||April 2011 issue
By Karsten Heuer
|Click photo for slideshow|
Spring 2010, my fifteenth year working for Parks Canada.
I sit in my boss’s office, awaiting orders for the upcoming
season in Banff National Park.
“Go out and survey the backcountry,” he tells me. “Report
back on how many family groups of grizzly bears are using
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There has to be a catch. Sure enough, a string of them pour
out of his mouth: a tiny budget; just three of us backcountry
rangers to undertake the sow-cub index using remote cameras;
and a slew of other jobs to do as well.
The cameras are little more than weatherproof boxes with
lenses, motion sensors, battery banks and storage cards wired
inside. After cajoling our local
welder to fashion mounts strong
enough to withstand the claws and
jaws of curious grizzly bears, my
colleagues and I load 26 of the
units into our pack boxes and
rucksacks and set off on horseback
for Banff ’s backcountry.
Identifying places to position
the cameras is relatively easy. Cliffs,
glaciers and tumbling rivers have
created a system of natural funnels
here in the Rockies, but accessing
such high mountain passes and
steep canyons is more difficult.
Steered by the collective knowledge
of 40 years of travel in this
folded corner of Alberta, the three
of us fan out. We know the game
trails, the shortcuts, the way things
move and how they change with
the seasons. Or so we think.
Three weeks go by before all
the cameras are set up, and another
month passes before I download the first photos from a pass
I’ve visited dozens of times. Swatting mosquitoes, I watch the
portable card reader churn away in my hand. With a flicker of
the screen, the ghost of each wild animal to pass through this
rocky notch in the past four weeks comes alive: a herd of mountain
goats; a pack of eight grey wolves and one black puppy;
some elk; a wolverine carrying a big bone; and, yes, grizzly bears
— some with cubs, some without.
The diversity is impressive, the frequency astounding. When
the download is complete, I look up and realize I’m in a different
place than I was in a few minutes before. It’s wilder than I ever imagined. More storied. Richer and more complex.
My step is light as I untie the horses and walk them down
from the pass. But by the time I reach the valley floor, the thrill
of discovery gives way to deep disappointment. I think about all
the hours I’ve invested in knowing this place — all the tracks,
scats, scrapes and rub trees I’ve noted in my journals; the ridges
I’ve climbed to scope the slopes and valleys for signs of life. All
for what? Like a jilted lover discovering a secret diary, I’m confronted
by two realities: the rich one seen through the cameras
and the limited one I have always perceived.
Back at the patrol cabin, I turn the horses out to graze, and
my mood improves. A hatch of moths lifts off the meadow, a
breeze rattles through the aspen
leaves, and the night’s first stars
prick the evening sky. It’s hard
to stay mad in such a place. As I
clomp inside the cabin with an
armful of firewood, the irony hits
with full force. Living simply like
this is a conscious decision I’ve
made, a way to minimize distractions
so that I can exercise my
senses and better connect to the
wild world I love so much. But
now, using the same technology
I normally avoid, I see how far
I have yet to go.
I cook, eat and clean up, then
switch off the lantern and settle
into my bunk. The distant sound
of the horses’ bells carries me
toward sleep, but before I drift off,
I make a silent vow to my boss
and myself: I will look for those
grizzlies with the cameras and my
senses, using the one to sharpen
the other, and narrow the gap between what the two see.
I will strive to see ghosts.
Karsten Heuer is a seasonal park ranger, explorer and Fellow of
The Royal Canadian Geographical Society living in Canmore,
Alta. He is the author of two books, Being Caribou and Walking
the Big Wild.