Jasper, Jasper NP, Alberta – Goose flesh in view of the grizzly family

The rangers at the campground reception explicitly reminded us of not leaving any food or garbage outside to avoid critters visiting us. Storing food in a car is fine since bears do not break open cars here. For tenting bicyclers or motorbike drivers bear proof storage compartments stand by. A cooler isn’t an adequate protection. You shouldn’t even cook inside the tent not to get the food smell into the tent. Never wear clothes used while cooking when you sleep. A bear might mix up “food” and “human” with inconvenient consequences for “human”. Garbage has to be stored in containers with patent catches that can’t be opened by bears. This morning an odd track surrounds our truck. It is a thick pad with five claws – a bear on nightly patrol? Now we know that precautionary measures are absolutely reasonable.

At Maligne Lake, 30 km above Maligne Canyon, you can do several hikes. There is a bear warning for Opal Hills Loop, but the trail isn’t closed yet. There is nothing to stop us. Although the trail is with 8.2 km pretty short, it is classified as quite strenuous, because for instance on a stretch of only 3 km you have to cope with 460 m elevation gain. We are puffing the first kilometres through forest and over marshland. At the same time, a Dutch couple started with us. They walk in similar pace and hike as taciturnly as we do. We don’t want to chase away the game, we want to watch it. Fortunately they don’t have a bear bell or something like that to tell the animal kingdom miles in advance: A human is coming. A Japanese group is chatting behind us. A young elk buck is hesitatingly crossing our way. It is only one of dozens we are getting to see today. The group behind us is screaming more frightened than astonished. Possibly it has seen the elk now. Luckily we don’t hear anything else from it later. We lost it or it has left the dangerous terrain.

A couple of kilometres further my hair stands on end the first time. We find altogether five bear scats on a few hundreds of metres on the path, each two together and a single one, all of them quite fresh. Can a single bear put so many huge poops into being? Obviously bear use, as game do, human hiking trails for movement. That’s after all more comfortable than going cross-country. In front of the last ascent we are walking above the tree-line along a high plateau, or much more a high valley. It is a couple of hundreds of metres wide and some kilometres long, surrounded by several peaks. It is peaceful and quiet up here, grasses grow and flowers bloom. We are crossing two burbling creeks and are enjoying the mountain scenery. If we knew at this point how close we already have been to the bears, we wouldn’t have walked here so calmly. In the end of the marked hike we are once more realizing, there is a way up further and higher. So we are shouldering the backpack and starting again. Instead of turning right to the sea view we are deviating to the left where we can overview the high valley that we just passed through.

In the beginning we are thinking it must be a piece of wood (above the tree-line?), but a glance through the binoculars is revealing: A dark brown grizzly bear mum with her two blond kinds is sleeping here cuddling up to one another closely. The cubs must be from last year; they are nearly as big as their mother. We are watching and photographing this beloved and cute image for quite a while from purportedly safe distance from the other side of the river. One of the kids is waking up, roaming around, and returning; eventually the rest of the family is waking up and starting to move – in our direction! Despite they are plodding without rush they are coming closer incredibly fast. Yet they crossed the creek and are coming up the slope we are standing on. We could shout now, make noise, talk, ring with not existing bear bells, use the existing emergency whistle from the backpack, or draw somehow their attention. We don’t do anything. We are too fascinated of the spectacular site met our eyes. The Dutch are taking flight, it becomes too nasty. They can’t run that fast, they mean. It is too late to run anyway in view of the speed the animals can display. Furthermore, running should be the stupidest thing we could do now. The distance still seems sufficient not to be dangerous. In this moment one of the cubs is lifting its snout; it has found our scent. The two others are discovering us as well. They are watching us for a moment, and instantly turning off heading to the valley where two unsuspecting hikers are walking and where we moved just half an hour ago. The bear mother shows, as rangers call it, good behaviour. She avoids contact to humans, that’s why this path isn’t closed yet. Just now I am realizing that I’ve got goose flesh that probably comes more from chilliness than from excitement. We are starting to put on clothes, the waterproof jacket immediately after that, because it is starting to rain. It is too late for a picture of the lake; it is wet, cold, and threatening. We are enjoying the outlook for a moment, but it is too dark for a photo. Not to be unfair: Up here we have met a group of distinctively nice Japanese. The descent is even more steep than the ascent, but done in an hour. Altogether we managed the about 10 km and 1300 m of elevation in three hours plus a rest and bear watching.

On our way to the next camping, now in sunshine again, there are more elk, deer, Rocky Mountain sheep, and mountain goats. We will sleep at Pocahontas Campground, a former coal mining area that is dedicated to tourism now.

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