Sunday, April 13, 2008

Home of the Afraid of Everything

Before I begin: Yes, I completely ripped the blog post title off from the now-defunct The President's Blog. Just giving credit.

And now....

Back in 2004, Marty and I ventured up to Alaska.

We had been dating for 7 months by that time, and this trip, in many people's eyes (including our own), was the true test of our compatibility. Alaska had many things to offer: stunning scenery, challenging hikes, and both flora and fauna we had never even dreamed of in our tiny prairie-raised brains.

But it also had its fair share of things that might put strain on any budding relationship: limited opportunities to bathe or shower, giant mosquitoes that wouldn't hesitate to bite you on the most private of body parts, and ubiquitous backcountry dangers that made it impractical and unsafe to spend any time apart. The fact is, in Alaska, sometimes the choice comes down to "stick together and live" or "go it alone and potentially die in the remote wilderness". It's the truth, and for two people who both generally believed that they required extensive alone time in order to thrive, the idea of spending 6 solid weeks together was a wee bit daunting...

Anyway, after driving thousands and thousands of kilometres northwest, we finally crossed into Alaska and were immediately alerted to some of the many things we should fear in that great land:

1. Forest fires. Half of the Yukon on the drive up had been charred by a recent fire, and we were warned that sometimes fires prevented access to "the only road back to Canada". We prayed that the road would miraculously still be open when the time came for us to return home.

2. Subhuman temperatures.

Sure, on the ground it was sometimes in the 20s Celsius/70s Fahrenheit, but on the alpine ridges, there were glaciers and icy rivers that necessitated the use of toques and mitts. We were warned to not freeze to death, for heaven's sake. That would only inconvenience the already-busy (and for the most part, volunteer) rescue crews, having to fetch our frozen carcasses from the top of a mountain. 'Amateurs', they would mutter as they strapped our blue bodies onto a rescue sled-- 'We told you not to freeze to death. Geez.'

3. Tsunamis/Earthquakes!

Alaska has a sordid history of intense weather events, including tsunamis, earthquakes, and oh yeah, the Exxon oil spill (wait- does that count as a weather event? No?! Sorry.) And even though it's beautiful (and encouraged!) to camp on a spit that stretches into the middle of the sea, it's also important to be aware that, in the event of a tsunami, there will be no hope of running to safety like the little man on the sign. You will be the first to die. Nice!

4. Sasquatches. Of course. Who doesn't fear the mighty sasquatch?

5. Mosquitoes. They are jokingly referred to as Alaska's state bird, but the authorities there were adamant that we stave off the dreaded West Nile virus by dousing ourselves in safe, all-natural DEET. Right... BUT WE DID IT! And then hiked for hours every day. And then didn't shower for a week afterward because there were no showers to be found in all of Alaska. So we were caked full of dirt, DEET, stink, sweat, and sunscreen. So classy!

6. Bears.

And even for the people who were well prepared weather-wise, and who didn't need to get back to Canada on the only road out, and who put no stock in make-believe things like sasquatches, and who had a 'live-free and die-hard' attitude in the face of potential tsunamis, and who wore DEET like it was going out of style-- as a god-fearing being, they had better be afraid of bears. They were everywhere. And they petrified me.

Some of you might be aware that in my pre-Marty time, I had hiked a total of zero kilometres and zero metres. There were many reasons for this, but the fact remains that this Alaska trip was a super huge deal to me. a) I was excited to put my new and still-fledgling hiking skillz to the ultimate test (in Alaska!!) and b) I wanted nothing more than to impress the love of my life with my madd trekking skillz. I was more than head over heels for Marty at this point (perhaps I was heels over head over heels), and there was absolutely no way I would jeopardize his returning love for me by being any of the following: slow, unskilled, awkward, unprepared, or afraid. More than anything, I didn't want to be afraid, but did I mention the bears? THEY WERE EVERYWHERE!

I suffered through a great many things in Alaska: cuts, bruises, aching muscles, collapsed arches in my feet, mosquito bites in every place imaginable (including at least 20 ON MY ASS!), up to seven days in a row without a shower (the stench of it all!), and even a first-time (and scorching!) case of hemorrhoids (not that y'all need to know that... I'm just illustrating a point). The truth is, I had a giant smile on my face throughout all of those afflictions-- Alaska was great, and I was having an amazing time! But the bears... I had an extremely hard time working through my all-consuming anxiety about bears.

We were likely the only people in the entire state of Alaska who were not enjoying the scenery from the safety of a giant, fully-equipped RV. No. We were tenting it... every. single. night. And most of those nights, I would be worried about bears. Marty had an amazing knack for falling asleep the moment he closed his beautiful eyes, but I would stay awake most nights, gripped with fear until somehow I exhausted myself into a fitful sleep. Waking up to giant, fresh footsteps (like the ones pictured above) a mere 15 feet away from our tent did not help, nor did the ubiquitous pamphlets and posters that detailed in excruciating detail what you should do in the event of a confrontation with a bear (i.e. remember to cover the back of your neck when you're curled up in the fetal position so the bear's powerful jaws do not BITE YOUR HEAD OFF! BECAUSE THEY CAN!) In the end, I survived (and for the most part, LOVED EVERY MINUTE OF THE TRIP), but I must confess how deliriously happy I was to come home and sleep soundly, without fear of bears.

Moving to the island has been like a dream come true for this bear-fearing soul. Yes, I know that the island is still technically bear-country, but I like to think that it is bear-country in the same way that some chocolate bars could technically contain nuts or soy products. No big deal-- nothing to fear. Our hikes to date here have consisted of nothing but lush plants and stunning ocean views:

... and not once have I even been remotely afraid of a bear. Truthfully, they haven't even crossed my mind.

(cue foreshadowing scary music)

Yesterday, we jumped at the chance to soak in the first real sunshine of the year on the Coast Trail at East Sooke Regional Park. The weather was amazing, the views were delicious, and it was great to see Robertine again after giving her a mild anxiety attack when we finished our housesitting duties. (So sad!) We had a leisurely hike, choosing to sit on almost every sunbaked rock we came across (there were lots) and to simply stare at the ocean.

During one of the stretches we were actually hiking, we came across a HUGE pile of crap which was unlike any scat we'd ever encountered before. It was green, sludgy, and encapsulated in a jelly-like sac. (No photos to show, I'm afraid... who takes pictures of crap?) Upon closer inspection, we realized it wasn't scat at all-- it was a remnant organ (bladder? stomach?) of some sorry animal who had been taken down right on the trail. Tufts of fur and some (really pitiful) leg bones were off to one side, with most of the flesh eaten away. Surprisingly, me, the eternally-afraid-of-bears one, was not at all afraid at that point. Mildly disgusted, yes, but afraid? Not at all. I thought (rather naively, I might add) that some sick or old animal had simply crawled onto the trail to die and had then proceeded to be eaten by the crows and other non-threatening wild animals. We continued on the trail.

As we lounged on yet another rock a few dozen metres up, we gushed to each other about what a perfect day it was and how wonderful it was to be out on a hike. Then Robertine went completely silent and still. Barely breathing for a while, she stared intently into the thick forest and sniffed tentatively. A low and quiet growl came from her mouth.

Surprisingly, me, the eternally-afraid-of-bears one, was not at all afraid at that point. STILL. Who the hell knows what my mind was figuring then? That another dog-- a Yorkie, perhaps-- was hiding in the bushes, off the beaten path? That a chipmunk (the bane of Robertine's existence) was taunting her from a not-so-distant tree?! For some reason, it did not at all occur to me that something large and predatory, a cougar or even GOD FORBID A BEAR, was protecting what was left of its dead prey and stalking us for getting too close. Like I said, my mind has been completely wiped off all things bear or cougar-related since moving to the island. Blissfully wiped.

It wasn't until Marty, bless his heart, said something along the lines of us needing to keep moving so we could hopefully appease the jealous, hungry soul of whatever-it-was-that-killed-that-unidentified-animal-on-the-trail and let it know that we weren't at all interested in that leftover bladder that it hit me: THERE WAS A BEAR OR COUGAR ON THE TRAIL AND IT WAS POSSIBLY VERY UPSET WITH US!!!

Like a child who bears witness to a gruesome crime, my innocence was shattered. Suddenly I was afraid again. Very afraid. I did not want to die on that trail on such a beautiful day, or any day for that matter! I didn't want to curl up in any fetal position or to cover my neck with my hands! I didn't want to have anything bad happen to me, Marty, or especially Robertine! But most of all-- I didn't want to be afraid.

So I stopped. Consciously stopped being scared.

I was cautious for the rest of the hike, yes. But afraid? No. And sure, I felt more alert and more aware of any rustling sounds on the way back, yes. But I wasn't afraid-- not like I had been in Alaska. I figured: SCREW IT. Yes, I promise to be in awe of nature and to revel in the majestic and powerful creatures that roam in the forests. But no, I will not let fear of the unknown take control of me anymore if I can help it. It's simply too breathtaking out here to let the nagging 'what ifs' take hold of me. Screw it.


granolagirl said...

I had a very sleepless Bear night such as the ones described last May long weekend when 3 of us crammed into the tent with the dog in the only camping space left after a 10 km hike in.. Our drunk campsite companions had poured bacon grease all over the ground at the cooking area, right beside our tent. When the tent collapsed in the morning due to the foot and a half of surprise snow overnight and the dog started growling, I thought it was game over for me!!

susiederkins said...

i love this entry :).