The Fellowship of the Bear

“Almost every day, on the park or forest radio, we hear some ranger report a bear sighting, sometimes of grizzly.  Campers molested, packs destroyed by hungry and questing bears.  Somebody was recently attacked and mauled by a griz north of the line, in Waterton Lakes…

No doubt about it, the presence of bear, especially grizzly bear, adds a spicy titillation to a stroll in the woods.  My bear loving friend Peacock goes so far as to define wilderness as a place and only a place where one enjoys the opportunity of being attacked by a dangerous wild animal.  Any place that lacks griz, or lions and tigers, or a rhino or two, is not, in his opinion, worthy of the name wilderness…A wild place without dangers is an absurdity…We must not allow our national parks and national forests to be degraded to the status of mere public playgrounds.  Open to all, yes of course.  But enter at your own risk.

Enter Glacier National Park and you enter the homeland of the grizzly bear.  We are uninvited guests here, intruders, the bear our reluctant host.  If he chooses, now and then, to chase somebody up a tree, or all the way to the hospital, that is the bear’s prerogative.  Those who prefer, quite reasonably, not to take such chances should stick to Disneyland in all its many forms and guises.”

–        from The Journey Home by Edward Abbey

It’s obvious that when hiking in bear country, one must be on the alert at all times. Conventional wisdom states that if a bear hears you coming, it will go away.  If a bear does not hear you coming and you surprise it, there will likely be trouble.  Bears, like my mother, do not like surprises.  Some people have bells on their packs which jingle lightly as they walk.  This seems to be less than what may be needed to alert a bear to one’s presence.  Then there are people who lean in the other direction.  We saw one guy with his family who actually had an air horn that he blew about every fifty feet (as well as in the parking lot) which, if I was a bear, would merely inspire me to grab it, blow it in the guy’s face, and rip his head off.  Some people carry bear spray (which Adam says makes people “complacent and stupid” and the ranger in one of the parks described as a “personal choice”).

We have none of these things, so on the trail we converse loudly the whole way.  Because of this, we have managed to talk more on the trails than at any other time in our relationship.  Sometimes we’re talking for five, even seven hours straight.  I’m afraid that we might have used up everything that we’re supposed to save for when we’re old.   I can just see us 40 years from now, staring at each other across the table thinking, “Could you please pass the peas?” is a brilliant conversational move.

Because we make a lot of noise, I never really thought that we would run into a bear.  In fact I was willing to bet that I would go my whole life without seeing one on the trail.  We had what seems to have been a close encounter on one of our hikes from Lake Kinaskin.  Our helpful campground host had given us the details of a trail used by an outfitter that would take us up to views of Mt. Edziza Provincial Park.  After rowing all the way across the lake in the kayak, Adam discovered that many of the trees were thoroughly scratched up by what seemed to be a large grizzly.  As we continued up the trail we found fresh scat and what was either a gigantic grizzly track or proof of the existence of Sasquatch.  Although we did not run into the bear, we must have been exceedingly close.  However, upon relating our experiences to the host she simply replied, “Oh, yes.  There is a big male grizzly up there.”  Might have been nice to know.  But even this close call did not make a believer out of me.  However, our morning hike up to Sulfur Skyline in Jasper convinced me that if a bear wants to make him or herself known to you, no amount of noise is going to deter it.

We were a few kilometers up the trail, chattering along as usual, when suddenly Adam stopped cold.  A second later I saw what he saw: a decent size black bear standing on the trail about fifty to a hundred feet from us just staring at us.  Adam managed to convey both calm and urgency in his directive: “Turn around and go back down.  Don’t run.”  If you have ever been in this situation, you know that this is a difficult thing to do.  Not running from an entity that has the power to reduce you to shreds within minutes is counter-intuitive.  But we retreated and it didn’t seem that we were being followed.  We conferenced about what we should do next.  We really didn’t want to give up the hike, but neither did we care to be mauled.  I imagined a situation where Adam, who was within easier reach of the bear, was being thrown around by it while I frantically flipped through the index of my backcountry first aid book looking for “bear attack.”  So we decided to very cautiously try again after giving it some time and making lots of noise.  Five minutes later we slowly started back on the trail and almost immediately Adam shouted, “Head back down.”  And for the first, and probably only time in my life, I could legitimately follow the stage directions, “Exit, pursued by a bear.”

Coming down we met another couple and told them about the encounter.  Since it was strange that the bear had not run off, they also decided not to risk it.  A little while later we met a solo hiker who also decided to come back down with us.  And as we were almost back to the trailhead, we met yet another group of three people whom we told the story to.  However, at this point we had a fellowship (well, we only had eight people, but Gandalf was absent for much of the fellowship’s journey) and it was decided that we would be plenty safe if we all went up together.  And although the makeshift Aragorn was ready with bear spray, the fellowship did not encounter the bear again.  But thankfully we did make it to the top of the mountain, where instead of fighting orcs and tossing omnipotent jewelry into a lake of fire, we simply ate some granola bars, took some pictures, and enjoyed the 360 degree view of the mountains of Jasper.  However, like Frodo and Sam, we finally ending up breaking the fellowship and heading off towards a nearby ridgetop to contemplate the view by ourselves.

It wasn’t until we came back down that I realized just how serious one must be when bears are present.  Until then I had seen a bear encounter as an abstract idea, something that existed in the world but didn’t really pertain to me like calculus or Esperanto.  But even though it can be a matter of life and death, I would never want to forgo the experiences we had and will have.  Seeing the world from a bear’s eye view will always be worth the risk to me.



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