Encounter with a Grizzly: Fact and Fiction

I could have published this story as another of my adventures: the place was Curator Lake Campground in Jasper National Park, the time was six years ago, and the events occurred almost exactly as described. In fact, I initially wrote it in first person and put it aside because I didn’t have a blog then. When I decided to try my hand at fiction, the grizzly encounter seemed as good a place to start as any. I changed the landscape a bit and added a female character named Mora Lassan. She seemed interesting, but I didn’t know her well; at the time, she was simply a backpacker, much like myself although certainly not me. What follows is Chapter One of my mystery, Frozen in Death.

 

DAY ONE

The grizzly appeared without warning. Mora caught the movement in her peripheral vision as she was rummaging through the food bag that lay open on the ground beside the picnic table. Sensing danger, she angled her head for a better look, her eyes also taking in the food that was spread out for a late lunch. The bear must have come up from the creek that trickled over rocks beside the backcountry campground, and it was digging beneath an aspen sapling that was barely sixty feet away. As yet, it hadn’t seen her.

Having six hundred pounds of uninvited furry guest interrupt one’s meal would send most backpackers into at least a mild panic, but Mora Lassan wasn’t the average backpacker and this was far from being her first bear. Still, she insisted on certain proprieties in such encounters.

You’re a little too close for comfort, big boy. Addressing silent comments to her visitor, she reached automatically for the bear spray on her belt, only to discover that she had left belt and spray in her tent at the far end of the narrow campground, and of course, on the other side of the bear. That certainly got the adrenaline flowing.

“You woolly-pated loon!” she muttered, annoyed with herself.

Uncomfortably aware that she was alone in the campground, being the first to arrive that day, she drew a deep breath as she weighed her limited options. Even if other hikers appeared in the next few minutes, they were just as likely to make a quick exit as help. Grizzlies had that effect on people.

Still bending motionless over the food bag, she scrutinized the powerful muscles that rippled under the lustrous coat as the bear lazily pawed clumps of dirt from the ground, partially uprooting the young tree. Above the sleek cinnamon fur of the body, the hair on the massive, pale-blond hump showed the grizzled tips so typical of the species. This was an adult, almost certainly a male from its size, in prime condition.

Her experience with grizzlies told Mora that she could probably back away safely, but then the opportunistic bear would be drawn to her food, so much richer in calories than its normal, vegetarian diet. And that would be the first step on a march to death. Once a bear found human food at a campground, it tended to return and become first a nuisance and then a menace, eventually forcing the park staff to destroy it.

I can’t let that happen to you, big boy. Not when you’ve caught me sitting here like an idiot tourist, with no way to protect myself or my food. I have to try.

Taking another deep breath, she rose to her feet so that the bear could see what she was. Startled by the motion, the grizzly swung its enormous head towards her. Its sleepy expression and close-set, blinking eyes gave scant evidence of the intelligence and perfectly adequate vision that she knew it possessed. Mora held her ground but was careful not to stare directly at the intruder.

Making an agile about-face, the bear galloped back to the creek, where it reared up on hind legs to a towering height. Even from a distance, Mora could see the lethal claws that extended a full four inches straight out from the toes of its huge forepaws. Rotating its head side to side, the grizzly sniffed the air, trusting nose more than eyes or ears to identify the thing that had disturbed it.

That’s right, big boy. Keep that nose working. You’re totally wild, and you have no idea what I am or what kind of threat I pose. Let’s keep it that way.

Mora was relieved by the animal’s shyness, guessing that it wanted nothing to do with her, but she had to get the bear spray just in case. It wouldn’t take much to trigger an attack—any hint of fear or aggression would do the trick—so as she walked past the aspen and into the tenting section of the campground, she avoided looking toward the creek. I am woman, the supreme predator, she told herself, hoping to project an aura of confidence that the bear would sense. Yeah, sure.

Oh, really well done, Mora! Belt and bear spray were in the tent vestibule, where she had stupidly dropped them in her haste to make a cup of tea and satisfy her hunger. Canister in hand, she headed back toward the picnic table. The grizzly was still in the creek, on all fours now, but alert. When it saw her returning, it turned, bounded up the hill from which the creek descended, and disappeared into the trees.

Heaving a sigh through pursed lips, Mora sank down at the table and reached for her water bottle. I’m really getting too old for this, she reflected, shaking her head. Two minutes later, another backpacker strode across the creek and into the campground.

“You just missed the grizzly!” Mora announced with a satisfied grin. She knew that she would have a great story for other travelers that evening and for her friends at home. Without a doubt, the close encounter would be the highlight of her trip.

She had no idea how wrong she was.

 

If you enjoyed this first taste of the novel, you can find the book on Amazon Kindle for $2.99 USD.

Frozen in Death

After years of blogging about my own adventures in the mountains and wild places of  the earth, I can at last tell the stories of people I wish I had met doing things I wish I could do. I know these people because I created them and allowed them move into my life, which they have enriched for the last three years. They are now ready to leave the protection of my endless revisions and go forth into a world that may love them as I do, find them wanting (the fault being mine, of course), or simply ignore them (the most likely fate for the creations of a self-published author).

Announcing the first in a series of mystery/adventure novels set in the Canadian wilderness:

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FROZEN IN DEATH: A Tale of Murder and Survival in the Canadian Rockies, by Jo Ann Creore

Available on Amazon Kindle for $2.99.

SYNOPSIS:

Mora Lassan, a tough-as-nails mountaineer and retired professor, travels to a remote mountain pass north of Banff to scatter the ashes of her late husband. As she hikes from her high camp to the pass in worsening weather, she encounters two inexperienced climbers who claim that all their camping gear has been stolen and their guide has abandoned them. She takes the young couple to her camp and next morning finds the guide’s body at the bottom of a gorge. On returning to her camp, she discovers that her own gear has been stolen and the two climbers are missing.

Mora is drawn into a web of treachery and murder that has roots years in the past and will involve not only the missing climbers but also all of the people who are camped below the pass. As a savage storm cuts off help from the outside, the killer strikes again, and Mora may be his next victim.

But in the wilderness, nature always has the last word, and survival becomes the only imperative.

Written by an author with an intimate knowledge of the Canadian Rockies, the book evokes the beauty and harsh reality of the mountain environment.

 

One final note: If you buy the book, could you please take the time to post a review on Amazon? I will be very appreciative.

 

 

You don’t need to hurry through beauty

“Are you OK?” a woman asked me with some concern as I transferred my trekking poles to one hand and slowly moved to the final bridge over the Robson RIver.
I had just taken three hours to descend 7 km from Kinney Lake campground to the parking lot and I really didn’t want the trip to end, didn’t want to lose the roar of the river, the sweet trills of winter wrens, the soft scent of the forest.
Berg Lake is always my first backpacking trip of the season, accessible when most high places in the Rockies are still under snow. I go alone because that is the best way to be part of the mountains. Modern lightweight gear has kept pace with my aging; I can still carry a solo pack. Age also gives me perspective; I know that I will not be able to do this forever, so each trip must be savored to the full.
The mountain put on quite a show this time, its snow-caked heights painted against a clear blue sky for five days. I camped at Emperor Falls, did leisurely day hikes from there, spent hours sitting by the river, reading, writing and just being.
                
Fair weather here is as fleeting as the glacier lilies  and orchids that greet the attentive hiker.
I smiled at the woman who was worried about me. “When you are 73,” I said, “you don’t need to hurry through beauty.”

Skyline Trail (for the last time)

2006

Sun kissed the mountains at trail’s end as I slung my pack to the ground.  I had just completed five and a half days solo on the Skyline Trail in Jasper National Park, one of the most beautiful trails in the world and probably my favourite backpacking trip.  I had done it 6 or 7 times before, usually taking 3 or 4 days, but this time I decided to revel in the wild flowers and unbelievable vistas, stopping at 5 campgrounds.  I smiled in quiet satisfaction, looking forward to brunch in Jasper and an easy 3-hour drive home to Edmonton.  How could I know that these would be my last happy moments for many months?  In Jasper I learned by phone that my  beloved husband had fallen, hit his head and was in critical condition. By the time I reached Edmonton he was dead.

2010

A trip so beautiful should not be remembered for a tragedy; the Skyline must be undertaken one more time.  Even though I have done little backpacking in recent years (my joints prefer day hiking out of comfortable mountain lodges), I’m trudging cheerfully along the easy, forested trail from Maligne Lake to Evelyn Creek Campground.   As the visual and auditory cacophony of the city slips away I yield to the sights, sounds and odours of the wilderness. My pack carries well and I love the feeling of striding along, breathing deeply, hearing the wind in the trees, inhaling the soft scent of the conifers.

Not many people stay at Evelyn Creek because it is too close to the trailhead and offers no views, but it combines well with a morning drive from Edmonton.

I enjoy a solitary night (if one can be truly alone amidst swarms of Canadian mosquitoes), and get an early start next morning.

From Evelyn Creek the trail switchbacks steadily, reaching a viewpoint toward Maligne Lake not far from Little Shovel Campground, a scant 3 km along.  This is a much more scenic place to camp and is fairly crowded with campers eating breakfast, swatting mosquitoes and cursing.  I haven’t seen the pests so obnoxious for many years. I pause for a snack, then continue on to Little Shovel Pass.

Just beyond the campground the trees open up; from here until the final descent to Jasper the trail will be at or above the tree line, providing uninterrupted views of mountains, lakes and meadows.

Below the pass hoary marmots dash about, one even following me for a while.  The ground is carpeted in ragwort and arnica, with a patch of blue forget-me-nots just before the summit.

                                 

I sit down to enjoy lunch, happy for a stiff breeze that banishes the bugs.  Below me the great meadow of the Snowbowl stretches for kilometres toward the distant hump of Big Shovel Pass.

I descend steeply to the valley, cross a creek and have only a short distance to Snowbowl Campground.  As usual, I’m the first camper to arrive; my practice is to leave early and stop early, both to ease my feet and get first choice of tent sites.  This campground has little to recommend it beyond glorious views.  The tent sites are spread helter-skelter up and down a slope, in the trees, with confusing trails, no close water source in mid-summer, and a toilet that becomes more difficult to find each year.  Still, its location makes it the preferred first night stop of many hikers.

The night sky lights up with sheet lightening for several hours.  Morning dawns with a red sun and thick haze, sure sign of a wildfire somewhere.  I pack up and leave before most people have started breakfast, knowing that they will probably pass me before I reach Big Shovel Pass.  I’m surprised by how dry the meadow is; on my last time through the flowers were so thick they formed a solid carpet.  Today the lack of rain has left large patches of turf bare.  The trail has been excellent so far, but as it climbs toward the pass it crosses wet ground and splits into multiple braids.  It has been like this for years, and I always wonder why Parks doesn’t build a proper trail to protect the vegetation.

Big Shovel Pass marks a sharp change in the landscape – green meadows on one side, barren scree slopes punctuated by isolated clumps of flowers on the other.

                      

The trail descends gently, with a clear view of the Notch and the seemingly vertical climb leading to it.  People who camped at Snowbowl last night will continue over the Notch today to Tekarra Campground, all except me.  A steep descent just before Curator Lake leads to a small campground by a creek and waterfall.

It’s only 7 km from Snowbowl, but I like to stop here.

It doesn’t take long to set up my tent, and I head to the food area for second lunch, enjoying the solitude before the afternoon crowd arrives from Little Shovel and Maligne Lake.  I’m sitting at a table, all my food spread out around me, when a young grizzly bounces up from the creek and noses at something barely 30 metres away. He’s unaware of my presence until he turns his head and freezes.  I reach for my bear spray only to realize that I left it by the tent, which is some distance on the other side of the grizzly.  I stand up quietly, so that the bear can see what I am; he runs back to the creek and rears up on his hind feet, head moving from side to side as he tries to get my scent.  Dilemma:  a trail behind me leads toward an outfitters cabin, but if I retreat the bear is going to find my food, become a problem bear and probably end up being shot, all because of my carelessness.  Or I can try to get my bear spray and defend both the food and the bear’s future.  If this were a front country campground with bears that are habituated to people, I would not have hesitated to retreat.  But this animal is wild, he doesn’t know what I am, and he is showing no signs of aggression – just wary curiosity.   I move as calmly and confidently as I can toward my tent, retrieve the bear spray and head back to the table.  The grizzly is still by the creek. When he sees me returning he turns, slowly ambles up the waterfall and disappears.  I sit down at the table and start to shake.  Five minutes later another backpacker trots into camp.  “You just missed the grizzly!” I proclaim.

Morning leaves no doubt about wildfires as smokes hangs heavy in the air; there will be no view from the skyline today.  With 12 km to go and lots of elevation change, I pack up and leave by 0800.  The climb back to the main trail is merely a warm-up for the slog to come.  The Notch (a narrow, corniced break between peaks) is billed as the highest maintained trail in Jasper National Park, but any sign of maintenance belongs to the distant past.

All is well as you round the  milky blue waters of Curator Lake, but then you stumble through boulders, above scree slopes, over rocks, ever steeper until the trail either splits mysteriously or disappears altogether.  As I near the top my way is blocked by snow, too steep and hard to climb without crampons and ice axe.  I scrabble up loose gravel over ice, feet churning to make the slightest headway, to reach a point where snow meets cliff and allows passage.  These are the worst conditions I have ever experienced here.

Slowly putting one foot ahead of the other with no stopping has brought me to the top before anyone else.  The view (what there is of it) can wait; I throw down my pack, sit and mutter, “Thank God I will never have to do that again!”  Twenty minutes later other hikers start to arrive.

The next few kilometres form the skyline portion of the trail as it follows the ridge.  On a clear day one can see Mt Robson, some 70 km distant.  Today I can barely make out the tarns not far below, while the dark form of the Watchtower broods in the mist like some witch’s castle.

Alpine poppies and moss campion provide the only colour.  The trail is good, however, and mostly level.  I pause for lunch before starting the long switchbacks down Amber Mountain.

By the time I reach the valley my feet and knees are trashed, but at my slow pace I’m still two hours from Tekarra Campground, which I find overflowing with tents, as usual.  Parks Canada supposedly enforces a quota on the trail, but it never seems to work as it is should.  I have to share a tent site and snores with some friends I met at Curator.

The final day begins with a gentle climb through open trees and flowered meadows.  It’s only a short hike to the Signal Mountain fire road.  There’s a dismal campground at the junction where I had thought of staying, but I decide that my feet can last all the way to the trailhead.  Eight kilometres, 800 metres down, in the trees with no views and lots of black bear poop.  A dreary end to a beautiful trail, but I am happy with my journey and eager to enjoy a good hotel in Jasper, a hot shower and a prime rib dinner.  I know that I will do parts of the Skyline from time to time, but I will probably never traverse the entire route again.  Or will I?  After all, I’m only 75.