Driving Across Canada Day 15: Show Me the Mermaid and Sundance Canyon

I found one of Canada’s National Treasures today, thanks to the rain.We woke up to a cold and depressing morning. Cold, grey and damp with continuous downpour. We dismantled our camp quickly around 6:30am and Tim Horton’s warmed our grumpy and cold bodies up.

Luckily, the cold doesn’t last forever. Later the same day I was taking notes in the hot sun, and looking back at that morning.

Our original plan for this Canmore morning was to climb Ha Ling Peak, but the peak looked a lot less appealing in the freezing cold. We couldn’t even see the top through the heavy fog.

We decided to head over to Banff to see if the weather was any better over there.

First, a quick stop at Vermilion Lake.


Then we discovered a national treasure: Cave and Basin. The origin of National Parks Canada.

Cave and Basin

Who knew the overture of Canada’s history of nature preservation opened with the smell of sulphur?

As we walk up to the outside of the building housing the entrance to the cave, you can smell rotten eggs, and see great gulps of steam coming over the railings from the hot rivers that pour out underneath the brick foundation.


The story goes that the site was discovered in 1875, but it wasn’t until 1883 that it became famous. William McCardell and Frank McCabe, two Canadian Pacific Railway workers, descended through the skylight hole in the ground in to the hot springs in the cave below.


Nowadays, of course, there’s an easily accessible walkway entrance into the cave. You could even bring a wheelchair in.

The building around the cave is plastered with informative diagrams and posters about the history of the area, including a large smattering of wartime recruitment posters, and also placards about the semi-endangered Banff Springs Snail.

The tiny gastropods about half the size of my pinky nail. You see them all over the rocks near the underground hot spring. According to the Parks Canada signs, their shells spiral to the left, whereas most snails’ shells spiral to the right. What rebels.


Walking out of Cave and Basin, we follow a path behind the building that leads to a small exhibit in its own building.

I’m about to discover a dark part of the national park’s history.

Work Camps

This wood building that stands on its own, away from the main building, is a tribute to the workers in labour camps who were made to clearcut and shape Canada’s first national park lands.

When the First World War began in 1914, there was Canada-wide paranoia that immigrants from enemy countries (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, Bulgaria) would turn on Canadians. This fear allowed the federal government to pass a rule calling them ‘enemy aliens’ and allowed them to be interned.

In the internment camps, there was a hierarchy. First class internees were German officers and civilians. Second class was mostly immigrant labourers, from Austria-Hungary.

The internees did a variety of work, including clearing land and constructing roads for the national parks.


Basically, in lieu of expensive actual labourers and tradesmen, the government used the ‘free’ labour of immigrants and POWs stuck in internment camps to clear trees and make the trails. And for my fellow Nova Scotians, check out the right side of photo two. People were also interned at Citadel Hill in Halifax.

This would be good curriculum to add to our history classes in Canada. I had never heard anything about the government using prisoner labour to make the parks until I read up on it myself. It’s surprising, because Canada’s natural parks are part of its beauty and allure for so manny tourists. It’s something we think of as so pristine.

I’m glad Cave and Basin put this exhibit together, but I also think: “Why not just include it in the main exhibit hall?” It seems kind of funny that it’s out on its own, in a building about 50 feet from the main structure.

Did they set it apart as a sign of respect, or are they trying to distance themselves from their history?

We left the exhibit and decided to keep walking, following the signs for Sundance Canyon.

Sundance Canyon

Quite a little bit later (bring a snack for this walk) we stumbled into Sundance Canyon. The elevation wasn’t bad at all. It’s about a 7.4km round trip. The signage isn’t great, but the path is very straightforward. It’s even paved about half the way.

Some people rode on horseback, some people were biking (I’d go this route next time), and some of us were walking. By the time we got to the canyon, it was pretty late in the afternoon, so we were all alone.


By the time we walked back to the Cave and Basin area, I was starving. Luckily, they had a little cafe with excellent dark chocolate energy balls for sale.

Note to self: Next time, buy energy balls before the walk, to bring with you.


Also, There Was a Mermaid

In this one shop…


The Banff mermaid is a long-standing oddity that attracts many curious visitors. You can stare as long as you like and read its origin story in its fish tank at the Banff Indian Trading Post in town.

It’s slightly grotesque and slightly cool. I found it in the back room between wolf t-shirts and hand-sewn moccasins.

Read this article if you want a bit more in-depth mermaid coverage.


Back in town, we treated ourselves to a ‘fancy’ supper. It cost us less than $60. Not the most expensive, but this was a big spend for our budget. Luckily, Melissa’s Missteak was also delicious and worth breaking the budget for. I recommend “Melissa’s Mountain Stew, Beef chunks swimming in red wine gravy simmered slowly with fresh vegetables“. Not only was it delicious, but you get a huge serving.


I just want to break away for a moment to tell you this great dog name I discovered:

A line of horses and riders passed us as we were hiking the trail to Sundance Canyon. They were all attached by a rope and being led by a girl in her late teens. All the horses were wearing tourists on top.

One of the horses on the rope started acting up and the girl turned around on her horse and yelled, “Perogie! Stop fucking around.”

Perogie. Cute horse name… great dog name.

a) Not only does it fit my food/animal naming convention (see: our cats: Taters and Trout); but,

b) Pero means ‘dog’ in spanish.

Voila. Perfect dog name.


Also, we went to the movies later that night.


Day 15 Costs:

  • Tim Horton’s Breakfast for 2:$16.72
  • Tunnel Mountain Campground: $27.40
  • Banff Tea Company: $13.05
  • Lux Cinema, 2 Adults Rogue Nation: $21.98
  • Groceries at Safeway: $19.46
  • Basin and Cave, 2 Adults Entry: $8.05
  • Melissa’s Missteak, Fancy Dinner + dessert for two: $55.79
  • National Park Pass (good until the 18th): $58.80
  • Cave and Basin Café: $7.80 (chocolate energy ball, tea, mars bar, water)

Total: $229.05

Author: Mel Hattie

Hi, I’m Mel, blogger and tea sommelier at Mel Had Tea. I love to explore, learn, and meet new people. Nothing inspires me more than reading, traveling the world, talking to strangers, and drinking tea.

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