This article was originally published in the Winter 2010 edition of Nature Alberta Magazine.
By John Warden
The threatening clouds were sinking down from the sky and merging with the highway into a grey misting soup. It was rainy and misty and altogether not a morning for photography when a grizzly bear reared up on his hind legs and peered at me out of the fog. Now there is an image I’ll never forget. As I pulled over to the side of the road, the grizzly dropped down onto all fours and ambled a short distance away, then stood up again to have another look at me. A standing grizzly in the mist. I scrambled to get my camera out, knowing full well that there wasn't enough light yet.
While it was technically sunrise and I had planned to be at this place, the Highwood Pass, at this time, it was still way too dark for photographs. I spent about fifteen minutes watching the young grizzly bear, maybe a two year old, feed on the lush grass and dandelions along the roadside. What an experience. I took a few shots, just because I had to, but sure enough, they were just dark and blurry. The mountains were turning dark blue against the grey of the sky when the bear ambled across highway and continued on up the mountain and out of sight.
No photographs, but in terms of an adventure, how does a day get any better than that? But as it turns out, it did!
I was half thinking of heading for home, perhaps stopping at Kananaskis Village for breakfast but it was only about 6:00 AM, I decided to drive along the pass a few more times while the sun filtered its way through the mountains.
The Highwood Pass on Highway 40 in Kananaskis Country, at 2206 meters elevation is the highest drivable pass in Canada. It’s higher than the Sea to Sky Highway near Squamish in B.C. (1968 meters) and higher than the Logan Pass on the ‘Going To the Sun Road in Montana (2025 meters). Best of all, hardly anyone uses the Highwood Pass. At 6:00 AM on the 3rd of July, there was no traffic, and no tourists. For a while, there was just me at the top of the world and grizzly bears.
I did meet Claude, a local who was standing by his truck by the side of the road, looking down the mountain. I pulled in behind him and we chatted a bit. Claude told me that he comes up to the pass every chance he gets and that he had been watching the grizzly bears for five years. He said that there are six bears that he knows of that frequent the pass and that he has names for them. He pointed out a large grizzly with a white face that was moving through the brush below us. We watched for it for a while trying to anticipate where it would come out from the trees, but we didn't see it again. That was grizzly number two.
Claude said he was done for the day and headed for home, but advised me to be patient, that the bears should be hanging around the ridge for a couple of more hours.
I picked up grizzly number three about twenty minutes later and I stayed with him for nearly two hours. The sun was up and there was finally enough light for photographs, but the sky was heavy, overcast and grey. I took hundreds of images as the bear fed peacefully along the roadside, shooting from inside my car, out the drivers’ window. Two weeks earlier, near Lake Louise, a big grizzly bluff charged me! Another experience that will stay with me forever. Fortunately he was on the other side of the fence that runs along the Banff highway. There was no fence up here on the Highwood Pass, so I took my shots from the safety of my car. I watched as he rubbed his back against a tree, looked inside a hollowed out log and got a great shot of him silhouetted against the sun. Bear three finally dropped down below a ridge where I couldn't see him anymore. I decided my day was complete and to head back for breakfast.
It wasn't five minutes later that I saw grizzly number four. He was a young one, maybe just a yearling and he was on the run. Where the other three bears had ambled along eating dandelions and vegetation, this young guy was a running and eating machine. I spoke briefly with another photographer who had been following this bear and shooting from the safety of his car. He told me that the local Park Rangers shoot the grizzly bears with rubber bullets to try and keep them away from the highway. As a result, the bears are conditioned to run if a person gets out of their vehicle. I had no intention in finding out whether or not this was a true story.
I followed bear number four for a few minutes until he disappeared down behind the same ridge as bear three. That was it for the day; I was definitely heading for home. I had just put my camera away, and looked back and there was bear four coming back over the ridge, still on the run, but this time being pursued by bear three. The chase was on, growling and spitting, they crossed the highway right in front of my car, went down the shoulder and up the mountainside. Bear four stopped and turned around for a moment and I thought perhaps I would get to see a confrontation, but no, the chase continued, up and over the hill and out of sight. What a fantastic climax to an extraordinary morning.
Highwood grizzlies, a high point, and a high light in my life.