elk island national park is really near edmonton. surprisingly so, it really seems like wilderness once inside the park gates.
this is also a strange feeling because the park was created only 100 years ago, from remnant herds of elk and imported herds of bison. it is all new growth, new wild lands.
most of the area had been previously stripped of it's wildlife and native inhabitants and cleared for European settlers and farming.
we arrived at the gate, and the guy there was super nice. he told us about a deal where you buy one year pass and it gets you into all of canada's national parks. we were surprised, we had thought we would need a pass for each park. that was interesting, i sense several more jasper, elk island and banff trips once we buy a year pass.
all up and down the roadway there were huge heaps of bison dung, and great wallows where the beasts rolled. we eagerly watched the poplar thickets and meadows, but saw none of the animals that had left their marks on the landscape.
we got even more excited as we drove over a texas gate* further into the park.
we saw a pair of woodpeckers just down the first trail we took. i consulted my new "nature guide to alberta" but it only had the familiar robin sized and smaller hairy and downy woodpeckers. these two were as big as crows. upon Internet investigation, i have identified them as pileated woodpeckers. alas, i fear my new book is not going to be able to live up to my expectations or fit my needs.
as we continued down the trail, we saw more and more bison poops, and more and more wallows. soon we were finding trees that the bison had used for years as scratching posts, and bits of dark brown woolly fur caught on bark and tree branches. it had just snowed on friday, so we were eagerly looking for fresh tracks. every so often we would see elk droppings and fresh rabbit and squirrel tracks.
soon we came to a place where the path forked, and a poplar had fallen over one side of the trail. all the human traffic since the snowfall went along the left fork. remembering the poem, we took the road less travelled by. i hoisted up my skirts and we daintily stomped over the tree trunk and proceeded to make fresh boot tracks in the clean snow. we are dressed of course, just like a megpye and misslake are usually attired in winter. several punkrock layers of woollens and denim, over other punkrock layers of t-shirts and hoodies, very long scarves. megpye has her greyed faded torn jeans held on by a conjunction of two studded belts (with buckles) and her jeans and leg warmers stuffed into the tops of her unlaced black garrisons. i've got green cable knit knee highs over wool tights, and a very long gothic tattered skirt that comes down over my doc martins and drags just so on the ground and pools around me when i stand still.
we come upon a new set of tracks. bison. at first we can't tell how old they are, then we look closer, i put my hand into the hoof print (it barely fits, what huge beasts!) and find that it is a fresh track, the bison has just been walking in its own old footfalls. we are hot on it's trail! we continue on, there is a place where the snow is all melted and we loose the tracks. i spot a rise with more snow and fresh tracks up ahead. i hurry toward the fresh trail, meg suddenly stops following right behind me and shouts "whoa!"
just off to the left is a large black shape in the thicket. it is distinctly bison shaped. it is much nearer than the recommended 300 metre safe wildlife distance. it is just down the grass from us, on the snowless area. the three of us stare frozen at one another, not sure what anyone is going to do next.
"that's a BISON!" i whisper
"it's bison shaped, but it's not moving." said megpye "so i wasn't positive."
i take a few steps back to where she is, away from the giant buffalo. we all let out the breaths we were holding. the bison turns away from us, revealing its unmistakable profile.
it was very awesome.
megpye took pictures, and then took my hand. i'm not very good at self control and not getting any closer. she holds my hand at galleries too, so i don't touch any of the artworks. she's a great friend.
we declared our tracking a success.
we wandered down other trails, and now over-confident in our amazing animal stalking skills we followed the animal paths and not the marked hiking trails. we found beautiful views, frozen beaver meadows, where we hopped from hummock of grass to hummock of grass following the foxes' tracks, and heaps and heaps of poops of various large mammals. we heard a gang of coyotes bark and yip and howl a little bit too close to us just before sundown. we didn't find any of the elk and deer we stalked. nor any more bison, but we were staying off of their paths, for fear of finding another one as close as the one we saw first.
we saw jays, ravens, crows, chickadees and red squirrels.
at 7, we headed back home.
it was a totally awesome day. i can't believe we hunted for and saw bison!
*i am fascinated by texas gates. they are breaks in fences that allow people and cars and things to pass but prevent cattle and other hoofed animals from passing through. they are pits or ditches covered in pipes that run across the road. i wonder how they were invented. who figured out that cows and things won't cross such a grate? why can't they walk across a grate? was it invented in texas? i came across some in the netherlands, last winter and i wondered if they were a new invention or if they were old. when did they get invented, in the new or old world? how did they come to be called texas gates? i mentioned it to the dutch guys i was friendly with, but they were all city boys, and growing up in delft and utrecht didn't know anything about it. they had never heard of texas gates. in fact, there was a general idea that the herd of highland cattle enclosed in the local texas gates were bison, but they were just regular fluffy cows.
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