Marissa Stapley has a two-in-one-summer bear story that involves camping and keeping her priorities (and by that I mean cocktail) straight.
Stapley is a freelance writer and former magazine editor whose work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, National Post, Elle Canada, and many others.
Mating for Life (June 24, 2014, Simon & Schuster Canada; July 1, 2014, Atria Books) is her first novel. She lives in Toronto with her husband and two young children, where she teaches writing and editing.
My novel, out in June, is called Mating for Life and at the start of each chapter an epigraph briefly outlines the mating habits of a particular animal. The animals relate to my characters in a very broad way, and I’m fascinated by the idea of our connection to nature and animals, which I fear is being lost.
I refer to the summer before last as the “summer of the bear” (in my own head). I actually ran into two bears—the first was during a walk along a road near Lake Joseph in Muskoka. I was with my husband and two little children, and the children were running ahead. A bear walked out of the brush and onto the road about thirty feet ahead of us; it took me a moment to register what it was. I remember thinking, “wolf? No, too small. Oh. Bear.” I remember she looked up (I felt sure it was a female bear, but how could I know?) and my husband managed to grab the kids’ hands and stop them in their tracks. The bear and I made direct eye contact and I thought “are you supposed to make eye contact with bears?” Either way, I was mesmerized, and can still picture that moment of brief contact. Then we all very calmly turned and walked back to the cottage.
The next time I saw a bear, I wasn’t quite so calm. We go camping every summer on a crown land island near Kilbear. I would not be described by anyone as an especially low-maintenance or back woods kind of girl—but I do love this yearly camping trip. I have to test myself to do it, and I think it gives something important to the kids to experience nature like this. But then again … there is always doubt in the back of my mind about how safe we are. We go with my best friend and her husband and kids. On this day the kids were either swimming or in one of the tents, taking a sun break and colouring. My husband and son were in our tent, having an afternoon nap.
My friend and I were enjoying an afternoon cocktail and chatting. I was looking out at the water, and when I turned to look at my friend again there was a black bear standing on the rocks about ten feet behind her. The bear had her head up (this time I could be sure she was a she, because there were two cubs behind her) and was sniffing the air. She seemed very curious. And fearless, completely. I screamed “BEAR!” and we sprinted for our tents. I am well aware that running and screaming are two things you are not supposed to do when you see a bear. When I got into our tent my husband said, “WHY are you still holding your drink?!” Apparently, I have my priorities.
My friend’s husband is one of those tall, fearless types. Also, he is one of those carry-a-gun types. This has always bothered me, gun around the children, but he keeps it in a case with a combination lock and until this afternoon, the children didn’t even know it was there. The bear stayed where she was. He unlocked the case and got out the gun. The bear still stood there. He walked to the edge of the campsite and stood there imposingly. I thought, “Oh god, what if he actually shoots her?” I thought about what it would be like for the kids to remember something like this, and what would happen to the cubs. He didn’t fire, not even a warning shot. The bear growled at him half-heartedly, and started herding her little ones way. I stood in our tent and peeked through the top of the netting. It was really such a calm moment, after the initial running and screaming. (And I still had my cocktail!)
Later, crown land attendants came and asked if we’d seen the bear and assured us we had nothing to fear. “It’s ok!” My son said. “Chris has a gun!” The stewards were not impressed. (I’m so anti-gun but there was a part of me that felt grateful for it, to be completely honest.) I’m really glad I hadn’t read your book at this point, because I probably wouldn’t have taken their assurances quite so calmly.
I think that in order for me to be able to take my family out camping in the wild, I have to believe that the bears I might run into are not capable of the kind of violence the bear in your book [The Bear] was capable of—and yet, of course they are. And yet, just like random violence among humans, that risk is definitely there. It has given me so much to think about.