In 1928, 26-year-old Ansel Adams joined a Sierra Club expedition to the Canadian Rockies, trekking deep into Mount Robson Provincial Park and Jasper National Park. Exploring the alpine slopes, glaciers and waterfalls, Adams photographed them in striking, almost abstract compositions of striated rock and ice that prefigured his later, more famous, images of the Sierra Nevada.
Overwhelmed by the sights around him, he wrote home to his wife, “These mountains are breathtaking…The cold ice crashes down tremendous cliffs to the very edge of deep, somber forests. No dust here – all is snow, ice, clean black rock and mossy earth covered with thick vegetation – all cool and calm and very strong in the primal aspect. These are the great mountains we dream about.”
Travel where there’s still wilderness
Nearly 90 years later, the Canadian Rockies and their surrounding territories have retained this ancient majesty. Thanks in part to the naming of British Columbia’s and Alberta’s four national and three provincial parks as UNESCO World Heritage sites, the western Canadian wilderness is one of the few regions in the world that can still be called that – wild. The most frigid summits and barren icefields of the Rockies sustain dynamic populations of flora and fauna downslope, via the cycles of freezing, thawing, trickling and cascading water that Adams alluded to.
“These mountains are the water towers of the West,” said writer Robert W. Sandford. As EPCOR chair for water and climate security at the United Nations University and the author of several books on the region, Sandford has a deep understanding of how the Rockies’ hydrological cycles sustain their abundant wildlife. “If you protect the watersheds, you protect the diverse ecosystems and then the truly diverse species nested within that.”
And what remarkable wildlife that is. There are lush coastal rainforests of Western red cedar and hemlock, teeming with Pacific salamanders and tree frogs, bats and raccoons. There are interior grasslands of sagebrush and prickly pear cactus, crawling with scorpions, rattlesnakes and pigmy short-horned lizards. There are old-growth forests roamed by majestic mountain caribou with massive, spreading antlers, and rock cliffs scaled by bighorn sheep – the rams’ thick curved horns calling to mind exotic creatures out of Star Wars.
While many habitats and species remain tucked away in pockets that are inaccessible to travelers, one of the easiest ways to see much of the area’s wildlife is from the windows and outdoor viewing platforms of the Rocky Mountaineer luxury rail service, which puts riders amid a dramatic, shape-shifting landscape. The Rocky Mountaineer’s trains weave from coastal harbors up along churning rivers, past glacial lakes, through badlands and plateaus, ultimately bringing visitors to the feet of ice-capped mountains. All along the way, travelers may come within photographing distance of everything from elk to eagles.
The salmon highways of the West
The rivers of the Rockies are the arteries channeling snowmelt from the peaks down to the ocean. As such, they are among the most dynamic of habitats, with the largest among them – such as the Fraser, Thompson and Adams – hosting some of the West’s most critical wild salmon runs. For many miles, the Rocky Mountaineer’s routes wind alongside the Fraser – British Columbia’s longest river – as well as the Thompson – the Fraser’s largest tributary – giving riders a glimpse of an aquatic life cycle that reaches upland and throughout the region.
The Fraser is mostly uninterrupted by dams or lakes, which accounts for its muddiness: Sediment is continually carried out to sea by its fast-churning waters. All five species of Pacific salmon (Chinook, Coho, Sockeye, Chum and Pink) are found here, as is white sturgeon, which spawns in the water. The Thompson, meanwhile, is much clearer thanks to Kamloops Lake and Shuswap Lake, which collect sediment as the Thompson flows through them.
Around both rivers, birds of prey such as ospreys and eagles can be seen swooping down to catch live fish, and very lucky train passengers may spot grizzly bears wading into the waters. These predators and scavengers often carry their spoils up into the woods, where fish bones and carcasses (as well as droppings) are discarded, fertilizing the forest floor. “The rivers themselves are bastions of biodiversity,” Sandford said. “There’s a whole raft of associations that start right at the water line and move up into the forest and beyond.”
The jewels of the Rockies
The calm waters of the region’s hundreds of lakes make them invaluable drinking spots for the local wildlife. They are also home to populations of freshwater fish – trout, whitefish and kokanee salmon – which in turn tempt grizzlies, wolves, eagles and ospreys to their shores. And while many of these fish species were introduced from hatcheries to appeal to fishermen back in the 1800s, when British Columbia and Alberta were first being built up into recreational and tourist meccas, recent years have seen successful attempts to repopulate them with westslope cutthroat trout and sturgeon that are native to the area. “The recovery of sturgeon is a great story in this region,” said Sandford. “When you see one, it’s like going back to the Jurassic. These things are monstrous, just primitive-looking – they’re beautiful.”
Dotting the landscape are scores of glacial lakes whose rock flour, or finely ground silt, turns them into nearly phosphorescent jewels reminiscent of Caribbean waters. The turquoise-emerald Green Lake, in the Cariboo region, is home to rainbow trout and kokanee. Moose, bears, coyotes and foxes roam nearby, surrounded by forests of hemlock, cedar and Douglas fir.
Further south and west, the picturesque Seton Lake, a brilliant jade-hued fjord just west of the Fraser River, boasts bull trout, rainbow trout and mountain whitefish, alongside sturgeon. Along the craggy cliffs and dense forests that rise above the water, travelers can look out for mountain quail, black bears, mountain goats and the occasional tawny-colored cougar. Frequently clambering up the rock faces are highly nimble bighorn sheep.
A bird-watcher’s paradise
British Columbia’s interior plateau regions, such as the Cariboo, boast an incredible range of rich ecosystems – from deserts and bunchgrass grasslands to forests of lodgepole pine and Douglas fir, as well as groves of spruce, trembling aspen and cottonwood. “The Cariboo Plateau has deposits of basalt, which formed when lava spread over the surface. Basalt columns and basalt boulders are common. The fertile soils have resulted from deposit of alluvial soils,” said Fred McMechan, Northern BC Coordinator for BC Nature, a federation of naturalists in British Columbia.
The standout features of this region are the numerous marshes and wetlands that shelter a vast array of waterfowl for the avid bird watcher. Red-throated loons and American white pelicans migrate via Green Lake each year, while nearby Horse Lake sees great blue herons, American bitterns, belted kingfishers and long-billed curlews – as well as terrestrial fauna such as badgers, moose and mule deer. And just north of the town of 100 Mile House, one can spot black terns, mountain bluebirds, river otters, muskrats and yellow-bellied marmots. Coyotes, beavers, red foxes and red squirrels may be glimpsed throughout, along with birds of prey such as bald and golden eagles, kestrels, Northern harrier and red-tailed hawks.
A habitat for every species
The peaks of the Rockies and nearby mountain ranges are what Sandford has called the “ecological thermostat” of the region. The Snow Dome in the Columbia Icefield is the water source for three watersheds – the Arctic to the north, the Atlantic to the East and the Pacific to the west – helping to keep the temperatures and the wildlife cool in a time of climate change.
The glacier-topped Mount Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies at 12,972 feet, hosts an incredible vertical range of habitats. “Mountain goats have been seen very near the summit of Mount Robson,” Sandford said. “There are stunning pockets with lichens, and you might see the occasional vascular plant.” Below the tree line, the forests are home to smaller mammals such as marmots, pikas, coyotes and wolverines. Grizzlies and black bears roam the area, as does the massive yet hard-to-spot moose, which can best be glimpsed chewing on marsh grasses and willow branches near bodies of water such as their namesake Moose Lake.
Another magical but highly elusive species in Mount Robson Provincial Park and Jasper National Park is the mountain caribou, which thrives in alpine zones. “It’s so majestic,” Sandford said. “I’ve seen it in places, and it’s just so exotic. Jasper’s very different than the other mountain parks, because it faces northward. That’s why you have caribou that came from that direction – those are a subspecies of Arctic caribou. If you’re really, really lucky, you will see one.”
In other words, the mountain caribou is as rarefied as the Canadian Rockies themselves.
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