With the recent rains accelerating the green-up of the Lake Louise ski area’s slopes, the bears have arrived in force, and it looks like we’ve entered a period of daily bear sightings. Until a few days ago, bear sightings had been somewhat sporadic in location and time of day. Now the bears seem to have adopted a bit of a routine, as they appear more or less at the same time of day and in the same areas.
Guests riding our summer lift for the last few days have been lucky to see four different grizzly bears, all on the same ride. Today, a sow grizzly with two large cubs were grazing for a few hours on Juniper, right next to and under the lift. They appear oblivious to the lift running overhead, and quietly go about finding whatever food they can. A fourth grizzly was spotted on Upper Wiwaxy (the part visible from the lift), forcing us to close the Kicking Horse trail. This trail ascends from the top of the lift, following a road that goes up to the base of the Summit platter.
Often in the national park, if a bear frequents an area with trails going through it, warnings are posted, and people are advised to use another trail. The trail generally remains open. In the case of a bear that has displayed aggression towards people, or even a lack of fear around them, the trail will close until the bear has moved on.
In our case, there are a few unique factors that dictate whether a trail remains open or closed. While many people assume a trail closure is for public safety, we also must consider the safety of the bear, an amazing and iconic animal in Banff National Park. By reducing the chance of human-bear encounters, we help the bear maintain a healthy fear of humans. As has too often been the case, stories of bears that get to comfortable around people generally do not have happy endings for the bear. Because we operate a lift that brings more people to an area that would otherwise see much less traffic, a trail closure is the only effective way to ensure that bears have the ability to go about their business without the stress of human encroachment.
For now, with grizzlies spending so much time near the summer lift, visitors to the Lake Louise Ski Area are being treated to a rare opportunity to safely get close to one of the most beautiful and powerful animals in the park. The photos below were taken earlier today, all from the summer lift. I was lucky enough to see the bears on both my uphill and downhill trips, and they had barely moved in the fifteen minutes between the trips.
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.