On our first night in the bush north of Prince George I saw a grizzly cub. He was a three year old, big as a donkey, and totally spooked. We were camping for the night in Whiskers Point Provincial Park. Whiskers Point sits on the edge of McLeod Lake. The lake is a massive swath of water that rests in the valley between two lines of hills. It is a popular recreation site – while Keys to Freeze were the only tent-campers by no means were we alone.
A thunderstorm had rolled in at the end of our 80 mi ride and threatened to spill over while camp was set. We took our cookware to an awning beneath the restrooms and cooked. The rain came and we were dry.
While cooking a woman came up to us and offered her RV stove, a fine gesture. She went on to warn us to “be careful cooking outdoors … my son-in-law got mauled to death by a grizzly just two weeks ago. Keep your eyes out.” That certainly changed our dinner mood.
I’ll go on record stating that we all have varying degrees of fear to a bear encounter, with Rachel and I tied at the top with the most acute fear. We talked quietly while the rain fell about bear mace, bear bells, and bear bangers – gun blanks, essentially – and in what scenarios we might need each. Rachel holds our armory, save for the bear mace, which we all carry individually.
It’s comical, really, imagining in what scenario one might encounter a bear or some similar gobbly gremlin of their nightmares. Do you play the hero or the sneak? For whatever insecurity plaguing me I’m always the self-sacrificial man, throwing myself in front of the charging grizzly to allow my friend's escape. In all reality I would probably scream and run, pissing myself in flight through the forest.
Concern over bears died down as we ate and the rain lessened. Then this guy named Kyle showed up. He was a park employee charged with property maintenance. He had brought us firewood earlier, before all the rain. As it happens Kyle is an elder with the local First Nation tribe – or whatever politically correct terminology … Kyle preferred to just be called, of all things, an Indian. Anyways.
We were talking with Kyle about the son-in-law bear mauling and he led us through this beautiful explanation about what he would do if encountered with a bear while on a hike through the woods. “I’d look at the bear and say ‘Hello Grandmother Bear. I’m going to go my own way, and you go on yours.’ And then that’s what I’d do, fortunate to have seen the Grandmother.”
We all nodded our heads, empowered by such bold and calm talk. That’s about when we head a man from a ways off in camp yelling “HEY BEAR! HEYYYYY BEARRRRR!”
Consider that the moment when hell broke over camp like a rippling wave.
Kyle stood up and walked over to the man, who had rounded the corner and was now impossible to miss, big and fat and loud as he was. Empowered by the short machete at his hip this guy pointed out the path the bear had taken through camp. And so the hunt was on.
With a bear loose we decided it was time to clean up dinner. I took the dishes around back to the outdoor sink and was washing them vigorously. Thai curry cleans slow.
I was thinking about the difference between Kyle and the loud white guy, lets call him DingDong PingPong. Kyle had an apparent respect for the bear. DingDong understood seemingly nothing about anything other than yelling and overeating. I wondered if Kyle was off in the woods, petting the bear and thanking it for its presence.
There was a shock of brown in my peripheral. Usually that’s just my hair, which is quite long and burdensome. But the brown was moving. I turned. It was the bear. A cub, young, but without its mother. It was milk chocolate, grizzly brown. Furry and fair. He walked like a man unable to bend his knees. Very ungainly.
The bear was swinging its head back and forth. It looked like the animals from the opening credits of Disney’s “Robin Hood.” It was cute. I yelled.
“Hey buddy! What are you doing, eh?” Canada is, it seems, affecting my vocabulary.
The bear, startled, essentially did a backflip in fear. It took off running down a trail. DingDong came running up from around the corner, Kyle right behind him. I was surprised to see Kyle holding a long machete. Here’s to you, Grandmother Bear.
“Where did it go? Where did it go?” DingDong wanted to know. I pointed. DingDong took off, full sprint. It was an unbecoming, pathetic motion. A dilapidated train chugging on over the wet grass. While running DingDong took out his short machete and gripped it by the handle so that its blade pointed backwards, as if he had designs to jump on the bear’s back and in the event his girth didn’t crush the poor beast, then stab it through the roof of its skull. More likely would be DingDong tripping and impaling himself on his knife so that his blood and intestines spilled all over the grass, ridding the world of one more idiot with a knife. Kyle raced after DingDong, machete sheathed.
We bearproofed our camp by putting all our food, toiletries, wrappers, and anything else with food residue in a camp closet. And that’s about all the protection one can really take, short of peeing around the perimeter of camp. After cycling in the sun all day, who has enough urine to do that?
Kyle came back shortly to tell us that the bear had been run out of camp. “Hazed out,” he said. We talked for a little bit about bears and bear culture around the area. Kyle told us that grizzly cub was the first bear citing of the season at Whiskers Point … seems like Keys to Freeze knows how to bring the wildlife baby!
We talked about making a fire with the firewood Kyle had brought us but it was clear the general mood of the camp was one of quiet reflection on bears and bear culture and the startling fact that we’d, in one day’s ride, managed to land ourselves in the wild for the very foreseeable future.
So Kyle and I took a walk to the edge of McLeod’s Lake. He told me stories about his journey back to his Indian tribe on McLeod. Afterwards I wondered how much of it was actually true. The first red flag was that he said he was 28 when in fact he looked 18. The second was the claim that he was able to cure stage four colon cancer. The third was that he cured cataracts. There were holes in the story but the general gist that I got was that Kyle was the modern medicine man, a shaman in present day. What a cool experience to listen to him explain the culture, the spirituality behind his practice. It’s always refreshing to just listen and not have to contribute to a topic which you know nothing about. To hear someone’s story – true or not – is relaxing and enlightening.
Another storm was coming, this one bigger than the first. Kyle and I walked back to camp and said our goodbyes. And so the rain came again, with thunder all about. As I lay in my tent listening to the angry parade I thought about Kyle and the grizzly. I imagined them in a big green field filled with yellow flowers. They were caught in the storm too, dripping wet. But they held each other close and waltzed about, dancing to the rain. Then the bear mauled and ate Kyle and that was the end of that. So I went to bed, bear mace tucked in a tent pocket above my head.