Sunday, December 06, 2009

Take a walk on the wild side in Jasper, Alberta

Published Saturday November 28th, 2009

National park lures visitors eager for close-up of wildlife

By Stephen A. Nelson

JASPER, Alta. - "Nothing is coming easy today!"

Our wildlife safari guide lets out a loud lament as we head out into the cold.

Only the day before, the temperature was a comfortable -3.5 C. It has now plummeted, and there is a punishing wind chill.

The often warm westerly wind that wafts over the mountains has turned into an Arctic blast that freezes the skin in less than a minute.

Officially, it may still be fall. But the weather in Jasper is very changeable. Today, it's winter and fit for neither man nor beast.

Yet, lured by the promise of exotic wildlife sightings, two Australians and a Canadian get out of the warm van to trek across a broad savanna that today looks more like tundra. We're trying to get a close-up look at some elk.

Mad dogs and Canadians go out in the cold.

People who come to Jasper want to see bears. They expect to see bears.

But Joe Urie, our guide from SunDog Tours, tells us that we likely won't see any bears today, since most of them are now hibernating.

But, on a good day, we might see predators such as wolves, coyotes and -- if we are very lucky -- lynx and cougars. Maybe even an eagle.

And, on a good day, we might see prey such as moose, deer and -- if we are very lucky -- the endangered woodland caribou.

Many Canadians might take such beasts for granted and see them as almost commonplace.

But for the visitors, these are the beasts of myth and legend.

On almost every day, we'd stand a good chance of finding elk right in town. The elk like to wander into Jasper for a late breakfast or perhaps a picnic supper on the lawn.

But today they are being shy and elusive. And staying out of the wind.

So we're off in pursuit of a bachelor herd of bull elk that likes to hang out just outside of town.

During the fall rutting season, these svelte cousins of the European red deer would likely be going head-to-head to see who could win the biggest and best harem of cow elk.

At these times, best friends become deadly rivals. The air is filled with the sound of their bugle calls and clashing antlers.

No one else is allowed near -- whether you have four legs or two. Typical male behaviour. It's a great show for would-be wildlife photographers with long zoom lenses.

But once the mating game is over, the older guys often go off by themselves. Other guys, young and old, are best buddies again and huddle together to survive the hard times. Meanwhile, the girls -- now that the love is gone -- are often grouped together in maternity herds, caring for their babies and each other -- and staying well away from the guys.

We've passed a small herd of cows, but what visitors really want to see are the bulls with their prize antlers. Urie has spotted the herd on the far side of the plain, at least half a kilometre from the roadside venue where they played just the day before.

The Canadian hesitates before getting out of the van and onto the tundra. But the Australians have come from the far side of the world to explore this Canadian Outback.

They are as excited as Canadians would be about seeing kangaroos in the wilds of Oz.

Urie keeps his guests warm with adventure tales and trivia, explaining that "elk" is really a misnomer for this second-largest member of the deer family. What we call "elk" should really be called wapiti, the Shawnee Native word for the "white-rump" that distinguishes this animal from the moose.

Urie says that the English name "elk" comes from elch -- the German word for what we call a moose. The Canadian reasons that -- somewhere along the line -- a German explorer saw the wapiti, mistook it for a moose, and called it an elk.

The name has stuck ever since. Kind of like calling North American natives "Indians."

But whatever you call them, these beasts are just not co-operating. As we move toward them, the herd moves away. No prize-winning photos of prize bull elk today.

The consolation prize is a nice-sized elk antler that we discover fallen by the wayside. It might be leftovers from a wolf kill, like that gnawed shoulder blade we just found -- picked clean by hungry predators.

More likely, it's an antler that a bull elk shed before growing in his new ones in the spring. But to the visitors, finding this artifact is like finding ivory tusks in Africa or dragon bones in China. It's proof that the mythical beast of our quest really does exist. And maybe next time we'll actually see him.

Encouraged by this omen, we're off in search of another mythical prize -- the Golden Fleece of wildlife safaris in Canada: the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.

Like the elk, the bighorn sheep are regarded as almost commonplace among people who live in the Rockies year-round. But the bighorns are highly prized by hunters.

In the 1940s and 1950s, big-name Hollywood stars like Bing Crosby and Robert Mitchum would pay princely sums to hunt bighorns in the wilderness areas just outside the National Park.

Inside the park, if you want to shoot a ram, you have to do it with a camera. In summer and fall, the bighorns can often be found alongside the highway or even wandering out onto the highway. Drivers must be wary of grazing groups of sheep lounging at the salt licks.

But on a blustery day like today, even silly sheep take shelter. Fortunately, Urie is an experienced guide, whose enthusiasm seems to be matched only by his knowledge of local lore. He knows where the sheep like to shelter.

The van pulls up beside a large, grassy dune known to locals as Edna's Knoll. There is no sign of wildlife, but Urie thinks the bighorns are just over the hill. The Canadian is skeptical and still trying to thaw his toes after the last ill-fated pursuit of elusive elk. He decides to stay in the van and defrost.

But the Australians are game and are out of the van in a shot. They disappear over the hill and into a windblown silence. When they don't return in 10 minutes, the Canadian reasons that they have either found a herd of bighorns, or been found by hungry wolves. And Urie has assured us that there are no recorded cases of wolves ever hunting humans.

So the Canadian braves his way into the boreal forest and gamely tracks down his colleagues.

With the wind at his back, he traverses the steep slope. As he reaches the other side, he sees his reward.In the valley below, the ewes are grazing peacefully on winter forage. But up on the steep slopes, the majestic rams are proudly displaying their horns and posing for the cameras. Two of the bigger rams are reclining in the rock face.

Perfectly camouflaged, when they sit still, they look like big rocks.

Spotting the newcomer, one of the bigger rams climbs down the rock face to get a closer look at the humans. At less than 10 metres away, the hunters have the prize ram in their sights. Bing Crosby was never this lucky. The Australians are thrilled and bag the prize rams with their digital SLRs. This time, they are taking home the prize.

Jason and all his Argonauts couldn't have been happier.

If this was all we saw today, the visitors would be content. Still, after half an hour of watching sheep safely graze, we are heading along the Maligne Road toward the Medicine Lake area to see if we can track down a moose Urie saw the day before.

Just as we are turning onto the Maligne Road -- a favourite grazing ground for elk -- a small pack of four coyotes crosses the road right in front of us.

Other tour guides in Jasper say that Urie is lucky, as well as good. But this time, even Urie can't believe his luck. The Australians are thrilled, leaning forward in their seats to watch the coyotes cross right in front of our van.

But it gets better. Instead of simply scampering off into the bush, the tawny tricksters decide to put on a show for us.

As the Australians lean out the windows with their cameras clicking, the four-pack frolics alongside the road in a game of coyote tag.

We are not alone. The coyotes have attracted an audience, and would-be wildlife photographers appear out the woodwork. The coyotes play to the audience for about 20 minutes before finally disappearing behind the wooden curtain.

The visitors are ready to give the troupe a standing ovation.

Our quest for moose didn't pan out. Urie pointed out some tracks near Medicine Lake that he says were moose tracks. But for all we know they might not be moose at all. They could just as easily be Bigfoot.

Time to head back to the hotel for a warm shower and a hot meal.

As we take the Maligne Road back into town, Urie waxes eloquent about being in Jasper and being a wildlife guide. He thinks it's the best job in the world. But with the Australians in tow, he muses about being the TV replacement for the dearly departed Crocodile Hunter, Steve Irwin. He says that's a wildlife job he could really sink his teeth into.

Suddenly Urie pulls over and stops the van. He has spotted a mule deer doe hiding in the thicket beside the road. Her grey colouring is a near-perfect camouflage and only a keen observer would ever have spotted her.

We get out of the van to get a better look. Then -- holy smoke! -- we notice a fawn a few metres away from its mother. The fawn trots over to its mom. The doe lets us take photos, as long as we don't get too close. And as long as her fawn stays by her side. As long as the coyotes don't come along.

It's an almost iconic scene of Mother and Child. After making us work so hard all morning, Nature has presented us with a free gift. On this day, we feel lucky. On this day, we feel good.


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