Bear Meadows and Bow Valley

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Day 6 September 23rd

Lake Louise Ski Area and a Ranger-led walk

By 11am, the day had turned very bright and sunny so decided to head for the Lake Louise Ski area to go up the chairlift for some more stunning views of this, one of my favourite areas in all the Rockies. Nostalgia was pulling me to do this too as our holiday in 1996 had meant that every other day,  we mostly came up here skiing.We had loved it all  but I’d never forgotten the superb vistas from the top of the main chair, over towards Mount Temple. The photos we took of the boys in their wee ski suits with that backdrop, were astonishing.

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Incredibly, as the chairlift took us high above the meadows where the ski runs are, I could remember the general topography of the place; could recognise the shape of the runs which were our favourites.It was all so much quieter now of course and ski paraphernalia is never pretty in summer but it was good to be swept silently up the mountain to admire it all again in autumn colours. We wandered across to the main information centre where we happened upon a very interesting talk being given by a Ranger about the area’s bears and other wildlife. She was leading a walk into meadows which were kept shut to public access in summer because they were bear feeding and hibernation grounds. Excellent!

What we learned about grizzlies from that girl was incredible.

They won’t always move if you disturb them eating so don’t rely on noise etc keeping them clear of you. Males especially are likely to stand their ground.

They don’t sleep all winter but get up for a nosy around every now and again. Now I know why some areas were closed off to us as skiers……bear territory and they weren’t necessarily asleep!

Bear spray works within about 20 metres but watch what way the wind is blowing or it could knock your vision out instead of the bear’s.

If you accidentally meet a grizzly, DON’T RUN. It will trigger an automatic hunting response. Instead, don’t turn your back, don’t make direct eye contact, act very submissively, walk slowly backwards and talk gently to it, apologising as if you had mistakenly entered its house. Bears react well to soft human voices. It can calm them down. They are highly sensitive animals, easily stressed.They are also highly curious.

Before this stage the bear will be very stressed, witnessed by hunched shoulders as it’s eating, aware you are in the area. It will have detected you before you detect it.

If it’s still unhappy as you slowly retreat, an attack is usually forewarned by clicking noises from its teeth. It may also mock charge. You can stand your ground and the chances are, it is only a threat but if it gets to 20mtrs, time for bear spray.

If you retreat successfully, get the heck out of the area. Don’t try to circumvent it another way unless you are prepared to walk a long way away.

I was morbidly fascinated by all this. I also realised how poorly prepared we’d actually been on our first hike. Bear spray was the thing, not bear bells.

She also recounted some amazing stories of bear encounters. The first involved two young guys hiking in back country who somehow came between a female and her cubs at a riverbed. The first guy ran when the mother spied them and came after them. The other guy dropped to the ground. She ran over the prostrate fellow and chased the other one down. He had no chance of outrunning her. The bear’s reasoning is, the first threat is no longer a threat,they are down, but one still remains.The reason you have to cover your head and face during an attack is that your face is what the bear wants to ‘take out’…..that’s what it recognises as the threat.

The Ranger herself had surprised a grizzly female one evening as she locked up the centre for the day and made her way to the steps which took her onto the chairlift path a few hundred metres away. She turned the corner onto the top step to find a grizzly female she recognised, watching her from the bottom .She promptly turned tail and let herself quickly into the Centre. She had to leave that night via an Argo Cat vehicle which was sent up to get her.

Many fatalities happen on railway tracks. Grizzlies, which see themselves as any area’s apex predator, find good feeding from berry bushes beside the tracks. When a train approaches, they can see it as a threat and stand their ground, ready to attack – with horrific results.

There are only 60 grizzlies left in that area of the Rockies. Around 5 or 6 bears regularly feed in the area we were now in. The numbers are going down every year. They eat mostly berries but will once or twice a year, kill an animal,  especially before hibernation. We were shown elk remains from a female kill of a year or so back. In fact, the slopes we were on now were used by hibernating bears. They don’t always seem to dig down that deeply from what I could see, but burrow into collapsed tree trunk spaces etc.

View from L.Louise gondola

What a brilliant hour or so that was with this young woman, so knowledgeable about the environment and the animals she loved but also highly respected as predators. Wonderful experience all round.

I was looking forward to the driving down to our last night’s accommodation via the Bow Valley route – a renowned wildlife corridor- rather than the main highway. We were fired up with thoughts of wildlife again as we made for Johnston Canyon Chalets, the last night of our Canada trip.How had a week passed so quickly?

It was a nice drive indeed with some good views but not as spectacular as further north. The Bow River itself was mightily impressive though. Big empty country all around.We’d skied Sunshine Village last time and I’d been mesmerized by the views to Assiniboine (I love that name).  Another walk we had thought of was the one up at Sunshine, a loop which sounded great but we’d found out that there was a problem with the chairlift up to the high start and didn’t fancy, or have the time, to slog it out all the way up to the starting point first.

In fact some of the cross country walks up there to some remote lakes sounded wonderful, all in the shadow of Mt Assiniboine. Maybe one day though the issue of bears was still jangling in my head.

No wildlife to be seen, once again.

Johnston Canyon Chalets

The detached chalet we had was excellent. I liked the set up right away, tucked up into the woods this time, no view as such apart from trees but very quiet. I knew it would be old fashioned inside but in fact it was really attractive, quite charming in its way. We’ re always sold if somewhere has a good balcony and it had that. It was also really spacious inside. The sun felt a lot warmer here than up at Moraine Lake so we sat out on the open deck, popped open some bubbly and drank to our last night and the end of a wonderful week.

We’d picked up some very fast food from Lake Louise village – I recall a tin of chicken curry and a packet of rice, which as I write seems almost shameful. We must have been worried about the warmth in the car that day as the temperature had shot up a bit. But tinned curry?? Sounds a bit desperate.

We were destined not to have it anyway as we discovered around 7pm that although we now had the means to make a cosy fire, the cabin had no cooking facilities! How on earth had I missed that when I’d booked it? Our hearts sank. Chris by now had indeed built a lovely fire and it was belting out a lot of heat. Maybe we could cook the tin in that? Or would it explode with chicken curry pieces flying everywhere? And what about the rice? Lots of debate. We couldn’t put it directly on the flames or it would burn the contents to cinders and we’d never retrieve it again until it was a blackened stump. So Chris opened the lid with his trusty Swiss army knife amd propped it up as close to the flames as possible. Then we waited. Half an hour later and it was still barely warm. There were also no utensils or any sort of cutlery in the cabin. Nor was there the wherewithal for tea! Ye gods! This was getting worse.

I don’t know why we didn’t just make for the on-site diner right away (ok, it didn’t look brilliant but any port in a storm….) but they seemed to do carry-out food and we liked the idea of enjoying our new place a bit rather than eating in an unappealing looking cafe. We’d risk it.Out I went to buy a couple of burgers and whatever else looked edible.

The guy that served me was a scary-looking character, almost no teeth, young lad too who silently took our order and then headed into the kitchen. In fact, he cooked us two excellent beef burgers and some decent chips and salad.Very good.  I chatted to the waitress , who was friendly and pleasant but the place was empty.

We enjoyed that little cabin in the woods.It was very quiet at night, there didn’t seem to be many people staying and all the day visitors to the Canyon itself left by dusk.

I still had bear hopes but no sign.

Our last night in Canada before a drive to Calgary tomorrow and our flight to  San Francisco – what a wonderful week.Our memories were crammed with amazing images of a very spectacular place. Safe, friendly and welcoming too.Nice people.A great start to our 3 week exploration of a (relatively tiny) part of North America.

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