“Do you guys like black bears?”
Before I could nod my head vigorously, L (who was way smarter than me) asked the more obvious question.
“Did you see one now?
This time it was their time to nod vigorously. Well, nodding vigorously was an understatement. The girl was jumping about in her expensive well worn shoes, her pony tail wagging with the same abandon as she thrust her hands into her jacket and tittered in nervous laughter. The guy was more sedate, his eyes excited but not worried, his manner quiet if not exactly calm.
But it was obvious what had happened.
“You saw a bear?” We had to confirm again.
“Yeah…and we ran!” The girl was stating the obvious. They had obviously jogged back, and they were in quite a hurry to leave the area. (sensibly)
“We hadn’t seen it, and then suddenly it was right there! “The girl clarified again.
“Well, I would think so. I mean, why would anybody see a bear, and then just walk right across the path – to say hello?.” No, I didn’t say that aloud, but I have to confess that I am not very charitable in my thoughts, when I am shit scared.
“I think you should go back. We are.” And they left, effectively ending the conversation.
They were very sensible. Every brochure that we had browsed, every article that we had read on the internet mentioned that the sensible thing to do when you know that a bear is in the vicinity is to leave the area. Immediately. But then my friends are not really the sensible kinds. I was of course asked for my valuable opinion, and I immediately said that considering I was newly married, I did not really fancy being mauled by a grizzly before the hubby had a chance to truly appreciate my beauty. Considering that they don’t have too much of an opinion about my physical attributes, this argument did not really work very well. So I waited patiently as they conversed in whispers as if the bear could hear their argument, and would come across and contribute to the conversation. But…in the end, they decided to go back.
Well, this is not where the story ends. And, ummm, this is not exactly how the story started. And I really should have a more structured thought process. So let me start at the beginning.
So we had started our trek from the parking lot of the Valley of Five Lakes. The Valley of Five Lakes is one of the more popular hikes in Jasper National Park. It’s considered to be an easy hike, so much so that you can view families with kids taking up the hike and complete it within 4 hours. Easy for them maybe, not for me. But more on that later. The trail route has two options – a shorter one and a longer one, and I have read a lot of reviews with contradicting information on the exact length of the trails (trail 9a-9b). Our ambition was of course to go along the one with the best views of the five lakes.
The first section of the trail goes through a beautiful but spooky forest with pine trees. We were happy. Even though the parking lot had a few cars, we seemed to be the only people on the trail. It was beautiful, calm, and… spooky. Now might be a good place to tell you Jasper National park is known to have more than 200 bears,and it’s not unheard of for travelers to run into these big cute growly creatures in the middle of a nice pleasant hike. In fact, almost every brochure delights you with stories of bear sightings, and every local mentions the statistics with alarming pride. Our guide on the wildlife tour the day before, had mentioned that even though there were so many sightings, there had been only two fatalities so far. And because I didn’t want to be the third one, I peered into the trees looking for bears sitting on tree tops munching leaves for high tea, and when that did not work very well, inspected the trail path for bear droppings. As ignorant as I was about bear droppings, I had researched quite a bit about bear poop – the size, the color, the shape. (Uggh, I know. But if you think I was yuk, google it and look at the amount of information on the subject) To be fair to the internet, and to me, you have to realize that looking at bear poop is one way of knowing whether bears are in the vicinity. To come back to hike, there was poop on the trail, but even with my detailed analysis, we didn’t know if it was a bear, a dog, an elk, or some other wildlife. Sigh!
We continued on our way, armed with sticks that were lying around in the woods. And no, before you ask, we didn’t expect to fight a bear with a stick; the idea was to bang the sticks against trees, making a lot of noise, so that we don’t surprise any bear who is having a quiet moment of solitude. Bears (as other wild animals) usually don’t attack human beings, unless they are surprised or attacked by human beings. After the first kilometer, the woods cleared into a beautiful expanse with a small wooden bridge across the Wabasso Creek. It was breathtaking – the woods at our back, mountain views around, a vibrant beautiful expanse of green near the creek, and a path moving up to the woods beyond. We caught our breath, both with the exertion as well as the sheer beauty of the place.
After taking a few pictures, we continued up towards the woods and the lakes. We now met people on the trail, smiled our hellos, and went up and down the paths. The bright sun and the beautiful blue of the sky took a breather as the clouds came up and drizzled over us. It was cold…and nice. I am allergic to heat, and trekking in warm weather is not my favorite activity. So yes, I loved the feeling of huffing and puffing up the slopes as a cool breeze ran through the woods. And then we arrived at the first lake. And it was spectacular.
We had been in Canada for quite a few days now, and we should have been used to the sheer variety of water bodies they have, but the fact is that we weren’t. We were awed. The sun was not really out, but in spite of that, the color of the water was just unbelievable. A beautiful, pristine blue. Imagine this – pine trees on undulating slopes which then open into a clearing with a beautiful blue green placid lake with snow-capped mountains in the background. As I said, it was beautiful. We perched ourselves on the stones at the edge of the water and pondered on the possibility of packing a piece of this beauty and taking it home.
After a while, we were back on the trail. The trail was now getting a bit steep, and in some places, narrow and dangerous. I was getting tired, and L was getting a bit scared with the narrow paths, especially with people coming in the opposite direction. And that’s of course when we met the couple with the bear story.
Standing on a narrow path overlooking a small cliff, hearing about a bear that could be just a few minutes away was definitely not comforting. To their credit, my friends initially did walk back with the intention of abandoning the hike. As we reached the first lake, we told other hikers about the bear story as well. As much as I wanted to bound over to the parking lot, we noticed that some of the other hikers didn’t share the same feelings. That’s when a German couple approached us, and suggested that we all walk together, and that there was safety in numbers. As much as I hated to admit it, that made sense, and R was of course thrilled that we didn’t have to abandon the hike.
So we walked with the German couple and chatted with them, of course keeping an eye out for the elusive bear. It was a really nice hike – the woods, the mountains, the sound of water in nearby streams, the narrow paths overlooking beautiful vistas, and the lakes of course. We passed the second lake and the third lake and duly admired them with heartfelt sincerity. And then one of our companions stopped us, and pointed at one of the hills ahead. And there it was – just above the fourth lake and the narrow path above it, ambling about in leisure – was a big black bear . What was more chilling was to see a couple with a dog come along the path, not knowing that a bear was right above him. We could only watch in silence – they were too far away for us to yell out, or to run towards them. After a while the couple disappeared from the path, and the bear ambled into the woods above. All was okay.
Now the question was whether we should continue on the same path. We would have to go on the same path, and it was a real possibility that we could run into the bear, if it decided to do a downwards trek. But we had covered three fourth of the hike, and it just did not make sense to return without seeing the remaining lakes. Besides, bears never attack unless provoked. At least, that’s how I comforted myself, and trudged behind the others. We came to the lake and gaped at the beautiful colors, but we couldn’t linger. For one, it had started raining, two – it was a very narrow ledge-like path above the lake, and last but not the least – there was a bear above us! I changed my trudging to jogging, as I struggled to keep up to the long strides of the Germans.
We survived. We crossed the long ledge above the lake, and moved back to the woods. And so the hike continued. By now, my fear levels had receded, and exhaustion levels had increased. I was back to trudging, and watching R and L making friends with the German couple. As the distances between us increased, I banged my stick against the trees, and concentrated on enjoying the hike. It wasn’t very difficult. As exhausted I was, it was a beautiful day, and the scenery gorgeous. But more than that, the sheer thrill and joy of seeing wildlife in the jungle is something I can’t describe. The lakes were spectacular. But looking at that bear – far, far away walking on a hill just above a spectacular lake – that was awesome.
I learnt two things on the Valley of Five Lakes hike. Scratch that, three things. One – hiking on alpine mountains will always be my favorite activity; two – you have to be super-fit to keep up to the long strides of Germans; and three – seeing wildlife in the wild – there’s no better thrill than that!