Once a month, we’ll feature a wildlife hotspot. We want to aid you with getting ‘the shot’ in order to help rekindle your love for nature; to enable you to become inspired by wildlife; and to equip you to become an advocate for a wilder world at home.
This month’s focus:
Kananaskis Country is an expansive multi-use area that once hosted a G8 summit, but is, for the most part, Alberta’s best kept secret.
It’s a wilderness that is full of gems, but none greater than Peter Lougheed Provincial Park.
Located about a 45 minute drive southwest of Calgary and about a 15 minute drive southeast of Canmore/Banff National Park, the primary access road to Kananaskis and, eventually, Peter Lougheed, is Highway 40, an exit of the TransCanada. (You can also reach Peter Lougheed from Longview in the south and from a gravel road on the outskirts of Canmore.)
Past the Delta Ski Lodge (if travelling south from the TransCanada), wildlife – bighorn, elk, mule deer, coyote and moose – is common, but nothing compares to Highwood Pass and its incredible concentration of grizzly bears.
Highway 40 over the pass – the stretch of road between the junction to Upper and Lower Lakes in the north and Highwood Junction in the south – is closed from June 15 to December 1st. But in mid-summer, this bit of road is probably one of the best roads for grizzly bears in the world.
Highwood Pass, at 2,206m, is the highest road pass in Canada and one of the highest road passes in grizzly habitat in the world. As such, when the mid-summer temperatures get too hot for bears in the valley bottoms, grizzlies will wander to higher elevations, including Highwood Pass, in search of food and the cool.
And when the berry crop blooms in late July and early August, it’s a bear picnic.
From winter closure gate to winter closure gate, you’re in prime grizzly country, but keep your eyes peeled specifically from Rock Glacier to Lost Lemon Mine. We’ve never not seen a grizzly in this stretch of road.
We know of at least four different sows and two boars that can be found within a few kilometres of the pass. (Last year, Highway 40 was closed due to extreme floods in Alberta and, as such, we’re unsure of the number of surviving cubs/sub-adults on the pass.)
The one thing you can tell from our images is that these bears are exceptionally beautiful creatures – healthy and with unique markings.
There are three downsides to bear watching on Highwood Pass.
1. The bear conservation officers of Kananaskis are amongst the rudest individuals you will ever encounter.*
2. Some bears in the area wear more bling than an 80’s rapper – multiple ear tags, radio collars and even radio antennas.
3. The light is almost always awful – from low, dark clouds on a miserable day to dark shadows until, like a switch, it turns to harsh sunlight on nice days.
(Jill’s Edit: 4. The mosquitoes are double the size of any normal interpretation of these pesky insects. Bug spray, leather gloves, 3 hoods and 2 coats in combination do not seem to be able to prevent bites. Trust me. I’ve tried.)
That being said, there are so many bears in this small stretch of road, there are more grizzlies than rangers – and the rude rangers are not always on duty. Plus, the really wonderful part of grizzly encounters on Highwood is that you often have the sighting to yourself. And if someone does stop, you can be assured that they too will act responsibly and not leave their vehicle, unless it is safe.
If you spend the time looking, this might be one of the only road-accessible places in the world that almost guarantees a grizzly sighting.
Accessibility: Hwy 40 (south from TransCanada, north from Longview; southeast of Banff; southwest of Calgary)
Photographic Focus: Grizzly Bears
Best Time: 5-8am; 6-10pm
Season: Summer (June 15-October 15, especially good when the midsummer berries are ripe)
– Beware of bears at all times, even if you’re photographing one bear, another might be behind you.
– Be prepared to exclusively photograph from the car, given that many encounters are close.
– Have a camera and lens that allows you to shoot in low light situations.
– Be aware of local conservation officers and, if you have an inappropriate encounter, write and call the Government of Alberta to complain.
– Focus your search in the area between Rock Glacier and Lost Lemon Mine.
* Kananaskis is one of the few areas that still employ bear conservation tools that are out-dated and increasingly proven failures.
Their bear aversion techniques (rubber bullet-ing grizzlies not on the road, but feeding safely away from the road, in the narrow valley, but still within sight of the highway) are creating more aggressive back-country bears and conditioning the animals to run at the sound of cars. The latter point may sound like a positive, but it’s not.
In-part because officers fail to deal with the biggest issue (speeding), the conditioned bears run at the sound of traffic, often sprinting across the road. On blind corners. At least when the bears ambled across the road, drivers had time to react. No more.
Moreover, as soon as the car disappears, the bears re-appear. The result is disrupted feeding, more calories burned (devastating to animal that must fatten up for its winter sleep) and more bears crossing the road than ever before.
The rangers – rather than targeting speeders – have turned their sights on visitors and photographers. Though everyone to a person we’ve encountered at ‘jams’ are well behaved (probably because only one or two people will drive the road when you’re watching a bear), everyone is harassed and photographers are threatened with fines.
On at least four occasions, we’ve be threatened or have watched someone be threatened with fines that were completely fictitious. One conservation officer, so appalled that we stopped to photograph a bear from the car, with the vehicle pulled well off the road, told us to leave and never return – to the park. The C.O. then tailed our car to a washroom, miles away from the pass, and, when I went to the bathroom, stood outside until I returned to the car. Talk about intimidation tactics.