Where’s the bear?

If I imagined for one moment that our second week in the Rockies would be any less frenetic, I was wrong.

So wrong, my Fitbit thinks it’s found a new owner.

The tourist tick box checking continues apace.

Fresh from the train, it was off to Jasper Mountain Park Lodge, and a lengthy walk round Pyramid Lake where, finally, I knew: it is indeed possible to remove mountain rescue from the man.

‘I’m a proper tourist now,’ says the Gremlin, as we strike up path 2B from the car park (sorry, parking lot). ‘No map, no idea’.

We didn’t really get lost, he’s continued to (firmly) assert since. Just temporarily mislaid our route.

Anyway, bitten to shreds by who knows what, sunburnt shoulders and breakfast-nicking squirrels: check.

Athabasca Falls: check. Ride up to the Athabasca Glacier aboard a hefty, big-wheeled Ice Explorer, to scramble for selfie space on the fast-retreating glacier, followed by a vertiginous Glacier Skywalk, only the glass beneath our feet between us and the Sunwapta Valley, 918 feet below: check.

‘My name is Luke’, says our young, and extremely congenial, bus driver up to the start point, introducing himself with a friendly quip – as they invariably do. ‘And I’m taking you up to the Glacier Skywalk.’ Luke Skywalker! Geddit?

But where was I? Oh yes. Late arrival in our junior suite overlooking Lake Louise, the most expensive but most impressive dinner of the trip so far (complete with ‘Canadian wine pairings’) – and an iconic view: check. (One night only, sadly.)

Emerald Lake, to a cabin in the trees, overlooking the turquoise waters of the lake, walk round said lake, drinks and bar food taken, and our very own log fire: check. Lake Louise summer gondola and bear trail: check. Thorough dousing at the waterfalls of Johnston Canyon: check. Back to Fairmont splendour at the Banff Springs, ride up the Sulphur Mountain gondola for a ridgetop boardwalk, 2,900 feet above Banff, following in the footsteps of Norman Bethune Sanson, who – much like our fell top assessors back home, but far more intrepid for the time (1862–1949) – walked to the top of the mountain every week for 30 years to report on the weather: check.

Quick dunk in the Upper Banff Hot Springs and more shopping (always more shopping): check. Finally, at Invermere, by Lake Windermere, we’re off the itinerary now. Going rogue. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll get chance to breathe.

Elk, Grazing, Rockies
Elk grazing by the roadside

Bears, eh?

‘Oh they wander past here all the time,’ says Kirk, our friend in Invermere with whom we’re staying a couple of nights. He’s talking bears. ‘There’s plenty of food for them at the moment so it’s not a problem.’

Bears, as you may have guessed, have been something of a fascination this last two weeks.

Idling along the Rocky Mountaineer tracks to Jasper, ‘Bear on the left!’ triggered a lurching body wave leftwards, a splutter of shutters. But it quickly became very apparent there would be precious little bear in any shot achieved. Just trees. Lots of trees.

Sometimes, resolutely seated on the right, as the crowd lurched left, I imagined an entire family of bears might appear by my window – all knowing smiles, big paws waving. Just for me. They didn’t, of course.

On the road, the regular bear and elk ‘jams’ interrupt the otherwise free-flowing, wide open highways. Cars, RVs and the occasional brave cyclist, slow down or stop as a grazing grizzly paws the earth at the edge of the road, playing to the crowd. Elks just carry on munching, oblivious. Unless rattled. And you really don’t want to rattle an elk.

But the best was yet to come: a female grizzly, her two very young cubs tumbling along beside her, wandering across the snowy remains of a piste, as we passed overhead.

We were on our way up the Lake Louise summer gondola, to the Wildlife Interpretive Centre, for the Trail of the Great Bear, a 45-minute guided walk and talk about bears. And how to avoid being eaten by them.

The best way to let a bear know you’re there, says Tristan, our bear expert, is to all shout together ‘Hey, bear!’ So, before setting off – and suitably orchestrated – our group of ten has a dummy run.

‘Hey, bear!’

Like our lives depend on it.

And then we’re off, vocal cords armed and ready.

Bears, we’re told, have high energy needs but their diet is 80-90% vegetarian. ‘Bears eat buffalo berries and insects and small animals,’ says Tristan. And ‘stinky meat’. Not humans. Unless they’re extremely hungry.

Oh and there was that one grizzly, known locally as The Boss, who rose to fame after eating a black bear. They don’t get on, apparently, black bears and grizzlies. No kidding.

In fact, a grizzly eats 200,000 buffalo berries a day, about 40,000 calories – ‘equivalent to forty Big Macs’. Cross paths with a grizzly in July, says Tristan, and he’ll be so high on berries, he’ll not give you a second thought. A theory I’d rather not put to the test.

Better still, avoid crossing his path at all. Check the path for ‘fresh bear sign’: tracks, diggings, torn-up logs and turned-over rocks and ‘scat’ (that’s poo, to you and me) – especially ‘if it’s still steaming’! And make plenty of noise. Forget the bear bells. That Bonnie Tyler impression you’ve been perfecting in the shower? Now’s your chance.

Elk Skull, Bear Signs, Whistler
Watch out for ‘fresh bear sign’

If you do come face to face with a bear, runs the official Parks Canada advice, stay calm, speak to the bear (so he knows you’re a human), make yourself appear BIG and back away slowly. So much easier to type than do, I suspect. And bears, it seems may just ‘bluff their way out of an encounter by charging and then turning away at the last second’. They may also ‘react defensively by woofing, growling, snapping their jaws and laying their ears back’. Oh dear God.

If a bear approaches, besides staying calm, talking gently to it, and getting ready with the bear spray (essence of chill peppers), you need to ‘assess its behaviour’. Is it ‘defensive’ (feeling threatened by you), or ‘non-defensive’ (predatory, hungry and looking for food)? It’s important to know which of the two, because ‘in the rarest case’, you might just be lunch. But, they’re vegetarian, right?

Ok. So how to tell? Oh, that easy. Just fall on the ground and play dead. Lie very still on your stomach with legs apart, hands crossed behind your neck and wait for the bear to leave. Once he’s gone, and your heart stops bouncing round your skull, that’s when you know. That particular bear was defensive.

If the attack continues for longer than two minutes, however, it may have shifted from defensive to predatory. At which point, after possibly the longest, most terrifying two minutes of your life, you should stop playing dead and fight back! Fight for your life! And try to escape – up a tree, into a building or car.

Entertaining though the Bear Trail was (right down to recognising what the bear had for lunch some time last year, from the three perfectly preserved piles of scat by the trail) – and as informative as the official advice – I’m still confused.

Clearly, the best strategy is to avoid bears altogether. If possible. But that bit about climbing a tree? Don’t bears climb trees too? And escaping to a car? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Jake.

Jake was a black bear. A hungry black bear. And, in pursuit of sustenance, a pretty nifty car thief.

In 1996, young Jake broke into a vehicle in the town of Banff, looking for food. Caught and tagged with a radio collar, he was given a ride out to the Waterfowl Lakes, 116km to the north west of Banff National Park, with strict instructions never to return. (I made that last bit up).

Undeterred and still hungry, in October 1997, Jake turned up again, this time breaking into a vehicle and the porch of a home in Lake Louise. Again he was moved. This time to Marble Canyon, 44km to the south of Lake Louise, in the Kootenay National Park.

But, later that same month, he was back again, breaking into the grease storage area at Lake Louise Inn and searching for food on the porches of homes. This time it was off to Isabella Lake, 43km to the north, but – you’re ahead of me – by September 1999 he was back again, breaking into a vehicle on the back porch of a property in Field, just outside Lake Louise.

This time the authorities tried a different tack, with a ‘hard release’, using Karelian Bear Dogs (often used for hunting aggressive game, including bears, moose and wild boar), to scare Jake away. But Jake, it seems, wasn’t easily spooked.

Back once more, he was caught and hard released again, this time with loud noises and rubber bullets.

Sadly, Jake failed to take the hint. Caught breaking into a vehicle at the Lake O’Hara parking lot, he was captured for the final time and destroyed on 4 September 1999.

His stuffed, lifeless body remains at the Field Visitor Centre alongside possibly the most confusing graphic ever displayed. Regarding which, I apologise if I have misrepresented any of the details of Jake’s brief life of crime but seriously Field, get a grip! We had to go back a second time just so I could understand the time frame correctly, despite having copied the text word for word and taken a photo! If you ever need a decent graphic designer, give me a call…

Jake Bear, Black Bear, Rockies, Field

‘Brunette Moment’ number 1 (Emerald Lake)

Gremlin: ‘Look! You can see our hut from here! See! My blue T-shirt hanging on the verandah.’

<hands me his bins>

Me: (after some fiddling) ‘I can’t see a thing!’

Gremlin: ‘You’ve got them the wrong way round…’

‘Brunette Moment’ number 2 (Wildlife Interpretive Centre)

(Looking at the graphic on display, of bears long past and present, showing their relative size and colours. Thousands of years ago, the Canadian Arctic bear lived in caves and stood taller than a polar bear. And had purple fur.)

Me: (pointing to the purple bear) It looks as though it’s been photoshopped.’

<pause> (very short pause)

Interpretive guide: ‘Well, er… it has…’

And finally… For now

If you’ve ever wondered whether bears do, in fact, poop in the woods, I can categorically tell you: no. Not on the two occasions we’ve spotted them at any rate. Rather, they do seem to like an audience – out in the open, under the gondola or by the roadside. Not a tree in sight.

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