Bears on the Brain at Jacques Lake

Looking north from Jacques Lake outflow

Looking north from Jacques Lake outflow

Jacques Lake is in Jasper National Park in the Canadian Rockies. It is not a big lake, but it sits in the spruce forest beneath massive, bare-rock peaks. There is a primitive campground at the lake’s northern end, 7.5 trail miles from the park road. When we told the warden (as Canadians call rangers) in Jasper town that we were thinking of spending a night at the campground, he said something like “A group encountered a nuisance bear up there a few days ago. They ended up taking refuge in the warden cabin. There’ve been no reports since, so you should be OK.”

So when my middle daughter (nearly 14 back then) and I set off for Jacques Lake the next day, bears were on our mind. It was a rainy day. We’d covered our packs in blue trash bags, and Caroline, a photograph reminds me, had on a red poncho. We had hardly walked any distance at all when Caroline said “Dad, it’s a bear!”.

The trail was swinging left, and Caroline was walking on my right, so she saw the animal before I did. I had a split second to imagine an enormous grizzly before the fluffy little black bear came into my view. I would not have been surprised to see stuffing falling out of a torn seam behind its ear.

On the trail to Jacques Lake

On the trail to Jacques Lake

But it was close, perhaps 20 yards ahead; and it showed no fear of us, even edging a little closer. Spraying this cub would have felt about as good as kicking a puppy, but even so I unholstered my pepper spray. Mama had to be around. Then cub ran into the undergrowth, from which we continued to hear its movements for a while as we pressed on for the Lake.

The rain eased off as we walked through the afternoon, and angular gray peaks sticking out of forest and cloud did their best to distract us from bear-thoughts. We sang as we hiked though (at least, I did; it was hard to get Caroline to join in the sing-song).

The campground was indeed of backcountry standard. A rough-hewn table and a pulley system for hanging food are the facilities I remember. There was no privy, for sure. On the hike in, I had kept the warden cabin in mind for insurance against nuisance bears. We wandered over to it before supper, but found it unoccupied and locked. We were on our own.

Fresh mid-August snow above Jacques Lake

Fresh mid-August snow above Jacques Lake

The night passed wet and cold, but undisturbed by wildlife. In the morning, there was fresh, mid-August snow on the peaks. Caroline was looking at the scene while I fiddled with gear at the rough-hewn table. Suddenly she said “Look, Dad!”. This time, I thought, it will be that enormous grizzly. I looked up, toward the outflow of Jacques Lake, and saw a large cow moose standing in the rain and the river, ducking for food. Relief and excitement at once.

(I am still grounded from hiking by a bum knee. Reliving old hikes is the next best thing.)

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