There are certain trails in the mountain parks where I always think about bears. But I always think about them more, and somewhat nervously, when hiking alone in the autumn.
The incidence of serious grizzly encounters always seems to rise in the fall. Bears are at lower elevations and might be a bit more aggressive in their search for pre-hibernation food. People just get in the way.
There are some trails I often hiked alone in the past where Parks Canada usually has a four-hikers-in-close-proximity requirement today. Trails leading out from Moraine Lake and up the Paradise Valley in Banff Park have one or more resident grizzlies most every summer. The same is true for Kindersley Pass and Sinclair Creek in Kootenay Park.
We never saw a grizzly in these valleys during our early years of hiking the mountain parks. In fact, I remember one Park Warden predicting that grizzly bears would never inhabit the the dead-end Wenkchemna and Paradise Valleys. (Wrong!)
It was a different world during the first decade following the publication of our Canadian Rockies Trail Guide. Both black and grizzly bears spent a major part of their summers in garbage dumps. And when those dumps closed down in 1980, the bears didn’t understand. They marched into Banff and other urban areas looking for an explanation. Instead they found back-alley garbage that wasn’t always secure. Many bears were relocated or died at the hands of Park Wardens.
It took awhile, but most bears, particularly grizzlies, returned to areas where natural food was plentiful. And they became comfortable around people, including the busy trails near Moraine Lake. On the other hand, Parks Canada wasn’t comfortable having bears in close proximity to hikers on popular trails. Hence the four-hiker rule (there is almost no record of bears attacking tight groups of three or more people in the North American backcountry).
Bears have a very long history with people. Through much of the past man was a dangerous enemy that inspired fear and aggression. More recently people have simply become a part of the landscape, and in some cases (sow grizzlies with cubs) may provide security.
As backcountry hikers, we’ll always be a bit nervous when we’re travelling in bear country. After all, these animals are a lot bigger and tougher than we are. Every once in awhile, somebody gets roughed up.