In my previous post about Banff National Park, I mentioned just how much there is to do within and around the park - from hiking, canoeing or skiing to gondola rides, hot springs and fine dining. It can sometimes seem daunting to try to narrow down just what kind of trip you have in mind. But after some diligent research and discussions with my travel companion (my sister), we decided to supplement our sightseeing with two more "extreme" activities - walking on a glacier, and hanging out with wolfdogs.
In the photo above, you'll see the Athabasca Glacier towards the bottom right corner of the frame. That's where we were headed - to stand on top of it. I should preface by saying that the Colombia Icefields Parkway and the Athabasca Glacier excursion are some of the post popular (read: crowded) parts of the park. The visitor center, where all participants meet to be bused to the Ice Explorers, is extremely packed with eager (and sometimes impatient) tourists waiting on their tours. I, for one, hate crowds and avoid them at all costs - but I put up with them for this excursion, and I'm glad I did.
From the visitor center, a charter bus drives a group of 30 or so visitors up to the loading doc for the Ice Explorers. These giant vehicles are equipped especially for navigating rough and icy terrain, so much so that they master shuttling tourists up and down a glacial moraine with more than a 30% grade hundreds of times a day. The Ice Explorers then drop off guests on top of the glacier, allowing them approximately 20 minutes to take photos and marvel in the views.
Hordes of tourists aside, the experience was incredible. If you make the trip to the top of the Athabasca Glacier only to drink the glacial runoff, you've already done yourself a favor (it's the best water you'll ever taste). But if you'd like to see this natural wonder up-close, do so soon: the operating company predicts that they'll only be able to continue the tour for another ten or 15 years due to the rapid loss of glacial mass. Even worse, they predict this glacier to be entirely gone within the next 60 years.
As the Athabasca Glacier is shrinking, the Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary is growing (though this is also unfortunate). With many people lacking basic knowledge of what it means to own a hybrid animal like a wolfdog, all too many attempted pets are surrendered every year to Yamnuska. The non-profit organization opened their doors for tours in order to educate the public, as well as garner revenue in order to grow the property, build more enclosures and rescue more wolfdogs.
My sister was convinced that she wanted a wolfdog as a pet. That is, until we visited the sanctuary and she learned that wolfdogs aren't just cool-looking dogs! High-content wolfdogs - meaning they're genetically more wolf than dog - are often fearful of humans, solitary and can often become aggressive during mating season. Even low-content wolfdogs (meaning - you guessed it - they're more dog than wolf) can often carry over some of these traits, making it difficult to coop them up in a house all day and expect them to behave.
At the sanctuary, we were welcomed into an enclosure with four wolfdogs that are comfortable with humans being in close quarters. Only one would actually eat out of your hand; all the others were too timid to even approach humans that closely. While we were in the enclosure, a wolf in one of the distant enclosures began to howl, which resulted in a snowball effect of howling - the wolves in closer enclosures started to join in; the sound growing louder until eventually the four wolves roaming around our chairs stopped at tipped their muzzles to the sky, finishing the eerie chorus.
Stepping into the low-content wolfdog enclosure, I could immediately feel a difference in the dispositions of the wolfdogs. They were eager for human companionship, begging for treats and practically sat in your lap to get them. Each of the three dogs displayed slightly different traits - one with ears like a German Shepherd, the second with eyes of a Husky, and the third with a thick coat like an Alaskan Malamute. They were beautiful, and seemed friendly - but even these low-content wolfdogs proved to difficult for their owners to handle, and found themselves at Yamnuska.
The sanctuary was well-kept with plenty of space for each wolfdog to roam, well-staffed with knowledgeable employees, and well-managed by owners who truly seem to have the best interest of the wolfdogs in mind. I'd highly recommend a visit for any dog lover, animal lover, or wildlife enthusiast.
While I would absolutely recommend both activities to anyone visiting Banff, if you're planning a trip, examine your options! There were plenty of things we wanted to do but just didn't have the time for, so prioritize what's important to you and make it happen! If you'd like to see more of my trip, check out photos here.