The Grizzly Challenge

 

Backpacking in the Rockies Dennis Carr and family

are challenged by a Grizzly bear crossing their path 

By Dennis Carr
Contributing Editor
 
To start, full leadership and logistical credit must be given to wife Janet who not only insisted we do a backpacking trip, but also undertook the required research and borrowed a dehydrator to provide yummy food for her tired, hungry and cranky charges.
 
We set off from Vancouver early Sunday morning, drove for hours and spent the evening in a thoroughly down-market motel on the outskirts of Golden BC. Davis would have approved; the sheets were threadbare, the TV old, small and fuzzy, and the bar fridge had a menacing drone. I'm pretty sure Tom Waits, Nick Cave and Lou Reed were jamming in the room next door. 
 
The next morning on the Trans Canada, just east of Golden in the middle of yet another highway improvement project (your infrastructure tax dollars at work) we came across our first major animal sighting.  A large, dark grey mountain sheep with a huge rolled rack, bounded down a cliff, dodged some workers, darted in front of our Corolla and disappeared over the roadside barrier down the hill.  It happened so quickly we were left stunned and amazed. 
 
Our trek started at the base of the Sunshine Village Ski Centre outside of Banff. We took a shuttle bus up the mountain, paralleling gondola lifts rising to the base of ski area.  This distance itself is longer than any ski run I have seen in Eastern Canada but this was just the preamble.  At the base area, there were many more lifts to take skiers to the top of mountains high above the tree line.  We set off mid-afternoon and it wasn't long before, despite the well worn path, it felt like we were the first people ever to explore the scenery.  It is hard put into words the thrill of being back above the tree line and feeling that you are alone in a vast spectacular wilderness. 
 
Generally, the route took us south towards Mount Assiniboine through Banff National Park and Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park along both sides of the continental divide.  One moment we were tax free in Alberta and the next, by a recent vote of 54% to 46%, HST-free in BC.  Most of our fellow travellers were American and they, like the ground squirrels we came across, were surprisingly indifferent to the nuances of these tax regimes. 
 
Our first day's hike was largely uphill but fortunately it was only two hours to a nice wooded campsite beside a stream.  I say only two hours because subsequent hikes were much longer and more arduous.  Personally, I was exhausted. Interestingly, we stayed at the same campsite our last night and it was also uphill on the way back to Sunshine Village.  Backpacking I suppose is like an M. C. Escher drawing where one constantly ascends a staircase.
 
The next day (August 23rd; Janet's birthday), after a long morning communing with nature and organizing our packs, we set off for Lake Og.  This was a 16K hike up and down mountain passes and across alpine meadows.  We arrived, after seven long hours, exhausted but happy to be at a beautiful camping area beside a mountain lake with Mount Assiniboine towering in the background. Despite the glacier cold waters, Janet and George went for a quick dip. Lake Og became our home for two nights.  
 
All along these mountain paths we saw many birds and animals; eagles, hawks, ravens ground squirrels and chipmunks. There were also many signs of bears; steaming black piles of berry-laden feces, dug up ground squirrel burrows, tracks in soft ground, claw marks on trees and occasionally, a faint, but distinctive musk, that, were we in Ontario might have been signified a marshy bog (or boggy marsh). Perhaps the clearest indications of bears were the hikers equipped with bear bells and pepper spray.  
 
The third morning we set out on a day hike to Lake Magog at the base of Mount Assiniboine.  This trip was about 6K one way, not including the semi-circumnavigation of Lake Magog.  At the end of the lake was a patch of snow which afforded us the opportunity to engage in an August snowball fight.  It was on the return trip to Lake Og when, as we entered a narrows before a meadows, we encountered a grizzly bear.  
 
The creature was following a diagonal trail in our general direction, minding his (or her) business, checking out the huckleberries and perhaps trying to sniff out a succulent ground squirrel.  It was maybe 30 feet away; hard to really estimate as I left my tape measure back in Vancouver. We were upwind of the beast (which was light brown on top and probably was no more than two or three years old) and it quickly caught our scent.  By the time it stopped to check us out, our packs were off, we were making noise and I, in full bravado mode had readied the pepper spray in preparation for a melee.  The beast seemed unconcerned by my macho posturing but perhaps being cognisant of my need to save face, scurried up a small hill on the other side of the path, quickly disappearing in the bushes.  A few minutes later my suppressed excitement got the best of me and, after confirming the wind direction, released a primeval yell and briefly pressed the trigger on the pepper spray. The spray is red in case you were wondering. After the excitement died down I asked Janet, who was carrying the camera on her belt, if she had thought to take a picture but she noted she had more pressing concerns on her mind. 
 
The rest of the hike back to our campsite was uneventful and later, savouring rehydrated chilli and dark chocolate around the communal cooking area, one of our fellow backpackers asked George for his highlight of the day. George's respond was immediate; the snowball fight!  Also on the subject of eight-year old George, I should point out how well he adapted to carrying a pack for long hours over challenging terrain. His pack included his sleeping bag, clothes, kitchen equipment, camp stove, a little bit of food and a small cooler with the beer on ice. He held up wonderfully, only needing to be prodded by the sharp point of my walking stick two or three times each hour, 
 
The next day we hiked 16K uphill back to the site of our first campsite and the following day, back to Sunshine Village, our car and the civilized world as we know it.   We were tired, but exhilarated by the experience and determined to do another trip next year. We spent the evening in Revelstoke, a pretty little mountain town and enjoyed an outdoor evening concert in the town square while in the background, hard against the mountains, the CPR shuffled freight trains about.  The next morning after visiting the farmer's market and buying Janet some pottery for her birthday, we drove back to Vancouver; the beautiful mountain landscape punctuated by clear-cut logging, tree plantations devastated by pine beetle infestation and desultory strip malls.

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