Books to stuff in your backpackCreated by Bob Armstrong on June 1, 2012
In describing the true events surrounding a series of frightening bear attacks in l980, a bestselling nature/adventure author explores our relationship with the great grizzly.
Many citizens of Banff, Alberta, valued living in a place where wildlife grazed on the front lawn; others saw wild bears as a mere roadside attraction. None were expecting th …
There are trails near the timberline, connecting between the ranges, whose purpose is known to very few, because they are not part of the trail system used by humans. Known as bear roads, they tunnel through the krummholz and slide alder where most people stop, baffled, unwilling to get down on all fours and crawl, unsure of their welcome in that hedged darkness. They are roads of ancestral knowledge, passed on from the mother bear to the cubs, imprinted in the brain to be recalled later, perhaps some years after the cubs have dispersed, maybe long after the siblings have gone their separate ways. Mothers and cubs might meet again on those roads, and recognize each other, and pass each other by without doing harm.
One road, of many such, crosses rock slides where the shale is packed into the interstices between great fallen blocks of limestone by the coming and going of padded feet. Here a hole in the path marks where a boulder the size of a small car was grappled and shoved out of the way, and sent rolling down the mountain like local thunder. This road winds across avalanche chutes, over the flayed trunks of old-growth trees that can be three feet or more in diameter, trees that lived for a century or longer before a winter avalanche finally called them to account, leaving their bones like giant pick-up sticks between the boulders, the trunks now scarred by claw marks. Here and there will be a drift of snow, insulated by a layer of broken shale that fell, piece by piece, from the precipice high above earlier that spring, as meltwater loosened the rocks, so in the heat of summer there are still places where the traveller beast can stretch out and rub its back and cool off in the icy slush for a moment below a boiling of frustrated deer flies. The bear road curls through a mossy gulch now and then, where a brook purls down the mountain to form a pool of icy water in which a bear may stop to bathe its hot, cracked footpads in the mud
while slaking its thirst. And if, later, you came upon the spot by chance, you might think that a huge man had stood barefoot in the mud; you might wonder if the stories about Sasquatch are true, and then you might note how the mud is punctured at the end of each toe pad. And this fact will make you stand up quickly; it will make you turn around, and listen, and listen.
In the old-growth forest, where the deep layers of duff and moss sometimes serve as the flimsy roof over a rock crevice, a place to be sniffed at and passed by carefully, or else out on the flatter lie of a bog, the road is marked by tracks a foot deep and a foot or more long. These tracks were made over the centuries by the padded humanoid feet of bears that journey between mountain ranges; each has put its front foot and then the corresponding rear foot down in the same print the first of its tribe made here centuries before. It may seem as if this were a trail made by human footsteps, but you will look in vain for any other sign of their habitation or resort. There are no axe blazes, no fire circles or rusty tin cans. The road may be grown in with fresh green moss as if it had been unused for years, but it has not been forgotten, and won’t be as long as bears are allowed to live.
From the Hardcover edition.
Since time immemorial, the Porcupine caribou herd has ranged the Arctic in a 2,800-mile annual trek between its winter feeding grounds inland and its summer calving grounds on the coastal plain of the Beaufort Sea. In 2003, the caribou were joined on their spring journey, possibly for the first time ever, by two humans: wildlife biologist and write …
We were surrounded. Waves of thick fog blew over the thirty-kilometre-wide plain separating us from the Arctic Ocean, and in the intermittent clearings I glimpsed more and more grizzly bears. A big male slept on the opposite side of the canyon, two adults nosed into the mist toward me, and two hundred metres farther away, a mother with newborn cubs angled for the beach where we’d landed the rafts. I jabbed at the rusty siding of the Water Survey cabin where we’d taken refuge, then yanked at the steel mesh bolted over the two small windows. Solid. Judging from the muddy paw prints smeared across every outside wall, the small tin building in the middle of the open tundra had survived probing, rubbing bruins before. But I gave the hinges and handle of the door a good tug as I stepped inside, just in case.
“Five more bears,” I said, shaking the rime from the hood of my parka.
Steve looked up from the cloud of steam coming from the pot of noodles on the small camp stove and cupped a hand over his ear.
“Five more bears,” I repeated, trying not to sound too surprised. I didn’t know what was normal here. It was my first patrol down the Firth River and my first year as a seasonal warden in northern Canada’s remote Ivvavik National Park. Steve Travis, on the other hand, was a seven-year veteran in the area and had made the 130kilometre-long trip by raft down the Firth’s twisting canyons more than thirty times. I searched his face for a reaction, but he only pulled on his wool hat and slipped out the door. It was 11:00 pm and dinner would have to wait.
The fog was beginning to lift, and by the time we scrambled onto the roof to look around, we could see seven bears, as well as half a dozen golden eagles wheeling in and out of the rising clouds. I trained my binoculars on the farthest grizzly, a dark-coated animal with a hitching limp, and as I did, something on the slope behind it moved. While I fiddled with the focusing ring I saw a tuft of grass slide sideways. A bush drifted downhill. Suddenly the whole slope was alive.
“Caribou!” I gasped.
Steve was already counting. “A few hundred,” he guessed, but the retreating fog revealed more animals with each passing second. “Times fifty,” he corrected half a minute later, but even that wasn’t enough to account for what was unfolding before our eyes. It was late June 2001 — just after the summer solstice — and we found ourselves amid a sea of animals coursing northwest. Caribou cows and their newborn calves dotted every hillside, pouring over dark rocky slopes and lingering snowdrifts in waves and streams that spread like shadows toward the Firth River. By the time the wind shouldered us off the roof and back into the cabin an hour later, we had counted close to ten thousand caribou, twenty-four golden eagles, two foxes, thirteen ravens, a pair of rough-legged hawks, one peregrine falcon, countless gulls and terns, and eight grizzly bears. Even Steve was awestruck.
Although we’d had a long and difficult day on the river, I found it impossible to sleep for much of that night. There was too much light from the midnight sun, too much energy, too many life-and-death struggles unfolding around us, to allow rest. All night long, group after group of grunting cows spurred their hesitant newborns over the canyon rim. Cries of protest drifted up from the river as the young struggled in the first big swim of their life. The current tore orderly strings of caribou into a spreading chaos of calfless mothers and motherless calves, the air filling with bellows and bleats. Separated animals pulled themselves onto the rocks and raced up and down the opposite bank. Lone calves disappeared over the horizon; distressed mothers plunged back into the water, and the eagles and grizzlies patrolled the gravel bars, waiting for the calves that were struggling in the whirlpools to wash up.
We settled for short naps punctuated by long bouts of watching, but no sooner had we bedded down than a cacophony of noises sent us running out the door. A bear had a group of caribou running; a family of foxes yipped from where they watched on the far side of the river; and above all of it, a pair of screeching peregrine falcons took flight.
I called my fiancée, Leanne Allison, on the satellite phone and tried to describe the scene: the grizzly bears, the thousands of caribou, and Steve and I in the middle of it — the only people for hundreds of kilometres. When another group of animals thundered past, I held the phone out toward them, but the distance was too great. She was in the city of Vancouver; I was in the wilds of northern Yukon — and my words and the muffled sounds weren’t enough to communicate the power of the migration. And yet there was something in my voice, she later told me, that said the lives we’d committed to living together were about to change.
The seed of the idea to follow the caribou was planted the next morning when the last animals crossed the river, climbed the ridge above us, and disappeared. At least 10,000 cows, calves, and young bulls had passed in the previous forty-eight hours, and the silence that followed them was almost unbearable. If not for a few despondent cows still searching for their lost calves, I might have thought it had all been a dream. But it hadn’t been, for no matter how fleeting the migration was, its energy had passed right through me and in its wake was a space, a loneliness, a yearning where none had existed before. I watched the last bereft cow give up hope and trot off after the others. Where were they going, I wondered. Where had they come from? And what other obstacles lay ahead?
But the river pulled me north toward the coast, not west along the foothills. The answers would have to wait.
From the Hardcover edition.
Winner of the Gold Medal for Western Canadian Fiction at the 2012 Independent Publisher (IPPY) Book Awards
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