Two large grizzly bears followed 13 hikers down a trail in Banff National Park for 20 minutes — with one even making a few quick runs at the group.
“It’s not every day that you think you’re actually going to be that close to two grizzly bears,” said Phoebe Nicholson, a guide with Discover Banff Tours who was leading the hike along Consolation Lake Trail near Moraine Lake.
“A pretty intense, but also pretty amazing experience, to see animals like that in the wild, just in their natural habitat, going for a walk with us.”
Nicholson, who is originally from Australia, said it was was her first ever encounter with a grizzly despite moving to Canada over a year ago and working in Banff as a hiking guide for the past six months.
The grizzlies remained 10 to 20 metres behind the hikers for a whole 20 minutes, says Nicholson, who was the only one carrying bear spray.
WATCH | See how close the bears come to hikers as they follow down the trail:
“We have had a lot of training, and I talk about [bears] on all of my tours as well,” she said, admitting she was nervous. “Knowledge-wise, I knew exactly what I should be doing, but it is different putting it into action.”
The group started their hike at Moraine Lake near Lake Louise, one of the most popular tourist attractions in the park. One of the hikers alerted Nicholson about the bears after hearing rustling in the bushes behind them roughly two-thirds of the way up Consolation Lake Trail. Nicholson says the bears seemed very large, but she believes they were a mother and its adolescent cub.
“The baby one did a few quick runs at one point, which may have been what we call a ‘bluff charge,’ which is where they kind of run at you to see what your reaction is going to be,” she said.
“From my training, I know that that is a normal thing. The best thing to do is, of course, to stay calm and keep a slow, slow pace, so that’s exactly what we did.”
Eventually, the bears left the hikers, continuing their walk up the mountain once the hikers reached Consolation Lake.
“We all kind of just watched in awe, getting our breath back from what had just happened,” she said.
Tips to stay safe: ‘stop, talk, walk’
Nick de Ruyter, WildSmart program director at the Biosphere Institute of the Bow Valley in Canmore, says encounters like Nicholson’s aren’t out of the ordinary. He says bears — much like humans — often choose to walk on trails because it’s easier.
“Typically when I hear stories like this, it’s just bears trying to move from A to B, and we just happen to be in their way on the trail,” de Ruyter said. “Safely moving off the trail and letting them pass is probably one of the easiest and best things you can do.”
WildSmart is a conservation program for education and outreach related to human-wildlife interactions and safety. De Ruyter shared his key tips for what to do if people encounter a grizzly.
“In my teachings, I use three words: stop, talk, walk.”
De Ruyter says never run. Instead, back away slowly and move out of the bear’s way. In cases where backing up slowly for long periods of time may be too difficult, de Ruyter says hikers can also slowly move off the trail when it’s safe to do so.
He emphasizes that leaving the area slowly, talking to the bear in a calm voice, and avoiding eye contact can be helpful specifically for grizzly bear encounters.
“Obviously, I would recommend having my bear spray out and ready to go, just in case,” said de Ruyter.
An email statement from Parks Canada reminds Banff National Park visitors to always obey warnings or area closures and to stay on the official trails. Parks Canada urged people to follow these basic bear safety tips:
- Always keep bear spray accessible and understand how to use it properly. The spray can also deter other big animals like cougar or moose.
- Make noise. “Call out, clap, sing or talk loudly especially near streams, dense vegetation and berry patches, on windy days, and in areas of low visibility,” Parks Canada suggested.
- Keep dogs on leashes at all times. It’s the law and off-leash dogs can agitate wildlife.
- Travel in large groups of four or more people and stay together on the trail.
- Watch for the signs of bears – tracks, droppings, or disturbances – and leave the area if those signs are fresh.
- Report any bear sightings immediately to the park’s visitor centre or, if in Banff National Park, to Banff Dispatch at 403-762-1470.