Let’s Talk About Bears: Banff National Park

Our first hike in the Canadian Rockies was to Egypt Lake near Sunshine Village Ski Area.  At Healy Creek camp on the last morning of our three-day journey, we met three young Banff residents who were coming in while we were headed out.  As hikers do, they asked us how our trip was, and we told them the scenery had been great, but some of our fellow campers at Egypt Lake had been utterly negligent about bear safety.  They were as horrified as we had been when we told them that we witnessed a group of kids eating in their campsite.

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Hiking Healy Pass to Egypt Lake – Banff National Park

The hikers then told us that they had just heard that Bear 148 was currently located in the Sunshine Village Ski area. “They dropped her off in Yoho, but she came right back to Sunshine,” the man claimed. We had heard of Bear 148 before.  She apparently had grown a little too accustomed to being around humans, having had chased a few humans and even strolled onto a rugby field full of adolescents.  We were uneasy about the presence of such a conditioned griz, but they told us not to worry as we at least didn’t have a dog.  Bear 148 has a particular aversion to dogs.  They told us also about the legend they called “The Master Bear”, also known as “The Boss”. The Boss had been seen on the side of the road eating a black bear.  He is the biggest bear in the park, and has fathered many of the bears in the Canadian Rockies. Our hike out was a bit scary that day, what with the thought of the bear-eating bear and the presences of Bear 148. As always, we practiced bear safety measures, and made it out without a sighting.

Though it would be tremendous to see a brown bear, we have no desire to. Certainly, our own personal safety is a concern. But the truth is that humans are much more of a threat to bears than bears are to humans. In the United States in particular, if a bear is food conditioned or shows any interest in humans, the bear is viewed as a threat and is killed. Canada seems to give bears more of a chance, which is why Bear 148 still roams. Sadly, her fate is questionable too.

Why should we care that “bad” bears get killed?  Don’t we value human lives over bears? My opinion is that it is simply not fair. No bear is really “bad”. One ranger described grizzlies as “giant raccoons”: all they want is to live, to eat, and to be left alone. Bears are threatened because of proximity to humans and habitat loss. In the lower 48, grizzly bears have been removed from 98% of their original range. Shouldn’t we respect bears in the places they are still present? Not taking basic bear precautions is how bears become food conditioned. Food conditioned bears are a threat to humans, and therefore to themselves. This is why practicing bear safety is of extreme importance. Not only are you protecting yourself, you are protecting a magnificent creature.

Though we didn’t see any bears on our Egypt Lake hike, we did see bear scat, and we always called out while hiking to avoid surprising any bears.  Surprising a bear is one of the likeliest ways to get attacked. We started our hike on an old fire road which departed from Sunshine Village. The first half of the hike was uphill, and though we were out of breath by the time we reached the top, the view of the pass was spectacular. In the foreground, wildflowers moved chaotically in the wind, seeming almost alive. These stretched on across an open meadow where it seemed likely we might spot a bear, moose, or elk in the distance. In the middle ground rested a lake of brilliant navy, and behind it, a great mountain ridge rose high above the grassy shore. In the background beyond the mountain ridge, endless peaks stretched on along the horizon line.

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Healy Pass – Banff National Park

From that point, the rest of the hike to Egypt Lake was downhill. Before long, we could see the dazzling blue of Egypt Lake in the distance, and above it, yet another sparkling glacial lake. It seemed almost magical that one lake, so near the other, should sit so high above its neighbor; as if floating.

Upon reaching the campground, we were shocked at the size of it. Beyond the fifteen campsites, there was also a cabin which slept twelve. We probably shouldn’t have been surprised that, in such a large group, a few were irresponsible when it came to bear safety and respect. Despite a pleasant dinner conversation with two people from Calgary, we were eager to get away from this populated camp, as we planned to explore the area around Egypt Lake the next day.

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Egypt Lake Campground – Banff National Park

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Egypt Lake – Banff National Park

Much to my dismay, Stephanie slept in quite late, so I spent the morning photographing Egypt Lake and attempting some yoga. With the late start that day, we didn’t make it to the next pass as we had planned, and instead explored Scarab and Mummy Lakes. Both were very beautiful. Reaching Mummy Lake required navigating through massive rock piles for about half a kilometer. Upon reaching the lake, the view was so grand that I could not capture it with my lense. We stood at the center of the long side of an oblong lake. Across from us rose a tall mountain. From the slope upon which we stood, the lake was nestled below us. In front of it, at least 10 feet of snow was piled high. To the left, distant peaks could be seen through the valley.

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Mummy Lake – Banff National Park

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Micro-pedals for Oobee – Mummy Lake

After two nights at Egypt Lake, we were to spend the final night at Healy Creek, back the way we had come in. Before heading to Healy, we ventured back uphill, past Egypt and Mummy Lakes, to Whistling Pass. The view from above the pass was phenomenal. We then hiked down to explore the lake. Though it was pretty, we wished we hadn’t hiked down; the lake was further away than it had seemed from above, and some trail sections were very steep.

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Whistling Pass – Banff National Park

We then had to backtrack back up to the view of the pass, then all the way back down to Egypt Lake. From there, Healy Creek campsite was an additional six kilometers. This final chunk turned out to be slightly horrible. I hadn’t remembered going downhill for so long on our initial hike to Egypt Lake. We were now on the uphill that never ended—seemingly. Though never terribly steep, there was no refuge from the constant incline. When at last we reached the overlook of the navy lake, we could not have been happier. The rest of the jaunt to Healy Creek was easy, and we had a great night’s rest.

Our next hike was in Kootenay National Park, which I will discuss in a later blog. We then headed up to Lake Louise, where we enjoyed dinner and cocktails at a pizza place. The following day, we were to start the Skoki Loop in Banff. Before beginning, as we always do, we dropped in to speak with a ranger about the trail conditions. He told us the only concern was that there had been grizzly sightings in the area! This was concerning, but we weren’t about to cancel this hike which we had reserved six months earlier.

The hike up to Baker Lake started along the Skoki ski hill’s road. Eventually, it led to a trail, which brought us up to Halfway Hut, built by the Ski Club of the Canadian Rockies in 1931. In 1933, four skiers toting packs of rum were killed in an avalanche on their way to the hut. Legend has it that their ghosts still return to Halfway Hut on winter nights, to drink rum and play poker through the night.

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Halfway Hut – Banff National Park

At Halfway Hut, we met a couple who ended up being our pals for the rest of the trip. They were from Toronto and were travelling across Canada via train. Though they were avid travelers, they were in fact first-time backpackers. It was fun to befriend people with interests quite different from our own, and to pass on our backcountry knowledge.

On our way up, we ran into a group of ladies who had seen a large grizzly on their way down! They said that the griz didn’t seem to mind them, and they made a big half-circle around him. We never ended up seeing the grizzly, which was bittersweet. The rest of the hike to Baker Lake was very colorful: purple mountains, bright blue lakes, and numerous wildflowers.

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Ptarmigan Lake – Banff National Park

Baker Lake was also a very scenic campsite. Where the lake transitioned into a creek, land nesses protruded from the bank, creating a picturesque composition of land, water, and mountain. Stephanie rock-hopped over to the strips of land while I took photographs from the safety of the shore.

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Baker Lake – Banff National Park

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Baker Lake – Banff National Park

Upon further exploration, we found a waterfall along the creek that ran from Baker Lake.

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Waterfall near Baker Lake – Banff National Park

After a noisy night (Baker Lake is a large campsite with all tent pads grouped together, and some people were loud into the night), we woke up groggily and ate breakfast quickly in the mosquito-infested food area. We then hiked the Skoki loop counter-clockwise, stopping at Skoki Lodge for High Tea.

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Skoki Lodge – Banff National Park

High Tea was expensive, but since it was something neither of us had ever experienced, we thought it worth the cost. It started at 2:00 and included a personal teapot of our choice and all-you-can-eat hors d’oeuvres such as meats, cheeses, muffins, and guacamole. The lodge itself was very cute, and was the first backcountry ski lodge in Canada.

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The Spread – High Tea – Skoki Lodge

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High Tea – Skoki Lodge

After high tea, we finished the loop. Reaching Deception Pass was the highlight, with great views of Skoki Lakes as well as the colorful scenery we had seen on the way in.

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Deception Pass – Banff National Park

 

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Skoki Lakes – Banff National Park

We then returned to Baker Lake for one more noisy night of camping.  The hike out in the morning went pretty quickly. We hiked down with the boys from Toronto, and ended up giving them a lift to Lake Louise after hiking out. Squeezing two extra packs and two extra adults into our already crowded FunBus was not easy, and it wasn’t a very comfortable ride for anyone (except for me, as I was driving). Fortunately, it was only a ten-minute drive to Lake Louise.

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On the Hike Out – Banff National Park

Banff was not our favorite park in the Canadian Rockies as the campsites are a little too big, and some of the people in them are a little too rude. But the scenery was fantastic, and it is awesome that many bears call the wilder parts of this place home. It was upsetting to see some people disregarding bear-safety measures.  I would think that fear for one’s own safety would be motivating enough for people to implement such precautions, but apparently not. What angers me is the fact that they are putting other people and, most of all, the bears themselves in danger. Please, if you are ever in bear country, do some thorough research on what measures you can take to avoid bear encounters. Storing food properly and avoiding surprise encounters go a long way in protecting what few bears remain in parks.

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Food-hanging Cables at Baker Lake – Banff National Park

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