At the trailhead, Lisa, our guide, talked us through what to do if we have an encounter with a bear. It was quite funny and not a little embarrassing as we practised our bear huddles (if its a quiet bear act submissive, head down, shoulders rounded, look at the ground and back away; if its an angry bear, act aggressively, make yourself big and noisy and get the bloody bear spray out because your in trouble). If you were to amlgamate the actions of the bear tutorial and the steps (dig in that toe in, kick in with that heel) taken when walking on the ice and deep snow on the hill (going up and / or down), add it to music and you would have a nice little dance, 1970's-style. Let's call it the 'lisa bear shuffle'. After we had stopped laughing, I'm not sure we were reassured when Lisa informed us that a bear is more likely to 'bitchslap' you, than eat you!
Crossing the Vermillion River at the beginning of the trail, we set off in to the high country. Early on, we were closed in by the thick forests on either side but occasionally the landscape opened up, usually when crossing river or creek, to offer tantalising glimpses of the mountain peaks. At the river crossing we marvelled at the clarity, colour and coldness of the glacial waters running directly off the mountains. Approaching a clearing we were delighted to find a male and female Spruce or Ruffed Grouse on the pathway (difficult to tell the two kinds of grouse apart). Mainly found in spruce, fir and pine forests, the grouse relies on camouflage to avoid predators, a practice, it appears, that it did not share with some of our backpackers.
The colour itself is produced by a group of mineral springs nearby that have a high metal content (Fe2 SO4 Iron sulfate or ferric sulfate), that colours the surface. There are also high levels of other metals present, incuding both lead and zinc. In this area, known as the Kicking Horse Rim, there are pyrite-rich ore deposits and natural weathering of the ore would account for the colouring. The suggestion was made recently that Paint Pots offers a natural spring comparison for the planet Mars that could help in understanding some of the chemical processes that have taken place on the 'Red Planet'.
This is primarily a natural forest (that is, not a planted forest, although there are areas of 'commercial' crop) that is constantly rejuvenating itself, the ground level covered in new tree growth particularly where the forest has been cleared by fire or avalanche. In this photograph you can see an avalanche path clearly on the distant hillside. Obvious because the strip is devoid of tree.
Of course, the thicker the cover of the trees, the more likely it is that a fire will spread more easily. Naturally occurring fires are a major problem in the forests, primarily from lightening strikes, but they are also a necessity. In the lower levels of the forest which is populated by lodgepole pine, for example, a heat spource is required to open the seed nuts of the tree and so enable rejuvenation. Fire also helps to thin out areas of forest that have grown too thick thus preventing the development of other species habitats or, destroying already existing ones. Such fires can burn for weeks on end and are a constant threat to many of the townships nearby. As we were to find out later in the week, areas devastated by fire have a peculiar beauty about them as they thrive with new life, highlighted against the blackened remains of the old.
Major enemies of the beetle is extreme cold and fire but, with changing weather patterns in Canada as elsewhere, the beetles and or their larvae have been surviving warmer winters in greater numbers. Stop gap measures such as controlled burning of trees has helped in some circumstances but that too has its own risks. Meanwhile, hectares of dead and dying trees can be seen on the hillsides in British Columbia and as yet they do not know what to do with them. Meanwhile, they have to live with the risk of major fires in amongst the dead wood. If the tree has died by fire there are no needles left on the branches; if it has been pine beetle that killed it the needles are still there.
While we saw lots of different kinds of prints it was only conjecture on our part as to what they were. Suggestions included cougar, bear and wolf. It was interesting that it was the more 'dangerous' of the animals that dominated the mind, no more so than when you needed to go out to the woods to toilet at night. Then you didn't dare go without a torch and your bear spray. On such excursions there was a bear behind every tree, every twig snap was a grizzly coming to catch you with your trousers down. Not surprisingly, such journeys were rushed affairs.
There was a fine sense of camaraderie that night as sat around eating dinner, sharing experiences of the day and our hopes and ambitions for the days ahead. Once a group of strangers have broken bread together the barriers seem to melt away and it was not long before a sense of irony, cynicism and humour provided light relief. As we settled down to sleep it was to the sound of the rushing river and the sighing wind moving through the tree tops. From today's experiences this could prove to be a fine little adventure for us 'hobbitses'.