PINTO LAKE, AB — I suppose I should have expected to see a bear here. But hearing his slow, heavy sniffs; seeing the large, wet snout under the rainfly of the tent; feeling the presence of such a powerful predator only centimetres from my face — these were far beyond even my most irrational expectations.
Nestled in my sleeping bag, I was fixated on the small gap between the rainfly and the forest floor. The wind was raucous, smacking us from all sides, causing the forest to creak and moan, but I was still terrified of making the slightest sound.
It could have been a grizzly or a black bear, a curious young male, or a defensive mother. I sifted through all possibilities and clung to the ones that provided some reassurance. But no encouraging scenarios could take the edge off. The bear was right in front of me, and there was no way of thinking that incontrovertible fact away.
My partner and I planned to trek from the Icefields Parkway to Pinto Lake and back in about 35 hours, a round-trip of 30km and almost 2,000m of elevation gain. We were in White Goat, a wilderness area tucked deep in the Canadian Rockies. After a week of car camping, we were ready to escape the glampers and try our hand at something more challenging. We packed well and were prepared for the tough climb, but little could have prepared us for this bear encounter.
After one more huff, the bear moved around to the foot of the tent, keeping his snout close to the ground, although it was hard to make out distinct shapes in the darkness. I slowly reached for the bear spray just above me, and with a quivering thumb, snapped off the safety wedge.
The spray would have been useless anyway. Spraying it inside the tent would blind me and only agitate the bear. I remained in the sleeping bag, waiting for a thump or a scratch. But after what felt like hours of no movement, the terror had depleted all my remaining energy. I drifted back to sleep.
Having a bear drop by was something writer Isabelle Kirkwood, left, was not expecting.
When I exited the tent the following morning, I tentatively surveyed the area around our camp, looking deep into the mossy forest, only to find it roll off into darkness. With dark clouds rolling in and last night’s encounter still fresh, I was eager to set off as soon as possible.
The hike to Pinto Lake was long and unrelenting, and we knew the journey back would be even crueller. The trek began as a very steep hike through endless switchbacks and over hundreds of fallen trees which obscured the trail.
My partner’s foot was beginning to ache within the first few minutes of the trek. He started to hobble within an hour, and by the time we reached the top of the first mountain, his makeshift walking stick was doing little to ease the pain.
We rested for a short while at Sunset Pass, where the trail crosses an open, exposed ridge high in the alpine. From their dramatic peaks, the bases of the mountains, wrapped in a blanket of uniform pine trees, swept like paint strokes into the yawning valley.
Looking to the south, the bean-shaped Pinto Lake mirrored the grey sky a few hundred metres below, and its heavily pigmented perimeter returned a stunning turquoise. We sat on the very edge of the plateau, observing what we had conquered.
A part of me still dreaded knowing that deep within that green forest, the bear might have been following our scent. That fear was only heightened with the knowledge that help had never been further away. There were no other hikers on the trail, and no rangers or facilities within a 30km range. With an injury and a predator in the area, it was the first time the desolation had really felt burdensome. We were well and truly on our own.
The trail moved from exposed rock to a sprawling subalpine meadow at the base of the towering summit of Mount Coleman. The sky remained overcast with small blots of rain, as we trudged along a meandering creek channel, through wet mud slabs and thick undergrowth. All the while, my paranoia kept conjuring that bear, somewhere across the plain, emerging from the trees, bounding toward us.
Above: Once hikers arrive at remote Pinto Lake, they quickly realize it was well worth the effort.
All through the meadow, I could see my partner become more laboured with every step. We tried to stop frequently, but his injury and the prospect of hiking in the dark loomed over both of us. I scanned the horizon for a familiar patch of wildflowers or a fallen tree, any sign of how much further we had to go.
After an hour, we reached the end of the meadow. At this point, I was quite certain we would not see the bear again. There was only a 4km descent to go, then we were in the clear. I looked over the valley of the Icefields Parkway, and then to my partner, filling up his bottle at a stream, unable to put any pressure on his foot.
We had come to White Goat for the same reason most people to travel – to get away. Whether it’s escaping the luxuries and trappings of our modern lives, the daily slog of work, or the problems we have at home, the dreamy notion of a great escape is what pushes people on dangerous treks through inhospitable places.
But in this moment, unsure of how much further he could go and awake to all the dangers of staying, the only thing pushing us forward was the absolute necessity of getting back.
We threw our packs on and took one last look at the meadow and the snow-capped peaks surrounding it. Over some great distance, I could faintly see something moving near the trees, a large figure, almost camouflaged by the timber.
I strained my eyes to get a better look, but before I could, my partner called on me to catch up. I still think it was better I let that remain a mystery.