Alberta 2012: En Route to Calgary

White-tailed Jack Rabbit

After leaving the Valley of the Five Lakes, Doran and I drove south until we reached the turnoff for Athabasca Falls. Although my family had visited these falls when I was a kid, I didn’t remember them at all; it would be like seeing them for the first time. The falls are only 23 metres high, but the large volume of water that funnels into the waterfall makes the Athabasca Falls one of the most powerful falls in the mountain parks. The Athabasca River, which is fed by the Columbia Glacier about 70 kilometres south, thunders into a narrow gorge, where the quartzite and limestone walls have been worn away and potholes have been created by the force of the rushing water.

It was a short walk from the parking lot to the river, and there were lots of people on the trail. The Athabasca River is very wide here at the top of the falls, but all of that water is channeled into a three-metre gap at the brink of the falls.

Athabasca Falls

Watching the incredible amount of water pouring through the falls was very awe-inspiring. The spray created by the waterfall was cold, though there were no picturesque rainbows to add colour to the water.

Athabasca Falls and Mount Kerkeslin

Because of the way the canyon twists and turns, this was the best image of the full falls I could get. Nevertheless, I found it a beautiful and powerful place.

The gorge itself reminded me of the Maligne Canyon with its intricate bands of rock jutting out above the river.

Canyon formed by the Athabasca River

A few trees were growing out from the canyon wall; I had to wonder how long they will last in this environment.

We didn’t walk too far along the trails, given that they were quite busy and we had to be in Calgary that night. On the way back, I took this photo of Mount Kerkeslin looming over the river.

Mount Kerkeslin

It’s about 400 kilometres from the town of Jasper to Calgary, and most of the drive through the parks is along the Icefields Parkway. The mountains were spectacular, though I was disappointed when our blue skies disappeared. Every now and then we stopped to take a few pictures, such as when we reached the Endless Chain mountain ridge. This range is an example of overthrust mountains, which are flat on one side, and heavily eroded on the other. An overthrust occurs when portions of the earth are pushed upward to form hills and mountains.

Endless Chain Mountain Ridge

We also stopped at a pull-off at the Stutfield Glacier. As soon as I got out of the car my attention was captured by a raven and a Clark’s Nutcracker hanging around as if hoping to be fed. The ravens in Ottawa aren’t nearly as obliging, so I took a few photos of the raven before checking out the scenery.

Common Raven

The Stutfield Glacier is part of the Columbia Icefield and features a pair of ice falls which spill 900 vertical metres (3000 feet) down the face of Mount Stutfield. The Sunwapta River lies in the valley between the road and the mountain and provides an excellent example of a braided river. The bottom of the valley consists of sand and gravel, which spreads the river across the valley floor in interlacing channels. We’d seen numerous rivers of this type in Jasper Park.

Stutfield Glacier

Tangle Ridge rose up behind us on the other side of the road.

Tangle Ridge

Although the Clark’s Nutcracker had flown off, the raven still seemed hopeful that someone would feed him.

Common Raven

Our next stop was the Athabasca Glacier, one of the six principal ‘toes’ of the Columbia Icefield and the most accessible glacier in Jasper. We stopped on the roadside for a few photos but didn’t go up to the Visitor Center or on the glacier itself. The Athabasca Glacier creeps forward at the rate of several centimeters per day, but because the glacier is melting back faster than the ice is moving forward, the glacier retreats between 10 metres and 25 metres each summer.

Mount Athabasca and the Athabasca Glacier

The Columbia Icefield itself is not visible from the highway. The largest icefield in the Canadian Rockies, it lies on a wide, elevated plateau between some of Jasper’s highest peaks, including Mount Andromeda and Mount Athabasca, both visible from the highway.

Mount Andromeda

When more snow falls in a year (up to 7 metres) than can melt during the short summer season, it accumulates and, over time, transforms into ice. This ice flows outward through gaps in the mountains surrounding the icefield, creating the great tongues of ice we know as glaciers. Six major glaciers are fed by the Columbia Icefield, including the Athabasca Glacier, Castleguard Glacier, Columbia Glacier, Dome Glacier, Stutfield Glacier and the Saskatchewan Glacier. The Columbia Icefield feeds the Athabasca, Columbia, Mackenzie and North Saskatchewan rivers, and its meltwaters flow into the Pacific, Arctic and Atlantic oceans. It is one of only two hydrological apexes in the world that feeds three oceans.

Dome Glacier

We left the Columbia Icefield area and continued driving south, expecting to enter Banff at any time. Perhaps I was dozing, but I didn’t see any signs or gates announcing we had entered Banff National Park. I don’t recall where we were when we stopped to take this picture; I was hoping to see waterfowl on the lake but it was empty.

Somewhere in Banff…

Bow Lake also merited a stop. It is fed by Bow Glacier Falls, the waterfall draining the rapidly receding Bow Glacier, which accounts for the pretty turquoise colour of the water.

Bow Lake and Bow Mountain

Bow Glacier

The peace and tranquility of the mountains vanished as soon as we left the Icefields Parkway and turned onto the TransCanada Highway. The two-lane highway became a busy four-lane highway, with few places to stop and take pictures. A fence now separated the road from the splendor of the mountain scenery; while I understand the fence prevents wildlife from wandering out into the traffic, I couldn’t help but see it as a barrier separating me from the immediacy of the park’s beauty. I no longer felt I was a welcome explorer, but a mere passenger to be shuttled through the park as quickly as possible. For these reasons I didn’t enjoy the drive through this part of Banff National Park.

I did, however, admire the wildlife overpasses that had been built to enable large mammals to cross the highway safely. A number of underpasses and culverts have also been built beneath the highway for the smaller animals. Remote cameras have shown that elk used these crossing structures the most frequently, followed by deer, wolves, sheep and coyotes. Moose, elk, deer, wolves, grizzly bears and black bears tended to used them during the day, while cougars, snowshoe hares and martens used them more at night. In the 71 months of monitoring 48,682 individual wildlife passes have been detected at the 23 crossing structures – that’s a lot of lives saved!

Since there was no place to stop I took this photo through the windshield of our car while driving the speed limit.

Wildlife Overpass along the TransCanada

We did, however, stop at a pull-off overlooking the Sundance Ridge to use the outhouses. While there I photographed part of Cascade Mountain, the famous mountain that dominates the town of Banff.

Cascade Mountain

We drove from there to Calgary without stopping, eventually arriving at the Best Western hotel near the Calgary airport where they upgraded our room for free. The hotel is located in a small industrial area on a dead-end road with a large field at the end, but on Google maps I noticed a couple of ponds behind the buildings across the road. As there was some daylight left, I grabbed my camera and headed outside to check them out, encountering a Killdeer next to a large puddle in the field and several magpies along the way. The ponds themselves were much more interesting than I expected, with more birds than I had hoped. A Horned Grebe was swimming lazily up and down the cell, coming close enough for me to be sure that it wasn’t an Eared Grebe. Two scaup rested on the median between two ponds, an American Coot was swimming in the second pond, and dozens of Red-winged Blackbirds were flying in and out of the cattails. The best birds, however, were a Sora sitting out in the open in a small inlet surrounded by cattails, and two male Yellow-headed Blackbirds!

Yellow-headed Blackbird

I was thrilled to pieces when I saw a male fly out of the cattails and land in a shrub across the water, displaying his white wing patches as he flew. A second male flew in and landed in the cattails in front of me, but not close enough to get a great photo of him. This was my seventh and final life bird in Alberta, and one I had been really hoping to see.

While I was watching the birds at the pond, Doran called my cell phone to tell me that he could see a large rabbit sleeping beneath a tree in front of the building. When I went to check it out, I was happy to find a Jack Rabbit, one of the mammals on my “most wanted” list. Unfortunately he heard me coming and spooked, showing off his white tail and white ears as he hopped away from me. Although called a rabbit, it is actually a hare.

White-tailed Jack Rabbit

Thus ended my adventures in Alberta. It was a fantastic vacation with great weather, beautiful scenery, and lots of wildlife! Although getting home proved to be a bit of a nightmare due to a missed flight, an extra $300 charged by Air Canada, and thunderstorms in Ottawa causing a 40-minute delay in landing and a 2-hour wait on the tarmac while the airport was on Red Alert, my memories of Alberta are ones I’ll cherish forever…or at least until the next time I visit!

5 thoughts on “Alberta 2012: En Route to Calgary

  1. Though my focus is usually on the birds and beasts, I’ve been struck by the scenery photos you’ve posted of this vacation. Some of it looks every bit as majestic as the Grand Canyon (which my U.S. relatives are always encouraging me to go see.) Must visit Banff and/or Jasper someday.

    • Thanks Suzanne. It was very difficult NOT to be impressed by the mountain scenery….the shape and texture of the rocks that formed the mountains, the colour of the lakes and rivers, and the glaciers and waterfalls all enthralled me more than I thought they would. I missed the mountains as soon as I got home.

    • Thanks Susan! I’m hoping to head out west sometime again soon, and have been compiling a list of birds and mammals I want to see next time – Mountain Goat, Grizzly Bear, Mountain Bluebird, American Dipper, Lazuli Bunting, Le Conte’s Sparrow, Varied Thrush, Western Tanager….so many birds, so little time!

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