It’s a day of rain and drizzle, and we’re hiking in Jasper National Park on a trail that flanks the Queen Elizabeth Range. It’s July, so it’s tourist season, but it’s also mid-week on a cold day on a trail that isn’t very popular. In other words, there aren’t too many other hikers on the trail. A fact that is causing me a bit of anxiety.
On the drive up to the trailhead my husband and I encountered two black bears and their cubs foraging close to the road. We stopped, rolled down the window and took photos from the safety of the car. I was thrilled and amused at seeing so many bears in the last several days, mostly from the car and mostly black bears. But now, as we make our way through the mud and mist on a narrow trail that cuts through the dense forest, I’m not amused by the thought of seeing yet another bear. Particularly a grizzly, a species with a healthy population in this part of Alberta, Canada.
The trail curves to the left, then to the right. The trees that surround and tower over us seem dark and foreboding. The birds have fallen silent for the most part. All we hear is the steady drip of the rain and our footfalls. I’m remembering (and regretting reading) a passage in a book I picked up at a gift shop near Maligne Lake in Jasper. It was about a grizzly bear attack near Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada. A couple was hiking and enjoying the scenery one minute, and the next minute they rounded the bend and everything changed. The husband was killed and the author was left disabled when a large brown bear charged them. Just like that, you stumble upon a predator and your entire life changes.
I’m normally not afraid of bears when I hike in my home state of Colorado. I’ve encountered many black bears there, and only once while hiking. They seem skiddish, elusive and shy. I respect them, but I don’t worry too much about them. Incidents of bear attacks on hikers are unheard of in Colorado.
Here in Jasper, it was different. There were warning signs posted at certain trailheads about hiking in groups of a minimum of four people for safety because of the high chance of grizzly bear encounters. The visitor center in Banff National Park further south had posted trail closures due to high grizzly activity in the area. We bought a large bottle of bear spray and were advised to carry it at all times. These people weren’t messing around. This wasn’t Colorado. This was a place where you had to stay focused and alert when hiking. No joke.
So here we were, the two of us, descending deeper and deeper into the woods. Our senses were sharpened and sensitive. We heard every snap, every rustle around us. When we stopped to fish in the lake the trail encircled, we would occasionally look over our shoulder to make sure nothing was stealthily moving upon us. Whenever I got a whiff of something musky, I felt a rush of adrenaline burst in my chest. Was that a bear nearby or a moose?
We didn’t feel that we had the luxury of silent contemplation while hiking on this trail. We were constantly talking or singing, trying to make as much noise as possible so we wouldn’t startle any unsuspecting predators. When we tired of talking, we’d smack our hiking poles together to make eerie, metallic “clack, clack, clack” sounds to cut the silence. We doubted any of this was going to really scare away a grizzly.
In our everyday lives, we normally don’t need to be in such a state of heightened awareness. Our natural instinct for preservation and attunement to the natural world is deadened because we are surrounded by conveniences and comfort. Instead, we walk around in a mental fog, distracted by our cellphones, pondering our to-do lists, constantly tweaking our environment for comfort and pleasure.
Despite the nervousness and tension I felt while hiking in the backcountry of the Canadian Rockies, I look back fondly on that hike and others we’ve taken in similar places known for large, dangerous predators and dangerous conditions: Yellowstone, Glacier National Park, and Teton National Park. My heightened sense of awareness in these places brought me fully into the present moment like nothing else in my everyday life. The fear burned my memories in high definition with surround sound. It’s one of those experiences you dread at the time, but can’t stop talking about later.
When you’re in a place where can die at any moment, whether it’s because of lightning, slippery trails over steep drop-offs or the possibility of dangerous animals and predators, something ancient and primitive gets activated. It’s a part of us that lies dormant as we commute to work, buy dinner from the grocery store and sit on the couch at night. It is hibernating in the dark corners of our being, until the moment we go outside and step into a vast unknown. It suddenly wakes up, eyes clear and ears pricked, and suddenly we remember something that’s taken us centuries to forget: how to survive in the wild.