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.

And now for something completely different…

I still have a lot more animal photos to share from my trip to Botswana. But one can’t be serious all the time. The place:  Livingstone, Zambia. The time: last month. The occasion: Another crazy escapade in a long life that’s been full of them.

Victoria Falls

Victoria Falls

Victoria Falls and the bridge between Zambia and Zimbabway

Victoria Falls and the bridge between Zambia and Zimbabwe

The Bridge

The Bridge over the mighty Zambezi River

Now you get the idea.

Now you get the idea.

Yes, that's me.

Yes, that’s me.

Forgive the quality. These are stills from a point and shoot video.

Forgive the quality. These are stills from a point and shoot video.

Still flying

Still flying

It's a long way down.

It’s a long way down.

But eventually you reach the end of the rope.

But eventually you reach the end of the rope.

And once you get back up, it's high fives all around.

And when you get back up, it’s high fives all around.

 

Was it scary, exciting, lots of fun, unpleasant?

None of the above. I had sometimes wondered what it would be like to do a bungee jump, and I decided that there would never be a better place to find out than at Victoria Falls. Having satisfied my curiosity, I see no purpose in repeating the experience.

Of course, people ask me, “What if the rope breaks?” When you’re 77, I think the only reasonable answer is, “So?”

The older I get, the more I want to try new things.

One Month in Geologic Time – Part Five: Shadow Lake

I have found just about everything I sought in the mountains this month; amid the breathtaking panoramas, green vales, flowering meadows, quiet lakes and starlit nights I have nourished my soul with beauty and regained the perspective I lose in the city.  I don’t know much about geology (it doesn’t yield easily to amateur study), but the mountains, thrust up millions of years ago and worn down by erosion and glaciers, tell me how short my life really is.  The age of the rock making up the mountains is even more mind boggling.  Now I need reassurance, some connection to friendlier processes than geologic time.

Shadow Lake and Mt Ball

There are scenic ways to get to Shadow Lake, but they involve significant elevation gain and loss.  Then there is Red Earth Creek, an easy and utterly boring route that used to be a fire road.  Not wishing to spend ten hours on the trail at my pace, I opt for the road.  During five hours of hiking the most interesting thing I see is a spruce grouse, a bird so stupid you almost have to kick it to get it to move.

Spruce grouse on Red Earth Creek trail

Shadow Lake Lodge is a set of cabins beside a large meadow, about a kilometre from the lake.  It’s comfortable, modern, serves the excellent food one expects in a backcountry lodge and has the best beds I have ever slept in.

My cabin at Shadow Lake Lodge

Shadow Lake Lodge

Morning sun turns the mountains to burnished gold.

Sunrise

Gradually the meadow comes to life; it’s being taken over by orange hawkweed.

Meadow at the lodge

In the full light of day Mt Ball presides over all.

Mt Ball from the lodge meadow

I decide to spend the day at Gibbon Pass, a wonderland of larches and wildflowers which is reached by a steep ascent of 500 metres from the lodge.  Lyell’s larches, found only near the tree line, are my favourite trees.  They are deciduous conifers with silky green needles that turn a brilliant gold before they are shed in the fall.  Unlike firs and spruce, larches have soft, pliable branches; if you’re going to ski into a tree, make sure it’s a larch.

Gibbon Pass with larches and wildflowers

Near the summit cairn I find a delightful pond that has been invaded by cotton grass.  I could continue wandering; one can ascend Copper Mountain from the pass or visit one of  the Twin Lakes, but I really did not come to Shadow Lake for the scenery. I’m happy this day to lounge in the sun and reflect on all that I have seen and done in the preceding weeks.

Cotton grass rules!

Summit of Gibbon Pass

On my second day I head for the lake but spend most of my time on the trail.  There is no better place to observe the endless cycle of life and death than on the forest floor.  Plants take root, grow, die, decay and give life to insects, birds, animals and other plants all in a confined space and in a way that doesn’t offend the senses.  The same cycle plays out when a hawk kills a pica to feed its young, but the process is messy, hard to observe, and I tend to sympathize with the pica.  I don’t have that problem with a dead tree.

There are wonderful colours, shapes and life forms colonizing the forest floor.  I don’t know the names of most of them, but they are old friends.  Here are a few of my favourites:

I call it “Peeling Paint Lichen”

Some kind of cup lichen

An old piece of wood becomes a garden

Perfect habitat for a fungus

Finally, a fallen tree becomes a nurse log, where baby sub-alpine fir trees and dwarf dogwood take root, and lichens, mosses, fungi and countless insects thrive.

Nurse log

Here on the forest floor I see how lifeforms co-opt their atoms, organizing them into a living system for a while, only to give them back to nourish new life.  It’s a cycle that requires only years or centuries to complete, rather than geologic ages.  I know that I am part of a similar process and I am at peace with that.  I’m ready to return to the city.

Evening at Shadow Lake means wine, good food and warm light.

Evening at Shadow Lake Lodge

Time to relax

The forecast for tomorrow is snow and a cold, wet hike back to the trailhead.  But tonight there is only the moon and memories of a perfect month.

Night at Shadow Lake

One Month in Geologic Time – Part Four: Skoki

There’s no getting around it: I’ll have to work to reach my next lodge.  Unless you are British royalty (Will and Kate flew in by chopper) or want to hire a horse, the only access to Skoki Lodge is on foot.  Fortunately it is one of the most beautiful hikes in the Rockies.  From the Lake Louise ski area the trail winds 11 km through forest and meadows, over two passes and beside a large alpine lake.

The first part of the trail is gently rolling, affording fine views of Mt Temple, the highest peak in the region.  An easy climb through an impressive boulder field brings one to Boulder Pass.

Boulder Pass and Mt Temple, with a Lake Louise ski trail in right background.

Instead of descending on the other side of the pass, you find yourself at Ptarmigan Lake.

Ptarmigan Lake

This is not the landscape of the Purcells (see previous posts).  The Canadian Rockies are not painted in large swaths; they don’t overwhelm even though they are higher than the ranges to the west.  Rather they invite you to embrace them, to relax, to become one with them.

Ptarmigan Lake with Baker Lake in background

The trail skirts the lake, passing larch trees and stands of ragwort, valerian, arnica and anemone seed heads.  I’ve seen many ptarmigan here, but today I encounter only this hoary marmot, grazing peacefully, not at all alarmed by my presence.

Hoary marmot by Ptarmigan Lake

The next section requires some effort as the trail climbs steeply 134 m to Deception Pass.  When approached from Ptarmigan Lake there’s no deception in Deception Pass, but from the other side you keep thinking you have reached the top only to find another rise ahead.  If the wind is not too violent, this is a good place to pause and enjoy the view.

Redoubt Peak and Ptarmigan Lake from Deception Pass

The pass seems barren, yet somehow a few flowers thrive.  I have seldom seen such beautiful scorpion weed.

Scorpion weed

As I turn to start down toward Skoki, I hear the crunch of hooves on the path behind and step aside to let the horses pass.  In winter the lodge is supplied by snowmobile, in summer by horses and in early season when snow still clogs the high country, by helicopter.

Supply train bound for Skoki

The alpine terrain of the pass soon yields to a sub-alpine wonderland, very different from the landscape I have just left.  Trees, paternoster lakes and lush growth await.

The Skoki Lakes, each one feeding the one below.

After a steady descent I arrive at the lodge, nestled among conifers, deep in the valley.

Skoki Lodge

In terms of comfort, Skoki is about as far as you can get from the luxury of Canadian Mountain Holidays.  With no running water, almost no electricity, tiny rooms with small windows that let in very little light and an upstairs corridor that loudly proclaims the exit of every person seeking the outhouse during the night, Skoki is not about amenities (the only accommodations lower on the amenities scale are Alpine Club of Canada huts and backpacking tents).  Skoki is about history and location.  Built in the 1930s as a destination for skiers disembarking at the Lake Louise train station, it is part of the very fabric of Banff National Park.  Its logs were hewn in the valley and its walls have heard every tale that mountain men and women could tell of storms, avalanches, wildlife, tragedy and heroic deeds. Because it is a national historic monument, permission for upgrades is given rarely and grudgingly.

What the lodge lacks in facilities it more than makes up for with excellent, friendly staff, fine cooking and great hiking. Dining by candlelight and oil lamps one can almost forget that the modern world exists.

Dining by candlelight

Evening at Skoki

On previous backpacking trips to the valley I have done all of the longer hikes in the area.  This time I decide to take it easy and enjoy the flowers.  I want to seek out some that grow not in vast stands but individually, often hiding from their pushy neighbours.  Because there is a juvenile grizzly hanging about the lodge, too busy eating to pay attention to humans, I borrow a bear banger from the staff and exercise caution.

Yellow columbine with some western red in its DNA

Orange false dandelion

One flowered wintergreen – underside

One flowered wintergreen – top side

Fringed grass of Parnassus

Stonecrop

Fireweed and the waterfall from the lower Skoki Lake

After two relaxing days I retrace my steps to Lake Louise.  It’s hard to believe that my month in the mountains is almost over, but there is still one more lodge to visit.

One Month in Geologic Time – Part Three: Heli-hiking in the Bugaboos

The Bugaboos

Technically the Bugaboos are only a small part of the Purcell Mountains (see previous post).  These granite intrusions into an otherwise sedimentary range are so striking, however, thrusting through massive glaciers, the towers standing in magnificent isolation, that they fully merit their own designation.  World famous among rock climbers, the area has also become a hub for heli-skiing, thanks to Canadian Mountain Holidays and their Bugaboo Lodge in the valley.  Today, just about any area reachable by helicopter from the lodge borrows the name Bugaboos.

One word, uttered repeatedly by everyone in my group, sums up the Bugaboos: Wow!  It was the first thing we said on exiting the helicopter, and our vocabulary didn’t improve as the day progressed.  Language just can’t cope with the scenery.

Inhabiting the landscape

The sheer scale of these mountains is overwhelming.

Immersed in geologic time

I don’t remember what we did on any given day.  I know we hiked up moraines, walked on ridges and through meadows, played in the snow, found hidden lakes and waterfalls, marvelled at wildflowers.  A benevolent Nature ensured that mountain storms never troubled the blue skies.  From on high we felt our eyes drawn to endless rows of distant peaks even as beauty closer at hand vied for our attention.

A view that stretches forever

The grace and vibrancy of alpine trees belies their desperate struggle for existence in this harsh land.

Trees and rock

Not all terrain is so rugged.  Meadows of wildflowers and gentle streams welcome the hiker, although the broad expanse of summits always looms in the distance.

Alpine meadow

I love wildflowers.  My computer contains hundreds of flower photos, and still I take more because each bloom I encounter seems incredibly fresh and new.  Some, like the paintbrush, are simply too colourful to pass by.  Others, like the monkey flower, are rare in the Rockies, where I usually hike, although fairly common in the Purcells and other Columbia mountains.

Monkey flower

Paintbrush

Paintbrush

Talc Lake

We tarried by myriad lakes and lunched in high places.

Lunch with a view

Got silly in the snow and even tried some rock climbing.

Not as hard as it looks

Slip sliding away

At day’s end, no matter where we were, the helicopter could aways find a place nearby to land.

Our chariot

Reluctantly I said goodbye to these magnificent mountains.  I had spent six days heli-hiking in the Purcells; it was time to move on to my next adventure.

Bugaboos in afternoon light

One Month in Geologic Time – Part Two: Heli-hiking in the Purcells

Heli-hiking?  Me?  The woman who boasted for decades that she would never use mechanical assistance to reach a mountain top?  I guess old age teaches humility.  Not only did I go heli-hiking for six days, I loved it.

Not surprisingly, heli-hiking tends to the luxury side of wilderness experiences.  It’s certainly not as off-the-charts expensive as heli-skiing, but Canadian Mountain Holidays uses the same lodges and provides the same high standards in selecting the guides, chefs and other staff.

View from the lodge

Bobbie Burns Lodge

In this part of British Columbia the undergrowth in the forest is pretty thick and there are few trails, but if you put your mind to it you can reach the hilltops after a few hours of slogging.  I found that I didn’t object at all to being deposited above the tree line shortly after 0900 each morning by our handy helicopter.

One of many helicopter landing sites.

Using a helicopter doesn’t mean that you don’t do strenuous hiking: you just start higher.

We hiked up for the view

So many wildflowers compete for growing room in the meadows that one must stick to the narrow paths to avoid crushing them.

Alpine meadow in full summer array

Other days we climbed higher beside massive glaciers.

Guide Jody

Lunch by a lake

Lunch with a view

Lunch was always in a scenic spot.  There were too many lakes, too many mountains, too many glaciers to remember the names.  I walked, gazed in awe, overwhelmed by the beauty of this area.

Mountain, lake and reflections

Out of the rocks, a lone flower triumphs and blooms.

Alpine Chinese Lantern

In other places the flowers run rampant.

River Beauty and Pearly Everlasting

Sometimes you just want to sit and enjoy.

Jody surrounded

I didn’t do all of the activities that were offered; a Via Ferrata (metal rungs driven into vertical rock to allow safe climbing) seemed too strenuous to be enjoyable.  But I did finish my three days at Bobbie Burns with a ride on their zip lines.

I ride the zip line

Next morning I would hike toward the second lodge of my week: Bugaboo.

One Month in Geologic Time Part One: Mistaya Lodge

I had to get out of the city.  For the last six months almost everything I had seen, heard, smelled or touched was made by humans or altered or managed by us.   I needed to reconnect with the planet, to regain perspective on my existence.  What better way than to immerse myself in geologic time?  I headed for the nearest mountains, in this case the Canadian Rockies, Purcells and Bugaboos.

In a tiny high valley just west of the Continental Divide lies Mistaya Lodge.

Mistaya Lodge

Accessible mainly by helicopter, this little piece of paradise is one of my favourite places.

Arrival and departure by helicopter

I try to come here at least once a year, and as soon as I arrive I can feel the noise and stench of the city fade from memory.  It takes a little longer to let go of my defences and open my eyes to every sight, my ears to every sound, my nose to the scent of the conifers.  One can spend hours simply enjoying the view from the lodge or walking around the lake.

View from the lodge

Reflections in the lake

Juvenile gull that spent a few weeks on the lake

Of course, in summer I come for the hiking.  Being slow and having bad knees, I usually hike alone.  In solitude I can stop to marvel at the beauty of a single flower, pause to track a bird that keeps disappearing in the branches, sit and watch a ptarmigan fuss over her chicks, or wait for the ground squirrels to get over their alarm at my presence and return to stuffing their cheeks ridiculously full of grass to carry back to their burrows.

Trails lead through forests and meadows, sooner or later turning into more or less well-marked routes or free wandering.  In this circular valley one cannot get lost, but the easiest way to one’s destination is not always clear.  At one point during the week I was frustrated by impenetrable brush and resorted to following a series of grizzly bear diggings (I correctly assumed that bruin was a better route-finder than I was).

There are flowering meadows.

Return from Moon Dark meadows

Magnificent uplands

Rock and flowers

Occasional cairns to show the way

Guide and owner, Dave Birnie, builds a cairn

Karst holes

Karst hole

And alpine lakes.

Long Lake

Leprechaun Lake

After a day of hiking I return to savoury snacks and a cold beer at the lodge.  No, I haven’t given up backpacking, but the older I get, the more I appreciate the luxury of food that I don’t have to carry, cooked to perfection by someone else, and served in a comfortable lodge.  Weather, mosquitoes and horse flies permitting, we sit on the porch in the late afternoon, eating, drinking and watching a flock of rufous hummingbirds fight over who gets to use the feeders.

Snacks on the porch

End of a perfect day

Rufous hummingbird

After eight days in this glorious wilderness I feel refreshed, alive and full of anticipation for the next adventure.  Some of my best memories of this sojourn will be the flowers.

Glacier lilies in August?  Only in the Alpine!  And that little anemone should have gone to seed weeks ago.

Glacier lilies and western anemone

The mountain avens are also early bloomers, but the snows were deep this year and lingered long.  The moss campion, at least, is blooming on schedule.

White mountain avens

Moss campion

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I always hate to leave Mistaya, but I will be back in March to enjoy a week of snowshoeing or skiing.