Bears like berries.....apparently....
Canada is the perfect place, a secret utopia quietly outdoing is more obnoxious southern neighbor. I couldn’t hope for more in a place– beautiful wilderness, rugged mountains, affable people, and hidden treasures in the cold waters of the North Pacific. In fact, the best cold-water diving in the world is unquestionably in the current ridden waters of Vancouver Island, BC.
The most adventurous of my dive buddies frequented those currents and came back with stories of mind-boggling color and curious animals. Without a proper income in college, I could not justify an expensive excursion north until one day I came across a dive operator based out of a small town called Tahsis. Although they weren’t in the coveted Browning’s Pass, it was on the northwest end of Vancouver Island which was good enough for me. I packed my car with dive gear, some blankets to sleep in, camera equipment, and made the ten-hour drive/ferry ride from Seattle to Tahsis.
Coming into Tahsis is as harrowing as it is breathtaking. The only road to town is a muddy logging road with inclines steep beyond rationality. Behind each corner is a secret inlet or bay encompassing clear emerald water, lined with mossy evergreens and salmon berries. The birds sing and the wind blows, but it feels as though time has stopped and you are the only one to notice. With a population of only a couple hundred people at most, Tahsis saw better days when the fishing was good. Not much more than a few docks and a few streets, a walk into the local gas station will earn you the curious stares of half the town.
The couple that owned the dive operation were of very kind dispositions. Not only did they operate the dive boat, but the skipper’s wife was mayor of the town. Heartened by their knowledge of the area, I inquired about hiking opportunities before diving the following day. The mayor kindly pointed me in the direction of a trail but warned that cougars had been seen stalking people only the day before. Though a little nervous, I drove past town and down another gravel road that followed the shore along the Nootka sound. The late afternoon sun lit the shoreline evergreens with an orange glow.
I pulled off into a muddy parking lot and got out to look around. Although I could not see shore from the lot, there was a clear trail gently sloping towards the water. The parking lot was lined with large brush, each plant with hundreds of large salmon berries – like spears of salmon roe held together only by the sugars of their juice. I followed the path through dense rain forest and slowly meandered to shore. An afternoon summer musk emanated from the bark of each tree. After ten minutes or so, the trail passed by a cliff overlooking a quiet beach. Emerald waters lipped the small boulders and rocks of the shore – the perfect place for tide pooling. I left my backpack and camera at the top of the cliff and climbed down to the beach.
As I began to look for signs of life among the rocks, I could hear a deep growl emitting from the forested hill that began where the beach ended. Glancing up at the hill, all that could be seen were endless rows of evergreens. As the sound grew louder and more rhythmic, I realized it was not a growl at all. Instead it was more like the heavy exhaling of a large animal – an angry dog perhaps? The breathing got denser, deeper. It turned into a pulsing gruff and increased in pace. Hoping that it could not see me the same way I could not see it, I stepped a little closer. As soon as I did the gruff became louder and quicker. A sharp growl was added to the forward end of each exhale. Finally, something in my brain clicked – bear.
The trees on the hill shook and split apart as the charging animal rushed towards the beach. Each step sounded like a boulder rolling down the hill.
I don’t know what to do! ALRIGHT, I’M RUNNING!
And that’s what I did. I turned and ran. I might have said “hey bear” under my breadth once or twice. But it certainly wouldn’t have heard me and probably wouldn’t have cared. In a matter of seconds, I reached the cliff and began scrambling up. Peaking back over my shoulder I saw a large brown shape clear the tree line onto the beach, turn around, and go back from whence it came. The deep, rhythmic exhaling gruffs never ceased. As I made it to the top of the cliff I could hear the bear angrily pacing in the nearby forested hill. Deciding to make it back to the car as soon as possible, I took a couple steps back up the path.
Oh no. My stomach sank as my eyes followed the meandering path. The bear was standing right by the path to the car! Where do I go now?? Maybe this is territorial…
My stupid curiosity got the better of me. I started to slowly creep down the cliff again. The gruffs quickened, they got louder.
Yup, territorial. Ok, I guess I can’t go back to the beach.
I climbed back up, grabbed my backpack, and shook the jitters out of my limbs. I looked down the shoreline. A small deer trail followed the cliff-side along the water where the beach ended. I started down the trail hoping that I could follow the shoreline a few miles into town and ask someone to drive me to my car. In twenty minutes, the trail turned away from shore and the dense underbrush became impassable. My fingers tingled with adrenaline and dread. Picking up a large pointed stick I quietly turned around – I had to make it past the bear. As I made it back to the junction with the main trail, I slowed my pace and listened. I couldn’t hear any sounds from the bear or birds chirping in alarm. Perhaps it had gone?
I sat in silence for a few minutes watching the beach from the cliff. Nothing. Gathering my courage, I made my way to my car. Fox steps. Fox steps…. My fox steps were louder than a fox. As I came towards the bear’s hill I decided that the bear would smell me anyway, and I wouldn’t have a chance unless I ran. So I ran again. I ran with my big stick all the way back to the car. I ran around the parking lot five times just to burn the excess adrenaline saturating my arteries. I ran around the parking lot five more times just because I didn’t know what to do.
I ran past all the salmon berries…..salmon berries everywhere…..berries. That was it! The bear had been eating the salmon berries near my car and wanted to keep the patch to himself. Not trying to trespass its berry patch any longer I got in my car and drove back towards town. Now what? There was no reception. It’s not like I knew anyone in town to tell the tale. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to report something or not. I suppose not…..
I really wanted ice-cream. Driving down the main street, I heard music in the harbor. I parked my car, and walked down to finds a rustic little restaurant on a dock with live music. I bought some ice-cream, sat down, listened to music, and breathed. I looked around at everyone enjoying their peaceful Friday evening. No one knew and there was no one to tell.