wildlife

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.

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.

Behind the Image(s): Atlantic Puffins

My father-in-law owns a very old house by the sea on an island called Grand Manan, which I have had the privilege of visiting three times. Grand Manan is a two-hour ferry ride, over cold restless waters, from mainland New Brunswick, Canada. The house, which is at least 150 years old, is situated at Seal Cove on the southeast side of the main island. It’s a small community. Tired old fishermen’s houses, salmon smoking sheds, a seasonal bed and breakfast, and one sparsely stocked convenience store are all that corner of the island has to offer. You don’t go to Grand Manan for the food scene, or nightlife, or architectural grandeur. None of that exists. What the island does have is an abundance of beautiful shoreline and wildlife viewing opportunities.

This is one of those “must visit” (I despise that overused term in travel writing, but bare with me…) places for birders, which makes it a great place for photographers. The ever famous and adorable Atlantic Puffin nests in the region. Grand Manan, itself, hosts a small seasonal population on the south side of the island, but if you really want to go where the action is and see these critters up close, you have to take a chartered boat a couple hours south of Grand Manan to Machias Seal Island. A puffin colony hundreds strong nests on the rocky shores of Machias each summer. Due to predation, habitat loss, and climate change, the Machias Seal Island colony is dwindling. Fortunately, I was there just at the right time to observe hundreds of mating pairs of puffins as well as a few other sea bird species.

Machias Seal Island Puffin Sanctuary

The trip began by booking a tour from one of the very few providers allowed to visit Machias Seal Island from Grand Manan. Nothing was guaranteed, not seeing puffins, or the weather to allow us to go out on the choppy north Atlantic waters. My wife and I hopped on the boat with a dozen others at 7am. We received instructions from the burly captain and first mate on how to behave while on the island and some useful information about a few other species of wildlife we may encounter en route.

This was my first ever trip specifically for the purpose of photographing wildlife. I owned a decent telephoto zoom and my first decent DSLR. I was beyond excited.

Atlantic Puffin, Machias Seal Island, Canada, 2011 (Canon EOS 30D, Canon 70-300mm IS)

Atlantic Puffin, Machias Seal Island, Canada, 2011 (Canon EOS 30D, Canon 70-300mm IS)

After a long and bumpy ride of being wind-blasted on an open vessel, we arrived near the rocky shore of Machias Seal Island. We took a much smaller dory the rest of the way. A short walk on a slippery dock brought us to another large and intimidating islander (with a very large camera lens), who further briefed us on how to conduct ourselves in a way that would not disturb or endanger the animals. Aside from a lighthouse, the island was bare except for a few wooden blinds and boardwalks. The island is small and desolate, with little vegetation and a terrain covered in large boulders. Much to my delight, despite the desolation of the land, it was covered in puffins. Hundreds of them!

We were split into small groups and ushered quickly to our blinds. Though the journey took a couple hours, we were only given 45 minutes of puffin watching. By this time it was mid day and swelteringly hot inside the blinds – which were small – barely big enough for the four of us in it. The windows were only about 6 inches square, just big enough to shoot through (we are not allowed to stick anything, including lenses, outside of the windows). I’m not sure how shooting with larger lenses could work here; I could barely turn around with my compact 70-300mm zoom handheld.

Atlantic Puffins, Machias Seal Island, New Brunswick, Canada, 2011 (Canon EOS 30D, Canon 70-300mm IS)

Atlantic Puffins, Machias Seal Island, New Brunswick, Canada, 2011 (Canon EOS 30D, Canon 70-300mm IS)

The late morning light was harsh and poor quality, but there were birds everywhere I looked, so I didn’t fret about it. I fired away, filling up cards with hundreds of shots. I shot wide, medium, and close up portraits. I’d never been in a situation where I wanted fewer animals in the frame before. The chaos of thousands of birds (both puffins and rare razorbill auks) made getting tight simple shots difficult. I started focusing on the puffins nearer to the blind where numbers were fewer. I looked for interaction between mating pairs, who hid their nests under boulders and out of sight. Birds were flying out to sea and back with fish, but I was never able to get the classic “beak full of fish shot.” The limited maneuverability in the blind made panning in-flight shots difficult. I kept shooting portraits. 300mm wasn’t necessary at such close range, even though puffins are very small. Most of the images from this trip were shot between 100 and 200mm for portraits. The birds don’t mind the blinds, and as long as windows are only open on one side at a time, they don’t seem to notice the people in them.

Atlantic Puffin Taking Flight, Machias Seal Island, Canada, 2011 (Canon EOS 30D, Canon 70-300mm IS)

Atlantic Puffin Taking Flight, Machias Seal Island, Canada, 2011 (Canon EOS 30D, Canon 70-300mm IS)

It was an amazing experience I think every photographer should have. Puffins on the North American side of the Atlantic are growing fewer in number by the year. It was a privilege to get to spend time photographing so many of them at once. We were lucky that year. The following summer we tried to book another tour, but were told there were so few birds on the island that it wasn’t worth the trip.

Puffins spend most of the year solitarily on the open sea, which makes them difficult to study. They congregate, reuniting with their mates, each summer for a few short weeks on rocky cliffs and small islands like Machias. Little is known about their life on the open Atlantic. Biologists are trying to find ways to increase puffin numbers, but the troubles these comical little birds face are many. I would recommend seeing them in the wild as soon as you can as sustainable ecotourism helps support conservation efforts.

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)