Column Date 2006-09-24

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

Before I left for the Canadian Rockies last month, I had some strange thoughts:

“Hey, mountains are nice,” one of them said, “but you’ve already seen 14,000-footers in Colorado and hiked through the Swiss Alps -- how many more mountains do you need on your life list?”

“You really go to Canada for the wildlife,” another thought said. “Check out all those grizzlies, black bears, moose, elk and caribou!”

Coming face to face with nature in the raw sounded great and so, fully equipped to see Canada’s big game (hiking boots, digital camera, binoculars, bear bells, pepper spray), my wife and I met friends from Australia and took off for the Canadian Rockies.

The first whoop of excitement came from our Australian friends: “Look! Isn’t that a chipmunk? We don’t have them back in Sydney. That’s the first one I’ve ever seen!”

Yes, indeed, it was a chipmunk. Our friends were thrilled and tried to take a photo for proof, but the chipmunk was too fast for them and vanished under a log.

“Why, of course,” smiled the man in Banff, ”we’ve got bears all over the place.” He pointed to a sign at the head of a hiking trail that read: “WARNING! Bear in area. Travel with caution.”

The trail, however, led directly past a store selling snacks and postcards, and then onto a catwalk that ran along a canyon. I didn’t really think the bear would be tempted by Licorice Twizzlers or a photo of an elk on a postcard, and I was right. No sign of a bear anyplace.

Then our Aussie friends hit paydirt again: “A squirrel! Quick, get the camera – don’t see those at home, mate!”

Up in Jasper, our B&B host assured us that we had come at the ideal time to see elk. “The elk are rutting right now. They gather in the big field at the edge of town at dusk – hundreds of them! Just drive down after dinner.”

We did. And the first thing we saw was a sign that said: “ATTENTION! Elk mating season. Bull elk are dangerous. Stay back 30 metres.” It was signed by the Government of Canada, so we knew this was the real thing.

Cruising slowly by the field, we finally spotted one lonely shadow in the distance. At least our Aussie friends spotted it – my wife wasn’t sure there was really anything out there. We all decided it might be an elk...or a caribou...or possibly a big shadow.

But, just for the record, we actually did see wildlife in the Canadian Rockies.

(Note: I have resisted the temptation that causes tourists to Africa to become competitive and lie about the number of animals they’ve seen on safari. “You only saw two lions? Well, our van saw eight lions eating a zebra, plus a herd of elephants, some hyenas and a leopard – all in the first morning’s game drive.” Don’t laugh. It happens all the time.)

Here is an honest list of everything we saw:

Chipmunks (2)
Squirrels, various colors (17)
Woodpecker, red-headed (1)
Bear, black, in the far distance (1)
Elk (2), one of them was wearing a red collar
Mounties (0)
Beavers (0)

It was good to get out of the wild and back to civilization.

©2006 Peter Tannen