There were a few passes we wanted to hike around Banff which we hadn’t tried before so the first one we set out on was Healy. It was a hell of a long way, 18.3km but I’d read great things about it so off we went on a grey morning with rain imminent. It turned out to be one of the most boring hikes we’ve ever done. The first 6km were through dense forest, which meant another 6km of the same old shit on the way back. The final few kilometres opened up into vast meadows with wildflowers but it wasn’t worthy of the long walk to get to. Then we arrived at the pass which was said to have a pretty dramatic view but it just didn’t wow us. Maybe it was the gloomy weather, but I could of got a view like that from a roadside pullout in the park, I didn’t need to hike for half a day to get to it. But alas, we can’t be impressed with every trail and luckily the following day offered us a much more impressive view.
We headed up to Cory Pass, which had a big ol’ elevation gain of 1200m. It was a loop hike which we love as it’s nice to not walk the same trail twice. The way up was an absolute calf-burner, my god was it steep! We were hiking amongst forest and then along a valley wall until we reached the rocky mass that was the pass. A layer of snow rested in the shadow of the peaks and the scenery on the opposite side was completely different. It was like entering The Upside Down world in Stranger Things – suddenly we’d left the lush forest and meandering rivers for a world of barren rocks. But this rock-riddled valley was a very impressive sight and the mountains rose steeply towards the sky. We stopped for lunch but a bone chilling wind was hitting us so with sandwiches in hand we began our descent. The trail was mostly made of scoria which just sunk beneath each step, causing us to stumble and fall over a few times. A group of big horn sheep were hanging out at the base of the steepest mountain – it seemed like such a lonely place to live.
We continued over another pass and then reentered a land of never-ending forested slopes and mountain tops. As we headed downhill to a warmer climate the forest floor became covered in bright green moss, giving the area a very fairytale look. It was a pleasant five and a half hour hike, taking the same amount of time as Healy Pass but offering much better views.
After every hike in the park we’d usually have the afternoons spare to drive around looking for wildlife. We saw a few little black bears along the road and a lone male elk with a very impressive rack. One of the bears was quite scatty with a mix of brown and black fur that made him look like a hobo, he would of suited a stick on his shoulder with a little quilt carrying his possessions. He was rummaging under rocks searching for grubs and worms, or maybe a bit of crack he’d misplaced. But we did find a very cute black bear right beside the road who was on a dandelion mission. The sweet bear came quite close to our van and was an absolute delight to watch with flowers dangling from its mouth.
On one early morning drive we spotted a pulled over car and followed the passengers eyes into the tall grass. Standing there, very well camouflaged was a grey wolf. Even though we saw two black wolves in 2010 while driving through the park we figured we were beyond lucky and the idea of seeing a wolf this time hadn’t even crossed our minds. The lone wolf stared our way for awhile and then began prancing through the field, occasionally stopping to look around. We couldn’t believe it, seeing a wolf is one of the most exciting wildlife encounters to have and we were having some great luck on this roadtrip. He eventually went into the forest and then we briefly saw him cross the road ahead.
We returned later that afternoon to see if we had any luck again and Craig was scanning the area thoroughly with his binoculars when he ecstatically said he’d spotted wolf puppies!! Craig had basically found their den in the distance and the puppies were having some serious play time. We watched two of them rolling around and jumping on one another while the third puppy seemed less playful and watched from the sidelines. Occasionally a big adult would walk by and then they would vanish for a few hours. It was such a rare opportunity to witness wolves at their den that we ended up returning to that spot numerous times over the coming days. One morning as I was shoving a spoonful of cereal in my mouth I looked up and almost spat it back out – a wolf had just walked alongside our van and was crossing the road ahead of us. It really comes down to luck and being at the right place at the right time as I could have quite easily missed him even at that close proximity.
We tried to stay in our van and scan through our windows, because most of the time we weren’t watching anything, we were just hoping to see the pack. The problem with such a busy park is everyone pulls over if they see a car that’s stopped because they understandably also want to see wildlife. But it was so annoying when people pulled up after seeing us and they’d ask what we were looking at. Most of the time there wasn’t anything to see but within a few minutes of a car stopping everyone would just pull over out of curiosity. One time a family pulled up behind us and asked us what we were looking at, we said we saw a wolf that morning and then they wanted a detailed description of where we saw it (kinda why I can’t be faffed telling everyone what we’re seeing). While we were talking to them a different car drove by and said out the window to the family “there’s a wolf right behind you!” and the goddam wolf snuck behind the families car and crossed the road!! The kid in the family was at that really annoying age where they think they know everything and they boast all the time and he turned around to us and in the most snarky voice he said “WEEE saw the wolf” while narrowing his eyes like they were the only one to see it. We got back into our van and both laughed about the little shit, doing impressions of his whiny voice and then shouting what we’d of liked to have responded “YEAH BUT YOU DIDN’T SEE THE WOLF DEN DID YOU YA LITTLE PUNK!”…another reminder that we don’t want to have kids.
When we needed a break from hiking we spent a whole morning parked up looking for the wolves from 7am until 1pm. We briefly saw the puppies having fun in the long grass but then things went quiet and we started saying we should probably hit the road. Suddenly I saw something, a wolf was walking through the back meadow and I excitedly told Craig. But as I looked in the binoculars I saw it wasn’t a wolf, it was a huge grizzly bear heading straight for the den. Within a minute the road filled up with cars frantically pulling over to see what was happening and storming out their cars making a right old racket. People were leaning on our van to stabilise their cameras but in doing so they shook mine so I had to act like I owned a real fancy car and ask people to not touch my vehicle, which was very funny to see their confused faces, and of course I’d say it in my finest English accent, and then I’d explain they were shaking my camera and that they should get their greasy fucking mitts off my polished bonnet.
The grizzly was walking at quite a pace but as he approached the tree line a wolf appeared and tried to warn him off. The bear wasn’t in the mood though and clearly had the upper hand so he charged the wolf until it backed off. The wolf couldn’t do much on his own, he still continued to try and warn the bear off but he got charged every time. It was a strange sight as the wolf ended up just walking behind the bear, too scared to intervene anymore but also not wanting to give up so it just looked like he was awkwardly escorting the grizzly to the puppy filled den.
The grizzly and wolf went behind the trees and we waited in fear, not knowing what was happening. Then they reappeared in the next meadow, still charging back and fourth. We saw a second wolf and heard some barking but then they all vanished. We don’t know where they went but luckily we didn’t see any pups hanging from the bears jaws so hopefully he left and found some dandelions to eat instead. We did check back the following day and saw a couple of the puppies so it looks like the wolves remained safe.
We’d seen two or three adult wolves on different occasions and three puppies but we were surprised not to see more adults, either it was a tiny pack or the rest of them were out hunting. They tend to leave the den in groups to hunt as it’s much easier to take down an animal as a pack. But they’ll leave an elder behind as the designated babysitter.
We eventually had to leave the area and headed north on the Icefields Parkway. On our way we hiked up the popular trail to Helen Lake. A grouse stood in the middle of the path and walked alongside us for a short while which was strange as they normally run away from humans. After a forested section we entered a pretty area of open meadows with vast mountain views. The lake itself was very disappointing, in fact it was so small and nondescript that I had to double check our location on the map as I thought it was just a pond en route.
We continued on from the lake, taking some switchbacks up to a ridgeline. We had the option to head up a steep, barren mountain summit too but we decided we’d pushed our bodies too much with all the hikes so we would take it easy. There were nice views from the ridge and we enjoyed a picnic lunch before making our way back down. As we returned to Helen Lake a lady asked if we’d seen the bear which confused us so we looked around and spotted a grizzly and her cub walking on the scoria slope. She must have been within a few meters of us as we had just walked down that slope, in fact we’d stopped on it to collect some snow in a bag for our cool box and she must’ve been right there!! We were kind of gutted not to see her a little closer, but we were also grateful that we didn’t bump into her on the trail. The sow had a squirrel or some dead animal hanging from her mouth and her little cub tried its best to keep up with her. They walked along the steep slope and then over a slab of snow which the cub struggled with, luckily she made it across as the mum didn’t look back to see if she was ok, instead she would occasionally stop to nibble a bit of the squirrel. Eventually they vanished behind a crest in the next valley but we stood and scanned the area with our binoculars just in case they reappeared. On our way back down a storm rolled in and heavy rain began to fall. Then the thunder grew closer and louder with bolts of lightning so bright they seemed to spark right in front of us. I was pretty relieved at that point that we hadn’t attempted the summit, it was completely exposed and a scary place to be in a severe storm.
The storms seemed to be playing relay -chasing one another through the sky with just a few minutes of calm before the heavens opened and the thunder rumbled again. We set off on a drive but quickly stopped off at Peyto Lake. It’s one of the Rockies prettiest glacial fed lakes and the viewing platform is up high so the milky blue water is extremely vibrant. The first time we saw the lake was after an overnight snowstorm in 2010; we’d camped up the road and were some of the first people to arrive in the morning. There were various animal tracks visible through the snow and the trees were weighed down with fresh powder. The lake was actually covered by a cloud so we went back to our van and grabbed our sleds to have some fun sliding down the disused trails. When we returned to the viewpoint the cloud had lifted, revealing the most incredible blue lake in the centre of a white landscape. Our second visit was during the summer on a clear blue sky day, and now we were visiting in a storm. It’s safe to say that no matter what the weather this lake looks phenomenal all the time. The only problem is the viewing platform gets packed with crowds and then people start going off trail and get in the way of everyone else’s photos. The best view is from the Bow Summit Viewpoint where you can get a higher vantage point, fit the whole lake in the photo AND have no crowds. But in this miserable weather we didn’t even bother and as it was getting late we decided to look for a campsite for the night. We were surprised to find a spot at the first campground and it even had a good view, so we pulled up and got the stove out to make some tea. It was a strange campground because the numbered poles beside each site didn’t have a place to put a reservation tag, so it seemed you needed to just leave it on your dashboard. Fast forward an hour and we realised the reservation tags were on the opposite side of the poles and we had accidentally pitched up in someone else’s spot!! So we sped off acting all natural like we just wanted a scenic spot for a cuppa. We quickly realised we were too late to get a campsite so in the meantime we stopped for dinner right beside the blue waters of Waterfowl Lake. We ended up having to stay in a pullout on our way north and wake up at the crack of dawn to make our way into Jasper National Park.