Alberta 2012: Mt. Edith Cavell

Hoary Marmot

On Thursday afternoon we visited another famous Jasper mountain, Mount Edith Cavell. The snow-covered, craggy peak of this mountain dominates the skyline south of the town of Jasper, and it is about a 45-minute drive from the townsite. It is reached by taking Highway 93A to Cavell Road, and following Cavell Road twelve kilometers to the parking lot at the end. Cavell Road is narrow and has sharp turns and tight switchbacks that are unsuitable for trailers and large motor-homes, which should be left in a parking area at the beginning of the road. While it wasn’t quite a “white-knuckle” ride up the mountain to the parking lot, the road was steep enough and narrow enough to make me uneasy. There were no shoulders….the white line at the edge of the pavement was all that separated the road from the rocky slope on one side and the vegetation on the other.

After navigating the last of the hairpin turns, the road travels through the Astoria Valley to the parking lot. We were driving along this section when Doran suddenly stopped the car. Given that there is no shoulder, this meant stopping right in the middle of the lane. He then rolled down his window so I could see the female Spruce Grouse standing right on the edge of the road (note the rocky slope right next to the painted white line!).

Female Spruce Grouse

She seemed quite unafraid as I took a couple of pictures through the car window, and even when three or four cars drove by in the opposite direction. I began to fear that she would step out into the road and into the traffic, but fortunately she turned around and disappeared into the vegetation instead.

Female Spruce Grouse

There are a couple of pull-offs along the way to Mount Edith Cavell; we stopped at both of them to view the mountains surrounding the Astoria Valley.

Throne Mountain

Franchere Peak (left) and Aquila Mountain (center)

Looking ahead, Mount Edith Cavell seemed to loom over the road.

Road to Mt. Edith Cavell

When we arrived in the parking lot, the first thing I noticed was a Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel darting between parked cars, looking for food. Then I saw a large gray and black bird fly in and land on a tree nearby. Its call was harsh and unfamiliar, and when I gazed at it through the binoculars I knew I was looking at a Clark’s Nutcracker, one of my target species for the trip! I had read that they could be found at the parking lot here, but I didn’t expect to see one so easily. I spent some time photographing it before heading over to the trail. This was my sixth life bird of the trip, and second of Jasper.

Clark’s Nutcracker

Next to the parking lot, Cavell Creek runs from Cavell Pond at the base of the mountain to Cavell Lake in Astoria Valley. I couldn’t resist dipping my fingers in to check the temperature; as expected, it was glacier-cold.

Cavell Creek

When I saw this squirrel investigating the rubble next to the creek, I couldn’t resist photographing it.

Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel

After leaving the parking lot, the trail splits into two. A short, 1.6 km loop takes visitors across a rocky landscape recently covered with glacial ice to Cavell Pond at the base of Mount Edith Cavell’s north face. This trail, called the Path of the Glacier, takes about an hour or two. The longer trail leads to Cavell Meadows and is about 8 km there and back. With about a 400 metre elevation gain, this moderately steep trail travels through the boulder-strewn moraine, across the edge of a subalpine forest, and up to an alpine tundra covered in wildflowers. We chose this trail for the better views and because I was curious as to what kinds of birds and butterflies I might see at the meadow.

Cavell Meadows Trail – looking back toward the parking lot

We got good looks at the three glaciers on the north face, including the most famous of the three, Angel Glacier, which rests her wings in the cirque between Mt. Edith Cavell and Sorrow Peak on the right. A cirque is a bowl-shaped valley that forms at the head of a valley glacier by erosion. The concave “bowl” is open on the downhill side and is flatter than the reamining three sides, which are steep slopes formed by glacial ice and debris flowing down.

Angel Glacier with waterfalls

A couple of thin waterfalls tumbled down the mountain to the right of the glacier. Here is a close-up of one of them:

Angel Glacier with waterfalls

We made our way up the trail, climbing above Cavell Pond and the hikers on the Path of the Glacier trail. The trail wasn’t too steep, and was well-marked.

Going up!

I saw a Pika scuttle across the trail and disappear into the jumble of rocks. I stood still and waited for it to reappear, but it was either content to stay in its burrow or found another way out. The Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels were not as shy, and posed for us on the rocks. A pair of them engaged in a game of “chase”, reminding me of the Red Squirrels in the woods back home or the Eastern Gray Squirrels in my backyard. I think this one is giving me attitude!

Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel

This is the same squirrel, turning sideways to show off his stripes.

Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel

Doran and I rounded a corner, and I stopped immediately when I saw a small mammal at the edge of the trail almost right by my feet. Fortunately it didn’t scamper off into the rocks, but instead remained in the same spot where it was munching on some grass, allowing excellent, close-up views. I knew as soon as I saw it that it was an American Pika, a lagomorph that looks like a mouse and is sometimes called a “rock rabbit”.

American Pika

American Pikas are typically found in rock piles and slides, called talus, within alpine regions of the western United States and southwestern Canada, usually at elevations of between 8,000-13,000 feet. Often seen sitting on boulders of nearly the same color, they have no visible tail and small rounded ears. Although pikas live in groups, they are territorial and defend their own areas from other pikas.

American Pika

American Pikas feed primarily on grasses and herbs, although they may sometimes gather wildflowers. As they do not hibernate, pikas cut and dry vegetation for winter use, storing them in characteristic ‘hay piles’ on rocks. The vegetation is moved into the pika’s den deep within the rocks after it dries. If its cache is not large enough to see it through the winter, the pika will forage for lichen and cushion plants.

This pika was definitely the most adorable mammal I have ever seen, and as it didn’t seem threatened by our presence, I kept taking picture after picture of him!

American Pika

A little further along the trail Doran pointed out a Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel eating flowers. I also found this rather cute, and took a couple of pictures of him as well.

Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel

I found this pose particularly cute (just look at those little paws)!

Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel

I was surprised that I didn’t see any birds along the trail. However, we did experience one magical moment when we heard the flute-like song of a Hermit Thrush drifting down from the trees above us.

Still going up!

A wall of boulders rose up on our right, partially blocking our view of the mountain. I was a little surprised when I saw a couple walking on top the wall, but when I noticed a Hoary Marmot soaking up the sun on a rock a short distance away, I understood. This photo was taken from the trail below, with the immense face of Mount Edith Cavell serving as a backdrop:

Hoary Marmot

There was a faint, partial trail leading up to the top of the wall, so Doran and I scrambled over the boulders to reach the trail. Once we reached it it was an easy walk to the top of the wall, where I was able to obtain much better photos of the marmot.

The Hoary Marmot is known for the high-pitched whistle it gives to warn to other marmots of danger, which is why they are sometimes called ‘whistlers’. Their common name comes from the “hoary” mantle of white fur that covers their shoulders and backs. Hoary marmots hibernate for seven or eight months during the winter and, just like the groundhogs they resemble, spend the summer gaining enough body fat to last the winter. A Hoary Marmot typically weighs between 5 and 9 kg (11 and 20 pounds), but some individuals can weigh up to 13.5 kg (30 pounds)!

Hoary Marmot

We also had a great view of Cavell Pond in the valley below. Cavell Glacier runs right up to the water on the far side of the pond, which is full of icebergs from chunks of ice that have broken off the glacier.

Cavell Glacier and Cavell Pond

Above the pond, Angel Glacier sprawled on the side of the mountain with her wings spread out and her “gown” draping over the edge. Although this glacier has shrunk considerably in the last century, it is still quite active and ice avalanches are still common, especially after storms when the added weight of snow on the glacier causes it to slide further over the edge. Chunks of ice as large as houses can fall to the ground below, making the area right beneath the glacier a very dangerous place!

Angel Glacier from below

After taking our fill of photos of the marmot and the view from this vantage point, we made our way back down to the main trail and continued on our way. We saw two more pikas among the rocks, one of which was willing to pose for us, and one of which wasn’t.

American Pika

This fellow wanted nothing to do with us and kept running from one rock to another.

American Pika

We crossed Teahouse Creek, which was little more than a trickle of water running downhill from the forest, across the trail and down to Cavell Pond, then came across this pond next to the path. It looked like a good spot for dragonflies but I didn’t see a single one.

Pond along the Cavell Meadows Trail

We finally came to another junction and found a sign indicating that it was another 3 km to Cavell Meadows. By then it was almost 4:30 so we decided to skip the rest of the hike. I was not entirely disappointed, as I had already seen three species I was hoping to find here (American Pika, Hoary Marmot, and Clark’s Nutcracker) and it was pretty quiet for birds, butterflies and dragonflies. This is a photo of the trail on the way down, with the turquoise waters of Cavell Lake in the distance:

Cavell Meadows Trail

Close to the parking lot I took this photo of the north face of the mountain. Angel Glacier on the right, Ghost Glacier (the small “button” of ice on the same ledge as the angel’s wing) on the left, and Cavell Glacier below are all visible. Mount Edith Cavell rises over a kilometre above the trail to a height of 3363 metres.

Mount Edith Cavell

The smallest of three glaciers, Ghost Glacier is seen clinging to the side of the mountain in the photo below. A few weeks after our trip, at about 5:30 a.m. on August 10, 2012, a large portion (perhaps 50 or 60 percent) of this glacier fell off the face of the mountain and into Cavell Pond below. This created a tidal wave of displaced water, rock, ice, debris, and mud which gushed over the Path of the Glacier trail, parking lots and outhouses and destroyed a large portion of the road. Cavell Road has been closed to the public ever since and is expected to remain closed until next season. Here is a link to a photo album on Jasper’s Facebook Page showing images of the aftermath, including a poignant photo of the empty spot where this glacier used to be and a nice aerial view of the muddy, overflowing water running down to the turquoise Cavell Lake.

Ghost Glacier

A Common Raven and three Clark’s Nutcrackers were waiting for food in the parking lot as we left. Two of the nutcrackers appeared to be sharing secrets while a third sat in a tree apart from the others.

Clark’s Nutcrackers

Mount Edith is a spectacular spot, and this outing was one of my favourites. Next time we’ll have to go earlier in the day to make sure we have time to get to the meadows.


3 thoughts on “Alberta 2012: Mt. Edith Cavell

  1. Wonderful to get such excellent mammal shots. I didn’t see a pika when I was in Jasper years ago. I would’ve loved to. If only life was one long holiday to explore this world.

    • Yes, I definitely saw a lot of mammals at Mt. Edith Cavell and in Jasper! I did miss a few, including Mountain Goats (one of the ones I really wanted), both bears, Mule Deer (another one that I really wanted) and moose. Doesn’t life become one long holiday after retirement?!! Anyway, I definitely want to return one day.

  2. Pingback: Birding Las Vegas, Part 1: My Most-Wanted Species | The Pathless Wood

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