No marshmallow filling?
It was a brilliant Indian summer afternoon in Elk Lakes Provincial Park in Canada’s eastern British Columbia. Blue skies reigned over pale grey granite mountains and the mercury reached an unseasonable eighty degrees Fahrenheit. There were no deciduous trees in sight to offer any clues that it was, in fact, mid September yet the subtle yellow, orange, and red hues in the meadow grasses and huckleberry bushes betrayed the undeniable and irresistible approach of autumn. Bull moose wading the far shores of the marsh ponds had long disposed of their antler velvet and a fresh dusting of snow from the last passing front adorned the serrated peaks of the Continental Divide, the conspicuous border separating the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta.
Elkford’s Chamber of Commerce might have billed this afternoon as “idyllic” but the bright sunlight and robin-egg blue skies reduced this photographer to just another tourist, squinting through the windshield to admire the stunning scenery while stopping every so often to unfold and refold the map before driving yet again with no particular destination in mind. Everyone plays the clueless tourist at some point in their life whether any of us wants to admit it or not.
I didn’t really mind that I was unlikely to do any meaningful photography on this day. I was too busy processing a flood of pleasant memories from a previous trip fourteen years ago when I visited here first time with just a film camera and fly rod. Through the middle of the park flows the Elk River that just happens to host the prettiest, most naive cutthroat trout whose acquaintance I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. Toward no dry fly did these fish seem to pass any judgment or discrimination. Rising through milky, glacier-fed currents from the river bottom’s cobbles they would inhale a dry fly from the surface with such dumb innocence, it would almost break your heart.
It’s during the same trip that I also saw my first honest to goodness wild grizzly bear. It was at a safe enough distance, at least 100 yards, and we were separated by a particularly deep and broad section of the Elk River. It stalked the meadow’s edge with the purposeful gait and confidence that only an apex predator of the wild could get away with. When its head spun around on those massive shoulders and our eyes met, the coldest shiver ran down my spine and my toes tingled. I was flying.
If you do enough traveling to North America’s great wilderness areas, you will eventually have to deal with bears – either real ones or the phantom bears of your all too vivid imagination. A good piece of advice to follow when walking or hiking in bear country is to make as much noise as possible, not necessarily to scare any of them away, but to at least make your presence known since startling or surprising a bear at close range would spell certain disaster. Some examples would be wearing bear bells, intermittent clapping or yelling, and talking loudly – either within a group or just to yourself.
I’ve always preferred talking to myself since I tend to do it anyway: politics, religion, the use or overuse of HDR – you know, the usual topics to avoid in polite company. In fact, hiking through bear country is one of the few occasions when talking to oneself is a perfectly sane and reasonable thing to do.
Despite the lousy photography weather (photographers hate bright sunshine and clear, blue skies, unlike your typical tourist) I decided to take an afternoon hike to a small alpine lake for sunset. It was likely to be an exercise in futility – if not merely good old fashioned exercise period – but I was in a particularly beautiful part of the Canadian Rockies on an otherwise glorious September afternoon, so what the hell, right? At the very least, I will have had an invigorating hike through some incredibly scenic country and maybe I’d even take a photo or two.
The trail started out by winding through a fragrant forest of firs, Engelmann spruce, and lodge pole pine and quickly started gaining elevation. The hot sun and thin air conspired to make the hiking slow and burdensome but I was in no particular hurry after all. At each stop I made to catch my breath, small animals and birds would emerge from the forest once I settled down and sat quiet: a few chipmunks, a pika, and one brazen blue grouse that nearly came within an arm’s length of the rock on which I was resting. I’d attempt a few photos of the critters, glance at the results on the LCD display, shrug, and start walking again.
After an hour or so on the trail, I stopped yet again for a breather and an opportunity to answer the call of nature, once I found an appropriate powder room. I set my tripod firmly on the ground, with camera and lens attached, and ducked into a dense labyrinth of scrub birch and willows for a veil of privacy, as if I really needed it. Almost immediately, I heard a loud crash, breaking branches, and a grunting and growling that seemed to be getting alarmingly close. I made a hasty, ungraceful retreat back to the meadow and was closely tailed – a bit too close – by a visibly agitated black bear. I kept a respectable distance and did my best to calm it down by talking in a soft, reassuring voice.
Eeeeasy there big fella. You’re a good bear, aren’t you? We don’t want any trouble now, do we?
That didn’t work. Maybe it was my patronizing tone of voice. Maybe I was trespassing and about to use the loo in its personal living space. Or maybe it had something to do with the undignified visage of me standing in the middle of a lovely alpine meadow with pants dangling around my hiking boots. Whatever the reason, my amateur bear psychology and I were not being taken seriously, if at all. The bear then projected its displeasure on my tripod and camera, with admirable style and flair had it been any other circumstance, by spiking it to the ground like a post-touchdown celebration.
After performing an inspection and concluding that the combination of applied force and gravity didn’t do enough damage to be satisfied, the bear took the camera in its considerable jaws and began doing its best great white shark impersonation. I watched helplessly as shards of black plastic exploded from the exquisite piece of digital technology formerly known as my Canon DSLR. It occurred to me at some point that if the bear was desperate enough to try and extract nutrition from a digital camera, who’s to say that it wouldn’t be as equally desperate to try to take a pound or two of flesh from me? Black bear attacks on humans are rare but nearly always fatal since the motivation is usually food, instead of temporarily immobilizing a perceived threat.
I’ve actually had the unnerving experience of being charged by an brown bear – a coastal variation of Ursus arctos horribilis, the grizzly – a few years ago in Alaska. The bear changed its mind in mid-charge (or felt sorry for me) and stopped a mere ten yards before hello darkness my old friend I could now only presume. Time sped up – or maybe it slowed down – I can’t really be sure since most of the details were lost to the fog of fear and surge of adrenaline. It was only a convincing bluff, but I’m proud to say I did everything right as this apparent attack was actually taking place. For one thing, I didn’t run, which is the cowardly half of the primal flight-or-fight response and an impulse that’s difficult to resist. I stood my ground with arms held over my head, avoiding any eye contact while waiting for the fatal impact. I also resisted screaming like an eight-year-old girl, which is another impulse that seemed all too appropriate at the time.
But no amount of screaming, pleading, or outright begging was going dissuade this clearly psychotic black bear from performing a crude camera lobotomy right before my eyes. For obvious reasons, no part of this episode was captured on camera since, short of whipping out my smartphone and snapping the most epic of selfies (which only occurred to me in hindsight), all I could do was stand empty-handed feeling dumb and helpless, which is probably how I looked as well. The humiliation only added insult to the injury.
When the bear finally discovered that my camera did not contain any marshmallow filling, it casually ambled back into the thickets, presumably to find some real food. While my zoom lens and tripod survived the encounter pretty much unscathed, the same couldn’t be said of the camera body. While taking inventory of the damage, I found that I wasn’t angry or upset. I didn’t harbor any feelings of vengeance or retribution. Violence, real or imagined, never even crossed my mind. Instead, I was dumbstruck. It was bizarre. It was surreal. It might have actually been funny had it been someone else’s camera.
And I did try to laugh about it, I really did. But like most attempted humor involving real bears, I just couldn’t find anything funny about it. Bear jokes told by those not accustomed to spending time in bear country usually fail with those of us who do since it either contains too little truth or too much. Punch lines involving bells in bear scat might provoke some nervous laughter from the fervent backpacker or hiker because of the implied irony, but it still overreaches and ultimately misses the mark.
Then there’s the one about not needing to actually outrun the bear, just the luckless partner of the joke’s narrator. Despite the ridiculous notion of running from a bear to begin with, I thought it was funny enough the first time, yet had quickly begun to pall after subsequent recitations. At Brooks Lodge in Alaska during a recent visit to this bear sanctuary, five or six of us guys were talking and loitering in the dining hall after supper one evening when one of the older sports needed to regale us with this particularly stale one-liner. The response, not surprisingly, was almost no response at all, save for the feeblest of laughs I feigned out of face-saving politeness. The gesture apparently went unnoticed since he insisted on repeating it all over again – this time even louder and with more enthusiasm, in case we all missed the point the first time. I excused myself from the table to get another beer.
The remaining daylight soon evaporated and the meadow fell into deep shadow. A cold wind barreled down the valley from the high mountains as a stern reminder that summer really was over after all. I threw on a light jacket I had kept stowed in my pack, gathered my broken gear, and started down the winding trail to the car, talking to myself once again.
* * * * * *
The preceding essay is part of an upcoming book, A Bear is Eating My Camera: Misadventures of a Travel Photographer, which will be released later in 2015. In the meantime, my collection of essays from the Great Smoky Mountains, The Great Smoky Mountains: Behind the Lens, is now available for download.
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