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alberta trip report part 3: the theme was bears

2006-06-17 - 10:13 p.m.

© 2006 by Elaine Radford
icefields parkway

This is Part 3 of my Alberta Trip Report. Click here for Part 1 or here for Part 2.

© 2006 by Elaine Radford
maligne canyon

Sunday, June 11

Today we decided to conquer Maligne Canyon, the smart way, by starting at the bottom and going up. There are 6 bridges along the way, and apparently most tours believe that it's more logical to start at the top (bridge number 1) and then have people ascend into the canyon toward bridge number 6 at the bottom. Of course, what really happens is that people get nervous about having to turn around and climb back out of the canyon before their bus leaves -- or else they just can't be sure that they will have the energy to climb out just because they were able to climb down. So they hang around Bridge 1 or Bridge 2 or even inside the teahouse. In that way, they really miss the true canyon experience.

© 2006 by Elaine Radford
maligne canyon

Having our own rental car, what DH and I did instead was to park at the bottom and hike up. In that way, when we were tired, we'd be making our descent, and it would be much easier. The plan worked perfectly, and I was impressed at how tired I wasn't after we did the entire hike and bagged all of the bridges and overlooks.

As an alternative hike, you could start from Bridge 5 and go up to 1, skipping the bottom section between the 6 and 5 bridges. This plan is worth considering mainly because horses are allowed to use that section, so by skipping the 6/5 leg, you do skip the part where you have to be on the lookout for what horses do best.

It was raining when we started the hike. We simply ignored it. The mud was pretty bad in spots, but the trees kept the rain from hitting us too hard, and eventually the weather got bored of screwing with us. At one point near Bridge 3, I spotted a thick clump of snow or ice actually hanging onto the side wall of the canyon below us. Brrrrr! It was definitely a little nippy for my concept of June. But we certainly passed some spectacular scenery.

It might have been near Bridge 5 where, for the first time, we actually stopped and studied one of the singing Yellow-Rumped Warblers, instead of just saying, yeah, Yellow-Rump, next? It turned out to be a Myrtle plain as day, and not an Audubon, as I'd assumed merely because we were in the wild west. In fact, after that, I started checking, and all the Yellow-Rumps I saw were Myrtles. So you learn something new every day.

After our hike, we did another wildlife/scenic drive around Medicine and then Maligne Lakes. A short ways past Medicine Lake, we came to the biggest traffic mess yet, with multiple RVs, tour buses, and private vehicles parked any old where in the road and along the road. We didn't object when we realized that the purpose of the impromptu parking lot was to watch the big old mama Black Bear and her three -- count 'em, three! -- cute little cubs. I didn't even know that they could have three cubs, although now that I'm back on the internet, I can see that it's rather common. Well, it wasn't common to us, and we watched in amusement as the baby bears pestered mama and one little bear even reared back on his hind legs to show how big he wasn't. After awhile, she must have given them some sort of signal, because they all went climbing up the same tree.

Two of the little cubs were as agile as monkeys and quickly went all the way to the top, where the branches were so skinny you wondered how they could hold them. The third cub went halfway up and seemed to become confused. He tried to go out on a horizontal branch, but after awhile he noticed that he wasn't getting any nearer his siblings. Then he went back and tried another horizontal branch. Nope. Then he just sat and clutched the trunk of the tree for awhile. I guess there's one in every family.

The mother bear was huge and made no attempt to climb this tree, which I doubt could have held her in any case. She continued to eat the wildflowers along the road until she got bored with the tourists, at which time she vanished into the undergrowth. All in all, a very special sighting.

© 2006 by Elaine Radford
okay, the baby pix are technically the worst photographs of the trip, but i'm subjecting you to them so that you can see the photo evidence of the happy family, complete with mama bear and three tiny cubs, mostly the little guys were pretty good at keeping their heads down in the grass or tree branches though, great binocular objects, terrible photo subjects

Near Maligne Lake, we took the Moose Lake stroll where moose are "sometimes" seen. Well, "sometimes" wasn't today, although we got pretty close to some young mule deer near the entrance. The understory of this woodland was a beautiful carpet of green, gold, red-tipped, and even white mosses. I tried to get a photo but couldn't really capture the interplay of the colors.

At some point as we were driving out of the Maligne Lake area, we noticed a tattered, molting, raggedy-ass, truly pathetic large raptor overhead. It turned out to be an immature Bald Eagle. Oh well, I guess it's better to be beautiful when you're old rather than when you're young. It's pretty stupid the way we humans do it when you stop and think about it. We laughed, but the Eagle has so much more to look forward to!

As a final cap to the day, we tried to find Punchbowl Falls by car, and we actually did find it -- but it was well obscured by trees and not really an object for photography any more, although we could see that it was quite a dramatic waterfall. Next we located the Miette Hot Springs and followed the whiff of sulphur to the original springs.

Tonight the two burner special was more rum toddies and some lamb chops in butter and whiskey sauce. Hmmm. When you don't have your normal herbs and spices, you have to rely a little more on the little dashes of whatever booze you happen to have around. I also had some of the remaining green onion, which helped quite a bit. It wasn't bad but I'm thinking I prefer the white wine/butter sauce I did for the chicken to the whiskey/butter sauce for the lamb. But you could make a good argument for both of them.

More hot tub and then time for bed.

© 2006 by Elaine Radford
it probably shouldn't be this hard but i simply can't identify this comma species

June 12, Monday

We planned to hike Mount Edith Cavell and see Angel Glacier today, but the road was closed. Instead, we again attempted the Valley of the Five Lakes. We had a lot more time and energy, and since we hadn't ascended to the top of The Whistlers first, we were surprised at how much easier the trail had become. A special moment came when we watched a young male Bufflehead dive, repeatedly, into the clear lake water. You could follow him all the way to the bottom and back up again. These glacial lakes may frost the toes, but they do provide for good viewing. Around another corner, we spied a pair of "Oregon" Dark-Eyed Juncos just emerging from a bath and fluffing out their feathers. I don't know if I ever saw just one Cedar Waxwing before, but we did here, right near the path, a resplendent male who showed himself from every angle in case we were hoping against hope that he might be a Bohemian. Perhaps the most impressive specimen, though, was the male Red-Naped Sapsucker who seemed to flash in the sunlight as he bounced off the trunk of almost every nearby tree as he tried to figure out what the heck we were doing in his forest.

Did you know that they have Canadian Tigers? I'd seen a few, but here I had a close encounter, and here's a photograph to prove it:

© 2006 by Elaine Radford
canadian tiger swallowtail at valley of the five lakes

It was time to try some foofy little restaurant in Jasper. I had the lasagne special, which was OK and I ate it all, but I wouldn't order it again -- garlic not properly sweet, tomato sauce not quite there at all. Meat is Alberta's thing, no getting around it. They also had an interesting little blueberry wine from Newfoundland. I secretly thought it would be horrid and too-too sweet, but since it was the featured wine of the day, I gave it a spin, and it was actually quite good. For dessert, I had their "Canadian Cow," milk and maple liqueur on the rocks. Now that's decadence.

© 2006 by Elaine Radford
lake beauvert

We then took a spin around Lake Beauvert, to see how the other half lives. I'm not convinced that they're getting their money's worth, really. Our cabins are better -- detached instead of in fourplexes or whatever -- and we don't have all that golf course in the way of the hiking. We were actually going to stay there in September, but when I tried to re-schedule, the cabins were over $500 a night. No way, Bucky. If a casino host is not paying the bill for me, I just don't play that way. We saw why, though. They were having a big golf tournament, which would have bored us out of our gourds anyway. So it all turned out for the best.

We were also greatly amused to see the hordes of Canada Goose that are quietly occupying the grounds. The rich are different from you and me -- they are infested by more geese.

The lake was absolutely gorgeous, like all the lakes in the area.

On the drive back, we saw the cutest thing. There are always elk and bighorn along the road, but everyone was stopping for these bighorns, and then we saw the teeny tiny newborn bighorn teetering alongside her mother. The new mom cast a hairy eyeball at the crowd and then put her own body between her baby and the street. It was so adorable even though it interfered with my hope of photographing baby.

Before it was too late, I strolled along the old mine trail in hopes of finding just one tiny fossil but there wasn't so much as a scrap of coal. Since it closed in the 1920s, I'm sure that every tiny worthless piece of coal was gathered for fuel during the Great Depression. Heck, there was hardly even any dust in the old vault.

I also found an area where there was lots and lots of balled-up sheep fur on the ground. Yes, the dandelions were flying. Yes, the cottonwood puffs too. But this was fur, ya'll, and lots of it. I wonder if a mother bighorn had a nest there for when she gave birth?

This dinner might have been the best yet for the old two burner stove top. It was peppercorn steak in butter sauce, and it just melted in the mouth. Of course I didn't let the evening end without another dip in the hot tub.

Tuesday, June 13

Well, it was time to run the film in reverse. We did Icefields Parkway again -- this time with the sun shining on the glaciers instead of the gloomy gray rain. I got a ton of pictures, so many that I hardly know where to begin to sort them all out. More elk -- including two swimming male elk, one each in Banff and Jasper National Park -- more sheep, more nutcrackers. At the Bow Summit, we watched a young man get badgered out of his picnic lunch by a persistent Clark's Nutcracker. The bird ate some of the bread or lunch meat, but he went to a different tree every time to store most of it. Was he a young bird who doesn't know yet what happens to bread when it's stored in the rain? Other people wanted to feed the bird, and at one point, the young man even pointed to the young women he was flirting with and suggested the bird take their food, but it was no good. That bird was not going to give up on the mark until he'd been stripped of every crumb of bread. I say he was a Black Bear in his past life.

Speaking of Black Bear, as we passed the Muleshoe picnic area, I thought I saw a bear or at least a bear's head. But we couldn't turn around quickly, since just ahead people were stopped to watch a swimming elk. "Is it a moose?" a tourist asked hopefully. (People just assume you know everything if you wear the Swarovskis.)

"No, it's an elk," I replied. "Check for the white butt."

Damn, they drove off in a hurry. Was it something I said?

After the elk had emerged from the cold water, the traffic snarl broke up and we turned back. We entered the Muleshoe parking lot, only to spot the biggest, fattest, most obese Common Raven I ever do hope to see. But no bear. What the hey? Could I have confused even the biggest raven with an entire bear? Puzzled and perplexed at what tricks the human eye and mind can play, I told DH to move on.

Then, as we were pulling out of the parking lot, I saw it across the street. It was bear, all right, and not a small one either. Whew. At least I know I'm not going blind and crazy just yet.

It was a very restless spirit of a bear, again criss-crossing the street while we watched and allowing me to get a fairly nice photo.

Our last night was at a funny, clueless motel with almost no parking and the world's smallest ice bucket. The room was actually quite big for a motel but I have to say, there is no doubt that the Clark's Nutcracker's IQ was higher than our poor hapless clerk's. I don't think she managed to answer even one question correctly. Just the trouble she had with printing the receipt, I'm still a little surprised the bill came through OK. But we found our way around all right. We strolled through the town and eventually dined in a popular Italian restaurant with big window views of the mountains all around. My chicken cordon bleu was excellent, although the pasta was so-so and couldn't compete with mine on its worst day. I also tried their Tartini, which was sort of an apple martini with added orange juice. Maybe too much orange juice, which competed with the crisp apple taste, but I practically floated back to the motel and certainly couldn't pretend I was sorry I'd ordered it.

June 14, Wednesday

It was rainy driving back to catch our plane -- too rainy for any raptors, I'm afraid. The rental car guys weren't mad at all that we had a slight chip in the windshield. They said the insurance covered it and that, anyway, it happens all the time around here because of the gravel put on the roads in winter. So, if you're driving the Icefields Parkway, it couldn't hurt to get the rental car company's insurance, folks, unless you are SURE you're covered by your own insurance. I'm afraid I rented cars for years and never knew that our liability coverage didn't cover rental cars until the lady rear-ended me on July 20, 2003, the day of the flood.

I felt we were going in circles to figure out how to get our taxes back for our hotel bill, but it was actually very easy once we understood the process. You can get a check sent to you by the Canadian government, which I wouldn't be able to cash for a reasonable price in Louisiana because it would be in Canadian dollars, or you can pay a private firm a percentage and get Canadian cash from them on the spot which you can then easily exchange for U.S. dollars at one of the money changer's booths. The private booth lady had just been yelled at by her previous customer, and she seemed worried that I would feel she was cheating us, but I assured her that I was happy to pay the small fee -- and small it was compared to the $40 or so I'd pay down here. Now if you're a European or Mexican from some advanced country where banks easily change different currencies without any fuss and muss, by all means feel free to DIY.

© 2006 by Elaine Radford
flowers at bow summit

I had heard many blood-chilling tales about the ogres involved in customs at Calgary. Not the Canadians, but about the U.S. security people. They've been called everything on the internet except human beings. However, they didn't seem like quite the dragons they'd been painted. They just seemed a little harried and overworked. I wasn't horribly surprised that DH, having a common name, again had to go through secondary, but I have to admit that I was disappointed because he didn't have to undergo the process returning from Costa Rica. It sounds like from what they told him that they pretty much have to start over with verifying flagged passports every year. So maybe if he flies again internationally this year, it will be OK. But if he flies again next year, we will just have to be sure to leave enough time.

Who knew back in the 1960s that it was the parents who named their kids Moon Unit and Dweezil who were the smart ones? They'll never get told by a regretful security officer that, "Sir, as you know, you have a very common name, so...."

© 2006 by Elaine Radford
the kind of sign that makes you think, yeah right, except in our case we actually lucked out and saw a wolf in this area -- most of the signs along the route warn of bighorns and elk, the usual road hazards of the parkway

But they weren't mean at all. In fact, I watched as they rushed around trying to get another man cleared in time to make his plane. They weren't able to, but it wasn't for lack of frantic effort.

It did seem unusual that we cleared U.S. Customs in Calgary, on Canadian soil, but what the hey. It meant we didn't have to grab our bag and go through Customs/Immigration in Houston, which is never the highlight of anyone's day.

© 2006 by Elaine Radford
mama bighorn teaching a young one to play in traffic, these characters crossed the street a couple of times while we watched, i honestly think they were getting a kick out of making the big trucks stop

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