At Kinney Lake, so placid and perfect it might shatter if you coughed, we were still another 15 kilometres from Berg Lake at the foot of Mount Robson, the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies at 3,964 meters. It was the last and most formidable hike of our journey. We would be gaining an elevation of 790 meters and completing our marathon in one day.
In our three weeks, we made it to the heights of Ha Linh (Chinaman’s) Peak, Mount Fairview, Sentinel Pass, Wilcox Pass, and Sulphur Ridge. We hiked Sunshine Meadows, up past the Plain of the Six Glaciers, the Upper Falls of Johnston Canyon, the trail to Consolation Lake, the trails around Lake Minnewanka, and the 20 kilometers from the Mt. Robson parking lot to Berg Lake. There is something about ‘chalking it up’ at the end of a journey and seeing what you did, how far you went. But I won’t compare my feat to Georgia Engelhard, the legendary mountaineer, named after her aunt Georgia O’Keefe, who in the 1920s climbed 9 peaks in 9 days. In 1931 she reached 24 summits in the Selkirk Mountains (British Columbia, Idaho and Washington) in three weeks. Her Swiss guides used to joke about putting rocks in her pants to slow her down.
I had no such ambitions but I have often dreamed about the life of pioneers and explorers. No surprise for a geographer, I would have liked to be the one who drew the first lines on the map, surveyed the land, and named the peaks. The distant sound of the train at regular intervals in Banff made me dream of the frontiertowns when the Canadian Pacific Railway was delivering its first Swiss guides to the Canadian Rockies. I romanticized and reveled in images of stepping off the train, like the adventurous Mary Schäffer with a cargo of supplies for her next expedition. She would set off by horse with her party and pitch her “Egyptian sailcloth” tent among the spruce trees and her trailbreaking would be full of peril. I would be sure to need a compass, perhaps an “Henri Martini” rifle, and a suitcase full of photography equipment.
It is interesting to think what the course of time, a century, means – to the mountains and the rocks, nothing; to the glaciers, everything; and to visitors of the Rockies, a lighter load and an uncertain future. The glaciers receded considerably and in the 40 years since my partner Gilles visited, the snow and ice cover were starkly reduced. In another 40 years, some glaciers will have disappeared entirely.
As for a “lighter load,” yes, we were grateful for our 2.5-lb tent, compact cooking supplies, our lightweight walking sticks, and well-built backpacks. Even though we only did day trips, Gilles carried a pack for our water, snacks, emergency kit, and additional clothes. But I was surprised to find, when we arrived in Calgary, that by law, we had to purchase and carry a can of bear spray for our hikes, by far a better option than having to carry a gun. What seemed to me wholly convoluted is the device was designed so that you could only use it one time; you can chase away a bear on the attack but then you must drop the can and leave it because the bears like the scent!
I admit to having visions of bear encounters, but there were too many people on the trails most of the time for bears to venture onto the path. And yet we were required to go in groups of at least four to reduce the risk of an aggression with a bear. People we met along the way liked to talk about the bears. The most compelling story I heard was from a professional rockclimber at Lake Louise. Although she herself had never had an episode with a bear, she remembers well a young woman, extremely shy and introverted, who avoided eye contact and would go skiing in the mountains on her own. One day she was attacked from behind by a bear who took her by the neck and killed her. In recounting the story, she was intimating that while black bears are known to be less predictable than brown bears, they would be more apt to prey on frail, fearful creatures, although the stealth attack was still exceptional. Most of the time, bears are not agressors unless they feel threatened, especially if taken by surprise.
We also read about another camper’s experience in the backcountry with a grizzly. Nestled in for the night, the couple became aware of a grizzly with its heavy footsteps breaking branches, snorting and grunting. Not daring to step out of their shelter, they used up two cans of bear spray at the returning bear. Expecting the worst, they crawled out of their tent in the morning, only to find that they had camped in the bear’s kitchen – an area of dead fallen trees that the grizzly had ripped apart with his mighty claws to get at the grubs. He had no interest in the pair of humans who had taken over his space. Lucky for them.