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.
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.
|My mother and father have paddled together since they were in their teens.|
|Poppa Badger - or is it Indiana Jones?|
"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.|
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!)
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!)
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