• Day9

    Five glaciers, three oceans, one elk

    August 31, 2018 in Canada ⋅ ☁️ 6 °C

    We had quite a treat first thing this morning. After breakfast we were back on the bus and within seconds we found our first elk, just around the corner from our hotel. Now please note that an elk is not a moose or a caribou or a deer. This was explained to us in careful detail later in the day. But while we were greatly interested in the elk, this elk was not at all interested in us. He was in rut and had a substantial set of antlers suggesting he was about four years old and was out gathering and protecting his harem. His eyes never really left them. I managed to get a shot from a long distance from a moving bus so the shot is terrible, but unmistakably an elk.

    When we pulled up some time later for a walk around Maligne Gorge(pronounced "maleen", French for "evil", because the corpulant French Jesuit priest, with insufficient swimming experience, tried to cross the river and was not entirely successful. Emerging wet and overcome by his near death experience, he felt the need to curse the river forever by giving it a bad name. If anything, he is the one we laugh at now). We had a very interesting talk about the various creatures in the Jasper National Park.

    The elk are doing reasonably well. They also come in close to town. They are wild and quite unsafe, particularly the males during rut, and having one in your front yard, blocking your access to your car, is a legitimate excuse for getting to work late in Jasper. The elk grows antlers each year and loses them each year in a moult. They grow them, with a full blood supply, up to a centimetre a day. This creates the striations in the antlers. They deposit large amounts of calcium into the antlers to build up their strength, but at the same time depleting the rest of their body. When the time comes, the blood supply ceases, the elk rubs off the velvet coating and the calcium deposited in the growing period becomes hard antlers. He uses them to impress the ladies and ward off any other potential mate for any females. Despite the fact he is calcium depleted and carrying a weighty headgear, testosterone takes over and he is a force to be reckoned with. He will fight off anything looking like it might be interested in his harem. One story, true or not, was that a male elk attacked a car parked nearby because it had bicycles on the roof rack and he mistook the handlebars for antlers. Handsome? Yes. Clever, not so much! Testosterone takes away the capacity to think, as we all know. After a season of serving all of his harem, not eating or sleeping as he protects his herd, he is often completely exhausted. This makes him potential prey for wolves and wolverines. If he is too weak to fight, they kill and then eat him. That means that for probably just one or two years, the herd has one patriarch but then a new one steps in, broadening the gene pool. There is a plan after all.

    Also while at Maligne Gorge, we were shown samples of the various horns and antlers shed by the other local creatures. The only one that was a true horn belonged to the mountain sheep. Its skull is significantly reinforced to allow for the extensive battles between the other big horned males. More testosterone, more headaches. The caribou are different in one major aspect. Both the male and female have antlers. Unfortunately, the caribou is under major threat and the numbers are now critically low here. This came about because their main predator, the wolf, which had been limited in its ability to chase and kill caribou in the thick snow drifts, suddenly gained quick access via the road system built by the humans. Humans would regularly clear the road to get their cars through and both the caribou and the wolf used these clear ways to get around. Our guide also said she had seen wolves by the road, just watching out for the traffic as they went about their business. We are unlikely to see any because they like to keep their presence quiet. We did see one in a glass case at the last hotel. It was hard to look at. It is such a noble creature and to have it stuffed and standing alongside equally stuffed bear and wolverine was sad, even if it was educational.

    The Gorge itself was extraordinary. The melt from a glacier had worn away the rocks over the millenia until it was a deep chasm with circular carvings in the rocks where eddies had swirled for centuries. We were told that this water did not end up in another waterway or make its way to the ocean. It went down underground into vast aquafers in the limestone.

    Our next stop was at a point of significant geological importance. There were five glaciers all with the one panorama and most converging into the one valley. We were booked to go on a tour and walk on the Athabasca glacier. I was troubled by this. I don't think we should walk on these fragile things. They are disappearing and climate change and human intervention have challenged their health for a long time. My convictions did not hold out though. The young women who led the tour said she was a glaciologist and so I allowed myself to be persuaded. I think I was wrong. We drove in a bus from the visitor centre to another terminus where we got on a thing called the Ice Explorer, that had some of the biggest wheels I have ever seen. About $8 k each! The trip was a bit hair raising. The last stage of road onto the glacier was very steep. It was at 32% gradient or 1 in 3 drop. The truck then drove us onto the ice. I was quite troubled by this stage. They were churning up the ice with the wheels and footsteps. There were many people on the glacier. I just gave up. The damage had been done and they were not going to stop doing it. It is very lucrative. I took a few shots then got back on board the Ice Explorer and we headed back. Along the way we saw a millwheel which is where the water dives down through the glacier in an ice blue cavern. It is so deep they cannot even estimate its length or where it might end.

    This day had promised to be one of the coldest we would experience and we were told it was about 0 degrees on the ice plus the wind chill factor. It was very cold in the strong icy wind. Of course this was the day Ross chose not to bother with the long johns bought specially for the trip, nor the puffy jacket I had bought him. When we arrived at the vistor centre he suddenly realised how cold it was. I pointed out the section in the gift shop that had jackets and the next thing I saw was Ross stepping out in a lime green fleecy windcheater. I was astounded. If I had tried to buy that for him at home he would have been horrified at its garishness. Today, he felt he was living the part of an adventurer and so had chosen something that would make him stand out in the snow. When he got onto the glacier he lasted about two minutes. It was too cold and his new dress shoes had no grip so he got back on the bus!

    The mountain we were on was about seven thousand feet high and very steep. But a nearby mountain called the Snowglobe holds a record, not for its height but that it is the only mountain in the world that marks a three way continental divide.

    A continental divide is when water falling on one side of the mountain flows to one ocean and on the other side it flows to a completely different ocean. We had seen a couple of examples of that already, when we hit the Rockies. This one went three ways. On one side the water flowed to the Pacific, on another face it ran towards the Arctic and the third face ran waters towards rhe Atlantic. Amazing!

    Soon afterwards we drove alongside a mountain range that was called a chain mountain. That is, that it goes on for many kilometers in a line without any valleys. This too was the biggest in the world. I can only say that no photo could do justice to the sheer size of all these interminable mountains.

    Another brief stop was overlooking the North Saskatchewan river which Ross required me to inform you about, so that I could write Saskatchewan!

    Our last stop before arriving at Emerald Lake was at Kicking Horse River land bridge. Again, glacial waters had carved amazing shapes and tunnels through rocks and the water. The rain we have had today was going gangbusters down the valley.

    We had rain this afternoon, fog between various passes, a brief snow flurry above us on the glacier and a rainbow over Emerald Lake this evening as we sat down for our dinner. The weather has definitely been interesting. There were several more things to write about today but I think I could save some up for tomorrow.
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