On a chilly September pre-dawn, three of us hiked down the dark trail to Lake Magog through a thick spruce forest, intent on photographing dawn alpenglow on Mount Assiniboine and other high peaks in this high cirque of the Canadian Rockies. Ed, in front of Karen and I, was quietly singing “Where oh where is the Grizzly Bear; where oh where can he be?” We were strung out a bit on the trail, and Ed turned back to Karen and said he saw an animal ahead that looked to be about wolf sized. Karen didn’t see it, but she told me. I stopped and looked into the willows just behind us at this point and clearly saw the rounded shape and grizzled gray hair of an adult Griz. Then I saw a second, which was a cub accompanying its mother. We were too close, so we backed up along the trail, watching as the mother and two cubs crossed the trail where we had just been.
The bears ambled closer to Lake Magog, and were perhaps 100 yards from us. Then the mother bear rose to her hind legs and looked intently down to the lakeshore, where we had seen a brace of dentists fly fishing the previous morning. She walked around on two legs, like a gigantic human, gazing in that direction and looking agitated for perhaps ten seconds. At that point she hurried to cover, where she again stood up. Then, apparently satisfied, she returned to the business at hand. With her cubs, she began digging into the ground, going deep to try and extract a Columbian Ground Squirrel from its den. In examining the videos, we can’t tell for sure if she got a ground squirrel, but she may have.
Karen had an emergency whistle with her, so we decided that she should repeatedly give three blasts of the whistle to warn other people in the area to be aware. Three other members of our group soon joined us, and people at the lodge and huts later told us that they had heard the warning whistles.
At one point, the mother Griz stopped, briefly looked directly at us, and got into what looked to me like an aggressive stance, on all four legs, head raised, mouth open, and restlessly moving around a bit while gazing at us. At that point I took out my bear spray, just in case a charge was imminent. But mama Griz decided that our whistles and talk and camera clicking were just some more bewildering human behavior, and she went back to tending her cubs. Shortly thereafter, they disappeared behind some tall willow bushes, and we didn’t see them again.
Later in the day, perhaps two miles up a trail, a Canadian couple saw what we believe were the same three bears, so they had been on the move since our early morning sighting. The Canadians also saw a lone bear during the same hike. I later showed the dental convention participants my photos of the bears, which produced a lot of amazement, since many of them had fished near that very spot on previous mornings. But none had been there during our grizzly experience. Which leaves the question, what was the mama Grizzly looking at when she was standing on her hind legs? My theory is that she had smelled or spotted the lone bear that was seen later; after all, male bears are a major threat to cubs and a mother bear has to vigorously defend her offspring to make sure they won’t be eaten by a big male. Alternatively, the bear might have seen some wolves, or perhaps a backpacking camper down along the lake. We’ll never know for sure.
When we came to Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, bears were on our mind. After all, we had just bought two aerosol cans of pepper-based bear spray prior to the trip. Canada’s parks don’t allow guns and, in any event, pepper spray is almost certainly more effective than a handgun against a fast-charging bear. In the car on the way to Canada, Karen read out loud about Grizzly Bears on her iPhone. We learned that they can eat 250,000 Buffaloberries in a single day (biologists who learned this important fact had to count the seeds in a grizzly bear’s daily output of scat–I can just see Mike Rowe of America’s Dirtiest Jobs taking a Canadian side trip and digging through the still-warm piles!). So, when we got to Banff, we learned to identify Buffaloberries, which we don’t recall seeing before. I even tasted one of these berries, which has a soapy texture and a slightly bitter aftertaste–if I was a bear, I’d move to a place with huckleberries instead. We also learned about bears turning over rocks to look for insects beneath, and about digging sleeping ground squirrels out of their underground nests. In fact, a Grizzly Bear’s big hump on its back contains the muscle attachments that, along with the 2″ claws, gives a Griz its ability to dig fast and deep into stony soil. High in some areas of the American Rockies, bears gather to eat the larvae of moths.
When we arrived in Banff National Park, we observed two Black Bears feeding on Buffaloberries along the highway. One had a blue ear tag, so he was either a bad news bear or a reseach subject. When we stopped to see these Black Bears, it was just like the bear jams of Yellowstone National Park, with people getting out of their cars to try and get photos at close range with point and shoot cameras. Those of us who respect the power of bears stayed safely in our cars.
While hiking near the Assiniboine huts, we encountered a man backpacking with his yellow Labrador, a really sweet dog. He said that the dog had aggressively protected him during three prior encounters with Grizzly Bears. He camped in the campground about a mile away from Assiniboine Lodge that night. But the next night, he moved into one of the Naiset Huts near ours. It seems that a Grizzly Bear had come into camp that morning and unnerved him. My theory is that his dog ATTRACTS Grizzly Bears, leading to these confrontations.
As for the beautiful alpenglow on the snowy peaks? I hardly noticed, with my attention locked like a weapons system on my target, the bears. Alas, it would have been a beautiful photograph. Next time.
I’ll close with one good bear story. A year or so ago, in one of the Canadian parks, a man encountered a bear at close range along a trail, which came aggressively toward him. Fumbling with his can of bear spray, he managed to spray it backwards, directly into his own face! At which point he began screaming and dancing around waving his arms in extreme pain. The now-scared bear thought the guy was totally insane, and ran in the other direction. That is one way to make bear spray effective!
Columbian Ground Squirrels are a crucial source of protein for Grizzly Bears, who have massive muscles that allow them to dig quickly into the dens of sleeping or hibernating ground squirrels. On our visit, most of the ground squirrels had already entered hibernation.
This Seattle Mountaineers trip into the Canadian Rockies was ably led by Linda Moore, whose love of all things wild in Canada is clearly evident. Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park is a British Columbia park wedged between Banff and Kootenay National Parks in the Canadian Rockies. We flew by helicopter into the park and stayed in the Naiset Huts, while others stayed in the relatively luxurious Mount Assiniboine Lodge or camped in a hike-in provincial park campground about a mile from the lodge.
For more information about transportation to and facilities in Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, go to the British Columbia Parks website.
For a primer on Grizzly Bears, go to the National Wildlife Federation website.
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