In a four-hour period, which included a restaurant lunch break, I spotted a mother-and-cub grizzly bear pair ambling slowly along the roadside, herds of elk grazing in large fields with snow-capped peaks as a backdrop, several big-horned sheep climbing mountainsides and hustling across roadways, and a female moose and her calf munching on trees and licking bark in the woods. And none of those highlights could top what I witnessed when the sun went down in Jasper National Park.
On an October night, sitting around a firepit while surrounded by historic cabins and listening to an Indigenous storyteller explain the heavens and what they mean to her people, one of the most quintessentially Canadian episodes I have ever encountered took place. A loud rustling sound startled me and I turned away from the fire. I swung my head around to see a quartet of rambunctious elk about 50 feet in the distance. Two females and two males with small antlers bounded high as if the ground of the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge had been turned into a trampoline. They grazed noisily against brush as they hurried past the cabins and towards Lac Beauvert in the dark. Several minutes later, after Matricia Brown-Asani of Wander Women had regained my attention with her stories of the planets and constellations, a loud screech that fell somewhere in the range of a hawk’s squeal and the bray of a sheep snared my focus. It was a peal completely foreign to me.
“That’s an elk mating call,” Brown-Asani said, answering my question before I asked.
From the narrow road leading to the fire a pair of massive antlers crested the hill. The impressive pointed daggers of bone and keratin belonged to a large male buck, who sauntered like royalty onto the scene that was taking place somewhere beneath the Big Dipper and Orion. The buck strode with purpose, going slowly past our firepit and heading in the direction of the female elk and the younger males. Clearly, the group’s attempt to interfere with his heredity plans didn’t please the domineering buck.
“It’s the end of rut season,” Brown-Asani informed. “He’s going to remind them he’s in charge.”
But he wasn’t. In a scene that could have been from a John Candy movie, a slight, young woman in a Jasper Park Lodge uniform followed the buck, trailing him by about five minutes. She walked fast and carried a hockey stick with long shreds of thick plastic dangling off of it like straw from the arms of a scarecrow. Intermittently, she slapped the stick on the grass, sending the plastic shreds into a scuttling, broom-like action. Her hoots followed the thwacks on the earth.
Before long, the elk — all five of them — clomped their hooves against the asphalt driveway as the guard shooed them off in the most Canadian way ever. She continued to whack the hockey stick until both she, the elk, and their shadows had disappeared from view of those of us spectating from the firepit.
“You never know what you might see in a place like this,” Brown-Asani said rather matter-of-factly, as if the sight was peculiar but not particularly out of place in a part of the world where wildlife care is a priority. Corridors allow the animals to maintain their migratory paths and reduce their encounters with vehicles, and the park’s team of rangers and conservationists monitor their activity to ensure both people and animals are safe. As Brown-Asani noted before returning to her fire-side chat about life and legend of the area’s Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation and Blackfoot populations, “Our wildlife makes this such a special place.”
The safari-esque moments on that single day in the Rocky Mountains was a wonder and the Indigenous perspective injected by Brown-Asani added to the appeal. Wander Women is among a handful of Indigenous tour operators already in Jasper and additional experiences are on the horizon for the coming year. The blending of nature encounters with the culture of the region’s oldest inhabitants, who have served as stewards of the land for generations, is why Jasper has landed among the Vacay.ca 20 Best Places to Travel in Canada for 2022, a ranking that focuses on Indigenous experiences across the country and will be published in January.
Notable non-Indigenous tour operators who bring thrilling wildlife encounters to Jasper’s travellers include SunDog, which provides leisurely drives through the park. When elk herds and big-horn sheep were spotted, SunDog slowed its vehicle to a stop as the ungulates sauntered by like red-carpet celebrities, seemingly aware that the travellers in their presence were eager to capture photos and videos. A lakeside stop for mountain views and an educational discussion on the park’s history and ongoing conservation efforts was also provided by the guide.
You should opt to linger in the park for a few days, driving yourself to the attractions of Maligne Lake, Pyramid Lake, and the foot of Mount Edith Cavell. As I was rolling through Jasper, I spotted the grizzly bear and her cub biting the tops of tall reeds and digging into the dirt for food. Along with every other passing car on Pyramid Lake Road, I pulled over and photographed from my window, astounded by the ease of the wildlife spotting. Jasper has always been a marvel of a destination. These days, more than ever, it feels ideal for the times — an invigorating escape into nature that is a fine reminder of the joys of being alive.
MORE ABOUT VISITING JASPER NATIONAL PARK
Getting There: One of the reasons why Jasper National Park is such a great location for wildlife spotting is it is far from a major city. Edmonton is a four-hour drive east and Calgary is five hours south. Well-maintained highways make access to the park easy from any direction.
Where to Stay: The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge (see map below) is conducive to travel during the COVID-19 pandemic because of its self-contained cabins. An exquisite property with fantastic dining and an iconic hot tub overlooking Lac Beauvert, the lodge is a must-visit spot for travellers to the national park. Nightly rates for a weekend stay in January start at $391, based on a recent search of the property’s booking engine. (There are discounts for Alberta residents.)
Park Pass: Visitors will need a park pass during their stay, which can be purchased at the entrance gates. Check the Parks Canada website for the pass that best suits your travel plans.