In the cedar forest before me, the cinnamon mountain resolved into a sow grizzly.
So perfectly did the bruin’s fur blend with leaf fall and bark, if her cubs have not stirred, I could have blundered on top of her as she nosed under the logs. I’m downwind too, so she failed to catch my scent.
Anyway, I never imagined I’ll stumble on my first grizzlies beside Lake Louise, the most photographed lake on earth, a stone’s throw from five-star Fairmont Chateau, Alberta’s “Castle in the Wilderness”.
I froze where I stood, 10 feet from the family. Too close. Rangers urged hikers to keep a safe distance from bears, at least 360 feet – the length of a football field. No use running if she attacks now. Grizzlies clock 66 kilometers per hour. The fastest Olympic sprinters only manage 45.
The sow lifted her head and faced me squarely. Our eyes met – hers, curious and intelligent. I tried not to stare without looking away.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to disturb you,” I uttered the worlds calmly, reassuringly. It seems the most natural thing to do. I can’t help adding, “You’re so beautiful. You and your babies.”
Her ears flicked forward. Good sign. If she pins them back and makes chomping sounds, I’m done for. But her cubs reared up on their hind legs, assessing whether I’m a toy or a threat. If they run to me, the fiercely protective mom might panic and tear me to shreds.
Just then, something crashed behind her – a dead branch falling or worse, another bear. Rangers say at least three grizzly families prowl around the lake. The sow took off like a shot, the cubs at her heels.
“She could have killed you,” my guide gasped when I told him about the encounter afterwards.
Wardens already cordoned off nearby Deer Lodge due to grizzly sightings. The sow I surprised turned out to be a four-year old first-time mom, a resident of Lake Louise. “Lake of Little Fishes”, natives called it because its 300-foot-deep glacial waters only sustain dwarf trout and stunted mountain white fish.
Still, it’s Banff’s wildlife corridor, cradled among the snow-capped Rockies, feeding from the meltwaters of Victoria Glacier above it and creating a scene so picturesque I felt like I’ve stepped inside a postcard.
Year-round, millions of tourists descend on the lake and its hamlet – despite grizzlies, wolves and cougars being part of the landscape.
Grizzlies even kill black bears for the right to feed in the premises. For several days, an immature male sparred with an adult black bear near the hotel. Another time, a wolf attempting to bring down an elk calf attracted a grizzly who took over the chase.
Outside Banff National Park, hunting is still allowed, so prey animals retreat inside the refuge during hunting season and calve there. The predators follow.
While Banff grizzlies are smaller than their West Coast cousins who gorge on salmon and reach 1,500 pounds, they’re still formidable at over half a ton – voracious too, being virtual eating machines packing 10,000 calories a day for their winter sleep.
Massive as they are, these omnivores on top of the food chain don’t live long, 12-14 years, depending on the condition of their teeth. Bears love sweets and buffalo berries rot their enamel fast. A toothless grizzly is a dead grizzly. Once they lose their last set of dentures, they starve to death.
That is, if people and vehicles don’t kill them first. If they manage to elude trophy hunters, they run into trucks and cars when crossing highways. When they feed on grain spilled on railway tracks, they collide with trains.
One train which mowed down a sow doomed her twin yearlings outright. The first perished on the highway while a male grizzly slaughtered the other. Recently, a train killed another sow with three-year old cubs. One lived through the winter, denned up near the hotel, but his brother vanished. Cubs normally stay with their moms for four years before striking out on their own.
Rangers simply shoot aggressive “problem bears”, like the six-year old male who charged hikers at the Fairview Mountain trail which I’m tackling today.
Climbing the over 9,000-foot high Fairview, I looked out for grizzlies as I surveyed the panorama of forest, glaciers and emerald lake. Once sure the coast is clear, I hurried further up, past avalanche paths and snow-buried switchbacks to the peak.
Scrambling down, I heeded the sign warning hikers not to negotiate the rock bands where so many had been stranded overnight and had to be rescued the next morning, earning Fairview the nickname “Overtime Mountain”.
As if that’s not enough, I went up another peak to soothe my aching limbs in Canada’s highest hot springs in the aptly-named Sulphur Mountain.
For centuries, rain and snow have seeped in the lopsided slopes of neighbouring Mount Rundle and accumulated in rock sediments 6,000 feet below. There, they dissolved minerals and simmered in the heat of the earth’s crust before gushing out of gaps in Sulphur Mountain’s flanks.
As I lay back in the steaming waters of Banff’s Upper Hot Springs, I scanned the Bow Valley below and opposite us, Mount Rundle, which according to our guide, inspired the Paramount Pictures logo.
Aloud, I wondered if I’ll scramble up its Dragon’s Back limestone crags tomorrow and track wolverines – the elusive cousins of the weasel who are often mistaken for small bears. Or do I explore Minnewanka, the native people’s “Water of the Spirits” which early Europeans branded as Devil’s Lake?
My fellow bathers expressed more concern about fainting in the 40-degree Celsius pool we’re immersed in than in my itinerary. Being acclimatized to heat, I wasn’t affected. But one giddy guy spluttered, “Just do the three-hour Discover Banff tour, it covers everything.”
Hence, I returned to Sulphur Mountain the next day and hopped into the gondola which deposited me 8,000 feet up Sanson’s Peak observation deck.
Whiskey Jays and Nutcrackers escorted me, flitting on the railings, begging for food, as I ambled up and down the board walk. Underneath, bighorn sheep dozed, unmindful of chipmunks chattering and golden mantled ground squirrels scurrying about.
As I climbed, the terrain changed from the spruce and cedars of the moraine to the towering pines and firs of sub-alpine forests and finally, barren rock and ice.
Nothing loomed above me now but snowy skies, the flyway of 6,000 Golden Eagles. High winds raked my exposed flesh, so cold it burned like coals. Raptors must love it though. They ride updrafts that slam the Rockies’ spine to reach their breeding grounds in the Yukon, Yellowstone and Colorado.
For me, what followed was another gondola ride down the valley, a bus journey to Cave and Basin Museum and a stopover at Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel.
Alas, there’s no time to see its ghost bellman and phantom bride. I’ve to catch the boat to Lake Minnewanka though it’s too cold to dive there and explore the village and dam drowned beneath its waters when they built the current dam 70 years ago.
Yet, I managed a side trip at Tunnel Mountain to inspect Banff’s mysterious hoodoos – eroded rock fins which folk legend says were people turned to stone for the evil they did.
It was still light when the tour bus dropped me off near downtown, where I rejoined throngs of locals and tourists on foot. You don’t need cars here, anyway. Banff is a ski resort town less than 500 hectares in size nestled 5,000 feet high on Bow Valley, within the confines of the national park.
At Lynx Street, I came across a historic log building which turned out to be the Park Museum. It’s still open so I browsed its collection of 5,000 natural history specimens, wandering among shelves of birds’ eggs, rocks and wood from Banff’s forests in olden days.
Taxidermists mounted hundreds of native fowl who perished after smashing on the museum’s glass windows. Along with stuffed eagles, wolves, foxes, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, cougars, black bears and grizzlies who once resided in the valley, they populated an eerie menagerie.
Upstairs, the founder’s office looked like he just took a break and could walk in any minute. A stuffed owl rotated slowly from his ceiling while specimens waited to be classified on his desk, among dusty letters and his journal, opened to a date over a hundred years ago.
Back outside, I strolled down Banff Avenue which runs straight into the Cascade massif. However, cruising past the tourist shops, I confronted the grim duality of conservation and commerce.
Alongside dream catchers decked with beads, feathers and amulets, turquoise and silver jewels, carved cottonwood replicas of native masked spirits – “Kachinas,” locals peddled the skins of lynx, bobcat, beaver, coyote and fox.
Saddened, I asked my guide about it. He simply shrugged. “I told you. Hunting is still legal outside the national parks.”
(TO BE CONTINUED NEXT WEEK)
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