I guess you never know how you might react to a bear walking into your path … until the day a bear walks into your path. And they said it would be so boring out here in the prairies.
The mountain folk back west had nothing good to say about the prairies, after we told them of our plan to head east before the snow finally set in. They usually just grimaced and muttered, ‘Stick your truck on the train and fly the plane. You’ll die of boredom out there.’ I have to agree, there are a lot of open, flat, endless … endless fields stretching from south-east Alberta, through Saskatchewan and into Manitoba. In fact, there’s a quaint little tale which says, if you set your dog loose to run across the prairies, he’ll still be at it five days later. Though why should crossing the prairies be all about going in a straight line? A road trip isn’t worth the name unless you meander a little; actually, out here, you have to meander rather a lot, yet it’s definitely worth investing the time. If I met those mountain folk again I’d be sure to tell them how misinformed they are, especially considering our little hike today in the Riding Mountain Park, where we’ve encountered a bison hoovering up thistles, spooked a moose with a rack the size of an oak tree, skirted round an amorous, bugling elk and suffered a garter snake slithering from under my boot …. and that’s all before we ran into the bear.
Okay, so I’ve read all the BEBEAR AWARE brochures appearing like confetti at the entrances to the parks. Several times, in fact; I know how you shouldn’t toss them half your Big Mac, try to beat them to a fifty metre sprint, race them to the top of a tree, or pitch up demanding a selfie. I imagine for a regular hiker in these parks an encounter like this is not such a big deal. However, I’ve only ever watched bears from the safety of the camper, or a specially designed platform. Meeting one face to face on a remote path is an entirely new experience. And now he’s here, right in front of us, I’m feeling ever so twitchy.
‘Look,’ I hiss over my right shoulder, pointing ahead. The bear is about fifty metres ahead of us. In the sunlight he looks very black and shiny and is ambling up the grassy track towards us, not a care in the world. In the next second I scrabble to recall every safety leaflet I’ve ever read about bears; we haven’t much time. We need to make a decision.
‘I don’t think he’s seen us,’ I whisper to Christine. Which gives me this great idea. I grasp her shoulder, shoving her towards a withered rose hip plant. This should do it, I reckon. ‘Let’s hide and watch him go past.’ Perhaps we’ll even get a photo.
‘What if he follows us in here,’ Christine says, not in the least appreciating my grand idea. ‘Then we’re all in for a big surprise.’
I think on what she says and can’t deny it: she’s made a very good point. Never surprise a bear – I’ve read that somewhere.
‘We need to make a noise … let him know we’re here.’
‘You’re right,’ I say, extracting myself from behind our pitiful hide.
As we edge forwards through waist-high grasses, Christine makes an attempt at some opera, whilst I talk in a bass voice about the vagaries of Canadian weather, all the while fumbling with the safety device on the bear spray. When we get back to the grassy track it appears we’ve made precisely the right noises: the coast is clear. The bear has vanished. Phew! That was a close call.
Who says it isn’t exciting out here on the prairies.