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Friday, January 6, 2012

When Bears Badger - An Algonquin Tale

Apparently, I was taken on my first canoe trip into Algonquin Park (Canoe Lake) when I was was quite young - only 18 months old. And it wouldn't be my last, although I did end up growing out of the papoose pretty quickly.

Throughout my youth I would spend summers with my parents (who were quite avid canoeists, as it turns out) outside in a tent. Living in Toronto, we spent quite a bit of time as a family in Algonquin, traveling various routes throughout the Lake Opeongo, Canoe Lake and North Tea/Fawcett Creek areas.

Actual "permit" from Fiona's
very first canoe trip.
Pocahontas And Me
Looking back now, I was very lucky to have parents who hauled me out of the city each summer to experience a more natural world. Especially seeing my friends took to referring to our part of the city as the DLS (Dirty Lakeshore).

But my father, Mike, and my mother, Mhairi (pronounced Mary - it's the Gaelic spelling) didn't want to do anything else on their vacation other than paddle. Spending time in the wilderness had a profound effect on me growing up. As a young girl, I quite literally wanted to be Pocahontas. But to me, the most memorable of my canoe trip experiences, (besides everything!) was our many encounters with the native wildlife. Those of you who have been a few steps, or paddle strokes away from an animal in its natural habitat, are probably best able to understand how sharing a peaceful moment with a wild creature can be a remarkably rewarding experience. Even spellbinding at times.

Our family was lucky enough to have connected with nature many times over the years. We have had the distinct pleasure (and luck) to view many a Black Bear, Moose, Deer, Fox, Rabbit, Raccoon, and many other forest creatures as well as the Loon, Wood Ducks, Turkey Vultures, Eagles, Ravens, Heron, Grouse, Mink, and more. My father, "Poppa Badger", once even saw the very elusive Wolf (I missed it being on the other side of the portage). Some of these creatures we happened upon unwittingly and to the surprise of all parties involved. Others we waited for hours to see, tucked away in our boats in the swamp of some back bay.

Most of these memories have blurred over the years. All but for one, that is. Perhaps I was just the right age for remembering. Or maybe it was because it was the scariest night of my life.  Either way, the experience left its mark in my memory.  Whenever I go there in my mind, I am that little seven year old girl again. And the whole day and night come flooding back to me.

"There's a man in the tree!"
It was the last two days of a week long canoe trip. My mother, my father... and me. We were just coming off of the Manitou to North Tea Lake Portage in Algonquin Park. Our last night night was a scheduled stop on North Tea before carrying on, the next day, to the take out a few short portages away. Being a long weekend in the summer, campsites were scarce. My parents left me on the beach of a site, just around the corner from the last portage, while they paddled a short distance to see if any other sites were available closer to the next portage on our route. I was given strict instructions to stay on the beach. No swimming allowed and warned they would see me from their canoe if I misbehaved. They were going to be twenty minutes - maybe thirty - tops.

I made myself comfortable on the beach and began to sculpt the sand into some sort of Algonquin themed creation. Losing myself in play, my parents were back before I was done with my sand fun. It was still quite early in the day so my parents let me choose pancakes for lunch. Pitching the tent and other camp duties were tended to as I learned from my father that there wasn't any other available sites. I also learned that he wasn't sure if we should stay on North Tea Lake or not as there was a "bear warning" issued to all paddlers at the put in when we first arrived. But seeing as we had already started to unpack and set up camp, and nobody wanted to give up their last night in the park, the decision was already made.
My mother and father have paddled together since they were in their teens.
Soon we were settled in by the fire-pit and my mom began to mix up the pancakes. Dad lit up the old Coleman stove as we talked and prepared our meal. He was the best at making the pancakes. He would make make animal shapes and letters. Such fun to eat! It was a peaceful family moment that was suddenly interrupted by my mother's rather loud and excited exclamation "There's a man in the tree!" My father and I both glanced over in shock - as it would be the creepiest thing ever if there was some strange man staring at us, from a up a tree, in the middle of Algonquin's interior - long weekend or not!

Poppa Badger - or is it Indiana Jones?
However, my dad - upon seeing "the man" before I was able to -  quickly declared "That's not a man. That's a bear!" Which was quickly followed by "Grab me those pots and pans!" The bear, having been discovered in a tree just yards away from us, took his time making his way down it's trunk with incredible ease. He was obviously in no rush. That's when things became a bit scary. Loud noises usually scare bears away. But not this one. I remember feeling the chills coming off my father as EVERY TIME he banged the pots, the bear would stop... and (very) slowly turn around to look at us... Right in the eye. He would then give us a good stare down before turning back around and making his way to a trail that was to lead him deep into the forest. This showdown took place multiple times and the encounter didn't sit too well with my mother and father.

"We ain't seen no bears!"
There was some talk of the bear while we ate our flapjacks, which lead to a review in bear safety and a short visit by my dad to the neighbouring campsite - who was full of fisherman. This put my dad's mind at rest somewhat as he later told us the looks of their messy campsite was enough to convince him that if there was going to be any bear trouble - it would be at their camp site. But they had not seen any bears. So we took that as good news.

Little more was said in front of my little ears but I remember the tension. I also remember the night time routine being a bit different that particular evening. One of the biggest changes was the sudden appearance of a can of Naptha fuel by our tent entrance with a stick and the request for an old t-shirt from my father. He wanted to be able to have fire in a hurry and used the old t-shirt to wrap around the end of the stick to be used as a torch. I thought it was scary... but exciting. The other big change was the decision that I was to sleep BETWEEN my parents in the tent that night. And that hadn't happened since I could even remember! They also tethered me to my mother with some rope as an added precaution. To be honest, I have to admire my parents in this situation. They didn't want me to be frightened but they were honest enough with me that I was able to respect the seriousness of the situation. We had a bear in the area. And he didn't look like he was very afraid of humans.

My young parents along an unspecified portage in Algonquin.
Bears In And Out Of The Tent
Taking all the precautions we could (hanging our food, leaving a super clean camp site, no food or toiletries in the tent, Macgyver-ing a ready-to-go torch of sorts, etc.) we finally retired to the tent for the night. The tension was intense. My dad, clearly on edge, planned to keep going outside over the course of the night to keep the Coleman lantern filled and lit. Our senses were heightened and every sound was amplified by our anticipation of a visit from the bear. It took a long while for us to all fall asleep as every few seconds an acorn loudly dropped from its branch and terrified the living daylights out of us. And they were dropping every where constantly! But eventually, our ears got used to the random beat of the acorns and we were lulled to sleep.

My next memory is of my father's frightened voice "Mhairi! Mhairi! Give me the flashlight!" My father, unbeknownst to us, had awoken to a most terrifying experience. At that moment he believed he could actually feel the bear's cold wet nose on his arm. It was pitch dark and he was very afraid. The flashlight beam broke the darkness of the tent while at the same time the tension broke with my father's huge sigh of relief. "It's just a tree frog!" he half laughed, half whispered. "It must have hitched a ride on me when I went outside to refill the lantern..."  Some of the nervous energy was then released by our giggles. Sleep eluded us all for a bit longer, but after some time we were able to drift off again to the sound of the acorn drums.

A young Fiona at Captain Dennison's grave - East Arm of Lake Opeongo
(There were many bear sightings over the years there too!)
The last time I awoke that night was like a nightmare. There were voices. My mom's side of the tent was caving in. I was wide awake with fear....we all were. It was the BEAR. And it was S-L-O-W-L-Y dragging it's body along the wall our tent. We could see the curve of it's body crushing and stretching the thin material to it's limits. It wasn't cool or exciting anymore. It was just really scary. No. Scratch that. It was terrifying.

It was not an expected move by this bear. There had only been reports of the bear being sighted close to campsites. Not tents. This was extremely bold behaviour for this bear. Any bear. And it did not bode well for it's future. Or perhaps even ours! I cannot help but think today that perhaps my parent's instincts and animal safety knowledge helped us get out of the situation without it needlessly escalating. We only had clean clothes on and/or stored in the tent (no shirts with food spills or pants that had smelly fish hands wiped on them) that night. Therefore no scents to attract or tempt an animal. Our food was hung up high and our camp and fire pit was clean. And while we usually took these precautions anyway, we did make sure to go the extra mile in our efforts in this situation due to the unusual encounter with the bear previously that day. Perhaps if we were messy campers or unknowingly had toothpaste or even a chocolate bar stashed in our tent with us, things could have ended differently. But then again, none of precautionary measures we took would have mattered if the bear had suddenly decided our family was worth the effort to eat.

Too Dark To See
As it was, the bear moved away from our tent. At which time my father had his flashlight in one hand and his hatchet in the other (with his torch ready for lighting) and was looking out the screen of our temporary, thin-walled shelter. He watched the bear, within the small beam of his flashlight, walk past our fire pit and then disappear into the blackness of the forest on the other side of our camp. With our hearts beating and our voices hushed, we all desperately hoped the bear was gone.

You have to look really close, but there is a bear in this picture.
(Although most would claim it's just a black dot!)
Not being able to get back to a restful sleep again, worried that the bear was still out there - no matter what "reason" told us - we were up early and started to take down our camp. We all talked excitedly about our very close encounter even though each one of us was exhausted from not having slept properly. As much as I was against telling the Rangers, I could not convince my dad otherwise. I was afraid they were going to shoot the bear and my little girl mind could not bear the thought of it! I think I even cried a little bit. But my dad was right. The bear's behaviour was dangerous and our experience needed to be disclosed to the Ministry. Especially as this bear was known to them. I believe they even had a nickname for the bear, although neither my father nor I can recall that name now. I never got the chance to find out what happened to that bear. I'd like to think that he was trapped/relocated and the bear lived happily ever after. Yes, that's the little girl in me talking.

To this day, when I close my eyes, I can still feel the fear in that tent. Sometimes... it comes back to me when there are a few cracks too many in the dark bush around me... with me in my very thin-walled nylon fabric shelter and lightweight sleeping bag. But then I always think about that "cold wet nose"... and the tree frog. And I smile and go to sleep, thankful for another day spent in a canoe and in the bush.  I don't make a torch up but I do carry "Bear Spray" now.... you know, just in case.

Written by Fiona Westner-Ramsay of Badger® Paddles

1 comment:

  1. Wow, Fiona. I had heard this story many years ago from Mike, but reading this account brought it back and painted a vivid picture of the danger of the situation - the suspense, the angst... I found myself almost holding my breath!!! well done! P


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