Loaded For Bear - With Spray
'Do you have bear spray,' asks the tourist guy in the hotel in Inuvik, way beyond the Arctic Circle.
'Well, no,' quoths I, 'that's my deodorant you must be smelling.' I've just asked him about doing a little late-June walk along the winter cross-country ski trails outside town.
'No, seriously,' quoths he. 'A bear came right into downtown yesterday. We've got a video of it at 4 a.m. on the corner of Centennial and Bonnetplume, not far from the Western Arctic Dental Group.'
'Well, perhaps it wanted to have its teeth whitened and straightened, like all young dandies these days,' quoths I, still thinking he's putting on a little show for me.
'Will you be serious!'
It's beginning to dawn on me that this is not a comedy routine when a local Inuit lady says they had to shoot a grizzly dead a few weeks back when it kept on showing up at Wolverine Road and Centennial, very close to downtown.
They normally tranquilise intruders and push them back into Nature, but this one evidently got too used to humans, posing a significant danger.
Perhaps from millennia of being hunted, grizzlies have become wary or fearful of humans. So they generally avoid them. But they also hate the unpredictable, so if they suddenly find themselves confronting one, they could attack.
And if a momma grizzly is with her cubs, doubly beware because, like any self-respecting Jewish mother, she'll defend her son the doctor or daughter the princess to the death, that's your death, doubtless perceiving threats where none exist.
So I quickly abandon my ski trail-trailing plan, substituting a nice 45-minute walk round Boot Lake Trail, between the hospital - may come in handy - and the Mackenzie River. Should be OK there, everybody says, though when asked if I need a bear spray there too, no one will say no, even if they say they've done it many times without any problem.
'Bears will be bears,' quoths a charming lady at the Visitor Reception Centre. 'Just let them know you're coming by talking loudly and making heavy footstep sounds. They'll avoid you if they hear you. Make a noise, clap, sing, laugh loudly if you come across one to frighten it off.'
Anyway, I decide not to buy bear spray. It costs $35 a can and I'd probably spray it the wrong way round and nuke myself instead.
Loaded For Bear - With Song
At the entrance to Boot Lake Trail a panel with the upper part shaded red and a nice large red 'WARNING' in capitals, proclaims 'Bear in Area! Use Extreme Caution.' Below in black: 'Please report all bear sightings at or near the community of Inuvik immediately to a Renewable Resource Officer at (again in red) 678-0289 (24 hour emergency line).'
Okaaaaaaaaaay! On the other hand if a grizzly gets you, it's a cut-rate funeral - there's a track from the trail straight to the town cemetery. To be on the safe side, to scare them off and not present them with the unpredictable, I decide to make the prerequisite noise, singing loudly along the way.
So here I am, like a ruddy A-hole, advancing along a quite wide, large-pebbled trail belting out rousing choruses of John Bunyan's hymn (wrong religion, but still) 'To be a pilgrim.' The trees are resounding nicely to 'He who would valiant be/'Gainst all disaster... To be a pilgrim.'
I'm so off-key I'm almost back on-key again. Come on now, another rousing chorus: 'Since, Lord, thou dost defend/Us with thy Spirit... To be a pilgrim.'
I don't know about bears, but I've clearly warned off humans. They say there are always people here, jogging, walking their dogs. But it's totally deserted. I don't warn off the mosquitoes, though; they've quantum-leapt into a new numerical dimension.
But the purple, blue and pink flowers under the spruce and other trees, and the oh-so-deep-green mosses and the oh-so-yellowy-green lichen are superb.
The beauty of the trail
By the time I get to a swampy by-pass, it's time to change my tune (no I haven't changed my religion; it's just a great poem and a great melody), with William Blake's 'Jerusalem' proffering itself up unprompted: 'And did those feet in ancient time/Walk upon England's mountains green...'
Well, it's pretty green here, too. There's an enchanted beauty to the forest even though the trees are not tall. 'Bring me my Bow of burning gold/Bring me my Arrows of desire...' I think it's the deep green mosses and the yellow-green lichens that especially enhance the enchantment.
I'm still bellowing 'Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!/Bring me my Chariot of fire!' when I've already exited the trail and I'm walking on Inuvik's streets grey, having avoided any wayward grizzly but garnering the queerest of stares from the town's inhabitants.
They can update Robert Service's Cremation of Sam McGee:
There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By our visitors, young and old;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was the bear-crazed blight - what a terrible fright -
Of the bellowing Yours Tru-lee.
Loaded For Bear - With Gun: Part One
'Oh my God, I thought you were a bear,' says the nice lady from the Visitor Reception Centre, jumping out of her skin as she opens the door for business at 10 a.m.
I manage to push her back into her skin with my sweetly disarming smile. What has caused her terror and consternation is the sound of my padding on the wooden deck and my pulling the door further back from her hand.
'Oh my God,' she declaims again, touching her heart and smiling back, disarmed, in relief. 'I could have sworn you were a bear. One was sighted at 2 a.m. yesterday on Kingmingya Road, right in the centre, just a block from Mackenzie.' She pulls out her phone. 'Look, here's a video of it.'
You can clearly see the bear ambling on all fours in front of a row of houses. Then as it becomes aware of the car, whose driver is you-tube-ing it, it picks up speed and breaks into a canter up Relance Street, then up Centennial towards the edge of town.
A few hours later it was found browsing on the bank of the Mackenzie River, right below downtown and, very sadly, shot dead. Adding to the sadness is that this very place was a willow grove that was a favourite haunt for grizzlies, black bears and moose before the government chose it for the site of Inuvik in the 1950s.
Talk about a day in the death of a grizzly bear. That makes two down in barely as many weeks.
The tragedy is that bears are becoming more used to humans here, venturing into town, scavenging and, being rather lazy critters, remembering where they can find food despite so-called bear-proof garbage disposals instead of having to hunt for it. They then raise their young with this knowledge.
This was the fourth separate grizzly coming into town in recent weeks. It was a young one, making it all the sadder. 'They've become more comfortable around people,' quoths the lady. 'They normally try to avoid contact with us just as we do with them. The problem is if unintentionally you surprise one, it could feel threatened - and you could be dead.'
More to the point, the spot where the bear was shot is barely a grizzly's fart from where Yours Truly was ambling on his singing tour of Boot Lake Trail yesterday.
Loaded For Bear - With Gun: Part Two
'Bear Sightings Increase,' blares the headline of the weekly Inuvik Drum; 'ENR fielding calls of animals spotted around Inuvik.' ENR stands for the Department of Environmental and Natural Resources, but their wording does seem to suggest the animals are themselves phoning in to report themselves.
The Drum can't resist a pun on the inside page with the headline 'Too much to bear?' but it gives a full accounting of the animal killed earlier in June. The young grizzly was prowling in the early morning on Wolverine and Bompas Roads, raiding garbage boxes and leaving a mess behind.
While most of the town is equipped with properly designed bear-proof dumpsters, the fringes of town are not - amazing when you come to think of it since the bears have to first pass the fringes in order to get into town.
Later that morning, construction workers spotted the bear sauntering up a trail parallelling Willow Road and took to every available hiding spot that got them off the ground, including a pile of lumber. Mounties with a shotgun and the ENR were called in.
The bear, described as 'male sub-adult, very lean and not very fearful,' made a fleeting appearance about 100 yards away and, apparently spooked by all the activity, raced into a wooded area bordering Muskrat Road. Later in the day, it was reported crossing Marine Bypass heading east towards Wolverine.
'The bear attempted to cross the road in several locations,' an ENR official said. 'It was deterred several times, kept on returning to the brush and kept heading south. The bear was then spotted on the corner of Centennial and Wolverine Roads.
'RCMP (Mounties) deterred it twice and the third time shot the grizzly bear in the midsection. The bear did not go down, and went into the brush. RROs (Renewable Resources Officers) gave chase and dispatched the wounded bear approximately (75 metres) into the brush.'
What irony - Renewable Resources Officials!
Loaded For Bear - With Wisdom
The most incisive commentary on the whole sorry incident comes from an Inuvik Drum columnist who notes that the 250-pound animal 'was likely a two-year-old who had just been given the proverbial boot by its mother (the way they wean them). In an effort to establish its own territory and to find food, the bear would have followed its nose to Inuvik.'
How ironic that Momma Grizzly, who so ferociously protects her cubs in the first two or three years of their lives, then boots them out literally, physically repulsing all their efforts to return to her. So this little one was left all on its lonely ownsome.
'The shooting, as described by an ENR spokesperson,' the columnist went on, 'sounds unnecessarily brutal, and perhaps indicates a need to refine the techniques of dealing with wildlife. However, the major point that remains to be answered is why, when much of the town has access to bear-proof dumpsters, residents on the fringes of town, closest to heavy bush, don't and have to use their own bins.
'It's not a certainty that this bear would have shambled off if it hadn't been able to raid residential garbage, but it's a likely scenario. So perhaps it's time for the Town of Inuvik to reconsider its garbage policies.'
[Upcoming blog on Monday: Flying up the mighty Mackenzie River over a land of lakes, forests and streams]
By the same author: Bussing The Amazon: On The Road With The Accidental Journalist, available with free excerpts on Kindle and in print version on Amazon.