Sunday, September 30, 2007

Lake Louise - hostel, bears, departure

I awake to the smell of pancakes.

I stumble from my room in the Lake Louise hostel and into the shared kitchen to make tea, but it is full of people frying sausages, flipping pancakes, and chewing muffins.

"Good morning!" a fellow calls out heartily, "Would you like some pancakes?" I look over at him groggily and say thanks, but I just woke up and just need a cup of tea. I make my tea, sit down and learn that this group of twenty-four is Edson, Alberta's Rotary Club out for their annual Lake Louise hiking weekend.

Rotarians ~ as well as Lions, Kiwanis and Masons ~ are better known as community service clubs, but this rebel faction from the 8,000-person town between Jasper and Edmonton has added a little extra fun to its agenda, thanks to trip-leader and pancake-flipper, Vic.

Michelle wanders into the kitchen and looks a little disoriented, seeing as I'm sitting at a table surrounded by food and Rotarians. Vic (a marathon runner) spreads a thick layer of peanut butter on his pancakes, then tops it with a generous pour of molasses.

"Try it," he coaxes, "If you're going to ride your bikes, you'll need the energy." I pass on the peanut butter but give the molasses a chance. It tastes of vitamins and anise. Today we'll be turning off the Icefields Parkway and riding the quieter Bow Valley Parkway towards Banff. It's two lanes and no shoulder, but motorists must slow down to 60km/hour for cyclists, sight-seers and other wildlife.

Later, at the Banff National Park Visitor Centre in Lake Louise, I learned that Canada and I have something special in common: we love hot springs.

In 1883, three railway workers found a natural hot spring at the base of Banff's Sulphur Mountain. It took only two years for federal officials to claim the 26 square kilometres surrounding the hot springs a "reserve," and only two years after that to increase the protected area to 673 square kilometres, name it "Rocky Mountain Park" and thereby create the first park in Canada's National Park system.

It was also, points out Banff National Park literature, the "birth of tourism." The federal government created an infrastructure of roads in the park because by 1911 "motoring" was considered a type of recreation that should be allowed.

Auto travel immediately impacted the development of what would become a 6,641 square kilometre parkland. Today approximately eight million people enter Banff National Park each year; 92 per cent of them by private vehicle. Visit the Park's info centre in Lake Louise and you get a sense of the implications: like Jasper National Park, many species of wild animals ~ some listed as at risk ~ live in the park and also use its valleys for moving and feeding, including elk, caribou, wolves, cougars and grizzly bears.

In particular, about sixteen female grizzly bears comprise the park's total grizzly population of sixty and choose the Bow River's watershed as their area of choice to raise their cubs. Grizzlies don't mature until their ten years of age, and then only have one or two cubs every four or five years. The success of their breeding cycling is a indicator for the health of other species in the area.

According to Parks Canada's bear info, until the early 1980's "grizzly bears suffered high human-caused mortality" largely due to "poor garbage management." Road and rail mortalities didn't help. Unfortunately, with their native habitat made fragmented by human development, the seemingly easiest way for grizzlies to survive was to travel along major valley floors like the Bow Valley ~ the same valleys that humans use for their own travel.

Michelle and I would be cycling the Bow Valley Parkway for the next couple of days and Parks staff cautioned that the Parkway's lack of fences would allow us ample opportunity for "wildlife viewing." Said one Parks Canada booklet, "Make noise...cyclists who travel quickly and quietly along trails are most at risk of sudden bear encounters."

Michelle and I had no intention of surprising a grizzly sow and her cubs. When we did turn onto the sixty kilometre stretch of valley roadway, we kept our eyes peeled and maintained a leisurely pace to Castle Mountain hostel. View photos.