yellowknife is less a tourist destination than a jumping off point for adventure excursions, but we had a day and a half there and had a great time! Our first day, we walked into the historic old town and poked around - and were somewhat gobsmacked to realize that Yellowknife's pioneer heyday was pretty recent as in the 1930's and 1940's! The second day, we did the hike around Frame Lake, a very pretty and well marked trail that borders the newer downtown, and visited the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre which has really high quality exhibits. That evening, we met our travel group, got fitted for boots (more on those later), picked up our expedition parkas, and then headed out for dinner at Bullocks' Bistro. This is one of those places with extreme amounts of local character, and also the best fish and chips I have ever had in my life - and I have spent more time than the average bear in the UK including sampling of various types of fish and chips! On the way home, it felt so early - at was probably 8:30 p.m. and fully sunny - that we stopped off for a beer at Northwest Territories Brewing Company. A great spot (we ended up coming back for dinner on our way back through Yellowknife at the end of the trip), and I recommend the Amber!
This was where we realized that the long northern days were going to be weirder than we thought. In Yellowknife, the sun does set at midsummer, but it only really ever gets dusky. As a trip host told us, she hadn't seen stars since early May! So, we easily lost track of time and found ourselves rushing back to the hotel after 10p.m. to make sure to get some shut-eye before our early-ish departure the next morning!
If you go to Yellowknife:
- There's no need to dress up. I felt overdressed at the hotel restaurant in jeans with a nice top, and we bummed around during the day in workout clothes and our finest Patagonia outerwear and fit in just fine.
- If you want to sleep properly, close your curtains! It may feel at 11pm like it's about to get dark... but it won't.
- If you're patient, everything is walkable. Taxis exist, but we were perfectly happy walking everywhere. Nothing you want to see or need to do is more than a mile away.
- Lodging options are limited. We stayed at the Explorer Hotel, which is supposedly the best in town. Facilities are what you would expect from a big city Holiday Inn or similar, rooms are less recently remodeled but perfectly fine with comfortable beds.
To see even more photos from this epic trip, be sure to follow me on Instagram. I'll be back with more on our Arctic adventure next week!