Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Bears and how to beat them

My regular blog piece about my time in India is still a week or so away, but this month you get an extra piece because an article I wrote about a not so close call with a bear in Canada has been shortlisted for the Pure Travel Writing Awards. 

And now, I need your help.

There is a public vote to get the final ten down to a final three (and then a professional travel writer selects the winner, who will walk away with 1000 pounds).

To vote you just need to email competition@puretravel.com and write the words 'bears and how to beat them' in the subject line. That's it - quick and easy. One vote per email address allowed. Please help if you can. Many thanks

And here is (a slightly extended version) of the selected piece:

Bears and how to beat them

‘Stephen it’s inside! My God, it’s inside! INSIDE!’

Since we were on a cycling trip 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 perturbing words for the umpteenth time: ‘Get it in the snout, OK?’

A week before, following the advice of innumerable city-dwelling Canadians, we shuffled into a hunting store in Vancouver. Our plan was imprecise but had something to do with 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’
‘For bears’
‘Yeah, for bears’

Like a good zoom lens

He sniffed. ‘This is essential’ he said, thrusting aloft a can of bear spray stashed under the counter. I’d heard of it, but had doubts about whether I could use it properly 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 gift us a few more heart-pumping seconds. Time enough 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. He 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.

I wondered about Jake. I wondered if he lived in a lean-to in the woods and commuted to Vancouver by moose. I wondered, if he did have a house, whether he had taxidermied his own grandparents and mounted them to the wall. I wondered what it would be like to have Jake as a nextdoor neighbour. He didn’t strike me as 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, getting 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 other bear defeating devices. I was a little scared about what was coming next.

You need some BEAR-O-CIDE. Just sprinkle this stuff into a river. It will kill every mammal between here and the Yukon. Now where’s that vaporiser?

Jake paused in his sales pitch though and watched me as I picked up the bear spray and studied the label. There was 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?

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 shit has bells in and smells like pepper.’

A week of wide-eyed freewheels and lung crunching ascents followed; next to us the ruffled grey-green water of the Georgia Strait, host to the low humps of the gulf islands and their crowds of pine. Fingers of cloud raked the hilltops. As we pedalled inland though the landscape of BC took an abrupt turn. The region around the town of Lillooet is an arid semi-desert, and 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.

‘It’s gonna be way too hot to ride today’ scorned a local man in the queue at the supermarket. He went on to tell me a cautionary tale I only half listened to. I think it involved another foreign couple on bikes who probably sweated so hard they were converted into a white crust, had to be scraped off the asphault and their salt crystals repatriated, but I wasn’t really paying attention. We pedaled away fast, sweating and panting past signs that told us not to pass snow ploughs on the right.

British Colombia’s other signs came courtesy of the tourism board, and that year it seemed that someone had let the intern come up with the tagline: it was infused with subtlety and edge.

‘British Columbia – The Best Place in the World’

There was another one doing the rounds as well, the irritating ‘Super, Natural British Columbia’ which made me want to borrow Jake’s crossbow and shoot myself in a retina.

There are two schools of thought in Canada: 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. ‘There can’t be bears round here’ I told Claire assuredly, but she eye-balled me like she’d read my bluff.

As shadows played over the inner, I struggled to hear much above my heart which had the tempo and volume of a techno rave. I had the bear spray in hand 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, lifeless 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 travelling in another world, one where Grizzlys fit inside two man tents and boyfriends don’t contemplate human shields.

‘It’s alright’ I told her, she mumbled something into her sleeping mat and was still.

Half an hour later I awoke as Claire wrenched herself up, unleashed a shrill battle-cry and threw herself wildly into the air, crash-landing into the inner tent and converting the cry to a meandering moan. Another imaginary bear had attacked whilst I was asleep and she was bravely defending us. Imaginary bears are much scarier than real ones.