Saturday, April 30, 2016

When Grouse Attack!

Trip Date: April 2016

I found myself in a precarious situation, trying to keep the bike between me and the angry beast. No matter what I tried it just kept charging, desperately trying to get around the tires so it would have a clear path straight for me. I am still unsure what I did to invoke such a blind rage, but that didn’t matter because at that particular moment I was just hoping to escape unharmed…

The ride started out like any other; gearing up and pedaling out of the West Bragg Creek parking lot. Our chosen loop would take us up Ranger Summit before plunging down Strange Brew en-route back to the cars. We should have heeded the ominous warning provided by a rapidly descending woman who encountered the creature a couple of kilometres up the trail from our location. Instead we poked fun and cracked jokes, but karma can be a real bitch! We continued climbing not giving it much of a second thought until we rounded a bend and there he was, sitting directly in the middle of the trail.

Enjoying a leisurely ride blissfully unaware of the danger lurking ahead!
I’ve always considered myself a man; the type of man that likes sports, red meat, the outdoors, and cold beer, but this wildlife encounter had me reevaluating my manliness in its entirety. I am sad to report the animal we encountered was not a bear, a cougar, a wolf, or any of the other terrifying forest dwellers. Nor was it one of the mythical creatures that are said to inhabit the remote wilderness, such as Big Foot, Chupacabra, Wendigo, or Jackalope. No, this particular beast was just your regular old, run-of-the-mill Spruce Grouse. You know, those chickens of the forest that are roughly the size and shape of a football and clock in at a whopping half a kilogram. This bundle of feathers and fury terrorized five (yes you read that right) grown men, wearing gloves and helmets, while riding mountain bikes.

As the leader of our group cautiously approached the grouse on his bike we all anticipated it would scurry into the brush or fly into a nearby tree, as dictated by typical grouse behavior. Instead this fellow stood his ground and refused to budge. Gentle coaxing and the threat of a tire-tread tattoo did nothing to lodge him from his perch. Things were cordial until our second rider decided to break all wildlife-encounter etiquette by sprinting past the bird. That’s when all hell broke loose!  Thinking he was safely past the grouse he slowed down only to discover said grouse was flapping wildly between his legs, attempting to peck his favourite appendage. After sharing a high-pitched scream with everyone and everything in a 10-kilometre radius and abandoning his bike, the grouse maintained full control of the trail while our buddy was several feet into the forest. After watching this unfold and knowing I still had to attempt to pass this demon-bird my confidence was noticeably shaken! One at a time the next two riders tempted fate while crossing paths with the devil reincarnate. Each time they got close the grouse lunged break-first at their tires, desperately trying to peck anything from the ankles down!

If you look closely you'll see our friend in the trees to the left of the trail, with the grouse daring him to continue.
The terrified look on his face says it all!
Here he comes; lunging beak-first at anything in motion!
Another rider making it to safety.
With the other four riders safely past, the grouse turned his sights on me. The humour I had experienced as a bystander suddenly morphed into fear. The thought of just turning around crossed my mind, but my already fragile ego likely couldn’t withstand the ribbing I was sure to receive. I had no choice but to face nature’s rage head-on. In what can only be described as a guttural growl (I didn’t know birds could make such sounds), the full wrath of the brute was thrust upon me. He was deceivingly fast and his diminutive frame was astonishingly nimble. Forsaking my plan of using my bike as a shield I rushed past him, praying my Achilles wouldn’t become his next meal!

Preparing for another attack! I was shocked at the stamina of this little guy!
You can clearly see he has no regard for the bike shield!
Having reached the other side unscathed we were able to sheepishly regroup and reflect on what had just transpired. We (wrongly) assumed that the grouse had a nest nearby and was viciously protecting it at all costs. None of us were gored by his tiny beak, the only thing damaged was our pride. The rest of the ride was uneventful, but most adventures pale in comparison! We returned home slightly embarrassed by our reactions while in the face of danger. We relayed the story to family members and co-workers, many of whom responded with the same dumbfounded look on their faces as you have right now. Most asked one of the following questions, "How could anyone be scared of a grouse?" "I thought you guys were men?" "What if it had been a bear?" Our response was always the same, "You weren't there! You've never had to stare down the beak of danger like that!" I'm unsure if we have to forfeit our man-cards because of this incident, but it certainly didn't help our reputations.

Gary the infamous Spruce Grouse of West Bragg Creek!
I've spent a lot of time in the wilderness over the years and have never seen or even heard about a Spruce Grouse acting like that, but it turns out this grouse was not an anomaly. Over the next few weeks we continued to read reports about other grouse attacking outdoor recreationists. Stories from reputable sources including CBC, the Calgary Sun, the Rocky Mountain Outlook, and even the Alpine Club of Canada all published articles depicting the aggressive nature of different species of grouse. In one instance it got so bad that officials had to close the Montane Traverse trail in Canmore due to the unruly demeanor of a Blue Grouse (also known as a Dusky Grouse). Apparently spring is grouse mating season and the hostile actions are the result of the males being quite amorous in their search for females. Their testosterone levels are extremely high when compared with the rest of the year. With the abnormally warm and dry spring we experienced in southern Alberta there were more people out on the trails earlier than most years. All that extra traffic was likely the main cause of the avian encounters.

The rest of the ride just seemed boring when compared to our interactions with Gary!
Looking back we could have easily put a stop to his ridiculous antics, but none of us had any intention of hurting him when he hadn't really done anything wrong. We aren't out there to injure (or worse) another living thing just because he was being a bit of an asshole! To be completely honest it seems a bit counter-intuitive for evolution to have something that small brutally attack anything that moves. I highly doubt a Black Bear would put up with such reckless behaviour if it was the one that encountered Gary (yes apparently he has a name) that fateful day.

I've since been back to the area several times, but have yet to run into Gary again. It's hard to say what my reaction would be if a second encounter presented itself, but I like to think I would handle it differently. Hopefully Gary was able to find an attractive female grouse; one willing to put up with his absurd antics and he was able to release some tension. Maybe the two of them could settle down and start a little grouse family of their own, somewhere off in the forest away from pesky hikers and cyclists. I would hate to see Gary's reaction towards the first grouse that comes knocking on the nest to take his daughter out on her first date! Poor guy wouldn't even see it coming!


After posting this story and sharing it on Twitter, something interesting and equally hilarious happened. One of the radio stations here in town, CJAY92, has a running gag called Man Card Court, where they put a guy on trial for doing something less than manly and then have the listeners (affectionately known as the Rockaholics) vote whether he gets to keep his man card or forfeit it for a set period of time. One of the morning show hosts, JD, read this story and informed me that I was being put on trial!

The whole process was really entertaining and they were kind enough to send me the audio clips after it was all finished.  Here you'll be able to listen to the whole thing (separated into two different audio clips) and judge for yourself whether I received a fair verdict or not!

Baldy Pass

Trip Date: April 2016

Baldy Pass is a classic Kananaskis day-hike and one perfectly suited for early season adventures. There's actually more than one way to access the Baldy Pass Trail, but we opted to start from Baldy Pass Trailhead, which is the same access point for Porcupine Group Camp. From here the trail is approximately 4.5km to the summit of the pass with about 500m gained in elevation, making for a nice 9km round-trip day. The trail allows for additional distance and elevation, which would offer superb views of the surrounding valleys, but we opted to stop at the pass before returning via the same route. The trailhead itself is approximately 85km west of downtown Calgary along Highway 40 (Kananaskis Trail).

The first 700m twist their way through forest covered trail before reaching a junction. You'll want to turn left, as a right-hand turn will lead you to Wasootch Creek. After the junction you'll follow an old fire road for a short time before reaching a dry riverbed. Here the trail follows the rocky surface, criss-crossing the dry river a few times.

Leaving the fire road behind, this marks the beginning of the rocky dry riverbed
The trail offers views of the Nakiska ski runs on Mount Allan
This could be the source of the riverbed
The first 3km are relatively flat with nothing more than a gentle grade, but over the course of last 1.5km the incline increases and you begin to gain elevation at a much quicker rate before reaching the pass.

I'm guessing this bridge was destroyed in the floods of 2013
This rock cairn indicates you've reached the summit of Baldy Pass
Christine, Rome, and I enjoyed a leisurely lunch on the summit of Baldy Pass before returning the parking lot via the same trail. The pass was quite busy with lots of people enjoying the views and the spectacular weather we were having at the end of April.

Looking east from the pass
The westward view didn't hurt the eyes much!
The Baldy Pass Trail follows the ridge-line on the right side of this photo to the peak
You could also venture further south, following this ridge to the summit in the background
Summit Selfie!
Christine and Rome descending with a great view of Mount Lorette in the background
This marked the perfect start to what I hope is an awesome hiking season. Check back often for recaps of our latest adventures.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

King Creek

Trip Date: April 2016

King Creek is a picturesque canyon in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park that is popular with ice climbers. The trailhead is the King Creek Day-Use Area, which is on the east side of Kananaskis Trail (Highway 40), immediately across from Kananaskis Lakes Trail. The trailhead is approximately 125km southwest of downtown Calgary.

An eerie day in Kananaskis Country
The mountains were shrouded in clouds
I had never hiked up this canyon before, but it seemed to be a popular early-season spot so I thought I'd give it a try. There were only two other vehicles parked at the trailhead when I arrived, but a lot more had shown up by the time I got back. The canyon features steep walls and a babbling brook, while evidence of the 2013 floods was present throughout. You have to cross the creek several times as you work your way through the canyon. Staying dry was important to me because the ambient temperature was quite chilly and I didn't want to hike back to the truck with wet feet. I chose my footing very carefully and managed to stay warm and dry throughout the day. Unfortunately I cannot say the same about Rome, who was more than happy to splash her way through the creek instead of rock-hopping like me!

The mouth of King Creek Canyon as viewed from King Creek Day-Use Area
Pre-hike selfie!
The canyon starts out quite wide and slowly narrows as you progress
Steep walls and flood debris
I am unsure exactly how far I hiked up the canyon, but I reached a pinch-point after about 45 minutes of leisurely hiking and wasn't willing to get my feet wet in order to continue. There were a couple of frozen waterfalls just prior to the end of my hike and a pair of ice climbers were preparing to scale one of them. It was a gorgeous spot to stop, relax, and watch the action unfold. 

An ice climber ascending a frozen waterfall
Beautiful canyon scenery
Rome begging me to go a little further, but it wouldn't happen today!
Route finding is easy in the canyon, as there is really only one direction to go, but finding solid footing and navigating the creek crossings can be a bit challenging if you want to stay dry. The trail disappears in places, probably washed out during the flooding, but nothing was impassable, at least as far as I made it. As I did this hike in early April there was still lots of snow and ice along the trail, which added to the adventure. Because it was slowly melting I was always a little concerned that I might break through at some point and end up with wet feet; thankfully that never happened! This would be a great family-friendly outing for those with kids, especially when all of the snow has melted.
The clouds tried opening up as I began descending back to the truck
Avalanche slope
Heading back to the trailhead
On the way back to Calgary I stopped at one of the small lakes immediately east of Scott Lake Hill to photograph the migrating swans. Each year the swans migrate north for the summer months and stop at these small lakes and ponds around Calgary during their long journey. They don't stick around too long, so you have to take advantage of the short window of opportunity while you can.

Trumpeter Swan
Diving for an easy meal
Another Trumpeter Swan floating on the lake