Alberta’s animal magic

Wondering where all the wildlife action was in my posts about the Rockies? Well bear with me (see what I did there?)

As I said here, nature is everywhere in Canada, coming right down to the doorstep in Toronto. Canadians are quite blasé about their wildlife – “Yeah, I’ve seen a bear,” said my friend Rosie casually.

A bear, for heaven’s sake!

I, however, am a little more excitable and when we hit Alberta, I was on all-eyes-alert for anything. ANYTHING.

And I was rewarded pretty early on, with this stunning close encounter with this mule deer in Banff. Leaving Colin to get the photos, I merely stood and watched this magnificent creature – who had no idea she was the focus of the animal paparazzi – eating grass and then calmly walking away.

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Now I know it was only a deer, but I spent every trip to the Highlands of Scotland trying to find one and never seeing anything so this was quite something. Plus there was the stillness of the animal juxtaposed with the busy tourist centre we’d left a few minutes previously. We meant nothing to this animal.

Not too much later, driving through to Lake Louise, Colin and I were given an even better treat with the sighting of a beautiful stag walking through the forest. The road was busy and we couldn’t stop for photos but the image is burned onto my memory.

Of course, me being me, I got excited at anything: the many hawks riding the thermals or peering down from telegraph poles; the mountain goat by Canmore: the gorgeous little chipmunks and the gophers we saw on the prairies – the one pictured was obviously used to being photographed and posed like a red-carpet star. Plus there were the dinosaurs at Drumheller.

(The bears remained elusive. The closest we got was several hundred metres where we were told a black bear had gone into bushes. We waited but the bear never reappeared. I did see a cowboy, however, complete with leather chaps standing at the entrance of his farmland.)

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But the best came not long after the mountain goat, after my cousin Vicki, in a perfect tribute to The Terminator, announced there was a storm coming in. We decided to get home before it hit and were heading out of the park when something frolicking in a clearing grabbed us all. Vicki slammed on the brakes.

“Could be cougars,” she said, looking back at the three animals.

I swear, if I’d had a tail it would have stared wagging.

And then she said: “Nope. There’s too many. Cougars are loners. They’ve got to be wolves.”

God bless her, storm gathering pace, she reversed the car back to where the animals were. That’s where this picture was taken. Stepping out of the car and viewing the creatures more closely, it was obvious that these were large animals and everything about them looked like wolves.

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So why the bad photo? As I lifted my camera up, Mother Nature showed that she’s more than wildlife. Within seconds, the rain came hurtling down and the wind picked up, literally knocking the camera as I tried to hold it steady. I had no choice but to run back to the car, already soaking after less than 30 seconds.

It was the beginning of August yet we were in the middle of a hailstorm so loud and violent you would have thought someone was bombarding us with golf balls. I expected the windshield to shatter at any moment. Vicki had told me about cars being damaged by hailstones. Now I understood (and also why the car insurance is so expensive in Alberta compared to the UK).

The car was silent (we wouldn’t have been able to hear each other anyway) and Vicki received a round of applause when we emerged at the other side of the storm. That was serious driving.

This was the end of my Rockies adventures and they moved me more than I had expected. My author friend Douglas Jackson – who writes a brilliant blog – once talked about going up on the Borders of Scotland and England and seeing views that the Romans had seen almost 2,000 years ago. Watching these animals in their natural habitat, I understood perfectly what he meant: the sense of timelessness and unity as I watched a scene that the First Nations would have seen; a Canada from long, long ago. This was compounded by the storm – we were powerless, nature was in control. After all, only a few weeks earlier, Calgary and the surrounding areas had been devastated by heavy rains.

I’ve always hated the idea of borders and nations and visas and immigration quotas and my experiences in the Rockies made me see even more how we don’t own the earth, it does not belong to us, we only share it with all the rest of its inhabitants, we’re all just lodgers on this land. Perhaps we should send the world’s politicians to Alberta so they can learn this lesson too.

I can’t thank my family in Calgary enough for an amazing week filled with laughter and love and many, many memories (Vicki, I still feel guilty for the black eye I gave you when you were a little girl). I love you all and I hope it won’t be another 20-something years before we meet up again.

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Go-karting with dinosaurs

After the grandeur of the Rockies, it was time for the openness of the Canadian Prairies and the Albertan Badlands. I didn’t think anything could equal the mountains and lakes we’d already seen on our trip to Calgary but the Prairies have a magic of their own. Driving through, all I could think of was The Orb’s Little Fluffy Clouds. The sky truly goes on forever and I knew exactly what Rickie Lee Jones

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was talking about. One of the things we noticed on our trip back to the UK in December was how low the sky felt in comparison to Madrid. It felt even higher here than in Spain. So there we were, the four of us in the car, with field upon field of farmland, the occasional building, blue skies and those little fluffy clouds. I now know why this is such a cliched tracking shot in films. The flatness and the homogeneity is quite hypnotic and meditative.

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There are communities out there, of course, towns where 1st and 4th Street salute you as you both enter and leave because they are so small. At Beiseker, we were welcomed by Squirt, the school mascot, and locals spending the long weekend throwing horseshoes. We also passed a Mennonite community enjoying a simpler way of life (their produce is second-to-none, I was informed).

The peace and tranquility was intoxicating.

From the Prairies, we headed out to the Red Deer River Badlands and the spectacular Horseshoe Canyon (pictured), where layer upon layer of rock reveal more than 75 million years of geological history. The First Nations were the first people to discover fossils here and believed the bones belonged

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to the giant ancestors of their bisons. In truth, they belonged to the gigantic dinosaurs which once roamed the land. The lush conditions of Alberta – the forests, rivers and mud deposits which now make up the Badlands – made it an ideal spot for preserving their remains and more than 150 complete dinosaur skeletons have been discovered in the area with 40 species discovered, including the Albertosaurus, a smaller relative of the T-Rex but still measuring up to 33ft long.

Dinosaurs are everywhere at Drumheller, our next stop (although they had to wait a few more minutes while my cousin Colin and I had a race-off at the nearby go-kart attraction. He won. It wasn’t my fault

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– I couldn’t reach the pedals properly #shortarse). Anyway, as well as the kitschy ones on the streets, the Royal Tyrrell Museum is an incredible collection of bones, many found in the nearby Dinosaur Provincial Park. I was interested but the museum proved more than worthy of a visit. It is a fascinating place, filled with skeletons, recreations, gardens, educational attractions – much, much more than I

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expected (and the Ontario Science Centre should learn a lesson from it). We spent the afternoon there. You need a whole day to see and appreciate everything.

And then it was the drive home, past more Little Fluffy Clouds. I hope to see more of the Badlands in the future. And I’m taking a cushion with me next time so I can reach those damn go-kart pedals.

Yee-haw! We’re off to see the cowboys

Canada, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to Canada.

Okay, a slight exaggeration, but only slight. This is a big country and while you know that inside, it’s only when you’re here that you realise its enormity. Or rather, it’s only when you try to book

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAtickets to go somewhere and you’re faced with travelling for more than two days by train (not such a rarity with Network Rail, I admit) or flying for five hours just to visit another city. And don’t even get me started on prices. How can a country with petrol at 80p a litre justify almost £400 for a return flight the equivalent of London to the Canaries? My nephew’s flying from Budapest to Milan for a little over 10€. TEN EUROS.

Anyway, to get to the point of today’s blog, when we were leaving Spain, one of the questions I was often asked was what I was most
looking forward to. And there was no hesitation – seeing the second cousins I used to play with as a little girl and, apart from a fleeting get-together in Montréal Airport in 1999, had not seen since 1989. Margaret Thatcher’s Britain had sent them to St John in search of work and from there, they’d ended up in Calgary.

I also had another reason for wanting to see this part of Canada – my Great-Uncle Walter had been here during the Second World War and loved it. It would be very special to go somewhere with so many family connections.

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My trip sadly started off with a poignant moment – a visit to my cousin Sid’s grave. He died last year after a valiant fight against cancer and one of the first things I wanted to do was see where he was buried and pay my respects. It was a strange feeling, to see the grave of a boy who’d grown up in the back streets of Byker and was now buried in a land far, far away. However, he’d adored living in Alberta and his spirit was never far away in the many loving tales his family shared with us.

His wife, my cousin-in-law Anne, has maintained her Geordie accent but their children, Vicki and Colin, now speak with a strong Canadian twang (and I did hear the A-word several times). But they still have British sensibilities and, just like when I was a child, laughter and gossip were always on the go.

Calgary itself is not such a pretty city. The downtown area is small and Vicki told me it’s practically dead at the weekend. Being a relatively new city – it was a town in 1864 and a city 30 years later – there are very few places of historic importance to see. Okay, practically none outwith Stephen Avenue, the Canadian Pacific Railway HQ and, of course, Stampede Park. However, it sits nestled into the Bow and Elbow rivers which provide a gorgeous, lush oasis in the middle of this very dry land (it wasnice to escape Toronto’s humidity). Too lush, sadly, as the debris and damage from this July’s Alberta floods could still be seen. There are families in the area still without homes and as we travelled the region, it became clear just how devastating it had been. The floods also showed a

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true outpouring of the human spirit, however, as thousands of volunteers turned up to help in the aftermath.

Back to the city, most people seem to live in the suburbs so there’s not a lot to see, although highlights of our visit included a look at their beautiful Chinese centre and the shops for cowboys.

SHOPS FOR COWBOYS.

I mean, how great

is that? We tried on all the hats and oohed at all the Dolly Parton-esque blouses and shirts not just in one of them, but in every cowboy shop I could see.

And of course, from there we had to visit Stampede Grounds, the home of the legendary Calgary Stampede, and…

“What’s that building? Looks like a giant twisty-turny place for skateboarders to practice on.”

“That’s the Saddledome stadium, you divvy,” replied Ged. “Look, it’s shaped like a saddle. It was on the telly all the time because it had been flooded and they didn’t know if they could get it ready in time for the Stampede. And you, a journalist…”

(They did get it ready but repairs are continuing so we couldn’t see much.)

Even though there was no Stampede, it was amazing to walk around the grounds (see gallery below) and see this tribute to Alberta’s colonial past. I have seen First Nations in Toronto – we stumbled onto a pow-wow by the waterfront on our very first weekend and were able to witness the singing and drums, as well as overhear how Velcro was the best thing to use for fastening dresses – but this era of Canada’s history seems very far away in Ontario. In Alberta, it is a living, breathing part of the everyday world and my cousins routinely discussed the conditions on the reservations and the problems facing the First Nations. Their dog, the sloppiest animal in the world, even came from a reservation (and has, according to a vet, some coyote in her. But more on Alberta’s wildlife to come).

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The strangest thing about Calgary, however, is how much it reminded me of my native Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Stephen Avenue at times felt like walking down Northumberland Street – that part just around the Haymarket and BHS – and I could see why my cousin and Great-Uncle Walter loved it and felt so at home here. But the next day, we headed into the Rockies and Newcastle and Northumberland were left far behind.

And for that, you’ll have to tune in to the next episode of Canadian Wry 😉