Bear Aware

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Currently vacationing in the Canadian Rockies and being keen hikers, we were perusing the trail options and reading the guides and became aware of The Bear Issue.

I initially brushed aside concerns. I said if it was dangerous the trails wouldn’t be there and it wouldn’t be such a massive vacation hotspot. Himself was not so sure so I suggested we go and seek advice at the jasper information office.

We approached the desk.

“We’re English,” we apologetically smiled “and we don’t know about bears. Is there stuff we need to know?”

They rushed us over to the Bear Specialist who gave us a 25 minute talk about bear habitat and their predatory and defensive behaviour and human deterrent action (standing tall and waving arms and saying “Whoah Bear!” in a calm reassuring voice) but most importantly how to avoid seeing a bear in the first place.

We emerged clutching bear spray, a book on bears and how to understand them, and the script of the Bear Spray Video ringing in our ears. We felt prepared and knowledgeable but more scared than ever.

Re examining the hike options we settled on a few small circuits away from the grizzly infested slopes and hopefully with nice open paths with little cover for the local black bear population.

Our first outing was a delightful “easy” circular on the borders of picturesque Lake Maligne. Supposedly paved with no inclines, it quickly ran out of tourist friendly surfacing and turned inward and upwards into dark green gloom and a path with sprouting roots.

The human presence fell away and we were confronted with the reality of being entirely alone in bear country. Naturally we had no map (easy tourist circular, remember?) but even without a Google Earth map view connection, I set my Runmeter to track our path against a black background. At least I could see if we were going in a circle.

4/5 of the way around we speculated on how we would retreat if we saw a bear? Would we have to backtrack the whole circle? Himself thought we could wait till the bear disappeared. I pointed out the advice was clear; leave the area, not hang around waiting for the ursine lunch to finish. Still, the thought if we did see something we would have to retrace all our steps was unappealing.

Next, the bear spray. I was conscious of the wind in my face all the time. Whichever direction we walked in we seemed (a) to be downwind of any lurking grizzly and (b) thus deprived of bear spray as a weapon if it meant it ended up in our faces. The video hadn’t covered this problem of hiking in a downwind spiral.

Next I realised our tourist hike was adjacent to an area recently closed because of bear activity. As the path twisted and turned I began to doubt Runmeter’s GPS accuracy. What if we weren’t circling but instead were climbing up into the closed Opal Loop territory?

I kept this fear to myself.

As the vegetation closed in on us and the path continued to twist and turn we began a manic loud conversation. And followed it with manic loud marching songs. Practically screaming with underlying terror “I love to go a wandering”, the irony was probably lost on any lurking hidden bears.

We emerged into the light of the deserted car park trailhead for the closed Opal Loop. Relief. Our own car was but 500 m away. We had survived.

Later I read the book and discovered we had in fact been walking bear attractions with our deodorants and lip salves and highly fragranced cosmetics (MAC lipsticks are particularly scented) and insect repellent. It seems we must choose between repelling insects/attracting bears or vice versa. No contest.

Since our first hike we’ve done a few more “safe” ones but I can’t say it’s getting any easier even though we’ve now actually seen a fair few bears at the roadside on our travels. Others aren’t so bothered: despite clear safety advice to the contrary, people do stop and get out of their cars and walk up close to the bears to take photos. With children in tow.

And now we are at Moraine Lake in Banff, where it’s unlawful to hike in groups of less than four, so we will have to hang around trailheads waiting for willing co-hikers to hitch up with. That sounds a challenge and I foresee numerous problems. What if our co-hikers don’t like our singing? Or our loud mundane conversations? What if one couple walks too fast or too slow? What if someone wants to turn back at an earlier point? Or what if someone just runs away into the undergrowth leaving us down in numbers as grizzly bait? Worst of all, does everyone assess potential companions with an eye to the old joke; “I don’t need to outrun the bear, I just need to outrun you!”

The statistics reveal that a hiking group of six has never been the subject of bear attack. I knew there was a good reason for having four children. What a shame we’ve left them all behind this time.

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