A Trip Into Canada's Wilderness
Even amidst the roar of the Ford Ranger, I could hear the silence of the wild around us. Larch trees wrapped around the mountains that loomed on our left. The late-afternoon sun glowed on small ponds and lakes, forming shimmering streaks of white that danced across their surface.
My gut swirled as I gripped whatever I could in the vehicle interior. The tyres slammed into crumbly blemishes in the road and catapulted the four of us from our seats - every so often my head would collide hard with the roof. Out the back window a cloud of gravelly dust dispersed in our wake. Gun-filled cases slid along the floor. I tried not to imagine a future where one of them smashed into the door and blasted a hole through my thigh.
Beside me, Austin watched the road ahead. He was just as cramped as me, but content. Wearing a sleepy smile and a close fitting V-neck, his composure exposed the fact I had none.
Jack, our driver – a lifelong friend of Austin’s – regaled us with anecdotes of hunting misadventures, including the time he chased three grizzly bears away from his cabin on a quad bike. Every so often he would punctuate a point in the story with a staggered bassy laugh that bounced with his shoulders. I’d only met him yesterday, but with our Hyundai Lantra now parked miles away at his cabin, I had to trust Austin's faith in him.
In the only other seat sat Kelsey, a girl I was living with back in the Okanagan. Austin and I spread our bodies across the uneven points and corners of hunting equipment in the back whilst she sat in the front, wearing a straw hat and red-and-black plaid shirt that flapped in the wind of the open window.
The serpentine trail curled along the edge of 90ft drops into the river below. As we headed deeper into the valley the mountains hid the sun. The cement blocks that had been protecting us from the plummet earlier were gone. Despite this, Jack continued to disregard the speed limit.
We came to a bridge that looked like a movie-set. There were planks of wood missing and torrents of white water below. Jack asked us to check he wasn’t driving over any of the openings as he massaged the gas pedal with his boot. I couldn’t tell if he was playing around with us or if he genuinely required assistance, but I thought it best to take him seriously just in case. Austin looked out his window, still calm, still smiling. Kelsey laughed nervously in the front.
After passing an out-of-season trapper lodge dressed up in more hunting kitsch than a frontier theme-park storefront, we arrived in a grassy clearing. Jack swerved the truck to one side and shut off the engine.
A gun changes everything
He pulled out a large gun – what I would later find out was a .270 Winchester – and loaded it with 9.7gram 150gr bullets. These are strong enough to pierce multiple layers of bear fur, skin and fat. I became acutely aware of our own pink flesh, clad in mere cotton, and how it too was now exposed to whatever lay ahead.
Earlier Jack had explained that it's important to control bear populations to benefit the ecology of the Kootenays as a whole, but it didn't make the gun any less startling.
I hung back with Kelsey as Jack and Austin moved into the bush. They searched the ground for signs of recent activity. I whispered my concerns. She shrugged them off, telling me to trust Jack.
The boys were pointing at a mud-cracked paw-print.
“Is it a grizzly bear?” I asked slowly.
“No. She’s a black bear. Mama. Track’s a few days old though.”
Jack had said earlier that if we kill something tonight we’d have to camp out here – without camping equipment – whilst he skins, de-bones and cuts it up to take back to the truck. All night, he said, and with blood on the air, in an area renowned for predators that are attracted to gunshots. They associate the sound with food and have even been known to kill hunters to steal their winnings.
A few trembling, bushwhacking minutes later, Jack stopped us again.
Fresh bear scat. 45 minutes old.
He flashed Kelsey and me his toothy mountain-man smile.
"Having fun?” he said, no doubt reveling in our adrenaline-drained faces.
Awaiting a gunshot
The last lick of sun stroked the top of a far-off mountain peak, as the valley grew colder. I put forward a plea for the hunt to be called off. Austin and Kelsey relented too and Jack sent the three of us back to the truck alone. He trudged off along the path ahead, a lone wolf, gun slung over his shoulder.
Even though there were three of us, I felt more exposed without Jack’s supervision and enormous gun.
Jack’s red truck was a welcome sight when we finally returned to the clearing. Austin started idly sharpening sticks and Kelsey leant up against the truck's bumper with a cigarette whilst we waited. Sitting on the passenger seat with the door open I thought of two possible outcomes that would mean we weren’t out of the woods yet. One, what if Jack didn’t return? There was no cell phone coverage out there, and he had the keys. Two, what if we heard that gun go off? It would mean us staying out there overnight anyway.
Long, heavy minutes passed as the twilight faded. We spoke about friends back in Burnaby. Recalling what they might be up to made me feel reconnected to civilization, wherever it currently was.
A branch snapped and we spun our heads. Jack arrived wielding his signature grin and laugh.
“Did you see ‘em?” he said.
“A sow and her cub. They came out after you passed ‘em.”
Coldness gripped me from inside. I realised he’d used us as bait. He hadn’t gone further. He’d sent us away so he could double-back on us.
“They were just sniffing the air, checking you out.”
He had the option to shoot but he never killed a female or a cub younger than two years old.
The engine started and I welcomed the warm, cramped space again.
A near miss and a narrow escape
We had been driving for about five minutes, just started our ascent out of the valley, when the truck screeched to a halt. A flash of black fur fled from the road ahead into the bush.
“Gun Austin. Gun Austin!” said Jack.
Austin scrambled to put the gun he’d just put away back together.
“Gun Austin!” said Jack, louder.
We were so close to getting away. Austin passed the loaded gun to Jack and he jumped out the vehicle and chased the bear into the trees.
We waited for the telltale boom and echo off the mountains that would confirm how the rest of the evening was going to go. The engine continued to tick over.
No sign of Jack. No gunshot.
I thought of the cabin. There we could drink, eat and sleep behind the safety of locked doors and reinforced walls. I thought about the smell of wood, the banjo propped up against the springy sofa, and the piles of books and maps strewn across the table. The cougar skin rug hanging on his wall. The sound of freight trains rocketing past the moonlit creek outside.
The trees rustled and Jack emerged, his toothy grin returned.
“Couldn’t get a clear shot.”
I told him it was no big deal and that we should GO. The gun came back to Austin and we finally left the valley. One bear half-seen, no bears killed.
On the highway home the horizon glowed purple. The rhythm of wind against the side of the truck sent me half to sleep. I only stirred when Jack would slow down every so often for deer on the road.
We arrived back at the cabin with our limbs intact, and broke out the refrigerated Kokanee beer. Jack cooked us more of his medium rare beef burgers and took Kelsey and me through his photo albums and hunting relics. Included in these was evidence of his first ever kill – a cougar skull, complete with caved-in forehead. It had fallen after being “treed” by his dogs and then shot.
I fell asleep that night next to Kelsey, drink-sodden and under the weight of visions of grizzly bears slashing through the mosquito slide doors.
Experience the Canadian Wilds
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Christopher Tunstall is a self-professed writer, musician and traveller. He graduated from the University of Winchester with a Bachelors Degree in Creative Writing then worked as a web copywriter for two years before beginning his world travels. He now writes for writing advice website Penleak and has short fiction, music, etc. available on his website. Tweet him @cdtunstall