I had a perfect day with my wife and three young girls this summer. It was our first visit to the Canadian Rockies. Our sky-high expectations of Banff National Park and the deep aqua waters of Moraine Lake were exceeded.
As I awoke on this coldish, late-August morning in the Lake Louise Campground, I made a bold prophecy “Today we are going to see a grizzly bear. I can just feel it.” There are only 60-65 grizzlies in Banff, yet on this day we had close contact with not one, but two.
I have this deal with my girls. Spot an animal, get a buck or two from dad. The girls have learned that I can be convinced that exotic species are worth even more.
On the spectacular ten-mile road up to our Moraine Lake trailhead they asked, “Dad, how much if we spot a moose?” “Five bucks” I proclaim to their delight.
Pushing further. “Okay, how much for spotting a grizzly dad?” “Ten bucks!” I shouted. They squealed.
Within minutes we saw a single stopped car. We slowed down with eyes pealed. Sure enough, a young 250-300 pound grizzly was within fifteen feet on the shoulder in a huckleberry induced trance. He was just eating berries as if hibernation was going to start any minute. We screamed half out of excitement and half out of fear. This bear was almost too close for comfort. And those long golden claws…yikes! What a thrill to see such a powerful and majestic animal up close, in the wild, and from the safety of our car.
As we approached Moraine Lake, Mount Babel and the “Valley of the Ten Peaks” shone in the early morning light. Spectacular. These mountains are on par with The Swiss Alps, Peruvian Cordillera Blanca, or Argentine Patagonia. Seriously, and they are only nine and a half hours by car from Seattle.
We enjoyed the tranquil beauty of Moraine Lake to ourselves until the tour busses arrived.
As the hordes snapped pictures of the lake with their iPads awkwardly, we hit the trail into the backcountry. We selected the Eiffel Lake Trail, because it would take us by the Valley of the Ten Peaks alongside glaciers in prime grizzly habitat. Also, it’s about nine miles roundtrip with slightly less than 2,000 feet of elevation gain. My girls can handle that.
Hikers in Banff are warned about bears everywhere. The Lake Louise campground is surrounded by a protective electric fence. The trails in some areas—like Moraine Lake—require hiking parties to have at least four people. Bear spray and little jingly bells are the go-to accessories.
Grizzlies ain’t no black bear though. If you haven’t heard the joke it goes like this. “What’s the difference between Grizzly scat and Black Bear scat? Grizzly scat has bells in it.”
The night before, the ranger in the campground told us about an incident just days earlier where he came upon a large male grizzly (bear #122) that ate a black bear that apparently got in its way. That’s right, bear-on-bear crime. Crazy. Grizzly crazy.
The hike is spectacular. After some initial switchbacks through the trees, the trail makes a lovely traverse alongside the Ten Peaks. Expansive and spectacular views abound. The Larch trees, although not yet adorned in their fall yellow, are delicately beautiful. We enjoyed our lunch on a lichen covered cliff a few hundred feet above the so, so, blue waters of Eiffel Lake.
The girls were serenaded by the whistles of a few chubby marmots perched on the nearby rocks. Awesome, in the truest sense of the word.
As we started to head back, we encountered our first group of people we had seen on the trail that day. It was a guided hike of ten individuals. They were about to turn around too. We exchanged pleasantries. As my oldest daughter and I strode away the guide barked at me “You must walk in a tightly-packed group. It’s the law…and a five-thousand dollar fine. The others in your group are too far away.”
Slightly offended of her intrusion into my perfect day, I replied passive-aggressively “we’re fine, just fine.”
“Who was she to scold me?” I thought. “We had our group of four-plus hikers. I didn’t read anything about the requirement to be tightly packed. Some people. Sheesh.”
No more than fifteen minutes later, this group passed us on the trail. Due to our earlier confrontation, I avoided eye contact with the bossy guide. Within minutes, just around a bend in the trail, we caught up to them at a dead stop.
Sure enough, there was young grizzly on the trail, eating huckleberries and blocking all sane hikers from advancing within thirty feet. Bossy guide was right. I was wrong. No bother, I’d happily eat crow if I could encounter a grizzly on the trail from a safe distance.
We overheard the guide telling her group that this bear was a three year-old cub of “#122”, the black bear killer. The young cub continued eating for a while and then he recognized us. He stood up, beared his long golden-claws and let out a loud huff. I vowed to myself that I would walk in a tightly-packed group from then on.
We retreated in unison with hands up shouting “hey bear…hey bear!!” This would help him notice us, not attack, and move along. Shortly thereafter, the bear left the trail. We scurried past making as much noise as we could. Other than the fresh huckleberry-colored scat on the trail, there was no sign of the bear.
Two grizzlies in one day! What are the chances? We marveled about the experience with a couple from Minnesota. They had been hiking the trails of Banff National Park for nearly a decade. They had never seen or encountered a grizzly until today.
We returned reveling in our spectacular hike and grizzly encounter. The girls and I topped off the day with an icy swim in the 39 degree splendor of Moraine Lake. Shivering back at the car, I happily paid them the twenty bucks they earned.