I needed a restful weekend spent far from my cares in Calgary. With the opportunity to drive the geologically theatrical Icefields Parkway and explore the town of Jasper, I booked three nights at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge. What could be more comforting than a 700-acre luxury haven inside a UNESCO World Heritage Site?
Arriving at 6 p.m. on Friday, I hadn't even checked in and already my dog, Buddy, was an instant hit with the valet staff. In the lobby, Buddy and I passed a busload of Japanese tourists queued up for the next phase of their fully choreographed tour of the Rockies. I confess: Beside these koi fish-out-of-water, I felt smug and, at 6-foot-5, a bit Na'vi-like. The tourists would see my backyard only superficially before heading home to their neon jungle. But not me. This Canuck lives in harmony with the wild terrain of his native land and is hip to its nuances, beauty and dangers. I mean, have they seen the Cranbrook Deer video on YouTube? Doubt it. Watch and learn, interlopers.
Soon after discovering the turquoise and tranquil Lac Beauvert on which the Fairmont sits, the group of us was at the water's edge discovering the footpath that rims its shore. In just 20 minutes, we were on the other side of the lake looking back at the lodge and the mountains behind it while flocks of Canada geese arced across the vista. Ahhh, this would be a relaxing weekend.
While gawking gormlessly at this tableau, we could feel our shoulders drop. But we were blind to what was happening at our rear: We heard a noise and turned to find a large bull elk had brought his harem of females out of the forest and toward us. We found this majestic parade enthralling until the dozen ungulates moved onto the footpath that was, as far as we knew, our only route back to the lodge. Our shoulders shot back up. Between us and safety were now about 3,200 kilograms of very fresh elk meat that, even if it is healthier than beef, was putting a strain on my heart. And the bull was not acting like a laid-back lothario. He seemed agitated and determined to keep his females in line and any competitors - or us - at bay.
With his 370 kg in full swagger, he eyed us and waved his lethal six-pointed antlers. He stretched out his massive neck and bugled a deep shriek that pierced both the forest and my veneer of outdoorsy bravado. Startled by his bellow, two of the female elk broke into a run that made the earth shake and branches snap off of trees.
Bugle boy had testosterone, heft and his species' reputation for being dangerous during the rut. What did we have? Proximity to a tiny park washroom to which we could perhaps sprint to safety, or die trying.
But the bull walked over to the john and barred the door like a high-school tough accomplished at shaking down the nerds for lunch money. He was Nelson Muntz to my Bart Simpson and his fearsome rack rose well above the loo's nearly three-metre-high roof. Barely 30 minutes after arriving, I was already in a wilderness pickle. As Buddy peered timidly at the bull from behind my legs, I started to understand why the Japanese see the Rockies in large groups from the inside of a bus.
But beside the bathroom was a parking lot on which was a single, small, white car from which a man emerged. I remember observing him as I might view a guardian angel descending from a cloud. He was a friendly tourist from Kelowna, B.C., who couldn't fit us all in his car, but he offered to drive me to the lodge to get mine so I could rescue a friend and my dog.
The valet staff listened to my story and dispatched both a security truck and a minivan to carry me back to the scene. Would I return to find my companions decorating the bull's antlers like squishy tourist meatmallows?
As darkness fell on the forest, we arrived to find everyone safe and sound, the rambunctious elk having moved farther down the lake. But I wasn't out of the woods yet.
As I was driving back to the lodge, the tension of the elk encounter was quickly replaced with a new anxiety: Which of our three rescuers should I tip, and by how much? There was the woman with the walkie-talkie, the guy who drove the minivan and a third who had helped out. I hyperventilated over the looming fiscal hemorrhage. Was a toonie enough for each? A fiver? Newly emasculated and confused, I managed the impossible by overpaying my minivan driver with $10 while insulting the others by giving them nothing. I ducked into the safety of the main lodge to look for food and beer that would wash away the embarrassment of my first hour meshing with my new ecosystem.
The Fairmont's valets had rescued us and courteously kept any snickering for the staff room. The bull elk was not so discreet.
The next night, through my room's open window, I heard him bugle to me (an elk version of Nelson's "Ha Ha"?) followed by the unmistakable sound of his antlers clacking against something hard.
Was it a tree or the skull of some other smug Canadian?
I could think of only one retort: Sayonara.
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