Summer of the Bears

Christina Brobby

Canada

A ptarmigan squawked from the nearby willow bushes. Squatting by the pan of water on the Coleman stove, I called my husky, Paris, and did a quick mental calculation of the distance to the camper van – close enough if the reason for the bird’s alarm call was something other than the dog. The rustling grew closer: an undulating swath of yellowing leaves bent in my direction. Seconds later, Paris emerged at full tilt as if she was being chased. I stood, half expecting to see some other wild animal behind her. There was only me, the dog, and the ptarmigan that was now quiet.

Clouds scudded past peaks like they couldn’t wait to see the views over the next mountain range. We were in the alpine area where British Columbia noses its way between Yukon Territory and the state of Alaska. I drove here on a road that closely follows a traditional trading route of the interior Southern Tutchone and the coastal Tlingit, and parked the van in a pull-out that is the trailhead for an easy day hike to a Glacier in the Alsek Ranges.

This stopover and my destination – the tiny seaport of Haines, Alaska – are my healing retreats. I came here when my personal life was in turmoil after separating from my former partner of many years. We moved north together from southern Ontario, settling in Yukon’s capital, Whitehorse, without jobs or a place to live; prospered together, traveled together.

In my professional life as a lawyer, I was a Child Advocate, hired to represent the best interests of young children removed by the State from their families. After protracted, emotional Court hearings I’d sat opposite the toe of the glacier and reflected on the uncertain future of my young clients who would not grow up with their families. They might be adopted or if they were less fortunate, they’d pass through foster homes and group homes until the age of majority when they’d be expected to care for themselves.

It was my own family – the family that I was separated from since I was almost two years old –  that compelled me to make the journey this time. The nearby border crossing was already closed when we arrived late the previous night. Before turning in, Paris and I walked down the middle of the road, accompanied by the soft hoots of an owl that glided overhead in the moonlight.

*

Two years ago, on my way to England, I received an email from the woman who gave birth to me. Her communication was the culmination of a search for her that started after my partner and I separated. Perhaps to fill the immense chasm that opened after almost two decades of loving the same person, I decided to search for the two people who were responsible for my life.

Her sentences had a breathless quality. After a few short paragraphs, too upset to continue, she’d finished with her name, Pam, followed by a star trail of x’s, the universal symbol of love. Her promise to call me at the hostel in London was thwarted because only outgoing calls were allowed. Pam asked me not to call her.

For months, Pam and I developed our relationship through a series of emails. When she was still a teen, she had met a much older man at work and had a brief relationship with him. After I was placed for adoption, Pam went on to marry another man and have three children. In our communications, she revealed snippets of insights into the lives of my two half-sisters and my half-brother. At Christmas, the half-sister living in Italy returned to spend the holidays with her – my! – mother. Pam sent photos of all of them together.

I spent hours at my computer, staring at my mother’s white-blonde hair, the aquiline nose, her half smile, searching for any likeness between us. I found traces of my features in my sisters’ – the honey gold tones of our skin, the shape of our brown eyes, hair a deep brown shade just short of black. Where my hair was a wild tangle of curls, theirs was straight, belying their father’s Indian heritage.

After Christmas, I asked Pam to tell my siblings about me, and backed off after her response that she would miss our almost daily emails. I didn’t want to risk losing her again, but every story that she shared – whether it was a recount of making cookies with her granddaughter or my brother and sister arriving with their families for Sunday dinner – emphasized my place on the outer circle of her life. Pam was satisfied with a virtual relationship that kept me in cyberspace, while I craved a meeting. Finally, I asked her again to tell my siblings, and received the same response. My mother’s hope that one day she would do what I asked read as if it ended with a question mark.

I found the addresses of my three half siblings and wrote letters to them introducing myself. Whenever I think of Pam’s anger when I told her, I want to disappear.

In the eighteen months since my letters arrived, I had become a virtual sibling, accepted as a friend by each of them on Facebook. None of them understood why I risked my relationship with their mother. I couldn’t explain that it felt as though a large eraser was rubbing me away from the edges inwards as Pam explained the fictitious name – ‘Anne I’ – she used for me.

In spite of a recent tentative email from her on my birthday, I was unlikely to ever hear her voice or meet her. We had lost that ingredient essential to a relationship: trust.

*

While Paris sniffed around the remains of old campfire sites, I finished making coffee. I planned to drink it as I meandered through the last of the wildflowers and picked tiny blueberries. I’d walk until the glacier came into view, then decide whether to spend another night here in the high country or retrace my steps and drive down to Haines.

As we headed up the trail, I looked back. Already the van resembled a Matchbox toy replica. The road appeared as if it was a zipper drawn up across the open expanse. The dirt track quickly leveled off and it was easy walking, with views that seemed to stretch into infinity. I was accompanied by snow-capped mountains in the distance. Ponds enjoyed their last ice-free days. Paris waded through the small bogs, her normally creamy white legs appearing as if she was wearing black, knee-high socks. She streaked past me towards higher ground where an Arctic ground squirrel acted as a sentinel near its burrow, emitting a series of calls to the rest of the colony.

I envied the dog’s carefree demeanor. In this wild landscape, she seized the opportunity for adventure and exploration as if it was her last.

*

Mum and Dad, adopted me when I was three and their own daughter was entering her teens. A year after bringing me home, they adopted another child, who became my younger sister. Memories of my childhood are a series of different houses and schools in southern England as we followed Mum’s frequent urges to move. She was fierce towards those who called me derogatory names or anyone who suggested that Shannon’s or my place in the family was different from our older sister’s. Mum told me when I was a child that my father was Ghanaian, but otherwise didn’t speak of my life before adoption.

Both Mum and Dad died years before I contacted the adoption agency in 2005. The agency provided the essential information – my first parents’ identity – for me to begin the search.

With my father’s unique surname, a casual online search for my Ghanaian family revealed relatives so quickly that I doubted our connection. I wanted solid, incontrovertible evidence. It eventually arrived in the form of an email from my half-sister, Glenda. In our first telephone call, she told me, “Our father has been waiting for Goddash to find her African family.” For days after the call, I referred to myself as Goddash. “It means God’s Gift,” she told me.

When Pam’s email arrived, I was traveling to London to meet Glenda before continuing to Ghana to meet my father. I walked beside her, held her hand, stayed up late with her and her husband, and played with her children.

I met my father and much of the rest of my Ghanaian family – brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and more distant relatives. My father’s slow, distinct voice sounded remarkably familiar the first time I spoke to him and we laughed when someone joked that there was no way he could ever deny that I was his child. In appearance, I am a younger, female, lighter-skinned version of him.

In Accra and Kumasi, I shared a bed with one of my sisters. One night I woke and looked over to her sleeping form. She slept on her stomach, face turned away from me, with one leg out to the side. My position before I woke had mirrored hers.

Glenda promised to visit me this summer. She is as fascinated by northern Canada as I was before it became my home. When she told me that she was unable to get time off work, I was devastated – and annoyed that I was so devastated by the news. I spent hours planning where we would go together. She should be walking by my side along this trail. I should be smiling as she gasps yet again at the enormity of the vast openness that is so far from London, Ghana and all the other places she’s seen to date. I kicked a stone until it skittered off the trail.

I grew up bearing no resemblance to anyone. Unable to answer doctors’ questions relating to my healthcare history, I grew tired of feeling stupid for knowing so little about myself. That changed when I found my Ghanaian family. Now I knew who I resembled, why I wear glasses, why my hands and feet appear too large for the rest of me. Still, as a woman, it was Pam’s health care history that I needed and craved. She told me that a few her sisters died too young but failed to ever explain how they died. I still had no answer when the doctor asked if there was a history of breast, ovarian or uterine cancer.

The photos she sent while we still communicated only added to the more intimate questions: “What does her voice sound like? Does she hold her head on an angle the way I do? What traits do we share? Would I recognize my mother if I passed her on the street?” It was the inability to complete the picture of my Self that sometimes threatened to overwhelm me. I was fixated on what I didn’t have, ignoring all that I do have with two other families.

*

I looked around for Paris. I was disoriented. I pieced together an animal’s small ears, long snout, massive body held erect on powerful hind legs, and forepaws held up as if mimicking the ground squirrel that had been near that spot moments before.

From this angle, I couldn’t see whether it was a grizzly or a black bear. It stood to get a better look at me.

This wasn’t my first bear encounter of the summer. There had been so many sightings of bears by friends and colleagues in the Yukon that we had been calling it the Summer of the Bears. Two weeks earlier, while running on the trails close to home, Paris and I came uncomfortably close to a large grizzly grazing on a steep hill. The dog obeyed as soon as I called her. My voice had spurred the bear to flee in the opposite direction even as I pulled the bear spray from its holster. On shaky legs, I’d continued running the hill as if the terrain was flat, and stopped only to warn a couple of hikers heading in the bear’s direction. For the rest of that weekend I could speak of nothing else, as if sharing the story could excise the fear that drove me home.

The caffeine was unnecessary now, the mug an impediment, taking up a hand that was needed to reach for the bear spray in my pack’s side-pocket. As I reached for the canister, I remembered that it was still in my other pack in the van. I faced a bear with a stainless-steel coffee cup, a heavy Nikon camera, spare clothing, snacks, matches, water bottle, my passport, wallet, and my dog.

The three of us were arrested in motion, the bear and I watching each other, the dog’s eyes on me, as if questioning why I abruptly interrupted the hike. She was closer to the bear whose scent she hadn’t yet detected. We were twenty minutes into the hike, at least another two hours to the glacier – if I continued walking, when I returned to this spot later, the bear might be miles away, or it could still be in this area, munching on berries or digging up a ground squirrel.

I poured my coffee onto the ground, stowed the cup in the side pocket where the bear spray should have been, and turned 180 degrees. My eyes locked on the bear, assessing the distance – there was possibly 400 hundred meters between us. I was a track athlete many years ago. My best time for that distance was a little over 60 seconds; not that I had any inclination to run in that direction. It was at least a mile to the van. The trail was not a smooth, rubberized running track; though distinct, it was rough and uneven, strewn with stones.

I spoke softly to Paris, “Come girl, let’s go.”  My voice was raspy, not yet warmed up. She hesitated, as if weighing her options, before trotting to my side, eyes still questioning. Treading ground I covered seconds earlier, I resisted the compulsion to shed my pack and start sprinting – bear awareness guides caution against running.

My eyes remained on the bear, as it dropped from boxing-prepared stance, twisted its upper torso, and landed facing in the same direction that I was heading. The hump below its neck, a prominent silhouette against the distant glaciated mountains, proclaimed that my new companion was a grizzly bear.

It started along its own trail, matching my pace. The gait, almost gangly, and its size suggested a sub-adult bear, perhaps in its second year – it might have left its mother in the spring. It was thin, though not skinny. It looked hungry, but most bears must be in this state. How can an animal weighing hundreds of pounds be satiated on a primarily vegetarian diet?

The teenager was curious; he sniffed the air, snout high, catching human and canine whiffs as if they were unidentifiable smells wafting from a kitchen. A bear’s sense of smell is up to 100,000 times better than a human’s. Paris, whose sense of smell was better than mine, continued to be unaware that we had company. She was still hyperactive, needing to burn energy. It was impossible to keep a close watch on both animals.

The bear and I continued to observe each other as I performed the mechanics of leashing Paris. Even as fear of my predicament increased, I marveled at the bear’s actions – it was curious. I was likely the first human it had met. It waited patiently as if I would produce another leash for it. “Paris, let’s go,” I muttered. Bear and dog followed the command.

We continued on our separate, parallel paths for several minutes, the wobble in my legs increasing together with a nauseous fear. My pace was brisk, though clearly slow for my companions; Paris repeatedly attempted to sniff the enticing smells on the grass lining the trail while the bear occasionally paused to grab a mouthful of vegetation.

My fear stirred up thoughts. No one knows that I am here; the bear spray in the van; my son whom I meant to phone before leaving on this trip; I might never speak to my father or Glenda again; People will know I’m a slob when they see the state of the house.

And the magnificent creature that continued to accompany me. Its dark coarse fur had golden highlights similar to the tinted streaks in my hair. Its coat was loose, moving independently, like the pendulous fat under a woman’s arms. I sensed that rather than being targeted as a potential meal, I was being considered as a playmate, perhaps to replace a recently lost sibling. Possibly I was to become a surrogate mother. These prospects were no more reassuring than the meal category. At what point in a physical play-fight will this bear realize that I am a better food candidate. Are teenaged bears like their human counterparts, unpredictable and prone to sudden mood changes?

I don’t know how long we kept each other company before I realized that his features were more distinguishable. His curiosity was drawing him closer. Our paths are no longer parallel. I had been quelling the knowledge that my trail would eventually veer to the right, into the bear’s path. Now I realized we were destined to meet sooner and unless something changed quickly, I wouldn’t reach that corner.

I stopped abruptly. A stream cascaded through a small, steep gully that now seemed a vast chasm between me and the other side of the trail. The bear was close enough to almost make out the smooth short hairs on its snout and the inquisitive glint in its eye.

How will the bear react when it cannot see me? Will it switch from its shuffle to a charge? Will the game become a hunt?” I asked myself.

I stood at the gully’s edge. The bear paused, then continued tentatively towards me, but there was so little ground for it to cover that I had mere seconds before the confrontation.

My head cleared, panic lifted. I had one option left if I was to survive this encounter unscathed: my beloved dog. I crawled over ice too thin to hold the weight of my previous husky to rescue her from frigid waters – and I loved Paris more than her or any other dog I’d ever owned. In the four years since I rescued Paris from our local animal shelter, she’d come to trust me and had finally learned to return to my side if she felt threatened.

I unleashed her. “Go Paris, go chase the squirrel!” I said in a voice that I hoped conveyed excitement. She stood next to me, the questioning look back in her brown eyes.

“Go,” I yelled, waving my hands towards the bear and took a step towards it to encourage her.

She took another step and stood beside me, her tail between her hind legs. She was not only confused, but nervous, likely responding to the fear in my sharp command.

My direction to Paris halted the bear. It reared back up on its hind legs. The failure of the dog sacrifice goaded me to my final act, which drew upon recently updated bear awareness guidelines. I had only half-listened to the details, which challenged the long-held notion of playing dead as the best plan in a bear attack: in certain circumstances, it was recommended that you make yourself big and scary, and make lots of noise.

I had tuned out before learning the certain circumstances. With my size and weight, big and scary were relative concepts, but playing dead and waiting to be mauled held no appeal. I faced the bear and as if a light switch had been flicked to the on position, I transformed from a short, middle-aged woman to a mighty, weaponless warrior. On tiptoes, with my arms flailing above my head I roared, “Rarrgh, arrrrgh!”

A rage that I had been unaware of unleashed. I was furious with this bear that had caused me to fear for my life, wasted my coffee, ruined my hike, reduced me to a shrieking banshee. It became a scapegoat. I blamed it for the layers of uneasiness which had built up over the summer with each bear story, held it responsible for the frustrations towards my mother and her children, the disappointment over Glenda’s change of plan. I swore at it as I continued waving my arms, called it awful names, goaded it to just try coming any further.

It stared at me, its demeanor changed.

Finally, I choked as my throat dried, breaking my voice and quenching my anger. I had reverted to being a scared, insecure, middle-aged woman. I wanted to live to tell Glenda about this incident. I would end the interminable moping for what Pam and I lost and appreciate our tenuous efforts to reconnect. I’d even accept my status as a virtual older sister to her children. So long as I survived this incident unscathed.

I turned, fled into the gully, sliding on rocks, leapt over the stream, and driven by adrenalin, clambered up the bank on the far side. The bear and I had been out of sight from each other for more than thirty seconds when I pulled up and scanned the area where I left it before my flight.

Nothing stood erect amongst the willow bushes and late summer flowers.

Was it in the gully or coming up the stream? Where the heck was it? What else was I fleeing from? That I judged Pam’s involvement in my adoption more harshly than my father’s? That I continued to compare these two people’s actions, always ready with excuses for him no matter what he did, while being too ready to condemn her and her children? Was I running from my part in the loss of my relationship with Pam? Why had I not responded to her email on my birthday?

No longer heeding the advice of any bear awareness guide, I resumed running. I ran as fast as I could, starting to pump my arms as if I was still a track athlete. When I tried to sprint, the pack’s contents bounced, threw me off balance, so I held on to the pack straps and kept my feet close to the ground, skimming over stones, tripping occasionally as I misjudged the distance. I kept looking behind, then over to where the bear should have been. The dog, still off the leash, trotted beside me. At the right-hand bend – where I would have met the bear if it stayed on course – I slowed to take a proper check.

In the distance, a dark blob that looked black but that I knew was dark brown with golden streaks, moved away from us and towards the distant glaciers. For the first time in what felt like hours, I thought I might survive.

 

Christina Brobby is a Guest Writer for Panorama.