Bear stories are boring. Actually most animal stories are boring. Everyone tells them. Yet the magic we feel during a close encounter with wildlife is difficult, often impossible, to convey. And most people simply aren’t skilled at story telling. All of us have politely listened to others’ animal stories, feigning interest throughout the tedious litany of unnecessary detail, so it’s best to keep that in mind when we’re tempted to regale our friends about our latest wild-kingdom experience. Regardless how cute that chipmunk was, how crazily that moose behaved, or how much that bear terrified us, we’ll only bore our friends if we burden them with the whole story.
So we’ll be brief here.
On our recent backpack trip up Johnston Creek Valley to Luellen Lake, Pulsatilla Pass, and Badger Pass (Trip 101, page 370, Don’t Waste Your Time in the Canadian Rockies), we encountered a sow grizzly with her cub. We’d been making bear-warning calls (http://www.hikingcamping.com/bear-safety.php), so the bear was not surprised. She heard us approaching and was moving in our direction, clearly coming to check us out, when we spotted one another about 40 metres apart. She continued slowly but confidently striding forward. We scanned the area, assessed the situation, spoke briefly to one another, unholstered our pepper spray, then retreated—all the way back to the trailhead. End of story.
Our point is this: Let the bear be the boss. Bears live in the backcountry. It’s their home. We humans are uninvited guests. Bears generally display remarkable tolerance of human beings. But if we test their patience, it might end tragically—for them as well as us.
Deferring to a bear, in a situation like ours, can be counter-intuitive. “What? Back down? Turn around? Me? Now? No way!” Letting the mere presence of an animal quash our efforts and alter our plans is in direct opposition to what society has taught us about humans being masters of the planet.
We’d started hiking in Johnston Canyon, camped the first night at Luellen Lake, and were in the upper reaches of Johnston Creek Valley, a mere 1 km shy of Badger Junction campground. We intended to camp there, then dayhike to both passes. The weather was magnificent. We’d been unable to shoot good photos of either pass during our previous visits due to rain and low, heavy clouds. Finally, our timing was perfect. So, we admit, we considered maneuvering around the bear and continuing.
But it was apparent this bear and her cub had taken up temporary residence in the area and were disinclined to leave, which made us disinclined to stay. It was a painful decision. Prepping for a backpack trip takes hours. We’d hiked—carrying hefty packs—nearly a day-and-a-half prior to mama bear’s stern greeting. Turning back at that point meant another day-long slog, and a virtually empty camera card. Save for Luellen Lake, the hike had been a scenic zero—a long march through disenchanted forest on a muddy, horse-tromped trail. Finally, our reward was just ahead. We’d soon be surging into the alpine zone. The bear didn’t overtly threaten us, but she tore our trip into tatters.
During the long, rather depressing, down-valley hike, we replayed the situation in our minds, discussed alternatives, pondered our decision, and agreed we’d chosen the wise course of action. We thought we should tell you about it because you could someday find yourself in similar circumstances. Having a frame of reference might help you make a quick, smart decision under pressure.
Remember to make lots of noise on the trail; it’s your best defense. (Download our Bears Beware MP3. Listening to it while driving to the trailhead could save your life.) If you do encounter a bear, remember to let him or her be the boss. And later, though it might seem like a fascinating tale, remember to spare your friends the details.
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