Feel depressed when the summer holidays end?
Staying home until its time for a winter escape to someplace sunny has me wanting to give a bottle of wine mouth-to-mouth resuscitation!
A healthier way to overcome the fall blues is to search the Internet for festivals reinventing shoulder-season travel. That is how I found myself at the Waterton Wildlife Festival in September.
Waterton is one of those places you want to see, but the drive and the horizontal wind — it is one of Alberta’s windiest places — make it easy to delay visiting.
If you can rationalize the big winds as an excuse not to waste time on hairstyles, you can focus on the natural beauty.
Waterton is jam-packed with wildlife, including 250 species of birds, 60 species of mammals, 24 species of fish, 10 species of reptiles and amphibians, and a major bat migration route!
Banff National Park is 13 times larger but no Canadian national park of a similar size has this diversity!
With only 100 winter residents, you are more likely to encounter wildlife than locals but seeking out the latter will give you something to talk about.
At the Waterton Wildlife Festival, local experts share their animal expertise and turn a stroll through gale-force winds from a chance to weigh down your hiking boots with rocks into some of the best nature experiences of your life.
Dale Patton, a conservation biologist, led our group on an Antlers of The High Country meander into the grasslands frequented by Waterton’s 1,500 elk.
Dale says, “Waterton is one of the best places in North America to see the rut.”
We did not see an elk or an antler on our hike but I did learn where to find them.
At dusk, I parked near the nightly action and watched a bull elk keep his females from joining the single bulls trailing behind the harem like dogs waiting under a toddler’s highchair for food to drop.
Another local expert, John Russell, son of famed author, photographer and conservationist Andy Russell, shared his love of bears in a hike that felt like being a bear for a day.
Giving us a taste of bear life, John led us off the road into the bush, eschewing the trails in favour of stumbling — me, not John — through skunk cabbage and berry bushes.
We checked out a bear bulletin board, a tree with numerous scratches and bites where bears leave their marks and scents to let others know they are in the area.
We poked at bear scat and listened to John tell how he replaced his birdbath with a bear bath when the bears started hogging the water.
John said, “When you live with the bears, you get used to being around them. I’ve been in a chair reading a book while a bear eats grass under me.”
I did not see reading with bears on the festival program, but I enjoyed walking with someone who had.
John, with the quiet confidence often found in people who have spent years in nature, described growing up in bear country and experiences he could not explain with science.
On camping in sleeping bags without tents, John said, “The bears didn’t eat us like oysters on the half-shell. They knew we were around the ranch and they left us alone.”
They left me alone, too, when I cruised the road to Red Rock Canyon. I spotted several bears devouring berries like an over-achieving vacuum cleaner.
The bears ignored the cars with cameras sticking out of every window and continued their ursine eating festival, adding as much as 15 kg each week in weight.
As I headed for home, the wind seemed less obnoxious.
I realized the abrupt meeting of mountains and prairie that caused it also creates one of the few North American places where all species of major carnivores are still found.
There are also enough photography opportunities here to have you jumping out of the car every five minutes for just one more shot.
Shoulder-season travel just got a lot less boring.
If you go:
• Book accommodation early as Waterton is crowded in September; www.mywaterton.ca has several hotel choices.
• If you love flowers, check out the spring Wildflower festival. You will find more than 50 per cent of Alberta’s wildflowers in this botanist’s paradise.
For information, contact Trail of the Great Bear at www.trailofthegreatbear.ca.
Carol Patterson helps businesses and people reinvent themselves through adventure. When she isn’t travelling for work, Carol is travelling for fun. More of her adventures can be found at www.carolpatterson.ca.