This is a bear story by my friend Ned Perry, who tells about time he came across a grizzly near Pemberton, British Columbia. As with many of my favourite bear stories, this one is also about finding a place in the world.
Do you have a bear story? If yes, please let me know.
There’s always someone more local than you
by Ned Perry
I’m one of those lucky kids who grew up in an urban environment but was afforded the ability to go to ‘cottage country’ and summer camp when the mercury climbed to the 20 degree Celsius mark.
While enjoying the luxuries of care-free nature adventuring in Georgian Bay, by way of canoe trips North to the French and Magnetawan Rivers and beyond to Lake Superior, my trip mates and I would occasionally spot bears…mostly black. And most often from the comfort and safety of our clunky metal canoes. It was always exciting, beautiful and special…and oddly, without fear.
This may have to do with the ‘bear safety’ preparation and education afforded to us by our trip leaders, or perhaps the ‘gang mentality’ where fear is suppressed through sharing the experience with others in real-time. Sort of like dividing up the fear in bite sized, manageable packages for each camper. I don’t know. It just wasn’t that scary.
Fast forward to post-university days. I was one of the ones that decided to take reverse retirement and drive West. First for some northern adventure all through British Columbia, and then up through the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Alaska.
Again, bear sightings, while still special, were almost commonplace. And although we believed the danger quotient was elevated by the prevalence of grizzlies, most sightings were from a safe distance or again, from the comfort and safety of another metal vessel – this time a brown tri-tone circa 1980 Dodge conversion camper van.
The nomadic west coast swing dropped anchor as I took up residence in Pemberton, a small farming community that, at the time, was exploding into a bedroom community for Whistler. For those familiar with Whistler and its surrounding area, bear sightings are not rare. Whether they’re dotting the ski runs on Whistler or Blackcomb during the summer, rummaging near the town dump, or lurking around corners of popular hiking routes, bears seemed to be everywhere.
Just like the majority of those who live in, or around Whistler, I was not from there. And whether anybody will actually admit it, most of those new arrivals wonder how long or what it takes to become considered a ‘local’. Being a local seems to carry a lot of weight for the reputation. It implies you’re a rad skier/snow boarder. You know your way around the wilderness. Seeing a bear is no big deal. And you’re connected.
As the years rolled by, I became pretty comfortable in my environs. I had lots of friends. Some from work, and some who in fact were actually from the area. The latter showed me some great camping spots, taught me how to dirt bike…made me feel cool. Like a local.
One of my favourite things to do each season was to walk to Whistler from Pemberton, or the reverse, at least once a year. It was just something I liked to do. It took the better part of a day and is about 33 Kms. On one of these occasions, I decided I’d do the majority of the trip along a set of train tracks that snaked along tree line just behind the townhouses where I lived in Pemberton.
On this occasion, I nonchalantly told about a zillion people I was going to do the walk because while it was something I liked to do, but let’s face it, I probably thought it would put another interesting or unique chit in the ‘local’ bank. Whistler was kind of like that. Don’t get me wrong – I loved it, but it was kind of like that.
I set out around 9am. It was pretty simple really…pack a knapsack with a couple of sandwiches and water and start walking. I crossed the lane way from our house, scampered up the twenty foot embankment at the end of the visitor parking, and whacked my way through several strides of dense brush. On the other side, the tracks. I was on my way.
Walking on tracks always seems like a good idea. It’s somehow romanticized in novels, pictures and movies, but have you ever tried walking on tracks? It’s fucking near impossible. The railroad ties are spaced somewhere between a regular walking stride and a shuffle, and the ‘crushed stone’ used as bedding in between is anything but crushed stone. They are rocks. They are angular, sharp, avocado sized ankle breakers. My walk turned into a tedious process of focusing on the ground and growing motion sick as the flip-flip-flip view of the ties repeated itself ad nauseum. This was compounded by the stifling waft of creosote that bled from the wood as it baked in the thirty degree heat.
Despite the challenges, it was good to be out and have a great mind clearing journey ahead of me. Not more than five kilometres in, the rail cut began to grow more and more narrow. The blasting work to dismantle what took mother nature millions of years to create must have been extensive. By the time I realized that I was committing significant thought to this, I was standing in the centrepoint of a deep V. Below my feet were the tracks and immediately to the outside of each of the steel rails, the valley began its steady climb. The sides weren’t walls. They were steep inclines constructed of millions of those ankle breaking avocados, but bigger. They were more like something between a melon and a pumpkin.
So there I was, a pinball in the channel ready to launch my journey. All good. Except for the bear that appeared out of nowhere about 100 metres ahead of me.
I have no idea how she got there. I didn’t hear her scramble down the embankment. I didn’t see her enter the other end of the ‘V’. And she sure as hell didn’t pass me. And yes – without the expertise to accurately identify her as a ‘she’ – she was a she. I just knew.
I froze. Shit. I couldn’t remember – what is it I’m supposed to do again? Make myself big? Make noise? Retreat? Maybe all of the above.
She saw me…or at least smelled me. She grunted in my general direction. With no real vegetation on the valley walls or on the track bed, there was nothing to sniff but creosote and me. And I suspect the latter was more appealing.
I was about to turn and run. There were only two ways to go. Back or through her. I thought back would be better. But what if she had cubs behind me and I was in the middle? What if running back would signal a threat to her cubs? Maybe I should scramble up the side? Do I have food in my backpack? What if a train comes? When was the last time I told my mom I love her?
I was losing it. I was alone with no group to share the fear with. I had no metal armour to surround me. I was, in an instant, a city boy in the woods. I was not the local.
My hands shot up above my head as if I was under arrest. This was my attempt at making myself big although I had never felt smaller. I walked backward slowly…on train tracks. Either way – by bear or broken ankles – I was convinced this wouldn’t end well. This went on for what seemed like an eternity, but was probably 15 paces. Then she gave an explosive start toward me and charged for probably five metres. My heart stopped. So did my feet. I was mesmerized by the combination of her sheer size and ability to move so fast. We were back at square one: a standoff.
I resumed my backward retreat and she stayed put and watched. She had made her point and I think she knew it. I managed a nervous shoulder check to check on my progress…another 50 metres to go until the V opened wide behind me. I closed that distance with more shuffling. She remained frozen, but keen. With about 20 metres to go, I turned and ran. I’m sure it resembled an “oh shit, I’m passed my curfew and wasted…better run home fast,” kind of run. Arms and legs all over the place and a disaster narrowly avoided with every foot plant.
The mouth of the track bed opened wide and it seemed as if there was more air to breathe. I took a look back as I strained for more distance. No bear. I took a couple of more strides and started to let up and turned. No bear.
My senses started to return to me slowly and I started to hear a car or two passing along the highway a short distance off through the dense brush. One thought directed me toward it. No bear.
I made the highway in no time. I completed my journey via the road. I had a great story to tell anyone who’d listen. I’d added another notch to being a ‘local’. But if I learned anything from my encounter, it’s that no matter where you roam, and no matter how long you stay there, there’s always someone more local than you.