Notes from the Field
Wild Rockies Summer Semester 2009
The Castle wilderness is Alberta's own Costa Rica. Tucked into the southwestern corner of Canada's most infamous province, the 1,035 square kilometre Castle wilderness features the highest number of plant and animal species in the province—an island of remarkable biodiversity in a sea of growing industrial and residential development.
Which is, of course, why we’ve come. We are six students and two instructors, and we've already seen some of the more obvious wild denizens on our way to the trailhead in Waterton Lakes National Park’s Red Rock Canyon: elk, bighorn sheep, a small black bear the colour of cinnamon grazing dandelions along the road. Now we’re preparing our packs and readying our minds and bodies for a five-day trek that will take us out of the federal government’s national park and into the unprotected wilderness that is the Castle.
Although the real jewels in this biological treasure chest are the plants, we're hoping for a glimpse of a grizzly, 50 (or so) of which roam the mountains and foothills that biologists say provide something of a refuge for Alberta’s beleaguered grizzly bear population.
“Where would you be most likely to find grizzlies in this valley?” I ask them as we gear up. “Where’s the best grizz habitat?”
They look around for a few minutes, then point to the south-facing slope above us. “There?” says Laurie. “It’s drier, which is why the forests are thinner and there are more meadows. Which means more berries and plants. Grizzly bear food.” Bingo. They’ve been listening after all.
An hour in, our packs still heavy, we encounter our first sign of grizzlies, along Bauerman Creek. In the middle of this trail through thick coniferous forest are three large mounds of fresh scat. It is mid-summer and the bears are eating plants—perhaps horsetail and cow parsnip, clumped in the understory. A poke with a stick indicates the mounds can’t be more than a few hours old.
The students look around nervously. Visibility is limited, but what they can see is evidence that Alberta’s biggest carnivore is in the vicinity, perhaps even within shouting distance. This is not something they’re used to. Most of them are from big cities: Philadelphia (Laurie), Toronto (Megan), Portland (Wes), Chicago (Erica). The other two are from rural America—Brady is from northern Wisconsin, Hana from a little town in upstate New York's Adirondack Park. Only Dave, the other instructor, has any real experience with grizzly bears.
“Let’s just stick together,” he says, while I reach down and check my bear spray. “There’s no need to worry.” And there isn't. Grizzly bears, despite their fierce reputation, are more afraid of us than we are of them. Still, it pays to be cautious.
A few hours later, the trail branches to the north and heads up toward Lost Lake. The forest is dark, but stalks of bear grass taller than my waist light the way, the large white flowers glowing like torches in beams of sunlight that penetrate to the forest floor.
By late afternoon, we top Avion Ridge and descend down the other side on an old logging road, or skid track. It’s the first sign that we’ve left the protection of the national park and are entering a different world: the Castle Special Management Area. For all its unparalleled biodiversity, the Castle is no park. It’s much like the rest of Alberta’s Eastern Slopes: a place where grizzlies and the rest of the wilderness must contend with the full force of human industry.
We set up camp along the Castle River and cook dinner in the summer dusk. Afterward, Wes, Brady and I wander into the woods to hang our food in a tree 200 m from camp. As we walk back to our tents, I spot more bear scat. This time it’s full of elk hair, a jagged piece of bone gleaming in the waning light. We never did see a grizzly bear, though evidence of them was everywhere.
So went Day 33 of 62 of the Wild Rockies Summer Semester 2009. The month before, Laurie, Megan, Wes, Erica, Hana and Brady traveled through mountainous Montana, reading about and experiencing firsthand the finer points of restoration ecology, Native American Studies, conservation biology and community-based conservation.
After the Castle, we spent three weeks trekking through the backcountry of world-famous Banff National Park and then headed for Jumbo Pass in British Columbia's Purcell Mountains. All along the way, the students got a first-hand look at Canadian geography, resource management policy and community-based conservation efforts.
As part of their course work each student wrote a final paper about a topic of their choice. We present them here for your edification and enjoyment.
Erica: Title/Link to PDF
Hana: Title/Link to PDF
Laurie: Title/Link to PDF
Megan: Title/Link to PDF
Wes: Title/Link to PDF
~ Jeff Gailus