During the second week of July 2020, I embarked on one of the easier backpacking trips I have done with three friends. We arrived at Upper Kananaskis lake just before noon to see cloudy, windy weather. Our first of our three-day adventure would lead us to Forks Backcountry site, a 7.5 km hike without any particularly steep sections.
We began the hike in full rain gear, anticipating the worst, but hoping the rain would pass us. We started along the north side of the lake, directly across the Upper Kananaskis from the Rawson Lake trail and Sarrail Ridge for those who are familiar with the area. We only hiked for about half an hour before our hunger set in and we decided to stop for lunch along the side of the lake. The view was gorgeous and blue sky was breaking through the clouds. The brilliance of the lake’s colour broke out in the sun and we all took a moment to admire it. There is truly nothing as mesmerizing as a Rocky Mountain lake.
We broke away from the view and hefted our packs back on. It is important when backpacking to make sure your pack does not weigh more than 30% of your body weight, less if you’re inexperienced. Even if you believe you can carry more, or it doesn’t seem to bad in the city, your muscles will thank you for not overloading them once you’re on the trail. We learned this the hard way the previous summer.
We came to the edge of the lake and followed the path as it diverged into the forest. The rest of the trail was mainly forested from here, and mostly flat. Near the campsite we came across a large rockslide area where we had to pick our way across uneven terrain. Watch your ankles through this area and you will be fine.
We arrived at the campsite at 3 pm. After setting up camp we settled in for a quick nap before dinner. This trail and campsite would be suitable for families or those just beginning their backpacking journey. We met both families and more experienced hikers on the trail and at the campsite, and got some advice for our next day of hiking, in which we would climb the steep ascent over the headwall to Three Isle Lake.
The evening saw a number of passing rainstorms, making us glad to have our rain gear and tents already set up. We dried off around the fire between storms, and went to bed early to the sound of rain on the tent roof.
The next morning we began the day lazily. We only had 3.6 km to hike, so we felt rich in time. We had other hikes near the lake planned if we had the time and energy. We left Forks sometime after 11 and began the hike towards the headwall. We hiked quickly through the flat section and soon faced our elevation. The hike up was physically demanding and far more intense than our previous day’s comparative stroll through the forest.
We took frequent breaks to catch our breath and began to stretch out, leaving considerable distance between each hiker. It was at this point, probably 20 minutes of hiking after the above photo was taken, that we ran into the fabled situation of hiking straight into a bear.
My companions began yelling “bear” while they were out of sight, and I expected the animal to be near them. As I debated between hiking up to them to increase our strength in numbers, or staying where I was to not spook the animal, one of my fellow hikers appeared around the corner ahead of me and pointed passed me. I turned around and saw the grizzly, about 6 meters away at most, lumbering downhill towards the path, and towards me.
My adrenaline kicked in and I reached my friend in a few swift steps up the hill. I had forgotten my bear spray that trip and was racing the bear to meet her where she stood, with her bear spray in hand. We checked to make sure the bear wasn’t following us, and then continued further up the path. Once all four of us had grouped back together, we assessed our situation. The bear didn’t seem to be following us, but we couldn’t turn back now. The bear stood between us and the way out, so our best bet was to continue the hike and hope that it had moved on from the area by the next day. We surveyed the area and saw the stairs above us, a section our fellow backpackers had mentioned around the fire the night before. If we got above the stairs, there was a small cliff we could stop at, spot we didn’t think the bear would follow us to, and a good vantage point if it did.
From the cliff we watched the bear as it continued down the path, digging up the vegetation along the way. It seemed to be heading towards the creek we had passed just moments before. We watched until the bear moved off the path and continued out of sight, prepared to yell at any unaware hikers that emerged from the trees below.
Shaken up, we had all learned some valuable lessons. Though this bear was very uninterested in us, we had let it get to close without being aware of it. We reviewed our bear protocol, and made sure to have bear spray at the front and back of the group. We also increased our volume on the trail, making us less appealing for bears to walk towards. We warned some hikers on their way down about the bear, then continued our ascent. We arrived at the campsite around 2:30 and split our group to work on either food prep or tent set up. We ate our late lunch then returned to the tents to set up sleeping bags and change out of our hiking clothes. It is also recommended to change your base layer entirely after hiking to make sure you stay warm at the campsite.
After digesting and setting up the tents, we went for a walk around Three Isle Lake. The area was impossibly calm, with the only sounds coming from the other hikers in the area. We walked to the end of the lake and down another valley before turning around and coming back. We decided to cook dinner around 7, which is when things went awry.
Just before 7 a downpour began that refused to let up. At about 7:45, with no end of the rain in sight, we decided to eat tomorrow’s breakfast in place of our dinner so we would not have to cook in the rain. It is never advisable to eat in your tent, but occasionally desperate times call for desperate measures.
As we sat in the larger of our 2-person tents, we noticed the rain was beginning to puddle between the groundsheet and the tent. The tent began to soak through and we stepped outside to assess the situation. Our tent pad was not completely flat, and the slope was pooling the water towards the centre, towards our tent. We tried to dig a trench to drain the water, but our attempts were futile. That tent was going to be wet tonight. Instead we planned to move all of our belongings into the wet tent, atop a sleeping pad, and relocated ourselves to the other tent. It was a tight squeeze, fitting four people into a 2-person backpacking tent, but we managed to not only fit, lying head-feet-head-feet, but also to sleep.
We woke in the morning to pleasant weather, and clouds but no rain. We ate our previous night’s dinner for breakfast and began the nearly 11 km trek back to the parking lot.
The views on the way down were spectacular, giving us a clear image all the way down the valley. We saw the evidence of our bear friend from the day before along the trail, large areas of roots and soil overturned. We stopped for lunch and Forks, then made our way back through the forest and the edge of the lake. From there, the trail seemed to fly under our sore feet and we had completed another (mostly) successful trip.