The new issue of PhotoLife Magazine and Photo Solution Magazine (Quebec) is out now! It features my latest article, which includes some of my favourite images from the Canadian Rockies and Iceland. I also reached out to a couple of my favourite Alberta-based photographers (Kyla Black and Olivier Du Tre) who also have images featured within the article. Check it out on magazine stands across Canada and subscribe! https://www.photolife.com/
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I never gave Canmore a chance before. It was always just a small area I stopped in to fill up the gas tank on my way to Banff. A couple weekends ago, I decided there had to be more to it. I booked an affordable last minute hotel in Canmore on booking.com deciding it was close enough to Banff to be a base for a long weekend photo trip/getaway for my wife and me. I was surprised to find that beyond the Trans-Canada Highway and behind the trees was a nice little mountain town nestled along the Bow River with all the necessities, and even a few good restaurants and decent shopping.
It was bloody cold. We had been experiencing an extended deep freeze up in Edmonton with high temps hovering around 0°F and below. The Rockies southwest of Edmonton are actually a bit warmer on average, but this weekend the temps in the Banff/Canmore areas dropped significantly below average. Each morning we went out for sunrise at -20°F or below with mid-day highs not much warmer. The sky was 100% cloudless the whole time. That might seem nice to most, but for photographers, it means almost colourless skies for sunrise and sunset. Of course, the temps rose back up into the 20s and 30s just after we left. My fingers froze with two pairs of insulated gloves on. My wife faired a bit better- she doesn’t have to take her hands out of the pockets of her parka to fiddle with cameras like I do. No frost-bite developed, though, I’m sure it came close.
The Problem with Canmore
I had a few locations I wanted to visit in and around town. Scouting them out on the first day, I found that, though Canmore is surrounded by beautiful dramatic mountain scenery (and has several large parks and lakes with mountain views), town planners had no interest in preserving the views. Every view of iconic peaks like Three Sisters and Ha Ling Peak along Canmore’s trails was blocked by crisscrossing power lines. It was frustrating; Banff and Jasper don’t really have this issue. I assume that’s why I don’t really see much landscape photography from the Canmore area despite it’s dramatic setting. Thankfully, you don’t have to go that far outside of the town’s boundaries to get to pristine natural areas.
Photographing Three Sisters
The best spot to shoot Canmore’s well-known mountains unobstructed is along Policeman Creek. It’s no secret. Though, it’s not the easiest location to get to, especially in deep winter in a couple feet of snow. This location is so frequented by photographers, however, that several trails had been worn into the snow already. Because most of the creeks and streams were frozen, it may have actually have been a bit easier to hike around in late winter than spring and summer.
This is not an official area with any sort of infrastructure for pedestrians. It’s not an official trail. You have to park at the small gravel lot for the off-leash dog area on the Bow Valley Trail (1A), walk across the road (often there’s lots of traffic), and then walk underneath the railroad tracks following the stream until you get to Policeman Creek and eventually the Bow River. The reward is unobstructed views of Three Sisters in a natural willow and evergreen forest. In winter at really low temps, mist rises off the Bow River and frosts the trees. It’s magical, but bitterly cold.
The snow was so tracked out it was difficult to find good foreground compositions, so I did my best framing tighter compositions to exclude human footprints. Had there been fresh snow, this would have been less of an issue.
Outside Canmore: Castle Mountain and Grotto Canyon
During our weekend in the Rockies the Bow Valley Parkway was closed for maintenance. It is one of my favourite drives in the Canadian Rockies, so it was unfortunate, but we were still able to visit Castle Junction near Banff for a sunset shoot. The light was good, but it was very windy on the Bow River. This was the coldest I’ve ever felt in my life! My hands have still not fully recovered.
Grotto Canyon is located along the Bow Valley Trail south of Canmore. It was a beautiful hike through dense snow covered evergreens that eventually opened up into a deep canyon with high vertical walls. The only issue is that there’s a magnesite plant located right next to the trail. For the first 1/2 hour of the hike, it’s loud and annoying. Once you reach the canyon, you can’t hear anything but nature- thank goodness. The best part of this hike for me was seeing the 500-1000 year old pictographs painted on the canyon walls. They’re eroding away with time and most aren’t easy to make out (people also like to rub them for good luck, or to posses shamanistic powers, or because they’re gluten free…I don’t know why people need to touch them…). A few are still pretty visible. Being alone in the canyon by the pictographs is like stepping back in time.
On our way farther down the Bow Valley Trail, we came across bighorn sheep grazing on a hillside with a dramatic mountain backdrop. There are few places to pull over on this road. We found a trailhead parking lot and managed to get close enough photograph the sheep (all female) with a long lens without disturbing them. I’m always hoping for a good wildlife encounter on these trips, so I’m glad I at least got to spend time watching these sheep.
A Photographer’s Gotta Eat
Despite nearly freezing to death each day, we did eat well and warm ourselves in some very cozy restaurants. My favourite thing about Canmore is actually the food. I’ve never been impressed with Banff’s pricey restaurants, and Jasper practically has none (I’m exaggerating…it has very few). We ate at the Famous Chinese Restaurant twice because it’s the best (American-style) Chinese we’ve had since moving to Canada. There are things on their menu I haven’t eaten since leaving the U.S. We loved it, and it’s cheap. We also enjoyed amazing bagel sandwiches and coffee at Rocky Mountain Bagel Co. After our frigid sunrise hike around Policeman Creek, we stuffed ourselves with a nice hot breakfast at Craig’s Way Station. Those pancakes sure hit the spot!
Overall it was an excellent weekend, and I came away with few decent images and ideas for summer and fall shoots. I plan on staying in Canmore again as an alternative to pricey and touristy Banff, if not for the nature, then for my new favourite restaurants.
Thanks for reading and happy shooting!