It may seem counter-intuitive to have to think about bears and avalanche at the same time while exploring the outdoors, but that’s the beauty of adventuring in the Canadian Rockies in spring. Snow can linger in the mountains late into the spring and early summer, but when it’s warm and sunny out, and everything is starting to melt, it’s easy to get lulled into a false sense of security: summer is on its way, so we can forget about winter safety hazards, right? Unfortunately, no.
Here are a few things to keep in mind if you’re out there before the snow goes:
Some of the most popular snowshoe and winter hiking trails in Kananaskis Country, even ones that are easily accessible from parking lots and highways, travel through or end in avalanche terrain. Our public safety staff in Kananaskis Region note that as snowshoeing becomes more popular, snowshoers are often venturing into avalanche risk without the proper gear or knowledge.
Check the Avalanche Terrain Exposure Scale (ATES) ratings of the area you plan to hike or snowshoe (or ski), and note that anything rated as Simple terrain still has avalanche exposure risk. “The spring snow sport season in the Rockies runs from late March to early May, and very large ‘climax’ avalanches are more common during those months,” says Kananaskis Public Safety Specialist Jeremy Mackenzie, of avalanches that slide after a slow buildup over time. “These slides often reach the valley floor, with the potential to impact Simple terrain.”
A few specifics:
Rawson Lake Trail: there are slide paths on the east, south, and west sides of this lake.
Black Prince: stick to the interpretive trail, which is classified as Class 1 Terrain on the Avalanche Terrain Exposure Scale. Beyond that, avalanche knowledge and equipment are recommended.
Burstall Pass: the trail passes through several low-frequency avalanche paths en route to the Robertson Glacier drainage, and there is also Simple-rated exposure on the creek flats.
Wintour Snowshoe Trail: hazardous avalanche terrain begins beyond the designated and mapped areas of this trail.
Rummel Lake: venturing beyond the lake and the backcountry campground brings you into avalanche terrain.
Chester Lake: one of the safest ski touring and snowshoeing options with good elevation gain, but stick to the trail and end your trek at the lake, which is highly exposed to avalanche on the south and west shores.
Tryst Lake / Commonwealth Valley: the majority of the Commonwealth Valley and the Tryst area (even well below the lake) are in avalanche terrain, some Simple and some Challenging.
It’s never too early in the season to be bear-aware. Grizzly bears can start emerging from their dens in March in the Canadian Rockies, so update yourself on bear safety. Carry bear spray and make noise on the trails, and stay alert while you’re out there. For the most comprehensive update, on April 11, Kananaskis Region will host the annual Bear Day event in Canmore.
The eastern slopes of the Rockies (north to south) are also cougar territory, and cougars have been spotted as far east as Cypress Hills Provincial Park. Because cougars are out and active all year round, Alberta Parks has recently put up some cougar safety reminders at key trailheads, and you can check out our cougar safety tips online.
Weather is always variable and fast-changing in the mountains, but this is especially true during the transition between winter and spring. Warm days can lead to nights below freezing, and heavy snowfalls can develop quickly in any month (in November 2014 a snowstorm blew in quickly and heavily enough to strand several hikers on frontcountry trails in Kananaskis). Spring hikers and snowshoers should carry layers and basic survival gear to be prepared for any type of changing weather conditions.
Spring thaw in Alberta parks can be unpredictable. Rivers, creeks, and lakes can freeze and thaw repeatedly throughout the winter season, leaving highly unstable ice, and thin ice can be covered in snow while thawing underneath. Know your route, particularly areas where spring hikes approach lakes or running water. Remember that the 2013 flood re-routed several Kananaskis waterways, and bridges haven’t all been replaced (this is particularly true of the popular Galatea Trail in Spray Valley Provincial Park).