Our car is smaller than it should be. It’s packed with dirty gear, warm sleeping bags, tasty snacks, and two people ready to sit in its small seats for 40 hours. After exploring the breathtaking Turnagain Arm, my adventure buddy Doug and I are ready for the reason I flew out to meet him in Alaska: a road trip from Anchorage to Calgary. We don’t know what lies ahead, but we loosely map our course and dive into the unexpected of the Great White North.

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It’s slightly overcast as we begin our drive toward Calgary. Cruising down the Seward Highway, we take in the hillsides and the rocky shorelines around us.

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The windows of our tiny car are ever-changing paintings as towering peaks rise from the landscape. Doug is forced to pull over every few minutes as I press my face to the glass and excitedly exclaim I need another photo. It is hard to grasp how tall the peaks are in the distance, and they are a steady reminder of how small we really are.

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Sections of the drive are populated with miles of nothing but fields and the occasional tree breaking into a flat horizon. As we near the Canadian border, we stop to stretch our legs and find a beautiful reflection on the gray surface of a lake. We lose ourselves in the sight before us, easily forgetting which way is up.

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We cross into Canada and find ourselves in the vast wilderness known as the Yukon. From wolves to voles, the Yukon is filled with incredible wildlife. As a gentle snowfall begins, we round a corner in the road to find a field full of bison. They move slow but purposefully, barely acknowledging our presence as we hear low grunts rising from their furry masses.

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We cruise through the Yukon and slowly roll into the sleepy town of Watson Lake - home to the famous Sign Post Forest (there are 77,000 of them). We meander about the posts, reading signs ranging from toilet seats to dinner plates displaying the names, dates, and hometowns of their owners. Doug looks for the sign of our Anchorage Couchsurfing hosts in the cluttered mass of color and history.

6

After five days of traveling with no shower, we find ourselves at the boardwalk to the Liard Hot Springs. Eagerly, we pad along the wooden planks that carry us over crystal-clear wetlands and toward the springs. A beautiful wooden structure comes into sight, and we find ourselves stripping down to swimsuits and slowly submerging ourselves into the steaming water. The hot springs wash off hours of hiking and the stagnant sitting car life we’ve been enjoying.

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The wheels on our tiny car kick up dust as we pull onto a dirt shoulder running along one of the landscapes that caused us to change our initial destination of Seattle to Calgary. Jasper National Park, over 4200 square miles of beautiful wilderness and roaming wildlife.

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At 2 AM, Doug shakes me awake as I snooze in the passenger's seat and he points to the sky as a faint “I think it’s them,” crosses his lips. A faint wisp of white that looks like a cloud causes us to turn down a dirt road and get out of the car. I wrap a blanket around myself, and we wander out into a nearby field to stare at the sky. And then, the white light grows. It begins to transform, to flow. From a white to a glowing green with streaks of purple as it undulates across the sky. I stare at the sky and my mouth drops, as a combination of laughter and tears come from me. I stop taking photos and watch as the night swirls into an indescribable natural wonder, the Northern Lights.

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Traveling on the cheap, our wallets are doing alright. We sleep in the little sedan carrying us from one town to the next, and our daily activities typically involve nothing more than putting one foot in front of the other up a steep, snow-covered hill. So, after days of driving and chilly winter camping, we find ourselves splurging on a warm, cozy hotel in Jasper. A local coffee shop, the Wicked Cup, is connected to our home for the night. The smell of baked dough and freshly-brewed coffee radiates from its doors and we can’t help but indulge on a freshly crafted flatbread pizza.

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It’s cold, snowing, and our last day in Jasper National Park. I’m a bundle of fleece, and as the flurries fall, Doug decides to go for a dip in the beautiful frigid waters of Emerald Lake. We heat up tea for his exit, he strips down, and cannonballs in.

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Sad to leave Jasper but excited for our next destination, we make sure to visit the 80-foot force of Athabasca Falls as we drive toward Banff National Park. Viewing platforms and roads separate the falls, with one side home to the powerful waterfall which carved the gorge, and the other with water morphing into a calm, meandering river that glows turquoise in the evening light.

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In photo essays, we usually only see the glamorous side of road trips. You never get to see the parking lot spaghetti dinners eaten out of a single pot, or the chilly nights bundled in a sleeping bag in a car that isn’t long enough to stretch out in. For all of those mountain shots comes the gritty work behind getting there. Headlamp illuminating the words on pages filled with adventure, Doug reads as my heavy eyelids begin to accept their fate on our last night in Canada.

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Our last day ends with sightseeing in the morning and a flight out of Calgary in the evening. Beanies on and hot chocolate in hand, we wander up to Lake Louise and watch visitors snap photos of the iconic view as we breathe in every last bit of Canada we can.

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