Friday, July 03, 2009

Kananaskis Grizzlies

I went to bed debating as to whether or not I was going fishing in the morning, or driving the Highwood Pass Loop through Kananaskis Country. I awoke on Canada Day and decided that I would head for Kananaskis Country in search of Grizzly Bears, and the fishing would hold till the week-end. The Highwood Pass Loop can be driven either from Calgary west to Highway 40, then south on Highway 40 to the Kananaskis Lakes, and from there south over the Highwood Pass, before continuing down to Highwood House.

Once at Highwood House, you take Highway 542 east to Longview and then north to Black Diamond, and then back to Calgary. The drive can be made in reverse to what I have just described, and in actuality, you should plan on taking the tour in both directions at one time or another, as they both offer views that you can only experience by making the drive both ways. I have made the drive more times than I can count in the last 30 years, and never tire of driving what is probably one of the finest and most diversified tours in Canada.
I always enjoy asking people, where the highest driveable Highway pass in Canada is, and most people will guess that it is in British Columbia. Sorry, that would be the Highwood Pass at a lofty 7239 feet above sea level in Kananaskis Country. The drive west from Longview to Highwood House on the 542 is breathtaking. I never tire of this drive that takes you past historic ranches like 'The Buffalo Head' once owned by R.M. Patterson (see - The Boundary Pine), or 'The Stampede Ranch' once owned by Guy Weadick, who was one of the founders of the Calgary Stampede. The Highwood River flows out of the Rockies just past Highwood House, as it runs parallel to the 542 all the way to Longview, before continuing east to High River and then joins 'The Bow River' further east.
 One of my favorite streams that I love to fish is Flat Creek, located just to the west of 'The Buffalo Head' ranch. I find that I spend as much time shooting photos as fly-fishing, with vistas that abound and include breathtaking views of Holy Cross Mountain and Mt. Head. July 1st found me on my way west at 5:00am, as it was important to be in Kananaskis Country around daylight, as this would be the best time to find bears feeding along Highway 40, up near the Highwood Pass. With the late spring that we have experienced, I knew that the bears would not yet be in the high country, that they normally would be found in at this time of the year. This is because the vegetation higher up, is still to sparse to sustain a hungry bear.

I turned south on to the Kananaskis Highway at a little past 6:00am. I was pleased that I was one of the few vehicles on the highway, as this would allow the bears to feed without being scarred off by vehicles rushing by at speed. I did make several stops as I neared the lakes, that included one for a bull moose that decided to cross the highway just in front of me. I had my camera ready in case I saw any bears, and shot a couple of photos of him. After I had passed the turn off to the lakes, I knew that I was in prime Grizzly Bear country and slowed down to a sedate 70kph so that I did not miss anything. Its amazing how you can train yourself to be alert to movement that is happening around you. It has paid off with photos captured that I would have missed some years back, before I became in tune with what was going on around me. I was within several kilometers of the 'Little Highwood Pass' and the trailhead to Elbow Lake, when I pulled over to capture a image of the sun rising over a peak just off to the east. That was a mistake I told myself, as a pickup passed me. I was afraid that this truck would scare off any bears feeding near the highway up ahead.

As I rounded the final turn, allowing me a clear view of the road up to the trailhead for Elbow Lake, I noticed that the truck that had passed me, was now pulled over on the shoulder of the road. "Darn", I muttered, as I suspected that they had spotted something and were pulled over to have a closer look. I pulled up behind them and scanned the bushes on both sides of the road. At that moment, the truck backed in beside me and the passenger opened her window. She asked if I was tracking something with all the antennas on my truck. "No" I said, "but I am looking to photograph Grizzly Bears". "One just went in to the trees over there" she said. At that point, they drove off. I decided that there was a chance that this bear would come back out if I gave him some space. I pulled my truck down the road a hundred meters and shut it off. I sat scanning the roadsides in my rear view mirrors. All of a sudden, a good sized Grizzly came out of the trees and crossed over the roadway behind me and began feeding in a small meadow. I had my long lens mounted and with the truck facing in the opposite direction of the bear, I decided to exit the truck and shoot photos from the rear of the truck. I was within 30 meters of the bear, who was paying me no never mind, although I knew that he was aware of me. I did not have a very good vantage point, as shrubs between me and the bear were keeping me from getting the photos that I wanted. I placed my camera up on the roof of my truck canopy, and then crawled up on the canopy roof.I now commanded a good view of the bear, and was able to get a number of decent photos. I had been shooting photos and at times just observing this beautiful bear, when the sound of approaching vehicles put the grizzly on high alert. As two vehicles rounded the last turn, the grizzly disappeared into the trees and was gone.

 Canada Day in Kananaskis Country proved to be a wonderful day, with photos of another Grizzly captured a few kilometers further up the road near the Rock Glacier Trailhead. Once I arrived at the summit of the Highwood Pass, I was tempted to hike the Ptarmigan Cirque Trail that has White-tailed Ptarmigan in residence. Pressed for time, I decided to save this for another time, as I had more stops to make before arriving back in Calgary for a planned Canada Day event. Oh-Well, I would just have to return.

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