Grizzlies in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta

Grizzly sow with cubs wikipedia commons

Grizzly sow with cubs

My personal bear stories don’t involve anyone being mangled or killed – sorry if you’re disappointed… my stories are really about near misses – which are scary enough.

Have you ever looked at the bears at the zoo where you can study their giant fangs and jaws and claws up close and in safety, and then imagine what might have happened to you if you hadn’t been so lucky out there in the wilderness?


Rocky Mountain grizzlies are formidable animals that can weigh between 250kg to 320kg (or 550lbs to 705 lbs). They have enormous fangs and claws as you can see in these images – the claws can grow up to 10cm (or 8″) long. They have a strong sense of smell, and very good vision, and can run faster than any human – up or down a mountain. image from Please also see Parks Canada’s informative website:

For the last 18 years I’ve lived in Calgary, Alberta, about an hour from the wild and rugged Rocky Mountains. In fact, I can see a huge expanse of the Rockies from the back of my house – they are always spectacular – sometimes pink and purple, sometimes deep blue and white – ever changing, and always magnificent.

The Rocky Mountains as seen from Calgary at sunset

The Rocky Mountains as seen from my backyard in Calgary at sunset.

I sometimes like to think about the wild animals out there climbing up those giant mountains – the cougars, mountain goats and sheep, the elk and the bears. It probably comes from childhood car rides and singing “The Bear Went Over the Mountain” endlessly in the back seat, and imagining a bear climbing up one side of a mountain “to see what he could see” and then climbing down the other side, and then on to the next. With the huge expanse of mountains out my back door, there must be quite a few bears going up and down those mountains…

Nature is overwhelming out there – the scale of it is huge and the wilderness is dangerous.

Cascade Mountain Banff, Alberta

Cascade Mountain in Banff, Alberta. Those “little” trees are between 20 and 40 meters tall (65 feet to 131 feet). Cascade Mountain is a nice size mountain coming in at 2,998m (9,836 ft) – but there are many more in Alberta that top it for size and height – take Mt. Columbia at 3,747m (12,293 ft) or Mt. Assiniboine at 3,616m (11,864 ft).

Smart people here know that you don’t go out into the wilderness alone unless you have some serious survival skills, or like many of the ranchers here, you have a rifle with you  – just in case you accidentally run into one of several large mammals that live here that are capable of killing you with one swift blow.

When our kids were small and we’d go hiking with them in the Rocky Mountains in Banff National Park or Kananaskis Country, my husband constantly worried about bear encounters every time we were hiking a trail with no one else in sight. I was stupidly thinking about how much I’d love to see a grizzly bear – and he was worrying about how fast he could run with both kids in his arms or whether he’d have to sacrifice his life to save ours. We did always carry bear bells and we were always a noisy bunch – especially when the kids got hot, tired and cranky. Most of the time any animal within several miles hearing distance knew we were coming and could move away.

grizzly zmescience

A super angry Grizzly bear – image from zmescience.

So it was surprising that once we did almost walk into a grizzly. We were hiking a trail in Kananaskis in the low lands, through brush and along a lazy creek, when suddenly a couple of people ran into us from a perpendicular trail hysterically screaming “Grizzly – Grizzly!!”. It was just meters from where we were standing – we could see and hear something rustling in there…

We froze in a moment of frightened panic and then we turned and booted it out of there as fast as our legs could carry us dragging our little girls all the way back to the car, breathlessly warning whoever we ran into to get as far away as they could from that area. (we reported the location of the bear to a warden – just like you’re supposed to do).

Another time we were at Morraine Lake (in Banff) and took a trail we’d never been on before that led to a place called Consolation Lakes. The trail was narrow and several kilometers long, with a long portion of it through forest – it was rated easy because there was little or no climb in elevation. We hadn’t researched it much and didn’t realize that the area at the end of the trail was a popular feeding and lounging spot for grizzlies. In fact it wasn’t til we got to the final destination of the trail (an area with an open flooded water course and huge house sized boulders), that we read an information sign and realized we had three little kids a long way from civilization in the middle of a grizzly resort and spa.

Bear Country Parks Canada leaflet

What to do if you encounter a bear… never run… play dead… or don’t play dead… fight back… no, talk calmly… use bear spray… no, don’t use bear spray… climb a tree… only if its over 30 feet high? I don’t remember – oops… The information in all my guide books and pamphlets is confusing but life saving, if you have the time to think before you’re attacked, and you are clear headed and understand bear psychology. The best advice is to avoid bears all the time. Image: page from a Parks Canada leaflet.

With our two little girls and my nephew on this hike, I suddenly was forced to confront the terrifying reality that my husband had long been worrying about – how would we survive running into a grizzly or two or three… which kid would I be able to carry and run like Hell with? (running is not recommended by the way – I just think in a moment of panic its what I’d do).

I’m not sure why the trail was open back then at all – its since been closed pretty much on a yearly basis during bear season (July through October) to groups of no less than 4 and as I recall some years, restricted to groups of four (or even 6) on horseback (and a huge fine if you don’t follow the rules). Its not just that grizzlies frequent the area and its not safe for people on foot, but primarily to allow the animals the freedom to live undisturbed in their natural environment.

Dismemberment and death go hand in hand with grizzly encounters. That’s why the parks are so careful to close off areas known to be grazing grounds of the bears and why they include extensive instructions in their park leaflets about what to do if you do find yourself face to face with one. Just try remembering what to do while encountering a bear – its all very confusing.

I love bears and I am saddened to hear when any bear dies because of an unexpected encounter with a careless person. (If a bear kills someone then it is often hunted down and killed too because it is considered too dangerous to leave in the wild.)

We go out into their territories and expect them to please have the courtesy not to be maddened when we tromp up to them or their babies. They are only doing what comes naturally to them.

grizzly in banff parks canada

Grizzly bear in Banff National Park. Photograph by Alex Taylor, Parks

Though there are black bears here too, people don’t seem quite so intimidated or terrified of them, even though an angered black bear can do serious damage to a human too. Perhaps its because compared to a grizzly, a black bear mistakenly seems like a teddy bear.

from Bear Country pamphlet, Parks Canada

from Parks Canada

However, a bear is a bear is a bear…

If you plan to go out for a hike in the mountains, always check the trail head closure signs and respect them – stay on the human trails, and remember to remember what to do if you meet a bear in the woods.

Over the years I’ve had my fill of grizzly sitings from the safety of my car while driving north to Jasper, and through British Columbia – so I’m good now – I don’t need or want to see a grizzly bear up close and personal in the wild, thank you very much!





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