ESCAPE TO ... THE ROCKIES.
'Erna and Dilbert Anderson, Pay Your Bill, said the sign in the diner window' WEATHER and bears are perennial hot topics in Calgary, the business centre of western Canada and setting for the Superman film.
A bear would not cause trouble in Calgary unless it could drive, as nobody gets out of their car for long. But in the mountains, an hour away, it's another story. Every bar has its bear expert with his own spin on the sensible advice of the park wardens and with uplifting survival tales along the lines of: "If you pretend to be dead when it comes back it won't eat you, it'll just break your leg."
Ten years ago, the crucial tactics were to hang your toothpaste in a tree (the darn beast might have you for breakfast, but it would have to go elsewhere to clean its teeth), keep whistling, talking to yourself and jangling the camp stove on the lonesome trails. But though bears used to shun human company, now, say the bar-room wild men, they're more likely to follow the noise.
The park authorities still sell "bear bells" to backpackers but they come with a label attached which warns, cryptically: "A Bell Is Not A Substitute For Common Sense". (Canadians are great sign-writers. My favourites on this trip were "Bob's Bikinis, Better Than Most", "Bread Will Not be Sliced Before 1pm" and, most terrifying of all, "Erna and Dilbert Anderson, Pay Your Bill" in the window of a diner which had better remain nameless.) The Canadian Rockies begin at Banff National Park gates, which have their own climate zone, so sunshine in Calgary is no guarantee that the weather will be clear enough to see any mountains. "Ah, but what's it doin' at the park gates?"
anxious Calgarians mutter on glorious summer evenings as they load the fishing rods and barbecue steaks into their jeeps.
In Banff, which became a boom-town a century ago by pampering entrepreneurs and explorers in its sulphur springs and swish hotel, the rain not only obscured the mountains but also the scented-candle shop across the street. Like every factory shop complex near every heritage town in Britain, Banff has scented candles and weigh-your-own soap for sale in a dozen outlets.
Today's explorers wear designer fleeces and colonise the cafes, fighting over space to swing a skinny latte. Bears give the place a wide berth in shopping hours but there are plenty of elk, looking as if they wish we would all go home so they could put their rain hats back on.
The Icefield Parkway is the scenic route north from Banff to Jasper, out of scented-candle-land and past the Columbia Icefield glacier. You can spend five hours of the six-hour bus trip shifting seats to maximise eagle-spotting and glacier-goggling. This and a swim in the freezing cold Lake Edith at the end of the ride is the perfect way to rid your nostrils of the cloying scent of cheap vanilla candles.
I met up with my family in Jasper, slept late and missed the bear that came looking for breakfast cereal. We had taken all the food out of the car but forgotten the trail of crumbs from my two-year-old niece's car seat.
A Canadian friend who was on bear patrol said that he was a brown yearling cub and that they tend to have no common sense (but do they think a bell is a substitute for it?).
My niece was sad to leave Jasper because she thought it was named after a character in the film of One Hundred and One Dalmatians (the baddie, but never mind).
To cheer her up, we stopped in a glorious mountain town with a chalet-style motel like something out of Hansel and Gretel. She made straight for the row of carved bears in the driveway. A wicked-witch type shot out of the office and, too late, we noticed the traditional Rocky Mountain signwriting: "Keep Off", "No Trespassing", "This Is Not A Playground".
As we stomped back to the car we remembered that we had stayed in that very mountain hideaway five years ago. It had hideous velvet paintings screwed to the wall and beds screwed to the floor, and they tried to charge us six dollars for the use of a teapot.
Sadly, we were halfway to Vancouver before I thought of doing a spot of signwriting myself: "Bear Brunch This Way", pointing out a trail of Sugar Puffs leading back to the gingerbread house. That would have done the trick.