We knew there was a bear in the valley because we’d run into one on the trail two days earlier. We were bashing our way up the cutline trail from the Sheep River to the alpine meadows above Burns Lake when J, walking a little ahead of me, shouted “hey bear!” and a grizzly stuck its head up from the alders about a hundred meters in front of him. It only took the Griz a second to decide what to do and it was off, running into the woods and gone.
J and have walked thousands of kilometers in the back country together over the last two decades and this is the first time we’ve ever spooked a grizzly. We’d been around them before, like the time we hiked from Moraine Lake to Marble Canyon in a day and encountered hundreds of school-bus sized diggings, the delicate plants still green, still alive. That bear was somewhere in the narrow, storm shattered valley with us, but we never saw it.
I’ve also hiked above a big grizzly on Specimen Ridge in Yellowstone, and watched one from a kilometer or two away from a hilltop in BC’s Muskwa-Katchika region. But neither of us had ever walked into one on the trail like this before.
We stood in the heavily overgrown path together and discussed what to do. It was about this time that J realized that his bear spray was missing. To me it seemed like the sort of thing that you’d check right off when you see a bear, but that’s me. Sometime in the two hours since lunch it had come off the waistband of J’s pack without him noticing. Maybe this had happened when we made our way through a twenty foot high tangle of logs and other flood debris where an unnamed creek met Burns Creek? It didn’t matter: we didn’t know where it was and had no interest in going back to find it. The track was steep and our packs were heavy and we knew we’d never find it anyway.
What to do? Keep going? Wait a while and then proceed? Turn around? We’d rather take our chances with the bear than make our way back down the Sheep River, where more flood debris from the 2013 catastrophe awaited us. I took off my pack and stood on the trail, peering into the woods. All my adult life I’ve been hiking in these mountains and I’ve never really been afraid of bears; I wasn’t now. We decided to give it a few minutes – just to let the bear make some distance on us – and continue up the track.
Burns Creek is remote; it takes some effort to get into it. J and I had come via a long, undulated walk along Mist Ridge the day before. We were going to take five days to traverse the length of a notched massif of peaks called the Mist Range. The night before we’d intended to camp high on Gibraltar Pass but from above we could see clearly there was no water to be had there. We dropped into the basin ringed by Storm Ridge, Rickert’s Pass and Mist Ridge, hoping that the blue line on the map would materialize as real, cool, fresh water: no luck. The dry conditions that spring meant there was no water to be found, so we had to descend towards the Sheep. This was made all that much harder because the meadows just below the pass were filled with thick mats of wildflowers. I wanted nothing more than to camp among them so I could be there at first light: the photographers lament. Instead we had to sleep on the bank of the Sheep River, its braided course piled with logs and debris from the flood.
We reached Burns Lake without further fury encounter. Our path brought us to a high plateau a few hundred feet above the lake itself and before dropping J found a triangle of snow thirty feet high wedged between limestone cliffs. Beneath it clear cool water emerging from a crack in the earth. Elated, we made camp at 8,000 feet on the dry grass overlooking the serrated edge of Storm Mountain, the parade of gendarme on Mount Rae’s eastern ridge behind us.
Being in the alpine, there were no trees to hang our food cache from. This wasn’t a new problem and in the past we’d simply lowered our food bags over a steep cliff, but we couldn’t find anything suitable, so we improvised. Using a long length of cord, secured to a heavy stone, and employing the friction of the snow, we dropped the food bags over the edge of the triangle of snow, dangling them a few feet from the water below. A bear or other marauding animal would have to work really hard to get at this arrangement. That said, if the rope gave way we’d have a hell of a time retrieving our kibbles from the depths of the ice cave below the snow, but sometimes you’ve got to roll a hard seven.
The following day we explored the basin, hiking through the high, barren cirques above the lake, encountering a pair of mule deer bucks, somewhat out of place at 8,200 feet, which lead to some Brokeback Mountain comments, and then and climbing a 9,000 foot ridge that dropped 2,000 feet, straight down into Rae Creek on its eastern flank. I mean: straight down. In fact, I’m pretty sure the angle was more than 90 degrees by the look of the surrounding rock walls.
We scree-skied back down and walked through the basin to a tarn for lunch and commented that there didn’t seem to be much for a grizzly to eat up here. Mostly rock and lichen, through we’d seen a few pods of hedysarum closer to our camp.
After lunch we got caught up in a storm and made it back to our tents to dry out and nap and listen to the wind. Before supper we went for another hike and explored the little tarn below the Royal Wall and the high col that provides a faster, if not masochisticly steep egress into the Burns Lake region from Highwood Pass.
We turned in early, the weather growing foul again, the wind cleaving at the fabric of our light weight tents. I had just bought a new one-man job that weighs only three pounds and was pretty excited by its sleek design and compact size. As a genuine storm blew up I started to wonder at its tensile strength. The gales came in waves, alternatively ripping the tent from the west and then turning around and quickly coming back at me from the east. Lightning flashed across the sky, lighting up my little oblong bubble, and the thunder was simultaneous. Rain pelted the world around, driving in sheets and rapid staccato bursts. J’s tent was thirty feet from mine – just far enough so snoring would be inaudible – and from time to time we would yell to each other over the rampage outside to see if the other had been blow down valley. When the poles of my tent got pressed down by the wind so that the sidewall nearly touched my face I started to question the wisdom of camping so high.
The next time J yelled over the storm it was to ask, “What was that noise?”
You’re kidding me, I thought. There’s a gale storm blowing through the valley, thunder and lightning and a pelting rain. The noise is the world, I thought. “What noise,” I yelled back.
“Sounded like a bear.”
The next thing I said was pretty stupid in hindsight. “A bear would have to be crazy to be out in this storm.”
Where else would they be? At home by a cozy fire?
The storm died down around 2:30 and I finally fell into a restless sleep after that. I pretty much ignored my 5:30 alarm, poking my head out of my tent momentarily to confirm that sunrise was about the same as the day before and there was no need to shoot it.
I woke around 7:30 and retrieved our food cache and made tea. J was still asleep and I went back to my tent to patch up the blisters on my feet for what would be a long day on a hard trail. As I was doing this I was sitting, tent flap open, looking north. I had my head down, absorbed in my task, when I hear J’s voice.
“Steph, get your camera.” He sounded earnest. Then he added, almost as an afterthought: “And you might want to get your bear spray too.”
I’d been lugging a 300mm lens long the trail for the last few days and it quickly came to hand. I looked up to see a grizzly bear just 25 meters from my tent. It was sitting near the snow patch where we’d hung our food and drawn water for the last few days. The bear was looking back at us.
We all sat there for a few seconds, me in my bare feet (the bear in its), and my camera clicking away as fast as I could work it. Then the bruin got up and walked off. There was no panic in its stride; if the animal was in any way perturbed by our presence it didn’t show it. Curious, maybe, but stressed? No.
J came over to my tent, where I was now standing, watching Lord Griz make its way down a rocky game trail eastward. “That’s one crazy bear,” he said, or should have said, mocking my comment from the stormy night before.
We watched the bear go for another few minutes. He was on the trail we would be walking after we tore down and tents and had breakfast. We no longer felt any rush to be on our way. The Griz never looked back and seemed to care less about us as it walked off toward the Rae Creek Hills.
We never saw it again. The next morning we found a massive pile of very fresh – not steaming, though I would have loved to write those words – bear crap near our camp at Rae Lake. I had walked the path an hour before while out photographing sunrise and the dung wasn’t there, so that bear and I crossed paths sometime around 7am. There’s no way to know if it was the same bear.
It’s been a long time since I’ve written these words: the world is a better place for the presence of these animals in our mountains. They make the landscape come alive. A mountain with a bear somewhere on its flanks is a bolder, more dramatic, more energized place. The bear make the country flush with life. We flush with life because they are there; big animals, with powerful jaws and claws that from time to time do us harm, but almost always pass us as the bear did that morning in our camp: with mild curiosity.
It turns out that this bear came over the mountain, as well as went that way. The tag on its ear appeared in other photos I had taken earlier in the spring near Highwood Pass. That means this bear walked up through the alpine meadows of Arethusa Cirque and meandered over the high col between it and Burns Lake. I love the way one valley and another can be connected by these narrow ribs of stone.
I got to thinking while following the tracks of that grizzly the rest of the day, imagining – hoping? – that we might catch sight of it one more time. What I thought is this: how great is it that we have a place like the Elbow Sheep Wildland Park – and on the other side of the high col Peter Lougheed Provincial Park – to provide a sanctuary for a wild creature like this bear?
In the early 1990s’ the Alberta Wilderness Association made damn sure it would stay that way when they fought for and won protection for the headwaters of the Elbow and the Sheep Rivers. It was a decade’s long fight against a government that didn’t give a rats’ ass about wilderness, and only decided to protect the place when enough Albertan’s stood up and shouted loud enough that Premier Klein couldn’t ignore them any longer. Klein didn’t act until he was certain he could still lease oil and gas in the new “Park” which he tried to do a few years later.
Back then I was a long-haired, wet behind the ears, fire-brand radical environmental jerk that lived by Dave Foreman’s mantra of “no compromise in defense of mother earth.” I learned that leases had been written for areas of the Elbow Sheep to a Calgary oil giant and somehow managed to get a meeting with one of the companies most reasonable voices. I got a look at a letter from the company to then Minister of the Environment Ty Lund outlining concerns they had that the leases were in fact in prime grizzly country. The company, trying to do the right thing, asked to swap the leases with ones that would be less damaging to grizzly habitat and less destructive of their public image.
The area leased wasn’t the valley above Burns Lake, but further east, along the western slopes of Forget-Me-Not-Ridge.
Minister Lund had written back explaining that if the oil company didn’t drill the lease he’d find someone who would. There would be no swap. He didn’t use those words, but that’s what he said.
I leaked the information to the press. The public went bananas. I spent two years fighting with the Ministry and with the Freedom of Information agency to get the letter, but never was able. Just the same, I ruined my reputation with the oil company (no loss), and the reasonable man who I was dealing with there would never trust me again, and for good reason (that was a loss) but the lease was never drilled.
That was nearly twenty years ago. I’m no longer long haired, nor am I all that wet behind the ears. I’m even less of a jerk. But after seeing the grizzly at Burns Lake, just sitting there outside my tent, I know for certain I’d do it again in a heartbeat.