Exploring Canmore & Kananaskis

Exploring Canmore & Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

We took the scenic route through the foothills, through Rocky Mountain House and Kootenay Plains and the Cline River area, and passed beautiful Abraham Lake. In doing so, we completely bypassed Calgary. I don’t like driving around Calgary. Calgary is smog and traffic and treeless sprawling subdivisions as far as the eye can see. Rolling hills of prairie in the shadow of the mountains it might have been once, but the sprawl of cheaply-built, cookie-cutter, single-family homes is all you can see in either direction along the bypass. I imagine bison and pronghorn once dotted the landscape; now, it’s just new construction, a vast field of tightly packed subdivision homes built on speculation with seemingly no consideration for proper city planning. It makes me physically ill to see it, and makes me appreciate the parks and green spaces of Edmonton a little more. But enough about Calgary…

The Scenic Route Through Banff

We turned south on the Icefields Parkway toward Lake Louise and Banff at Saskatchewan River Crossing. Now within the Banff National Park boundary, we immediately saw several bighorn sheep, including mothers with new lambs, beside the road. A flock of tourists had pulled to the side to see them, many people were getting out of their vehicles holding their phones in front of their faces. Many were getting too close. This is not how I like my wildlife experiences. I don’t stop if others are stopped. I don’t photograph wildlife on busy roads. I don’t get out of the car and put pressure on the animals, potentially putting wildlife and myself in danger.

It was late June, so I knew Banff would be extremely busy with visitors. Alison and I were lucky to find an affordable, last-minute hotel room in Canmore. Banff and Jasper were 90% booked with only the priciest hotels and Airbnbs available. We had a bit of a struggle with the elements during last summer’s camping trip in the Rockies, so Alison wasn’t up for tenting again.

Driving though dramatic mountain scenery along the Icefields Parkway, we encountered lots of traffic. I wanted to take Alison to Peyto Lake. She had only seen the iconic vista in snow and low-hanging clouds a couple years before. On this day the weather was pleasant. Arriving at the Peyto Lake trailhead, we barely found a parking spot. There might have been as many as 100 people…maybe even more. I can’t blame them. This is an amazing spot.

Peyto Lake, Banff National Park

Peyto Lake, Banff National Park

Traffic thinned out considerably once we passed the town of Banff and reached Canmore. Last time I was in Canmore it was March and bitterly cold with loads of snow. This time we enjoyed warmth and sun and only a few light showers. Canmore is my favourite little mountain town in the Rockies. It’s pretty new- developed only in the last 20 or so years to accommodate the tourism spill over from Banff. It’s got everything you need without too many tourists. It’s a stunningly beautiful setting with the surrounding mountains and Bow River flowing right through downtown. Walking trails criss-cross the townsite’s wooded areas, elk graze along the river banks. There are grocery stores, excellent restaurants, and reasonable accommodation (last-minute in summer). It was a great base for our excursions.

Sunset at Two Jack Lake

After checking into our room, we decided to head back north to visit Two Jack Lake for sunset that first night. On the lakeside, there were already several photographers set up for that very typical composition of Mount Rundle. Each one of them were positioned only a foot apart, all with their tripods extended to eye-level….they were all trying to get the same shot. That both bores and annoys me.

I found the spot less photographed and positioned my tripod and wide-angle lens down close to the water to include a few interesting rocks in the foreground. The light did not disappoint.

Two Jack Lake, Banff National Park

Two Jack Lake, Banff National Park

With a couple Banff locations out of the way, we headed back south. Instead of spending a lot of time in Banff National Park, this trip we explored some lesser-known, but no less spectacular, areas south of Canmore.

Kananaskis & Alberta’s Mountain Provincial Parks

Though there was bumper to bumper traffic and great migrating herds of tourists in the Banff/Lake Louise area, we barely saw another person at any of our stops and hikes in Kananaskis, Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, or Spray Valley Provincial Park. The sun rises very early in Canada during June, so we were up and out before 5AM in search of landscapes and mountain light. We continued cruising along Spray Lakes Road/Smith Dorrien Trail (note: this is a long and windy gravel road) for most of the day looking for wildlife. We had some good encounters. A small black bear crossed the road several yards ahead while I was photographing a waterfall. We took in the spectacular beauty of Kananaskis Lakes. With no one around, we were able to take our time observing a grizzly grazing in a field of dandelions (in the safety of the car with a very long lens). We enjoyed a lunch river-side surrounded by literally dozens of prairie dogs! It was a good day.

Grizzly bear feeding on dandelions, Spray Valley Provincial Park, Alberta

Grizzly bear feeding on dandelions, Spray Valley Provincial Park, Alberta

One of our favourite spots was near Mount Engadine Lodge. We’d love to stay at the lodge, but can’t afford it at $500/night. The Days Inn in Canmore will have to do! The road behind the lodge offers views of Moose Meadows, a lush valley with winding streams surrounded by epic mountains. I waited patiently for the morning fog to clear from the peaks. This is definitely a spot to return to.

I don’t know if this is Mount Engadine, The Tower, The Fist, or Mount Shark…My map research has yielded little as far as mountain identification in the area…we’ll just call it, “Mount Epic”, Spray Valley Provincial Park, Alberta

I don’t know if this is Mount Engadine, The Tower, The Fist, or Mount Shark…My map research has yielded little as far as mountain identification in the area…we’ll just call it, “Mount Epic”, Spray Valley Provincial Park, Alberta

Spray Valley Provincial Park, Alberta

Spray Valley Provincial Park, Alberta

Our original plan was to hike the Ptarmigan Cirque trail for sweeping mountain vistas and alpine meadows of wildflowers. We were disappointed to find neither. At such a high elevation, the clouds were dense and rain threatened to pour down at any moment. There would also be no flowers. A recent late snowfall had cloaked the landscape. The conditions were still icy, too icy for such a steep climb.

We decided to go with Elbow Lake nearby. The hike was snowy and slick as well, but we pushed through it with calves burning and yak-trax packed with wet snow. We arrived at Elbow Lake underwhelmed and cranky. I made a panorama and we hiked back down, stopping at a rock slide to watch a pica gathering mouthfuls of grass. Alison loves little furry critters. I think seeing the pica revived the experience for her.

Elbow Lake, Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, Alberta

Elbow Lake, Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, Alberta

Canmore & Three Sisters

Our last evening was spent in the solitude of nature. We were fortunate to have the Policeman’s Creek area with views of the peaks of Three Sisters all to ourselves for sunset. Well, almost. For two hours we waited for sunset in the woods by the creek. We were visited by a beaver and a mother duck with her tiny fluffy ducklings. A coyote trotted passed us with a look of embarrassment on its face once it noticed we were watching. It was a colourful sunset, but I had positioned my camera to the west, thinking that dark clouds would block out any light that tried to shine on the peaks of Three Sisters to the east. The colourful light breaking through the clouds over Ha Ling Peak was dramatic, so I shot away. Alison tapped me on the shoulder at one point. It startled me, and my first thought was “is it a bear?!” She pointed over to Three Sisters. All three peaks were brightly lit with alpenglow! I never expected with all these clouds in the west for it to be so dramatic on those peaks….they had been in shadow for hours.

I picked up my tripod with camera still mounted and ran through the mud and brush, crossing a thin log over the water, to get to the other side so I could include the creek in my shot. I only got a few images before the light faded away. It was magical -the perfect end to the trip.

Alpenglow on the peaks of Three Sisters, Canmore, Alberta

Alpenglow on the peaks of Three Sisters, Canmore, Alberta

But it wasn’t over. On our hike out along a dry stream bed I heard a rustle in the trees behind me. Looking back nervously, I spotted a fluffy grey owl sitting in a large spruce. The longest lens I had on me was a 70-200mm. I popped it on my camera quickly and took a few shots. It was a juvenile Great Horned Owl. We soon noticed one of the parents sitting in a tree on the other side of the creek bed. Unfortunately, it was in too much darkness to photograph, the sun had been down for 15 minutes or so. The fledgling was perched in just enough light. Soon another juvenile joined the adult on it’s branch. Apparently, we had stumbled upon this family of owls when the young were learning to fly from the nest. They watched us as well, but seemed unhindered by our presence. Eventually, they all flew deeper into the forest.

Fledgling Great-Horned Owl, Canmore, Alberta

Fledgling Great-Horned Owl, Canmore, Alberta

The last morning was spent walking the trails in and around the Canmore townsite. We watched an elk graze by the river and dreamed of being able to afford one of those nice houses by the river with views of the mountains. For now, the Days Inn will have to do.

Exploring Cape Breton & The Cabot Trail

I have family in Nova Scotia, 4,800 km away on the other side of North America. Canada is huge. My wife was scheduled to attend a conference in Halifax, so naturally I was eager to tag along and check another province off my list. After spending a few days in Halifax (a town I now really like), we drove north to Cape Breton Island to spend several more exploring the rocky coasts of Cape Breton Highlands National Park. This was my seventh Canadian National Park in two years.

The drive north to Ingonish from Halifax took a bit longer than Google Maps predicted. Sticking to the shortest route, it took 6.5 hours with little traffic and only three short stops. Google said it would be only 4. It took 6.5 hours on the way back as well. I’ve found (especially here in Alberta) that you need to add 20-30% more to your expected travel time in the north. Again, Canada is huge.

That stop we made at a grocery store in Who-Knows-Where, Nova Scotia before reaching our Airbnb was a smart move. The small grocery store (there’s only one) in Ingonish closes at 6pm. We arrived much later. Conveniently, our place was located next to the Coastal Restaurant & Pub, which is open until 8pm and serves excellent local seafood.

The Cabot Trail was being repaved, and very loud construction was happening right in front of our Airbnb. We almost opted to stay elsewhere…. Here we were on what was supposed to be a relaxing and quiet retreat in nature, and all we could hear was the drone of heavy machinery. It was quieter in downtown Halifax! Construction continued on into the night. We were livid. Luckily, much to our relief, the workers moved on the next day.

We spent each day driving up and down the Cabot Trail, taking in the beauty of it all and enjoying a few hikes. Unfortunately, Spring was late to arrive in the highlands. It was (somewhat ironically) colder in Nova Scotia than Alberta. We left summer warmth and spring flowers in the west and were surprised to find barely a budding leaf in Nova Scotia. I was hoping for wildflowers, but a cold and damp winter was keeping Spring away for a couple more weeks. Nonetheless, the coastline was still spectacular, even if the highlands were drab and still had patches of snow in early June. The famous Skyline Trail did not live up to it’s reputation without foliage, so I didn’t even bother taking a single shot on that hike.

Lackies Head, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

Lackies Head, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

Waterfalls & Rocky Shores

I turned my attention to waterfalls (Cape Breton has plenty) and the dramatic eastern coastline. Sunrise and sunset didn’t cooperate much during the trip; it was mostly rainy and foggy…typical of Spring in the maritimes. I did enjoy one colourful sunset, however, at Lackies Head. This became one of my favourite spots along the Cabot Trail. The cliffs on this side of the island, made of igneous rock, are bright pink!

The plus side of it being so early in Spring was that we barely saw another person at any of our locations within the National Park. We had most experiences all to ourselves.

Tide Pools at Sunset, Lackies Head, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

Tide Pools at Sunset, Lackies Head, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

Sunrise, Lackies Head, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

Sunrise, Lackies Head, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

We visited famous Mary Ann Falls one foggy morning. With no one else around for a couple hours, we explored the areas around the falls, and I made several pictures. It was so quiet and peaceful. The only sound was cascading water. It reminded me of shooting waterfalls in Appalachia. I love shooting waterfalls, and damp-foggy weather makes the best conditions for it, in my opinion. I would love to return to this area in Autumn when the foliage is bright.

Mary Ann Falls, Cape Breton Highlands National Park, Nova Scotia

Mary Ann Falls, Cape Breton Highlands National Park, Nova Scotia

My favourite waterfall along the Cabot Trail seems to be unnamed. It’s no secret. It cascades over a cliff and into the ocean via a beach covered in smooth stones. The area is called Black Brook Cove Beach and the 3-4 metre waterfall is visible from the pull-off. I couldn’t find a name for it, but it was a nice surprise. I photographed it from so many different angles; unfortunately, we had to cut our visit short - the tide was coming in around the falls.

Waterfall at Black Brook Cove Beach, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

Waterfall at Black Brook Cove Beach, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

Waterfall at Black Brook Cove Beach, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

Waterfall at Black Brook Cove Beach, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

As the fog and tide rolled in on our last evening, I tried to capture a scene I’d been hoping for the whole trip. I wanted smooth stones with waves rolling over them, preferable with good light and a cliff in the background. Well, I didn’t get the light, but I did get loads of atmosphere. The fog was thick and the wind was howling. Waves were crashing hard on the beach. They were intimidatingly loud. I was very careful not to get too close to the waves (I learned the hard way in Iceland that rogue waves can come out of nowhere to try and sweep away unsuspecting photographers). In a few dozen frames, with my camera, tripod, and wide-angle lens set up just at the waterline I was able to capture the image I wanted. It’s all about waiting for that perfect wave. It’s a very long exposure. I wanted to blur the foamy sea water as it moved over the rocks, exposing some and obscuring others. Luckily I didn’t even get wet…though my tripod legs took on a bit of sand and water.

Somewhere on the Cape Breton Coast, Nova Scotia

Somewhere on the Cape Breton Coast, Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia Wildlife

Of course, I’d been hoping for more wildlife opportunities on the trip. We spotted zero moose and saw very few seabirds. I saw few gannets one morning near Lackies Head and some cormorants were gathered on an island way up near White Point. Other than that we only saw a few deer and a couple foxes running across the highway on our way out. We did have one interesting wildlife encounter with a juvenile bald eagle. It was perched near the fishing boats in Ingonish. I pulled the car up close and shot out the window, trying to include as much of the environment as possible. The ocean, cliffs, and driftwood provide a sense of place. A simple (and very typical) close-up portrait wouldn’t have the same affect.

We watched for a while. Eventually, a seagull decided to harass the eagle, and after several noisy areal assaults by the gull, the eagle flew off. I was hoping for mature eagles, but this stately (though a bit dishevelled) juvenile will have to do. Juvenile baldies are often mistaken for golden eagles, but the latter are very rare east of the rockies.

Juvenile Bald Eagle, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

Juvenile Bald Eagle, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

Though our experience in Cape Breton got off to a rough start, we enjoyed the rest of our trip. As I mentioned, we have family in Halifax, so we won’t be away for long. I got a good crop of images….which is always a relief. I never know what’s going to happen even with a plan and detailed shot list. I never know if I’m going to come home with good shots. My last two trips to the rockies before the Nova Scotia experience were not all that fruitful. Truth be told, I was in a 6 month slump and beginning to wonder if I needed to hang it up for good. Nova Scotia revived my interest in photography and travel. Though I felt a bit of pressure to make great images, I tried to keep that at bay as much as I could. I also need my wife to enjoy the experience. My work and her vacation often collide with friction and the results are mixed. I’m working on balancing the two.

I’ve learned, especially when it comes to landscape and wildlife photography, that I have no control over the conditions and have to do my best with what I’m given. I also find that when I’m relaxed and taking it slow, I tend to make more meaningful images. I just got back from the rockies, and made a hard, conscious effort to roll with the weather instead of trying to force things to work. I have some new images from Alberta’s mountains to share with you soon. Stay tuned.

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2 Years, 7 Canadian National Parks

This month marked the two-year anniversary of what my wife and I call, “The Great Move.” In June of 2017 we packed up and drove north…way north…from North Carolina to Alberta, Canada. This week also makes two years since I first visited the Canadian Rockies. Since, I’ve made over a dozen trips to those epic mountains and some of my favourite memories in nature.

In the last two years, I’ve enjoyed the privilege of visiting seven of Canada’s National Parks. Earlier this month I visited Cape Breton Highlands National Park in Nova Scotia (more on that in a later post), which was my seventh National Park and first National Park on the east coast. I’ve also visited 10 Provincial Parks in the provinces of Alberta, British Columbia, and Nova Scotia (11 overall if you count a very small Provincial Park on Grand Manan Island in New Brunswick several years ago). I’ve covered a lot of ground, but with each new destination it becomes increasingly apparent how vast and ecologically diverse this huge country is. I’ve barely scratched the surface. I’ve only been to 5 of Canada’s 10 provinces and have yet to visit any of the 3 massive northern territories. It should keep me busy for a lifetime.

Notable Places I’ve been within Canada:

Very soon I’ll be back in Rockies again. I’m hoping for great light and wildlife opportunities, but no time spent among the mountains is wasted. Until I return (and catch up on writing that Nova Scotia post), please enjoy this collection of images from the past two years exploring Canada’s wild places.

Postcards from Nova Scotia

I've spent the last week pouring over dozens of images from my recent trip to Nova Scotia. It was tricky weather, especially in Cape Breton. Spring was about two weeks behind schedule. It was cold, windy, wet, foggy, and almost leafless (there was even snow in the highlands!). Despite these challenges, I was still able to get a good crop of images.

Stay tuned for a full post about my trip to Halifax and Cape Breton Highlands National Park coming soon!

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Peggy’s Point Lighthouse, Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia

Peggy’s Point Lighthouse, Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia

Lackies Head, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

Lackies Head, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

Sunset at Lackies Head, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia

Sunset at Lackies Head, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia

Mary Ann Falls, Cape Breton Highlands National Park, Nova Scotia

Mary Ann Falls, Cape Breton Highlands National Park, Nova Scotia