Going on a bear hunt…
by Julie Baxter | 28 January 2020
Wildlife spotting is a waiting game. You need focus and patience. You need staying power and a cool, calm commitment to sitting, quiet and still.
That’s not my natural state and I admit it, I’m a doer and a fidget, but as I step aboard the Rocky Mountaineer I am determined to show I have what it takes, and am committed to two contemplative days scouring the landscapes of British Columbia and Alberta. I am travelling the ‘First Passage to the West’ route – my eyes glued to prime habitats for bears, elk, moose, osprey, bald eagles, even possibly a raccoon or a beaver.
I take up position in my wildlife ‘hide’, reclining my heated leather seat (with USB point, adjustable footrest and lumber support) and focus my gaze out of the window. I begin my patient wait like a wannabe Attenborough might, and we begin to retrace the route of the historic Canadian Pacific Railway connecting Vancouver, Kamloops and Lake Louise/Banff.
The smell of freshly-baked cinnamon scones makes my nose twitch like a marmot’s. Served with tea or coffee and a refreshing hot towel, as a pre-breakfast snack, shortly after departure, I tucked in and wonder if bears ever think to favour cinnamon over their archetypal honey treat.
I am sharing my wildlife look-out with others. Each of the new Gold Leaf carriages with glass domed roof seats 72 passengers and as we leave the suburbs of Vancouver behind us, the early chatter stills and the chances of a sighting or two seem increasingly likely. We become mesmerised by the dramatic scenery. The tracks grip the ground impossibly in places as this feat of construction initially follows the route of the Fraser River – 850 miles from Vancouver to its headwaters in the Rockies - cutting through pastoral and arid areas, on to golden grasslands and scrub bush, to lake land areas, tough granite mountains, and ultimately towards the star of the show - The Canadian Rocky Mountains.
Wispy atmospheric low cloud covers the early hills and shortly after the crew point out an impossibly-balanced osprey nest crafted atop a telegraph pole, we secure our first sighting – not the osprey, but a bald eagle with white tail and head, soaring through a patch of clear blue sky.
It feels like an important moment. We are benign hunters and have had our first ‘kill’. Now we feel justified in a lunch break - raising an excited toast to more wildlife sightings as we gorge on chef’s signature burgers and pacific prawns, AAA Albertan steaks, sockeye salmon and other creative culinary choices rich in seasonal produce and local ingredients. Lush chocolate brownies and delicate desserts – all a picture on the plate – distract us further from our animal observations and who knows how many grizzlies, cayotes or wolves stay hidden among the leafy shadows, smugly avoiding our gaze.
Now in increasingly rugged and remote terrains, we wash down our back country provisions with plentiful supplies of unoaked local Chardonnay or a fruity Merlot, and the convivial spirit among strangers begins to grow. A determined flock of Canada geese presents itself in an iconic fly-pass; its impeccably smart formation giving us our second flush of success.
Step out onto the train’s open-air ‘vestibule’ or viewing platform and you experience the scenery in tooth and claw. The temperature begins to drop as we head up into the mountains, and we feel like true trackers as we identify the scent of Ponderosa pine and Douglas firs, ancient cedars and sagebush. Looking back wistfully at where we’ve already been and I know for sure these landscapes are teeming with iconic Canadian creatures we’ve surely just missed.
Male bighorn sheep can apparently charge each other at up to 20 miles an hour, but the one we spot just stares us down as he looks up from his river side grazing. And the dainty blacktail deer simply bounces away into the scrub as train rattles by. Now the sightings are coming thick and fast and while the story of 10 million salmon who journey the river’s course annually to spawn fills us with awe, truth is all we really want is to see a bear catching one of them with an enormous, terrifying paw.
When ultimately it comes, twice in fact, my bear sightings are somewhat fleeting and my camera shot blurred and indistinct. But my sense of achievement and the communal thrill that runs through the train is visceral. Why the back of a lumbering black bear turning away from the track, or the cursory glimpse of a short straight bear nose snuffling around for supper should electrify the mood is something of a mystery, but it certainly does. And the subsequent elk sighting is sublime, as the noble leader of a small family herd looks out from a glade, haughtily seeming to pose for us, its proud antlers impressive and powerfully threatening in equal measure.
We pass glacier-fed waterfalls and mineral-rich turquoise lakes, and track through dramatic hotspots like Hell’s Gate, Avalanche Alley, and The Spiral Tunnels. We listen to gentle tales from our hospitable crew, of pioneers and gold diggers, train robbers, miners and farming ways, of gentlemen bandits and ghost towns, freight trains and First Nation trackers. And as we finally come through The Rockies, peaks dusted with snow, we all agree the landscape has worked itself up into a veritable crescendo and is beyond spectacular.
By the end, I have made new friends, I have filled my camera’s memory card, learnt a lot and seen much more. And on a personal level I have proved I can indeed enjoy sitting still for a while; that ‘doing nothing’ can in fact be interesting and fun and that this travel is just as much about the journey as it is about the destination. I’ve learnt too that boarding the Rocky Mountaineer is probably the most relaxing and rewarding (not to mention safest) way of going on a bear hunt, and one that will reveal to you far more than just bears.
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