My Black Bear Adventure

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Henry David Thoreau

Seizing the moment

Last minute trips always turn out the best. You can plan a get-away for months, visualize it to perfection, but things never turn out the way you expect. Then disappointment sets in. Sometimes it’s better just to seize the moment and ignore the conflicting mind chatter. It’s so easy to find a reason not to do something.

It was an October Saturday when I packed up my tent, camping gear, backpack, hiking boots, a suitcase and my SLR camera. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, just that it would involve the wilderness.

The weather forecast showed a row of unobstructed sunshine and I didn’t have a solid block of work until the next temp pool assignment came in, whenever that would be. Hanging around waiting while letting a perfect opportunity for adventure slip away didn’t appeal.

To be honest, my spirits were low after not landing a communications-type job that I had interviewed for at the university. Venturing off into the northern wilds of Vancouver Island was my way of hitting the reset button so I could reorganize my thoughts and try again.

My mood quickly shifted from disappointment to excitement as I soared along the open highway in my Honda Civic that I call Silver. North Island was unchartered territory for me. Cape Scott at the northern tip was my destination, but I didn’t really know. After three solo adventures in both Europe and South America, I’m no stranger to change due to circumstances. Much of the time things didn’t go as planned.

Port Hardy is the most northern community on Vancouver Island, a 6-hour drive from Victoria. To go any further you need a four-wheel drive and good suspension to tackle the rough, pitted logging roads heaving with frost at this time of the year. Plus, you need to watch out for speeding logging trucks. I was advised not to take Silver.

An RV park became home for two nights. The sites were long and skinny. My tent looked lonely in the large open field.

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A chill set in as night approached. A couple of fires sparked in between an assemblage of RVs. Warm ambient light glowed from their windows. A man wearing a camouflage jacket stood beside his 4-wheel drive and called out, “Are you going to be warm enough in that tent?”

“Of course,” I replied. “I’ve got a good sleeping bag, plus a fleece liner and an extra blanket, also lots of layers.” Then I added that I had chopped up a bunch of firewood. He chuckled, shook his head and told me he’d come check on me in a bit. He didn’t get the chance.

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The early morning sun woke me up. Condensation hung in beads above my face. It would drip if I dare kick the side of the tent. This is always the tough part…not just shedding my mummy bag, but making the switch between PJs and the day’s garb. The promise of fresh, steaming coffee lured me and with a quick unzip, I was out of the tent feeling bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, excited for whatever adventure the day would bring.

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Frost glittered on everything — the grass, tent, picnic table, and car.

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The pale blue sky was an open invitation to explore. At least clouds weren’t going to crash my party today. Nothing was going to. Not the lady at the info centre who said Silver wouldn’t make it on the logging roads or Budget Car Rentals who had rented all their 4-wheel drives to the crews working on the wind farms. Not even the tour guide who wasn’t going to Cape Scott for another week was going to dampen my spirits. He made my day, actually, when he tipped me off that I might see black bears fishing for salmon at the mouth of the Keogh River by the airport. The only catch was that I’d have to go alone.

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It took approximately 45 minutes to walk the trail to the mouth of the Keogh. It was like a congested artery, narrow with thick bushes encroaching from the left and a chain-link fence rimmed with barbed wire on the right. Not much opportunity for escape aside from the odd tributary to the beach. With a can of bear spray stuffed into my hoodie’s kangaroo pouch and a backpack full of snacks, I ventured off hoping that I wouldn’t meet a bear along the way.

Three people approached. One of them, a woman in the front, startled when I said hello. She was looking at the ground. Then she said, “There’s nothing down there. The tide’s high.” Disappointment, that I may not see any bears, and relief, that I probably wouldn’t run into any bears, were my contradicting thoughts.

The trail soon forked onto a grassy wheel-rutted road towards the beach. A large pile of scat thick with berries sat at the end like a flashing neon sign reading “PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK!”  which, well, I decided to do the moment the tour guide uttered the words, black bears fishing for salmon. My adventurous side tends to act first and think later which sometimes leads to great experiences, but also to mishaps.

The beach was empty of wildlife other than various species of birds. Disappointment and relief continued to wrestle in my brain. Many more piles of berry-seeded scat littered the beach. My pulse quickened. The blood rushed away from my limbs. “Move away from here Tania,” I told myself, so I walked to a far point on the beach, looked back and tossed a handful of trail mix into my mouth. Movement caught my eye. My heartbeat quickened, but it wasn’t a bear. It was a man holding a camera.

There’s safety in numbers they say. I could feel it in my reaction, however, two humans are no match for five bears or even one pissed off one. While I sat on a log and chatted with the other photographer, Kevan, the first bear emerged from the bushes. My heart flooded with excitement. Both of us lifted our cameras and began clicking away.

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Over the course of a few hours five bears appeared. They were chill except for when a mamma bear with two cubs chased off a docile Winnie the Poohish bear who was just hanging out on a rock. At that point, Kevan and I decided to call it a day.

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Nature isn’t forgiving to its wild inhabitants. It was so wondrous to witness the bears do what they need to do in order to survive. It’s way more energy than I ever need to exert in order to eat. It’s “survival of the fittest” and of the most skilled and determined as I witnessed this day. While we were there, the fish earned that title.

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At the end of this day, I felt like I had truly lived it. It’s an experience that I will remember forever. To wrap up a fantastic spontaneous solo adventure, the next day I photographed young eagles before leaving Port Hardy and on the drive home I even accepted a contract communications position at the university. Everything worked out perfectly.

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