You can be sure of one thing in the great Canadian wilderness: it comes with plenty of entertaining instructions on how to deal with the local wildlife.
Jagged mountains gleam on the skyline, glaciers tumble with ice, and green rivers gush through pine forests. The Canadian Rockies provide calendar-perfect landscapes, winter-glittering with icicles.
This sumptuous vertical scenery is enough to gladden the heart of any Australian, but I must confess to being a bit preoccupied.
When do moose have sex?
This is the question distracting me from pretty ice-encrusted lakes and frozen waterfalls.
My anxiety is caused by a national parks brochure that warns: “Moose are unpredictable and potentially dangerous animals, especially in the rutting season.” But when is the rutting season? It would seem important to know.
Moose are the size of a horse, weigh 300 kilos and have antlers like medieval battle-axes. Not something you’d want an unpredictable encounter with, then. And yet moose are regularly sighted in these parts. Only yesterday I saw one on the snowed-over golf course at Banff. The newspapers are full of stories about moose getting into Banff’s suburban gardens and trampling the hedges.
As I drive from Lake Louise towards Jasper along the Icefields Parkway, a temporary traffic-warning sign flashes by the roadside: DO NOT LET MOOSE LICK YOUR CAR! As if I would.
In Jasper, I quiz a national park ranger about the sign. Apparently moose car-licking is a real problem. Moose need salt, which they normally get from the Rockies’ salt lakes. But in winter, salt is sprinkled on the highway to prevent ice forming; it splashes onto cars providing an easily accessible salty smorgasbord. The lure of a quick sodium fix leads moose to loiter on the roadside and accidents ensue.
On the bright side, the park ranger assures me that it is definitely not moose rutting season. My sense of relief is fleeting, though, as he goes on to inform me that bears don’t actually hibernate all winter. He hands me a leaflet titled ‘Are You in Bear Country?’ and the answer, alarmingly, is yes.
But the lure of the outdoors overrides my fears. Walking the hiking trails, I pay close attention to the signboards I occasionally come across detailing how to deal with bears. ‘If confronted by a grizzly bear, stay calm and do not panic’ is one piece of wishful advice. Another tells me to roll into a ball and play dead. Apparently the bear will give you a good snuffle and likely wander off in disgust. On the other hand, if attacked you should fight back, then report it to the national parks service. How you do that after being mauled by a bear is never explained.
Canadians are fond of warning you about animals. Ominous signs are one of the entertainments of road tripping here. ‘Please watch out for muskrats at night’ would be useful if only I knew what a muskrat was. ‘Stay in your vehicle if bears are encountered’ is a warning from the no-kidding category.
But it’s the Canada geese I really need to be worried about, a lodge owner tells me. They’re notoriously bad-tempered and territorial. They flap and peck, although you’re seldom in imminent danger – or any danger at all. You have more chance of overdosing on maple syrup than being pecked by geese.
Canada does have plenty of dangerous creatures, but if you are sensible there’s no reason to be scared. In the Rocky Mountains, I ramble through thickets of larch trees stiff with ice and take in vistas of ragged mountains that serrate the blue sky. You can’t feel anything but exhilaration in scenery like this. And when I do finally see bears – of course I do, this is Canada – I’m utterly spellbound.
I spot several moose lolloping out of the forest as I drive the Icefields Parkway. They’re truly splendiferous creatures, as improbable as if drawn by a toddler. They’re bloody huge and, given rutting season is by now a good nine months in the past, probably sex starved. I’m certainly not going to let one near my car, let alone lick it. As they wander closer I gently roll away, down the road towards my next adventure.
Next week, come with me as I get lost in a forest, take a bath in my hiking boots, and finally learn how utterly relaxing the wilderness really is.
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