Gulf Islands National Park: a day at Sidney Spit

One of my favourite day trips from the Victoria area to get out into nature is to go to Sidney Spit. This spit is part of a larger Sidney Island, owned in part by the government and privately, and makes up a part of the Gulf Islands National Park. I love it because its a short drive and ferry ride away from the city and once you get there, its pure peace and quiet and nature. Three of my favourite things.

The park can be explored fully on foot in a day (overnight walk-in camping is also permitted) and there are lots of different habitats and wildlife to see, particularly birds. I’d last been here a few years ago, back when my beloved Sidney was still alive. I loved that she had an island with her name.

Setting foot off the wooden dock, upon which Purple Martin nestboxes perch, you can turn left and head for the spit or you can turn right and head toward the woods and lagoon. We always go left first, unable to resist the lure of the sandy spit stretching out into the sea and the call of the shorebirds foraging and flocking there.

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Sidney Spit, sand stretching north out into the Salish Sea

At low tide, you can walk out quite far along the soft sand strewn with shells, edged with pebbles and barnacles. In small pools of water leftover from high tide, a flock of Semipalmated Sandpipers scurried around in the shallow water, frequently probing their bills into the sand to find prey.

In a deeper puddle on the far side of the spit, two Great Blue Herons squabbled with each other briefly before deciding there was space enough in the pool for them both. There were quite a few herons to be seen. I imagine it would be a great spot to raise young with lots of tall trees nearby to nest in and long stretches of shallow water for hunting.

 

A short way up the spit, a pair of Killdeer flitted among rocks and logs and a Black Oystercatcher pair scuttled around in the pebbly shore exposed by low tide.

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Killdeer at Sidney Spit, Gulf Islands National Park
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Looking back toward the ferry dock and south along the spit and back toward the grove of trees. To the right of the trees is the lagoon.

Going back south down the spit brings you to more sandy beach edged with trees. The shade is welcome on a hot sunny day and not far offshore, we spotted a family of at least 6 river otter playing and swirling in the water. I liked to imagine the parents were teaching the young how to fish while having fun.

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River Otter playing at Sidney Island

From there, we take an inland path across a grassy field near the campground and then onto a forest path to the lagoon. A Bald Eagle soared overhead above the field, probably scoping out a mouse or rabbit, some unsuspecting prey. In the lower branches of a tree, a White-Crowned Sparrow sang his familiar tune.

 

Coming out of the trees where we saw a few squirrels, we come downhill and out to the lagoon which looks back toward the spit and the ferry dock. At low tide, there’s a wide expanse of mud stretching out with a little tree-covered island (at high-tide) in the middle. Great Blue Heron hang out here, too, and one was perched in a tree while we were there. A number of Purple Martins and Tree Swallows swooped about, catching insects on the fly, only occasionally landing long enough for me to photograph.

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Purple Martin at the Sidney Spit lagoon

With its sandy beaches, lagoon, trees and fields, Sidney Spit makes for a good day out or overnight camp to see a variety of landscapes and wildlife. The wealth of different birds and other animals is one of my favourite things about visiting Sidney Spit. There is so much to see in a small area and it makes for a great day spent hiking and exploring easy trails. I will be sure not to wait so long before visiting again!

North Vancouver Island & San Josef Bay

Having lived on Vancouver Island for a few years now, we’ve had some time to travel the greater part of the southern half of the island as well as a good number of the Gulf Islands. However, with plans to move on in its initial stages, we decided it was time to visit part of the island we’d never been. To the top: Port Hardy and Cape Scott Provincial Park.

Nimpkish Lake made a good stopping point on the way, where we camped for a night beside the lake. Beside the gently lapping water, an American Dipper sang for us in the evening and in the morning, a Pacific Wren chattered to us over breakfast.

Past Nimpkish Lake, there is not much except forest and mountains. Much of the north island is logging land and there isn’t much to see (aside from lots of trees and some lakes) until you reach Port McNeill. I did see my first-ever island elk (Roosevelt Elk), a few deer and a couple of black bears along logging roads, though.

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A typical North Island alpine lake.
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Ruffed Grouse spotted along a logging road (a first)

Along the waterfront in Port McNeill near the ferry dock to Alert Bay and Sointula, I saw Surf Scoters, Common Loons, a Red-necked Grebe, and a Horned Grebe all within stone’s throw from each other and on the ferry crossing to Alert Bay, my first sure sighting of White-winged Scoters (think I’ve seen them before, but I don’t count it until I’m sure/get a good enough look!).

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Common Loons

 

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Red-necked Grebe
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Horned Grebe
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Surf Scoters
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Just barely managed to catch this White-winged Scoter

Alert Bay is a very small village on Cormorant Island where the majority of the population are indigenous First Nations. You can walk around the entire island in a day and one of the main things to see is the ecological park. The swamp area of the park is other-worldly as new growth fills in amid the remains of burned husks of trees. Those hulking trees seemed to make good nesting habitat for some birds, like Violet-green Swallows that swooped through the sky and into little cavities in the trees.

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Whimbrel

After visiting Port McNeill and Alert Bay, we were back onto the road as it meandered through trees and eventually turned into logging roads en route to Cape Scott Provincial Park in the northwest corner of the island. Just north of Port McNeill, we stopped (or attempted to) at Cluxewe Salt Marsh, which had been listed as a good birding spot, but I suspect we did not end up at the right spot. However, I was still met with a surprise in seeing my first ever Whimbrel!

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North Island forests

So far, the weather had held out pretty well, but the rain picked up as we headed northwest. I knew to expect the weather to be dicey. Even in July, it can rain and storm with little warning up here. When we reached San Josef Bay, the wind was howling.

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San Josef Bay
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sea stacks, San Josef Bay

We fought against the wind to put up our tent under what cover we could find, and took a walk to the famous sea stacks before the tide came in. The stacks are formed by the erosive action of seawater crashing against the rock over thousands of years, removing softer rock and leaving behind the stacks made of harder rock.

Scurrying together through the sand, foraging beneath its surface was a group of Western Sandpipers and Semipalmated Plovers, both firsts for me. According to Sibley (2016), Semipalmated Plovers commonly flock with other shorebirds, though more commonly with Semipalmated Sandpipers and Dunlins.

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A group of Western Sandpipers and Semipalmated Plovers
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Western Sandpipers
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Semipalmated Plover

The wind (and the sea) roared loudly all night, but in the morning the weather was more settled and the sun even peaked out for a few minutes. Despite the chilly weather (it was still April), I’m glad we finally made it. Now I can say I’ve seen the whole island, top to bottom, and feel satisfied with my efforts and experience living here.

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Sam Josef Bay in the morning

If you go to the North Island, be prepared for lots of logging roads and poor signage to get around. Even on the paved roads, some of the Provincial Parks were only signposted in one direction. To get to Cape Scott Provincial Park, it is a 60-km drive one-way on logging roads from Port Hardy (the nearest town of any note, i.e., grocery store and gas). The trailhead for San Josef Bay is also the starting point for the Cape Scott/North Coast Trail, which takes you to Cape Scott itself. I’d recommend going in the summer months.


References
Sibley, D.A. 2016. The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, Second Edition.

The rushing cascades of rainy Strathcona Provincial Park

Strathcona Park is the biggest park on Vancouver Island and the oldest provincial park in all of British Columbia. The park is in the central island, west of Campbell River and encompasses the Elk River Mountains. At 250,000 hectares, there are lots of opportunities for hiking and other outdoor adventures.

Lady Falls in Strathcona Park

I took a trip there in the fall last year after the busy summer season was over and despite the rain, it was a beautiful trip. The park is home to the alpine centre of the island and a large remnant of preserved old forests of fir and hemlock. Wildlife in the park includes the Vancouver Island marmot, Roosevelt Elk and the Vancouver Island wolf as well as cougars and black bears (though we didn’t see any!).

A stream meandering through the forest

As a mountainous park, Strathcona is home to countless waterfalls and lakes, large and small. We stayed in Gold River as it was a bit cold for camping and it was a nice scenic drive to the park from there. With all the rain, it was not great weather for birding, but it was great for the waterfalls!

The main road through the park hugs the shore of Buttle Lake, the source of the Campbell River. Much of the landscape, including Buttle Lake was carved by glaciers 20,000 years ago with the exception of the mountain peaks. At 120m deep, Buttle Lake is a classic glacially carved lake; longer than it is wide, over-deepened in the middle and lying in a U-shaped valley.

A highlight of the trip was Myra Falls, both upper and lower, which lies on Myra Creek and flows into Buttle Lake. Its a short walk to Lower Myra Falls from the parking area, but its a spectacular view of the fall that will leave you wondering what the upper falls could possibly look like. I can only imagine how nice it would be in the summertime, too. The falls were just roaring when we were there; I imagine beautiful cascades in the summer. (A quick google search will show you the falls at a lower flow.)

Lower Myra Falls at high flow in November

The hike to upper Myra Falls is quite a bit longer. The trailhead is at the end of the road after passing a surprising and conspicuous copper mine (it started operations before the park). The trail takes about 1 to 1.5 hours to the waterfall, and is rewarding once you reach the end even in the rain!

It was an enjoyable trip I’d recommend to anyone coming to Vancouver Island. There are a lot of different things to see and I’d love to go back and explore the Forbidden Plateau in the future, as well as visit Della Falls, the tallest waterfall in Canada.

The lost waterfall, ammonites & an American Dipper

On a search to find the hike to Benson Creek Falls and Ammonite Falls near Nanaimo, my partner and I walked through the forest listening for the sound of flowing water. After a summer of drought, the creek was running pretty low and the falls turned out to be only a mere trickle. We weren’t even sure we found the right waterfall.  Unfortunately, the trail signs at Benson Creek Falls Regional Park are not all that well marked and there is no signed map at the parking lot.

However, we still managed to have a nice walk and found some other surprising things instead. Its not the first time one of our hike hasn’t gone to plan for whatever reason, and for the most part, we tend to look on the bright side. Even if we miss what we came to see, its usually still an enjoyable walk and time spent outside.

Falls run dry with little rain over the summer

Its a pretty steep descent heading down to the stream bed and at one point there are nice ropes to help you down. I could see it being very slippery after a good rain. Once we reached the creek, we soon found a small, dry rock outcrop where  a waterfall might be during the winter. The rocks here are part of the Cretaceous (145 to 65 million years ago) Nanaimo Group – basically a group of sedimentary rocks which were mostly deposited as a marine environment. That’s why there are so many marine fossils in the rock when you get further upstream in the creekbed.

A little bit of waterfall cascading down into a lovely pool

In fact, that’s how Ammonite Falls gets its name – because of the ammonite fossils that can be found in the rock here. Ammonites were essentially ancient ancestors of cephalopods (think octopus or squid) that lived on earth 420 to 65 million years ago, some of them growing up 2m in size! At the end of the Cretaceous period, they went extinct along with the dinosaurs.

While I sat on the rocks enjoying the lovely pool at the waterfall’s bottom and geeking out looking at the fossils, we suddenly spotted an American Dipper at the bottom of the waterfall! My partner frequently sees these little songbirds while out paddling whitewater, for which I am insanely jealous of him, so I was very excited to see the dipper on my walk!

Highlight of the day: an American Dipper skipped up the rocks on the outcrop

The dipper bobbed his head and skipped up the slippery rock wall nimbly and quickly. He reminded me of a chickadee because he almost never sat still for a photo! The comparison is fair, I suppose, since he is a songbird, after all.

We watched him for some time as he made his way up the waterfall, bobbing his head this way and that. I noticed his eye blinking frequently as it would go white and then black and then flash white again and the flashing of white really caught my attention. It turns out, the white is actually the Dipper’s eyelid and not its third eyelid as I (and many others) would assume given their aquatic nature.

But then, wildlife is so full of surprises and interesting new things to learn, it is one of the greatest joys in watching birds and other animals. So while we may not have reached the proper waterfall we set out to see, we still got to see some interesting things. To watch and enjoy the Dipper yourself at home, view my video below.

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Orcas in the Seymour Narrows at Ripple Rock in Campbell River, BC

Last week, I mentioned my first ever whale sighting as well as my first orcas, but I didn’t elaborate on the orcas yet. Up in Campbell River in July, my partner and I decided on a hike to Ripple Rock which overlooks the famous Seymour Narrows, a narrow shipping passage connecting Johnstone Strait in the north to the Strait of Georgia in the south.

It lies east of Vancouver Island and was once a dangerous passage due to shallow rocks lurking out of eyesight below the water’s surface which caused tidal eddies to form. There were many shipwrecks there until the undersea rocks were blasted in 1958 and is said to be the largest non-nuclear explosion in history.

Today, the hike to Ripple Rock is an enjoyable seaside hike through coastal forest. We were told that whales are commonly seen from the top, but did not dare to believe we would have such luck.

View of Seymour Narrows from Ripple Rock: Menzies Bay to the right, narrows to the left.

But when we reached the top, we hardly even took in the view when we saw them…a pair of orcas, their tall dorsal fins distinguishable even from a distance off in the water coming from Menzies Bay on our right. I could not believe our luck! Just the day before, I saw my first whale ever and now, here were two orcas swimming down the channel in front of me. This time, I had a chance to grab my camera.

Two orcas in Seymour Narrows near Campbell River, BC

Slowly, they made their way closer to us and for a time, they seemed to be hardly moving at all; as if they were having fun just floating in the current. The pair moved further off closer to Quadra Island and then all of a sudden, another pair turned up right in the water in front of us!

Orca seen from Seymour Narrows

They were so close we could hear them breathe. This orca stayed floating almost still in the water below us for a while, before he suddenly disappeared beneath its dark surface. I will never forget what it sounded like, seeing the way they moved through the water so effortlessly with grace.

I always dreamed of being able to see whales from land, not because I don’t like boats because I love them, but because I never want to pay for a whale watch tour again. It feels wrong stalking them and tracking them the way they do; I’d rather see them for free, for real and by my own luck. And I finally did. I’d hoped to see wolves on our trip, but I never expected to see whales…note the plural! Somehow, that weekend was full of the magic of seeing whales and to me, Campbell River will remain in my memory as a hub for whale sightings. I feel so lucky we had the chance and the right timing to see these magnificent creatures.

Seymour Narrows from Ripple Rock with Quadra Island across the passage

A sunny summer getaway to the Gulf Islands: Pender Island

The Gulf Islands lie between the mainland of BC and Vancouver Island in the Strait of Georgia and are one of my favourite summertime retreats. While they are a popular summer destination, but are equally as nice in the spring and autumn, especially during the rainy season elsewhere; these islands lie in a nicely protected rain-shadow and thus receive significantly less rain than the adjacent coasts.

This chain of islands is usually split into two sub-divisions: the Northern Gulf Islands east of and the Southern Gulf Islands. The Southern Gulf Islands contain parts of the Gulf Islands National Park, as well as privately-owned land and other provincial and regional parks. The islands are serviced by a number of ferries from either Vancouver Island or the mainland.

Looking across the water back at Vancouver Island from Thieves Bay, Pender Island. Orcas and other whales have been seen from the shore here before as they pass through the Strait of Georgia, though we did not have any luck.

This summer, my spouse and I rode the ferry over to Pender Island from Swartz Bay for a weekend and camped at the brand new Shingle Bay campground on North Pender Island. It was a nice campground surrounded by trees right on a beach, although it was completely full!

A Belted Kingfisher greeted us as our ferry arrived at the Otter Point terminal.

At our campsite, we watched lots of Canada Geese swim by and Black-tailed Deer rustled in the bushes and climbed out along the shore. To my delight, there were nesting Purple Martins we watched in the morning and evening as they chattered away in their high-pitched peeps to one another. There were nest-boxes attached to what I think were the posts that were the remains of an old dock.

At our campsite, we watched Canada Geese, Black-tailed Deer and nesting Purple Martins (male left, female right). The female Purple Martin had brought back food for her nesting babies as she tucked it away inside the nest-box upon her return. Click small images for larger view.

I was so excited to see the martins as they are definitely one of my favourite birds! I remember seeing them on Sidney Spit last year and I’d been hoping to see them all summer season. Being swallows, their diving aerial acrobatics are a joy to watch and their squealing and chitter-chattering calls are a happy sound to my ears! Not to mention the brilliant blue-violet plumage of the males. Purple Martins can be seen on many of the Gulf Islands’ coasts, where their recovery continues in saltwater habitats over the last 30 years. Hopefully, we will see a greater return of Purple Martins at freshwater sites in the coming years.

Elsewhere on Pender Island, there are lots of smaller community parks among the patches of the National Park that are also worth visiting! I saw a number of Pacific Wrens at one of these as well as a large variety of birds at the George Hill Community Park, which was a hidden little gem of a walk with a surprisingly lovely view from the top. On this short but lovely walk, I saw my first American Goldfinch, Song Sparrows and Olive-sided Flycatchers as well as many Spotted Towhees, Dark-eyed Juncos, White-crowned Sparrows, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, American Robins, warblers and more!

Pacific Wren (upper left), Song Sparrow (upper right), Olive-sided Flycatcher (bottom left) and an American Goldfinch (bottom right) seen on Pender Island. Click images for larger view.

Back by the sea, Brooks Point Regional Park is an interesting stop at a rocky shoreline with a lighthouse and views of Vancouver Island, Mt Baker and the Strait of Georgia.

Brooks Point Regional Park on South Pender Island looking towards Saturna Island

One of the highlights was hiking Mt. Norman, the highest peak on Pender Island (North or South) at 244m. The hike is short, but steep and not all that scenic until you reach the nice viewing platform at the top upon which you can look out south across Bedwell Harbour, Pender Island and Vancouver Island.

The view from Mt. Norman, Pender Island: Bedwell Harbour & North Pender Island (foreground) and Vancouver Island (background).

We later stopped at Hope Bay on North Pender Island and had lunch by the sea in the sun. Looking out on the water, a river otter swam by and climbed up onto a dock in the sun.

River otter swimming at Hope Bay, Pender Island

This river otter keenly seemed to hear us every time we made a noise from across the water.

It was, as always, a delight to watch the otter as he rolled around and laid with his belly up, scratching his back on the dock and looking over at us every time we made a sound. Clearly, he knew we were watching him. Above the otter were more Purple Martins! They chattered and swooped and dove and I could have watched them all day if I had the time. Unfortunately, I did not and we headed back to Vancouver Island with warm, sunny memories of the wildlife and beauty of Pender Island.

Purple Martin at Hope Bay, Pender Island
Bald Eagle perched in a tall tree at Hope Bay, Pender Island

Birding highlights of the Canadian Rockies Part 1: the mountains and valleys

As it is already August and I haven’t yet written anything on the birds I saw on my trip to the Rockies in April, I thought I would do so now in a short, fun post of mostly photos of some birds from the mountains and valleys of the main National Parks we visited (Yoho, Kootenay, Banff and Jasper).

Red-tailed Hawk soars high above the Paint Pots in Kootenay NP, BC

On a lovely hike to Wapta Falls in Yoho NP, a stirring in the bushes on a trail spooked me. Fearing a bear or some other large animal, I turned back to see this lovely Spruce Grouse much to my relief and surprise (and embarrassment that he scared me)! This was a new bird for me and I was quite happy to watch him hang out on the edge of the trail.

Spruce Grouse on the trail to Wapta Falls (below), Yoho NP, BC
Wapta Falls, Yoho NP, BC

The trail to Wapta Falls is a good hike and it was a good alternative to Takakkaw Falls, which was still closed for avalanches back in April.

At Lake Louise, I delighted in watching a Clark’s Nutcracker among the Whitebark Pines and the people. To me, these birds are a symbol of the Rockies and I had high hopes of seeing one on my trip. Luckily, this one did not disappoint!

Clark’s Nutcracker at Lake Louise, Banff NP, AB

At Athabasca Falls in Jasper NP, I saw an American Dipper hopping on the rocks along the river below me. I’d only ever seen one of these before on the Qualicum River on Vancouver Island, but at the time I didn’t know what it was. So, I like to count this as my first official dipper sighting. The dipper hunts underwater in fast-flowing streams and rivers and are North America’s only true aquatic songbird (Cornell).

American Dipper at Athabasca Falls (below), Jasper NP, AB

Athabasca Falls is a must-see stop for any trip to Jasper NP and even in April, there were many tourist buses parked up. Its a short walk from the parking lot to see the main falls and along the limestone potholes below.

Athabasca Falls, Jasper NP, AB

En route to the beautiful Maligne Lake in Jasper NP is Medicine Lake. Medicine Lake is a very interesting geological feature on the Maligne River: there is no channel visible at the surface draining the lake. This is because the water drains out through the ground beneath it through sinkholes and limestone caves until it re-emerges in Maligne Canyon (Parks Canada).

Medicine Lake, Jasper NP, AB

Many of the trees surrounding Medicine Lake are blackened, crispy ghosts of a forest that once stood along this strange lake until a wildfire claimed it last summer. Among the charred remains of the forest, there is life. We spied a Bald Eagle nest in a tree just off the very left edge of my photo above. In the photo of the nest, you can see all the dead trees in the background.

Fire-scarred landscape at Medicine Lake, Jasper NP, AB
Bald Eagle nest shows life among death at Medicine Lake, Jasper NP, AB among wildfire damage from July  2015

Our second try hiking the Valley of Five Lakes in Jasper NP after turning around for a grizzly bear was quite a success. Its a beautiful walk past lovely little kettle lakes, and as we’d started later than we planned due to our grizzly sighting we stopped for lunch on the way.

Barrow’s Goldeneye (male, breeding plumage) on the Valley of Five Lakes Trail, Jasper NP, AB

As we sat beside the crystal clear waters of the first lake, a Pileated Woodpecker hopped down between the rocks to my side. He looked a bit curious about us, but he got on with his drinking and had a little bit of a bath and graced me with these photos before he flew away to a nearby tree. I just love these guys and seeing one up this close was such a treat!

Pileated Woodpecker at the Valley of Five Lakes trail, Jasper NP, AB

Stay tuned for Birding highlights of the Canadian Rockies: part 2 which will include some birds from the BC interior and other regions west of the mountains.

 

Bighorn sheep in Kootenay National Park

Our first major stop on our Canadian Rockies trip was in Kootenay National Park in BC, on the western side of the Canadian Rockies following the Kootenay and Vermillion Rivers. This park is probably a lot less famous than its eastern cousin, Banff National Park because it features fewer amenities and day walks and more backcountry opportunities.

The Vermillion River in Kootenay NP.
While hiking to Marble Canyon, we looked up to see a Red-Tailed Hawk flying overhead.

We took a short stop to see the emerald waters of Olive Lake where there is now a grizzly bear sow and her cubs foraging nearby, closing off the area. I can’t blame her; with the water nearby and lots of lush vegetation, its certainly great habitat for raising young.

Walking along the lake, we heard varied thrush singing its buzzy song high up in the trees and saw a kingfisher dash among the trees on the edge of the lake. I was pleasantly surprised to see both species living here, having no experience birding in the Rockies before, I wasn’t sure what to expect. This was the first of many emerald and other brilliantly coloured lakes we’d get to enjoy on our journey!

Olive Lake, Kootenay NP with patches of snow still clinging to the ground.

Just outside the southern edge of Kootenay NP lies the town of Radium Hot Springs, renowned for its slightly radioactive hot springs. We did not visit the springs, but we did see the town’s resident bighorn sheep, which was an exciting surprise.

They grazed on grass around the town much like our urban deer in Victoria. This was only the second time I’ve ever seen bighorns. When we travelled to the southwest USA, I kept reading about them and how elusive they were and how seeing one was rare. And yet, here they were walking around the middle of a town in BC!

Bighorn sheep in Radium Hot Springs, BC.

They haven’t always frequented the town, however. Bighorns typically migrate down to valley bottoms during the winter to escape deep snow and find reliable food sources. Their preferred habitats are grasslands and open forest and they require steep rocky terrain as escape routes from predators.

Due to the prevention of forest fires in recent years, forests in the area are more dense and widespread. Forest fires are a natural phenomena and once provided much-needed grasslands to species like the bighorn sheep. The bighorn sheep learned that the town of Radium Hot Springs and the surrounding area provides perfect grazing opportunities and they now spend their winters there.

However, there has been promising efforts underway to restore bighorn habitat in the park through prescribed fires.

Bighorn sheep in Radium Hot Springs, BC. Just one example of how humans shape and influence the ecosystem with forest fire intervention.

As we continued north, we climbed upward in elevation as well until we reached the Continental Divide and the boundaries between Kootenay and Banff National Parks. The Continental Divide is the boundary between drainage basins: here, between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans which also happens to be the Alberta-British Columbia border. This was the first of many times we crossed the Continental Divide on our journey through the Rockies. After entering Alberta, we had more time to explore Banff National Park.

The continental divide at the Kootenay/Banff NP boundaries, also the British Columbia/Alberta border.

Respecting the bear in Jasper National Park: my first grizzly bear sighting

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If last week was kind to animals week, this post is appropriately timed although I believe in always being kind to animals every day. Mutts Comic strip, May 4, 2016 by Patrick McDonnell. (From: Mutts Comics)

My partner and I are by no means experienced hikers in bear country. A few years ago, we lived in New Zealand where, well, bears don’t exist. In fact, the biggest danger while hiking there is the ever-changing maritime or alpine weather. I’m from the east, where suburban sprawl has all but pushed out the black bear and seeing one is extremely rare.

Needless to say, Canada is quite a change for us in that regard. I have really only been hiking in bear country in these recent years, but we educated ourselves on what to do to prevent encounters and what to do if you do see one. In the last year and a half on Vancouver Island, I’ve seen four black bear – two from a vehicle and two while outside working. Each was from a distance. The parks recommend staying 100 yards from bear. Obviously its always a good idea to give any wild animal space.

Black bear on Vancouver Island from a great distance. See the small, black spec on the far shoreline? This was my first black bear sighting on the island and my only documented one, shot in the days before I had a camera with higher zoom. It was actually a mum with a cub nearby.

Despite all the education and these experiences, I still get nervous when going out in bear country and going to the Rockies is like stepping into their backyard. I admit, it scares me. We prepare ourselves, we make noise, we watch for signs of bear activity in the area and that’s all you can really do aside from never leaving your house.

It was still a crisp morning when we started the trail, having arrived earlier than many others. I was hoping to see some birds and maybe a beaver, both of which were a good possibility where we were heading. I never expected what we did see only 15 minutes down the trail… a grizzly bear.

My first grizzly bear sighting, easily distinguished from black bear by its hump on the shoulders

I think my heart might have stopped for a minute as I exclaimed for my partner to stop and pointed out the bear in the distance. She looked absolutely huge in the distance on the opposite hill. Once I got over the surprise, I took a photo and we watched in awe for a few minutes. My partner said I was surprisingly calm, but I think everything I’ve read may have helped. Its not a bad idea to educate yourself about something you fear.

Grizzly bear, notice her collar

It was the ideal sighting because we were far away (hundreds of meters), we did not take the bear by surprise, and she was easily visible in the wide open area on the opposite slope from our position. When we yelled and made some noise, she didn’t appear to notice, she was merely grazing on vegetation. However, she was standing very near to where we could see the trail lead and I’m not going to push my luck. So, we decided to respect the bear and turn back. We hadn’t come far and we could return later once she’d moved on.

This is a zoomed out view of where the grizzly was from our position. She was on the other side of the boardwalk just next to the bare tree on the left of the middle. I took this photo when we returned later.

After reporting our sighting to Parks Canada, we were informed she is a “people tolerant” bear and others we encountered on the trail decided to go onward anyway. Because she had a GPS tracking collar and unique ID, they were able to locate her and knew which bear she was. As it turns out, when we returned to the trailhead later on, no one else reported seeing the bear, even a woman who had been behind us by about 5-10 minutes and was really hoping to. So she must have been just moving through, but you never know where a bear might be headed and it doesn’t seem smart to me to knowingly head toward one.

We finished the rest of the hike the second time sans bear sighting. It was our last day and we considered our ideal grizzly bear sighting quite the highlight of an amazing trip! It was certainly very memorable. Seeing something I’d been dreading and fearing turned out to be an amazing experience, seeing this most wild of wild animals, the very symbol of the wilderness.

Kettle hole at Valley of the Five Lakes, Jasper NP, Alberta. Kettle holes are formed during glacial retreat when blocks of ice get left behind. These blocks of ice later melt and form kettle holes.
Valley of the Five Lakes, Jasper NP, Alberta

An alpine adventure to snow-capped mountains and glacial lakes

My blog has been a bit quiet lately as I have been away on an internet-free trip to the Canadian Rockies for the last two weeks. There’s not much I find more refreshing than a trip away to the outdoors without internet. To enjoy some peace and quiet and adventure in the mountains.

We saw glacial U-shaped valleys, glaciers, rushing rivers and waterfalls, quiet braiding rivers and wetlands, ice and snow, lakes frozen over with ice and lakes green with glacial silt.

A lake just outside Golden, BC which lies along the Columbia River in the Southern Rocky Mountain Trench just to the west of the Rocky Mountains.The Rocky Mountain Trench is the longest linear valley in the world.

Where have I been? My partner and I visited the Canadian Rocky Mountains World Heritage Site including Yoho, Kootenay, Banff and Jasper National Parks. The parks all share borders along the British Columbia-Alberta provincial boundary along the backbone of the Canadian Rockies.

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Canada’s four national parks of the Rocky Mountains along the BC/Alberta border. (Map: Parks Canada)

We’d been planning on this trip for some time and when the chance came for us to go, we decided to make it happen. After we took my dream trip across the American Southwest a few years ago and experienced Yosemite at the height of mid-summer popularity (riding packed buses full of people is NOT my idea of a wilderness experience), we figured late April was a prime time to go as it is still considered the off season. (This means two things we love: no crowds and lower prices.)

The trade-off is cooler and more unpredictable weather. For two people who hate temperatures above about 25C, that is just fine with us. However, we wound up striking it lucky. Spring came early this year in the Rockies and it was unseasonably warm all April with most ski-fields closing early.

Emerald Lake, Yoho NP, BC still partially iced over in the early spring.

Given my new birding hobby, I was quite excited to see new birds we don’t have on the island. After seeing elk and pikas our first time in the American Rockies, I also knew we could expect to see other amazing wildlife, too.

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Pika (left), elk (right) in Rocky Mountain NP, Colorado, US.

Early spring is an excellent time to view wildlife in the mountains and we had some exciting sightings which I will share with you soon.

Until then, enjoy a preview of some of the beautiful alpine scenery we witnessed.

The Kootenay River coloured grey-green with glacial sediment rushes downhill near Marble Canyon, Kootenay NP, BC.
A waterfall in Johnston Canyon, Banff NP, Alberta.
Part of the 325 square km Columbia Icefield along the Icefields Highway, Jasper NP, Alberta.
A beautifully crystal clear lake in the Valley of Five Lakes, Jasper NP, Alberta.