When Damien Axiak stopped for what looked like a broken down tourist on a quiet road in the Canadian Rockies in the province of Alberta, he never thought he'd come face to face with a grizzly bear but that's exactly what happened.
If there's one thing the rest of the world knows about Canada, it's that its landscape is an untamed one. It is a wild land of contrast: of ice and rock, isolation and adventure, of beauty and danger.
The rugged peaks of North America's 80-million-year-old Rocky Mountains carve out the provincial border between Canada's British Columbia and Alberta. It is here that this contrast is at its wildest and is where the world-renowned and heritage-listed Banff National Park lies: 6641 square kilometres of forests, mountains, glaciers and meadows, home to an amazing abundance of iconic North American wildlife. Wolves, cougars, moose and lynx all call this stunning frontier home.
As does one of the world's most majestic top-tier predators the grizzly bear.
Banff is bear country
An estimated 60 wild grizzly bears live within the Banff National Park. Sure, this doesn't sound like much but that number is concentrated to the region's "montane" forests and grasslands which cover only three percent of the entire park. That's more than three grizzlies for every square kilometre they're able to inhabit!
It's also the only area in Canada where the grizzly outnumbers the smaller, more common black bear. Grizzlies can weigh up to 350kg, stand up to three metres, and can kill and eat anything from moose to black bear although vegetation makes up 85 percent of a grizzly's diet.
Despite being the largest land mammal in Canada, and the undisputed king of the Rocky Mountains, the grizzly is still very elusive, and most locals rarely cross paths with one. Most grizzly attacks happen when humans knowingly, or unknowingly, get too close to a mother's juvenile cub.
Meeting my first grizzlies
Connecting the hamlet of Lake Louise in the north of the park to the township of Banff in the south is Highway 1 the local stretch of the TransCanada Highway. I'm heading south to Banff, but after days of driving along busy highways I don't fancy having to dodge anymore oversized road trains.
After consulting my unnecessarily large, and very incorrectly refolded roadmap, I decide to take an alternate route: the Bow Valley Parkway. This two-lane stretch of road loosely parallels the main highway through the surrounding forest, and is regarded as one of the most scenic roads in the whole region.
Pulling onto the road I soon find out why. Immediately the drone of the highway drowns. The cars disappear. Towering pines carve back and forth from the roadside. They break intermittently to reveal the rushing luminous blue of the Bow River. My eyes dart in anticipation of grazing elk and deer as flower-filled meadows roll by. Colossal charcoal-coloured peaks jut from the earth for miles. Banff's grandeur hits me.
Image: David Sucsy / Getty
In the distance, a ute is stopped carelessly across the lane divider. Its hazards are flashing. I gently start to brake. A little further ahead another handful of cars awkwardly crisscross the road. There'd been an accident … or so I think. When I'd first heard of the weird Canadian phenomenon of "animal jams" I couldn't help but envision a kind of sweet preserve made from moose and chipmunks that mountain kids spread on their morning flapjacks.
Fortunately it's just a kind of traffic jam caused by motorists slowing down to catch a glimpse of passing wildlife. And that's what this is. I pull up beside the ute just as a woman climbs out of the passenger window and onto the roof. I ask the driver what's happening.
He says there's a bear up the road with its juveniles. I drive on, rushing for a spot to pull over. My stomach climbs into my throat. Then I spot it; through the cars. My mind is blown. I scramble blindly for my camera as I park the car.
It's only metres away a small bear lumbering out from behind a fir tree. Its coat is thick and scraggly; dark brown with light streaks. It droops its head forward, smelling the ground and air. Its nostrils puff and twitch as it glances around inquisitively. It playfully attacks a small shrub, clumsily falling on its back. It's barely a metre tall, but the humped muscles above its shoulders mean only one thing this is a grizzly bear.
Eager snappers emerge from their vehicles. The young grizzly isn't fazed. I've always criticised tourists who get stupidly close to wild animals and sporting my "they deserve to get bit" attitude I sit in my car and watch, hoping the juvenile's mother would charge out of the forest and someone would lose an arm. But after a few long minutes watching from behind the car door I can't stand it any longer; I have to get out as well.
As I do, another young grizzly bounds through the foliage. This one is bolder. Its eyes are wider. It trots confidently down the roadside directly past me and my car. It mouths its sibling's neck. They sit for a while, sniffing and chewing the shrub together. I can do nothing but stare in awe leaning up against my car door in case I need to suddenly jump back in.
Every few moments I glance up at the surrounding forest as the sounds of snapping branches, heavy feet and rustling bushes mean the mother isn't far away but she watches on secretly from the trees as a third juvenile emerges.
Being this close to these magnificent creatures is a feeling I cannot easily describe. To be standing on the same ground as the grizzlies, in their natural habitat, without barriers of any kind, is an incredibly humbling experience. Knowing that they are perfectly wild, and that they roam here freely whether we see them or not, is awe-inspiring. Knowing that if it wanted to, it could charge and kill me, I have an unbelievable respect for it. It surely puts life in perspective who could be happy working a nine-to-five office job when there was beauty like this to experience in the world?
Looking for grizzlies on horseback near Lake Louise
In the north of the park lies the extraordinary Lake Louise two-and-a-half kilometres of brilliant pastel-blue water surrounded by towering peaks and glaciers.
Its unique colour comes from the erosion of limestone into a glacial silt known as rockflour which flows into the lake as runoff.
Image: Damien Axiak
The most thrilling way to experience this picturesque landscape in summer is on horseback tearing along the high cliff trails that overlook the lake itself (see video at the bottom of the page). If you don't think horse riding can test your nerve, ask the guys at Brewster Stables to take you on the trails that they personally like to ride. They're legit cowboys; with the Brewster family calling these mountains home since 1886.
After paring me up with the very eager-to-gallop Spam, we ascend the slopes to the right of Lake Louise. There are no fences up here, and we go weaving along steep cliff edge trails that look to be no more than four feet wide.
Spam trembles beneath me as he cautiously navigates loose rocks and awkward footholds. My left foot almost dangles over the edge of the cliff and I pull his reins in an attempt to move him away from the edge. But Spam is a born-and-bred mountain horse, he knows this landscape better than me, so I let him do his thing.
Image: Damien Axiak
Thunderous claps of distant avalanches ring out as the land blends from forest and lake to ice and stone the wild feels tangible here. Along these trails though, the only wildlife we encounter are pikas and loud-mouth marmots. For grizzlies I am told to visit the Lake Louise Gondola.
With grizzly sightings reported almost daily, the Lake Louise Gondola is considered one of the best sports on earth to see one of these majestic beasts in the wild. The sightseeing lift takes visitors on a 14-minute open-air ride to an elevation of 2088m. From up here you can see everything the Rocky Mountains, all the surrounding valleys, lakes and glaciers, and if you're lucky: a grizzly bear.
The gondola operates over what local rangers call a 'bear corridor' a path bears use to migrate from higher altitudes to the lower valleys in search of seasonal food. What's unique about this particular corridor is that it consists of not one, but three migratory grizzly bear routes making this a definite must-visit for any wildlife enthusiast travelling through this part of the Rockies.
When I head up though, there are no bears in the valley below my carriage. At the top of the lift however, the park rangers are in a frenzy with news that a large male grizzly is approaching the lookout's safety perimeter. The scheduled Interpretive Centre grizzly talk is cancelled as extra staff are called on to monitor the situation. Things soon return to normal, and as the bear leaves the area I leave quietly disappointed.
While you're in the area:
-Hike the Plain of Six Glaciers trail for incredible views of Mt Lefroy, the Victorian Glacier and Abbot Pass.
-Take the Rockpile Interpretive Trail at Lake Moraine for sweeping views of it's unique indigo water, and the Valley of Ten Peaks.
-Put your rock-climbing skills and balance to the test with a short trek to the lesser known Upper Consolation Lake just make sure you're in groups of four or more as its mandatory in these parts due to the presence of grizzlies!
Image: Damien Axiak
Other roads for wildlife spotting
-The Icefields Parkway is regarded as one of the world's most beautiful drives. Take this journey north from Lake Louise toward the Columbia Icefield to take in sweeping views of Crowfoot Glacier, Bow Lake and Peyto Lake.
-Just outside the Banff township is the 10km Lake Minnewanka Loop. Take this drive to check out Two Jack Lake, Johnson Lake, Lake Minnewanka, as well as the ghost town of Bankhead. It is also a great place for spotting bighorn sheep in particular.
-Vermillion Lakes Road is a very popular area for viewing sunrise and sunset, as well as a great spot to see local wildlife, including elk, bears and wolves.
Where to stay and how to get there
In Lake Louise, I stayed at the picturesque Paradise Lodge and Bungalows.In summer, prices start at around $229 a night.
In Banff, consider the Buffalo Mountain Lodge on Tunnel Mountain Road; it's located a three-minute drive from the town centre, so you're close to all the shops, restaurants and bars on offer, but far enough away to retire for the night in peace. Prices start at around $249 a night.
Qantas flies to Calgary daily.
For further information on travelling to Alberta see www.travelalberta.com.au.
For info on travelling to British Columbia, visit www.britishcolumbia.travel.
For general information on travelling to Canada, visit www.canada.travel.
Take a look at the latest breath-taking tourism ad for Alberta below. It's truly "wow".