Ed Watson

The Great Outdoors – by Ed Watson


Image: Ascent Xmedia

It’s not difficult to make a track that looks like the footprint  of a grizzly bear. Just remember: Grizzlies have large claws, much larger than black bears. I learned how to create several animal tracks when I was young. Among boys like me who grew up in the country, rabbit, wolf and bear tracks were the most popular to replicate. I wasn’t great at making tracks, but I avoided track shaming by developing a great raven call.

I was thinking of my childhood as I stooped over a muddy section of a back country trail in Banff National Park. It was a well travelled route near Johnston Canyon that slowly climbed through a open forest of scrub pine and spruce. It wasn’t particularly scenic but periodically you’d get a peak at the beautiful peaks that make Banff so popular.

Stooped down, I was talking myself through the fine points of making a grizzly bear track. “Push into the mud with the heel of your palm to make the paw pad. Roll your knuckles over the new impression in the mud to make 5 dimples above the paw pad. Now use a stick to make the claw marks right above the dimples. Remember big claws for a grizzly.”

Straightening up, I admired my work. “Not bad” I thought to myself.

“It won’t fool a park warden or a good hunter, but it’s enough to scare the snot out of a Banff tourist.” Turning, I walked down the trail feeling quite pleased with myself. (As a boy I was a practical joker too, and some things never change.)

I recently stayed in Banff National Park, for the first time in about 30 years. (As opposed to just driving through it.) Without question the park is in a spectacularly beautiful area. But I made a discovery that disturbed me. Sometime during the past 3 decades Banff has evolved into a Rocky Mountain theme park. Near town you can lounge in hot springs, ride a gondola, have tea in one of the most over priced hotels in the country, take tour bus rides or meander down sidewalks literally jammed with souvenir grabbing tourists. Outside town, Banff is now a sort of  “Jurassic World” in the Rockies. Instead of velociraptors, grizzly bears and wolves are the main threat. Park signage is constantly assaulting you with reminders that you could be eaten by these animals. The signage adds to the feeling that Banff is somehow an island of civilization in a sea of wilderness, not the other way around. And visitors love it.

According to an article by the CBC, Banff National Park attracted 1.573 million visitors between April and July of this year. That’s an increase of 4.9 per cent from the year before and a 25.5 per cent increase over the same months in 2011. And why is the place so popular? There’s no question Banff National Park is remarkably scenic and the town has a likeable vibe. But less enchanting to me is the version of “wilderness” Banff National Park offers up. Its isn’t too scarey, or too dangerous, or too wild. And that’s a pity.

Wilderness should by it’s very definition be somewhat frightening. In true wild areas humans aren’t respected, or protected and our foolish actions often end badly for us. I believe that’s a good thing, if for no other reason that it teaches us that we’re not in control. I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of the people visiting Banff live in cities. In a city everything is made and managed by people. It leads to a collective hubris suggesting that somehow we rule the world. That attitude even permeates our language; “Wildlife Control Officer…” etc and promotes the vain idea that we can “manage” our surroundings. Again and again that premise has been proven false when it comes to the environment. Nature treats us with indifference. As it should. If you can get avoid the Banff tours promising a “wildlife safari….with no walking involved”,  you recognize that wilderness is awe inspiring, frightening, majestic, and deserving of more respect.

Members of conservation groups bemoan what they see as Parks Canada’s increased focus on the development of national parks at the expense of wilderness preservation. The counter argument suggests that bringing more people into parks leads to a better understanding of nature. But it seems to me that we’re increasingly bringing along more and more city every time we go into natural areas. I’m talking about motorhomes, 5th wheels and large trailers where nature lovers spend the evening sitting inside watch videos as their generator blares away.

Consider this: An admittedly somewhat odd analogy. You must speak the language to understand the culture. We can visit France and marvel at the historic sites, but we don’t expect to learn French culture without speaking the language. The wilderness has a language too. Urban living has removed that dialect from the vocabulary of most Canadians. Forget French and English, the divide between rural and urban is today’s tale of the two Canadian solitudes.

As I walked down the mountain trail that day, towards the highway, I heard the sound of music echoing through the woods. It broke the silence of the forest and I muttered under my breath. Soon two women appeared, one of them holding an iPhone which was loudly playing U2’s Rattle and Hum.

“We were told by the warden to make noise while walking on the trail”, one of the women told me. “We don’t have a bear bell, so we’re playing loud music.”

They then warned me about the bear crap they’d seen on the trail. I’d seen the dung too, but they didn’t seem convinced when I told them it was actually made by a horse. They were unsure about whether to proceed any farther, but I encouraged them to go on.

“Just make sure you’re on the look-out for bear tracks.” I almost said. But I bit my tongue.

In fact I felt a bit sorry for them. After they’d left and were out of sight I went back up to where I’d made the track. They’d walked right over it and apparently didn’t notice a thing.

I rubbed out the track and as I turned again towards the parking lot I thought,

“Playing a practical joke on someone is kinda pointless if they can’t understand your language.”

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