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.

Nature, (oh) boy

Whenever you enter a park in Toronto, no matter what its size, you see the sign: “A city within a park”. Now I never thought that made sense, until we moved to our new home in The Annex.

We’re on the 17th floor and have a (small) balcony and when you look OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAout, this (left) is what you see. I showed the view to my sister and mam on Skype and they, like me, were amazed at how green and leafy the city is. That’s when I realised that the slogan was right: Toronto is a huge park with homes in it. Lots of them, granted, but they live side by side with nature.

I should have realised earlier how cheek by jowl the city is with the natural world. After all, on our second night here I watched a raccoon dance across the neighbours’ rooves. “Welcome to Canada,” said my cousin when I Facebooked it. “Oh, you’ll get fed up of them,” said my Torontonian friends. News flash: I haven’t. I won’t. They’re fantastic. With their little Zorro masks and fluffy fur – and claws which mean I will never get within 10ft of one unless there’s a glass wall between us. Nor is there any fear of touching their faeces, which I was also warned about. These OPI nails aint going anywhere near that.

Raccoons aren’t the only animals to make their presence known. Squirrels jump around everywhere while our route home to The Other Place (so terrible I’ve gone into The Liz Jones World of Diary Writing and capitalised descriptions that don’t need capitalising) used to take us past the Don Valley and the river (there’s even a creek!) and one night I saw its deer calmly munching on the grass of the nearby office blocks. After all the years of trying to see one in Scotland…

Then there is the wide variety of birdlife which makes me think OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAtwitchers aren’t quite so geeky after all – we caught this magnificent heron at the Parc national des Îles-de-Boucherville but the groundhogs proved a little more elusive to photograph. Fair enough, it was long past February 2nd and to be honest, they’re quite scary little buggers when they start di gging. I felt much happier oohing and aahing over the sunlight glinting off a dragonfly’s wings.

The weather is, of course, the biggest presence Mother Nature has to offer. The days now are getting hot and very, very humid and April’s bitingly cold winds and snow are hard to remember. But the rain is still around, although it’s a pleasure when it means we’re treated to sunsets like this (below).

We were reminded that we weren’t in Kansas (okay, Madrid) anymore on Sunday, while watching American Dad, when a tickertape from Environment Canada started feeding its way across the screen warning OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAof a tornado and telling those in affected areas to go down to the ground floor or the basement if possible. Although the tornado was nowhere near us – and thankfully didn’t amount to much – there was a sharp change in the wind before the lightning hit. And what lightning. At times I felt like Richard Dreyfuss watching the clouds light up before the spaceship arrives in Close Encounters… othertimes it was as if I were at a Yes concert enjoying the light show but thankfully without the music. Also like a Yes gig, the show seemed never ending.

But the natural world is not all sweetness and light. My lavvie love affair has gone down the bog after a trip to High Park, where long queues and lingering smells meant a day trip to Toronto’s biggest park turned into the biggest exercise in cross-legged walking ever seen. Eventually, I’d had enough. I’ve seen I’m A Celebrity… and if the woodland is good enough for Carole Thatcher, well it would have to be good enough for me. So I found a secluded spot, left Ged on watch and answered the call of nature.

But Ged seemed to be fussing a bit, trying to catch my attention at a time when you don’t really want your attention caught, and I asked him what was up when I climbed back onto the trail.

“Did you see any plants like that?”

He pointed at a bizarre pen-and-ink drawing of a… leaf.

“Don’t think so…”

I took a closer look at the sign. Warning: Poison Ivy.

Now beyond the song, I wasn’t much sure what else was bad about Poison Ivy but a Will Robinson-type warning only means bad news. We tried to match the drawing with the leaves around us; however, as they were all green and sort of leafy-shaped, anyone of them could have been Ms Ivy. I spent the rest of the day wondering about every itch on my body and cursing the Thatcher family once more.

Toronto may be a city in a glorious park but when it comes to toilets, I think I’ll keep the two separate from now.