I get it. You’ve been cooped up all winter. The sun is shining. The temperatures in town are hovering around 20 degrees. It’s time to run to the hills and bag yourself some hikes. Or is it…
Shoulder Seasons are those iffy times of year in the spring and fall. It’s not quite summer, and it’s also not quite winter.
We’ve all done it. Grabbed the boards at the first sign of snow, only to hit some sharks that take a big bite out of our bases. Or going on a hike that starts out dry, only to turn around due to thigh-high post-holes. This is what my more experienced elders called “pushing the seasons”.
Hiking during shoulder season is a touchy time. Here’s why I am very careful to either avoid the backcountry during shoulder season, or be careful what routes I select.
It’s warm and sunny. Nope, it’s raining again. Whoops! Make that snow. Ah, hot again. Nope! False alarm, it’s just Second Winter.
Here in Alberta, we get a lot of precipitation in April, May and June. What comes down as rain in town will most likely be snow in the mountains. This wet and heavy snow makes trails very slick as the snow doesn’t just melt, but compacts into ice.
If you get caught out in a storm, this wet heavy snow will have you soaked through in no time, will erase your trail, and make a steep descent treacherous.
Spring and Fall Avalanches
All that winter snow has to melt out in the spring, which greatly increases the number of avalanches. Plus, spring avalanches are the wet and heavy kind. Not ideal. Even places that are generally pretty safe all winter turn nasty in the spring (eg: Bow Summit deaths). If your hike takes you anywhere near an avalanche slope, take care to cross it as early in the day as possible.
In the fall, a thin snowpack is also very dangerous because it is far more likely to slide on the slick October crust that lies next the ground.
Assessing overhead environment in the shoulder season is essential, as most trails will be clear of snow, while an avalanche just waiting to set off can be hundreds of meters above. This video by Brett Bilon shows a hiker sitting down on top of the debris from an avalanche chute. While sitting there, an avalanche released above. The hiker got out of the way, just in time.
Trail Destruction and Braiding
The fastest way to permanently ruin an otherwise healthy trail is to hike the crap out of it when it’s wet and muddy. When is it wet and muddy? In the Shoulder Season. Trails never recover from this type of abuse. Never.
The results? A trail can turn into a permanent mud pit, or if there is room, there will be endless braiding. This destroys the natural grasslands and ruins the landscape.
Mountain bikers have been getting this message for years. Do not ride on trails until they are dry. The Bragg Creek Trails group even has a catchy slogan “Ride Dirt Not Mud.” Maybe someone more creative than me can create a slogan like “Walk Dry not Wet”, or “Hike Clean, not Dirty.”
Bears are Hangry!
You know when you haven’t eaten for hours, you’re tired, and there is no food in the house? Remember how hangry you get? Snapping at friends and family? Yeah… now try doing that ALL WINTER LONG! Imagine how bent out of shape you would be after a winter of hibernating, only to find your main eating spots are overrun with two legged naked beasts that want to spray you with pepper every time THEY come around a corner? Sheesh!
Shoulder seasons are critical times for bears. In the spring, they have to find food and quickly! If you get between them and their food, good luck to you. If they mistake you for food, again, good luck. In the fall, bears have to pack on as much weight as they can, and eat all those berries before they go bad or get ruined by frost. It’s a narrow window.
Shoulder season is also when the bears are in the lower elevations. In the spring, fresh shoots are only found lower down, as the higher elevations are probably still in snow. In the fall, bears have eaten everything they can higher up, and are madly foraging for the last available berries before they retire for the winter. While you are hard-pressed to find a bear in Sheep River Provincial Park in the summer, I’ve come across several black bears in the early spring and late fall.
Have you noticed a sharp increase in bear sightings and close calls this spring? That’s because people are on the trails in Shoulder Season when bears are most actively trying to eat. Give them some space people. This is their survival, while it is our recreation.
Without these two major Shoulder Season calorie binges, a bear might not survive the winter. A hungry bear is also more likely to enter human areas like campgrounds or townsites. A well fed bear will leave you alone, stay clear of human areas, and live to see another year.
Mating Season and Baby Animals
Mating season brings out the testosterone in all animals. Everything is a danger when animals are trying to get down to business. Even birds are a hazard. If you think it’s funny to be attacked by a male grouse, think again. One of the more scary wild animal encounters I’ve had, and I’ve been charged by moose and followed by grizzly bears.
Spring is when babies are born. They are so cute, yet their parents are also very fearful for their survival. Off leash dogs are open season for any and all wild animals to attack if the dog gets too close to a den or a nest. Bears will charge you if you get too close to a cub.
No one likes ticks. They are absolutely disgusting, and a right royal pain to remove if they latch on. Ticks can also carry a variety of diseases, including lyme. I’ve had to take three ticks in for testing (full latched and requiring removal), but luckily all three have not been the species that carries lyme. Still – not a fun experience. Recently, I have seen several social media posts asking what’s the best tick repellent. The honest answer is nothing really works.
Ticks are at their absolute worst in the spring. If you are immune compromised, allergic to a strenuous antibiotic cocktail, or just hate the little creepy-crawlies, then hiking during peak tick season may not be for you. If you wait just a few weeks, the ticks will die down a bit and you can hike in your shorts without fear of doing a full striptease when you discover a tick down your pants.
What to do Instead???
There is SO much to do in Shoulder Season that doesn’t destroy the hiking trails or disturb wildlife.
Spring skiing is absolutely phenomenal! While most of us are sick of snow by late April, it’s important to realize that this is prime skiing. Lake Louise and Sunshine are both open through to May. In good years, you can ski right through to the May Long. The glacier routes are often in the best shape of the year in late April. The days are longer, so you can finally bag some of those bigger peaks or traverses.
Shoulder season is also an ideal time to cycle. There are so many great routes to do, and you don’t need a specialized road bike. Pick your route and length, and off you go. Cycling also keeps your legs and lungs strong for whatever sport is on the horizon. Here are a couple of mountain routes: Bow Valley Parkway and Sheep River Road.
Explore city parks, local attractions, and pathways. With the weather coming and going, sometimes there is only enough time to nip out for a few hours. Skip the long drive, and instead use that time to explore the nice dry trails that are free from bears and ticks in your own backyard. Make a list of places you want to see or explore, and pick one of those whenever you’re feeling house-bound.
When is Shoulder Season?
That is an excellent question. It will change depending on how much rain and snow we get in the spring and fall. Trails at lower elevations and further east will be ‘in shape’ sooner than trails further west or at higher elevations. Trails that face south or west will dry out faster, and be in hike shape sooner than trails that face north or east.
The point is – be mindful of when you hike as well as where you hike. Our mountain parks are seeing record amounts of traffic. If everyone were to trample the trails in wet and muddy weather, there are simply not enough volunteers to fix those trails. Leave no trace also means don’t destroy the trail for the next person. Don’t harass the wildlife also means do not interfere with their food source during critical times of the year.
I am not saying do not hike. The key message is enjoy responsibly during the sensitive Shoulder Seasons. We all want to be in the mountains. Lets be mindful of where we go, and when, to have as little impact on this fragile environment and it’s full time animal residents as possible.