On the way up, I first saw the mother, who was eating grass on Juniper lower down near tower #9 of the lift, with no sign of the cubs. I did see them eventually, near tower #13, which is almost the same place they were when I saw them on the 28th. As the bears came into view, one of them darted up a bank on the uphill side of the run. Wondering what had startled it, I watched as the other bear followed, and I then heard what I first thought was the sound of an ATV or motorcycle. I soon realised that it was a growl – loud and sustained. I had never heard a bear growl, and it was a chilling sound.
Of course, I had my camera, and was lucky to witness a brief but fierce fight (about 20 seconds) between the two cubs. As tensions appeared to ease, they were blocked from view by the passing trees. All three bears had disappeared by the time I made my way down the lift a few minutes later. The bears were a little farther away than last time, so they appear smaller in the frame, and I could only crop the shots so much before the images deteriorated too much. Click on the photos for larger versions.
As of this week, we’re finally able to drive a vehicle to the furthest upper reaches of the roads at the Lake Louise Ski Area, and after a month and a bit of working primarily around or near the base area, we’re getting ready to venture a little higher to begin the summer clean-up and plan the projects that will take us through to the fall.
The week following the closing of the ski season is spent clearing our mountain roads of snow, since they mostly lie on ski runs that we try to keep covered in snow. We use a GPS to plot the locations of the roads, then scrape most, but not all, of the snow to the side. Leaving a thin layer means we don’t damage the ground with the snow cat, and that only a bit of warm weather is required to take care of the rest, meaning that the roads are the first parts of runs to melt out.
When possible, an ATV is used to travel on roads, since they’re lighter, better on gas, and can better handle the rough surface and large water bars that line the runs. A truck is used much of the time, since crews usually transport tools and supplies to the work site, and are unable to do so with an ATV. Even though an ATV is equipped to handle off-road conditions, we must keep all vehicles on roads at all times, since we can’t damage any of the surrounding ground cover. If this means a long walk to a work site because there’s no road nearby, then that’s the way it is. Any supplies or heavy tools needed at a remote work site will usually be flown in by helicopter, or brought by snow cat while there’s still snow on the ground.
On Sunday we drove to the upper extents of all of our roads, and found that the snow is disappearing much more quickly than last year. On the front side, one road travels up Pine Cone Way to Whitehorn Lodge, where it splits – one fork going to mid-station and up Upper Wiwaxy to the top of the old Olympic lift, and the other going up Eagle Meadows to the top of the Grizzly gondola. This second road has its steepest part right above WhitehornLodge, and a truck coming down it usually elicits looks of amazement from summer visitors who can’t believe a vehicle can travel on such a steep road.
As soon as the ski season ends, our lift maintenance department are busy getting started on their summer maintenance programs, and travel to their lifts via snowmobile, then quad, then truck as the snow melts. Each lift gets a full summer’s worth of attention, so the crews are kept busy right until the snow flies in the fall.
For our summer guests, we have a viewing platform near the top of the summer gondola (Glacier chair in winter) that offer a great view of Lake Louise and the huge peaks of the front range of the Canadian Rockies. The deck was built on top of the foundation for the top station of the old Friendly Giant chair that was torn out a few years ago, and sits right at the top of Bald Eagle.
Visitors to the Lake Louise Ski Area last week were treated to this summer’s first sighting of a grizzly bear at the resort. Last summer we didn’t see a bear until well into June, due chiefly to the much slower melt that occurred last year. Bears start their summer seasons at valley bottom, then follow the melting snow line uphill as it slowly rises. Last summer, a cool spring meant that we didn’t see grass around the base area of the resort until up to a month after normal, and the resulting late green-up also meant a late arrival for the bears.
This hasn’t always been the case, as a few winters ago a grizzly was spotted on Wiwaxy while we were still open for skiing. We closed the run, and the bear spent a short time in a futile search for food, then moved on. More recently, a bear was also seen over in the Larch area while we were open for winter, but after a few brief appearances also went on its way, not to be seen again until summer.
Especially in June and July, bears are regulars at the resort, and both black and grizzly bears can be seen most days wandering around the hill. It’s not common for bears to get close to where people are. The electric fence keeps them out of the base area, and they rarely approach the Whitehorn Lodge/mid-station area when there are people around. When it does happen, a bit of a lock-down goes into effect so that the bear(s) can go about their business undisturbed. People who are held up at Whitehorn Lodge because of bear, for example, don’t mind, since it usually means there’s a bear close enough to watch and get good photos of without having to leave the safety of a building.
If you’re lucky enough to ride the summer lift and go right over a bear, it’s an amazing feeling – you know you’re safely out of reach of the bear, but it can still be a little unnerving, especially for those who have never seen or been near a bear before. Needless to say, people get very excited.
The photo below shows our first bear of the season, and was taken just uphill of the main base area (as was the photo of grizzly sow with two cubs at the top of the page, taken in July 2008):
Just in time for the May long weekend, Lake Louise has opened for summer operations. And, while the weather has warmed enough to melt most of the snow around the base area of the resort, it’s been too cool to get the real spring melt going, and the rest of the mountain is still mostly covered in snow. The electric fence surrounding the base area has been inspected and approved, Glacier Express (Grizzly Express in summer) has been converted to summer mode and is ready to provide visitors with a great view of Lake Louise.
One of the bad things about melting snow is that all of the garbage thrown or dropped from lifts and on runs over the course of the winter is now becoming visible, and it never ceases to amaze me how much garbage finds its way to the ground, and not to proper containers. I know that not all of it is intentional, since I can’t imagine people throwing money, cell phones, iPods, etc from the lifts on purpose. As mentioned in the previous post, me must limit the number of trips we make on the lower mountain, and since the snow recedes slowly, we must bear the site of newly exposed garbage under the lift for a week or two until we’re permitted to travel by foot to get it. The promise of treasure always makes it easy to find people for this job!
Even though our winter season ended almost two weeks ago, we still have snow cats hard at work on the mountain. Since snow is the one limiting factor for projects on the upper mountain, the sooner we can clear roads and work sites, the sooner we can get started. Vehicle access to the mountain is limited to road location, but for the most part, roads exist in the right places to get us were we need to go.
On the front side, there is one road that branches off of the Temple road and goes to Whitehorn Lodge. From there the road splits, with one branch going up Eagle Meadows to the top of the Grizzly Gondola, and the other going up through mid-station to Upper Wiwaxy, where it passes the base of the Summit platter and ends at the top of the old Olympic chair. This second road is the one generally used for access to the alpine. On the back side, the Temple road continues past Temple Lodge and up to the base of Paradise chair. The road above the lodge is used mostly by lift maintenance workers, since access to the upper mountain, even on the backside, is faster from the front.
When work is being done on, for example, the Home Run permanent fence, crews must drive to the top of Olympic chair, then hike 25-30 minutes up to the work site. Throw in tools like sledge hammers, generators, etc, and that short hike all of a sudden seems a little longer. In cases like two summers ago, when the entire Home Run permanent fence was dismantled and re-built in a new location, all of the fence supplies (metal pipe and lumber) were flown into place by helicopter.
Another cat project is flattening any areas of deep snow, such as the big jumps in the terrain park. The deeper the snow, the longer it stays, and if the jumps were left untouched, we’d have a wildly varying “green-up”, which is when all the new plant life emerges for the summer. The goal is to have all the vegetation in an area arrive around the same time, rather than have a big pile of snow or brown spot surrounded by deep green grass. Spreading snow around allows it to melt faster, helping us to attain that goal.
When the new plants show up, so do the grazing animals, and there’s nothing better than loading the lift on a quiet summer morning and spotting bears or elk or deer on the way up. Just as driving at dusk or dawn increases one’s chances of spotting wildlife, riding the lift earlier in the morning (9:00-10:00am) is best (we’re closed by the time dusk rolls around). There are also fewer people around, and the ride up and down the lift can be very peaceful and pleasant.