I had been taking my time, and was just finishing my eighth day since leaving Lac Brochet, Manitoba. I had camped in one spot for three days, and was only a hundred miles into my trip. I was planning on being gone at least five weeks, maybe as much as seven, and was heading up to Kasba Lake, and then Ennadai, and then planning on lake hopping back to Nueltin Lake to the South East, and then onward to Tadoule Lake, Manitoba.
I was part way through the multiple lake crossing from the Cochrane River to the Thlewiaza River, an old Dene route called “The Little Lakes Portage”. I had been through here several times before, and had set up at the start of a mile long portage I particularly like, one which I “adopted”, and have spent time clearing and keeping open for other travellers. A common route to the Dene in the past, it is now used mainly by people like me. A hundred and twenty years ago, J.B. Tyrell, the surveyor and explorer, passed through here, likely the first white man to do so. Since then, there have been figures like Oberholtzer and Magee in the nineteen-tens, P.G. Downes in the thirties, Farley Mowat in the forties, and many more since.
Travelling alone is a completely different experience than the same trip with company. There is no relaxing of responsibility, no motivation from outside oneself. Any minor mishap could prove fatal. The most difficult part is the constant need to make decisions, confident and certain decisions.
I figured the next day, I would go through the remaining five portages to reach Than out and Fort Hall Lakes, two long narrow lakes, one of which has a hill where the Dene leader Kasmere is buried. I have never climbed the hill, since I’m doubtful I could find the grave, but I have always dropped a large handful of tobacco into the water as I passed the spot. On the next lake, there are the ruined remains of an old Hudson Bay Company post. It burned in the nineties, and there is very little of interest I’ve seen there in the past. After that, the Thlewiaza narrows and runs swiftly for a short period, and then widens out to a couple of hundred yards, where I spent my last time through evading a female moose who chased me around in the water for about forty minutes before I beat her to the next bottle-neck, where I saw her calf.
After that, the river becomes quite shallow before approaching Kasmere Falls and Rapids. It was in the shallow river, only two or three feet deep, where another year a bull moose stood near the shore grazing as I paddled by. I took out my camera to take a picture, when he started to charge me. I managed to snap the picture as I lowered my camera, only to realize how shallow the water was. I yelled “Hey!” at him, and he turned and slowly sauntered into the bush. Luckily, the moose was still in the picture, and he can be seen at the very top of the picture, splashing toward me. I had already planned to kick out of my boat and head downstream underwater for fifty yards if he didn’t desist, focusing his attention on the boat. I would have had a hard time living if it had come to that.
In his book Sleeping Island, P.G. Downes, who paddled through this area in the thirties, described the portage past the falls as particularly bad, but I have found it to be fairly decent. At the start of it, there was once a Revillon Freres trading outpost, but I have never seen signs of it. It’s entirely psychological, but it isn’t until I’m through that portage and onto Kasmere Lake that I feel like I’ve actually entered the North. I expected to sleep on the shores of Kasmere the next night, but that wasn’t meant to be.
He described the Kasmere Falls portage:
“The portage starts out very innocently, rising up from the small lake over the sand ridge, and then winds along it to the northeast. It continued to gain altitude and distance and the river valley was lost to view. After three-quarters of a mile, it began to descend into a valley and the going became more difficult. The sandy footing, which had been good, now disappeared, and we stumbled and staggered over stretches of sharp knife-like rocks and shorter spaces – of oozing mud and swamp. Fallen logs added to the difficulty. After what seemed an interminable distance it suddenly twisted out onto a sand ridge again and then dropped sharply down to the river.”
I expected to be there late the next afternoon. I set up my tent on a sand bank, atop the rise from the lake, and on the flat ground at the start of the portage. I was about thirty yards from the water. All my gear and my boat was by my tent, near an old fire ring. I ate the last of the bannock I had cooked the previous day, and had several cups of tea.
I believe this is the spot that Downes described:
“We found the trail out of this lake after a hunt that carried us into two small bays and behind several islands. It turned out to be the longest and most difficult we had encountered. The ascent to the top of the sand ridge was a fifty-foot climb almost straight up from the lake. The approach was across a patch of quicksand followed by a treacherously boggy stretch. The trail stretched and wandered a mile or so over a flat sandy plateau and dropped precipitously into another lake.”
All I had for food stuffs were half a dozen vacuum sealed boil-in-a-bag meals, a bunch of flour, tea bags, and peanut butter. I triple Zip-loc everything, and then it is put in a dry bag. I usually leave my dry bags on the ground. I disagree with the idea of always hanging food, and at any rate, that far North, it is rarely an option anyways. I also like my food close enough so I am aware in the night if something is messing with it, so I can be alerted to defend my food, and/or make a tactical withdrawal. If I were travelling in the South, where bears are more habituated, I would likely change my approach.
I am normally a light sleeper on my trips, and wake easily to any sounds, but I had been sleeping poorly for a long time at home, due to worries and stresses in my life, and problems with trauma I was dealing with. So, for some reason, when I woke to a “thunk” sound and looked at my watch at 4:47 a.m., I only half woke, unzipped my tent, and mindlessly yelled “Hey!” before collapsing back into my sleeping back and falling asleep again. It’s possible I looked directly at the bear and didn’t even register it.
I next woke to some banging directly in front of my tent. I’ve been awakened many times in the night on trips in the past, invariably it has been moose briefly investigating, but I knew from the sound that this wasn’t moose. As I quickly got out of my sleeping bag, I looked at my watch: 5:10 a.m. I grabbed my axe and bear spray in one hand, removing the safety, and unzipped my tent, grabbing a flat sheet of ventilation tin I had found days earlier. I was going to see if that would serve as a good “pan” for making bannock, since I had stopped bring pans on my trips, and instead wove branches to make a sort of “nest” to cook my bannock. (The tin doesn’t work, there are too many chemicals released from the galvanized metal.)
In front of me, about ten feet away, the bear was flipping over rocks at the fire circle. I am pretty sure I was the only person through there at that point that year, but perhaps someone had been through and had cooked there. We looked at each other and the bear started to pace back and forth, as I banged my axe on the tin and yelled “Hey! Hey! Hey!” repeatedly.
Neither of us were afraid, but my only tool was bluster. If he attacked, I’d be dead or dying in a second. My only hope if it came to it would be blind luck, a one-in-a-million fluke. But then again, as Terry Pratchett said: “One-in-a-million chances work nine times out of ten.” I’m just going to tell myself that. It was unusual just how innocuous and banal the entire exchange was to both of us. Just an internally quiet, matter-of-fact pragmatism.
He wasn’t the biggest bear, but he was fully adult and healthy. I was amazed at how dark he looked in that light. Just a beige snout and human eyes, everything else a hard black. I expected to be able to smell him, but I smelled nothing. I figure he was two hundred and fifty pounds or so. He was completely silent as he paced back and forth. Sometimes as near as five feet, sometimes up to fifteen feet away. Whenever I stopped yelling and banging he turned toward me and stepped forward. I would stomp toward him, resume my banging and yelling, and he would return to pacing and circling me.
There was a heavy dew, and a moderate fog. Thick fingers of it spread across the lake. The pre-dawn sky was leaden, and the landscape looked grey. Everything was completely silent except my yells of “Hey! Hey! Hey!” which echoed off the high hills to either side of me. I didn’t feel it at the time, but the silence is eerie in retrospect. I felt very present and alive when I looked to the grey wet hill to the south, witnessing my crisp voice bouncing off it.
I stood there, only in my underwear. I was aware of that fact, and found it comically absurd. I didn’t notice the cold bothering me, nor was I distracted by the mosquitoes feasting on me, but I was aware they were having quite the meal. I felt very naked and vulnerable, but I wasn’t feeling any fear. A better term is “raw”. I felt raw. I turned my awareness inward to ask myself: “Am I feeling fear?” at one point, and I felt none at all, which surprised me. It felt like I was reliving some primordial past, which we have nearly forgotten. Just as I am full of anxiety approaching rapids, when I am in them, I am completely present, and there is no such thing as fear or anxiety, only the presence, hard decisions, and action.
It was a profoundly vivid feeling, knowing I was there alone with the bear, so far away from any people or roads or civilization, naked, completely self-reliant. It felt pure, iconic, and archetypical.
I threw my metal cup at the bear, and he pawed it indifferently before returning his focus to me. As soon as I threw it I thought “That’s stupid! I need that cup!” I was relieved he didn’t wreck it. I had my bear spray, but didn’t want to waste it unless absolutely necessary. I contemplated going on the offence and attacking the bear first, but thought escalation was the wrong move. I stayed mentally ready to dive in with my axe the entire time. Stupid, futile, and foolish, but maybe the last option. Mostly, I didn’t feel like there was any imminent threat. Everything was a second away, and hadn’t reached that point. Everything I was doing was keeping it from escalating. It never reached the point where my brain screamed: “IT IS HAPPENING! NOW!”
A couple of times when I stopped banging and yelling, he came within three or four feet of me before I stomped and resumed yelling. I followed him as he circled around my tent, I had the bright idea to lift my hockey bag with two of my food dry bags to make myself look larger. I picked it up and immediately realized it was empty. That was the earlier sound that woke me, the bear taking my dry bags.
“Oh sh!#!” I thought, as I lifted the bag.
The bear’s front paws lifted expectantly and he made a little hop forward. I guess he thought what I had to eat was worth the effort. I dropped the bag, and in retrospect, that was a very dangerous moment. He was about six feet away, and he could have easily rushed forward for me or the bag when I dropped it.
Everything was still grey and silent, although I was now aware of the many mosquitoes buzzing around my ears. The mosquitoes weren’t really that bad. When they are really bad, the air is blurry, and they seem so loud, you doubt you could hear gunfire over the buzz. Sometimes, you yell, just to check how deafening they actually are. They are deafening. The whole time, I couldn’t startle the bear at all. He just kept calmly circling. I was aware that was predatory behaviour. He never opened his mouth, either, just silently focused on me and circled, looking for a failing. An open mouth would have let me know he was stressed or intimidated. I wonder if I would have reacted worse if he had been snarling or panting. There was no huffing, nothing. He wasn’t trying to intimidate me away at all, just trying to figure out a problem. I wasn’t a threat, I was a puzzle he was trying to understand.
Finally, he started to slowly saunter away, and I thought, “That wasn’t too bad.”
The sandy hill was sparsely covered with shrubs, bushes and trees, and was very park-like. He moved off about fifty yards, and then turned, standing and staring at me as he rubbed his back on a tree. It was hard to tell, but I’d say he was between six inches and a foot taller than me when stretched out and standing. I could tell he was making himself look large, but as he stretched and scratched, he looked lanky.
“He’s marking his territory,” I thought.
“Dis mine, human. Why what you do? Go ‘way!” I was feeling very pragmatic, but also playful and wry.
He dropped to all fours, and immediately bee-lined straight for me at a brisk walk. It was definitely a walk and not a trot, though. His shoulders undulated.
“Here we go!” I thought.
When he was about ten feet away, he dodged around a small shrub to my right. I stepped toward him, meeting him as he came around the shrub, and sprayed him with about half the can of bear spray. It was pretty easy to aim, though it contacted him first on the shoulder. He was about eight feet away. He craned his head to one side and shook it, and then faced me again and stepped forward. I stomped heavily toward him and emptied the rest of the can directly in his face, from about three feet away. The only sound that I made the entire encounter was “Hey!”, except saying “F@%#.” when I threw my cup at him.
The next thirty seconds were uncertain, as I dropped the can and gripped my axe. He started to shake and crane his head, like he was shaking off a punch, and slowly walked away, turning back to approach me every few steps, but confused by the bear spray. I watched him as he headed in the direction of the portage for about a hundred yards, and he probably turned back a dozen times in that distance.
I began hastily getting dressed and packing my gear. I was deciding what to do. I had no bear spray, and two thirds of my food was gone. Neither of those were in themselves an issue, but I had a mile portage with a bear who wasn’t afraid of me. Most of it was thin sparsely treed parkland terrain, but the last fifth was thick bush, which dropped to the next lake in steep sections slowly plateauing to the shore. A crazy part of me contemplated loading everything into my boat and speed walking across, gambling that the bear would need more time to recover.
I realized I was actually packing correctly, putting my tent pegs in the tent peg bag, and told myself to stop being stupid and just get out of there. I dragged everything to the water, and loaded up. I pushed off in my boat and looked at my watch. 5:47 a.m. The entire encounter lasted more than half an hour.
I paddled to a small sandbar about half a mile away, and repacked my gear. I made a pot of tea, and reflected on my options. It didn’t make sense to try to make it through that portage to me, and I wasn’t sure I’d have the nerve without another can of bear spray. I knew I could retreat to the Cochrane, go further upstream, and make my way North there, but that would add fifty miles to my trip, I figured, and I didn’t have a map for that bit. I decided to turn back. I drank my tea and watched as the clouded sky filled with oranges and reds and rays of light. I had expected I would need to dump a bunch of adrenaline, and was expecting sweating and shaking, euphoria, but there was none of that. I drank my tea, absently playing with my feet in the sand, and looking North, thinking about what I would do next. I didn’t feel defeated. I felt excited by having to make a hard and certain decision.
I told myself the North didn’t want me there that year, and that made turning back easier. There’s always a story, a narrative, you can make. Maybe the North knew I would die if I went further, and talked to Father Bear to turn me back, for my own safety. Or maybe I was sick. I was still dealing with the aftermath of killing my Dad in a car accident, it would take another four months before that was finally sorted out, and maybe I was too sick, spiritually – or mentally – to sully the North, to make an offering to the remembrance of Kasmere, to witness the Barrens, to find peace in the Taiga. Maybe I was so broken there would only be a leaving, and no returning. Maybe I was so damaged I wasn’t worth enough to be allowed there. Maybe there was no place I could feel safe being myself anywhere. Maybe even there, hundreds of miles from the nearest human, alone, in one of the last places one can be alone on the planet, there was no refuge from a nervous system made lightning around people, a heart a furnace, a mind a hurricane. Maybe there was no-where left on the planet to take a breath. Or maybe it was just a bear in a forest, and a lone man.
I was worried that I’d be too fearful on my return, after such an encounter, but I wasn’t. There wasn’t really anything I could do, and a couple of nights I pulled to shore and saw reasonably fresh bear tracks,but I still slept fine. I took my time coming back, and came to Lac Brochet nine days later.
I hadn’t spoken the whole time, and when I first spoke, I realized I had damaged my voice. It was all gravelly and squeaky. Even five days later, back in Winnipeg, a full two weeks after the encounter, my voice was rough.
Thinking of P.G. Downes again, one passage always makes me smile, both for the very real caution, and the dark humour. I had it very much in mind the first time I came through this area, and risked many of the rapids between Kasmere and Nueltin lakes on the Thlewiaza:
“Of all the hazards of traveling in the North, the running of rapids with the paddle demands the quickest decision, the most desperate of straining maneuvers, the surest of immediate judgments and actions. You cannot make a mistake or turn back once you have committed yourself to the raging water. It is totally different from running rapids for sport or pleasure, where an error in judgment means only a wetting and a swim. You are always conscious if the canoe strikes a ledge or is swamped and overturned, everything is lost, if not immediately, then in a longer and more hideous fashion, for with the outfit gone, there is no escape but the end of the starvation trail.”
On the whole, I think I had a very successful encounter with a bear. Hopefully I don’t have another one! Over the years, I’ve seen countless signs of bear on my solo trips, but have only ever had one other encounter, which was much briefer and milder. One never knows, with any certainty, how they’ll react in these situations. I feel pretty good about how I dealt with it. A couple of people I talked to in Lac Brochet when I returned agreed, and one said “You couldn’t have handled it better.” I dreaded the reaction of the arm-chair bear experts on returning home, but thankfully there was little of that. I never had the trip I intended, but that solitary experience was so unique and acutely memorable, it was a great trip nonetheless. And on the upside, I suppose, I didn’t risk making Downes’ warning a reality.