Tuesday, Aug. 06, 2019 @ 10:33 pm
Robyn and I stand on a rocky knoll, map spread on the ground, compass in hand. We survey the expanse of scree in front of us, a kilometer of steep mountain slope strewn with hulking boulders and cut through with torrents of snowmelt. We are aiming for the far ridge, following a route sketched on an ancient map of the area.
The others are lagging behind, slowly making their way across the loose scree. There is a commotion, some shouting, but it’s hard to make out their words due to the direction of the wind.
“Did they say ‘bears’?”
Confusion. Panic. Adrenaline pours into my system and my breath comes fast and hard. The wind shifts, and I can hear what they’re saying clearly:
“Three bears. They’re RUNNING TOWARDS US. HOLY FUCK!”
I pull my bear spray from my hip belt and pull the safety from the trigger. I scan the slope for movement. Where are the bears? I can’t see them. I hold the bear spray in one hand and rummage in my pack with my other hand for the bear bangers. Screaming and yelling from above.
Fifty feet away, two of the bears crest the shoulder. Hulking, sleek and muscled. Power. Strength. They are running towards me, then they see me and balk, rear up on their hind legs. Toss their snouts in the air.
“OOOHHH HEEEEYYYYAA BEAR!”
My voice low and loud and steady despite the panic. I raise my arms into the air in a smooth and confident motion, holding the bear spray. My pack at my feet. The bears veer away from me. THUMP, THUMP. My heart. I see the coarse and glossy individual hairs in their brown pelts. Their eyes. Feel the thud of their feet reverberating up into my body.
“Where are they? I can’t see them anymore.” I call up the slope to the others.
“They are running down the slope. You are safe. Grab your pack and come up to us.”
We stand in a group, shaking, crying. I hold the launcher for the bear banger in one hand, bear spray in the other. I turn continuously in a slow circle, scanning the landscape for the trio of bears.
“What just happened? Why did they run at us? We are a group of seven.”
We each describe what we saw and put together a complete picture of the encounter. Three grizzlies, a mother and two adolescents. Curious? Territorial? Hungry?
We shakily traverse the scree slope to the far ridge. I bring up the rear and glance behind me every thirty seconds to scan the landscape for the grizzlies. My focus lacking, I lose my footing and slide a short distance across the broken rock. I recover, stand up, and a small line of blood trickles down my thigh.
We eventually mount the ridge and hike down through lush meadows and rocks studded with fossils as the sun sets into the distant mountain range. We set up camp in a meadow beside a small creek. We cook dinner among the lupines and paintbrush and subalpine firs. I look over at my friends: Robyn, Myles, Baxter, Will, Sarah, and Nat. I look out at the red-hued mountains. I smell the lupines and pine resin. I am glad to be alive, to be with these people, to be in this meadow.
I crawl into Russell’s tent. I feel his protective arms around me. I feel safe.
Baxter snores softly from the next tent over.
The night is quiet, and I sleep deeply until dawn.
In the morning, we bushwhack down through the drainage. We follow animal tracks across the slope and wade through creeks. A small celebration when, after two hours, we step onto a blissfully established trail. Like the moment when the tires of the car hit pavement after hours of gravel road. Buttery smooth trail, and we pick up the pace and laugh and carry on towards our destination.
We hike through pine forest. Through alpine meadows. Across plains of scree. Mountain goats on a far ridge. A fat marmot scampers away from us and into his den. After seventeen kilometers, we find a place to camp, again among wildflowers.
There is time to spare, and one of the group makes a suggestion.
“How do you feel about nudity?”
I mildly panic and work through their offer in my head. I agree to participate; this is my year of daring.
I remove my clothes. I move into position as directed by Myles: I stand beside Robyn and hold the map and act as though I am studying it, turning just so to show off the curves of my body in the soft evening sunlight. Baxter reclines in the meadow reading. Sarah picks flowers. Will is drinking from a water bottle. The scene is laid out, us doing various things nonchalantly in the nude with a stunning backdrop of untouched alpine wilderness. The camera is set up with a timer. The photo is taken.
After a dinner of noodles and whisky, I fall asleep, again feeling comforted by the nylon walls of Russell’s tent around me.
Hours later, I am jolted awake by Myle’s voice calling out loudly:
My heart pounds. The others chime in, and we are all calling out from our tents. A moment of silence as we all take a breath. A loud SNORT from nearby.
I scramble for my bear banger. I unzip the door of the tent and rip open the vestibule.
“I am launching the bear banger,” I announce to the others.
“God, yes, do it!”
I crawl out of the tent and look up into the starry sky. I pull back on the trigger and launch the explosive into the pure mountain air. I hear it pop and rise up into the sky above us. A pause.
The landscape lights up with the flash of gunpowder. The bang echoes off of the mountains four times. The reverberation of the animal galloping off into the forest.
I stand up and scan the meadow with my headlamp for glowing eyes. The Milky Way a pale streak across the night sky. A shooting star through Aries. Another through Aquarius. My heart pounding with adrenaline.
The raw beauty of being alive.
Nothing scares me anymore.
“I can’t believe how calm you sounded when you announced that you were launching the banger last night,” Robyn says. “I was about to throw up.”
It’s not true that nothing scares me anymore. I fear dying in that it means less time to experience love. I fear forgetting to breathe deeply, forgetting to lean into life, forgetting the passion of vulnerably loving another human being. I am scared for this all to end. For the intensity of life to diminish, for my heart to sag into complacency.
The lupines quivering in the brisk alpine wind. Satellites traversing the nights sky. The mosquito feeding on me and filling itself with my blood. Standing unclothed in the pristine Canadian wilderness and walking barefoot across the soft and fertile meadow. Cupping water from a stream and the cold snowmelt moving over my tongue and into my body. Pressing a thimble berry into the roof of my mouth and flooding my taste buds with unfathomable sweetness.
If the grizzlies did not turn away, if they had launched into me and torn my arteries. If I had bled out there on the scree at two thousand meters above sea level, know that I would have died happy. That I gave myself to life, to nature, and that I didn’t let a minute pass by unlived.
That I died with my heart full of love.