“Bear on the right.” Our minibus slowed behind the line of cars pulled up on the verge. The large, big-bellied female was stripping the berry bushes with her claws, fixated on feeding and oblivious to the fuss.
Chocolate-brown, with a hump of dark bristle between her shoulders, close-set eyes and rounded ears, she provided our first encounter with a grizzly. We’d already seen a small, black bear with her little cub lolloping along the road, but there was nothing cuddly about this one.
It was thrilling to see such a powerful animal in its natural habitat but I felt a twinge of anxiety that we would soon be stepping out of the bus and spending the next two weeks walking among these creatures with no more protection than a can of pepper spray.
We were beginning a “15-day High Trails of the Canadian Rockies” tour, which includes visits to the national parks of Banff, Jasper, Waterton Lakes and Yoho on what proved to be a superb cherry-pick of 10 full-day hikes through some of the most scenic landscapes in the Rockies.
But what made this trip different for me was not so much the bears or the scenery, but that it was for women only.
Like the others, I was looking for an active, outdoor break and a chance to make new friends, but I had also hoped that the lack of overly competitive men might create a more supportive atmosphere. Whether this factor contributed or not, the group was certainly supportive, and this was an important aspect since the physical challenge of two weeks under canvas combined with hard, if often exhilarating, hikes proved testing on a number of occasions.
There were six of us in the party: a couple from New Zealand and four from the UK (two friends travelling together and two solo travellers, including myself). Our ages ranged from mid-30s to mid-60s and we were led by 30-year-old Thalia who grew up in Banff and had been exploring the Rockies since childhood. She was quick to reassure us about the bears. “They’re very shy,” she said.
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“They won’t bother us unless they feel threatened. The best thing to do is chat loudly so that they know we’re coming. If one comes too close, a squirt of bear spray will be more than enough to send it packing.”
“We’ve overslept, it’s five past seven,” my tentmate would groan as we struggled to get ready for the daily 7am breakfast and 8.15am departure. Thalia was much tougher than the rest of us. She was up by 5.30am to prepare the food; however, we had to do all of the washing-up, put up and dismantle the tents when we moved camp, and cope with earth closets, a lack of showers, and long walks carrying heavy daypacks.
The camp food was good. Breakfast included French toast and Spanish omelettes, and Thalia even prepared eggs Benedict for us on one morning. Hearty plates of Moroccan stew, pasta, Thai curry and stir-fry featured on the evening menu. But it was fitness that had been my chief concern ahead of the trip. The briefing notes had advised three hours of exercise a week in the lead-up to departure and, as an occasional parkrunner and power-walker, I was reasonably confident that I’d manage to stay the course.
As it turned out, I felt like an amateur compared with the others, who included a six-time marathon-runner, a triathlete and others who had recently trekked in the Dolomites, walked the Camino de Santiago and completed the UK Coast to Coast Walk. Luckily, Thalia was a supportive, inclusive guide and her steady stride ensured that the pace suited everyone in the party.
Steadiness proved to be essential. The glacial landscape of the Canadian Rockies, with its elephant-grey limestone peaks, broad alpine lakes, lush wild flower meadows and thick forests of spruce, pine and fir, is spectacularly beautiful. But the ascents are long and steep, and you have to work hard to get to the view points. Over the fortnight, we averaged 10 miles a day, which doesn’t sound much until you add in the elevation gain. In all, we climbed some 30,500ft – that’s about 1,640ft higher than Mount Everest.
Squeezed and compressed into high ranges more than 55 million years ago, then battered, scoured, scraped and eroded by vast, creeping glaciers, this breathtaking but unforgiving environment can turn from benign to threatening in minutes. We were glad to be walking with a knowledgeable guide equipped with medical supplies and radio contact.
Every walk had a different emphasis. The most memorable for me was the hike to Crypt Lake in Waterton Lakes National Park with a boat trip to reach the start, a long ascent through mountain forest up Hell Roaring Creek then a scramble through an 82ft rock tunnel to a remote stretch of water straddling the US-Canadian border.
Also vivid in my memory are the swathes of wildflowers that we passed on our hike to Helen Lake in Banff’s Sawback Range where the August meadows were ablaze with white yarrow, mauve fireweed, orange Indian paintbrush, Alpine bluebells, yellow arnica and purple fleabane.
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And the walk to view the ethereal, aquamarine waters of Lake Louise from a 4,125ft high point on the Plain of Six Glaciers was a standout moment. In the second week, our visit to the Athabasca Glacier on the Columbia Icefield made the hanging valleys, lateral moraine and syncline rock terminology of distant school geography lessons come alive.
I loved all of the wildlife, too. Iwas wary of bears and cougars, but this unspoilt region is also home to elk and moose, marmots, ground squirrels, big-horned sheep and pika – tiny rabbit-like mammals who live in the rocky crevices. High above circled the occasional eagle and osprey.
So, was it really better without men? There was certainly enough chatting to scare the bears, and we bonded well, quickly developing a strong sense of group camaraderie. In-group jokes and shared enjoyment of being outside in fresh air outweighed the occasional niggle. Before long, everything was being passed around, from tissues to boiled sweets, blister plasters to insect bite cream, and there was a huge sense of mutual support and encouragement.
There was also a common concern over walking-boot tans (“Embrace your sock line,” urged Thalia), post-hike stretches (“Bend over, soften your knees and hang your head like a coconut”) and access to hot showers (“Don’t worry, there should be hot water the day after next”).
By the end of the trip we were swapping contact details and even planning more walks together. Our group had gelled, but Thalia said this was not always the case. “Every tour is different, and on a women-only trip there is usually a feeling of pulling together – but, sometimes, it can get scratchy,” she said.
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Boulton Creek Campground in Alberta’s Peter Lougheed Provincial Park was our last overnight stop. It was also our most remote site and as we were pitching our tents in the shade of the tall, lodgepole pines, a warden drew up in his pickup. “Just to say there’s a young grizzly she-bear in the area, but don’t worry – have fun and talk loudly and she’ll keep her distance,” he said.
By now, we were well-practised in emptying our tents of anything that could be tempting to hungry bears before nightfall. But that evening we made particularly sure that not only food but also toiletries (bears like minty toothpaste) were placed in the metal bear-proof containers provided by the campsite. We followed the warden’s advice, enjoyed our end-of-trip dinner and the grizzly kept her distance. But none of us slept very well.
It was a sobering reminder that we were only uninvited guests in this vast, untamed outback. Mother Nature was really in charge.
How to do it
A “15-day High Trails of the Canadian Rockies” with World Expeditions (0800 0744 135; worldexpeditions.co.uk) operates monthly from June to August from £2,590 per person full-board, including transfers, helicopter flights and National Park entrance fees. Flights extra.
Air Transat (00800 8726 7283; airtransat.co.uk) flies direct from London to Calgary from £389 per person.
Each year World Expeditions offers a number of women’s adventures. For 2018, around 10 women’s-only itineraries are available, including in Patagonia, Iceland, Tanzania, Nepal and Papua New Guinea.
For general information about the region, visit Travel Alberta
Five more great adventures just for women
Ranching holidays in the US and Canada. What to book: a seven-day “Cactus Cowgirl Adventure” is available at the White Stallion Ranch in Arizona’s Tuscon Mountains. Kicking off with a margarita welcome party, the week includes trail riding, a breakfast ride and target shooting. Departures on April 23. Prices start at £1,420, excluding flights; (01798 865946; americanroundup.com)
Active summer and winter tours in Nordic countries. What to book: a three or five-day “Go Dog Sledding in Trondelag” includes guidance on how to handle the huskies, with three to five-hour excursions into the snowy landscape (the five-night tour also includes an overnight stay in a remote cabin). Various departures in March and April. Price from £805 (three nights) or £1,493 (five nights) including meals, equipment and airport transfers. Flights are extra (01929 503080; naturetravels.co.uk)
Offers active, cultural and adventurous holidays. What to book: an eight-day “French Pyrenees Cycling Tour” is a challenging, coast-to-coast journey, from Biarritz to Perpignan, taking in French spa towns and villages along the way. Departures on June 23. Prices start at £1,075 excluding flights and transfers (01273 823700; responsibletravel.com).
Girls for Sail
An RYA-endorsed sailing school, offering courses, adventures and racing events in the UK, Europe and Caribbean. What to book: a seven-day “RYA Competent Crew – St Lucia” offers a chance to learn the basics, including sailing and motoring. No experience is required. New dates for 2019 to be published on girlsforsail.com in July 2018. Prices start at £625 excluding flights and transfers (01983 282 867; girlsforsail.com)
Wildlife and adventure specialist focusing on the Americas, Africa, Asia and the polar regions. What to book: a 12-day “Luxury Botswana and Victoria Falls” is a new group tour led by Africa expert and professional photographer Mary Coulson. Staying in tented camps and safari lodges, highlights include Victoria Falls and the Chobe river. Departure on April 15. From £7,945, all-inclusive with flights. (0800 195 3385; wildfoottravel.com)