Two hours into our trip west the scenery changes. Poplar scrub and spruce trees give way to real prairie–the kind you can imagine teeming with bison. We scan the horizon for mule deer and pronghorn antelope while sweat trickles down our stomachs (the air conditioner doesn’t keep up with the sun) and inhale the smell of blooming canola. When the mountains finally appear we debate whether it’s really the Rockies or just low cloud accumulation. Forty miles outside of Waterton National Park they still look like a mirage; a cardboard scene from a children’s pop-up book. But after four days of camping, 30 km of hiking, a paddle, and a steady diet of mountain dirt (on Vivian’s part) it becomes a little more real.
We set up two tents because we’re not sure we’ll all fit into one anymore. And even if we could, nobody but her mother is willing to sleep with Vivian. While I nurse her through each night I have plenty of time to remember how scared I’d been (and everybody else I talked to) about all the bears at Waterton. Now that we’re here, lying on the ground listening to the wind rush down the pass, it doesn’t seem nearly as frightening. Part of this is due to the bear documentaries I watched beforehand, the internet search showing the last fatal attack in the area had been 40 years prior, and that Stan is sleeping beside the hatchet in the next tent over. Mostly though, I think my sense of ease comes from just being here. The unknown is a fertile breeding ground for fear and simply seeing where we are, not imagining how it might be, allays my worry. Tucking our tent into the shadow of Crandell Mountain no longer seems like I’m offering my baby into the jaws of a hungry grizzly, but a perfectly rational vacation plan.
I’m actually surprised we see any wildlife at all (two bears while hiking and several other from our vehicle) with the ruckus we make on the trails. Susanna is a live bear bell, emitting constant noise, whether it’s shrieks, chatter, or song. Medleys pour out in an unconscious stream and I hear I got my first real six string… then Amazing grace how sweet the sound and Para bailar la bamba one after the other. After an hour of Fill Up My Cup and experimental harmonies with her sister, we put a ban on singing. We decide the risk of running into a bear is less dangerous than subjecting parents to more music.
On Day 3, we’re about 25 meters from the Summit Lake trail head when a couple coming down the mountain approaches us.
“You guys heading up?” the man asks. We nod and he continues, “It’s six turns. Just count those switchbacks, they’re wicked.” Then he gives us an appraising look and adds, “You might be able to make it.”
His partner isn’t so sure. She groans and leans onto her climbing poles. “It’s bad… took us 4 hours… and my feet…” She seems to have forgotten she’s mid-conversation and whimpers, “Oh, my feet…”
Stan and I turn to look at each other. Our girls are pretty strong but what have we gotten into? Are we being totally irresponsible?
“I’ll turn back and buy more food; just go slow and I’ll catch up,” I say. Stan sets off with Vivian on his back and the other two trudge ahead, gearing up for what feels like the hike of their life. I reach the small concession and stuff twenty dollars worth of chips and chocolate bars into my pack before running back to catch them. We count turns, stop for breaks, and lumber onward under the weight of their warning. The climb is hard and long but it doesn’t take us four hours, not even three. Had we not run into the doomsayers at the beginning we would’ve surely made it in less time, but we were affected by their comments and the ominous unknown. Again, ignorance is not always bliss–unless you count the extra chocolate bars we got out of the deal.
The last day we choose a hike we know nothing about, except that it’s 8 km and involves a waterfall. It turns out to be our favourite; the open meadows carpeting the edge of the mountain, old growth forest, rushing water, fireweed, bear grass and arnica all make it interesting. But not interesting enough. When our six-year-old friend William starts to tire, along with Belén and Susanna, the stories start. Shanon and I take turns leading the line of hikers onward with our words. They put one foot in front of the other because they want to hear what happens when you steal a 25 cent ring from the store or when you fall asleep during class in grade six. Soon everyone is taking turns telling stories about when they were little, or in other words, what happened last week. Each new storyteller moves to the front of the line, like a needle tugging thread, and pulls us down the mountain.
At the end of our long drive back home we stop at Cafe Francais and try to look more civilized than a bunch of tired, smokey campers. While tasting lattes and pastries we debrief about the trip: the horseback ride, Belén and Stan waking up at 5:30 to climb to a alpine lake, the filthy carpet at the cheap motel, the underground tunnels, the thick slices of bacon at the Puckett’s cabin, and the grizzlies we never saw. Knowing what we know now, I’d definitely go back–and worry less beforehand. But we would still take the hatchet.
Thanks for reading along,