It was supposed to have been just a ‘gentle ski tour’ in Kananaskis on Feb 18, 2019 but little did we expect to have the excitement and scare that nobody ever wants. Our group of 6 skiers from the Alpine Club’s Calgary Section carpooled and left the city at 7:00 a.m. with the thermometer reading a frigid (are you nuts?) minus 26. Destination…..Mount Sarrail area. The forecast was calling for warming during the day, which never happened where we skied. The high was not much better than around minus 20.
After touring up into the area for about 5 kms the group continued breaking trail, single file: Andre, Brent, Beate, Mark, Leah and Kelvin. We were skinning through the deep, faceted, snowpack; climbing up the ridge through the trees which we were planning to ski once we gained more elevation. At around 2100 meters as we passed by some large trees, our senses were shocked with an ominous deep growl immediately beside us. Simultaneously with the growling and with breaking of timbers and branches, the beast powered out of its burrow from under some snow-pillowed logs beside us. We’re talking not much more than 1-2 meters away. The heads of 6 surprised skiers quickly turned to see the grizzly bear in action. There were shouts of, “grizzly bear!” and “go back!” and “let’s get outta here!”. Talk about feeling helpless and exposed. What can you do? It happens so fast you don’t really have time to fathom the situation.
The first 3 skiers to pass beside the burrow obviously disturbed the hibernating grizzly inside. Mark, who was the closest person trailing, covered his head and fell into a fetal position in the snow. Apparently and very fortunately the animal wanted nothing to do with us as it plowed heavily across the snowpack, slope and forest. We kept moving up and out of the area but always looking around, just in case. After having a couple minutes to reflect on it and feeling a bit safer about what had just happened we all discussed our close encounter. Instead of skiing back down through the trees we decided to ski down an open shoulder a bit further West. It was near treeline, steeper and more exposed to avalanche risk (moderate, low, low) but further from the bear encounter. The turns were good in the cold, faceted snowpack because it was steep. Everyone had a smile on as we finished our run down into the cirque and started across the open flats, looking for our up-track. We spotted the track but as we got close we knew it was not ours. It was the bear’s (surprise!) big and deep signature across the snow in a straight line towards some brush. Our radar was activated once again with shouts of, “let’s get the ___ outta here!”. Thinking about the initial encounter it made total sense that the bear would have wanted to head downhill, in the exact opposite direction the skiers were taking. Except we didn’t stick around long enough to confirm bear navigation. The group slogged back out to the vehicles without further incident.
The next day I phoned Parks to report the encounter. The attendant had a standard format of questions, one of which was, “Did you notice if there were any tags or a collar on the bear?”
Now, I know the person was merely following protocol and anyone who was not present at the bear encounter might even think that this is a reasonable or necessary question to ask. I could have answered with something like, “things happened too quickly, it was surreal, we were scared out of our wits, weren’t sure if we’d live or get mauled or eaten”. Instead I half-heartedly chuckled, “nope”.
So reflecting back, while I posted the trip as a gentle ski tour, it is ironic (and very lucky) that after we trespassed upon its residence the grizzly did, in fact, treat us gently. None of us could have asked for anything more! All 6 skiers were sad for waking the bear and we hope it is doing well.
PS: The Park Conservation Officer for the area, Nick, got back to me today. They already closed an area near Rawson Lake. When I gave him details of our bear location he mentioned they would post closure signage at our ski tracks, in case others might follow.