Canadian Wildlife, September/October, 2007

Encounters: Butt Out!

A Cyclist Pushes His Luck In The Rockies

If there were a Twerp of the Year award, I'd win it. Maybe for the time I accidentally stuck my head in a ceiling fan. (Fortunately it was on low.) Or the time I fell over a signal while photographing a train. (I got the picture.) Or the time I put my finger in a peanut shell and gave it to a chipmunk. (I discovered chipmunks have teeth.)

Another one of those times happened in the summer of 1989. I took the train from St. Catharines, Ont., to Jasper, Alta., to do some bicycling. The weather was great and so, of course, was the scenery. After three days on the train, it felt good to be on my bicycle again, even if it was only a short ride to a nearby campground. I set up my tent, showered and explored the place. I read the warnings about protecting your food (and yourself) from bears, took heed and used the food locker.

I came to the Rockies to cycle the Icefields and Banff parkways from Jasper to Lake Louise and Banff, considered one of Canada's premier rides. Although Banff is higher in elevation than Jasper, the grades are easier southbound than northbound.

Before heading south, I decided to spend a day around Jasper to get acclimatized to the area and to do some exploring. The trip to Maligne Lake looked like a nice ride, and so off I went.

One of the things I like about cycling is the way it gives me a geel for the geography of a place. And one of the things I hate about distance signs is that while they tell you how far it is to a certain point, they don't tell you how much of the geography you have to feel. The sign read 44 kilometres to Maligne Lake, which would usually have constituted a nice easy ride.

It started out great - a level road through a forest heading towards a mountain. The mountain should have given me a clue; as soon as I rounded a bend I began a slow, steady, sometimes steep climb, which essentially didn't stop for, well, 44 kilometres.

It was scenice, I'll admit. Mountains all around. The Maligne River flowing nearby, quite loud at times as it rushed downhill over rocks. On my way out of camp I saw deer. Near Maligne Canyon I photographed two mountain goats.

The first big body of water on my trip, Medicine Lake, was gorgeous, long and narrow, with a sort of delta at the south end where the Maligne River met the lake. The water had the white-green look of glacial runoff.

The road itself hugged the eastern shore at thee base of the mountain. As I travelled past the lake, the scenery reminded me of a gigantic green carpet with lots of ridges, the tops worn to show the floor underneath.

Maligne Lake was disappointing - not as beautiful as Medicine Lake. And it was here that I earned yet another potential Twerp nomination.

I saw a bighorn sheep grazing by the side of the road. So I stopped and took out my camera to get a shot or two. Me being me, I didn't pay attention to the warning in the park literature not to crowd the animals.

I approached the sheep. It ignored me and went on grazing. I stopped, checked the viewfinder of my camera and decided to go a little closer for a better shot. I still wasn't getting the picture I wanted, so I went a little closer.

This time the sheep reacted. It looked up, eyed me and began to make as if to charge. I got the message and discovered that, despite the long climb I had just made, I still had the energy to hightail it out of there at top speed.

I did manage to get a photo, byt he way - from a distance. If it had been someone else doing this I would have thought, "You idiot!" As it was, I felt like one, especially since there were plenty of witnesses.

I came away with a great appreciation of wildlife, an understanding that a wild animal likes its space, just as we do. I also leaned that there's a reason why park management puts out those pamphlets: It's to try to keep people like me from learning things the hard way and earning unnecessary Twerp nominations.

I'm thankful to that bighorn sheep for letting me off with just a stern warning. Never again have I been so foolish.

At least, not in that way.

C2007 Peter D.A. Warwick

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