I had second thoughts when I saw the sign at the trail head. It was a four hour hike with a portion through dense forest and mine was the only car in the parking area. Bear bell? Check. Bear spray? Check. Air horn? Check. I took a deep breath and plunged into the undergrowth.
It’s preferable to hike with friends for safety reasons but, with mountains on our doorstep, none were interested in taking the 12 hour drive to Tumbler Ridge to go hiking. I, on the other hand, wanted to explore new vistas and Tumbler had been on my list for awhile. I had to be in the region anyways; it was the perfect opportunity for a side-trip. It wouldn’t be the first time I hiked alone.
Located in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in northeastern British Columbia, the former mining town is only beginning to develop a reputation as a world-class outdoor adventure destination. “Jasper without the tourists,” is how Louis Gabriel, a member of the Wolverine Nordic and Mountain Society, described Tumbler Ridge before adding two more routes to my already extensive hiking list. Designated North America’s second Unesco Global Geopark in 2014, the area boasts more than 100 kilometres of trails and a couple of multi-day backcountry treks that few have experienced. Picking and choosing which I would explore in my five days there was my toughest challenge.
“Make lots of noise” the guides advise when hiking in bear country, to give the animals warning of your presence. Okay. I would sing. Loudly. The entire repertoire of Les Miserables if necessary. Talk to some I know and they’d say my singing would send any bear or moose, or even human, running in the opposite direction as fast as their feet could carry them. I prefer to think that, should I encounter a wild animal, the dulcet tones of my tune would lull it to sleep, allowing me to continue merrily on my way. More likely, it would take one look at me and decide I’m not worth the effort. More an appetizer than a full meal deal.
I joke, but I know the hazards of hiking alone in the wilderness. Being in the foothills of the Rockies, Tumbler is home to both black bears and grizzlies. Even a cow moose with a calf could be dangerous. I wouldn’t be taking any unnecessary risks, but I wasn’t willing to give up the opportunity to explore the region either. A friend had my itinerary and a timeline when I’d make contact at the end of the day. If he didn’t hear from me by that time, he knew what to do.
I also had some unexpected support one afternoon. Driving up to the entrance for the Murray Canyon Overlook trailhead, a gravel truck driver pulled up beside me and got out. “Just wanted to let you know I saw a black bear hanging out around here yesterday. Give us a honk when you leave. Have a good hike!” It was reassuring to know that someone close by was aware of my presence and would be keeping an ear out for me.
After a couple of treks, I began to relax while still keeping my guard up. The more I explored the region, the more I fell in love with the rugged wilderness and unique geology of the area. Still, I can’t say I ever felt completely comfortable on any trail and breathed a small sigh of relief every time I found myself back in the safety of my car.
I did see bears during my time in Tumbler. One crossed the road about 100 yards in front of my car heading back from Stone Corral. I also saw a momma and her twin cubs two campsites down from mine. They wandered back into the bush as soon as a truck approached, no more interested in meeting humans than we were meeting them. My hikes, however, were uneventful. I never saw a bear on any of the trails. Or a moose. Or any other living creature for that matter. My friends might be right about my singing!
Being Bear Aware when Hiking Solo
- Take a “Bear Aware” course if one is available in your neighborhood
- Learn about the area where you’ll be hiking – Provincial and National Parks’ websites have information on local wildlife
- Check with the local visitor centre – they’ll often have the most up to date information about bear sightings or encounters in the area
- Tell someone your plan and STICK TO IT – where you’re going, how long you expect to be and check in when you return; if your plan changes, advise your contact as soon as possible
- Make noise – talk loud or yell frequently, bang your hiking poles together or against rocks, wear a bear bell, and carry an air horn in case you come upon one unexpectedly
- Be aware of your surroundings and look far ahead down the trail – if you see a bear in the distance, give it a wide berth or leave the area
- Watch for signs of a bear’s presence including bear scat (usually dark brown or black with mashed or whole berries in it), overturned logs or rocks, digging around roots or scratched up tree bark – if you see these, best to take a different trail or try another day
- If you come upon an animal carcass, leave the area immediately, taking all precautions
- Stay on the trail
- Avoid heavily scented food or personal hygiene items – bears have an acute sense of smell and may be drawn by the scent
- Plan your trip so that you are not hiking at night