By Julie Jans
n Jasper or Banff National Park there are certainly fewer bears than one might first imagine. According to the 1998 Visitor's Guide, Banff had an estimated grizzly population of less than 100 and about 50 to 60 black bears. Jasper has just over 100 grizzlies and close to 100 black bears. There are not a great number of wolves or moose in the National Parks.
Elk, bighorn sheep and mountain goats are more numerous and have discovered they are safer from predators while remaining in close proximity to town, particularly in Jasper where they are more visible. Elk stroll confidently through the downtown area while bighorn sheep are often found very close to the edge of town.
Mountain goats regularly hold up traffic near Jasper's east gate. Young goats can be seen scampering up and down rocky inclines, then darting across the highway. For some reason, the young always seem to end up on the opposite side of the highway from their mothers. If the frolicking youngsters tire, they may simply stop right in the middle of the road and their mothers may join them and soon the whole herd may be peacefully dozing, completely unfazed by honking horns or people gawking at them.
I have been amused watching young sheep playfully leaping over guard rails by Abraham Lake. It has not been too hard get photos of sheep, goats or elk. The main trick has been to capture them on film with a pleasing composition and looking natural, without evidence of the human element. Other wildlife is not so easily photographed.
Last spring, I once again headed to Jasper to photograph wildlife and the splendid scenery, and was lucky enough to observe a bear or two from the safety of my car without having to hike for miles lugging equipment. I enjoy the security and convenience of remaining in my vehicle or close to it. It allows me a sense of security, enabling me to concentrate on my camera and there are many telephoto lenses today that allow an individual to obtain close-ups without getting too close.
After entering the east gates of Jasper National Park I turned off on the Pocohontas Road. Before I had gone more than a few kilometres, I stopped at a waterfall. Beside the, falls there was a large ravine and in the middle of the ravine, a large poplar tree. Up near the top was a bear cub. A less visible cub was in another poplar close by. Momma bear, nervous about the number of people at the falls, had sent her cubs up to safety. She herself was prowling around in the dense underbrush up near the roadside, investigating a few people standing there. She was practically invisible in the bush, her black coat blending perfectly into the shadows. Wisely, people moved away once they saw her.
The next morning as the eastern sky began to grow grey, I was off down Maligne Lake Road and stopped at Medicine Lake to take in the view and to stretch my legs. There wasn't another soul around and in the silence, mist rising off the lake cloaked the surroundings in mystic surrealism. I walked up to a roadside dumpster beside some tall pines and noticed a black shadow moving beneath the lower branches. It was a large blackbear. Cautiously, I backtracked to my car and watched as it grazed on dandelions and grass at the road edge. It glanced at my car from time to time as it munched away, but otherwise seemed untroubled by my lens poking through the open window. The bear stayed only long enough for me to take a few pictures before he ambled off down the slope towards the lake, eventually disappearing into the mist.
Elated, I continued on toward Maligne Lake and after an hour or so, I was on my way back towards Maligne Canyon. As I slowly came around a bend in the road, a young grizzly, golden fur glistening in the just risen sun, was surprised by my car as he crossed the road. Grizzly bears are not so tolerant as black bears are of human presence. I came to this conclusion after the young grizzly stopped momentarily, stood upright, motionless and then vanished in a flash up a steep slope into the forest. I couldn't believe how fast he could move.
I drove slowly on and further down the same road. At a lower elevation I came across another black bear but by this time there were a few other motorists on the road. A few of us pulled over to watch the bear eating dandelions. I was pleased to see that nobody attempted to disturb or approach the bear. As if in compensation, the bear grazed peacefully along the roadside allowing everyone to watch and take pictures from their cars. A few other motorists who came upon the scene drove slowly by, their delight at seeing a bear clearly evident upon their faces.
After a day of photographing deer, elk and a pair of moose, I headed south away from Jasper along Highway 93, to the Saskatchewan River Crossing. It's always an interesting drive, with many areas to pull over and scan the geological history illustrated in those massive mountains. Thrust lines, different coloured shales, sandstone and slate demonstrate unimaginable forces that four billion years ago thrust tetonic plates together, forcing ancient sea beds skyward and forming mountains in the process.
Fossilized specimens from the Precambrian era over four billion years ago have been found throughout the Rockies but particularly south from Jasper. I was shown a fossilized imprint of an ancient seashell discovered on top of Old Baldy Mountain near Nordegg by the firewatch a few years ago. As I held the small sandstone in my hand, I realized I was holding a piece of history billions of years old and that our world has continuously undergone slow but dramatic changes and that it continues to change. The slow pile-up of ancient sea bottoms as they were lifted, folded and broken is especially evident in the Kootenay Plains area just east of Saskatchewan River Crossing.
As tetonic plates collided and ripped apart, volcanic actions increased land mass on what was once the western coast of the continent. The sheer weight caused the coastline to sink, and approximately 1.7 billion years ago, Alberta's western borders were the shorelines of the Pacific. Sediment layers that had taken millions of years to accumulate were lifted from the sea floors and mountain formation commenced. When such colossal forces fractured the earth's crust, molten magma surfaced, baking surrounding sediments into solid granite. In the late Mesozoic era, the upward lifting of the sea floor and the sheer weight of forming mountains caused the North American plate to sag and move westward. As all this happened, what is now British Columbia was eventually formed and welded to Alberta.
In the meantime, the Arctic Sea swept in and out of the plains to the cast several times over millions of years, eventually forming the Alberta Basin. New mountains continually formed and were then pushed eastwards. The finishing touches of the Rocky Mountain formation took place in the Cenozoic era about 65 million years ago. The mountains along Highway 93 and those of the Kootenay Plains best tell this most dramatic story. It is also in these mountains that much of our wildlife exists today.
Human intrusion into such areas is causing changes, some of which now puts increasing pressure upon wildlife habitat. Creatures such as elk and coyotes have demonstrated the ability to adapt, and fairly quickly. Still, there are nagging questions about the ability of other wildlife to adapt quickly enough to survive. Once the ecological balance is upset beyond a certain point, all wildlife in the Rockies may become imperilled. Barren of wildlife, our mountains would seem desolate, empty. It is the opportunity to see creatures in a wild and natural state that touches the human spirit. Deep in our genetic past, perhaps we are reminded of our most ancient, wild ancestors, and envy the wild freedom we can never re-experience.
Eastbound from the Saskatchewan crossing I came across another black bear. I would never have noticed him if I had not pulled over to look at some rock formations. He was off to the right, sprawled out in a lush patch of dandelions. Only his head and shoulders were visible. Bears, I was beginning to understand, love dandelions. In early spring they are an important food source. The bear was only a few feet away, so blissfully gorging himself that he was totally unconcerned about the presence of my car. It was late afternoon, and the sun was warm. Every once in awhile Mr. Bruin would stretch out and seemed about ready for a snooze, but only for a moment or two. Then he would begin to eat again, his eyes contentedly half closed as he swept clumps of dandelions with his paws into his mouth. I must have sat for an hour, watching, taking pictures of him through the open car window. Finally, he got up and waddled down toward a small creek that flowed at the base of a small slope. The photo session was over.
I considered myself fortunate to see several bears in one trip. As much as I enjoy the scenery, the fresh air, the smell of pine, the clear water of lakes and streams, it is the possibility of seeing wildlife in a natural setting that draws me to the mountains. There are times I have travelled through our mountains and have seen very little in the way of wildlife, and always on such trips I have felt disappointed. But knowing that truly wild creatures exist there keeps me going back.
The fascination I have for wildlife is one that is shared by many other people. We humans are intrigued by life forms other than our own kind. This is perhaps evident in the countless dollars spent on exploring the very depths of our universe in search of other life. Learning about other species that exist today and others that existed millions of years ago develops in us an appreciation and awe of the forces of nature. We may even find definition for our own existence. Hopefully, we all will eventually come to the clear conclusion that we are also a part of nature, not separate from it. We need to protect our wildlife. If species perish just because of our own carelessness, then perhaps we too will share that same destiny. In the meantime, I wish to share through my pictures, glimpses of bears who love dandelions.
Julie Jans - Photographer