It’s January 2. I’m driving up the Marmot Basin road. As I pass the Portal Creek trailhead, where a strip of red flagging tape cordons off the entrance to the Tonquin Valley, the rain on the pavement turns into ice.
Soon, the familiar glimpse of the ski resort’s western-most terrain reveals itself. A large hummock with well-spaced trees and craggy rock bands, Caribou Knoll is known for superb glades, a diving fall-line and its retention of a good snowpack right through until spring. Located in the resort’s periphery and featuring a hard-traversing egress back to the chairlift, the area doesn’t see much ski traffic.
But even though the prospect of surfing blown-in powder has me psyched, today I’m on a different mission. I’m going up to Marmot Basin to see if I can catch a glimpse of an anomalous apparition.
I’m here to find Frankie Thunderbowl.
Biking off our hangovers on New Year’s Day, a friend and I were slipping and sliding over post-holed paths behind Cabin Creek when, between slurping lungfulls of air, he asked me if I’d heard the latest stir up at Marmot Basin.
“Do you know about Frankie?”
Imagining that Frankie was some extreme snowboarder from Golden or maybe a ski blading roughneck in Cardharts and a safety vest, I shrugged off his query and focused on not skidding out.
“Who’s Frankie?” I panted.
“You remember that herd of caribou that showed up in Charlie’s Bowl?” he said.
Of course I did. Two weeks prior, I had the fortuitous timing to photograph five of the magical beasts as they bounded up T-Bar Ridge and over a cornice. Now my curiosity was piqued.
“One caribou is still there. He’s been hanging out in Caribou Knoll all week.”
Caribou Knoll is not a misnomer.
Over the years there have been a handful of caribou sightings there, mostly from ski patrollers and other locals who spend lots of time in the area. The sightings are rare, but no fluke. Just beyond the last slope, where the ski area boundary ends, the valley bottom surrounding Whistlers Creek is designated as critical caribou habitat. One month ago, along with the west side of Maligne Lake Road, the red tape went up, limiting backcountry recreational use until mid February on the basis that users’ tracks will facilitate a path for predators to follow.
But Frankie Thunderbowl wasn’t hanging out on the creek. Developed lands, such as those within a ski resort’s boundaries are, by Parks Canada’s definition, not considered critical wildlife habitat. And since this animal had been sighted on ski runs—not just in Caribou Knoll but right on the groomers, as well as Paradise, Punchbowl, Solace and Thunderbowl (hence his moniker), the public had a unique opportunity to view a species of animal listed as threatened under the Species At Risk Act.
“There were snowboarders side-slipping by 50 feet away and he was just standing there,” my biking buddy reported.
I found the idea of getting a glimpse of Frankie irresistible. I wanted to see him with my own eyes, and, if possible, capture him on camera. And so, as I disembarked from the Canadian Rockies Express chairlift on one of the busiest days of the ski season, I traversed towards Caribou Knoll with my eyes peeled. Overlooking the closed terrain known as Trés Hombres (the long term management of which is currently in flux as the ski resort and Parks Canada develop the area’s long range plans), I scanned for any sign of mammal-like movement.
The wind whistled through the trees and laughter from the lift permeated the air. But as I scrutinized Whistlers’ Creek, I began to feel silly. What did I expect? For Frankie to come bounding down the slope like Rudolph onto a rooftop? I was looking for a needle in a haystack, acting like the summer tourists I waited on at my night job, those naive but well-meaning souls who inquired where the best place to see a baby moose or a harlequin duck or a wolverine was. What were the chances of me finding Frankie?
I stuffed my camera into my bag, resolute to concentrate on riding, not reindeer.
To the delight of expert skiers, this year patrol has moved Caribou Knoll’s fence line to include a significant amount of previously inaccessible terrain. This news hasn’t been broadcast, however, so I was stoked to test out the new area and get away from the crowds. I slashed down the slope, revelling in the steep pitch and keeping my head up for rocks. At a small bench I slowed to a stop and where a sign warned of a cliff to my left, I scooted right, through an opening between a tree and a flake of limestone. As I sunk into a deep pocket of powder, I leaned into a toe-side carve. And then, just as I looked up to spot my line, I nearly rode smack into Frankie.
“Oh my God!” Although I was clearly more shocked to see him than he was to see me, my clichéd exclamation, plus the fact that I had snuck up on him, spooked the unassuming ungulate out of his snowdrift. He trotted down the slope, through the trees, in the direction of Whistlers’ Creek. Dumbfounded by the surprise encounter and amazed at both the size and the sprightliness of this beautiful beast, I stood paralyzed for a full 10 seconds before I had the wherewithal to spring into action. Digging my camera out of my pack and simultaneously scooching for a sightline, I spotted the caribou in my viewfinder and prayed my settings were correct. Eleven clicks of the camera’s shutter later, I had my proof. I had found Frankie.
Since my serendipitous sortie, Frankie’s been spotted by many others, visitors and staff alike. He’s practically become a fixture on the hill, something that baffles Marmot’s VP of Marketing, Brian Rode.
“I hadn’t seen a caribou on the hill in the 37 years that I’ve worked here,” he told me.
Parks Canada, apparently, is not as surprised. Resource Conservation Manager John Wilmshurst said the peaks and valleys of Marmot Basin are within the Tonquin caribou herd’s range. Having one animal hanging around populated, developed areas isn’t totally unusual, based on what biologists know about adult male caribou.
“This one individual seems to be particularly tolerant of people,” he said.
But is there a threat to the animal, being on the resort?
“If there was an incident…we could send human/wildlife conflict [staff] to move it off the hill,” he said. “Outside of a direct conflict, there’s really no impact on him at all.”
The same can’t be said, however, for those who spot Frankie. Social media was abuzz with folks who’d seen a caribou in Jasper National Park. Sue Cesco, who pulls the occasional shift as a ski host at Marmot, posted her excitement.
“Found some fresh snow and my group got to see a caribou,” she wrote. “I don’t think they realized how special it was.”
The novelty wasn’t lost on Superintendent Alan Fehr. Fehr, who’s acting in his position as Greg Fenton takes a leave of absence, saw caribou at Marmot Basin on two occasions in the past month. For visitors, he said it’s a great education opportunity.
“One one hand it’s great for people to be able to see them, to connect…it’s a bit coincidental right now when we’re talking about caribou…but it’s nice that visitors have had the opportunity to see them.”
For me, finding Frankie was an incredible experience, but later that week, when I saw him again, something felt different. A friend and I were cutting back to the lift on the low traverse in Eagle’s East when we saw him with his head in the snow, presumably licking lichen from the rock underneath. For some reason, the sense of wonder had diminished. All of a sudden I felt sorry for Frankie. He looked like a ghost, lost between two worlds.
As skiers and snowboarders whooped through the glades somewhere not far from us, I hoped they wouldn’t notice this lone, quiet caribou. I hoped they wouldn’t spook him, like I did, four days earlier.
As we waited to see which way he’d go, I willed him back to the forest.
“Go back Frankie,” I whispered. “Go back to your herd.”