Paddling with Joy
Rock Lake Loop: July 6 to 10, 2005
In the tent I read for a few minutes, then click off the head lamp and let sleep come. The great bonus of having Joy, my dog, along is I let her do the listening in the night. Though not sure it’s necessary anymore. The bears and I have signed a peace treaty.
Waterton Lakes National Park was not a planned stop on the drive back to Ontario from Asante’s wedding last summer. The sign for it on the highway that leads up from the border lured me in.
It was early evening by the time I got the tent erected and supper into me. I had been in the car all day and needed a good leg-stretching walk. On the advice of the park attendant, I drove to the parking lot for the Blakiston Falls trail. A large sign was posted at the trailhead: WARNING: BLACK BEAR IN AREA!
I almost had to laugh. In an area known for the much more dangerous grizzly, the posted warning was for my usual nemesis. Well, if hymns worked in Algonquin, they would darn well work in Waterton Lakes too. No one else was around. I set off down the wide, level, spruce-lined trail and sang out in my best church choir voice:
Oh Lord my God
When I in awesome wonder…
At the sound of rushing water, I stopped singing. Up ahead the falls cascaded into a deep canyon beside the trail. A long flight of wooden steps took me down to a look-out platform. I took in the splendour of the falling water and the green forest and the dramatic treeless mountain peaks rising above it all, and I just kept singing the oh so appropriate lyrics:
When I look down, from lofty mountain grandeur
And see the brook, and feel the gentle breeze…
I started to climb back up the stairs, glanced up to the trail, and stopped short. Right up there on the trail sat my nemesis. It had its back to me, snacking, it looked like, on berries on the bushes that lined the path. Entirely unaware of me. My relief not to be seen was shortlived: to get back to the car, I was going to have to let my big black nemesis know I was there.
I reached the top of the stairs, heart triple-knocking in my chest. The bear was about 10 metres along the trail, still engrossed in its snack, still unaware of me. Girding my loins, I clapped and whistled—and prayed it would bolt rather than charge.
The bear turned its head, as if at some distant distracting sound, gave me a bored glance and returned to its dinner.
Emboldened by its indifference, I clapped again and launched into a rousing rendition of the hymn’s chorus:
Then sings my soul, my Saviour God to Thee
How great Thou art, how great Thou art
At all the ruckus, the bear deigned to stand up. It lumbered a little farther along the trail, and sat down at a new, delectable bush.
More adrenalin-enhanced clapping and singing.
More reluctant moving forward by the bear, followed another snack break.
I was now belting out how great Thou art to the bear.
The homage failed to impress. The bear moved along only another few metres.
At my next adrenalin-enhanced surge of encouragement, it disappeared around a curve in the trail.
No! I couldn’t lose sight of him. I all but ran after it (still singing).
Around the bend, I slammed on the brakes. He had sat down yet again, maybe five metres up ahead. He must have been on dessert by this time, and it must have been delicious, because he cared not a jot about me. Which was both a blessing (considering the not so pleasant alternatives) and a nerve-wracking frustration (considering my continuing dilemma).
Many times in my life I have experienced the voice that speaks through me in fraught or painful situations—the voice that knows the right thing to say when my conscious self gets tongue-tied. It was that voice that released the park ranger from his vows in the Smoke Lake bunkie and the same one, months later, that asked him over the phone to release me. That voice called out to the angels to hold onto me as my car sped toward a ditch, and asked two large dogs on a Montana road to stay put and not chase me. It’s a voice that speaks from some part of myself that is much wiser and more knowing (and in most cases much calmer) than my conscious mind. It’s a voice that “speaks without thinking.” Not because it’s being heedless but because my conscious mind has no thought or say in what comes out. Nevertheless, what comes out is the right thing. This was the voice that now spoke, without any input or permission from me, to the bear that had plunked itself down yet again on the path. “Please,” it (I) said out loud, “could I ask you to get off the path? Just for a few minutes. I don’t want to bother you. I just need to get by.”
A considered moment later, the bear got to its feet and plodded into the bush. It sat down no more than three metres from the trail and seemed to watch me from the gloom.
I stared, almost unbelieving. My first thought was: “That’s not far enough!” Then my conscious mind and I registered that the bear had just complied with my request to get off the path. I needed to take advantage of its cooperation and get myself past it without delay.
Not running, but not dawdling either, I made my way along the vacated path, head swivelled to keep a wary eye on the dark shape of benevolence in the woods. All the while, that same voice, my voice, was calling out, in somewhat breathless, heart-palpitating gratitude, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”
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