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The Sacrificial Goat

SEPTEMBER 23rd 2018   –   “a journal entry”

Arriving home from a couple of weeks in Iceland recently I was itching to get out and photograph the brief display of fall color that we receive in The Canadian Rockies between about September 15-30th each year. I have a long ‘larch list’ (it keeps getting longer but fall is so short) and feeling a bit run down I chose an easier objective for this day, “The Devils Thumb”. A short off trail hike that extends above the Big Beehive near Lake Louise in Banff National Park. I’ve been up the Thumb maybe 4-5 times over the previous 10 years but never at this time to see the alpine larch trees which consume the top of Big Beehive. Viewed from above I knew I was in for a great show of yellow, I just hoped for some moody weather, mist, or spot lighting which would make the scene even more interesting. The weather outlook was bleak at best but I wasn’t concerned with the photography so much as stretching the legs. That’s the usual approach and it means I’m always surprised, and never holding on to too many expectations.

That I would be surprised with the events that followed was a huge understatement.

Alone, I cruised past Mirror Lake and Lake Agnes and on up to Big Beehive marveling at the colors and stands of larch growing on countless ledges above. I paused only to refill my water bottle at the inflow of Agnes. Snow everywhere but a nicely packed trail existed. It was mid-afternoon and the plan was to stay up in the area for sunset if there were a few holes in the cloud cover. I had plenty of warmth for an extended time of possibly waiting idle. A side goal for this trip had been to investigate a narrow gully system that I thought could provide some dramatic framing of Mt Lefroy. I noted it as I passed along the Eastern side of the Devils Thumb – access from below looked fairly easy. Something for the way back.

As I approached the final ascent gully (a winter avalanche gully that had boot high snow in it currently and presented a slip hazard) I reminisced about a past trip here with my friend Kira and how we had encountered a mother mountain goat and her tiny baby goat kid – and how she had aggressively approached us. We had backed off until they had both moved on. I was told by a local naturalist afterwards that a mother mountain goat is extremely dangerous. Rounding the final bend was like deja vu as there stood a male mountain goat in almost the same spot feeding on grasses poking through the snow. Just like that other time the goat stood to attention and took immediate interest in me. Great! Serious horns and a muscular frame, I knew I was in trouble if I didn’t back off. He approached closely, established the high ground, and peered at me, as if to say ‘I dare you to take another step!’. I put a tree between me and the goat which seemed to satisfy him and he went back to munching grass erasing me from his memory. Glazed over, vacant goats eyes have always given me a humorous impression of them. I worked around behind a couple of trees and slipped into the steep avalanche gully awkwardly making a wide arc towards the other side of it around the goat. It was very slippery with the snow and not a lot of purchase for my boots. I eyed the run out below – a significant unarrestable slide lay in wait if I slipped. Using all fours I worked my way up the gully. I heard a noise in the bushes and assumed it was some more of the goat family. Tracks were all over that side of the gully. I pushed more to the centre of the gully due to the noise and to rejoin a more step like trail that I could make out in the snow. Now I was out of sight of the goat and slightly above him. Good. That was a lot of extra work! I contemplated traversing over above him and photographing him with an epic mountain backdrop (Haddo, Aberdeen, The Mitre, Lefroy and Victoria) – wildlife and landscape photography infused. Unfortunately the gully steepened enough on that side & I eyed up the drop again and discarded the thought turning back uphill on that lightly tracked step like trail.

The moments that followed were a blur as a large brown animal burst from the trees lining the far avalanche slope, looking straight at me, grunting, and picking up speed. I realized within a very long second I was looking at a grizzly bear in full flight with its hump and black pin small eyes recessed in its large dish shaped face. It was odd seeing it from a front on angle without the side profile. It looked very aggressive and I nearly passed out from a huge adrenaline rush. My heart rate went as high as it could and afterwards I realized it was the most scared I have been in the mountains (besides slipping climbing an icy Perren Route 10 years back….and being lifted in intense winds on Mt Aberdeen last year). No trees to climb, it would be on me in the next two seconds……..and NO BEAR SPRAY! I was hesitant to put this fact in here but it might be a lesson for somebody else too. I usually carry it but for two silly reasons left it at home on this day. 1) The trail to Beehive is heavily trafficked and the 30 minute extension to The Devils Thumb is mostly above treeline with good visibility – and somewhere I didn’t expect to see a bear, and 2) weight in my pack. Duh. I know. The camera gear and tripod adds up but that is just stupid. I was completely helpless, the steep snow filled gully meant I couldn’t move anywhere easily or quickly. I motioned towards the nearest shrub, looked over my shoulder, and watched. Its all I could do in those seconds. The grizzly bear cannon-balled into the avalanche gully, towards me, menacing, but then to my whopping relief angled slightly downwards below me straight towards the goat who I had forgotten about. The bears side profile and full strides were right in front of me a mere 10 metres away, below, ripping by, and then out of sight behind a small ledge buttress. I turned and ran uphill as fast as I could. A couple of seconds and I glanced below now seeing the goat again. It was looking over its shoulder then springing into motion turning and sprinting off. The grizzly bear immediately appeared metres behind him at full sprint and the chase went out of view around the corner. I turned and continued running uphill in fits and bursts from small bush to bush always looking back half expecting a bear head to pop up, spot me, and give chase. In that moment another noise came from above me…..

A female mountain goat and its kid ran out from above and continued down into the avalanche gully, past me, and down in the direction of the bear and male mountain goat chase. Very strange – I think they were disturbed by my presence and hurried actions and were not aware of the drama unfolding below but it actually appeared like they were running to help the male mountain goat. Not likely I have been told. I felt like I was in the middle of a wildlife documentary. Now reaching the col just minutes from the summit my tension eased a bit. I contemplated that my way back off the mountain was now possibly extremely dangerous had a goat kill occurred as it was directly on the path and the only real way back. Grizzly bears defend their kills ferociously. I started making a few phone calls at the summit including obtaining Parks Canada’s emergency numbers if I needed them. My choices boiled down to 1) calling in to Parks which would have probably triggered a helicopter rescue or atleast a fly by to check what I couldn’t see below, 2) Go back cautiously. Not a chance! That bear was so quick and behaving like a predator, or 3) Descend off the Thumb a different way. I chose the latter with the phone call my next choice if needed. A little less dramatic and besides I felt I had a decent chance of safely extricating myself from this situation and still had enough daylight to work with more than one plan if needed. The West side offered a gully option and a friend texted me a picture of that side. A bit too risky with the new snow in my opinion. I went for ledges off the East side that would feed me hopefully into that narrow gully I had eyed up for photos on the way up. A quick look at the view I came for and I was off breaking trail in the snow and carefully descending always staying within my comfort zone and only descending what I could climb back up if it didn’t go. It graded into difficult scrambling but still comfortable with care on the blocky terrain. I found the top of the gully but it was blocked by another mountain goat! It came towards me – come on mate let me off!. Since I was now on ledges with exposure this bothered me. I was in its territory and it wouldn’t take it much to knock me off. I started clapping with my snow gloves and thankfully this caused the goat to turn and descend away and down into the gully where I wanted to go. I followed, herding it here and there with some claps. The gully turned out to be the only way off as everywhere else cliffed out and being wet and snowy it was the crux. Luckily being tall it made the down climbing easier and eventually well into it I saw I was now with a safe way back. I snapped a few quick photos of the gully & Mt Lefroy (see below) and then waited a good ten minutes at the exit to the gully, calling every minute and making noise before regaining the Devils Thumb trail below, now ahead of where the encounter occurred.

Back to the Beehive, I called the encounter into Parks and then set off home. A real eye opener of an afternoon, zero photographs of larch trees on the camera sensor, and a lot more than I bargained for when I set out from the busy Lake Louise shoreline a few hours earlier. A close encounter with a predatory grizzly bear who had mountain goat on the menu before hibernation! This experience was seared into my sensory system, oddly making me love The Canadian Rockies even more for how much it leaves me in awe, and feeling alive……I can thank the tastier looking sacrificial goat for that anyway.

 

The alternate descent gully on the Devil’s Thumb with Mt Lefroy beyond.

 

 

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TOP 5 winter photography locations in Canmore

Winter can be one of the most beautiful times in the Canadian Rockies and I want to give you some inspiration to get out the door and begin capturing amazing photographs in and around the Canmore area of the Bow Valley. Here are my top 5 winter photography locations in the area although these can be applied in any season (use the google maps link to see where each location is on a map);

1) Benchlands Trail & the hoodoos

This location offers the grandview of Canmore up close from right in town. It works especially well for night photography or at blue hour when you can highlight the town’s lights beneath the mountains. At the Banff end of this elevated trail you lose a little elevation and get up close to a few of Canmore’s hoodoos, or eroded pillars. Use them as a foreground but make sure to stay off them, they are fragile!  (difficulty: easy)

 2) The hillsides by the Alpine Club of Canada

This location is less visited by photographers but I suggest you go here after heavy snow. The image at the beginning of this blog post was made there. The trails are significant in the area so enjoy exploring. A few of them are closed in winter to give wildlife space so respect those closures if you come upon one. Bring ice cleats in case as this area is hilly and snowshoes if there has been a lot of fresh snow. Park before you reach the Alpine Club of Canada (ACC) on the side of the road and walk up to the ACC to access the trails. (difficulty: moderate)

3) The “engine” bridge

Almost a secret spot in Canmore, the engine bridge was originally used in the town’s coal mining operations by Canadian Pacific Rail. It is now a pedestrian/bike bridge that allows for an amazing view of the Three Sisters, and the Lawrence Grassi (Ehagay Nakoda) range including Ha Ling Peak. The Bow River is a great foreground and steam rises off it on cold days adding atmosphere. Go in the morning at sunrise as the angle of the light sidelights the mountains beautifully. (difficulty: easy)

4) The iconic Three Sisters view

The classic scene that most photographers shoot when they come to Canmore. It’s a very short walk off the 1A Highway (Bow Valley trail). Park at the off leash dog park and cross the highway, following the creek bed for 5 minutes until it opens up. This is where most people stop and shoot reflections of the mountains in a pool. This will be frozen in winter but I suggest exploring further in any season as there are many more unique angles to be found ahead of this location towards the Bow River and Three Sisters. (difficulty: easy-moderate)

5) Ha Ling, EEOR, Grassi Knob & the Lady Mac platform

These high points offer birds eye views of the valley and I highly recommend you visit atleast one of them. In winter they can be dangerous and within avalanche terrain but often they are safe, strenuous half day trips – you need to be able to determine which it is before you go by gathering information from other parties, checking weather reports and always staying within your comfort zone & abilities. One place you can seek advice and current conditions is through the facebook group, ‘Scrambling in the Canadian Rockies’. Go with a partner and bring microspikes. See the day-to-night timelapse I made from the summit of Ha-Ling peak below. (difficulty: hard)

 

Click HERE to pinpoint the locations using google maps and click the custom markers I have created for additional information.

 

 

** Bonus location ideas: Grassi Lakes ice waterfall, trapped ice bubbles at Gap Lake or Spray Lake, Harvie Heights wanderings – there are elevated viewpoints hidden throughout.

 

 

** TIP: Download the app, “The Photographers Ephemeris”, and enable its add-on, “Skyfire”. This will show you updated and surprisingly accurate sunrise and sunset potential for the upcoming days which is very useful as a motivator on cold winter mornings! Have your gear packed the night before to make things easier on yourself. That will allow you to focus on last minute location fine tuning according to what the weather is doing.

 

Share your favorite areas for winter photography around Canmore and the Bow Valley in the comments and sign up to my mailing list for information about future workshops in this area.

 

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2016 – a review

My favourite 10 images that I took during 2016 (click on each one for a closer look);

 

 

and the “B” side images;

 

 

and some “C”s…..I had a really fun year!

 

 

So it was a big year, we finally moved to Canmore to make our home in the Canadian Rockies! Once there I managed to climb 51 separate mountains in the next 8 months to finish off the year. My goal was my age in peaks for the year so I was happy to achieve that when I hit 33 peaks with Mt St Nicholas in Banff National Park but going up mountains has so many positive effects that I kept at it right until year’s end. Bring on 34+ peaks in 2017! I was also fortunate to be invited to help on a few of Will Patino’s photography workshops, both here in Canada and also over in Iceland which i’m so grateful for as It opened me up to new friends and experiences that I had never imagined. I still have to process a lot of the Iceland images. I’m really looking forward to creating even more unique images next year and to continuing to take steps to build a happy and fulfilling life.

All the best in 2017!

Nick

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Discover Guatemala!

Have you ever thought of visiting Guatemala? Here is a taste of what you will find….

 

 

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