Recently I wrote about watching too many murder mysteries. Well, in an effort to diversify my viewing habits, I unwittingly surfaced an even scarier breed of entertainment: outdoor survival movies. It shouldn’t be surprising for me. After all, watching 127 Hours and Into the Wild weren’t just cautionary tales for me, they were horror stories pure and simple. As it turns out, as much as I am afraid of murderers and rapists like the vast majority of the population, my biggest fear is actually dying alone in nature. It may seem irrational, but given how much time I used to spend in the great outdoors, it is actually far more statistically probable than my being murdered.
This weekend, we watched a little-known Canadian movie called Backcountry. Years ago I watched a really bad made-for-tv horror movie about an insane predatory bear in the woods, so bad in fact that even a thorough Google search didn’t surface its name, and I expected Backcountry to be similarly kitschy, unrealistic and full of over-the-top bad special effects. Well, Backcountry was kitschy for sure, but it was also more terrifying than I expected. Long story short, a couple gets hopelessly lost in the Northern Ontario wilderness and then gets attacked by a really unusually pissed off black bear. I’ll spare you the spoilers but suffice it to say that there were many, many a scene that I actually couldn’t watch because it was too graphically awful and horrifying. And when someone wasn’t in the midst of a vicious bear attack, I was experiencing deeply unsettling discomfort at the thought of being so very lost in such a vast wilderness.
Perhaps the fear of being lost in nature comes naturally to me, care of many of my own near-getting-lost experiences, one of which actually occurred in Ontario’s wilderness. That was the near-getting-lost event that sticks with me the most because in the depths of Ontario’s forests there are no directional markers. Out West, I would be more likely to identify mountain ranges that would give me a sense of direction and, because the West is so mountainous, it always feels at least a relatively safe bet to just walk downhill. In Ontario, however, there are no peaks and valleys and I can personally attest to the fact that every “viewpoint” from escarpments in the forest looks identical, to the point that even within a two hour hike I convinced myself that my brother and I were walking in an endless circle, destined to die from hypothermia on an unseasonably cold day in October.
Alas, we clearly survived, but that experience has stuck with me. What made Backcountry even more terrifying was the added element of bear attack. I can think of nothing worse than being near death from a bear attack and also having no idea if you are heading towards safety or further into danger. To say watching this film was a bad way to spend a Saturday night is an understatement. Not only was I left emotionally scarred, albeit temporarily, but it also made me solemnly vow that:
I will never hike in Ontario again. Ever. Apparently, bears be crazy out there.
I will never go deep into any nature by myself again.*
I am done with outdoor survival films as a genre. My naturally anxious self does not need reminders of human vulnerability to the elements…and sadistic wildlife.
*I reserve the right to revoke this second statement at such time that the shock value from watching this film wears off, which is not quite yet, but hopefully soon.
Many of us hit the trails because they offer reprieve from the noise and stress and busyness of daily life. In nature, we find quiet, often solitude, and the ability to hear nothing but our own breath and footsteps. The calming effect cannot be denied. Research has shown that being in nature can lower blood pressure, stress hormones, heart rate and muscle tension. In other words, nature for the win!
Sometimes, though, we don’t find quiet and solitude on the trails. As an example, this weekend we tried to take my mom into Kananaskis to get her nature on. What we encountered en route was a highway jammed with traffic care of long weekends, and three accidents in a 50 kilometre stretch. A plan B was in order but, unfortunately, that plan B involved swarms of other nature seekers.
Instead of tranquility and solitude and the peaceful hush of nature, we found:
-a crowded parking with illegal parkers blocking valuable driving territory and hikers wandering aimlessly mid-road
-the constant drone of loud conversations
-trail “traffic jams” (i.e. getting stuck behind large groups and a steady stream of slow walkers)
-a canyon floor full of hikers milling about like cattle on the range, rendering humanless picture-taking a near impossible task
Sounds awful doesn’t it? It’s certainly not my ideal. The reality is that more of us are trying to escape to nature and you don’t always have the time nor energy (nor fitness level, in my case!) to seek out the more remote and lesser known trails. Never fear, though, for you can still enjoy the well-travelled trails even when they’re crowded. Here’s how:
1. Shift your mindset: When we arrived and I saw herd upon herd of hikers swarming the parking lot, my first thought was ‘get me out of here.’ But then I realized that we were out for a family day of fun, a little bit of fresh (albeit slightly smokey) air, and to celebrate my mom’s birthday. All she wanted was to be outdoors with her family. This trail met all those criteria. I had to get over my attitude.
2. Enjoy the company: If everyone else around you is going to be talking and yelling and laughing and hollering, join in the fun. Talk and laugh and drown out everyone’s noise with your own.
3. Whenever possible, choose the lesser-travelled path: Along the route there were numerous places where the path split and rejoined later. We always choose the lesser travelled trail and, in those moments, you could almost forget that there were upwards of a hundred other hikers within a kilometre of you.
4. Look up (waaaaaaay up…okay, that reference will be lost on anyone who isn’t a Canadian child of the 80s who watched the CBC classic the Friendly Giant): It was next to impossible to take a picture without people in it, unless I looked up. But there was so much to see that I would have missed otherwise: canyon walls (even some hieroglyphics!), blue skies, spired peaks, and even the odd hoodoo. Looking at things from a new perspective really can make all the difference.
And so, even if you’re forced to hike with the masses, you can still connect with the joy of nature. Get out there!
Sometimes my trail Tuesday posts start to feel like a steady string of PSAs. Perhaps I’m just becoming a worrier as I age. No matter, today I have yet another trail safety post, this time about staying sun safe in the mountains.
Being a ginger, I am no stranger to sunburns. Being a sissy when it comes to heat, I am also no stranger to minor heat stroke. In other words, sunshine and heat are no joke, and their effects are only amplified when hiking in the mountains. At altitude, less UV rays are blocked by the Earth’s atmosphere, something to the tune of 4% for every 1000 feet of elevation! Combine this with exertion, sweating and heat and you have a recipe for heat stroke and/or sunburn. Yikes!
sun safety for sunshiney trail days
1. Carry extra water: I used to carry tiny ass bottles of water for full day hikes. I never got thirsty. I have no idea why. That changed suddenly and inexplicably a few years ago when I started to experience dehydration in a big way and needed to carry tons of water. I have never experienced such a feeling of mental anguish and physical defeat as when i dropped my last water bottle off the side of the mountain at the tail end of a 32 km day hike in 30+ degree weather. I had to hike out the last 2.5 km, which doesn’t sound like much but it feels long when you’re thirsty, and then had to drive another half hour to get to any form of beverage-selling civilization. Even though I had consumed a full 2 L of water on the hike (before I dropped the last bottle), I was still kicking myself for not having more. Carry a lot of water. A lot.
2. Cover yourself: Wearing a hat, light-weight long-sleeved shirt and pants keeps the rays off your skin, meaning no unsightly sunburns. I used to think it was way hotter to hike in pants, but I’ve found as long as they’re loose fitting and light-weight fabric, they actually feel cooler than shorts. Plus, no one has to suffer the sight of my alarmingly pasty white legs. And don’t forget your sunglasses, particularly if you’re hiking anywhere with snow. Sunshine + snow = hella glare that you don’t want to deal with for hours on end without the benefit of sunglasses. Even if you’re not near snow, the effects of sunshine on your eyes can be quite damaging without UV-blocking sunglasses. If you’re like me and enjoy the wonder of sight, you do not want to mess with your eyes.
3. Sunscreen, sunscreen, sunscreen: I know, I know, sunscreen’s not actually good for you either. At least there are more and more natural sunblocks available on the market so you don’t have to fear that you’re trading off a sunburn in exchange for toxic chemicals. As I mentioned, hiking at high altitudes will make the sun’s rays even more damaging to your flesh, even if you think you don’t burn. One summer years ago, I had been hiking so regularly that my legs were beyond needing sunscreen for the average hiking excursion–or so I thought. Then one day I spent 2.5 hours on a ridge top in unobstructed sunshine and it proved to be too much for my delicate flesh. Between the length of time and higher elevation than my typical hikes, the backs of my legs were done like dinner. I have never had such a defined sunburn line nor a stark contrast between burned and normal flesh. In fact, the line of the sunburn was visible for months. Months. So yeah, wear your sunscreen (see also: cover yourself).
4. Watch for signs of heat stroke: Sometimes heat and exertion will just get the better of you. Pay attention to your body when you’re hiking in the sunshine. Yes, you’re going to get warm hiking in the summer sunshine, but there’s a difference between being hot and heat stroke. Keep an eye out for the following symptoms: headache, dizzyness or light-headedness, rapid heartbeat, nausea, weakness or lack of sweating despite heat. I’ve had mild heatstroke only a couple of times and it was noticeably different than just being hot and tired and, in my case, was definitely due to pushing the limits of distance and elevation gain in high temperatures without sufficient food and water. I’ve learned my lesson. If you see early signs, pay attention and act accordingly (i.e. do something to try to cool yourself down and avoid further overheating), instead of stubbornly continuing to climb upward as I did. That expression do as I say and not as I do is meant for people like me.
Okay, now I promise (I think) to avoid PSAing you to death. From now on in, you can just enjoy your hiking season.
Not all hiking days can be blue skies and sunshine. Particularly here on the west coast, regular hikers are going to encounter inclement weather, everything from low cloud to absolute downpours. Let’s be clear here, hiking in heavy rain sucks. Today’s tips are more for those days when weather is unsettled, the kind of day when you know the clouds are never going to part and it’s probably going to rain here and there, but not the kind of all-day-rain-fest that can happen in the mountains. No one wants to hike in that. Though it can be tempting to avoid hiking in iffy weather, sometimes you just want some fresh air, scenery and the healing power of nature.
The problem with hiking in crappy weather is that you’re probably not going to see a whole lot from the top of a mountain. Trust me, I’ve hauled ass up many a trail to see nothing but cloud.
Sure, it makes for a good workout, but it’s far better to save the epic mountain viewpoints for sunnier days. On a crappy days, the three W’s can help you keep your hiking mojo even in less than ideal conditions:
1. Wildflowers: Unlike mountain tops, wildflowers aren’t going to be obscured by clouds. On a crappy day, a hike through fields of wildflowers adds a pop of colour and some visual interest even if all the surrounding mountains are obscured by clouds. As a bonus, wildflowers actually photograph better in cloudy conditions than in full-on sunshine. If you get to know your area’s wildflower season and hot-spots, these become great destinations for less-than-perfect days.
2. Water: Select a trail that leads to a waterfall or a jewel-toned lake. Similar to wildflowers, jewel-toned lakes pop in grey conditions. Because they’re often found at the base of mountains, those pesky clouds won’t get in your way either. As for waterfalls, they tend to be underrated even though they can be simply stunning. They’re also more likely to be found at slightly lower elevations, meaning good visibility even in the worst of conditions. Seeking out both these destinations will keep you from slogging along a ridge line during a torrential downpour.
On a mini road trip this weekend, had the good fortune of seeing a fuzzy little friend from the safety of our car. There, directly on the edge of the highway, munching on a rather large clump of grass, was a juvenile black bear. We slowed down enough that he wouldn’t get frightened and potentially bolt onto the highway, and we drove past him so slowly that I could see how very large and very terrifying his claws looked. Eek! It got me thinking about being bear aware in the mountains.
I have a deeply rooted fear of bear encounters, coupled with an absolute fascination with reading about bear attacks. It all started with watching a supposedly educational short film in an outdoor amphitheatre in a relatively secluded campground in the Canadian Rockies at night. Why they would show these types of films to campers at night is beyond me, especially when it featured a bear attack survivor who had quite literally done everything right. What did he get for his bear savvy? Half of his scalp was torn off in the middle of the night, and the bear accomplished this feat through the camper’s tent fabric (!!!!!). And so, my healthy fear of bears/bear attack fascination was born.
I’ve spent all of my hiking years since desperately trying to avoid running into bears while hiking, which included a lot of reading about what does/doesn’t work. Today, I share the wisdom of my years of hiking, research and reading. The goal is to keep you from unintentionally surprising a bear on trail since the element of surprise is most closely tied to bear attacks.
Full disclosure: I’m not an expert by any means, but I’ve also never been attacked by a bear so…I must be doing something right.
Do’s and Don’ts: Keeping Bears Out of Sight (but not out of Mind)
Don’t rely on bear bells: This is likely one of two controversial statements I’ll make in today’s posts. I think bear bells are a waste of time. Not only is the incessant tinkling annoying as hell when you’re trying to enjoy nature, but there is a lot of research that suggests they are not loud enough nor jarring enough to warn bears of your presence. This is particularly true around rushing water. My father insists on using his bear bell often, and sometimes I can’t even hear it one or two switchbacks away from him even without running water. They just aren’t loud. If you choose to use one, fair enough, but know that you may need to make extra noise in certain trail environments.
Don’t rely on bear spray: Yup, this one’s probably controversial too. But hear me out: I am not saying don’t carry it if it gives you some peace of mind, but I am saying don’t rely on it so much so that you’re not following other bear-aware basics. Personally, I don’t carry bear spray. It’s partly because I’ve tended to hike relatively popular and well-travelled trails, but it’s mostly because I know myself well enough to know that I would not be able to hold my shit together well enough to deploy it if it were necessary. If a bear is charging me, I’m going to panic. My better option is to do everything I can to minimize an encounter. The reality is that bear spray is a last resort and works to the extent that you can calmly aim and fire at the right time and distance. If you’re cool under pressure, you’re a better man/woman than I.
Do use your voice: Loud, frequent human voices seem to be widely recognized as the best way to avoid unwittingly surprising bears. This isn’t just talking to your buddies, though. It’s actually yelling. Back when I worked at a mountain lodge, the hiking guides were trained to get their groups making noise by yelling out “heeeeey bear” to which the rest of the group would yell at the top of their lungs “bear!”. Is it embarrassing? Hell, yes. Is it louder than a bear bell? Also, hell yes. I used to be mortified at the thought of someone hearing me yell to myself, but I just remind myself of things like the scene in The Revenant where my dear Leo becomes a chew toy for a grizzly.
Do heed bear warnings and closures: Bear warnings and area closures are put in place because there have been bear sightings and potentially even bears exhibiting aggressive behaviours. It’s best to wait until warnings and closures are removed. If you choose to hike anyway, make sure you’re fully prepared and, preferably, travelling with others.
Don’t assume that a lack of bear warnings means there aren’t bears: A couple summers ago, the rest of my family was out hiking on a very crowded, very popular trail on the Icefields Parkway. Despite hordes of people, they rounded a bend only to see a giant grizzly up ahead. They were able to back away slowly and safely, and no other hikers were harmed that day. The moral of this story is: bear encounters can happen any time/anywhere, even when there are no posted warnings.
Do pay attention to your surroundings: Keep an eye out for diggings, scat, bear prints, or carcasses. Any of these signs could mean a bear is in the area. Depending on the how fresh the signs are, you may want to hustle a bit faster or even retreat. I was once hiking a slightly more remote trail with zero other cars in the parking lot when I encountered one pile of fresh-looking scat, followed by another, followed by another, the last of which was literally steaming in the cool morning air. That was the end of that hike. Also be extra vigilant when hiking through berry bushes, particularly when berries are in season. It’s not just obvious signs, though. Anywhere you could unintentionally sneak up on a bear warrants some extra caution–shoulder high scrub, sharp turns in the trail, or hiking alongside raging creeks and rivers are all good environments in which to make some extra noise and keep an eye out.
Do hike with others as much as possible: There’s safety in numbers. A lot trails in Banff National Park actually have restrictions for groups of 4 or 6 hikers because attacks on groups are much less common. Even when restrictions aren’t in place, it’s better to hike with others (not just for bear safety, either!). People are natural noise makers, and even two humans looks more physically intimidating than one human.
I likely sound like a paranoid bear-phobic (I’m sure there’s a correct term for this, but I’m too lazy to look at up). I assure you that’s far from the truth. My fear of bear encounters has never caused me to avoid hiking and, really, as much as I call it a fear, it’s more of an incredibly healthy respect. Still, I’m going to do whatever I can to avoid ending up like that guy from the campground amphitheatre video…or poor Leo in the Revenant. Yikes.
Can I tell you about something that fills me heart with even more terror than the thought of being attacked by a 500 lb grizzly bear, that has caused me to abandon hiking plans a full 2.5 km into a trail, and that makes me look a crazy, skittish, jumpy freak on the trails?
Ready for it? It’s walking through spiderwebs.
I know it’s ridiculous for a grown adult/outdoor enthusiast to have such an irrational fear of not just spiders but also their empty webs. I live in a place where there are incredibly, incredibly few (in fact, I’m not sure there’s really any) deadly spiders. Those empty webs are just as bad as they serve as a powerful reminder of terrifying spiders’ existences. Plus, I loathe that feeling of wispy strands of spiderwebs clinging to my flesh, invisible to the eye, harmless, and yet so incredibly icky. I try to remind myself that spiders are good for the ecosystem, that they mean me no harm, that their webs are just their way of catching a mid-day snack. All of that works only as long as they stay off my trails.
Particularly in early mornings, when few if any hikers have passed through a trail, the risk of spiderweb encounters is at its peak. But even when trails are crowded, I have been amazed at how quickly new webs are spun. It’s like spiders don’t learn that it’s not really worth it to work their magic across well-trodden paths. As a result of this unpredictability, I’m always on watch and always at risk of making an utter fool of myself. Here are just a number of ways in which I have embarrassed myself when encountering spider webs on trails:
–Forced my father or friends to walk ahead of me for significant portions of the trail for the explicitly stated purpose of knocking down spider webs. The taller the person, the more likely I am to rope them into lead hiker/spider-web-killer.
–Walked for several kilometres swinging my fully-extended hiking pole up and down in front of me like a crazy person to try to knock down any spider webs that may be in my path.
–Shrieked such that friends have been certain I was actually being attacked by a ferocious forest beast. In fact, once when I was a child, my father actually got angry with me for doing this. I was off playing in the woods by our campsite when I passed through a spiderweb and screamed bloody murder. My father ran through the woods convinced I’d suffered some legitimate injury or attack only to find me perfectly fine (aside from the emotional trauma, of course). Apparently it’s super uncool to cry wolf in the woods.
–Repeatedly thrown small branches or rocks at the spider and his web in an effort to knock it down so I can continue without fear of the spider/web potentially landing on me. This sounds simple and straightforward, and yet I’m so afraid of getting close to the web that I end up throwing both rocks and branches from such a distance that the branches don’t reach the web or the rocks veer off target. You do not want to know how much time I’ve spent employing this tactic.
–Stood there for five minutes having an internal argument with myself about whether I can possibly continue on the trail. I am embarrassed to admit I have turned around before…after hiking 2.5 steep kilometres…when I only had one day for adventuring in the area. In my defence, this was a mammoth spider smack dab in the middle of the trail and about the fourth of its kind I had encountered in the last kilometre alone, all of which I’d had to “clear” with the aforementioned stick/rock throwing technique and under extreme emotional duress.
–Had a minor panic attack and proceeded to spend the next ten minutes furiously trying to dislodge a spider from my person (with no evidence to confirm that a spider was even on my person). Imagine something akin to the running move in Flashdance. Actually, let me provide a better visual, which is Chris Farley doing the Flashdance dance in Tommy Boy. In other words, it’s not pretty.
What I’m really getting at here is that, if I could have a super power, it would be to make spider webs in my path magically disappear, without harming the spiders of course. Also, I would happily accept a permanent hiking lead/spider-web-knocker-downer to be at my beck and call for the remainder of hiking season.
ps. One last sad fact: I was going to insert a picture with this post but even the Google image screen of spiderwebs was too terrifying a prospect.
We have had an absolutely amazing couple of weeks weather-wise. For me, any time the sun shines for days on end, I start to feel guilty at the thought of staying indoors or working out at the gym. The trails begin calling to me. Once I answer their call, once I taste that first trail of the season where there is actually a view, where the air’s aroma is that perfect mix of dry pine needles and all the greens of Spring, where the tree canopy offers just the right amount of shade from what’s starting to become a sweltering sun, I am a goner for the rest of the season. I’ll see you on the trails.
This is the state I’ve found myself in these last couple of weeks. I want to hike. I crave the terrain, the search for ever-higher viewpoints, the familiar rhythm of my steps up steep slopes. The only problem is that my body hasn’t caught up with my mind. Instead, my body is like ‘holy f#^@, girl, you are way too outta shape for this!”
In recent years, a large part of my identity rested on being ‘the hiker girl’. I loved that I was fast on the trail, that I could cover so much ground in a day, that I rarely felt that even the steepest of trails were all that difficult. Now, trails that I would have deemed too easy to even warrant my time leave my lungs winded and my legs sore and exhausted. In the last four days, I’ve hiked three times, a combined total of 32 km on easy to moderate trails. That was often a one-day distance tally for me and, even spread out over three days, it has left me sluggish and ready for a break. I have used this word before, but ‘humbling’ is the best word I can think to describe it.
No matter how much I want to jump right back into the types of trails I’ve been accustomed to, I won’t be able to do so right away…at least not without accepting that it will be slower, feel harder and, because of this, lead to some frustration. It doesn’t feel good to be in the position where things that were once so easy and natural feel impossibly hard again. The road to injury recovery truly is long. It has highs, it has lows, and it involves many, many (many) rough patches. Even though I am moving forward, ever-so-slowly regaining my hiking mojo, it often feels like two steps back (bonus points for anyone who has that classic Paula Abdul song stuck in their head right now…and I’m sorry).
Every time I push myself on more challenging, steeper and longer trails, it feels like I am right back at square one. I have been here before, though, a decade ago when I took up hiking and made it a mainstay in my life. I have just conveniently forgotten what it felt like to work hard to gain trail legs, growing complacent as my fitness plateaued at a high level. If I pause and reflect on the past, I know that what I’m going through now is just a part of the process, and that every journey has its valleys and its peaks. I’m just looking forward to getting back to one of those peaks some time soon. Until then, I will find solace in the fact that the tired legs and overly laboured breathing are exactly what I need to get me there.