The first thing that struck me about the Canadians was their friendliness. Nearly three hours across the border, we paused in  Cranbrook, B.C., a mountain town just southwest of Banff National Park. Brendan and I were rinsing waterproofing solution out of our tent in a gas station parking lot when a Canadian with ‘Beautiful British Columbia’ license plates pulled up to the air pump and, eyeing our soaked tent said, “That looks like a hell of a night.”

We laughed, “Oh,  we’re just waterproofing it,” Brendan replied, “to prevent a hell of a night.”

“Where are you headed?” he asked. Backpacking in Jasper, we answered. Ever been?  “Nah, when I get into the wilderness I go where no one will find me. Enjoy your travels!” With that he hopped back into his Toyota 4Runner and drove away.

The next morning, we approached the Jasper Visitors Center in the peak adorned town of Jasper, Alberta (population 5236). A heavy set man with affable features milled about the entrance and announced that the building was closed until 8:30 a.m. “So we shall have a visit!” he proclaimed. “Where are you from?”

Brendan and I glanced at each other, surprised at this impromtu conversation. Colorado, we told him.

“Ah, Colorado,” he said (when the Canadians pronounce Colorado they say it more like Cole-or-raad-o). “We live in Calgary but some friends have a house (hoowse) in Jasper, so we come quite often (oh-ften). We make it down to your country too. We have a house in Arizona.”

Where-abouts? We ask. “Yuma,” he replied. “How long are you in Jasper?” Six nights, we said.

“It’s lovely country, isn’t it? Is this your first time?” he asked.

For nearly five minutes, the man rattled off questions and provided his own tangential answers. When at last we excused ourselves to hunt down a gear store, he waved happily and smiled. “Enjoy your holiday!”

“What holiday is it?” Brendan asked as we strode away. “Holiday is vacation to them,” I replied having heard the term often while traveling around Europe in high school. “And we are officially on holiday.”

Days later, after paddling 16 miles to the head of Maligne Lake, we met a Canadian duo from Edmonton who shared a fire, tips on popular TV shows and insights into Canadian culture. “You’d love Mantracker,” Dave gushed after discussing wolf tracking with Brendan. “Two people go deep into backcountry and Mantracker has to find them. This guy can find anybody. Only one person has ever gotten away.”

“Well, two people, really,” Andrew piped in. “But this one lady messed with Mantrackers horse. That was really bad. You don’t fuck with Mantrackers horse.”

As for Canadian culture, the boys chanted a song verse from Edmonton-based band, Arrogant Worms about the provinces:

I hate Newfoundland ’cause they talk so weird
And Prince Edward Island is too small
Nova Scotia’s dumb ’cause its the name of a bank
New Brunswick doesn’t have a good mall
Quebec is revolting and it makes me mad
Ontario sucks, Ontario sucks

Manitoba’s population density is 1.9 people per square kilometer. Isn’t that stupid!?

Saskatchewan is boring and the people are old
And as for the territories, they’re too cold!

And the only really good thing about the province of British Columbia is that it’s right next to us!

‘Cause Alberta doesn’t suck
But Calgary does

One morning on the lake, Brendan and I were gathering our gear for a glacier day hike when a thick Canadian man from British Columbia approached us to have a chat. He asked the standard questions of our whereabouts, how long we were in the park etc, and we asked him. “Oh it’s our first time here,” he said, motioning to the three other men he’d been camping with. “We’ve been doing annual trips like this four twenty years.” His companions were from Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. They had canoed to the lake head four days ago and were leaving the park that day.

“Do you canoe and hike often?” he asked. “You should go to Bowron Lakes in northern British Columbia. It’s beautiful country up there.” With gleaming eyes, he described a loop of pristine lakes and the process of portaging (carrying one’s canoe overland) between them. “We’ve been out there at about 10 times now.”

A few minutes later, his friend from Manitoba came over. “Bill tells me your headin’ over to Kananaskis Country. I was just there! What are you looking to do out there?”

More tips and small talk ensued. As he bid farewell and turned his back, Brendan and I shook our heads and laughed. “This place is wild,” I said. Never before had I received so many unsolicited tips from strangers who were happy to make conversation and be helpful.

These interactions (and others throughout the trip) got me thinking of my typical interplay with strangers, or even with people I see on a sidewalk or trail. Rarely do I exude such an un-inhibited friendliness, nor do I see it often in fellow Americans. Yet after just seven days in Canada I could feel a change in my approach to strangers. At a grocery store in Pincher Creek, Alberta, I made easy small talk with the clerk, and again did so at a chocolate shop in Cody, Wyoming on our journey back to Colorado. Once home in Carbondale, I had a lovely chat with a woman at the food co-op about the changing seasons and the orange leaves in high country.

The beauty of travel (or one of the many) is that it opens you to random interactions you don’t necessarily seek out. But with a little effort one can bring that openness into everyday, ordinary life. So strike up a smile, ask a question of a person you’ve never met before. You never know where the conversation might take you.

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