Published on March 19, 2013
Gary Nielson, president of the Calgary Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, with Oberon the great horned owl, which has been a permanent resident of the centre since 2003 when it was hit by a truck and lost a wing.
— Photo by Susan Flanagan/Special to The Telegram
Published on March 19, 2013
Marie Snippa with a takeout pig head at Happy Valley Restaurant in Calgary’s Chinatown. — Submitted photo by Heather Cornick
Published on March 19, 2013
The author and friend, Heather Cornick, sport Newfoundland snowshoes in Kananaskis. — Submitted photo
Alberta may be rat-free, but its biggest city has another kind of rodent
Last week I got to go to Calgary without my family. Except for two nights in Trinity, it was the first time this has happened in 20 years.
The trip was actually a Christmas present from my loving husband, who must have sensed I was ready for a break. My friend Heather got the same gift from her husband and she was the one who chose the Calgary destination.
Despite the fog that kept thousands grounded in St. John’s and a major winter storm that cancelled many flights in and out of Calgary, we made it to my sister’s house three days after our original ETA.
My sister, Marie, lives in the Patterson Heights neighbourhood up near Canada Olympic Park (COP), the most visible remnant of the 1988 Winter Olympics with its massive ski jumps, and bobsled and luge tracks.
It’s a pretty spiffy area in the southwest of the city, with everything from apartments converted from old Olympic residences to acreages with multimillion-dollar homes.
It has a wonderful paved trail system where walkers can spot the odd deer.
And at night, this area, as well as many other Calgary neighbourhoods, becomes a play ground for massive jackrabbits that look like they’re straight out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie.
These things are huge. You do a double take when you catch one in your headlights. Heather and I had never seen anything like it.
They’re actually called white-tailed prairie hares, and on my early morning jogs I discovered they spend all night pooping on the sidewalks. One morning I saw hare footprints intersecting in the snow with mouse footprints. There was a big disturbance where the two met and only the hare prints carried on. I guess the hares eat more than plants.
I have visited Calgary about 10 times in the past two decades, staying up to a month at a stretch, but I don’t remember seeing so many hares. My son, who is in Calgary on a work term, had his girlfriend visiting at the same time and they were equally amazed.
My son’s girlfriend had it worse than us. After four days stranded in St. John’s, she packed it in and drove to Gander, where she managed to get a flight out and arrived in Calgary five days after her ETA.
Anyway, those two went to a Flames game at the Saddledome, spent a day at the Calgary Zoo and had a sunset dinner up in the Calgary Tower. I’ve been to those places, so we skipped those outings.
I’ve also skated through the ice palace on Lake Louise, climbed Whistlers Mountain in Jasper and slept in leather teepees in the mountains, so we skipped those, too. This visit I was out to do some of the things I had yet to experience in Stampede land.
It was Heather’s first visit, though, so we did the requisite day of snowshoeing in Kananaskis and hot-tubbing at Sulphur Mountain in Banff, where we saw deer, but no elk.
The following day, we took the new C-Train downtown, where I went skating on the Olympic Plaza, the only refrigerated outdoor skating rink in the city.
The rink, complete with Zamboni (can you imagine a Zamboni in Bannerman Park at the new skating oval?), is bordered by the old City Hall and the Statue of the Famous Five women who fought for the right to be senators.
Back in 1988, this is where the medal ceremonies for the Winter Olympics were held. It’s also where 30,000 people jam-packed themselves when the Calgary Flames almost (key word) won the cup in 2004.
Then we went off to photograph the stunning new sculpture of a 12-metre tall, bent-wire head in front of the The Bow building, Calgary’s tallest, so named for its crescent shape and view of the Bow River (500 Centre St., S.E.).
The sculpture is by Jaume Plensa, a Spanish artist, who has works in Dubai, London, Chicago and Tokyo. When you go inside the head and look up, you can see a face in the sky.
Next stop: Chinatown, where we chose Happy Valley Restaurant for lunch upon the recommendation of some local Chinese ladies. The food was great and a full cooked pig carcass was laid out on a trolley next to our table ready for takeout.
When a fight broke out in the kitchen, we asked the waitresses if everything was going to be alright. They diverted their eyes and didn’t say a word. Another interesting dining experience.
Then my sister’s neighbour, Gary, took me to the Calgary Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre (CWRC), where injured and orphaned wildlife are brought to recuperate before being released back into the wild.
The CWRC sits on almost 13 acres bordered by two penal institutions and a psychiatric hospital. The government leases the land to the centre for a dollar a year, assuming, probably wisely, that no one really wants to put a housing development at that location.
Gary, who is now president of the CWRS, began volunteering in 2004. His main job is taking two owls named Ophelia and Oberon on school and hospital visits.
I asked Gary if he thinks the owls recognize him when he comes into their flight pen. He seemed to think there’s not too much going on in their feathery heads and to them, he’s just another Joe wearing gauntlet gloves who knows how to handle an owl.
When we entered one flight pen, a round-eyed great horned owl was standing back on with his head in full exorcist mode looking right at us. Owl eyes are massive up close and very, very yellow.
My favourite was a snowy owl named Beaky (so named because of his broken beak, which makes it hard to catch prey). Beaky hissed at us just like a savage cat. He then flew around his flight pen, causing us to drop to the floor every few minutes as he streaked overhead.
There are lots of other birds and animals at the rehabilitation centre, including a one-winged eagle and an abandoned peacock. In the summer, there’s everything from bats, deer, the aforementioned mutant hares and big, wild cats.
On Sundays the centre offers an outreach program to inmates of the local penitentiary to come do work.
On our last day, we hiked through the woods to a Buddhist Temple in the neighbourhood of Cougar Ridge, right next to the Olympic Park. All these years and I didn’t even know it was there.
So Calgary, although familiar, never ceases to amaze me. Its unplowed side streets after the big snowstorm, for example, would cause mutiny here in St. John’s.
And I did a double take when I first saw the latest campaign to encourage Calgarians to stop texting while driving. “Crotches Kill,” the billboards shout.
Downtown the footprints on storm grates that ensure high-heeled shoes don’t fall through are always a thrill to see.
But I have to say the biggest shock is still the massive hares. I can only imagine the rash of 311 calls this city would get if those suckers jumped in front of car headlights.
When my nephew, Joshua, was little he thought there was only one hare that liked to lunch on the hostas in their yard.
He called him Muncher and was convinced for many years Muncher was the only one.
I know better, though. One hare, even a giant mutant hare, could not produce that many pellets in one night.
Susan Flanagan is a writer who thanks her husband
for setting her free to visit owls and deer and mutant hares.
She can be reached at email@example.com.