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Canadian hiking

by Richard Mason | June 27, 2021 at 6:00 a.m.
Richard Mason

A few years back Vertis and I took a getaway week vacation, and went on a trip to the Northern Canadian Rockies. It was a break from the Dog Days of August, a week of cool, clear days where we hiked through evergreen forests to glacial lakes high among snow covered peaks. Sometimes we were above the tree line.

It was a vacation to remember. I ran across my notes, and decided that it was also a week worth sharing.

An early morning flight from Little Rock connected us in Denver with nonstop service to Calgary, Canada, and our rent-a-car put us in Banff National Park and our hotel, Chateau Lake Louise, by 3 p.m. Amazing! I still can’t believe you can go from the hills of Arkansas to the heart of the Canadian Rockies that quickly.

As we settled into days of sightseeing and hiking, the first absolutely unbelievable sight was looking across blue Lake Louise with a mountain glacier as a backdrop. Honestly, that was one of the top natural sights that we have ever encountered.

A first impression of the Canadian Rockies was one of wildlife in abundance, since ground squirrels ran in and out of restaurants and elk grazed on the lawns. The natural habitat also looked very promising with numerous streams and small lakes formed by natural rock slides.

However, everything was not as it seemed.

A short visit with a local resident was very informative. He pointed out that the mountains really never have summer, just a brief spring, and then by our Labor Day, fall rolls in, and suddenly it’s winter again. In many of the high mountain areas, snow is on the ground nine months a year. In the winter, squirrels, chipmunks, marmots and bears hibernate, and most of the birds head south. The streams freeze solid, as do most of the shallow lakes. He mentioned that many of these mountain areas have six straight weeks of below zero weather.

With this in mind, our hiking and observing wildlife took on a new meaning.

However, since it was late summer, our hiking in the high country and driving in various wilderness areas resulted in numerous wildlife sightings. Elk were on the road, in town, on the golf course and just about everywhere. In fact, according to a Canadian wildlife biologist, there are too many elk in the Banff and Jasper National Parks.

Here’s the problem: Elk love to browse on young aspen shoots, and with a small herd that is not a problem; but as the herd grows, the aspen become over-browsed and eventually die. Since this area is a national park, hunting is not allowed. Only predators can keep the elk in check, and the elk’s natural enemies are wolf packs and grizzly bears. But the bear’s diet is 80% vegetarian, so only the four or five wolf packs in the park hold down the huge elk population.

A wolf pack kills an elk an average of one every four days. This natural attrition puts the wolf kill well below the number needed to keep the herd in balance. In fact, the elk have figured out the best way to keep from being eaten by a wolf pack is to hang around the golf courses or graze along the roads. The wolf packs stay away from any contact with humans.

Well, so much for the elk.

On our first hike in the area around Lake Louise, we saw a black bear with cubs, numerous mountain goats and some mountain sheep. The sheep were so tame that when we slowed down as we drove back to the hotel, they stuck their heads in the open car window looking for food. There were signs everywhere to not approach the animals and not feed them, but most of the tourists we observed ignored these signs.

We stopped for a small herd of mountain goats which were on the highway begging for a handout. They had been fed by tourists so much that they stayed right in the road until you stopped. We didn’t see any grizzlies on our hikes, possibly because Vertis wore a little bell on her shoe, which announced our movements. According to the locals, you don’t want to surprise a grizzly. The week we were there, a few miles west of us, two timber company employees walked upon a large grizzly and her cub. One suffered a sweeping paw wound that literally scalped him. They barely survived.

I asked one of the workers in the hotel if bells on shoes helped, and he said Park Officials had found bells in the bear dropping. I think he was kidding, but I’m not sure.

After a few days, we moved to Jasper National Park, a three-hour drive north, where we went on our longest hike. We started in a glacial valley at the foot of Angel Glacier, and worked our way through thick evergreen forests up to the high mountain meadows, and then higher, crossing the tree line to a rocky ridge where we were pelted by an August snowfall.

Wow! It was a shock! We had been sweating in Arkansas’ heat a week back, and now we were standing on a rocky ledge in a little snow flurry. We were grinning from ear to ear.

On this hike, wildlife sightings were very sparse, since we were in the high country — mostly marmots, ground squirrels and a few ravens. We did pass one area the bears had worked over looking for ground squirrels. Dirt and large rocks were scattered everywhere.

During this hike and on several other occasions, I checked the streams and small lakes for fish. In the shallow streams and lakes, you can see every pebble on the lake or stream bed. The water is unbelievably clear. Much to my surprise, I never saw one fish or any other aquatic life for that matter. There are some great fishing lakes in the lower Canadian Rockies, but many of the streams and lakes in the high country are seasonal with flowing water only during the warmest part of the year. Around Thanksgiving, they freeze solid and don’t thaw until sometime after the first of May. Clear water that you can drink, but with almost no marine life.

That’s an overview of a great week in the Canadian High Country. The beauty was spectacular. The weather was cool and crisp, almost like a late November day in the Ozarks. We sat by a fire one night and awoke to a heavy frost the next morning.

I enjoyed the hiking and seeing the big name wildlife. However, I’ll bet, acre for acre, the average land and water in Arkansas has 10 times the amount of wildlife you will find in the beautiful Canadian National Parks. Arkansas’ warm weather and plenty of rain produces an unbelievable variety of plants and animals. We may not have elk in our back yards, (unless you live along the Buffalo River) but we’ve got plenty of wildlife.

That vacation week gave us an appreciation of the Natural State and our abundant wildlife; and while we’re at it, let’s be sure we don’t lose it.

Richard Mason is a registered professional geologist, downtown developer, former chairman of the Department of Environmental Quality Board of Commissioners, past president of the Arkansas Wildlife Federation, and syndicated columnist. Email [email protected]

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