5th April 2017 – Vancouver

So on the train, I had a revelation.  I’ve been thinking I have 3 days before my interview with Whistler.  However, when you take in the time difference, I’ve suddenly realise I only have 2.  Which means I have no time to waste once I’m settled into Vancouver.

However, my arrival in Vancouver has some delay.  I hear this is common with the train – it rarely runs on time and we get in about 3 hours later than expected.  I use the time to enjoy one last breakfast, talk to some people, and eventually disembark with a handful of other backpackers all heading in the same direction.  Apparently I’m the only one whose looked into transport – it’s only half an hour to walk to the hostel, but the rain is torrential, so we head for the sky train.

This is a train/monorail that connects significant chunks of Vancouver, and by far the easiest way to get around.  We’re only 2 stops away from Granville Street, which is about $2.75 for riding one zone.  From there it’s a ten minute walk, though we do get a little lost trying to wrap our heads around the sign posts (it takes a while to wrap your head around it, especially when you’re used to navigating via buildings, not streets – especially when the streets are ‘Granville Street by Nelson Street’).  We end up huddled outside a Starbucks trying to get Wi-Fi to work, only to realise we were literally just across the road from it.

The hostel I’m staying at for the immediate future is the Samesun Backpackers, located in the heart of downtown.  It’s also the hostel the Working Holiday Club works with, and I’ll get a free night if I get a job offer.  At the moment I’m only booked for a week until I figure out what I’m doing.

I did intend to do something with my day, but honestly the train trip did little for my ability to sleep, so I more or less just crash so I can recover for tomorrow.

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4th April 2017 – Jasper to Vancouver

My last morning in Jasper, and I spent it being exceptionally lazy, doing my washing and doing little meanders around town.  The train is supposed to leave at 2:30, so I head out about 1:45 towards the train station.

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Turns out, the train is late.  It’s supposed to arrive at 1pm, and doesn’t show up until 2:15.  This means we get delayed as the train has to go through a clean and maintenance check for its last leg, so we don’t leave until 3.

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This time I’ll be sleeping on the train since it’s an overnight trip, but I couldn’t afford a sleeper car and took my chances with the sleeper seats.  Sadly, this train is full.  Finding a seat is a borderline impossibility.  I end up finding one, but it’s next to a gentleman whose been on the train for 5 days since Halifax, and smells like it.  However, he’s getting off at the stop at 11 along with several other people, so stake my claim on the seat with my bag and head up to the observation cart for the foreseeable future.

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This is by far everyone’s favourite place on the train.  We have fantastic weather, so the skies are clear and the mountains are bright.  This is a great time to travel – plenty of greenery, but highlighted by the snow still capping the lakes and mountains.  We even get a clear view of Mt. Robson, the highest point in the Canadian Rockies, which is so high it has its own weather system and is usually hidden by fog.  Getting to see it is something of a rare treat.

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I only peel myself away from the top floor at 5:25, as my reservation for the dining car is at 5:30 (unlike breakfast, dinner is so popular you have to reserve a slot, and economy have limited options consisting of either very early, or very late), and decide I’ll leave my camera charging while I eat since it’s pretty low after such a heavy photo trip in Jasper and through the Rockies.

However, when I get to my charger back, I can’t find it.  I have a sinking feeling I left it in Edmonton as that’s the last time I saw it.  And of course, it’s a very specific attachment, not a micro-USB so I have nothing else that will work.  All I can do is turn it off and hope it lasts until Vancouver where I’ll try to hunt down a spare.

The dining car is much the same in this train, only with water instead of mimosas being offered for drinks (although you can also order from the drink menu if you so desire).  Again I have to pay, unlike the sleeper cars who get it included.  It’s not cheap, but consists of a choice of lamb shanks, chicken breast, some kind of fish and tofu stir fry.  The first three are $30, but the stir fry is only $24, so I pick that.  To be honest it’s been too long since I’ve had good tofu.

As it turns out, it’s better value for money than I thought, because it’s a set price for a three course meal, not just one.  You start out with a small soup or salad (I had the salad, and it consisted of a spoonful of chopped veg, lettuce and a healthy heaping of parmesan), before the main.  I was so happy with this.  Rice was soft and sweet, veg were cooked to perfection and the tofu – although chopped bigger than I normally like – were exactly what I look for taste wise in tofu.  Then you get a choice of deserts, either a chocolate caramel torte or a raspberry vanilla cheesecake (talk about options!) which comes in the form of a pretty decent sized slice.  I had the torte, and was very happy with paying $24 – I left feeling almost bloated.

I navigated back up to the viewing deck until the sun died and it was no longer possible to see anything, and once I’d set my watch back on hour (to get into BC time since we’d crossed the state lines a few hours before), I started figuring out where I’d go to sleep.  I did technically have a chair, but the guy next to me was spread out quite a bit and the smell was a lot to deal with, so I grabbed my jacket and fleece, and went a hunting for a spot.  Tried my luck in the observation car (no luck, the arm dividers on the end make it just too tight) and then down on its bottom floor where there were comfortable seats left alone.  One of them curved and had three seats in between dividers which ended up being my salvation, although still pretty awkward.  I would have given so much for the divider between the three I was on and the ONE seat in front of me to be gone.

At 11, the train empties, and I get up to try my luck on the sleeper seats.  I’ve got two to myself, and have the leg support and backs pulled back as much as I can.  However, they are some of the most uncomfortable seats I’ve ever attempted to sleep in.  Not as bad as The Ghan, but there is nothing provided to try and improve the quality of sleep.  They’re hard, the arm guards are stiff, and the leg rests bend out at an awkward angle.  I’m very tempted to go back to my original sleeping spot, but somebody else has taken it.  Instead, I dig out a towel and a shirt that’s also in my hand luggage and try to soften some of the harder edges.

It must work, because although I wake up a few times during the night, when I wake to full coherency, there’s light coming through the windows, and I’m not nearly as stiff as I expected, so I’ll take it as a victory.  So glad I didn’t try to do the whole trip in this seat though.

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3rd April 2017 – Pyramid Lake

This is my last full day in Jasper, and I’m making the most of it by heading up the mountain towards Pyramid Lake.  This is a hike that takes me past Patricia Lake, then up to the Pyramid lodge area, before spreading out into different trails in the hills that overlook the area.  It can be anywhere from 4-14km, perfect for a day walk.

Or at least, it would be normally.  The ice is a serious problem, and I eventually find myself stumbling out of the forest and onto the main road that curves not too far from the walking trail for my own safety – its just not possible to stay on 2 feet while walking on the ice covered trails.  Thankfully, you don’t really lose much in the way of beauty, the road and trail are pretty close together.

After about an hour heading uphill, I make it to Patricia Lake, which has more or less been left alone to gain a significant couple feet of snow on it’s ice.  It’s beautiful, and oh so tempting to sneak out, but warnings of thin ice are everywhere, so I carry on.

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Twenty minutes later takes you to the Pyramid Lodge and resort area, which hugs one end of the huge Pyramid Lake.

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This lake is huge.  I can’t even see the other end cause it’s hidden by the mountain and trees.  Like Patricia it’s also covered in snow, but there are areas where it’s been swept away, creating a pool and what looks like a road.  However, there are now ‘thin ice’ signs decorating the shore, so it’s clear these are no longer being used.

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If you walk along the road, you come across a walkway into the lake, which leads to Pyramid Island, a small forest laden landmass emerging from the lake.  Apparently this is a huge attraction for couples in the summer, but I love it for the views I get of the lake from all sides. It’s so huge photos don’t really do it justice.  I end up eating lunch here and appreciating the scenery before heading to the end of the road and beginning the hike up the remainder of the hill to do the overlook loop

Unfortunately, these plans quickly crumble to dust after five minutes of trying to get up the first small hill.  Again, it’s pure ice.  I can’t see it getting any better as I look upwards, and there’s no road I can slip on to avoid it.  After weighing the pros and cons, I decide the view isn’t worth risking my neck, and decide to head back down the hill instead.  All things considered the two lakes were more than worth the effort to get up here.

 

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2nd April 2017 – Maligne Canyon & Old Fort Hill

Since I don’t have the proper footwear and it’s a little bit dangerous to go without a guide, I booked the Ice Walk with Sundog Tours in order to see Maligne Canyon’s waterfalls properly.  At 9:30 the guide ‘Chuck’ picked me up from the hostel, and we headed to their office to pick up the proper footwear and cleats, before driving up to the canyon.  We head to the carpark on the far side (near the Bridal Veil Waterfall), and start heading towards the main section of the canyon, warned to stay on the left side due to the threat of falling limestone.  He also points out a lot of the other hikers who are doing a lot of the things my group were doing yesterday, noting that they clearly don’t understand how dangerous the area is, and that despite carrying a first aid kit for his tour group, he’s never needed to use it on a client.  Other people in the canyon however, have needed it almost constantly.

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Snow fell overnight, so the slush at the entrance isn’t as bad, but still more than what normal footwear can handle.  We’re told to try and stay under rock cover at any point, and if we hear ‘ice!’ to bolt for the nearest overhang.  In winter, we’re normally several metres lower than we are now, but due to snow and ice refreezing, we’re pretty high (there are overhangs just scraping the ground that you can stand under at the start of winter).

One of the first waterfalls we come across is known as ‘The Angel,’ with the biggest waterfall ‘The Queen’ just around the corner.  These incredible sculptures are used by a local company to teach ice climbing, although it’s getting dangerous to do so now.  Naturally their shape changes every year, but they’re simply stunning to see up close.

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Further into the canyon, and you come across the first ‘pothole’ which has been made by water filled with minerals (creating a sandpaper effect) smoothing down the sides and creating a circular roof.  It’s a very strange thing to see in the canyon, especially when you realise it’s natural.

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Further along, we also discover something known as a ‘log jam.’  A few years ago there was severe flooding in the area, and the lakes overflowed more than they ever have in recorded history, sending tons of debris and wreckage into the canyon.  This rubbish eventually got caught in corner pockets, and when the water receded, left these giant accidental jams in their wake.  Wedged together like the ultimate pickup sticks, the Jasper Park officials can do much except wait for them to rot – although they have made some that were suspended in the air due to the water height drop to the ground via dynamite for safety reasons.  This one sadly, has stopped the canyon from being used for weddings.  The section on which it lies used to have a natural stage area where people would get married.  Due to the high pothole roof and the shape, this area was known as the cathedral.

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Around the next corner is the end of the line for us.  A giant slide of ice blocks the way forward – although we might be able to get up it with effort, we’d never get back down, so we head back out and towards the exit.

The entire trip took about 2 ½ hours, which was pretty impressive considering that’s more or less how long we spent exploring the rest of the canyon yesterday, and meant I had the afternoon to myself when the coach dropped me off at my hostel.  But before I did, I ended up winning a good roommate award.  The four guys in my room were getting ready to leave, but one of them couldn’t find their wallet.  I managed to find it in 2 minutes, freeing them to go, and then went to the fridge to find that Jess and Marie have left some alcohol by accident.  Since their train hasn’t left yet, I take it down to the station, and give them a farewell with a 6-pack, before heading out of town towards a hiking route.

Just a kilometre or so out of town is a walking/bike trail that leads to an area called ‘Old Fort Point.’  It’s based mostly in the woodland and heads up to several other hiking trails (working sort of like a ‘central station’ for Jasper hikes), and is about a 4km loop.  It’s relatively easy, although this time of year sees a lot of the pathways covered in skating rink ice and very difficult to navigate.  The worst part by far was an extremely steep hill that had NO snow or foliage for me to work with, and had me doing the bambi splits and scrabbling on all fours more than once.  However I had it better than the two girls I passed who had to find a way DOWN it.  The reward was almost instantaneous though, as I found a large lookout point formed from limestone.

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The view from here is pretty fantastic.  Maligne Canyon was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited, but Jasper in general is phenomenal.  I can only imagine what it’s like fully decked out in snow or in the winter.

You have the opportunity to do a continuation of the loop via the track 1a, but given the state of the paths I continue onwards on track 1 towards Old Fort Point.  This is a giant rock/overhang that gives even more incredible views of the Jasper area.  It also has a pair of red sunchairs for people to use and take a close look at the mountains in the distance – which have no walking tracks and are left untouched for the native wildlife to use.  I only managed to spot sheep though.

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The only issue with Old Fort Point, is that it’s a little difficult to get back down.  I knew I could go the way I came (which was an awkward indent in the grass and mud I’m still not sure WAS a legitimate way up) or travel further along given how big it was.  I explored, following what I thought was a path, only for it to end in a sheer drop a good ten minutes later, forcing me to backtrack.

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Once I’m back on the track, I make my way down to a wide clearing just underneath the point, and find my way to a set of stairs that take me to the carpark next to the river.  Apparently this is where most people start, but I’m kind of grateful I went the other way considering some of the steep hills vs ice.  It was also a pretty easy walk with good rewards along the way, so I consider it a great afternoon.

Tomorrow I’m going to head in the opposite direction and make my way up to Pyramid Lake, high in the mountains on the other side of town.

 

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1st April 2017 – Maligne Canyon

Most the house was up at 8:30, and Jess, Marie and myself headed out for Maligne Canyon.  I was going to back out last minute after talking to the owner regarding how easy it was to navigate this time of year, but they talked me into it.  We headed to the train station to grab a taxi, and $30 later, we were at the start of the loop.

In the winter, this place can’t be navigated without snow shoes, but by this point in the season, most of the thick snow has gone and this biggest issue is ice.  Cleats are best, but we don’t have them, so make do my sticking to the edges where the ice hasn’t become a deathtrap, and when we can’t, clinging to the railing and literally sliding down the hill.

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Maligne Canyon is part of the Canadian Rockies, and unlike the American Rockies, was created via glaciers rather than volcanic activity.  It’s biggest draw is obviously the river that runs through the centre, which is fed by Medicine Lake and Maligne Lake, and many underground springs.  In the winter it freezes over, creating these amazing structures out of the waterfalls that you can get up close to by heading into the canyon and walking on the ice.

Along the way, we run into two guys also exploring the canyon, Michael and Andrew.  They work for the Skytram, and are just as curious about the area.  We eventually reach a large central area, and spot tour groups heading into the waterfall laden part of the canyon.  The problem is that most of this ‘entrance’ is ice water and slush, which our shoes aren’t designed to handle.  I decide to back out (I’m coming here via a tour tomorrow anyway), but the others decide to sacrifice their footwear and head inside to explore.  I spent the next 30 minutes or so hanging around the entrance and trying to stay warm without moving.

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When the others return, they’re soaking wet from attempting to climb an ice structure and getting punished for it, but otherwise thought it was completely worth it.  We then headed down the opposite side of the canyon where the walls were lower and wider.  We try to follow people’s footsteps, but at one point, rather than following their actions and climbing back onto the path, we keep going and come across a very tight opening that is completely iced (like a skating rink on angle) with a drop at the end.  The only grip available is a large branch leaning in the crevice.  Naturally, Michael risks it, and urges us all to do the same.  It’s the most awkward thing we do all day, especially when we realise the only thing stopping us from sliding down and quite possibly getting hurt is a piece of wood not held down in any way.

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Thankfully, we all make it down, and clamber up the hill to the next segment, where we find a cave.  I found out the next day that said cave had experienced a large drop of limestone that morning and was in fact a ridiculously dangerous place to be, but it was cool to check out when we were ignorant of that.

This part of the canyon is the most dangerous due to the high walls being composed of limestone, which thanks to melting ice, is constantly crumbling and has constant rockfalls.  We’re unaware of this but there are stones constantly falling down, at least until it widens out yet again to the Bridal Veil Falls, a beautiful non-frozen waterfall that cascades down a natural step way of limestone.  This waterfall is fuelled by an underground spring, which means it never freezes since it can’t get cold enough.  In fact, after this point the river isn’t frozen, as all the water from this point is too warm to do so, and doesn’t decrease in temperature until it hits the river out of the canyon.

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The fact that its glacial water also means that it’s crystal clear at this time of year, and when we continue walking, we find a spot that Michael and Jess both believe is PERFECT for a dip.  Course, by the time we’ve navigated down, Jess has backed out, but Marie takes her place, and both attempt to brave the water.

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They quickly realise how stupid this is.  The water may not be freezing but that doesn’t mean it’s not cold.  To their credit, they get to their lower thigh before leaping back out of the water and into their clothes.

By this point we’re all ready to start heading back, and after some frustrating attempts at reading the maps (whoever decided Jasper maps would be orange on yellow needs to be SHOT), we figure out where we are and what would be the fastest route back – heading upwards and taking the high route to loop back to the carpark.  Getting uphill is a bit tricky due to the ice, but once it levels out it’s smooth sailing, and gives us some pretty great views of Jasper park.

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Of course, for Michael they’re not good enough, and at one point on the way home, he finds a tree and decides he absolutely has to climb it.  We can only step back and watch him shimmy up the thing (and give us heart attacks when a dead branch snaps underneath him), before he tries to descend and jumps down in front of some very confused hikers.

To be fair, the photos and video he took were very impressive.

We don’t need to call for a taxi this time, as Michael and Andrew have a car, thus giving us a cheap way home.  It’s a bit of a squash, but doable, and when we make it back, we make plans to meet up in the evening and introduce Andrew to Cards against Humanity, as he’s never played.  When the game is over, I step back from the entertainment for an early night.  I’m heading to Maligne Canyon again tomorrow, and this time I’ll get to see the waterfalls for myself.

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31st March 2017 – Jasper

I don’t have long in Edmonton, but that’s because I’m only here to catch the train to Jasper.  Originally, I wanted to do the entire trip across the country, but it was going to be too expensive.  The Edmonton-Vancouver section is supposedly the best part of the trip, so I compromised and booked that one, with a quick stopover in Jasper for 4 days.

The train leaves at 7:37, and the station is a good 20-minute car ride away.  It’s going to be at least $30 with a taxi, but luckily, I still have Uber downloaded, and have a promo code for a free trip up to $20…which is what Uber tells me the trip will cost.  So I book the car (with a quick panic when it turns out my card isn’t accepted and have to frantically amend it), and get a free trip to the Edmonton Train station.

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The train is predominately sleeper cars, with our ‘comfort class’ coach near the front of the train, and an observation car behind it.  There is also a dining car we can go to for brunch about four cars back, but my coach can only head that way when it’s open (between 9:30-12).  The coach itself is spacious, two seats on each side that are a decent width, and a very wide aisle.  Also, had two plug sockets for each two seats.

In the observation carriage, you have a shop in the bottom, and steps heading up to the observation deck, which hosts about 8 rows of seats – but it’s almost always full for obvious reasons.  I get a seat every now and then, but most of the time I pop up and just take a photo at the top of the steps before heading back down.

The train takes about 5 ½ hours, but doesn’t move all that fast, mostly because of the traffic.  We have to brake and wait for the giant cargo trains to pass us.  One of which had us stopped for almost ten minutes while something the length of a decent sized city passed us into Edmonton.  At least this means we can appreciate the scenery while it passes.

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At 9:30 I head over to the brunch, and get seated next to another two solo travellers.  These two are both from Canada, one heading home while another heads to a family graduation.  They were happy to hear about my travels, and gave a few tips on places to see.

As I’m in the budget seat, my food is not inclusive, and I have to pay for lunch.  It costs about $12, but the options are pretty nice for a train.  There’s a full breakfast, an omelette, and French toast.  I get the breakfast, and although most of the plate is the Canadian style hash brown which is more or less grated potato (I MISS the battered potato oval so much), it’s still pretty good.

The last 2 hours on the train are by far the best though, because that’s when we start hitting the mountains.  There are snow-capped mountains, frozen lakes and rustic buildings scattered around the countryside.  Everyone puts away their phones and tablets and starts keeping eyes on the windows.

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When we finally roll into Jasper, we almost topple the train when the driver announces over the tannoy that there’s a black bear on the left-hand side.  Don’t see it, but do find a huge hoard of Elk hanging around the entrance of the National Park.  They apparently have no fear of humans, and can be found all over Jasper.

I was expecting it to be cold considering Edmonton had been significantly chillier than Toronto, but when I walk out, it’s warm enough that I don’t need my big jacket.  It’s pleasantly warm, which is a first for Canada, and means I can have a pleasant walk through the town.

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I would have liked to stay in the Jasper Hi-Hostel, but it’s in the park not the town and a real hassle if you can’t drive, so instead, I found an independent guest house hostel in town called World Travellers Fraternity (or WTF if you want a laugh).  It’s based in the basement of the owner’s home, and hosts one dorm room, and a private room, in addition to two bathrooms, a kitchen and a living area.  Small but homely, I really like it.  It’s not even got a reception – just a guarantee that the owners will come down at some point to collect the money, and a whiteboard to write your name on a bed so they know who’s sleeping where.

Once I’m settled in, I go back out to the town to explore.  Obviously, it’s a very touristy town, so the prices are hiked way up.  There are a few nice souvenir shops though – one has some beautiful necklaces and earrings that I’ll probably pick up at some point, and another shop selling pins that I inevitably buy because I’m a sucker from badges.

When I get back, I get introduced to three of my roommates.  Jess and Marie are sharing the private room, while Jenn is in the dorm.  The four other people in my room don’t arrive till later (four men from Edmonton taking a weekend break), but we spent a significant chunk of the evening introducing Marie to Cards Against Humanity which we find in the living room – she’d never heard of it and that was just intolerable.

Tomorrow they’re heading out to Maligne Canyon, and invited me along, so I’ll have a chance to get there without forking out cash for a taxi on my own.

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30th March 2017 – Edmonton

You know, considering how much I want to sleep nowadays, I manage to make it through waiting at the airport for my flight surprisingly well.  I did sleep from 6-10:30 in the evening to help out, but making it through 5 hours of night without falling asleep is pretty impressive for me.

There’s also a reward when I get on the Westjet flight.  It’s not busy, so there are quite a few spare seats – and I get a full row to myself.  It’s a little bit of a letdown when I learned my seat rest was stuck down, and I have to shimmy my legs underneath it, but that’s a small price to pay.  I get about 2 hours of sleep before I end up swapping seats with the woman behind me (who is sharing a row and is clearly desperate for sleep) since I’m getting sore from the position I’m in.  I dig out my laptop and work on some of my interview questions and watching some videos until the battery dies, then just listen to music.

We arrive in Edmonton around 8:55, and I take the shuttle bus into town.  I’m staying the Hi-Edmonton hostel, and quickly learn that Edmonton is BIG.  It takes about 15-20 minutes to get to the hostel, and it’s clear I’m staying on the outskirts of town.  Edmonton itself it a giant chasm still a good ten minutes away.  Not that I have much energy to go explore, the night before has started to take its toll, and I spend most of the day either aimlessly walking or snoozing in my room.

It’s not until around 7pm, when I start repacking everything for the train trip tomorrow, that I realise my huge error.  And this will be a good time to see how many people read this, because nobody will let me live it down.

I’m packing my bad, rooting through my hand luggage…and can’t find my laptop.  Thirty seconds of pondering, the answer hits me like ice water.  When the battery ran out, I meant to put it back in my bag, but there was turbulence, and I just slipped it into the seat pocket.

I NEVER TOOK IT BACK OUT.

What followed was a frantic hour of calling up the airport to connect me to Westjet, in order to track down the plane and the laptop.  The biggest fear was that it hadn’t been caught until it had landed in another country, which was highly likely considering how early the flight had come in.

Thankfully, mercifully, the laptop had been found.  However, it had made it all the way to the LA and back before anyone noticed, so it’s nothing short of a miracle it was in Edmonton.  I then had to figure out how to get to the airport and back without financially crippling myself – thankfully, when I was brainstorming with the receptionist, a guy at the hostel graciously donated his truck to my cause and took me there and back.  God bless that man.

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