Who: Bay Ryley, human rights lawyer and writer
Where: Kluane, The Yukon
What: “My ‘bear story’ is all about my fear of bears. There was actually no bear. Well okay to be fair, there was some evidence that a bear had been in the area. At some point. Not that long ago.
But now I’m getting ahead of myself…
Prior to my trip to the Yukon in the summer of 1991, my only “exposure” to bears was from the comfort of a station wagon with the windows up and the doors locked. A regular evening activity for us in 1970s Muskoka was to visit the dump. My parents would load my cousin Dave, the Blair kids and me into the Buick and drive to the dump so we could watch the bears eat the garbage.
The Yukon was a whole different ballgame. On many levels, of course, but particularly where the bears were concerned. This was grizzly territory! On our first night in Whitehorse, Yodit and I slept in a tent in the back yard of a guy we had just met at a shady bar. (We ended up working there, despite our first impressions, and despite the local legend that a cook once stabbed a guy for complaining about how his eggs were cooked.)
Even though the house was in downtown Whitehorse, I didn’t sleep all night, convinced a pack of grizzlies was going to “do us in” at any moment.
Yodit and Cam teased me ceaselessly: “Is that a bear? I think I hear something!”
This really got to me after a while, so I told them I would prove them wrong. That I was not paranoid. In fact, just to prove the point, I would go by myself to Kluane National Park. I would camp and hike there all alone.
My plan was to take a bus to Haines Junction, and then walk along the highway to the Auriol Trail. Then I would camp at the trail head overnight, do the 4-6 hour hike, and head back safely to Whitehorse the following day. At least that was the plan, and that’s what I told Cam and Yodit I would do.
Upon arriving Haines Junction, it was clear that it would be hardly “paranoid” to fear a bear encounter in Kluane. At the Parks Canada visitor centre, the warnings were undeniable. Trustworthy people in uniforms posted signs and proffered pamplets declaring: “You Are In Bear Country”.
Lucky for me, though, my hike had to be delayed. Whether it was stomach flu, food poisoning, or somatized fear, I’ll never know. I was really sick though. I had to pitch my tent in the campground in town. I couldn’t move for two days. Nevertheless, I was relieved to be in a protective forest of RVs and campers.
Once I recovered, it was time to go. It was a beautiful, long walk along the highway, and it was snowing lightly. It was May. “See, you can do it, Bay, you can do this.” My stupid 21 year-old self was still intent on proving my friends wrong.
I had a sleepless night at the trail head. I couldn’t have been closer to the highway, but there was no way I was going any father into that bear-infested park before I had to. In the morning, I had a quick snack out of my “bear cannister” food container and got on my way. “Show time, let’s go, you can do this.”
I walked — I would say — 200 metres, before I came upon load of bear excrement in the middle of the trail. In my re-telling I could say that the pile was so fresh there was steam coming off of it. That it was still bright red from the soap berries the bear had just eaten…
…I’ll be honest with you, I’m no bear-skat expert, but the bear’s offering had likely been there for weeks.
Yet it was all I needed to abort this silly, self-imposed dare. I turned around and ran as fast as I could back to the highway, not caring what, if anything, the pamphlet had said about the dangers of running away from a bear. I maintained a brisk pace along the highway, back to Haines Junction, though I felt a little safer walking on asphalt.
Phew, I made it back to the safety of town.
Next problem (nothing as bad as the bear problem, but still): how would I get back to Whitehorse? It was pretty late in the evening . There were no buses back to Whitehorse for a couple more days. I asked in the restaurant, but no one knew anyone who was heading to Whitehorse. The waitress suggested I ask at the Band office. I asked at the Band office, but no one from there was going to Whitehorse either.
Two older men, who could perhaps best be described as geriatric-Alaskan-cowboy-types, sat at the corner table of the restaurant. Were they Whitehorse-bound? I sized them up.
Sure they were strangers, and men. But they weren’t exactly spry. I figured I could take them on if it came to that. I asked, and indeed they were headed down the Alaska Highway southbound.
Perfect. On their way to a Freemason’s convention in Skagway, Alaska. All the way from Kenai, Alaska. A twenty hour drive, according to Google map, which didn’t exist in 1991.
The ancient, copper-coloured Lincoln Continental rattled down the Alaska Highway. I sat in the back, and scanned the car for shotguns. We made small-talk, mainly about living in Alaska. But they were pretty guarded about the Freemasons, and seemed suspicious of my curiousity about the Grand Lodge of Alaska. “There’s an ancient code of brotherhood for us Freemasons – we are not in a position to say more about it,” was how it was explained to me.
They dropped me off on the outskirts of Whitehorse. I was relieved to get out of the car without having been abducted and/or witness to some strange, secret Alaskan Freemason ritual. The man who was the driver took my heavy pack out of the trunk and handed it to me. “You sure are purdy,” he whistled.
The cab I hailed (yes there were, and are, cabs in the Yukon) pulled up to our basement apartment. The living arrangements were a bit grim. Cam, Yodit and I shared a room with green foam mattresses sprawled on the floor. Patty the “sub-landlord” lived in the other room with a French-Canadian guy named Jean, who was working construction for the new federal government building.
One night we had returned to find Jean (who Cam insisted on referring to as “Jeen”), passed out on the kitchen floor. Jean had on only his tighty whiteys. A cigarette butt, then cold, was hanging from his lips. But it was home for me, at least for that summer, and I was thrilled to be “home.”
When Cam and Yodit came home from work (they were gas station attendants or dishwashers or firewood stackers at that time, I can’t recall), they couldn’t have been happier to see me. It hadn’t occurred to my stupid 21-year-old self that I had been gone nearly two days longer than expected and that maybe they would be worried about me.
In the time I had been in Kluane, Cam and Yodit had convinced themselves they had sent me off to my demise.
And of course, they nearly had.”
Do you have a bear story? Please get in touch.