Alberta

Seasonal Transitions, White-tailed Jackrabbit

Sometimes I don’t have to go far for wildlife opportunities. I live in a city of almost a million people, yet native animals can be found right outside my door. Alberta’s white-tailed jackrabbits have suffered habitat loss due to farming on the prairies, but are thriving in the city limits where they have few predators and an abundance of food. As long as they watch for traffic, they have little to fear on the streets of Edmonton, even in the town’s most populated neighbourhoods.

In winter, these large hares are pristine white and blend in with the snow perfectly. In spring, just as the snow melts and muddy earth tones return, the rabbit’s fur changes along with it, gradually changing from winter white to brown.

White-tailed Jackrabbit in spring, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada (Nikon D750,  Nikon 200-500mm f5.6 VR , 500mm, f/5.6, 1/1000 sec, ISO 1600)

White-tailed Jackrabbit in spring, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada (Nikon D750, Nikon 200-500mm f5.6 VR, 500mm, f/5.6, 1/1000 sec, ISO 1600)

Winter in Canmore, Alberta

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.

One of the few views of Three Sisters (two of the three) in Canmore free of power lines. Shot from a bridge in town centre.

One of the few views of Three Sisters (two of the three) in Canmore free of power lines. Shot from a bridge in town centre.

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.

The Peaks of Three Sisters at Sunrise, Canmore, Alberta

The Peaks of Three Sisters at Sunrise, Canmore, Alberta

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.

Mist rising from the Bow River at -30°F, Canmore, Alberta

Mist rising from the Bow River at -30°F, Canmore, Alberta

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.

Ha Ling Peak and the Bow River at Sunrise, Canmore, Alberta

Ha Ling Peak and the Bow River at Sunrise, Canmore, Alberta

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.

Castle Mountain Sunset, Banff, Alberta

Castle Mountain Sunset, Banff, Alberta

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.

Pictographs in Grotto Canyon, Alberta

Pictographs in Grotto Canyon, Alberta

Close-up of 500-1000 year-old Pictograph, Grotto Canyon, Alberta

Close-up of 500-1000 year-old Pictograph, Grotto Canyon, Alberta

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.

Rocky Mountain Bighorns, Canmore, Alberta

Rocky Mountain Bighorns, Canmore, Alberta

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.

B-Roll:

Thanks for reading and happy shooting!

5 More Awesome Photo Locations in Banff

Photographers are getting ever more stingy with their “secret” spots lately. It’s for good reason. The impact of tourism (including us serious photographers) on the land has become a burdon for our natural areas and wildlife. It’s ironic that in an effort to spend time in, and gain greater appreciation for, the great outdoors we’ve actually been causing loads of damage. The instagram culture of “influencers” has spawned a new kind of 21st century gold rush. Instead of searching for valuable metals and gems, people now flock to National Parks for pictures and likes and attention. For serious nature photographers, the crowds of selfie-stick wielding tourists are annoying, but we are responsible for much of the damage too.

The locations I mention in this post are well-known and easy to get to from the Banff townsite. No secrets here. Like many, I reserve some special places for myself, but I believe in sharing locations that are less vulnerable and can handle the foot traffic. Make sure that if you visit these amazing places, you leave no trace of your presence, respect wildlife and give them space, and take nothing but pictures.

1. Castle Mountain

Reflection of the peaks of Castle Mountain in the Bow River

Reflection of the peaks of Castle Mountain in the Bow River

Castle Mountain towers over the Bow River Valley. If you’re driving along the Trans-Canada Highway (Highway 1) near Banff you can’t miss it’s looming spires. It’s a great subject year-round. My favourite spots to photograph it from are along the rocky banks of the Bow River. A popular access point is Castle Junction, located at the intersection of Highway 1 and the Bow Valley Parkway just north of Banff. There’s a fence to block wildlife from getting onto the road. Visitors are allowed to open the gate and enter at the bridge over the Bow River at Castle Junction, but make sure you close it behind you after entering and exiting.

2. banff viewpoint

Banff Townsite from Banff Viewpoint

Banff Townsite from Banff Viewpoint

Want that epic postcard-ass shot of Banff townsite from above? Banff Viewpoint is an official “park and peek” along Mt. Norquay Road just north of Banff. It takes only 10 minutes to reach this spot from downtown. Just know that the road is steep and windy. It can be very slippery in winter. The view is one of the best in the Banff area (without having to hike half a day up a mountain). This point provides great views of the town, surrounding mountains, and Vermillion Lakes.

Vermillion Lakes from Banff Viewpoint in Autumn

Vermillion Lakes from Banff Viewpoint in Autumn

3. two jack lake

Two Jack Lake at Sunrise

Two Jack Lake at Sunrise

Two Jack lake is a popular spot for landscape photographers. When I was there, I was the first to arrive at twilight. Soon there were several others sharing the same small stretch of lakeshore. It’s popular because it’s very close to downtown Banff and provides excellent (and relatively easy) compositional opportunities for photographers. There is an island of spruce trees that gives much needed visual interest when framing Mount Rundle on the horizon. On clear winter mornings, expect a bit of alpenglow on Mount Rundle’s peaks. In summer the mountain can glow from base to peak when the sun is very low. This is great spot at either sunrise or sunset.

4. bow valley parkway

Elk in deep snow, Bow Valley Parkway

Elk in deep snow, Bow Valley Parkway

The Bow Valley Parkway runs parallel to the Trans-Canada Highway north of Banff heading in the direction of Lake Louise. I suggest taking it to Castle Junction. Drive slowly and keep your eyes peeled; this is a great area to spot wildlife. There are several road-side pull-offs where you can watch wildlife like elk, moose, and deer graze. Occasional grizzly and wolf sightings are also reported along this route in spring and fall. Wildlife often use the road as their own highway for convenience, so make sure to drive the speed limit or less.

The Bow Valley Parkway also holds opportunities for landscape photographers. There are several spots along the route that provide great views of the surrounding mountain ranges as well as the railroad, which runs along the Bow River. In early autumn, birches and aspens can be photographed in full golden colour.

5. waterfowl lakes

Waterfowl Lakes Sunrise

Waterfowl Lakes Sunrise

The Icefields Parkway is famous for awesome scenery. One of the most convenient stops is Waterfowl Lakes, which is a few large iridescent blue lakes surrounded by epic mountains. The pull-off is right by the road, no hiking in, which makes this a convenient stop for sunrise or sunset.

I photographed this scene on a whim. I was leaving Banff with my wife, and we happened to be passing Waterfowl Lakes around sunrise. For a few brief minutes a pink column of cloud lit up the otherwise monochrome sky. I pulled over, hopped out of the car, and took two quick shots by the lakeside before the light faded. Sometimes things just come together.

To read the original post, 5 Awesome Photo Locations in Banff, click here.

Alberta's Elk Island Bison

Somewhat ironically, Alberta’s Elk Island National Park is more famous for its bison than elk. I’ve been fortunate enough to spot the elusive elk on a few occasions (there are approximately 400-500 elk in the park and yet they are rarely seen by casual visitors), but it’s the bison herds that make themselves known with their gigantic bodies dotting the landscape. They are often hanging out in herds of several dozen in the open fields and along the gravel roads that penetrate the dense boreal forests. I’ve made many trips to Elk Island NP, it’s located only a 40 minute drive from downtown Edmonton, Alberta. I love it there in all seasons. It provides me with necessary breaks from city life, for which I may ultimately be ill-suited.

A Brief History of Elk Island

Elk Island National Park is located just east of Edmonton, Alberta. It is composed of 194 square kilometres of boreal plain, forest, and wetland. Several large lakes are in its protected boundaries, as well as seemingly countless smaller lakes and ponds. The area was established as a big game sanctuary in 1906, after several Albertans petitioned the government to protect some of the last remaining elk herds in Canada. It is also the first federally protected wildlife area in Canada. In 1930, Elk Island became a national park. The name “Elk Island” refers to the elk for which the area was established to protect, as well as the islands that dot Astotin Lake.

In 1906 there were only 24 elk, a few moose, and a dwindling number of mule deer within Elk Island’s boundaries. Bison were reintroduced from Montana and arrived in Elk Island in 1909. The eradicated population of beaver was also reintroduced in 1942. Thanks to conservation efforts, populations of wildlife proliferated. Elk Island National Park is a conservation success story. Today thousands of visitors come from all over Canada to enjoy birding, camping, canoeing, hiking, northern lights viewing, and to see bison in the wild. The elk population has rebounded to over 400, and moose are a fairly common sight near the lakes in fall and winter.

There are two major herds of wild bison in Elk Island: plains bison and wood bison. The plains herd is located in the northern section of the park, north of Alberta Highway 16. The wood bison herd is located in the woodland to the south of the highway. This separation keeps the two groups from interbreeding. At present there are around 400 plains and 300 wood bison in Elk Island. Elk Island’s population has helped repopulate bison in other parts of North America as well; they were recently reintroduced in Banff National Park and have been used to increase herds in the United States. According to Parks Canada, “If you see a bison in Canada, chances are they came from Elk Island National Park at some point!” For more information on the parks history, visit the Elk Island National Park webpage.

Photographing Bison in Elk Island National Park

Despite their size and relative abundance, bison can sometimes be hard to find in Elk Island. The roads and trails within the park only provide visitors with easy access to a small part of the protected area. Most of the time a large herd of plains bison can be spotted grazing in the fields near the gravel road labelled “Bison Loop.” They are also often seen near the forest edge in the newly opened turnout across from the Bison Loop. I’ve had much better luck locating plains bison than wood bison, as they are usually out in the open. Wood bison can only be accessed by a trail that loops through the forest (accessible on the south side of the highway).

The plains herd can often be photographed from the safety of a vehicle. You don’t want to approach bison (approaching a bull is illegal). It is against park regulations to get any closer than 100 metres on foot. Bison will often get pretty close to your vehicle. They don’t seem to be very skittish of cars, but people on foot can freak them out. They seem docile, like cows grazing in a field, but they are very dangerous and surprisingly fast animals. I’ve watched a spooked herd of a few dozen bison cut and run in a thunderous dusty rumble across the fields and roads of Elk Island simply because a person got out of their car. You don’t want fifty 2,000 lb bison running at you!

For the best photographic results, I use either a 70-200mm or 200-500mm lens. Often large bulls will be hanging out alone near the road sides, so the shorter telephoto is sufficient. My bison portraits have been made using the Nikon 200-500mm VR, most of them handheld from my SUV. I’d like to point out here that I’m very ethically conscious when it comes to photographing wildlife, especially in winter when animals shouldn’t be stressed out because their energy and food supply is low; a picture is never worth disturbing the subject. The few times I’ve photographed bison on foot were from a safe distance on a hiking trail or a stand of trees at least 100 metres away from the nearest animal. Don’t make a lot of noise, sudden movements, and never approach directly. If an animal changes it’s behaviour at your presence, you’re too close!

Go Out, Stay Out

Elk Island National Park is an amazing place. It really is a privilege for me to be so close by. Some of my favourite images that I’ve ever made were made there. I’ve had many wonderful experiences, from listening to loons calling and elk bugling while the northern lights dance above me, to watching large bison walk across vast frozen lakes. It’s a special place.

Want to see more from Elk Island National Park? Here are a few other articles I’ve written:
How to Photograph the Northern Lights
A Frozen Landscape: Winter in Elk Island National Park
Elk Island National Park Mini-Guide