Sunday, June 16, 2013

Where Grizzlies Roam

For the past week I had been debating as to whether or not, I should go up to Red Deer for the Central Alberta Amateur Radio Club (CAARC) picnic and hamfest, or head out to Kananaskis Country where the winter gate on highway 40 at Kananaskis Lakes would be opened for the season on June 15, allowing for travel from highway 1 south to Highwood House, and then out to Highway 22 at Longview.
In the end I decided to forgo the hamfest and drive highway 40 over the Highwood Pass, as I have been itching to make this drive, one of my favorite drives in southern Alberta.
There was also a good possibility of seeing wildlife, and I would be bringing my long lens along just in case of that possibility.

Wanting to be in Kananaskis Country before sunrise, I was out of bed at 3:30am, and backing off my driveway by 4am. I had loaded my camera gear into my truck the previous night, and that had saved me considerable time, besides the fact that there was less chance of leaving something behind. If I loaded my camera gear into my truck in the early morning hours, still bleary eyed from the early getting out of bed time.  I also had made myself a small snack to take along, as I knew that I would be looking for something to snack on at around 9am, and there was no chance of that happening till much later in the morning. I also had brought a thermos of heavily fortified Chai tea, being Starbuck outlets are in short supply in Kananaskis Country.

The drive across the city proved uneventful with few vehicles on the streets, and once I left the city behind, highway 1 also proved to be lightly travelled.  I made good time on my drive west, and time passed quickly as I listened to my favorite satellite radio station channel 112 on Sirius XM radio while sipping on chai tea.

Once I reached highway 40, I pulled over and got my camera gear ready for action, as there would be no time for that, if I came up on any wildlife feeding along the highway. In the past several weeks, I had it on good authority that a female grizzly with her 3 cubs had been feeding in the vicinity of the ranger station just off of highway 40, and I felt there was a good possibility that they could still be in the area. At this time of the year, when the grizzlies are out and about, they can be found in the valley bottoms, as the high-country is still loaded with snow, and not much is growing. They also can be spotted feeding along highway 40, as the roadside ditches and meadows are like a smorgasbord for wildlife, and grizzlies in particular, what with the roots of  sedge, horsetail, and cow parsnip that put in a early appearance.

With the time coming up on 5:15am, and sunrise due in a few moments, all thoughts of sunrise were forgotten as movement out my drivers side window caught my attention. I realized that I had found those elusive grizzlies, as I could make out the mama grizzly and her 3 cubs moving through brush about 50 meters away, and they were moving parallel to the highway in the direction that I was travelling. I quickly rolled down my window and placed my heavy bean bag over the open window sill. With my camera and long lens in place, I pulled to a stop somewhat ahead of where I had first spotted the grizzlies. As they moved through the brush parallel to my position, I could hear them in the still of the early morning, and I was getting glimpses of them, but nothing to write home about, and certainly nothing photograph worthy.

Up ahead I could see a clearing where with any luck, and as long as they kept moving in the direction they were travelling, they would come out into the open upon reaching this clearing. I drove down the road until I was across from the clearing and strategically parked my truck on the shoulder, so that I could observe the clearing in the direction that I had last seen the grizzles moving. After about 5 minutes, I was getting concerned that I had called it wrong, when a slight movement caught my eye. Looking through my binoculars, I could just make out the mother grizzly coming into view, and shortly thereafter the cubs came in to view as well. They slowed up at that point, and while the cubs rough-housed amongst themselves, the moma grizzly began feeding nearby.

After some time, it became apparent that they were not going to move any closer to me, and I was fortunate that I had enough reach with my long-lens to give me reasonably good captures, although closer would have been nice. Still I was happy, as where can you drive 1 hour from a major city, and see grizzlies in the wild. As many times as I have seen bears in the wild, I get as excited each time, as the time before. Soon, I had a vehicle come up on my location where I was parked, and at 5:30am, when you see a vehicle pulled over with a long-lens hanging out of the window, you know there is wildlife about. Soon there were several more cars stopped, and the bears decided they had enough of all the annoyance and crossed over the highway about 100 meters back down the road, where they disappeared in brush bordering the Kananaskis River.

I continued driving south on highway 40, and upon reaching the junction to the lakes, it was nice to see the winter-gates hanging open as I began the climb to the Highwood pass. Just short of the pass, I spotted a young male grizzly feeding on the west side of highway 40. He looked up at me as I slowed for a look-see, but I continued on, as he was a nice looking young grizzly, but I was still riding a high from having observed and photographed the mama grizzly with her 3 cubs. so this young male grizzly would wait for another day.
I next stopped at the Rock Glacier trailhead, where one can find what may be the coolest little animal in Kananaskis Country. That is the Pika. They are small and have a round body, rounded ears, short legs and a short tail. Pikas resemble guinea pigs, but Pikas are, in fact, more closely related to rabbits and hares than they are to guinea pigs or any rodent group. I grabbed my camera with long-lens, and tripod, for a short hike up in to this rock slide where I have had good success shooting photos of Pikas before. I was rewarded immediately, as I spotted several Pikas scurrying about gathering grass.

 Pikas do not hibernate and for this reason they must gather and store enough food supplies to last the winter, when harsh weather limits their foraging options. During the warmer months of the year, Pikas spend much of their time stashing extra plants. They cut large amounts of fresh grass or various plants with their sharp teeth. The carry bundles of cuttings in their mouth and stash them in storage locations. These storage piles are either nestled within the rocks or are located near their dens in big mounds or "haystacks" not unlike a rancher gathering hay for the winter months.

I had just got back to my truck that I had parked just off the shoulder, when a passing motorist stopped to tell me that there was a grizzly with her cub just back down the road a ways. I quickly threw my gear in the truck and drove down to where this female grizzly and her cub were feeding near the road. This female grizzly proved to be a younger grizzly than the previous grizzly with the 3 cubs that I had photographed early. Still, this mama grizzly was a very fine looking bear with a beautiful cub, that she kept a close watch over, while they fed on dandelions and other succulents

Earlier, I had noticed that the road up to the little Highwood pass, located below the Highwood pass was closed due to bear activity. It became apparent that this young female grizzly and her cub were probably the reason, as they were quite close to this junction, and they continued to move in that direction. After they had moved through the bush near a small picnic area bordering the beginning of the road that leads to the little Highwood pass, I made a quick pass through the parking area, and noticed that they probably spent a lot of time nearby, as everywhere I looked, there were grizzly bear scats lying about. I checked out some of the scats which were reasonably fresh, as they were a dark green in color, indicating the scats were recent and that they had been feeding on plant material,  although they would turn black within a few hours.

Back in my truck, I drank the rest of the chai in my thermos, and decided to call it a day. I did drive over the pass a ways, but had turned around after checking out some of the nearby streams that awaited my return with my flyrod. I would save the south end of highway 40 down to Highwood House for another day. Besides, I figured that a stop at Boulton Creek at the lakes was in order, as I knew that I could get a nice cup of tea and something to eat before heading home.
A glance at my watch showed the time to be 10:00 am, and although it was early for most of the nature lovers riding in the vehicles that were now streaming down highway 40 in to Kananaskis Country, they were to late to have experienced the real Kananaskis Country!

 Remember...the photos expand

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