Though skiing has been the main focus of my visits to the Canadian Rockies since I first came for Christmas 2010 they have always been about more than that. Especially so since I invested in a pair of ice cleats and a pair of snowshoes.
I love being in the high mountains in hard winter. My experience of the Rockies is limited to Banff and Whistler. On the west of the Continental Divide the Whistler/Blackcombe ski area has more snow than Banff on the east side though the snow is wetter and more unpredictable. But more to the point, Whistler is a winter sport Disneyworld, an artificial creation, whereas Banff is an, admittedly touristified, ‘real’ town. The nub of why I prefer Banff is that there are winter trails and treks which, as far as I could find out in the two weeks I visited, are completely absent around Whistler.
So, when in Banff I intersperse skiing with trekking winter trails.
After four days skiing my legs were screaming at me. Come Saturday, when hordes of Calgarians could be reliably predicted to descend on Sunshine Village and Lake Louise, orgasmic at the thought of fresh snow which had fallen for the previous four days, I chose to take to the trails on foot rather than queue for ski lifts and then dodge the crazies and incompetents desperate to get to the base to queue again. A dangerous place to be.
On Friday evening I bought a pair of snowshoes to replace the ones lost along with everything else in the hotel fire in Banff 29 December 2016 and brashly bragged to those who asked me when I carried them back to the hotel that I was going to trek the Hoodoos Trail on Saturday.
Then an email from my daughter alerted me to the fact that a cougar had been seen in Banff the day before. Nevertheless, Saturday morning I togged-up ready for the trek. Maybe a trifle apprehensive, but more with a frisson of excitement at the prospect of encountering natural danger rather than being run over by a bus which would be a really boring end, I set out. By instinct, habit and former profession I looked for any evidence available so checked it out with staff in the Parks Canada Office on the way along Banff Avenue to the start of the trail which follows the Bow River at the foot of Tunnel Mountain. They seemed blasé.
Indeed, a cougar had been seen and tracked back into the wildlife corridor …… which I was now about to follow. I’m told there are four cougars living in the Banff area around Tunnel Mountain. It’s their habitat. The day before, I had watched a Siberian Husky attack a snowdrift at the side of the main street in Banff and, resisting the tugging on the lead held by its owner, emerge triumphant with an empty Starbucks take-away cup clamped on its snout. If a dog could detect that under a foot or more of snow I had no doubt that a cougar would smell me a mile off, though it may be confused by my shower gel and not recognise me as a life-form.
I’m told that the modus operandi of the cougar is to attack from behind. Weighing as much as a man they hit the back of neck teeth first and it’s all over before you know anything about it. Doesn’t hold out much prospect for a photo. As defence, I carry trekking poles on my rucksack, point up behind my neck.
Once out of the town I strained my ears to pick up any sound, stopping periodically to hush the crunch of snow under my feet, and sniffed the air like a dog constantly. On a previous trek along the ‘Bow Falls – Hoodoos Trail’ I had encountered coyotes but this time I heard and smelled nothing until, approaching the Hoodoos, I picked up raucous laughter behind me and spotted a group of three lads on the same trail. Until then I had been in complete sensory isolation. Except for the sound of my feet in the snow and heavy breathing when going uphill there was complete silence. Not even a whisper of wind in the trees. My guess is that the cougar smelled and spotted me and decided that there wasn’t enough meat on the bones to be worth the bother.
I suspect I was being over-concerned about the cougar. Few locals have seen one in many years of living around Banff. Cougar attacks have been few and far between, apparently only 27 attacks and seven fatalities in Canada in a century, the last a fatality in Banff National Park in 2001. But who wants to become a statistic!
However, it made me more aware of my surroundings which were very impressive.
A few days after I did this trek a cougar was seen and photographed in Banff at 03.00 ….. in the street at the side of the hotel I’m staying in. The RCMP officer who saw it trailed it down Elk Street, past my bedroom window (I was asleep, it was shut and in any case on the first floor) and onto Banff Avenue, the town’s main street. It then ambled past the entrance to our hotel and one of the guests who was outside having a smoke. (I have always said smoking is dangerous!) It went to the entrance of the hotel next door where it triggered the automatic door which opened. It didn’t go in. A spokesman for Banff National Park said “it didn’t bump into any attractants”. Never thought of myself as a potential attractant. View newspaper report