REALITY CHECK: Sometimes, life gives us more than we can ‘bear’
Every year around this time I remember how glad I am to be alive. Even with the grim knowledge that winter is on its way, I’m happy to simply be drawing breath.
Because 39 years ago a bear almost ate me.
Believe me, when you’ve been almost eaten by a bear, every day after seems a blessing.
I was just a kid, 17 and therefore fairly bursting with the assurance of my own immortality. I was young and strong; death — or even serious injury — was a faint shadow lurking at the periphery of my awareness, something that happened to other people, those whose lives were less charmed than my own, those who had not been charged with my unique manifest destiny.
Armed with this mindless (and baseless) confidence, I ventured into the woods. Like Robert Frost, I took the road less travelled by. In fact, in late October, 1976, the road I took was travelled not at all.
I picked up the Bruce Trail near Tobermory, Ontario, and — carrying only what would fit in my battered Kelty backpack — I headed south along the trail with the intent of going as far I could go in seven days, and then hiking back.
I don’t know what it’s like now, but at the time, the Bruce Trail wended it’s way through nearly 900 kilometers of Canada’s most beautiful, uncompromising terrain, from north of Tobermory to the southern edge or Lake Ontario. It was heartbreakingly beautiful, but it was, make no mistake, what even hardcore backpackers think of as “the wild.”
I had heard that during the summer months, the trail is heavily travelled by hikers and nature lovers of all stripes, but in October, I was pretty much it.
On my fourth day out as the sun was setting, I made camp. I was an experienced hiker and knew enough to hang my backpack from a tree branch to keep the critters away from my food and clean underwear. (I’m kidding; I was 17; I didn’t own any clean underwear.)
But after pegging out my tiny “bug” tent, I hung my pack from a nearby branch anyway. I built a small campfire and boiled up more Cup-a-Soup. These were the days before every grocery carried a full line of freeze-dried, gourmet “camping food.” Cup-a-Soup came in small, lightweight envelopes and could be reconstituted with water straight out of Nottawasaga Bay, as long as you boiled it first. Sure, it tasted like something that had been sweat off the back of a dyspeptic gorilla, but it was edible and easy to carry.
Maybe it was the smell of the soup cooking that attracted the bears, a mama and at least two cubs; I’ll never know for sure.
After washing up, I snuggled into my goose down mummy bag, zipped closed the tent and curled up with my machete. I had never used the machete for anything but cutting firewood, but having it beside me was somehow comforting. I dozed.
The snuffling sound woke me. Outside, a full moon bathed the forest in a flaxen haze. Shadows traversed the semi-transparent, orange nylon surface of my tent. One of those shadows was big. Real big.
My machete suddenly felt about as formidable as a moist Q-tip.
Other shadows passed, smaller than the first, though still big enough to intimidate by the light of this Hunter’s Moon.
The shadows were accompanied by a good deal of snuffling, growling and noises that were, to my city-bred ears, all but unidentifiable. I did, however, recognize the sound of my backpack being torn from the tree limb and shredded like so much wet newspaper.
Bears, it turns out, can climb trees.
I considered exiting the tent, machete in hand with the intent of making a lot of noise and scaring the bears away from my small store of foodstuffs. Then I thought about how nice it would be to live until my 18th birthday and huddled further into my bag instead. I was not, I decided, going to offer myself as the main course to the bear’s Cup-a-Soup appetizer.
An hour or so later, having eaten my Cup-a-Soup, envelopes and all, the Three Bears padded back into the forest. It was at least another hour before I screwed up my courage to the point I dared leave the tent.
My pack lay in tatters; even the aluminum frame had been bent until it was virtually useless. My soup, the little bit of jerky and the crackers I had been carrying were now inside the bears. I, thankfully, was not.
I was camped between Wiarton and Owen Sound, a day’s hike in either direction. I had no food. And unlike the present, back then I did not have large fat reserves to call upon in times of famine.
Eventually, I hobbled into Owen Sound, the broken remains of my pack, sleeping bag and tent bungeed together like something one might find tied to the end of a hobo’s stick.
But then, like now, I was simply glad to be alive.