EXPLORING THE ICEFIELDS PARKWAY, PART II, JASPER & BANFF NATIONAL PARK
I drove into the Canadian Rockies last week in hopes of photographing a particular species: Rocky Mountain Big Horn Sheep. I grew up watching Marty Stauffer's Wild America, and big horns were sort of the trademark animal of the series, celebrated in various episodes. I always dreamed of visiting the rocky mountains and seeing large rams butt heads on high mountain meadows - or at least standing proudly on a cliff overlooking snow-capped peaks. Alas, no rams on the way into Jasper National Park, just a few ewes high up on craggy ledges. I stopped for a few shots and moved on, later exiting onto the Icefields Parkway on one of the hottest and haziest days of the summer.
It must have been too hot for wildlife that day. I expected to see more elk, as I had photographed them each time I'd driven down the Icefields Parkway before, but no elk, no bears, not even a raven for miles. I stopped at the "Goat Overlook" (the sign reads "Goats and Glaciers", but I didn't see any goats or glaciers...) and walked the short trail to the edge of the cliff overlooking the Athabasca River with Mount Christie and Brussels Peak on the horizon. I saw the potential for an image there, so I decided that would be my sunset location. I was hoping for goats; the sign implies that they hang out there after all, but nothing was stirring but a few Canada Geese at the edge of the river.
Happy Little Trees
As the sun got lower, I set up for a some exposures at "Goats and Glaciers." I framed the river and mountains and decided that wasn't enough, so I then added two wiggly spruce trees to the left of the frame (thinking, "let's put a happy little tree right over here and give him a little friend"), which added a much needed foreground element. The sunset didn't quite create the dramatic sky I was hoping for. After taking those shots, I drove down to the next overlook by the river bank, stepped out into the river on some stones and framed a simple shot of a few whispy pink clouds over the mountains with the cool glacial river flowing by. All campsites nearby were full, so I went back to "Goats and Glaciers" and set up camp in the back of my Jeep. I didn't sleep much. The park was so busy with folks trying to get campsites at nearby Honeymoon Lake, it was like sleeping next to a highway. Not quite the peaceful night I was hoping for after a day trekking around the mountains in the heat.
Saskatchewan River Crossing & Peyto Lake
I awoke literally one minute before my alarm went off at 4:29 AM. My research suggested that it would take me 1 hour to drive to Peyto Lake in Banff National Park from my "campsite." I hit the road 1 1/2 hours before sunrise time, excited by the prospect of visiting Banff for the first time and capturing sunrise at iconic Peyto Lake. Things didn't quite go according to plan... When I arrived at the mid-point of my journey, Saskatchewan Crossing, sunrise was already in peak color. It was a great one, much better than last evening's sunset. I realized I wasn't going to make it to Peyto Lake, so I pulled over at the bridge and took a few shots just before the light faded away. It wasn't what I had planned, but it was a great location and all the elements came together in a few photographs I'm proud of. It would take another 45 minutes to arrive at Peyto Lake, plus the 10 minute hike into the woods to get to the best location.
There was no color left in the sky when I arrived at Peyto Lake. I wasn't that disappointed; this was one of the best vistas I've ever seen anywhere! Other than one artist sitting on the wooden deck painting the scene, I had the place to myself. It was early enough no one else was out. I took a few shots. The sky had some puffy white clouds rolling across the blue sky, but the mountains were dark as the sun had not yet emerged from behind one of the eastern mountains. I went back to the car for breakfast and waited until the the sun's rays began to light the peaks of the mountains to the west. I grabbed my gear and ran out through the woods to the overlook to find a couple dozen people crowding the edge (and a drone buzzing overhead sounding like a pissed-off honey bee). I wedged my way through and shot several images from different locations all along the sandy bank high above the emerald colored lake. Golden light hit the mountains and clouds rolled quickly across the sky. I shot away, then opted to go for a time-lapse video. I would've liked to have been there for the colorful sunrise earlier, but I'm not disappointed in the images I did get. It's a magical place. I won't stay away long.
Return to Goats & Glaciers
I made two stops on my way back north along the Icefields Parkway at Rampart Creek and Tangle Falls. I had Rampart Creek all to myself. It was a peaceful location. I made several long exposures of water rushing over colorful stones with a glorious mountain in the background using a 6 stop neutral density filter. I sat at the edge watching a golden mantled ground squirrel gather seeds for about a half hour.
Tangle Falls was a different experience all together. It's a famous waterfall that cascades dramatically down a few cliffside steps around 100-150 feet in all. I arrived to find several others climbing around the falls. I took two long exposures with the 6 stop ND to try and blur the people out of the scene with no luck. The sun came out and dappled the scene in harsh flat light. I decided to save Tangle Falls for another time.
I arrived at "Goats and Glaciers" around mid-day to find a family of Mountain Goats grazing by the road. They lumbered off into the woods toward the overlook where I had been the evening before as a few tourists approached them for selfies (this drives me insane - please do not approach wildlife). I parked and went into the woods behind them indirectly and from a generous distance with nothing but my Nikon D7100 and 70-200 f2.8 lens. I followed their fresh tracks in the sand until I reached the steep banks of the Athabasca. I looked over the cliff and scanned the river's edge, but saw no goats. They had a hiding spot. A few minutes of scanning, and a goat popped up, then another. I took a few shots. They saw me and went back into hiding. I knew they would have to come back up sooner or later. I sat in the woods in between some juniper bushes for only a few moments when they emerged. If I remember correctly, there were six total. One billy, a few nannies, and two kids, all fluffy and white. I did the "looking for my wallet" routine so they didn't think I was out to get them. When they relaxed, they came closer, and I fired off several shots as they meandered through the bush only feet away from me at a slow pace, eventually disappearing into the woods. Though I saw no big horn rams this trip, I'm happy to have a had a few peaceful moments with this family of mountain goats!
Go. Do. See.
I'm lucky to live near so much amazing nature and wildlife here in western Canada. I'm getting to spend time with animals I'd dreamed of seeing my whole life. Every time I go out into the rockies, it's harder to leave. I encourage all to visit the amazing natural places in North America, just do so with respect. Don't approach wildlife directly, give them plenty of space. Take time to observe and learn things instead of snapping a quick cell phone pic and moving on. The wonders of the natural world are delicate and fleeting, so are we, enjoy it while it lasts.