Wildlife Safety on the Great Divide Trail
Let me start by wishing everyone a Happy New Year. To safe and sublime adventures in 2020.
As the Great Divide Trail (GDT) winds its way north, it passes through many remote sections of the Canadian Rockies. The entirety of the route is in bear country (including some prime grizzly habitat) and as you travel through these areas of true wilderness there is always the potential for an encounter with wildlife. Before I go too far, the most dangerous part of hiking the GDT is the drive to and from the trailhead followed by trips, sprains, hypothermia, and lightning. The chance of being injured or killed by wildlife is virtually zero; however, there are several things you can do to reduce the risk of an unpleasant encounter.
What You May Encounter
Those are hoofed animals (deer, elk, caribou, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, moose, and on some parts of the trail, cattle). While ungulates are generally only aggressive during rutting season (which happens in the fall), some (like moose) can be territorial. Due to their size, weight, and antlers/horns, they can do a fair bit of damage should you get charged or trampled. Most of the time these animals will simply ignore your presence, or leave the area. It’s best to give them space and not approach too closely. If they start to become aggressive (snorting, barring teeth), back away. If they charge you RUN and try to put something (like a tree) between you and them. Since ungulates are not predators, they will not be triggered by running away.
These are the ones most people worry about. Bears are large, fast, and rarely, can cause serious injury. Grizzly bears are generally larger, and can be distinguished by the hump on their back, short rounded ears, and a distinctive concave face.
Bears are omnivores, although on the GDT most of their calories come from tubers and berries (A grizzly can eat 250,000 buffalo berries a day). When it comes to meat, they are opportunistic scavengers. Closer to the coast, fish can make up an important part of their diet, but you won’t find this on the GDT.
The best way to avoid grizzly bears is to look for bear sign. Fresh scat (bear poop looks similar to a person who’s eaten nothing but berries), fresh diggings (as they search for buried tubers and insects), or fresh prints. If you are traveling into the wind (bears have a tremendous sense of smell) make noise (such as calling out “hey bear” every once and a while; bear bells are useless for this). If a bear knows you are there, they are less likely to be surprised and will often just leave the area.
There are two types of bear encounter.
By far, the most frequent is the defensive encounter. When a bear is surprised, its main objective will be to either get out of the area, or make sure you are no longer a threat. Back away (do not run), try to put something between you and the bear, and get ready to deploy your bear spray. The bear may attempt to bluff charge you (charge and then run away at the last moment). If the bear makes contact, drop to your stomach, cover your neck with your arms and spread your legs to ensure you don’t get flipped over (letting your backpack protect you). Then play dead. In most cases, the grizzly will leave you alone, or do so after a swipe or two. Should the bear actually start eating you, see the next paragraph.
While climbing a tree is common advice, unless you’re next to a perfect tree and a great climber, I wouldn’t bother. Grizzly bears are fast and have a long reach, meaning you’ll have a matter of seconds to get more than 20 feet in the air. Oh, and some grizzly bears do climb trees.
Much rarer is the predatory encounter. In this case, the bear sees you as food and will be trying to kill and consume you. In this case you’ll want to fight back in any way that you can. Nose, eyes and ears are soft targets, hiking poles can be effective weapons as well. Should you be attacked in your tent at night, treat it as a predatory encounter. Again, I will reiterate, these are EXTREMELY rare, and becoming more so as land managers work to ensure that bears associate humans with danger.
Black bears are not always black, but they are generally smaller than grizzly bears, have long pointed ears and a prominent muzzle. They are more likely to be found in forested areas and have a less aggressive disposition. Many of the same techniques can be applied to black bears as you would to grizzly bears.
For more information on bears check out www.bearsmart.com
Cougars (Mountain Lions)
While extremely rare, it is possible to encounter a cougar on the trail. Like most predators they are generally creatures of opportunity and more likely to target pets, children, or small adults. The easiest way to avoid cougars is to travel in groups and be observant. Should you encounter one, act big, make noise, and wave your hiking poles around. As long as you can convince them that you’re more hassle than you’re worth, they’ll leave you alone. Whatever you do, don’t run from a cougar. As a predator, this may trigger a predatory response, and they are much faster than you.
What to Bring
I strongly recommend carrying bear spray at all times on the trail. It should be easily accessible via a holster on your hip belt or shoulder strap (and in your tent at night). Think of bear spray as aerosol hot sauce. It is designed to irritate the eyes, nose, and mouth of anything you might bump into on the trail (including you or your party).
Should you encounter a potentially dangerous animal on the trail, you’ll want to grab the canister and remove the safety clip (most sprays also have a tie that is used during shipping that needs to be removed before taking it on the trail). If you can, you’ll want to be upwind before deploying the spray and ideally it’s a good idea to put something between you and the animal in question (such as a tree). Check the range on your canister, as it can vary from 15 feet to 35 feet. Should the animal charge you, rather than trying to aim for their head, lay down a “wall” of spray, moving from left to right and back again. If you do use your spray, you’ll want to leave the area as soon as you can as it can act as an attractant.
Training canisters can be purchased that do not contain the active capsicum ingredient. These are a great way to familiarize yourself with how to use your bear spray. Try to get the same brand of training canister as the one you carry on the trail as characteristics vary between brands. If you want to learn more, many outdoor stores and parks offer occasional bear safety days or seminars.
Bear spray can be brought across the border and is readily available for purchase at resupply points along the trail for ~$50 Canadian.
Something you can carry in addition to bear spray, bear bangers are a type of firework that attaches to a pen flare launcher. They use a small propellant charge to launch into the air and then explode with an impressive bang. Bear bangers are more used to scare animals away if they refuse to leave an area rather than as an immediate defense like bear spray.
Bear bangers cannot be brought across the border
Similar to bear bangers, air horns can be used to encourage animals to leave an area. They should be carried in addition to bear spray
Firearms in Canada
While carrying firearms for wildlife protection is a controversial topic in the US, laws in Canada make it impractical along the GDT. Handguns are highly restricted in Canada, requiring special licenses and permits to transport or carry.
Rifles can be brought into Canada by filling out a nonresident firearm declaration form; however, a large portion of the trail passes through national and provincial parks that have additional regulations restricting their use. National parks require rifles to be stored unloaded and secured within a vehicle at all times, while provincial parks require rifles to be transported unloaded, and either disassembled or kept in a case. While there are sections of crown land and in wildland provincial parks where regulations are somewhat more permissive (where hunting is allowed), the logistics make it pretty much impossible to bring a firearm with you.
Encounters in Camp
While bear encounters are the number one fear, most of the issues you face in camp are going to be from rodents and other animals looking for an easy meal. The best way to protect yourself from these encounters is to practice good food hygiene. While folks on the PCT or AT can often get away with storing food in their tent, I wouldn’t recommend this on the GDT. I’ve seen porcupines tear a day pack to shreds to liberate a granola bar and ravens peck a hole through a margarine lid to get to the greasy goodness inside. In addition, the longer distances between supply points means the loss of your food can have bigger consequences. Should you lose your food on the remote northern sections of the trail, it can be as long as a week to the next resupply.
Keeping your camp clean also helps protect those who come after you; once animals associate a location with human food they are more likely to return, and over time they’ll become less and less intimidated by humans, causing problems for everyone. Every year, bears are euthanized as they become human habituated.
There are several ways to protect your food (really any scented item including liquid fuel, soaps and hand sanitizer).
Many established campgrounds in provincial parks will have food lockers. These shared lockers allow you to store any scented items while you’re away from your tent. There often aren’t enough lockers for each site to have their own, so be considerate and share. Remember, these lockers are not garbage containers, nor hiker boxes. Make sure you take everything you bring.
Food Hangs (Established)
In the national parks you’re more likely to find established food hangs. You’ll want to bring a carabiner to attach your food bag and I would recommend a waterproof bag as some of these hangs are exposed to wind and rain.
These are great at established campsites, but for much of the trail, you’ll be on your own when it comes to protecting your food.
Unlike some jurisdictions in the US, there is no requirement to use bear canisters along the GDT. However, some folks do make use of them as they offer an easy way to protect their food and scented items. If you choose to use a bear canister, make sure it’s large enough to hold all the food you’ll need on the longer sections of the trail (upward of 14 days).
I picked up an Ursack when a friend and I hiked the Teton Crest Trail in 2016. Since then I’ve been really happy with using it on more remote adventures. These Kevlar bags will prevent animals from eating your food, but they won’t prevent it from being crushed if a bear decides to use it as a chew toy. That said, they are much lighter and don’t take up as much space as a bear canister.
Food Hangs (DIY)
Lastly, there is the old school food hang. I could write a whole article on these and there are many online resources that show you how to set up a food hang. It can take a while to get the hang of these (pun intended) so practice a few times before you head out onto the GDT.
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