Canada: Bear necessities

A classic train journey through the Rocky Mountains offers the chance to see grizzlies from the safety of your seat.

By Stuart Forster
Published 9 May 2017, 09:00 BST, Updated 8 Jul 2021, 14:58 BST
Grizzly bear.

Grizzly bear.

Photograph by Stuart Forster

"There's a grizzly bear on the left-hand side of the train," announces a member of the Rocky Mountaineer's guest experience team, eliciting shrieks of excitement around the double-deck, glass-domed car.

Like meerkats looking out for potential predators, passengers seated on the right-hand side spring up and begin glancing around for sightings of the bear. I grab my camera and pile across the aisle for a better view. This is the second day of our 375-mile journey between Vancouver and Banff, in western Canada. Fortunately, I've already got to know my neighbours, so there are no complaints when I extend my lens over their shoulders.

Earlier today, Zebulon, the train manager, guaranteed that we'd spot three bears on the right-hand side of the train before noon. He duly delivered, to a mixture of groans and guffaws of laughter — as we rolled through Revelstoke, back in British Columbia, life-size bronze statues of a trio of grizzlies adorned a brick gateway leading to the town centre.

Since then the landscape has changed markedly. The Selkirk Mountains have given way to the younger, but higher, Canadian Rockies. Snow now lies between the spruce and fir trees either side of the track.

At Craigellachie, we passed a cairn marking the spot where an iron spike was ceremonially driven into the ground, on 7 November 1885, marking the completion Canadian Pacific Railway. Throughout 2017, Canadians are celebrating 150 years since Confederation, the act of political union seen as the birth of the modern nation, and that piece of transcontinental civil engineering was central to ensuring British Columbia became part of Canada, rather than one of the United States of America.

Travelling eastwards, we've seen freight trains of up to two miles in length. With as many as 240 trucks, those rumbling behemoths transport grain from the prairies, ore and even shipping containers. The railroad remains an important economic artery.

Tourists started travelling by rail almost as soon as the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed. Railway workers discovered hot springs at Sulphur Mountain in 1883 and Banff National Park was established just two years later; we're nearing Canada's oldest national park now.

I've already spotted ospreys, bighorn sheep and elk during this journey. There are rumours that Sasquatch — also known as the Bigfoot — can be seen in these parts but, so far, I've seen no evidence.

Over recent weeks, bears have been emerging from the dens in which they hibernated for the winter. The biggest grizzly in these parts, known as The Boss, has a post-winter weight estimated at around 500lb.

"There he is," comes a shout. I snap a photo through the window then decide to dash downstairs to the open vestibule at the back of the train.

Standing in fresh pine-scented air, I focus on the lumbering brown shape of the grizzly as he moves through a shallow, semi-frozen pond alongside the track. He turns his head towards us and follows the movement of the train, seemingly as interested in us as we are in him.

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