Bears, elk, bison, even cougars. The list of wildlife I was told I might see in the rugged Canadian province of Alberta sounded, to a dedicated Londoner, wildly exciting. Mostly, though, it was just horses and cows. Small surprise there. The first part of my trip involved learning to ride in Homeplace ranch in the foothills of the Rockies, the second meeting the daredevil bronco busters and bull wranglers of the Calgary Stampede. True, from the saddle of my bay horse from Homeplace I'd seen a young deer, shiny as a conker with velvet still on his antlers, watching me from a copse. But the closest I got to Alberta bovines was the Outlaw Burger — which contains a staggering 4lbs of beef — in the Stampede's Lazy S ranch.
So mid-trip my friend, photographer Andrew Rowat, and I broke for the Banff National park. Here, the Lord of the Rings mountainscape was ravishing, the towns almost Swiss in their decorous neatness and civility. The fanatically straight highways are lined with fences and crossed by wildlife bridges, but nothing horned or hooved did we see. The only animals were either stuffed or fossilised, and in gift shops. At the eerily beautiful Lake Louise, ground squirrels scampered — one of them proved a hit on the internet when he gatecrashed two tourists' timed photograph — but nothing larger.
Then, on an unfenced stretch of highway close to Calgary on our return, we saw it. A jet-black, sharp-outlined shape taking a shoulder-rolling amble along the verge. A bear. A big one. Traffic stopped and we, along with other drivers, scrambled onto the hard shoulder. A flurry of clicking camera phones subsided into sheer gawping wonder at this behemoth so close to manmade tarmac. Until, at last, the oblivious bear wandered into the undergrowth, and a park ranger drew up to implore us to get back in our cars. Bears can, of course, be dangerous. They are also enthralling.
Watch out for Nick Curtis's article on Calgary next year.