Having done most of my hiking in Australia, it’s always a bit surreal setting off on a hike in North America and having to think about the wildlife we might encounter.
Once I was with a couple of Canadian friends on Vancouver Island and one of them was carrying a big stick, which I thought was just a walking stick. He told me it was for fighting off cougars, but he was a bit of a larrikin – like the tour guides I’ve met at home, who tell tourists about Australia’s deadly drop-bears – so I’m still not 100 per cent sure he was serious! Fortunately, I’ve never seen a cougar in the wild or, heaven forbid, ever had to fight one off.
Another time, in Alaska, a hiker inadvertently got between a female moose and its calf while collecting water from the river. We were sitting around a campfire cooking breakfast when this moose suddenly came crashing through the campsite. It scared the bejesus out of us!
But, I have to say, there has been nothing more exhilarating for me than seeing a grizzly bear on a back-country hike in the Canadian Rockies. Below is a recap of that experience.
Hiking in the Tonquin Valley
The names given to the peaks of the Ramparts, in Jasper National Park, Canada, seemed far more appropriate for a fortress than a mountain: Bastion, Drawbridge, Dungeon, Redoubt and Paragon. Dark and inhospitable, they towered above Surprise Point Campground, where I sat contemplating my surrounds.
Something moved in the distance – a bear – but at first it didn’t register. My thoughts were elsewhere: the native Canadians once believed monsters with supernatural powers inhabited this area. Slowly, the movement dawned on me – there was a grizzly bear headed my way!
Two days earlier, my friend Mary and I set off from Mt Edith Cavell to begin our three-day hike into Tonquin Valley. We were excited to be venturing into the wilderness and, although we knew there was a possibility of seeing a grizzly bear, we didn’t give it much thought.
Conditions were brisk due to recent snowfall, but warming rays of sunshine pierced the clouds as we strolled along the flat terrain of the Astoria River Trail. Ahead lay a spectacular vista – mist rose from green forests and a raging river cut a trail through the valley leading to snow-covered mountains.
Eventually we faced the inevitable – hiking uphill – via a series of exhausting switchbacks. Upon reaching a rocky outcrop, our effort was rewarded. Meadows dotted with pink, purple and yellow wildflowers lay below and in the distance we could see our destination: Amethyst Lake dwarfed by the Ramparts.
It was downhill from here but we did not anticipate losing the sunshine. A light mist fell and the temperature plummeted. Soon we were walking into the face of a bitter wind and driving sleet. Every step became a struggle as we pushed against an invisible wall that rose between the campground and us.
Finally we reached Surprise Point, where we pitched our tent and then cooked dinner out in the rain, 100 metres away from our tent. This is the major difference between hiking in Australia and North America – you cannot prepare or eat food in the tent, unless you want to attract a curious bear. So we huddled under a tree to eat our steaming noodles.
Eventually we retreated to comfort, conveniently forgetting there was only canvas protecting us from wilderness, until the call of nature forced me out into the storm again. Torchlight could not penetrate the inky surrounds and served only to cast weird shadows on the bushes. It was arguably the quickest call of nature on record, as I hustled back inside. Only then did I contemplate our situation. Here we were, in the middle of a snowstorm, in a land occupied by bears and other wild animals far more capable than us. Were we mad?
The next day, feeling fresh and with a renewed sense of adventure, we set off on a day-hike, following a meandering stream into the Eremite Valley. On either side of us mountains loomed but they soon disappeared into a blanket of mist. The path was overgrown with wet brush that soaked our “waterproof” boots within minutes and there was no sign of wildlife.
Soon we decided to take the animals’ cue, spending our afternoon inside the tent. Thankfully, we remembered the cards – albeit sodden ones. Much later, hunger drove us out of hibernation and, as we ate dinner, the rain cleared and the clouds began to disperse. The sun emerged just in time to set in a spectacular fashion.
For the first time, we could see the Ramparts rising above us. Their reflection in the creek alongside the campground was tinged with pink and orange hues from the setting sun.
What had been a miserable day was transformed in an instant. If we had stayed in the tent, we would have missed the moment – a vision of nature at its absolute best.
Gazing at the mountains the next morning, I was contemplating how nature has a way of rejuvenating one’s spirit and how a glimpse of wildlife can make you forget your cares.
With the bear approaching, warnings came flooding back. You are in bear country. All bears are potentially dangerous.
“Mary,” I called out to my friend, “there’s a bear up here.”
In matters relating to bears we had been meticulous… talking as we walked along the trail, cooking away from our tent and suspending food and rubbish away from the cooking site. However, in this one moment, while I sat guarding the food and Mary cleaned up, all was quiet and there was no noise to warn the bear of our presence.
A myriad of thoughts went through my mind. Why was Mary taking so long? Stay calm. Assess the situation. Watch for aggressive behaviour…
I was fervently hoping he wouldn’t get close enough for me to see him snapping his jaw. But what if he did get close? I would have to talk to him, softly, and then slowly back up. But what about the food on the table?
I wasn’t panicking, but I wasn’t all that calm either, so I called out to Mary again. Just as she arrived, the bear sensed our presence and changed his direction.
Breathing a sigh of relief, I faced a barrage of questions from Mary. “Where is he? Where did he go? I want to see him!”
Luckily, she did see him disappearing into the bush near our tent, otherwise she might’ve doubted my story. Unfortunately, our cameras were in the tent and it was some time before we were brave enough to go and retrieve them. By then the bear was long gone. But it didn’t matter. Seeing a grizzly bear in the wild was a rare experience and, fortunately, nothing had gone wrong.
Back in Jasper we discovered that this is not always the case when we read an excerpt from George Brybycin’s Eternal Rockies. “The ultimate wilderness – The Ramparts and Amethyst Lake at Tonquin Valley: Regardless of some human presence, the valley is pristine and ecologically healthy. Mountain caribou survive in the company of moose, grizzly bears, wolves and a number of smaller animals. It was here that a camper was killed and partially eaten by a starving grizzly bear in 1992.”
When I think back to our bear encounter, I wonder what would have happened if I’d been facing the other direction and the bear continued to walk towards me. I was sitting so quietly and so still… I guess it’s something that I’ll have to keep in mind the next time I go hiking in North America.
Have you encountered a grizzly bear? Were you scared? Did you get any photographs? Please share your story in the comments below.
A version of this article was first published in the Sunday Mail, Brisbane.