The tent post-attack. Sorry for the shaky picture; I was still pretty shaky myself.
There is nothing quite like the experience of nearly being eaten to make you appreciate how fleeting your position atop the food chain is. In the summer of 1993, I became one of the lucky few to acquire this sort of insight.
Backcountry tourists, as opposed to those who live in the wilderness, seem to fall into two equally simple-minded groups. Those of the old school are convinced that behind every bush, a predator lurks expressly for them. They are barely able to stagger down trails under the burden of rifles and grenade launchers. Late-night forays to answer the call of nature are made perilous by the razor wire and minefields they have used to “secure” the camp perimeter. These folks have delusions about their own importance in the scheme of things. Continue reading →
I got up at 3:30AM to get on the water for 6:00, as I had a fair way to go get to the Greene Point Rapids, and slack-to-flood was shortly after seven. I wound up breaking camp in the dark and fog by the dwindling light of a dying headlamp (good thing the batteries had been full a couple of nights before when I was dealing with Bruno).
Because I had to battle headwinds and a stronger-than-expected countercurrent, I was about 15 minutes late getting to the rapids. They were shrouded in heavy fog, and I could hear water splashing, which spooked me a bit. Surely there couldn’t be overfalls or standing waves just a quarter hour after slack? Then I spied a pod of our distant cousins, marine mammals, cavorting happily westward through the current, making the splashing sound I’d heard. A magic moment.
A good day to have taken off. The wind and rain had risen steadily through the night, til by this morning, it was blowing from the southeast at 15 to 20 knots. (Appropriately enough, the book I had been reading in the tent was Gale Force 10: The Life and Legacy of Admiral Beaufort)
I rigged my tarp as a wind-breaking lean-to, then enjoyed a cozy pancake brunch in its lee. Later, in the company of four older yachties who had landed in their dinghies, I explored the ruins of the WWII complex. Lots of buildings. It must have had quite a garrison in its day.
August 15 My Dinner With Bruno
Up at 6AM. I paddled through calm waters and under low cloud up Sunderland Channel. Headwinds developed by the time I got to Althrop Point, which made me call off a planned visit to the head of Forward Harbour for grizzly watching (I’d also seen a sight-seeing boat deke rapidly in and out of the Harbour, which made me believe there were no grizzlies about).
A happy petroglyph near the entrance to Forward Harbour
I got through Whirlpool Rapids (the second of the major “tidal gates” on this trip) just after 16:30 hours, then had to fight a headwind. I could duck out of most of it by hugging the shore down Wellbore Channel, but not while crossing Chancellor Channel. As a result, it was after 20:00 hours and dusk was falling when I reached the campsite just north of Solitary Mountain. I was delighted: there was a large, level area of soft duff for my tent, in upland safe above the highest tides, and even a kitchen counter— a driftwood plank set across two log stumps.
the view from the almost perfect campsite
Unhappy bear in a tree
I got my tent up, my mat inflated, and my sleeping bag laid out. I’d just poured boiling water into a pouch of freeze-dried Sweet and Sour Chicken, and was back in the tent stuffing my pillow bag, when I heard the crack of a breaking branch and a series of roars from beyond the kitchen. Investigating by headlamp, I spied a shadowy black figure a few feet up a tree. Only his gold eyes were clear, reflecting the light’s beam. He was huffing and howling aggressively, so I fired two bear bangers, making sure they landed and went off between me and him (folks have been known to land them on the far side of a bear, stampeding the frightened animal towards them).
The results were not what I’d hoped: instead of running away, the bear shimmied further up the tree, from where he alternated threatening growls with whimpering and hyper-ventilating. On closer inspection, I could see he was no cub, but also not a full-grown adult. A yearling, perhaps. I hoped his mother wasn’t within range of the cries, ready to go Momma Bear on anyone she thought was picking on her special snowflake.
So I did the only sensible thing: I sat down and ate my dinner. Now why would opening a package that smelled like Chinese take-out be a good idea in the circumstances? Because I saw a lot more paddling in my future, and I hadn’t eaten since lunch. Energy-wise, I was tapped out.
As I ate, I talked to the bear in the same reassuring tone you would use with a scared dog you thought might strike out in fear. I continued our “conversation” as I struck camp and reloaded my boat — making sure to retrieve the two spent bear banger cartridges (just ‘cos you’re doing a midnight bug-out is no reason to be a litter bug). Bruno’s contribution to the dialogue was limited to huffing and whining, but that was OK: it let me know he was still up his tree, and that was where I now wanted him to stay until after I’d sailed.
By the time I launched about 23:20 hours, it was raining. I normally love night paddling, but I prefer it to be across familiar waters to a familiar destination. In this case, I was crossing unknown waters under a dark sky, utterly committed to an unknown campsite that I was guided to only by GPS.
As if in compensation, the bioluminescence ran brilliantly. Each stroke of my paddle spawned glowing galaxies that whirled off behind me. My bow wave was a bright green-yellow arrowhead. Periodically, fireworks went off in the depths as schools of minnows darted under my boat, with the occasional bigger rocket as a predator pursued them. Whole dramas that were concealed beneath the reflecting surface by day were highlighted on this night.
At first, I was guided mainly by the vague loom of the hills on the east side of Loughborough Inlet (to preserve my night vision, I didn’t keep the screen of my GPS lit constantly, firing it up only every several minutes.) But as I cleared Tucker Point, the slow, reassuring blink of the Lyall Island light hove into view, and gave me a constant reference angle.
I spotted the stacked lights that identified a tug with a tow coming westward toward me down Chancellor Channel. In my haste, I hadn’t packed my usual night running light in an accessible place, and I wasn’t sure my headlamp would be visible in time to do any good. But a few minutes assessment with the angle on the bow technique assured me I would pass well ahead of him. I doubt he was ever aware of my presence.
I had a few scary moments when the wind blew up. Doing the paddling equivalent of a stumble and fall against oncoming waves held no attractions miles from shore and in the path of an oncoming tug. Fortunately it blew through quickly.
I landed at ten to one in the morning, to find a beach that was obviously going to be submerged by the high spring tides. The only above-water option was a lumpy rock ledge I dubbed Camp Barnacle. I anchored my tent internally with bags of gear and jammed every soft item I wasn’t wearing into the crevices under my sleeping pad to get it more or less level. For all its faults, I slept better here than I would have if I’d stayed at the other camp. I bet Bruno did too.
August 15’s route
The route of my night flight
Not having got to sleep ’til after 2 in the morning, there was no way I was going to try to make the rapids at Greene Point today. I had a leisurely breakfast, washed and watered up from the creek. I inadvertently scooped a salmon parr in my water filter bag, and released him as way undersized.
My tiny strip of beach was sloped, windy and wet, but bear-free. I thought I’d seen the last of bears on this trip. Little did I know.