Banff and the Bow Valley: Wildlife on the doorstep, walking on the wild side ….. and getting it wrong!

I’m back home now (Thursday evening) but I’ll update the blog with the Canada trip.  The blog below failed to upload in Calgary airport where the WiFi connection cut me off.

First of all, apologies in advance if this is a longer than usual rambling blog.  But then that’s what I do.  Ramble on.  And on.

It was fascinating seeing the woodpecker on Sunday but it seems I identified it incorrectly.  Thanks to Mike for correctly identifying it as an American Three-Toed woodpecker.  One of the shots I took confirmed that it indeed had 3 toes all pointing forward.  Turns out it wasn’t the only thing I got wrong but that comes later.

However, major omission in the last blog which was uploaded in great haste very late at night (grovel, grovel!) The underlying intention behind the post was to make the point that wildlife abounds in Banff.  We’ve had lots of species of birds in our garden in Wales.  Lots of small birds plus herons, sparrow hawks, green and spotted woodpeckers, with ravens and buzzards flying overhead.  Very diverse bird life.  We’ve had snakes and lizards.  Mice and squirrels climbing the trees to get at the bird feeders.  Rats breaking into the shed to get at the hen food.  And the occasional mink (but we caught the little ***s because they were killing our chickens).  Even the odd sighting of a badger.

But it somehow doesn’t seem to compare with deer wandering around the car park outside the apartment or crossing the main street in front of the bus.  Or flocks of 10+ ravens which fly off when you open the curtains in the morning.  Or squirrels running around on the ground and up the trees. Or, indeed, furry looking woodpeckers only feet away.  And all at temperatures of -20oC and lower.    That’s the wildlife on the doorstep.

Monday and, because I was warned off skiing because of my knackered knee (I like the alliteration of silent ‘k’s), I went out to walk the Hoodoos Trail.  Amazing day!  Real wild life!!!!

It had been forecast to be sunny and cold and it was.  When I set out just after 10.00 it was between -25oC  and -30oC.  Before I got to the Bow River at the end of the main street there was ice on my beard.  The sky was brilliant blue, not a cloud in sight. Fresh snow on the ground.  Perfect conditions.

I walked up to the ‘Surprise Corner’ car park along the marked trail rising up the cliff above the mostly frozen river.  I find this section of river in particular fascinating and beautiful and with the bright sun directly on it was dazzling.  For the third time I took photos of it, suffering another attack of the Repetitive Photo Syndrome I get so often in Greece.

Looking upriver on the Bow

Freezing and unfreezing

Ice breaking up at the top of the falls

Gnarly tree, frozen river, Mount Rundle

In the Surprise View car park I strapped my new cleats onto my boots ready for the slippery path on the steep descent to Bow Falls and set off.  The cleats worked extremely well, very good grip on the compacted snow and not inconvenient as crampons would be on the rocks.  It was good to have the extra confidence, given that my knackered knee was playing up a bit.

Bit of a digression now. One thing which irritates me about wildlife ‘interpretation’ back home is the inclusion of things which you are most unlikely to see.  Information leaflets which tell you that on a particular footpath you might see badgers (which mostly only come out at night) or otters (which are very shy) or bats, or greater crested dimwit birds.  If you are visiting an area for a one-off walk the chances of seeing these creatures is minimal.  You would like to see them so you go quietly and try to keep your eyes open.  However, after not seeing anything for a while your attention wanders, your observation not very sharp. In any case, with the possible exception of wild boar in woodland in the South East of England, none of them is a threat so the mind is not focused.

It’s a bit different here.  The information boards and leaflets tell you about Grizzly and Black Bears, wolves, coyotes, cougars, lynx, elk, deer, big-horn sheep, any or all of which might do you damage.  In these temperatures bears are hibernating, hidden in their dens buried by snow.  Chances of coming across them pretty slim to nil.  Nevertheless the advice is to walk the trails announcing your presence by making noise so you don’t inadvertently startle the wild beasties which is apparently when they can be dangerous.  The theory is that they hear you coming and quietly slip out of the way into the forest.  That may be true of the vegetarians among them but what about the carnivores?  The cougars, lynx, wolves and coyotes?  Not a problem apparently.  The main diet of the lynx is the snowshoe hair and there is an abundance of other small mammals like squirrels, mink, ermine, muskrat etc available as well as deer and elk.  So no real threat to me.

Walking along the trail down by the river there was no need to think about making a noise. The snow, whether fresh or compacted, squeaks and crunches noisily at every step.  It’s amazing when you stop, complete, total silence.  Something you don’t get in the UK.  But walking is always to a loud distinctive, squeaking accompaniment.     No chance of sneaking up on any wildlife.  No possibility of startling anything with ears.

It was still very cold and because I kept taking my hands out of my gloves to take photos they were very cold.  It was too cold to use the SLR so I was only using the Canon S95, a compact but very flexible camera.  I kept it in my pocket but even so it was so cold that the battery kept losing power and I had to take out the spare I carried closer to the warmth of my body and change it.  About 20 minutes between changes.  Slow progress but it was all new and so it was fascinating.

There were old footprints along the trail but they looked like one person having walked through yesterday.  So I thought I was the only person in the valley until I heard a dog barking ahead.  There were no paw prints with the human prints so I assumed they were walking towards me. Just as I came around a bend in the trail with the frozen river straight ahead there was the chilling sound of howling and sitting in front of me about 200 yards away in the middle of the river was a wolf.  There were two of them, one howling with its head up to the sky, the other barking and skulking along the edge of the far bank.  I whipped out the Canon S95 and took a few long shots, I certainly didn’t want to get any closer.

The trail went up a small rocky outcrop which I was pleased to climb because it put vertical distance between me and possible trouble.  The wolves continued howling and barking at each other so I drew comfort from the thought that they were more interested in each other than in me.  Having read ‘Never Cry Wolf’ by Farley Mowatt (highly recommended reading) I was also comforted by the fact that wolves rarely seem to attack people.  Apparently lone wolves can be a problem when they get hungry but there were at least two of them.  Now if it had been a coyote I would have been more worried as, if I recall correctly, Mowatt warns about them.  And Pam, our guide on the Johnston Canyon walk had been chased by 3 of them.

Emboldened by this I got to the far side of the rocky outcrop, dropped back down to river level, and crept, or rather squeaked, through the trees and the deep snow to the edge of the river to take more photos.  Shame was my hands were too cold to unpack the SLR which would have given better quality resolution and zoomed in closer.  But hey, I got photos to prove I saw wolves.  The wolf continued to sit in the middle of the river and howl.  It took one long look at me hiding in my red jacket in the trees  …. and continued sitting and howling at the sky.

Sitting on the frozen river

Thankfully not interested in me

I can’t say I was worried by their presence but I continued along the trail with my senses more alert.  Even though I was happier that it was a wolf and not  a coyote it still sharpens the awareness, nostrils instinctively flared, ears pricked, eyes darting this way and that into the forest.

Problem was, it wasn’t a wolf.  When I got back to Banff I went into the Parks Canada Office to ask them to identify animal tracks I had photographed and casually mentioned that I had seen a wolf in the Bow Valley.  They took one look at the photos and instantly identified it as a coyote.  Gulp!  I wouldn’t have been so easy in my mind had I known that.

As it was, I continued along the trail in my ignorance, more alert than before and watching out more carefully for animal tracks.  On the trail itself I saw wolf prints, except that from the size they were later identified as coyote tracks, which got me slightly more on edge.  And lots of different tracks crossing the trail, some large prints from deer or elk, some small prints.  At one point there was a hole deep into the snow about 2-3cms across and tracks coming out of it.  The very helpful staff in the Parks Canada office identified it as probably made by an ermine.  Most of the prints could have been a made by any one of a number of animals, they look very similar in deep powder snow.  I could tell the difference between deer/elk size tracks and small mammal tracks but that was about it.   However, there were such a variety of tracks and so many of them that it was clear that there was lot of wildlife around and I just hoped none of it was too wild.

Coyote prints on the trail

Some of the many unidentified tracks

Ermine tracks emerging from hole in the snow

As the trail climbed higher the forest thinned and afforded great views of the surrounding peaks.  The trail eventually reached the road at the top of the ridge where the views were even better, including of Cascade Mountain and Mount Rundle.  Cloudless blue sky, rocky and dazzlingly white snow covered, fabulous.

The trail opens out

Deer/elk tracks lead through a clearing in the forest on the ridge, Cascade Mountain in the background

I followed the trail parallel with the road to the Hoodoos viewpoint, pillars of rock left by river and glacial action, now high above the current river level.

Hoodoos seen from the ridge against the background of the Bow Valley far below

Close up of the Hoodoos

There was a car park and boardwalk above the Hoodoos with a couple of benches to sit and admire the views down the Bow Valley.  I cleared the snow off and sat down to have my soup and sandwich.  Very cold but nice to sit in the sun.  Problem was that my breath had frozen on my beard and moustache and I had to pour the by now lukewarm soup through the icicles around my mouth.  It was great.

A proper walk.  Really wild wildlife and icicles on my beard.  Couldn’t get much better.

Icicles on the beard - it was very cold

This entry was posted in Canada, Reflections, Uncategorized, Winter. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Banff and the Bow Valley: Wildlife on the doorstep, walking on the wild side ….. and getting it wrong!

  1. Leoma says:

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    with your blog. It seems like some of the text on your content are running off
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    This could be a problem with my browser because I’ve had this happen previously.

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