January 26, 2012

Let Sleeping Bears Lie

On our snowshoeing trips, we are often asked, “do you ever find hibernating bears when you snowshoe?” And our answer is always “never.” It would be like finding a needle in a haystack: the rough guess from Parks Canada is that Banff is home to between 120 – 140 bears in total (that's black and grizzly). The park is almost 7,000 km2, so that's one hibernating bear for every 50 km2!

In the world of bears, however, you should never say “never.” A week and a half ago, a biologist friend of ours, Karsten Heuer, was out backcountry skiing with some friends along the Icefields Parkway, north of Lake Louise. They were skiing through the forest when they stumbled upon a sleeping black bear. It was tucked into a tree-well, right on top of the snow, which surprised everyone. Black bears normally find shelter in stumps or logs. Since they hibernate with a relatively high body temperature, the conventional wisdom is that insulation and shelter make it easier for them to conserve their body heat.

Karsten told us that the bear was curled up like a sleeping dog, and that when they came close, it lifted its head in a really groggy way. It dropped its head back down, as if to say, “can I just sleep for another few months?”, but then it lifted its head more alertly. That was the cue for the skiers to vacate the area and leave the bear in peace.

One of Karsten's friends, biologist and professional photographer Dan Rafla, was in the group, and he managed to squeeze off a quick shot as they skied away. Dan (www.danrafla.com) has generously allowed to use his photo, a rare image of an even rarer event.

If you're visiting Banff through this winter season, Dan will be presenting his show, “Wildlife in the Rockies” at Buffalo Mountain Lodge twice a month until the end of March. Check this link for details: