A Canadian Bear Has a Belly Laugh
The sound was coming from beyond a small copse of trees on the edge of the river. I was marching at speed, steam coming out of my ears.
Barely looking at the trail, I barrelled along, doing my level best not to trip on a rock. I do that when I’m pissed.
I was royally pissed.
I rounded a corner and was hit hard on the shoulder by something huge and furry.
“Got ‘er mama,” the bear cub said, standing over my prone body. My mouth was full of dirt.
I peered through the grime.
They had formed a circle. The three cubs and… Mama.
Mama rolled herself up to all fours. Tears were streaming down her cheeks.
“Something funny?” I thought, uncharitably.
“You are!” All four shouted in unison. The boys hooted and fell backwards, nearly into the icy cold turquoise waters of the river.
Up here in the Muskwa-Kechika, those waters are as sweet and cool as it gets. Especially this early in the morning. It was barely 6:45 am. The sun had finally set around 2 am and promptly risen again.
Mama, who had introduced herself to me on this Canadian adventure previously as my Bear Medicine Totem (apparently I had signed up for this, but not the ridicule) waddled over, all four hundred pounds of her. The smell of carrion rose from her fur.
GAH. I suppressed a gag reflex.
“That’s impolite,” Mama said, giving me the stinkeye. All three boys were now in the river, wrestling and splashing. I was no longer the center of attention. You don’t want to be the center of attention for four hungry grizzlies. Mama is quite enough.
“Caribou, up near the pass,” she said. “Wolves got most of it, but we had enough for breakfast.”
“So what was so funny?” I asked, still annoyed. My shoulder hurt from where her cub had sent me flying. They were huge. I’m not. Besides, I’m old. Sort of.
I knew, but I didn’t want to admit it.
“Oh, that oblivious woman. You know, the one who marched like an officious schoolmarm into the campground, put her hands on her hips and announced that you had no business hogging the fire for your wet laundry?”
“You heard that?”
“Told you we’d be following. Besides, she’s a hoot. They don’t make them much dumber. You spent nearly three hours gathering wood, making the fire, putting nearly fifty blankets out to dry, setting up all the camp chairs, making coffee, gathering kindling, and then doing several loads of laundry. All just to make sure all that was ready for when everyone else got up, they’d have hot water, a fire, and coffee. And your laundry would be out of their way.
“She walked right by all that. Nobody gets up on rest day until nearly 9 am- that’s why it’s called a rest day. Then she shows up and sniffs that you had no right to the fire, to get your laundry dry, at 6:30 am.
“Not only that, she informed you that you had all day for your gear to dry. As though she knew what gear you had, what it took to dry. The arrogance does take your breath away. She’s never been on a trip like this and suddenly she’s the reigning expert on everyone else’s gear.
“I thought I’d laugh myself stupid. When I told the boys, they had to bite their claws to keep from waking up the rest of the camp.”
I’d been up since 3:00 am. I’d injured myself badly the day before, but I still got up and did hours’ worth of chores for the camp. Chores that largely went unnoticed. I could feel the anger rise again.
“That’s not true and you know it. The guides know how hard you work. You’re just feeling sorry for yourself and that’s ammunition for your pity party. Grow up. You can do better than that.”
Mama stopped laughing for a moment and gave me the Gaze. I knew that Gaze. It always made me wish I had on a pair of Depends.
“It’s not her fault she has no idea how to behave in the wild. Nor is it her fault that she’s utterly oblivious to her surroundings. As such, she’s dangerous, taking horses off the marked trail, leading them into areas where there could be bogs and fallen trees. Where they could easily break a leg. Stupid. She’s lucky nothing happened.
“Of course, if you lose a horse we’re happy to eat it. But that’s not the point here, is it?” She watched my face carefully.
“She interferes, tells people what to do when it is none of her business, and injects herself where she is neither wanted nor respected. She can’t ride worth a sack of rotten potatoes yet she has the gall to tell others where to ride and how to ride,” I added, building up a head of steam.
I was still fuming.
“And you didn’t do the same when you were a rookie? Because you were scared? Because you were ignorant? Because you didn’t know any better? Because the only way you could burn off your fear of looking ignorant was to boss others around — demonstrate how oblivious you were — which proved you were ignorant?”
I pouted. Unattractive in a 66-year-old woman.
I glanced at Mama.
She had one paw over her mouth.
Goddamnit if she wasn’t trying to suppress a giggle.
I grinned at her. It’s impossible not to smile at a giggling grizzly. At least that means you’re not joining the caribou in her gut.
She burst out in her whuff-whuff-whuff again and rolled onto her back. Her paws waved in the air. This brought the boys running, streaming ice cold water.
“What’s the joke mama??” They shouted in unison. “What’s so funny now,mama?”
All three of them skidded to a stop on the forest floor.
I dodged the icy shower as they shook like wet dogs.
“That’s between us girls. You’ll understand when you get old enough to have your own human. If you get one. If they deserve you.” She eyed me again. I don’t deserve her. Not yet at least.
Mama pulled herself to her full height. All seven feet. That scares me half to death and she knows it.
“Still mad? Still feeling self-righteous? Still feeling superior and almighty?” She looked down at me. I once dated a South African rugby player who was 6'8". I kissed him. I didn’t want to kiss her.
“Not a good idea,” she said good-naturedly. “So what did you learn today, from Ms. Oblivious? And by the way, it will get worse before it gets better.”
I groaned. “Patience. I can stoop to her level, or I can just let it be. She will either learn or she won’t. I can’t do her work for her. That’s her path. Just as I have mine.”
“Good job.” In one smooth movement, Mama landed on all fours and brushed up against me.
Great. Now I stank of caribou carrion.
“You wouldn’t have any of those berries on you now, would you?” She eyed me sideways.
“Of course I do.” Mama settled down next to me. I breathed shallowly through my nose, as shallowly as you can when a massive grizzly sow sits next to you in the dirt. She was pretty rank. The dried blueberry and walnut packs were buried inside my jacket pocket.
I poured two small piles into her outstretched paw. The treat disappeared. Her four-inch claws glinted in the morning sun.
Wouldn’t take much, I thought.
“Nope.” She grinned, pieces of glazed walnut falling out of her mouth. I picked them up and handed it back to her. Delicately.
“Remember that ice chest you found at the outfitter’s cabin? That was just practice.”
I gulped. She loves doing that to me.
“Now get back to the camp and wash those clothes before the boys decide you’re their second course.”
I didn’t need to be told twice.