You're in Bear Country: What A Hiking Trip in the Canadian Rockies Taught Me About Fear
“You’re in bear country.”
I wonder what Parks Canada’s budget is for those signs—we were warned of this just about every 3km of our drive through the forests and hills and peaks of British Columbia and Alberta.
I think of these signs as we walk on this cool, damp day, the sky an unyielding grey, the dark spruces stretching high on both sides of the trail. The air smells of pine, a perpetual Christmas here in the evergreen forests. The woods are quiet, save for the occasional birdsong, but the higher we climb up from the Valley of the Ten Peaks, the less the birds sing.
The air grows colder, but I’m warm from the exertion of the consistent elevation gain—this four-hour hike is more exercise than I’ve done in the last four months combined—so my jacket remains looped around my waist, flapping against my hamstrings. I’m slightly bent over from the weight of my backpack, stuffed with two bottles of water and a can of bear spray. I read the directions for using the spray this morning but I am only 54% confident in my understanding of how to use it.
We eventually emerge from the winding, ever-upwards evergreen trail into a montane meadow filled with soft grasses and bordered by larches that in the fall, I’ve read, are afire with gold. But it’s June, and so the mountains are alive with greenery and wildflowers. A chipmunk-resembling rodent known as the Columbian Ground Squirrel surfaces from his home in the ground, views us curiously, then chirps loudly, as though offering his stand-up impression of a bird. He’s pretty spot-on. Soon, there are several squirrels all standing at attention, chirping loudly at us as we walk through the meadow.
Those squirrels are on edge, and I am too, my eyes constantly scanning the still valley and the forests that surround it. The night before, I read multiple reviews of this trail that takes you up from Moraine Lake to the Larch Valley, then up beyond the tree line to the exposed Sentinel Pass between two towering peaks. Several hikers warned of the same thing in this meadow we were passing through. The trailhead, too, posted a warning: “Strongly recommended you travel in groups of 4.”
“Hikers coming down from the trail told us they had come across Grizzlies, so we decided to turn around,” read more than one of the reviews.
Apparently, bears love snacking on the wildflowers that grow in the meadow. I am from the flatlands of Louisiana; my friend, Jess, is from the flatlands of southeastern Australia. We are decidedly not seasoned mountain girls, but we are here exploring the wilds of western Canada for two weeks. We are alone on the trail at this early morning hour—the trail that “strongly recommends” you travel in groups of four.
Two days before, we had hiked our first trail in Banff—an eight-hour hike through the mountains surrounding Lake Louise with stops at two teahouses tucked high in the cold ridges. I had almost turned around during the climb up a breathtaking—and I mean this in the ACTUAL dichotomy of the word—series of switchbacks.
“You can’t do this,” Fear told me as I stopped to catch my breath midway up the ascent. Other hikers passed by clad in proper hiking gear—waterproof pants, boots with grip, collapsible hiking sticks. I was wearing yoga leggings, a barely-waterproof jacket found on sale at Burlington Coat Factory, and tennis shoes that I had owned since high school. Fear was right—I was not equipped at all for a hike in the Canadian Rockies.
I had grown up a scared kid. A scared adolescent. A scared young adult. Fear and I are frenemies—I know his voice better than the Aussie-accented voice of Jess. Fear has tried to convince me that I’m in bear country with just about everything I do—and not only am I in bear country, Fear tells me, but I will most assuredly be eaten by an angry mama bear should I step out on the trail, leaving the safety of the lakeshore below teeming with tourists.
Despite Fear’s excellent persuasion, I had continued up those switchbacks and finished the teahouse trail, successfully avoiding falling off any cliffs, being eaten by a bear, and only slipping on a snow patch once—my 10-year-old tennis shoes offered little grip; hiking in stilettos would probably have been just as effective.
I reflect on this previous hike as we walk on through the Larch Valley, my senses alert for any movement in the trees that hug the meadow. After reading the reviews, Fear implored me the night before to protest Jess’ suggestion to hike this trail. If peer pressure wasn’t a thing, I would have given in to Fear and stuck to a happier trail, perhaps one that was paved and filled with busloads of fanny-pack wearing tourists.
But if there are any bears hanging out in those trees, we don’t see them, and so we emerge from the meadow onto the exposed ridge leading up to the mountain pass, the bear spray still snug, unused, in my backpack.
The path to the pass between the peaks leads up several steep switchbacks. Multiple wide snow patches spill over the trail; we see tiny pinpricks of hikers, like ants, slowly make their way over the icy incline. The trail ahead is not safe. Fear, again, begins to speak up.
Two Junes prior, in a tiny hotel room in London’s Kensington neighborhood, I had felt sharp chest pains while trying to fall asleep. I was alone in my favorite city for a few days before being joined by a friend later in the week. Alone, save for Fear.
That night Fear tried to convince me—a generally healthy 23-year-old—that these chest pains were clearly an indication that I was having a heart attack. Fear is quite the lobbyist when it comes to convincing us of the most absurd ideas. Fear can keep you in your safe zone, paralyze you with theoretical what-if situations, and win elections.
Who would find me alone in this hotel room? Fear asked me that night. How would I get in touch with anyone when my room didn’t have wifi and my cell plan gave me only limited data for my time abroad?
The chest pains continued for the rest of my time in London, and then for weeks after I returned to the U.S. I tried several medical tests, including sporting electrodes and wires for a day during a 24-hour EKG test.
The only answer: “You’re fine.”
It would be months until I realized that this, too, was just Fear’s handiwork, a culmination of job worries and relationship worries and what-the-hell-am-I-doing-with-my-life worries common to a 23-year-old who had just graduated college.
“You should be fine,” says a man coming down from the pass after we ask him about the trail ahead. He is decked out like an REI mannequin, complete with ice poles.
Jess and I walk a bit further along the trail, crossing a cold creek of snowmelt and a wide white patch before beginning another ascent up steep scree, the loose rocks providing a precarious foothold for each step. As I slip up a slope, I decide there that this is the furthest I will go.
I sit on a rock just big enough for my bum, and I pull out crackers, Baby Bell cheese, and pepperoni—basically my diet for the last two weeks—while Jess continues higher up the trail. My fingers are red and numb. Flurries begin to fall. Before me are the snowy striated Ten Peaks that surround Lake Moraine hidden more than 4,000 feet below us.
I’m alone on this rock, and for the first time while hiking, I am not afraid.
On the way down, we don’t stumble across any Grizzlies. Just a beaver beside a lake still half-frozen.
The next day, we will complete our final hike in the mountains of Kananaskis Country outside of Banff. This hike will be the most challenging of all our hikes that week, the steep ascent never once letting up, the path taking us to a high exposed ridge, the trail only loose scree at a steep, I-dare-you-to-slip angle.
We will pass a man an hour into the hike and ask him how much longer to the peak. He will pause before answering a simple, “You’re doing well,” then continue on down the path. It will be another two hours of Lord-have-mercy-how-much-further-to-the-top climbing before we reach the trail’s tree line. Jess will have a heights-induced moment of teary panic, and we will sit on this ridge and watch a rain shower roll through the narrow valley between the green peaks.
But on this final hike, there will be no questions of whether or not I am capable as my heart beats wildly from the exertion of the climb. Instead of Fear’s voice, simply a quiet confidence born from moving forward when I was ready to turn around and head back to the safety of the trailhead. “You can do hard things,” says the voice, and I believe it.
I will fly home the following day, and I will buy hiking shoes.
[Coming soon: my full Travel Journal itinerary and loads of photos!]
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