I was several hours by foot from the nearest town, deep into the backcountry of Canada’s Jasper National Park, when I saw it: a small mass of brown fur scampering down the hillside towards me at an alarming speed.
“Animal!” I squealed to my companions. In my panic, I couldn’t even form the words to describe the creature I thought was running towards me: a grizzly bear cub that no doubt would be followed by its very large, very protective, probably very likely-to-eat-my-face-off mother.
You can get a good sense of what people think of you by their reaction to your travel plans. So maybe I should have been concerned when the responses to the news of my latest trip were surprise, worry, and even outright laughter. I was embarking on a three-day, 27-mile hike in the grizzly-bear-infested wilds of the Canadian Rockies.
An out-of-shape, neurotic, tech-addicted, admittedly prissy city dweller, I am the last person you’d expect to attempt an adventure such as this. And that was really the point.
“Were you drinking when you signed up for this?” my mom asked, once she stopped laughing.
“Why would you want to do this?” asked one friend on Facebook. Another simply commented, “Hahahaha.” The jokes increased once I explained that the women-only guided hike offered by a company called Skyline Adventures was dubbed “The Gutsy Girl Adventure.”
If you’re signing up for something that labels you as a “gutsy girl,” chances are you are not one, a fact that became clearer as the date of my impending adventure drew near. I had cajoled my friend, Annemarie, into joining me on the trip, figuring that she and I would be on equal footing. Annemarie is a born-and-bred New Yorker and, I assumed, would be as unqualified for the trip as I was.
I quickly started to worry I might have assumed wrong. When Annemarie texted me photos of the lanterns and first aid kits she was considering packing, I sent back photos of REI’s selection of outdoor wine glasses and lightweight wine pouches. While she shopped for mini camping axes, I bought a travel-sized hairbrush.
As the trip drew nearer—and Annemarie flooded my Inbox with more pictures of the hike’s highest point, the Notch, which she’d pulled from Instagram searching the Skyline Trail hashtag—I became more certain that I would be the weak link on this hike.
However, when we met in Edmonton for the train ride to Jasper, some of my fears were calmed. As I worried about where we’d go to the bathroom in the woods, Annemarie wondered if we’d have cell service and how often she could update social media. I detailed the contents of my bag—several pairs of hiking pants, a fleece, multiple pairs of wool socks, a poncho, a headlamp—and found that Annemarie’s list of necessities was much shorter: a jacket, a pair of jeans, glow sticks, several rolls of toilet paper, and two boxes of band-aids.
I typed out a Twitter post and read it aloud: @Annemarie brought glow sticks, but no pants. Apparently she thought we were going to Burning Man in the woods.
Annemarie laughed. “I’m also planning to live-blog this whole thing. You brought an extra cell charger, right?” I felt a bit of relief course through me—I might be sorely unqualified for this hike, but at least Annemarie was too.
The morning of our hike I repacked all my gear into my behemoth of a backpack, brushed my hair, put on makeup, and posed for what I assumed would be the only decent photo of me for the duration of the trip.
Facebook post: Off to hike in the woods. Do I look like a wilderness girl?
At 8am, our guide, Sarah, arrived to pick us up for the short drive to the trail’s end, where we’d meet her friend Christian, leave Sarah’s car, and then catch a ride to the start of the trail. Along the way, Sarah directed our attention out the window. “That’s where we’re going. That’s the Notch.” Nausea set in immediately; the Notch, a depression between two snow-capped peaks, seemed to loom miles above us.
“That’s the Notch?” Annemarie asked, incredulous. “What kind of a pervert would climb that?”
“I guess us,” I replied.
Instagram post: Here’s a pic of the mountain we’re about to climb. Yes, we’re idiots. #teamperverts
At the trailhead Christian helped us adjust our packs. “Wow,” he said, lifting mine onto my back, “that’s heavy. What do you have in there?” I detailed my supplies, though I neglected to mention the half bottle of wine I’d portioned into a plastic platypus bag.
“Come on,” Annemarie said, once we were fully adjusted and had snapped a photo of us beaming in front of the trail sign, “are you ready to go cry in the woods and talk about our feelings?”
Facebook post: Into the woods! #reenactingWild
Once the post published, I switched off the connection on my phone. Crushing Annemarie’s plans for live-blogging our adventure, Sarah had told us there was no cell service on the trail. As of this moment, we’d have no connection to the outside world for the next three days. Forget the Notch, I thought. This might be the hike’s biggest challenge.
The day started out easy enough, through shady forest with only the slightest incline, but still my shoulders and back ached under the weight of my pack. It was much heavier than I’d anticipated, and I began to worry how I was going to make it through all three days if it hurt this bad after just a few hours. Then Sarah gave me something more important to worry about: grizzly bears.
There are more than a hundred grizzly bears living in Jasper National Park and they sometimes cross paths with hikers, so Sarah had supplied us each with a canister of bear spray.
“Do we just spray it around our tents?” Annemarie asked.
“I don’t think it’s bear-repellent,” I replied. “I think it’s more like bear mace.”
Sarah nodded, but added that it was a last resort. The canisters hold only about eight seconds worth of spray, with a reach of just six feet. But Sarah assured us that it likely wouldn’t come to that. A better line of defense, she said, was to make enough noise that bears stayed away. If we did see a bear, we should keep our eyes down and try to appear nonthreatening. If the bear didn’t immediately move on, we should simply try saying, “Go away, bear,” a phrase that had proven successful for Sarah over the years. I was skeptical.
“Bears don’t really want to mess with you,” Sarah assured us, though she stressed that we should carry bear spray at all times, on the trail, in our tents, and while using the bathroom, and we should travel together whenever possible.
Annemarie shook her head. “Bears are out there and looking to kill,” she countered. “I think they are checking Facebook and the skyline trail hashtag. They’re tech savvy and they will find us.”
I decided to practice my aim with the bear spray.
After lunch, the trail began its first big climb. As we ascended above the treeline, views of the sun-dappled mountains that encircle the trail opened around us. Early in the hike, I’d decided to take photos of every mile of the trail—or at least what felt like every mile. By 3pm, when we began the descent to our campground on the valley floor, I was taking photos every few minutes.
By the time we made it to camp, we were exhausted, but there was still work to do before we could relax. First, Sarah showed us how to set up our tent and how to filter drinking water to replenish the two liters we’d consumed throughout the day.
After dinner, she pulled out a map to show us how far we’d come, and how far we still had to go. The next day would be much harder than the first. We’d cover a gradual ascent of five miles in the morning, stop for lunch at a lake, and then tackle the hardest part of the hike, the steep ascent to the Notch. The Notch, a ridge at more than 8000 feet of elevation, was the highest point on the trail.
After we made it to the top, we’d have to hike several more hours before reaching camp. Noticing our looks of concern—possibly panic, in my case—Sarah added that if we weren’t up to it or if the weather turned foul, there were several alternate routes we could take that would deviate onto other trails.
At camp, we were joined by a group of college-age men who seemed far too energetic to have hiked the same eight miles we’d covered, as well as a young Norwegian woman who was tackling the hike solo. She’d already hiked similar trails in the Alps and the Andes on her own. Like Sarah, she was a true “gutsy girl” while I was just playing one.
That night, we also met Mr. Lumpy. Mr. Lumpy was the official name given to the structure that passed for an open-air “bathroom” at each camp—a rickety wooden platform over a plastic five-gallon bucket. At each camp, it was inevitably located back in the woods, far away from the tents, so Annemarie and I decided to visit in pairs.
While Annemarie stood guard, holding her bear spray at the ready and repeatedly calling out, “No, bears. Go away, bears,” I balanced over the makeshift toilet’s rim, clutching my own bear spray in one hand and toilet paper in the other, and constantly swiveling my head around to look for the bears I assumed were hiding in the shadows, waiting to pounce while I was at my most vulnerable.
Before I traded positions with Annemarie, I snapped a quick selfie standing in front of Mr. Lumpy. I decided that if I survived this trip, I’d need proof of the many challenges I’d overcome along the way.
Back at camp, Annemarie’s glowsticks proved more valuable than my blindingly bright headlamp. The pink and purple sticks softly illuminated the tent in the growing dark. It was only 8pm, but I was having trouble staying awake and my back ached as though it was still carrying my heavy back.
“It feels like I’m still wearing my backpack,” I whined to Annemarie as I tried out different positions. “It’s like phantom limb, but worse. It’s phantom backpack.” I felt more tired than I ever had in my life.
“Okay, quick picture and then you can sleep,” Annemarie said, grabbing her phone. We each grinned and held a glowstick triumphantly aloft as Annemarie snapped a few shots. Within minutes, I was sound asleep.
The next morning, we shouldered our heavy packs at 8am and set out on a four-hour hike through a flower-filled meadow. Beyond the cobalt blue lake that would be our lunch stop, the trail became a faint, jagged line that seemed to run vertically up the mountain. The ascent was so steep, Sarah guessed it would take us nearly two hours to reach the Notch, and once there, we’d still have seven miles of hiking ahead.
“It’s going to be really hard,” she said, “and there are times you are going to be really scared, but you will not fall. You just need to trust your feet.” If we didn’t feel up to it, she reminded us, we could change our route, but once we reached a certain point on the ascent, there was no turning back.
My pack, stuffed with 30 pounds of supplies and the hefty weight of self-doubt, pulled on my shoulders and dug into my hips. My thighs shook with the fatigue of the morning’s ascent, my feet ached, and a familiar sour lump hit the back of my throat as my eyes welled with tears of exhaustion. We were 12 miles from the start of the hike, 15 miles from its end, and far away from my comfort zone.
With some doubt in my mind, I committed to the attempt.
As Sarah predicted, the climb was hard; with each step my pack seemed to get heavier as I labored up the trail, sliding on loose scree, wobbling on unstable rocks, or shoving my toes into crude stairs dug into the steepest parts. When the trail narrowed to the width of my foot and tilted towards a long plunge down the mountainside, I remembered Sarah’s assurance that I wouldn’t fall. Her instructions to trust my feet became a mantra, repeated with each unsteady step.
Each time I stopped to gasp for air or rest my shaking muscles, I could see the lake below shrinking smaller, as the views of the silver-tipped mountains expanded all around us. Finally, we reached the top. I should have been exhilarated, but I was exhausted. After the effort, the thought of covering seven more miles made me want to cry.
The only sound was the wind, and my own heavy breathing. And then, “Instagram!” Annemarie yelled suddenly, waving her phone in the air. “Instagram! People posted photos on Instagram and tagged this location. That means there’s cell service here!”
I toggled my phone off of airplane mode and watched as the bars of service blinked back to life and the phone’s icons counted the messages I’d received in the last 30 hours.
There were texted notes of encouragement, tweets from friends, and messages from my husband saying how proud of me he was, and that he was sure I was doing fine. I started to feel giddy as I scrolled through them. I wasn’t sure if it was the emotional boost from messages of friends and family rooting for me or simply the lack of oxygen to my brain but I suddenly felt like I could do anything. The next seven miles no longer worried me. I texted a quick note to my husband and posted a photo of Annemarie and me smiling high above the trail below, sharing it to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter with the push of a button.
During our brief celebration, indigo clouds had gathered above so it wasn’t long before Sarah herded us onward down the trail, and back out of cell range. We were far above the treeline and completely exposed to the elements – not a place we wanted to be in a storm. As tiny shards of hail pelted our packs, we hustled along the barren ridgeline and then back down to the valley floor and our camp for the night.
The next morning I woke up energized. We had only eight miles left, and most of it was downhill. Over breakfast, we celebrated how far we’d come, and I lamented that I was almost disappointed that we didn’t see a bear. “From far away,” I quickly clarified.
“Actually,” Sarah responded, “this is the campground where I usually see them. One morning two big males even tried to join us for breakfast. From here to the trail’s end is all grizzly habitat, so you still might have a chance to see one.”
As we packed up camp, Annemarie and I held our bear spray close at hand. I kept up my vigilance out on the trail too, at least at first. Eventually, I became caught up in the views, and daydreaming about the cold beer that was waiting for me in just a few miles.
And that’s when I saw it. The brown ball of fur that I was certain was a ferocious grizzly cub with razor-sharp claws. I didn’t even have time to fumble for my bear spray, or to scream the name of the animal I thought was about to attack.
Before I could process what I was really looking at, my panic was interrupted by Sarah and Annemarie doubled over in laughter.
The ferocious grizzly bear cub was a marmot.
I swallowed my embarrassment and focused on the chubby rodent as it slowed to a waddle. When it paused to sniff the ground a few yards from my feet, I crouched down and stretched my hand in the marmot’s direction. “It’s cute,” I said. “Can I make friends with it?”
“Sure,” Sarah replied. “They’re harmless. Well except some of them carry the plague….”
I settled for a photo of Annemarie posing a few feet from it.
Instagram post: Making new friends. #plaguemarmots
Three hours later, we reached the bottom of the trail. At the sight of the parking lot we all cheered with relief. We stopped for a photo at the sign marker for the trail’s end—photographic proof of our success—and then headed back to town where hot showers and cold beers awaited.
Facebook post: We’re done! Maybe we’re not gutsy girls, but we faced down wild animals and conquered a mountain. We even survived nearly three days without cell phones. I think that might be gutsy enough for me.