When I was sixteen I went for a hike along Centennial Ridges Trail in Algonquin Provincial Park. It’s a ten-kilometer loop that visits five cliffs along two parallel ridges of Canadian Shield. It’s a gorgeous walk, and one I’ve often done before and since, but this time I came very close to being mauled by a bear; the really scary thing is that I knew exactly how to deal with the situation, and that preconceived knowledge is what put me in real danger.
I was up in Algonquin Park for three weeks with my grandparents and sister. I love Algonquin Park as I love few places on this Earth. I’ve asked for a third of my ashes to be scattered there when the time comes. I would wake up every morning around dawn and paddle out in my canoe alone for an hour or two, then I’d return home for breakfast to plan my day. I was keen to do the Centennial Ridges Trail that trip; for days I’d tried to coax someone into doing it with me, but it was quite a commitment of time and effort: Centennial Ridges is steep in a lot of places, and it’s about as long a trail as my then-seventy-something grandparents could manage.
My sister and I had done it last year, and she wasn’t that interested in spending three to five hours repeating the journey: She always made friends with other campers, and I imagine she was going for a swim or playing badminton with some other boys and girls. My grandparents weren’t looking forward to it either, and that was fine with me. Just because they could do a walk like that wasn’t synonymous in my mind with their having to do it. I didn’t need proof of my grandparents robust good-health and boundless energy. The fact that they took my sister and I up to Algonquin Park every summer for ten years at a time in their life when most of their friends were in nursing homes was more than enough for me. I didn’t need them to constantly prove themselves.
The fact of the matter is that I loved to walk those trails alone or with friends, and when I couldn’t get anyone to go with me, I just asked for a ride out to the starting point and for someone to pick me up four hours later. I took a bottle of water and my camera, and I figured I was all set.
There was a sign posted at the start of the trail that a month earlier a bear displaying predatory behaviour had followed a group of hikers, and that anyone using the trail should be on their guard, but I wasn’t worried about that: A single black bear that follows people around is usually an adult male, and they tend to range over a large territory. That bear could be anywhere, a month later. What’s more, I knew from my time in the Air Cadets two-week Air Crew Survival Course at Cold Lake, Alberta, that a single bear following a person is probably just curious,; even if it is hungry, it’s not going to be interested in anything that makes threatening noises and gestures. I knew that, and I prepared myself to deal if I had to, never expecting the situation would ever come up.
One of the wonderful things about taking a walk in the woods by yourself is how much you see that you wouldn’t if you had company. A young man taking his time and enjoying himself makes no more noise in the woods than a deer, and so I saw all kinds of wildlife that I wouldn’t have seen if I had been talking, or if there had been more people to step on a twig or scuff their feet upon a root or rock.
I saw partridges sunning themselves in the dirt and a fox stalking something in the undergrowth. The whirring of my camera turning on always startled the animals away before I got a picture, but that didn’t bother me. I wasn’t there to document it so much as to experience it. Aside from the wildlife, I also enjoyed the quiet solitude of clouds reflecting in a tree-ringed pond and the gentle summer breeze blowing across the granite and gneiss tops of the ridges. Truly, Algonquin Park is a little piece of the divine. You would have to have a heart made of stone not to see the beauty in it.
About half-way along the trail I was descending into a valley, the bottom of which had a burbling brook making its way through a maple thicket. When I reached the valley floor there was suddenly a great deal of thrashing going on in the thicket not twenty feet from me. “Oh, good,” I think. “There’s a large animal not too far away that doesn’t know I’m here.” I’m not thinking about bears. There are approximately 2500 black bears in the entire park, whereas there are an awful lot more deer and moose. You almost can’t spend a week in the park without seeing one of those, and I really thought I was going to get a close encounter with one of them right there in the middle of the forest.
I pulled out my camera, turned it on, and the whirring noise of the lens popping out evoked a death-like silence and stillness from the far side of the thicket. That’s when I felt it: The product of millions of years of evolution has given mankind a danger sense to predators, and I was within twenty feet of something with pointy teeth and sickle-esque claws. I couldn’t see it through the leaves, but it was there: A black bear was close enough for me to hit it with my camera, should I care to throw it through the foliage.
I had two directions I could go: Back the way I had come or up the slope ahead of me. To turn back would see me retrace my steps all the way to the road –my hike abandoned, for I would never pass through this valley on the same day again. So I decided to move forward, uphill, never turning my face away from the thicket. If I saw an ursine form, I knew exactly what to do: Make myself look big; raise my arms; shout; scream; yell! If I made myself a threat, the predatory bear would view me as too much trouble and back off.
A hundred yards separated the valley floor from the next ridge-top, and I walked it all backwards, never taking my eyes from the maple saplings. There was no movement, no sound, and as the distance opened I began to breath easier. It’s true that a bear can outrun a horse over rough ground, but I knew now that I would see it coming if it took a mind to it and that would give me time to react. When I reached the top of the next hill I let out a long sigh and finally turned away, ready to move forward, and there –silhouetted against the sky– was a bear’s head not ten feet away from me.
“Oh, please be a baby bear on your hind legs. Oh, please be a baby bear on your hind legs,” I said, for that was the only thing that would make sense: The bear below would have had to fly in order to get above me. Sure enough, the bear got down on all fours to reveal a cub that only stood to my thigh’s height.
I was young and foolish, and I thought, “Here’s a picture I’ll cherish forever.” My camera had timed out and switched itself off during my climb from the valley floor, and so I switched it back on. Whirr! The baby bear turned, snorted, and dove down the side of the valley through the undergrowth: Crash! Bang! Boom! Snap! It was not a controlled descent, and it is entirely possible the cub hurt itself. That was when the reality of my situation sunk in.
For the last several minutes I had stood between a mother bear and her cub. One of the most dangerous things a man can do. If I had seen her during that time, I would have made threatening gestures, which is –again– the worst thing you can do. That would have triggered her maternal instinct. She would have mauled me to remove the danger to her cub. I should have played dead, but I had not known the cub was there. In preparing for a predatory bear I had set myself up to be killed by a mother protecting her young.
What was worse, I now found myself with my back to a cliff, and the trail continued on by u-turning back into those same woods where the mother was now quite possibly investigating what exactly had happened to her offspring. Even as a young man I had an interest in newspapers, and I could see a bold headline: Young Man Killed By Mother Bear Protecting Cub, Had Whole Life Ahead of Him.
Sweat beaded on my brow, my heart raced, and I yelled into the forest at the top of my lungs, “You leave me alone, and I’ll leave you alone. That’s a good deal, right?”
It was late afternoon by the point, and I doubted anyone else was going to be coming along the trail behind me anytime soon. I was alone, five kilometers along a ten kilometer trail, and I could not stay there forever, waiting for a happy ending. I had to move. I waited ten minutes for Mama Bear to either come up the hill and kill me or move off into denser forest, and then I began to run. I continued on the trail, descending the hill into the valley below within perhaps a hundred yards of where I had last heard the mother bear. Every pop and snap in the forest made me jump sideways. After a kilometer or two I fell in with a couple of Australian hikers, and neither of them doubted my story. I was white as a sheet, despite my exertions.
I knew exactly what to do, and, if I had done it, it would have been exactly the wrong thing. That’s a life lesson I learned standing between a mother bear and her cub, and I have taken it well and truly to heart, I promise you.
My mother bought me a plate and mug from the Algonquin Gift Shop for Christmas that year, and I have them today, a constant reminder of my brush with death. When I moved away to university, and then later into an apartment with my best friend, I had a rule: Please don’t use this plate and mug. Everything else is to be shared happily and freely, but if these are broken, I want to be the one responsible.
On the plus side, the next summer I went to live in England on my own for six months (I’m sure I’ll tell those stories another time), and let me just say, British chicks love bear stories.
Anyway, that’s my story. I hope you liked it, and I hope, should you ever find yourself in the woods with a bear, you’ll think of both possibilities (predatory bear versus mother and cub) before you decide on a course of action.
UPDATE: This was terribly, terribly punctuated when it was first published. I’ve just finished revising it. For anyone who remembers this as being a trainwreck of misplaced commas, I aplogize.