Hiking by yourself is good and definitely not bad.
I’ve never claimed to be smart. Ask anyone. But I like to think I can usually figure things out on the fly when in a difficult scenario. This approach works well when putting IKEA furniture together but not when there is a goddamn bear on the only trail off a mountain.
It was a regular Sunday morning this past July in Fernie, British Columbia: A mountain town mainly inhabited by mine workers and a worrying amount of Australian ski bums. But because I am not a fan of going outside in the winter and I value personal hygiene I fell into the former. I am doing a mechanical engineering co-op and the best way to pass the time in the summer was to fuck around in the woods and hike.
Due to reasons unknown to me or anyone else, I had no friends to go with on this eight hour hike up Mt. Proctor. Which was fine. I wasn’t sad about it. Not me. Since the sun set around 9:00pm, leaving at noon would give me the perfect time frame to take a selfie at the top and go home. But because I lack any mental capacity, I had locked my keys in my car right before leaving and I spent an hour getting it open with the ol’ clothes hanger technique.
By then it was 1:00 p.m.. I could have called it all off, or gone anyway and risked being in the spooky woods in the dark. I thought that if I ran the whole way down it would only really take six hours round-trip. Nearly a no-brainer at the time. I was off.
The hike to the top was breathtaking if uneventful. It was hot as shit and I was having a good time messing about among the narrow trails and swathes of fresh berry bushes — the burritos of bear food. I even said “The only way this could be worse for me is if I spontaneously turned intoa salmon” out loud. This is called foreshadowing.
Soon the thick shrubs gave way to a steep meadow, where I ran into the only other person I saw that day. I now realize this encounter should’ve been the first sign I was in a Coen Brothers’ movie because I talked to and learned that this old man used to be a mechanical engineering professor. At the U of A. For 30 years. After complimenting me for having bear spray (the safety guy has logged on) we went our separate ways.
Shortly thereafter I reached the top, where I realized my phone battery was 10 per cent because I wanted to brag to my friends taking summer courses by taking a million and two pictures. On this mountain. Where I couldn’t get a hold of anyone if my phone, I don’t know, died. Hindsight is 20/20, etc.
Phase two of the “get out of here before it gets dark, you idiot” plan kicked in and I ran down the mountain, making great time and applauding myself for my forward thinking.
It was great. I was flying by and there were still a couple hours of light left. I was halfway to the parking lot when I came to a narrow and wooded part of the trail.
At first I heard it. There was a bend in the trail fifteen metres away where I could hear twigs crunching and dirt dragging. Then I saw it. That fat bastard. That grizzly bear. Which definitely seemed way bigger and cooler up close. And because my life is cool and good, I also saw two teeny weenie grizzly cubs messing around.
I wish I could say a primitive sense of survival immediately washed over me. That an encounter awakened a part of my brain so seldom used yet still ever present. Or that I had a sudden moment of clarity whereI understood man’s place in a harsh and unforgiving natural world.
But I didn’t. Instead I whipped out my bear spray and, after fumbling with the shitty little plastic cover thing, pointed it at this big bumbling bastard (not me, the bear).
Luckily, I was upwind and bears have trash eyesight. I don’t even think it noticed me. I slowly backed up until I couldn’t see this cute family, then I turned around and ran like a little bitch back up the mountain. All while screaming big-boy-bad-words.
The next thing to do was tell someone I’d be late. Winnie the Pooh had stumbled onto the trail I needed to go on and the sun was setting. I only had 2 per cent battery so I texted my landlady, who lives above my apartment, a calm and non-panicky message.
I ran up a hill to get service, and when I got to the top my phone was already dead. I didn’t even know if it sent.
I’ve drawn a map to show where I saw the forest monster and where I decided I could cut through the woods to avoid it.
I have to admit, I was kind of excited here. I’d finally get to use my compass and topographical map like a badass. Off I went into the ridge, thinking I had outsmarted Mother Nature. But the ignorance of man knows no bounds, evidenced by the sheer rock face and loose rock I came across halfway through. And since I’d come this far, I timidly scaled down.
I now realize that falling off a cliff and fucking myself up while two hundred metres off a trail would be overall a not good experience. But as Jack London said, “Life is not always a matter of holding good cards, but sometimes, playing a poor hand well.” This is my excuse for anything stupid I’ve ever done and I will stick with it until I die.
This excursion was exhausting. I had cuts and bruises all over myself from the trees and the sharp rocks. An hour in, past some more sketchy cliffs and sharp shrubs, I was back on the trail. I was tired, bleeding, thirsty, and I just wanted to get the fuck out of there.
I kept running since it was almost completely dark and I still had another half hour to go. Something I quickly found out is that being in the woods at night after seeing a bear is some next level spooky shit.
But in the end, I was triumphant. I made it to the parking lot and my soccer-mom-esque hatchback had never looked so beautiful. I opened the door, threw my bag in, sat in the driver’s seat, and started my car.
Except it didn’t start. The battery was dead.
Have I mentioned I love life, and also living? It’s great. Truly a wonderful experience.
There were a couple people in the lot but none of them had jumper cables. Dejected and defeated, I began to walk to the highway leading back to town. Then I noticed the garage next to the visitor’s centre was open, and there were people inside. And I thought, “Sweet! I’ll ask these dudes for jumper cables.” It was the stroke of luck I needed.
I walked in and interrupted a group of about ten people who were huddled in a circle, and spoke up.
“Hey, sorry for interrupting but my car is dead. Can I borrow some cables?” I said.
The main guy talking looked pissed. Like, really mad that I interrupted. I was just another dumb tourist to him. So he said, “Yeah, just give me a few minutes, I’m taking notes here.”
Fine by me. I turned around and started walking out.
Here is where I heard someone say my last name. Then my first name. And the guy I interrupted started to describe what I looked like and what I was wearing.
Turns out I had stumbled into the Fernie Search and Rescue Station and these nice people were getting ready to go out and look for my corpse. My landlady had gotten my text and rightfully freaked the fuck out.
You can probably fill in the rest. I said it was me, they didn’t believe me, then they did believe me, and we laughed. What a goof-filled day full of laughs. They helped me jump my car which was nice.
One of the rescue guys said the bear I saw was most likely a highly territorial grizzly that had mauled two hunters on that same mountain in 2013. Just the information I longed for. He also said walking through the woods and climbing on rock faces is a ridiculously stupid idea and no one should do it ever. If this scenario happens, you should back up slowly until out of sight, then yell your head off, move up a bit, yell again, and repeat until you’re back where you left off. Nearly all bears are pussies and will have taken off by then.
The moral of the story is, I don’t know, don’t go outside I guess? Also, if you think you’re a badass cool guy outdoorsman and you want to tell me how stupid I am, consider this: I already know.