Bears in the Canadian Rockies—an Essay by Brian Patton

There are certain trails in the Canadian Rockies where I always think about bears. But I always think about them more, and somewhat nervously, when hiking alone in the autumn.

The incidence of serious grizzly encounters always seems to rise in the fall. Bears are at lower elevations and might be a bit more aggressive in their search for pre-hibernation food. People just get in the way.

There are some trails I often hiked alone in the past where Parks Canada sometimes has a four-hikers-in-close proximity requirement today. Trails leading out from Moraine Lake and up the Paradise Valley in Banff National Park have one or more resident grizzlies almost every summer. The same is true for Kindersley Pass and Sinclair Creek in Kootenay National Park.

We never saw a grizzly in these valleys during our early years of hiking the mountain parks. In fact, I remember one park warden predicting that grizzly bears would never inhabit the dead-end Wenkchemna and Paradise Valleys. (Wrong!)

It was a different world during the first decade following the publication of our Canadian Rockies Trail Guide. Both black and grizzly bears spent a major part of their summers in garbage dumps. And when those dumps closed in 1980, the bears didn’t understand. They marched into Banff and other urban areas looking for an explanation. Instead, they found back-alley garbage that wasn’t always secure. Many bears were relocated or died at the hands of park wardens.

Grizzly bears are widespread but not common in the Canadian Rockies.

Grizzly bears are widespread but not common in the Canadian Rockies.

It took a while, but most bears, particularly grizzlies, returned to areas where natural food was plentiful. And they became comfortable around people, including the busy trails near Moraine Lake. On the other hand, Parks Canada wasn’t comfortable having bears in close proximity to hikers on popular trails. Hence the four-hiker rule (there is almost no record of bears attacking tight groups of three or more people in the North American backcountry).

Bears have a very long history with people. Through much of the past man was a dangerous enemy that inspired fear and aggression. More recently people have simply become a part of the landscape, and in some cases (sow grizzlies with cubs) may provide security.

As backcountry hikers, we’ll always be a bit nervous when we’re travelling in bear country. After all, these animals are a lot bigger and tougher than we are. Every once in a while, somebody gets roughed up.

—Brian Patton

Books About Bears

Canadian Rockies Trail GuideMany books about bears are available, including some dedicated to bears in the Canadian Rockies. Please go to our Books About Bears page.

About Brian Patton

For over 50 years, Brian Patton has interpreted the natural and human history of the Canadian Rockies in books, on film and through presentations. He is best known as the co-author of the Canadian Rockies Trail Guide but is also the author of Bear Tales from the Canadian Rockies. Patton’s other books include the Lake Louise Hiking GuideBest Day Hikes in Banff National Park, Icefields Parkway, Parkways of the Canadian Rockies, and Mountain Chronicles: Jon Whyte. He continues to work on a variety of projects from his home in Invermere, British Columbia.