If you go down to the woods today...

Canada jay (Photo by NCC)

Canada jay (Photo by NCC)

December 20, 2021 | by Gayle Roodman

Spending my free time hiking and biking in the Rockies means my chances of a wildlife encounter are not unheard of. Usually it’s just a Canada jay looking for a hand-out, or an indecisive squirrel scurrying back and forth across the bike trail.

But a couple of summers ago, my husband, Ian, and I had the rare opportunity to come almost face to face with one of our country’s most iconic mammals: a grizzly.

Chester Lake is one of our go-to hikes when we’re not looking for anything particularly long or difficult, but one that offers a good pay-off (vistas, lakes, mountain views, not all day in the trees). As Chester Lake is a popular hiking destination, and rightly so, we decided to get to the trailhead early to “beat the rush.”

We were the only car at the trailhead when we arrived, and as we hiked the trail up to the lake, and in keeping with proper bear safety protocol, I intermittently called out “Yo, bear!” to make our presence known, and we chatted a bit and even sang “Teddy Bear’s Picnic.

After about 3.5 kilometres, we exited the forest and arrived at the first meadow. At peak season, the meadow teems with alpine wild flowers. A creek oxbows its way through, creating the perfect habitat for grizzly bears.

Grizzly bear (Photo by calau00, CC BY-NC 4.0, iNaturalist)

Grizzly bear (Photo by calau00, CC BY-NC 4.0, iNaturalist)

A few steps into the meadow, as we were admiring the mountain view that just opened up, Ian directed my attention up ahead about 10 metres. There, minding its own business and nibbling on the flowers that lined the creek, was the massive head and shoulders of a grizzly.

Sensing our presence, the bear looked up from the creek. It was beautiful (I can say this now). Cinnamon-coloured. Huge. We started to retrace our steps back, and as we approached the opening of the forest we had just exited, the bear started to walk in the same direction as us. We now pulled the safety releases off our bear spray, ready to use it if necessary.

Once back in the trees, we lost sight of the bear, but we continued hiking at a brisk pace (no running) with our eyes and ears laser-focused on where the bear might be. A six-person hiking group on their way up caught up to us as we retreated back down the trail. We told them about our grizzly sighting, and seeing as they were a large group with loads of outdoor experience, they decided to press on to the lake. We retreated to the car.

I’d love to say that I was at-one with nature during the encounter, but I wasn’t. I was more terrified than awe-struck. I wish that was weighted more toward awe-struck than frightened so that I could have better enjoyed this incredible sighting. That said, the image of the bear by the creek — our first glimpse — is still etched in my mind’s eye.

More than half of Canada’s 26,000 grizzlies live in BC, and the rest can be found in Alberta and the three territories. Even though this species is one of the strongest mammals in Canada, it is still at risk due to habitat loss and degradation.

And despite me being too frightened to really take note of that beautiful bear, I’d be even more upset if I knew I’d never have the chance to see one again.

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Gayle Roodman

About the Author

Gayle Roodman is the manager, editorial services at the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

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