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April 2011 issue


IN HABITAT

Seeing ghosts
By Karsten Heuer
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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.

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“Go out and survey the backcountry,” he tells me. “Report back on how many family groups of grizzly bears are using the park.”

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.

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