Monarchs of North American Wilds – The Grizzly Bears

After watching a most informative and attention-gripping TV documentary on bears in Canada and Alaska recently, it brings back vivid memories of my own adventure in the heart of the famed Canadian Rockies in search of these potentially dangerous creatures who roam the extensive forests there as kings and queens of the wooded kingdom.

One summer, some time ago, three of my family members and I had an unforgettable hiking experience in the national parks of Banff and Jasper, acclaimed as the crown jewels of the country’s national parks. We were lured there both by their unrivalled scenic wonders and the prospect of seeing a bear in its natural habitat as a rare added bonus. We rented a spacious car at the Calgary Airport, the gateway to the Canadian Rockies, for our one week trip. The long but invigorating drive to Banff and thereafter on to Jasper, with our son at the wheel, gave us a most delightful introduction to this world-renowned landmark. We broke journey at a mountain resort overlooking the stunningly beautiful Lake Louise for the night. The sheer majesty of the snow-capped glaciers, especially along Icefields Parkway en route to Jasper, nearly took our breaths away! The weather was cool and crisp because of the Rockies’ high altitude and there were parts with thawing snow by the road side. It had snowed heavily the day before even in the summer time.

We were also enchanted by the uniquely shaped overlapping mountain peaks, the verdant pine-clad alpine setting, the awesome cascading waterfalls, the fast flowing rivers, the endless forests and the teeming wildlife. The best way to leisurely savour the national parks’ varied landscapes is to go hiking in some of the countless trails, which offer ample opportunities for photography, fishing, wildlife viewing and camping.

The Glacier at Lake Louise (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The Glacier at Lake Louise (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Banff and Jasper have the most varieties of well-marked trails to suit all tastes and preferences: from relatively short ones with no elevation gain to the more demanding ones that would make you huffing and puffing up the more difficult terrains. The most arduous trails are best suited for the practised hikers. Many of these trails are conveniently accessible from the township or its vicinity. Not very experienced, we chose the more manageable, but equally fascinating, routes of between two and three hours’ journey at a comfortable pace and taking rest stops to marvel at the masterpieces of mother nature around us.

It is essential to obtain from the tourism bureau a self-guiding map and a brochure with the “dos and don’ts” on how to deal with potentially dangerous animals like bears and elks.

The possibility of seeing a bear is probably the most exciting, or dreaded, encounter on a trail. This would quicken one’s heart beat and stimulates one’s imagination to be certain. This is because the bear haunts and uplifts the forest landscape and sets it apart from other wild inhabitants. Without them, the Canadian Rockies would certainly be a poorer place for nature lovers and robbed of its magic charm.

There are two species of bears there. The smaller black bear with an average weight of 150 kg and the larger brown grizzly bear averaging 250 kg. Overlapping in colours, they can be differentiated by shape, colour and size. It has been estimated that there are only about several hundred grizzly bears in the wild there as against at least 9000 black ones. The largest number of grizzlies are to be found in Alaska in United States. On the other hand, both the brown and black bears are scattered in many parts of Asia and Europe and elsewhere in the American continent as well.

Grizzlies prefer the higher elevations and are less often seen in the lowlands, while the other specie is more commonly found in the lower terrain and one’s chances of encountering them are therefore greater on trails or at camping sites or eateries at the fringes of the forests scavenging for food left by humans.

Brown and black bears (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Brown and black bears (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

More aggressive and powerful than the black bears, the grizzlies are more imposing physically, and they are admiringly called “Monarchs of North American Wilds”. Much feared but respected, they are idolised by bear lovers there. Like humans, the behaviour patterns of both species of the normally “tame” bears is most unpredictable. Generally weary of us humankind, they find their peculiar scent utterly repugnant. Upon seeing people, they would usually avoid contact and make a hasty retreat. Both these bears can easily demolish any animal or human with their deadly front paws and razor-sharp teeth.

Be that as it may, both these normally shy bears can suddenly become highly dangerous when surprised or provoked or when they are in a predatory mood. This can, and do happen, when they feel threatened by a human’s nearness, when safeguarding their food cache such as an animal carcass or protecting their cubs or when they view the approaching human as an easy prey. In any of these circumstances, they might suddenly charge at great speed to maim or kill the hapless victim.

From mid-spring onwards, the grizzlies would begin to gravitate to the lower region in search of more abundant food sources after a long winter of hibernation. This heightens the chances of conflicts with trail hikers and campers who flock there in droves to these national parks as part of their vacations.

Bears spend most of their waking hours foraging for food to satisfy their enormous appetites and are particularly active at dawn or at dusk. When venturing into the woods, it is always prudent for hikers to make lots of noise in order to warn these creatures of one’s presence, especially in places where the vegetation is thick, the visibility is poor or near the running water which are their favourite spots in the forests. Other tell-tale signs of their presence include fresh tracks, droppings, spots where scavenging birds congregate and upturned trees or rocks.

What should you do if confronted by a bear? Being intelligent, it will size you up quickly before its next move. Experts warn that to scream or flee could be a fatal mistake as it can easily outrun you. Your best hope is to remain calm, talk to the bear to establish your human identity, to stretch out your arms to make you seem larger and, if possible, pick up a tree branch to impress it that you are a formidable foe. As a last resort, use a bear spray if it charges at you. If these strategies fail and attack occurs, then your last chance for survival is to “play dead” by lying flat on your stomach and protecting your neck and back of your head with both hands. Conversely, if assailed by a predatory bear, you must fight back ferociously, then say a prayer and hope for a miracle to happen.

Armed with these well established guidelines, we embarked on our first Canadian trail with anticipation and palpable nervousness, taking every step cautiously, as if our lives were in imminent peril. We viewed the swaying of trees, bushes and shrubs suspiciously, imagining that there were bears lurking in them. We also talked to each other very loudly, made exaggerated and funny noises to ease the mounting tension within us. Cold sweat began to trickle down my cheek, and I must have been quite a sight to behold! We felt both the joy of relief and, in a perverse sense, intense disappointment that not a single bear, black or grizzly, materialised upon the completion of our two trail adventures in the Canadian wilds.

We comforted ourselves that perhaps the bears were kind and did not wish to terrify us, or may be they did not hear or see us or they were put off by our repugnant human odours and decided to run away from these human intruders. Who knows. All in all, it was a most memorable and exciting experience which none of us is likely to forget.

Our failure to spot a bear notwithstanding, there were some consolation rewards for us. We were thrilled when we came upon several scarred aspen trees, with claw marks indicating bear climbs. Sounds of human voices often send a black bear up the nearest tree. In addition, animal tracks and droppings were also seen, but none of us could tell if they were fresh or stale, and whether they were left  by bears or other animals. We also saw deers, coyotes, beavers, the rare bighorn sheep and bald eagles on our trails. To crown it all, we had a good sighting of several elusive elks from a distance, but they were too engrossed with the delicious new growth willows to have noticed us trespassing into their domain, and this brought our journeys through a small patch of the gigantic Canadian Rockies to a redeeming and eventful close.

Bear attacks on people, albeit rare, are increasing because of greater human intrusions into the bear environments in Canada and elsewhere. Campers and young children are particularly vulnerable to such violence. The following are some of the gruesome examples from different parts of this vast territory. In 1992, a sleeping British tourist was killed by a grizzly bear in the wee hours of the night in his tent. One of the most grisly attacks happened at the precincts of a hot springs park in British Columbia in 1997. Witnessed by dozens of vacationers, an underweight black bear came from the adjoining forest and killed two victims and seriously injured two others before being shot dead by security guards.

According to Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, from 2000 to 2013, no less than 13 people were victims of both black and grizzly bears attacks in Canada alone. In 2005, a jogger was  killed by a grizzly while jogging in Canmore Park, near Banff, in the Canadian Rockies. The jogger managed to climb up a tree but was brought down by the bear and killed, while his two companions were seeking help from the park rangers. The latter shot and killed the bear. In 2011, the remains of an elderly lady in British Columbia were found in the woods close to her house, after she was reported missing. An autopsy confirmed that she died of a bear attack. Five suspected black bears were killed by the park’s rangers and DNA tests confirmed that one of them killed her.

The best months to go are between May and September. Some warm clothing are necessary as the night time can be quite cold.

Lam Pin Foo

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