First Grizzly Bear of the Summer

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):

Big grizzly bear crosses Easy St.

Big grizzly bear crosses Easy St.

Little snow left around the base area.

Little snow left around the base area.

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Open for Summer

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.


Switching from Winter to Summer

Now that the lifts have stopped turning for the winter ski season, a flurry of activity begins in preparation of our opening for the summer season on May 15th. In summer, as in years past, Lake Louise operates the Glacier chair as a sightseeing lift, and keeps the restaurants and daycare open year ’round as well.

Busiest of all staff during the brief shut-down time are the lift mechanics and millwrights, who have their hands full converting Glacier chair to summer operating mode. There are a few modifications that are made each spring in order to make the lift suitable for summer use. First of all, every third chair is removed from the line and replaced with a gondola cabin, and this is for a few reasons. First of all, having both open chairs and enclosed gondola cabins makes the lift a true all-weather lift – people can use the chairs on nice days, or use the gondola cabins when the weather is not so nice. Also, most of the people who ride the lift in summer have never been on a lift of that sort before, and may be frightened of riding in an open chair. The cabins provide a more comforting ride for those folks.

The other big change to the lift comes in the form of clutches that are added to the bottom and top stations. What these clutches do is allow the carriers (chairs and gondolas) to come to a complete stop as they enter the station, and then again just before they leave. This gives riders ten seconds or so to get on/off the chairs (or in/out of the cabins), which is especially important for those who are unfamiliar with the lifts and need that extra time.

Since the lift is used as a sightseeing lift, the running speed is slowed from a seven-minute trip into one lasting a liesurely fifteen minutes, giving guests a good chance to take in the views and spot any wildlife that may be visible. Once at the top, it’s a short walk or shuttle ride to Whitehorn Lodge, which acts as our Wildlife Interpretive Centre during the summer. There are daily presentations in the theatre, and guided walks and hikes of various duration. Provided that trails aren’t closed due to bears or avalanche conditions, guests can also hike anywhere on the upper mountain on their own. In order to hike on the upper mountain, guests must use the lift for access, since the whole area between the base area and the top of the summer lift are closed to all foot traffic. Even if staff need to enter this area (e.g. for lift maintenance or garbage pick-up) we must do so sparingly, and we also need to contact our environmental services monitor and follow strict protocols.

This is all due to the fact that the lower front side of the mountain is prime bear habitat, and our summer operating agreement dictates that we interfere with bears’ movement through and presence in this area as little as possible. What makes this habitat so appealing to bears? It’s the combination of ski runs and forest that provide the forest edge habitat that bears like so much. On the open runs, many plants that are important food sources for bears can be found, where they wouldn’t do so well growing in the shade of the forest. The forest itself provides cover or refuge if bears feel threatened.

Oddly enough, the bears don’t really seem to notice the lift moving over their heads, usually going about their grazing with barely a glance upward. For guests lucky enough to time it right, the lift offers a great vantage point and opportunity to get close to bears without endangering themselves or the animals. Last summer, with more than one set of mom-with-cubs, there were times when one could count six or seven bears sighted in one lap of the lift.

Bears are also the reason the entire base area and parking lots are surrounded by a three km-long electric fence, with a Texas gate on the road by the entrance to parking lot #1 to allow vehicle access. This fence exists to keep bears away from where the main concentration of people are and to keep to a minimum any potential for bear-human encounters, which can be bad for both. Those skiing at Lake Louise over the last three weeks or so of the season may have noticed that all traffic was routed onto Easy St. as they got close to the base area. This was so that we could begin clearing snow for the electric fence where it crosses ski runs. The fence surrounds all parking lots, then goes up the side of Sunnyside and across the top of Sunny T-Bar, where it continues across Easy St., past the World Cup Race Centre building and over to the Operations building.

Also a part of our operating agreement, this fence must be checked at the start of each day, with all observations recorded in a log. If there are any problems with the fence, they must be corrected before we can open for the public. A few summers ago, when we had a different Texas gate at the entrance, twice staff arrived at the resort in the morning to find that a bear had managed to get across during the night and was stuck inside the perimeter. Parks Canada was called right away, and after a few temporary exits were made in the fence, the bear was gently coaxed back outside and we could continue with our day.

With the spring melt well underway, we’re looking forward to the day when we can venture back onto the mountain and get started on our summer projects. Until then, we’re in clean-up mode, and will work around the base area for the next while waiting for the snow to disappear. As mentioned in my winter wrap-up, I’ll continue to post over the summer and straight through into next winter, so stay tuned!


2008-09 Season Wrap-up

The 2008-09 ski season at Lake Louise is now behind us, after a closing weekend that saw two very different days. Saturday was a true spring skiing day, with blazing sun, blue skies, and hot temperatures making for glorious soft and slushy turns. Sunday wasn’t anything of the sort, as low clouds raked over the mountain, at times reducing visibility to only a few metres. Even though it was cloudy, it was still warm enough to soften the snow in many places, and skiing was enjoyable (when you could see where you were going).

At the top of Summit on Sunday, the usual end-of-season crowd gathered at the end of the day to toast the season that was, and have one last top-to-bottom run before hanging up their passes for summer. Having that area enveloped in thick cloud seemed a fitting finale to a season that saw no shortage of crazy weather.

Top of Summit, 4:30pm Sunday May 3, 2009.

Top of Summit, 4:30pm Sunday May 3, 2009.

A conspicuous presence in the terrain park this week was the landing pad from Katal Innovations in Vancouver. Their product is a huge air-filled pad that cushions the landing, and lets people practice  on big jumps while greatly reducing the consequences of bad landings. This is a new product, and while it spent a few summers on the Blackcomb glacier being used by some of the summer camps there, Lake Louise was its public debut, and for three days signing a waiver and watching a short safety video were all that stood between the jump and anyone who wanted to try it. Even on Friday, the first day it was open to the public, over 150 people signed up to try it, with larger crowds showing up on the weekend.

The warm weather on the weekend presented some challenges, as a huge pond was forming right before the take-offs for the jump, slowing people down and making it more difficult to hold speed going into the jump. The Katalcrew, along with the Lake Louise trail crew, kept a constant watch and were ready with shovels at all times to help deal with the water. The pad received a lot of attention during its stay at Lake Louise, and I took advantage of the opportunity to climb one of the Grizzly Gondola lift towers in order to get a nice bird’s-eye view of the action, a few photos of which are below:

Big air, soft landing.

Big air, soft landing.

Riding the wave.

Riding the wave.

Upside down over the landing pad.

Upside down over the landing pad.

Upside down over the landing pad, in denim.

Upside down over the landing pad, in denim.

Arch that back!

Arch that back!

*****

Here at Lowdown HQ, things may be slowing down, but the blog will remain active through the summer and into next ski season. We are open for summer from May 15 to September 30, and in Mountain Operations we have a list of projects to be completed in the window between when the snow finally melts and when it first falls again next fall. While there are no big projects on the books for this summer, we do plan to continue the brushing (removal of small trees and bushes that have encroached onto previously cut terrain) that was started in earnest last fall. We’ll also be making repairs to all of our on-mountain permanent snow fences, since they always take a beating over the course of a winter. Mountain signage, particularly run signs in the alpine, will proceed on the replacement that was also started last summer. I’m here straight through the summer, and will provide updates on all the action.

As for the first winter of the Lake Louise Lowdown, I couldn’t be happier with its success. I enjoy producing the blog, and am happy to be able to continue through the summer and into next season. I never expected to exceed 30,000 views in only six months or so, and was gratified to see that there is an audience for this type of material. The blog started on October 30th, so there was the whole two months or so prior to that of busy preparation for the winter that was not covered, which will not be the case for next season.

So, a huge “Thank You” to everybody who visited over the winter, and especially to those who were regulars. Have an enjoyable summer, check in to see what’s up at Lake Louise over the off-season, and we’ll see you back here in the fall!