That’s what I told myself after coming across a black bear and her cub, the first time it has ever happened to me, in a place where I’ve worried about it for the past twenty years.
Each year, the first weekend of May, a group of friends has camped at a lake in B.C. for three nights, though the roll call changes from time to time. In earlier years, we used to go more often during the summer as well, but this formerly well-kept secret spot just isn’t anymore.
My first trip was in ’95, with gaps when I was first self-employed and time off was rare, and when I owned a little car that couldn’t make it up the road without multiple rock hits on the bottom.
Still, I have many trips under my belt.
Paddling around the lake in the canoe, lots of laughs, some bad weather, some good, plenty of stories about past excursions, and treasured shared memories with friends I’ve known for decades.
One thing I could never quite kick, however, was my fear of bears.
I’m an anxious person, high strung, easily startled, on edge most of the time. At some point in your life, usually after a mid-life crisis, you just have to own it and say, “fuck it, this is who I am.”
I won’t apologize for it anymore. Nobody else does, and I know plenty of people just as screwed up as I am, whether they’ll admit it or not.
I’ve had my share of irrational fears, but have done my best to face them, most with great results.
Claustrophobia. I went caving. Twice. It included plenty of tight squeezes, only one of which I couldn’t bring myself to do, but the experience was incredible. Not just facing the fear, but seeing that ancient underground world.
Fear of Heights. Shonna and I went skydiving in Vegas. An unparalleled rush, I would do it again without hesitation.
Fear of Public Speaking. I’ve taught at conferences, given talks to groups, spoken to schools. It no longer bugs me.
My fear of bears, however, is a strange one.
I probably know more about bears than most people. Living in bear country, I’ve educated myself to try and come to terms with this irrational fear. And yes, it is irrational because bears are not looking to have a confrontation. Despite what you might have seen in movies and on TV, bears would rather not encounter people. When bears meet people, it often ends up very bad for the bears.
And yet, people still have encounters for a variety of reasons.
They go camping and leave food out. Bears are opportunists with an incredible sense of smell and will come into a campsite simply to get a free easy meal. Most of the time, it’s preventable, but people are slow learners.
Folks will stop on the road and actually get out of their cars to approach a bear for a photo. This is a large animal that will defend itself. It did not instigate this situation simply by being there but it will react if it’s threatened.
People will come across a bear in the woods because they weren’t making noise and surprised it. Same situation, the bear will startle and defend itself, especially if it has cubs.
I could write thousands of words about bear safety, but the information is easy to find. Bears will leave you alone if you leave them alone, almost all of the time.
It’s incredibly annoying when somebody finds out I’m afraid of bears and then tells me all of the anecdotal information of which I am well aware. I’ve lived in bear country for 25 years. I know this shit.
Where I live in the Canadian Rockies, there are people who run into bears all the time, whether in their yards, while hiking, camping in the back-country and it doesn’t bother them in the slightest. My phobia makes no sense to these people, just as it doesn’t to me. I’ve even tried hypnosis, which helped me be more comfortable hiking, but did nothing for sleeping in a tent.
It’s embarrassing, it feels juvenile, and there is no small sense of shame surrounding the whole thing.
Despite my own internal logical arguments against it, the fear persists.
In 2016, I began a relationship with Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail. They had a behind the scenes bear encounter with their orphaned black bears to learn more about them. I signed up, to work on my fear.
It was an experience I won’t forget. When the head keeper Serena (now a friend) found out I had a phobia, she took it up a notch and I got up close and personal with a black bear, even feeding a gentle giant named Reno. This was huge for me, and since then I’ve had even more encounters with their bears, especially with their latest orphan, a grizzly named Berkley.
Anybody who has seen my photos, videos and my experiences with Berkley probably doesn’t get that I’m afraid of bears. Over the past couple of years, we have walked together, played together, she has crawled all over me, given me kisses. While I don’t have close contact like this with her anymore as she’s much bigger, my time with Berkley has been one of the best experiences of my life.
Bears are my favorite animals to photograph, paint, read about, and champion. I feel strongly about bear conservation, rescue, and preserving their habitat. All of the time I’ve spent at Discovery Wildlife Park, I’ve asked many questions of Serena and she’s taught me plenty about bears.
So it makes no sense to me that they are what I fear most when I go out into the woods.
Just like challenging my other fears, I have been determined to continue to expose myself to the threat to try to get over it. I still go camping out there, and every night when I lie down on my cot in my tent, I spend the next couple of hours trying to get to sleep. It eventually comes, but the fear remains undiminished, year after year.
Friday night, we arrived at the lake, set up our accommodation and got to work gathering firewood for the weekend. My friend Jim in his little Boler trailer, Babe in his Boler trailer, and two friends Babe brought with him had a forty foot custom renovated blue school bus that navigated the difficult road with ease, an impressive feat.
As usual, I was in my small tent.
Despite the sketchy weather, colder, windier and wetter than forecast, it was rather normal. But over the past couple of years, I’ve started to feel the trip is a bit of an obligation. Sleeping in a tent loses its appeal as one gets older and early May in the mountains, the weather is unpredictable and usually quite cold at night. Falling within days of the Calgary Expo, it’s a challenge to get everything home from that event, unpacked, put away, get cartoons done for the week, then shop, pack and take off again a few days later for this trip. It shouldn’t feel like another chore.
Even though it’s a beautiful spot, the novelty of the same place, on the same weekend, each year, has lost a great deal of its appeal for me. But I’ve kept going, because I didn’t want to be the one to call it quits.
That’s the frame of mind with which I started this weekend, though I kept it to myself.
As usual, I lay awake in my tent for a couple of hours, trying to talk myself out of my usual bearanoia and eventually fell asleep.
The following morning, I woke early, made some coffee, grabbed my camera gear and headed out in the canoe for a paddle around the lake. It was enjoyable, although windy and cold, but comfortably familiar. I patrolled the shoreline, taking pictures of ducks.
The weather grew progressively sketchy. But we read, talked, got to know our new camping companions, and puttered as usual.
In the early evening, I decided to take a quick walk up the road to send Shonna a text. Unreliable cell service out there means pockets where No Service becomes one small bar for short windows.
About 150 yards away from the camp beside the road, I approached a familiar flat green space. Through the trees, I saw a large moving black shape, then another smaller one behind it in the grass. A black bear and cub.
I stopped, looked back and forth to make sure I wasn’t looking at a stump or pile of dirt and it moved again. I shouted, “HEY, GET OUT OF HERE!”
She raised her head, looked in my direction, then ignored me and went back to eating.
I turned back the way I came and started walking, too fast.
Forcing myself to slow, I kept one eye on where I was going and one behind me. Since I was close to the camp, Jim was coming up to the road as I got back. They’d all heard me yell.
I told them what I saw. Naturally, I was the only one freaked out by it.
We ate dinner, but stress completely ruins my appetite, so I ended up discarding half of mine, the meal I’d been looking forward to most.
Years ago, Shonna and I were camping with Jim out there and while he was out in the canoe, we had seen a large black shape up on the road that spooked us. It turned out to be a cow, as ranchers down the mountain will often let their herds wander.
Did I really see a bear through the trees, or was it a cow? I doubted my own eyes, thinking my overactive imagination had conjured up my worst fear.
After dinner, Jim said he’d go back up the road with me to check for evidence that I saw what I’d thought I saw.
I was now wearing my bear spray on my hip, and Jim had a large stick he was loudly tapping on the ground as he walked behind me, an effort to alert a bear to our presence. The silly thing is that I was almost trying to be quiet so that I could get some validation that I wasn’t making this up. I know better than that.
Sure enough, as we approached the green space, Jim’s tapping did the trick. With plenty of room to spare, a black bear ran up onto the road from the flat area, heading away from us, followed by one…two…three cubs.
From my car, a cabin, on a boat out in Ucluelet, that kind of sighting would have been wonderful. In that environment, however, it ruined my weekend.
There was no way I was sleeping in a tent.
Thankfully, I had options other than my car. Jim’s Boler has a single bed in it he calls the spice rack because it’s so narrow, but I’m not a wide guy, so it would work. Better still, our new friends had a garage built into the rear of their converted bus for their two Harleys they’d left at home. My cot fit with plenty of room to spare, their hospitality greatly appreciated. I even had my own entrance so I didn’t have to invade their privacy.
We keep a clean camp, but we’d eaten plenty of food. Bears had investigated the picnic table before, just not on trips I’d been on. The next morning, no tracks, no scat, no sign they’d been there.
I had contemplated going home, but I had slept well in my secure accommodation so I decided to continue on with the weekend. I still canoed, even hoped I might see the bears around the lake so I could take pictures from the water, but saw no more sign of them. The weather went from rain, to sunny breaks, to windy, to cloudy, back to rain, with no end in sight.
We alternated between sitting by the fire, huddling under the tarp, sitting by the fire, then moving under the tarp again. All of us wearing multiple layers, toques, gloves and trying to stay positive.
More than once I thought, “Why do I do this to myself?”
On the last evening, Jim came back from his paddle around the lake and said the bear family was in the vacant site at the other end of the lake. They’d stayed in the area the whole weekend.
You might wonder, knowing what I know of bear behaviour, that they aren’t predatory, or naturally aggressive, or looking for confrontation, what did I think was going to happen? I mean, she ran the other way long before we even got close. That’s typical and appropriate bear behaviour.
Here’s an example of where my mind takes me…In the middle of the night, while we’re all asleep, they wander into the camp looking for food. One of the cubs comes over to my tent, starts pawing at it, perhaps attracting Mom’s attention. I wake up at the noise, try to yell out or set off my car alarm, it startles Mom or the cub, but instead of running away, she gets defensive and I’m toast.
In my underwear.
The what-ifs of my paranoid mind spiral downward from there, taking turns with the self-loathing voice telling me I’m being stupid.
As my wife said when I got home, “Why do you keep going? What are you trying to prove?”
The only answer I can come up with is that I don’t want to be a coward.
I force myself to go on this trip every year, intent on beating this phobia, even though after twenty years, it’s still undiminished, just so that I can say I didn’t give up.
That’s a great frame of mind when something matters, like my marriage, career or a difficult painting or project.
But this is supposed to be a relaxing getaway after the most demanding part of my year. One day back and I can tell you, the most relaxing part of it was the hot shower and good night’s sleep when I got home.
This is likely my last trip to the lake for the foreseeable future. Investing in a hard shell trailer or larger vehicle for the three or four times I might use it each year is a bad investment. Add to that having to pay to store it somewhere. Doing the math, I realized I could rent a cabin for four three night stays every year for the next ten to fifteen years for the same price it would cost me to buy a trailer or camper, not to mention the vehicle to haul it.
And it’s a much more comfortable stay when the weather turns foul, where seeing wildlife is a treat, not an imagined threat, where I sleep well, truly relax and recharge.
While I’ll take some grief from my friends for this decision, they’ll eventually realize it’s a much more enjoyable trip without the guy who jumps at every rustle in the bushes.
It’s ironic that I’m soon heading up to Discovery Wildlife Park for the first time this year. I miss Berkley and the other bears.