‘Stephen it’s inside! My God, it’s inside! INSIDE!’
Since we were biking through British Colombia, there was only one reason my girlfriend could be panicking this much, at this dingy hour. But she wasn’t making sense. Our tent was a two man job, if a bear had got inside, I would be staring at it.But we do have a big porch…
I twisted out of my sleeping bag and plunged my hands into a pannier in a clumsy search for the can of bear spray. Until I found it, I swore profusely: an unhelpful tactic in case of bear attack. Can in hand, I turned to face the beast, remembering Jake’s stony words: ‘Get it in the snout, OK?’
A week before, following the advice of innumerable Canadians, we shuffled into a hunting store in Vancouver to purchase bear deterrents, whatever those were.
The man behind the counter, Jake, had on a camouflaged jacket which meshed well with the gravity of his expression and serious beard. Around his head a band of cloth was tied making him look like Rambo. No doubt it masked an eight inch scar he’d forgotten the origins of.
‘What you guys need?’ he said gruffly, and returned to chewing something.
‘Something for the, um, the bears’
‘Yeah for bears’
Like a good zoom lens
‘This is essential’ he said, holding aloft a can of bear spray. I’d heard of it, but had doubts about my ability to use it under pressure. In my mind there was only one thing more disagreeable than getting mauled to death by a bear, and that was spraying yourself in the face with extra potent pepper spray, and then getting mauled to death by a bear.
‘27 foot range’ continued Jake. ‘Just blast the Grizzly right in the snout. OK?'
‘OK’ we mumbled, in unison. I wanted to ask whether wailing and throwing the can at a bear really hard might impede an attack, or at least provide time for a flashback through the more meaningful moments of my life.
‘Oh yeah, and we got these too: bear bombs. You want some?’
‘What do you think Claire? Do we need the bear bombs? Claire?’
‘Bombs?’ she said at length, in a faraway voice I didn’t recognise.
Jake looked at me as if I was, at that very moment, being ravaged by a wild animal.
I wondered about Jake. I wondered what it would be like to have him as a nextdoor neighbour: not the kind of man you might choose to mind the family pet when you went on holiday. You might return to find Jake and a band of his hirsute friends had finished off little Oscar with a crossbow and were sharpening knives, ready to skin him.
‘Oh and check this out’
Jake was still talking.
‘A bear gun.’
He’d lined up all these things on the counter in front of us, an array as impressive as it was disturbing. I wanted to leave on the grounds that Claire had lost more colour and Jake was perusing yet more bear defeating devices.
Jake paused in his sales pitch though and watched me as I picked up the bear spray and perused the label. It had a cartoon of a tiny man detonating bear spray into the snout of a ferocious Grizzly which loomed over him. The proportions were as ridiculous as the premise, weren’t they?
Jake picked up a can of Dr Pepper and took a long slug, surprising me then by returning it to the counter and not crunching it onto his forehead and growling.
We bought the spray but left behind the spread of bear bells (ding, ding. Oh please), bombs (which just go bang and aren't as exciting as they sound), flares, guns and projectiles. As we both looked at the purchased spray, hoping the other would pick it up, Jake asked if we knew how to tell the difference between black bear and Grizzly bear droppings.
‘No? Black bear’s are smaller and contain berries and squirrel fur. Grizzly bear poop has bells in and smells like pepper.’
A week of wide-eyed freewheels and lung crunching ascents followed; next to us the Georgia Strait and the low humps of the gulf islands with their crowd of pines. As we pedalled inland the landscape of BC took an abrupt turn. The region around the town of Lillooet is arid and touted as the hottest place in Canada, a fact constantly expounded by people we met as if it had weight and the country was renowned for tropical heat.
There are two schools of thought regarding bears: the insouciant brigade liked to compare black bears to big curious dogs, but reminded us not to leave food in our tent at night. The alarmists liked to describe the ease at which a Grizzly could out-run us before taking a minute to chew heartily away on our bone marrow, and also reminded us not to leave food in our tent at night.
That night, near Lillooet, we left food in our tent. Lots of it.
As shadows played over the inner I struggled to hear much above my heart beat. I had the bear spray though, and if that didn’t work Claire might make a serviceable human shield. I was ready.
I stole a farewell glance at Claire – she had a vacant look, like the one she had at the hunting store.
It sank in, luxuriously. She was asleep. Dreaming. In the throes of an ursine-ridden nightmare and traveling in another world where bears fit inside two man tents and boyfriends don’t think of human shields.
‘It’s alright’ I told her, she mumbled something into her sleeping mat and was still.
Half an hour later she straightened up and threw herself wildly into the side of the tent: another imaginary bear had attacked whilst I was asleep and she was bravely defending us. Imaginary bears are much scarier than real ones.