The Backcountry Social Life

Day one of a solo backpacking weekend in Yoho.

Day one of a solo backpacking weekend in Yoho.

Every year I do a solo back packing trip into the back country of our Rocky Mountain National Parks. I go for the challenge, solitude, and inspiration. I go to get deep into the wilderness, to try and get a glimpse of what the world is like without highways, buildings, and development everywhere. The amazing thing about living in Canmore and doing this research in the Canadian Rocky Mountain National Parks is that there are lots of those places out there, and I’m not the only one enjoying them.

Who visits the back country

Among some people I’ve talked to, there seems to be this impression that interest in back country hiking and camping is waning. That it’s too hard to get out there and that most park visitors don’t want to put in the effort or don’t have the skills to get in to the wilderness. This is true. Most people don’t want to do that, which is why there are less people in the back country than in the town of Banff. I will say, however, that interest doesn’t seem to be going down.

When I go in to the back country, it’s not a bunch of white-haired, been-hiking-for-the-past-100-years people and me. There are many young people discovering the Canadian back country for the first time. And that inspires me.

This past weekend in Yoho National Park, I met a group of men from all over the US on their annual boys-only trip. These 9 American models, who shall remain nameless but seriously made some my back country dreams come true (what girl doing a solo trip doesn’t want to run into a group of hot men swimming at a back country lake in the middle of nowhere), chose hiking in Yoho’s wilderness for their annual adventure over partying in New York, getting drunk in Vegas, or going to a beach in Mexico. That’s awesome to me.

At the back country campground I met two different people in two different parties who had never been in to the back country before. They had friends who were showing them the ropes and introducing them to back country camping and hiking. There was also a young father with two children between 6 and 8 years old who had hiked in from Emerald Lake, just like me. The kids were running around like crazy exploring the woods, looking for bugs, and learning and experiencing wilderness. That’s inspiring to me.

Back country camping isn’t declining in interest, there’s a whole new generation of back country hikers that wants wilderness. Just like me.

If you want to get into the back country for the first time, there is a wealth of information to help you prepare. This video was created by the US Forest Service to prepare people for back packing in Glacier National Park, a very similar ecosystem to our Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks. There’s some great bear info too.

Sometimes solitude in wilderness can involve a travel hammock on the shores of a backcountry lake... And those times are great!

Sometimes solitude in wilderness can involve a travel hammock on the shores of a backcountry lake… And those times are great!

Back to the research

My recent trip in to Yoho wasn’t to collect any data. It was to reconnect with the ecosystem that I’m focusing my research on. I didn’t see any bears or any bear sign in those two days, but I did reconnect with the Park Visitor in a way that I haven’t in a long time. Understanding a little more about the people who visit our National Parks is a big part of my research. In a few weeks, I’ll be in the back country to collect data and I’ll be surveying the people I share a campground with. The great thing about our Canadian National Parks is that they are protected for people and for wildlife. Understanding what people expect and want out of their park experience is integral to fostering a positive experience for visitors. And I want that. I want those people who were brand new to the Yoho back country to have an equally amazing experience as I did and to want to come back as soon as possible.

As I was standing in the middle of the back woods teaching some people how to use bear spray and talking about bear safety, I realized that it’s not enough for people to want  to get out there, there’s a need for learning before they do. This learning can become a basis of understanding of why certain management actions are taken. Part of my survey will ask visitors what they expect Parks Canada to do if there is a bear in the area, and what kinds of explanations they would require to support certain management options. Getting a glimpse into the visitor’s perceptions will help me to shape management recommendations that will make sense for people who don’t live and play in these mountains all the time.

Parks Canada has a bunch of information about back packing in Banff, Jasper, Kootenay, and Yoho. There is information about back country campgrounds, trails, and safety advice here: http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/pn-np/ab/banff/activ/randonee-backpacking.aspx

Back to the inspiration

At the end of the day, I’m doing this research to better understand grizzly bears and contribute to their conservation in Alberta. But I’m also doing this to better understand and get to the know the visitor – what they expect, want, and appreciate. The more I get into this research, the more excited I get about my choice to do an interdisciplinary study. Grizzly bear management isn’t just about bears. National Park Management isn’t just about wildlife. It’s about people. And some people still want the wilderness without development and will travel thousands of miles just to get a taste it.

And that makes me smile.

So thank you to the American Models for making my dreams come true (haha), to the back country first-timers for inspiring me with your desire to explore something new, to the father with small children who doesn’t think it’s too much hassle to get his kids out there, and to everyone who visits our parks to experience Canadian wilderness everyday. Sharing my wild backyard with you is an honour.

See you on the trails!

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