Two weeks ago, I escaped the blazing summer heat of Utah for milder temperatures, longer days and cleaner air.
I met up with a pair of college friends, as well as a contingent of friends and acquaintances from New York, north of the border at Banff National Park in Canada. The trip had been discussed for more than a year, following rave reviews from other people who had made the trip.
Brad, my friend from Colorado, met me in Salt Lake and we drove up in the same vehicle. The drive was about 15 hours, not counting stops for food, a night in a hotel and grocery shopping in Calgary.
We were tent camping and meeting a friend, Kelly, from Seattle, who didn’t have cell service in Canada. Luckily, we were able to all meet up without incident and get our campsites established for the night.
The New York contingent, who had flown into Calgary, were staying in fancier camping arrangements with beds, since they weren’t able to bring their camping gear. After a fun evening of fire-cooked fajitas and libations, we turned in at quiet hours to get an early start on hiking the following day.
We were up and about early in the morning and were able to get a prime parking spot. The hike, rated as one of the more challenging in the park, lived up to its reputation.
The first half seemingly went straight up, as switchbacks are apparently not popular in Canada. After we took a break for a morning refreshment — and to get our breath back — we were back on the trail to a saddle between some far-off peaks. The rest of the hike was pleasant despite some challenging footing, to the point the final section through a forest was beginning to drag on.
Right up until Brad saw the bear, anyways.
When he said he saw one, Kelly and I weren’t convinced he wasn’t yanking our chains. Then I saw it, nearly around the corner up the trail from us.
It’s haunches, which were all that was visible from our location, were definitely brownish in color. With nothing else visible on the bear, and grizzlies in the area, we were suddenly on edge.
While we froze for a second, the bear continued down the trail and out of sight. At this point, a couple hiking the same trail caught up to us, and with bolstered numbers, we continued cautiously down the trail, making plenty of bear-alerting noises.
By the time we rounded the bend, the bear was off the trail and nosing around some berry bushes about 20 feet away. We were finally able to see its face, which thankfully had the lean profile and big ears of a black bear.
As we passed by, continuing to make our presence known, the bear looked down at us a few times but was far more interested in its snack. It eventually wandered a bit further into the woods but not out of sight.
Needless to say, the bear spray was definitely at hand for the rest of the trip — and not in the car where I accidentally left it before our first hike. We’d camped in bear country before, so it wasn’t a total surprise. We’d seen a black bear on a trail at Glacier National Park two years prior and, from about a half mile away, a grizzly bear on the same trip.
While that was our only bear sighting in Banff, the final two days of the trip were in Jasper National Park. Our campsite in Jasper was a few hours north of the site in Banff and we took our time on the trip, looking at the receding glaciers and stunning vistas along the way.
When we arrived at the campsite, the helpful parks employee at the gate let Brad know there had been seven bear sightings in the campground the day before. With one bear sighting already in the books, we decided to cook at one campsite and put both tents at the other.
Of course, we started to put up the tents at one site before we noticed the pile of bear scat behind it. We debated whether it was more or less likely a bear would return to the place where it had relieved itself, settled on leaving the tents there and had an uneventful first evening.
The following evening, we were at the cooking campsite, following a delicious meal of skillet-cooked steak and potatoes. We’d finished all the food and were having a nightcap when we noticed some activity on the east edge of the campsite, with some dogs barking and people milling about.
A few minutes later, a nice woman from a few campsites away let us know she had seen a bear. We finished putting away our trash and recycling, before partaking in a nightcap.
While Brad went to grab a few more logs for the fire, Kelly and I were sitting at the campsite when we heard a rustling in the underbrush. She was on high alert but I saw a squirrel clambering into a nearby tree and figured it was the source of the noise. Everyone knows how loud those little buggers can be in an otherwise quiet wilderness.
So I didn’t think anything more of the noise until Brad, on his way back to the campsite with the wood, pointed into the brush beyond our campsite at a small black bear wandering toward us.
While it was only a smaller bear, probably only a bit over 100 pounds, we beat a hasty retreat to Brad’s SUV as it walked boldly into our campsite. After sniffing around the cooking area and being redirected from our campsite by a park ranger, the brief brush with nature was over as the bear wandered off.
Our moment of nature was thrilling and served as a fitting capper to our trip to the Canadian wilderness. If you ever have the opportunity, Banff and Jasper come heavily recommended — bears and all.