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Mountain Runaways

Chapter One

Edge of Willmore Wilderness Park in west-central Alberta, Canada

It’s the family’s last day together, but nobody knows that yet. Nobody knows anything except that they’re all tired after a full day of February snowshoeing on the mountain above their log house, and that the mist is floating down, wrapping all five in a shroud. They can’t even see their tiny mountain town of Peakton below.

Jon’s snowshoes crunch to a stop as he squints through the blanket of white. His father’s face, ruddy as his wool scarf, turns to Jon and his siblings, Korka and Aron.

“So, kids, what do we do when visibility is bad?” Dad asks. “Stay put,” Jon says with full confidence. As if he even needs to be asked. At seventeen, he knows more than most of the adults who file through his parents’ two-week wilderness-survival courses. “Or —”

“— use a compass if there’s still a sightline left,” his younger sister, Korka, finishes for him, flipping her thick blond braid back with gloved fingers, her blue eyes sparkling. At fourteen, she annoys Jon with her constant attempts to prove herself.

The two watch Aron plop down in the snow with the angelic smile of an eleven-year-old. It’s his way of saying that when you’re fogged in, you should stay where you are. And who cares about weather, anyway? If you’re with the only four people who matter to you in the world, all is well.

“Good, kids,” their mother, bundled in a parka, says in her enthusiastic teacher’s voice. “And why do we not just continue to march forward?”

“Because without a compass —” Jon begins.

“— we’ll end up going in a circle without meaning to,” Korka finishes.

Aron rolls onto his back and kicks one leg up in the air like a baby moose trying to right itself, chuckling as his snowshoes send white stuff flying.

Their mom interprets: “Because we all have one leg slightly longer than the other, which means no matter how hard we try, we can’t walk in a straight line without a sightline or compass.” She leans down to tickle Aron through his padded snow vest. “Good answer, my young Viking.”

Jon watches Aron wrap his mittens around her ankles and tug her off-balance, sending her into the snow beside him. She screeches with laughter, and they create synchronized mother-and-son snow angels. Warmth radiates through Jon’s chest. It’s always good watching Aron come out of his shell.

“We have a compass,” Korka declares, folding her arms and frowning at her dad like she’s keen to get home.

She’s always got places to go, things to do, Jon reflects. Fog’s not about to slow her down.

Jon, on the other hand, is happy to linger in the soup. Not only does he love an outdoor navigation challenge, but up here, there’s no phone reception. That means he doesn’t have to listen to whiny apologies from his date from hell at the Valentine’s Day dance the previous evening. Maybe today’s fog can obliterate the recurring flashback of the high school gymnasium strewn with crepe paper and the echo of her harsh words as she dumped him, shouting over the racket of a musically challenged band.

All he’d suggested was ditching the dance and going to the local café for a bite. Okay, maybe he put it too strongly. He’d felt so claustrophobic in the overwarm, overlit, jarringly noisy gym that he insisted they get out of there. She seemed to take it the wrong way, like girls always do.

“No way. We came to dance. Stop ordering me around. Like you did last week when you dragged me up a slope on a stupid, freezing ‘walk.’ We’re done. Go find a girl who likes a bossy tyrant.” After another fifteen minutes of arguing, she stalked off.

When he looked for her to apologize, he found her in a dark corner making out with some other guy.

So, being wrapped in a heavy cloud pretty much suits his mood. Besides, the last thing he wants is to get home and be yanked into his father’s home office. “You’re the oldest, and the most responsible, the one with a good head for marketing and numbers,” his dad likes to say. “We need you to help run the survival school as soon as you graduate.”

In a few months he’ll march across the stage at Peakton High School. But for now, he’s hopelessly clinging to his own plan for the future. He knows his parents can’t afford to send him to college, but they only shake their heads when he begs them to let him get his emergency medical technician — EMT — certification this summer, a course he’s been studying for every minute of his spare time. An EMT job could earn him decent money, and he’d be able to save lives in the great outdoors that he loves so much.

“Sorry, Jon,” his dad has said a million times, frowning. “The survival school needs you, immediately. More work, less play when you graduate, son. It’s all about earning enough to feed the family.”

Jon sighs. The family. A family enveloped in fog at the moment and, unknown to his younger siblings, in debt.

“Let’s turn around already!” Korka demands. “I want to get home in time for my Krav Maga session!”

“Hmm, not till you demonstrate something you’ve learned from that martial arts class,” Dad says with a smile.

“It’s not technically martial arts, Dad. It’s a tactical defence system,” she declares with her usual pout.

Jon rolls his eyes.

“Okay,” Dad says, grinning and raising protective arms in front of his face.

The words are barely out of his mouth when Korka thumps him on the back of his neck with the palm of her hand. Not enough to hurt him, but enough to surprise him. He drops his tall, lanky frame overdramatically into the snow, playing along.

“See how I kept my elbow in front of my ribs, rather than let you expect the blow by pulling my arm back?” she asks proudly. “So you couldn’t see it coming!”

Dad rubs his neck and grins. “Got that right,” he says.

Laughter filters through the gauzy air between them. Then Dad leaps back up and faces her with his head lowered. Jon barely hears his next words. “I’m sorry you’ll have to miss the summer sessions. We just can’t afford them anymore.”

She pulls away and crosses her arms. “Maybe I can ask Mrs. Alpern if I can pay for them by cleaning her basement studio every day.”

“We’ll talk about it later,” Dad says, patting her arm.

Really? Jon thinks. We have to mention money stuff even up here? Still, his father has found a chance to get out of his office to spend some family time outdoors. Which is good but kind of sad, considering his business is being outdoors and teaching its mysteries to others. The family’s survival school has been low on customers and cash for a while. Barely surviving (okay, that wasn’t funny). Mostly because Mom and Dad are better at teaching what they love than at the business end, Jon figures.

Korka helps Aron leap up and dust off the snow, then wraps him in a warm hug that brings out a wide grin. The kind of high-beam smile that Aron gets when reading his books on Viking heroes. “Okay,” says Dad. “I say we escort Korka home to get ready for her lesson as soon as the three of you demonstrate your snow-pit competence, which will assure us that all is safe for a return using our compasses.”

“Compasses are no good now that we’ve lost our sightline,” Korka says, nose scrunched up like she’s caught him out on a trick question.

“According to our last sightline a few minutes ago, home is one hundred forty degrees southeast of where we stand right now,” Jon says quickly, proudly.

“Exactly, son. Well done. So, we use our compass.”

None of them wants to do a snow pit, Jon figures, but they know their parents too well to bother protesting. Obediently, they drop to their knees and, using their hands and small shovels, start shovelling snow on the slope to the side of their path. The idea is to check the stability of the snowpack. It’s like digging a little hole a ski-length wide and knees-to-head height, then slicing off a side like it’s a piece of layer cake in need of inspection. Like preparing to poke fingers into the icing and cake layers to see if any part is so doughy or slippery that one layer might slide off another.

Within minutes, there are three side-by-side minipits. The siblings compete to finish, brushing their mittens vertically across the face of the pits, checking which layers are crusty and weak enough to crumble and which are hard enough that their fingers, fists, a pencil, and maybe even a knife won’t go through.

“Aron, you’re not digging a hole to China,” Mom says.

“Nope. He’s digging to Iceland,” Jon says, making Aron smile. His Viking-obsessed little brother would definitely prefer to dig a hole to one of the Nordic countries.

Jon glances at Korka. She’s crawling around in her tiny pit, shoving her arms into the weak layers.

Aron is smelling his, and chewing thoughtfully on some of the snow. Aron likes to do things a little differently. But when it comes down to instincts, Jon would pretty much trust his little brother with his life.

Once the pit walls are smooth and vertical, the three get to their feet, dust themselves off, and reach for the ice saw on the end of Dad’s ski pole. Korka gets her hands on it first. She conducts her stability tests, then hands it to Jon.

“It’s all good,” she says, hands on her hips.

Jon chops out a study block roughly fingers-to-elbow length and places Dad’s shovel on top of the column. Then he taps the top of the shovel, first lightly, then harder, till his cube fractures.

“Compression test hard, which is good,” he rules. “Low danger.” Unlike his siblings, he has had a full avalanche-training course.

An impatient Aron grabs the shovel from Jon, completes his test, and offers a thumbs-up. He can speak — he just prefers not to. That’s how it’s been ever since the three siblings had a childhood misadventure that their parents never found out about, and that Jon figures the other two were too young to remember. It’s a trauma he wishes he could forget, too.

“You’re all correct. Low avalanche danger between here and home,” Dad confirms.

A nearby crunch of snow startles them. Two large, shadowy figures on cross-country skis emerge from the mist.

“Ha!” bellows Officer Greg Vine, the absolute last person Jon wants to see right now. He’s the cop father of the girl he took out last night.

Greg’s brother David, equally big and muscle-bound as his brother, pauses behind him.

“Got your kids on their knees praying for the mist to blow away, Gunnar and Eva?” Officer Vine asks. “Is that a strange Icelandic tradition? Or is this snow-pit school?”

As if we need schooling on snow pits, which we’ve been making all our lives, Jon thinks.

“They’re practising their snow pits, Greg,” Dad replies breezily. “Remember, kids, always dig them on a slope that’s the same aspect and angle as the slope you’re about to travel across, without triggering an avalanche.”

“We know that, Dad,” Jon says.

“Of course you do.” He grins and turns back to the men. “Are we on for skiing first thing tomorrow morning, gentlemen?”

“Storm coming in, so it depends on conditions,” Officer Vine replies, his dark eyes on Jon. As Jon’s mother and father move ahead out of earshot, the big cop says in a low voice, “Jon Gunnarsson. When you pick my daughter up for a date, I expect you to deliver her home, not ditch her at the dance and make her walk home in the dark.”

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Drone Chase

Chapter One

Huddled in a down parka, with my hands held to the campfire, I glance down the slope to make sure my parents are still on their walk. Affirmative: Their bickering voices — they haven’t stopped fighting since we moved here — are disturbing the afternoon peace of the mountainside. Next, I peer at the little red tent a few feet away from me. My sleeping grandfather’s unlaced hiking boots are sticking out from under the flap. In fact, the whole tent is shuddering with his snoring like a half-inflated balloon.

Zzz-zzz. The sound lifts my mood. It’s a good thing whiskered old mountain men need afternoon snoozes. Here at last, an opportunity to escape this boring, chilly campsite in the Canadian boonies.

It’s not the first time this city boy has been hauled unwillingly here, into a desolate land of granite peaks, waterfalls, dodgy wildlife, and monster trees, but it’s definitely not somewhere I feel at home. For one thing, dark woods scare me, and this place has endless trees. I hate trees. They have a bad habit of eating my drones.

Camping in general, in my private opinion, sucks. Who willingly goes for a hike in the sticks in May? Give me Central Park muggers any day over perilous predators hiding behind giant, moss-draped trees. I’m a New York City guy through and through.

I reach into the beefy backpack Granddad has saddled me with — “It’ll toughen you up,” he said — and touch the cellphone-sized drone the old man and my parents don’t know I’ve smuggled along. It’s a perfect antidote to the eerie woods.

“Remote-control toys are for kids,” Granddad ruled in his Irish brogue last month when my parents and I arrived. “They’re for city-park shenanigans. Got to get you in shape, teach you about woodsmanship, pry you out of that workshop o’ yours. Real life is the mountains, kid, and I’m going to teach you and yer city mom backcountry survival and appreciation for nature.”

Like that’s going to happen. As far as I can tell, Granddad has hated my “city mom” ever since she “stole away” his son to the other side of the continent. Given her high heels, makeup, New York personality, and lack of enthusiasm for the outdoors, in his mind she’s beneath his contempt. Which caused friction on our vacations here as far back as I can remember. But now that we’ve actually moved here, it’s way worse.

Sitting close to where we’ve strung up the food bag on a rope between two trees — “to make it fierce-hard for bears to reach it, grandson” — I pull out my fifteen- hundred-dollar store-bought drone kit: bird, batteries, and remote. The drone is four wavy rings joined by a centre that resembles a small bug. I call him Bug. The 250-millimetre, one-pound device can fly for about twenty minutes before he conks out. Then, clever robot that he is, he automatically returns to me. Another thing: He folds so neatly I can slip him into my jeans pocket. As in, I can hide him from Granddad’s sharp eyes.

We’re with Granddad because Dad tore us away from New York City. Granddad, an expert hunter and outdoorsman I admire but will never be like (as he reminds me regularly), lives in Bella Coola, in northern British Columbia. Bella Coola (population 150) is located in a mountain valley on a saltwater inlet maybe sixty miles — or I guess I should say a hundred kilo metres, since I’m in Canada — east of the Pacific Ocean, in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest. Dad says we had to move here because Granddad’s health is “failing.” Failing? To me, the dude is stronger and more stubborn than a ninehundred-pound grizzly — and grizzlies actually live in the forests around here. Granddad is a headstrong taxidermist who stuffs and mounts dead furry animals for clients. So disgusting.

According to Dad, Granddad’s terminal cancer means he doesn’t have many months to live. It’s true he’s not as tough as he used to be, but there’s still plenty of griz left in him. And while he afternoon-hibernates, I’m outta here. Yes, I’m supposed to stick close to camp, and yes, the woods are full of dangerous stuff that scares me to death. But the trees aren’t dense and dark right around camp, and it’s a chance to launch a drone, which is what I’m all about.

I grab the bear-spray can and stuff it into my designer moto jeans pocket. Though I definitely hope I won’t meet a nasty bruin, I pretend I’d have the nerve to fire the peppery stuff into one’s face if I had to. Slapping away early-spring flies, I follow a path to a small clearing. Concentrate on the drone, not where the forest gets darker just up the slope. And don’t freak out if you see a bear. That ended badly last time.

I unfold the drone’s arms and click in all four propellers, or props. Next, I give the 4K-sensor mini-camera a quick wipe-down, attach it to the body, and set the drone on the dewy grass of the clearing. After charging up my radio-sized remote controller for takeoff, I take a big step back and a deep breath and throw the throttle stick up. Yes! My slick graphite baby rises on cue and hovers in front of me with a happy hum.

A surge of excitement ripples through my body, like it does no matter how many times I do this. Flying allows me to de-stress, to take a break from missing my New York City friends and worrying about Mom and Dad’s recent arguing or Granddad’s cancer. When I’m flying my drones, even ominous woods turn into my happy place for awhile.

When the machine reaches four hundred feet (picture a forty-storey building), I admire Bug’s bird’s-eye view from the mini-tablet, slid onto my remote controller. Then, like the ace pilots I admire, I hit the throttle of the remote, tilting and thrusting till even I can appreciate Bug’s camera view of the crazy-tall trees, seriously blue sky, and icy glaciers that look like someone has spilled green Slurpees all over the mountaintops. I spot hairy mountain goats hanging out on a ridge and a real live eagle swooping high above them.

Imagining myself as a miniature pilot in my drone, I bank left, barrel-rolling for the crowds below, dogfighting with the drones of my New York City friends, Arlo and Koa. What I wouldn’t give to be back there with them.

Whoa! A nasty gust of wind catches my little guy. I do my best to keep him steady. But my remote controller starts beeping like crazy, warning me that Bug is losing connection to the controller because of wireless interference. Next thing I know, he is spinning out of control toward a tree. My fingers yank on the joystick, but I can’t get whatever’s loose to reconnect.

I hit the return-to-home button in a desperate attempt to save Bug. He doesn’t respond — Nooo! — just clips a branch and free-falls toward the ground. At least I see where he’s landed. Stumbling through the brush, I head that way, trying not to trip over stupid roots or slip on damp moss.

Phew! He is not so far away, just into the woods, on a small hillock of dirt half blocking a hole in the base of a giant cedar. In fact, my baby has parked himself partway into the entrance, like he’s shivering and wants a garage. As I sprint toward my flying machine, I see no cracks or breaks. I sigh in relief. We just might’ve gotten lucky. Except — my stomach tightens as I draw closer — for the smoke coming out of Bug’s far side. Wait, no. Not out of the drone. Out of the garage. And not smoke but —

No way. Breath! Someone or something is inside the tree breathing in the chill air. Something with a wet, black nose. Behind the nose, a massive bear’s head pushes out of the gap and gives an unholy growl, deep and menacing, like a Rottweiler crossed with a sasquatch.

My eardrums vibrate like a subway’s running through my head, and terror electrifies every nerve. But even through the panic, I reach forward to scoop up my drone. I’m that kind of dad. Then I stagger back, tucking him into the back pocket of my jeans.

“Most o’ the bears around here are still asleep,” Granddad told my parents and me before this weekend’s camping trip. “To be sure, if we do run into one, climb a tree quick smart if it’s a grizzly. If it’s a black bear, drop face first to the ground, wrap yer arms around yer head and neck, and play dead. Never, ever run.”

Every cell in my body screams, Run. But channelling all the self-discipline I can, I force myself to freeze as the bear emerges. Grizzly or black bear?

I recall Granddad’s lectures. “Grizzlies have upturned noses, small ears, shoulder humps, and long, straight claws.”

I have no idea which brand this girl is, but she’s one big customer. Seven feet tall, hairy as Chewbacca, and smelly as rancid oil. No more than fifty feet away, she’s clacking her teeth, flaring her nostrils, and making a sound like whoosh. Worse, two cubs the size of full-grown St. Bernards bound out of the tree like fluffy puppies, tumbling around Mama’s very large ass.

While frantically weighing my options, I stand tall, meet the bear’s eyes, and attempt to project calm instead of terror. Being the kid of two veterinarians, I know a thing or two about animals. It’s super important they don’t sense panic or fear. In my parents’ clinic, I’ve always had a skill for calming dogs. My parents call me the animal whisperer.

So, get a g-g-grip, Ray. Ref-f-frame the situation. Use h-h-humour. After all, I’m not a morning person either, and I’ve disturbed this brute and her babies from their long winter nap.

A side glance reveals a tall evergreen with low, sturdy branches that even a gymnastically challenged slackwad might be able to scramble up. With one hand on my bear-spray can, I take a step toward it, super slow-mo.

“Never get between a sow and her cubs,” Granddad always warns. “Just talk to the beast respectful-like as you back away.”

“Sorry, Blondie,” I say in as even a tone as I can manage. Blond equals grizzly, my half-paralyzed brain informs me. “My little drone didn’t mean to wake you up. He was just crash-landing.” I chance another step toward the tree. “He wasn’t going to hurt one of your little ones.”

The bear stomps her front feet, flattens her ears, gives me a spine-chilling glare, and lowers her head straighton. I know in my gut she’s going to charge. As my spongy knees miraculously support the final two steps to the tree, I leap onto the first branch and struggle to do my first pull-up since last year’s sophomore gym class, where I was pretty useless. Then I scramble upwards, fuelled by rocket-booster-grade adrenalin.

With a roar that sets pine needles quivering, Mama Bear lunges and in one bound reaches the tree. She raises her hairy shoulders high and rests her massive paws against the trunk just feet below my flailing silver running shoes (new, and purchased at great expense from Hell’s Kitchen Flea Market in Manhattan).

My heartbeat ups by a factor of three, my teeth form a death clench, and sweat streams out of my pits. Her next bellow is loud enough to wake up the valley and raise all three hairs on my chest.

When she quiets for a second, I try to speak to her calmly, like I do to upset dogs in our clinic. “I’m planning to stay up here till you go back to sleep or a rescue helicopter shows, okay?” Talking to animals: yeah, it’s a thing in veterinary clinics.

Then I screech, “Mom! Dad! Granddad! A bear!” Maybe I shouldn’t have wandered away from our campsite after all?

The cubs peek out at me from behind their mother’s tank-sized body. To keep my panic in check, I shift my eyes to one of them, a little guy trembling like a toddler hidden in its mother’s skirts. Its whimper tugs at my heart. It’s like a carnival-prize giant teddy bear, with a cute brown nose and very pink mouth, which opens wide to emit a wail like a baby’s.

It might be five minutes. It feels like an hour. I clutch the tree’s upper branches with moist hands and watch the mother bear as she watches me. I half wish I hadn’t shouted. The last thing I need is my unarmed parents or weakened grandfather scrambling up the slope right now.

I catch movement from the corner of my eye and hear three blasts.

I cry out as the sow drops heavily to the ground, bleeding from the front of her steep forehead. She lands on the cub who was wailing, trapping it beneath her giant bulk. I turn my shuddering body toward my grandfather, who is standing there holding a rifle, looking proud.

My chin trembles and my shoulders quake as I look from my murderous grandfather to the second panicked cub as it scampers away, then halts as if torn over what to do. The one beneath its mother is bellowing in pain. A cold heaviness creeps into my chest.

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