In continuing the theme of “summer vacation pics”…the end point of our driving vacation this summer was Banff and the surrounding area in Alberta. My wife and I had been there once before, but we’d never been there as a family. We spent several days stationed in Banff itself, with day trips to several spots in Banff National Park, and a trip up towards Jasper on the Icefields Parkway. The highlight of the the trip, however?
Grizzly Bears! We’ve been in Yellowstone several times. We’ve been to Glacier National Park two times now (after this trip). As a family we have vacationed in Alaska, and I myself have been in Alaska several other times. In all these trips, we’ve on occasion seen bears. One on this trip, maybe one or even two on another trip, etc. Coming across a bear, be it a Black Bear or Grizzly Bear, is a treat even in these areas that are known for bears. They’re just not very common to begin with, and seeing one during the day in visible range is a special treat. That’s what made our trip to Banff so special. We saw SO many bears that on one day in particular, we almost were expecting to see bears around every bend!
On our last trip to Banff many years ago, we saw wildlife (Bighorn Sheep, Mountain Goats, Elk, etc.), but no bears. However, we knew this year might be different, as before leaving on vacation, we had read many stories about the banner year around Banff for buffalo berries. Buffalo berries are a favorite for bears, and tend to grow at forest edges and clearings…including along roadways in Banff National Park. We had read that the bears in the area were all down in the lowlands, gorging on berries, and that we might have a good chance of seeing one.
We saw one! Then two…then three…then four…until we had seen seven bears in one day!! Seven bears on August 2nd, all along the Bow Valley Parkway near Banff. The Bow Valley Parkway itself is a really pretty drive, going through dense forest and also occasionally giving you a good view of the mountains. The day before, we had been in the Lake Louise area, and had a wonderful time on a long, 6- mile hike up from the lake to a rustic teahouse. A beautiful day on August 1st, but WOW, the people! In the heart of summer, it’s very difficult to even find a parking spot near Lake Louise, and the area around the lake and hotel itself are incredibly busy. Thus, when starting out on the Bow Valley Parkway on August 2nd, we expected quite a few people. We were wrong. The parkway was relatively quiet, so we drove very slow, scanning the forest edges for wildlife. The edge of the forest next to the road had many fruiting buffalo berry bushes, and it certainly SEEMED like the perfect place to find browsing bears.
It was. It didn’t take long before we saw a mini “bear jam” up ahead. Given the quiet traffic that day, the “bear jams” typically only consisted of a car or two, and much of the time we also were by ourselves as we watched a bear. As we slowly approached the first two cars we had seen pulled over on the edge of the road, we wondered…is it a Grizzly? A Black Bear? Or something else?
The first bear we saw was a beautiful, large grizzly. At first, he was perhaps 10 yards back in the forest, making it difficult to see him well, even with binoculars that we had. It didn’t take long before the binoculars were relegated to the back seat for most of the rest of the day though, as soon the first Grizzly strolled out of the forest and started gorging on buffalo berries, just 15 yards away or so. With all our previous vacations in “bear country”, this was by far our closest, best look at a Grizzly, so we pulled over and enjoyed watching him feed for a while. Finally we reluctantly pulled back onto the road to continue our journey up Bow Valley Parkway.
It wasn’t a long journey! After a mere 200 yards or so, we saw movement in the brush on the side of the road. Another Grizzly! For the most part the Grizzlies we saw were totally oblivious to activity on the road. They would walk up to a loaded buffalo berry bush, strip the berries with their snouts in big bunches, and pretty much strip the entire bush before moving to the next one. On occasion they would glance over towards the road, but they had one thing on their minds…berries! Their close proximity and casual attitude towards observers led to some great photo opportunities.
In one stretch of less than a mile, we ended up seeing 4 different Grizzly Bears. As we continued up Bow Valley Parkway, we found two more Grizzlies, and one Black Bear who had a couple of cubs. We also found a couple of Grizzly Bears the next day, with at least one of the two being a “repeat” from the day before. Some of the Grizzlies had ear tags, and Bear 134 is one that we came across multiple times during our stay in Banff. It was enjoyable not only seeing and photographing the bears from close range, but also looking them up on the internet! A search of terms like “Bear 134 Banff” would often lead to stories of an individual bear’s exploits, either during the 2016 season, or in previous seasons.
It was a special trip. We were definitely spoiled in terms of seeing bears, and I truly doubt that we’ll ever experience so many wild bears in one day again.
Just back from yet another trip, but thankfully this one was ALL pleasure and no work. My son and I went to the Black Hills for several days to go trout fishing. The Black Hills can be incredibly busy in summer, particularly as the annual motorcycle rally in Sturgis comes close. That’s still a week and a half off, but even so, crowds are starting to build in the Hills. The big tourist attractions and towns like Hill City and Deadwood were certainly bustling, and motorcycles were everywhere.
The thing I like about fishing the Black Hills though? Isolation and intimate settings, even amidst the madhouse of the Hills near Rally time. Several little reservoirs with easy access are in the Black Hills, and those can be busy. However, with a short hike, you can always find a spot to fish alone. The last several days were no exception, as my son and I had some truly incredible fishing, all to ourselves.
Grace Coolidge Creek walk-in area is a 3 mile or so stretch below Center Lake, with 6 or 7 small dams providing deeper pools in what is otherwise a very small stream. Couple with the natural pools, there are plenty of spots for surprisingly large trout to be found. We found that out very quickly on our first day when my young son caught a trout that may be bigger than any I’ve ever caught…a gorgeous, fat, 19″ Rainbow Trout in one of the dammed pools. Despite the incredible fishing, in an entire day of walking up and down the creek, we ran across a total of 1 family hiking, and 1 other fisherman.
Even areas right next to major roads can be very productive and “isolated”. We also spent quite a bit of time on Spearfish Creek, south of the town of Spearfish. Spearfish Canyon is designated a “scenic highway” and the road can indeed get quite a few tourists. However, it’s not hard at all to find a spot to fish without interruption or competition. Spring Creek, as it flows out of Sheridan Lake, is similarly on a paved highway, yet my son and I had our pick of locations to fish. Overall, a great fishing trip, one where we easily could have kept our daily and possession limits of 5 and 10 trout, respectively. Most of the Rainbows and Browns we caught were 8-12 inches, but there were several over 14″ in addition to the 19″ beauty my son caught.
It wasn’t really a birding trip, but I did of course keep my eyes open while fishing. I was a bit disappointed in failing to see one of my favorite species, the American Dipper. Last time my son and I fished Spearfish Creek, we had an active nest near our favorite pool and had fun watching the parents forage for food. No Dipper, but we did enjoy watching an Osprey fishing the same pool on this trip, as well as many Violet-Green Swallows dipping and diving over the water in search of insects.
Another favorite species of mine in the hills are Mountain Bluebirds. A great spot to find them is in a very large grassy area north of Deerfield Lake. Many bluebird boxes are found on the fence posts surrounding the pastures, and we saw dozens of Mountain Bluebirds along the fencelines.
A great trip! Back to reality, with no trips in sight…