Karen, September 2019
I love holidays. I love planning them, and I love going on them. Over the years I have skied at more than 70 resorts worldwide and my trusty ski companion is my mum, who patiently acquiesces to all sorts of wacky plans to ski more resorts and cram in even greater experiences. One of my favourite things to do is to combine a ski trip with my other passion – wildlife. There’s lots of places where you can do that, particularly in North America. Here’s a taste of some of the things I’ve seen on my ski travels.
The first time I went to Alberta it was with a Ski Independence colleague. We travelled in late April and hit a sweet spot between winter and spring where the snow was still great on the mountains, but spring had sprung in the valley. I’d stopped by a bookshop in Banff and bought a wildlife guide on our first day after coming across elk, mule deer and giant squirrels – all nonchalantly grazing round Banff Avenue. The local people don’t bat an eyelid, humans are the slightly incongruous ones here. On the drive up to Sunshine mountain we were held up by Bighorn sheep who were enthusiastically licking the grit off the road. Not forgetting the chipmunks on picnic patrol round the cars.
Feeling like Dr Doolittle we headed to Lake Louise. The grey jays, or whiskey jacks, are omnipresent around the lake shore and are tame and playful. In contrast we managed to see the elusive pika scurrying around the tree roots at the top of the lake. These hamster-like mammals are often heard and rarely seen.
As we drove from Lake Louise towards Jasper, through the Icefields Parkway, it’s apparent that the ribbon of road is pretty much the only man made thing in this protected landscape. The views are stunning, and the welcome committee was out in force! From a ‘just-woke-up’ grizzly bear foraging at the side of the road, to a magnificently pungent billy mountain goat staring us down (from his position in the centre of the road!). The black bears were snacking on young shoots, and the eagles soaring above. It felt like nature was putting on a show for us. Perhaps the strangest thing we saw on that trip was a great grey owl: an unwieldy looking thing, almost a metre tall and with a wing span of around 1.5 metres. It was sat on a fence right by the road and I almost drove straight past it, such was its camouflage. It pays to keep your eyes open. On arrival in Jasper we checked into the unique and fabulous Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge. The elk that patrol the grounds here are enormous – and not fazed by people at all. They do a great job keeping the grass in check too! Mule deer and white tailed deer were also in attendance. Perhaps they seek refuge in the hotel grounds – colleagues have spotted wolves and coyotes round here too!
Elk at the Jasper Park Lodge
I returned to the area with mum a couple of years ago, but we travelled around a month earlier. The bears were still asleep in their dens, but we saw almost all of the rest of the crew. We also experienced the loveliest thing while skiing at Jasper: Skiers were cleared from a piste and ropes put in place to temporarily restrict access, because a caribou (locally know as Frankie) was meandering across the slope. This lad was well known and can often be seen around Marmot Basin nonchalantly browsing the lichen from tree branches.
Jackson Hole sits 50 miles south of Yellowstone National Park, and is adjacent to Grand Teton National Park. As in Alberta, the native wildlife calls the shots here and you’ll definitely see more elk than people! Sitting in a Jackson Hole restaurant one evening we witnessed a large elk slowly trudging up the middle of the road with a cortege of cars waiting patiently in its wake. A trip to Jackson Hole isn’t complete without a trip to the National Elk Refuge. This 25,000 acre plain of land sits a mile from the town and provides a safe space and supplementary food (when absolutely necessary) for thousands of elk every winter. They’re not the only ungulates to over-winter here: mule deer, bison and pronghorn are all regular visitors and we saw them all – and wolves are happy to take advantage of the buffet! Same goes for vultures and eagles which we saw soaring above the herd. You don’t need to give up a day’s skiing either – the sleigh ride tour of the refuge takes just an hour and is a fantastic and inexpensive experience for all ages.
Had time and budget allowed we would have loved to tag on an extension to Yellowstone National Park. Access into the National Park is limited in winter, but I like the idea of the snowy tranquillity. Instead we drove West over Teton Pass and into Idaho. The drive to Sun Valley took around 4 and a half hours through some pretty spectacular scenery. The town of Ketchum has bags of charm and character – it’s the original American ski town after all. Sun Valley ski area is awesome too. Expansive slopes, quiet lifts and stunning views. It’s also where we spotted an elusive moose, a species that had evaded me for years.
The Next Adventure
This years adventure is taking us to California – where we’ll be skiing in Mammoth before spending some time in Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks (as well as Las Vegas – for some entirely different wildlife!). I’m hoping we can spot some more of the characters from my book. Top on my wish list are porcupines and lynx – I’ll keep you posted!
Feeling inspired? Get in touch with our team of Ski Specialists for advice on the best place to head to spot wildlife. Enquire online or call us on 0131 243 8097.