The words that follow are by Kelly Fowler:
We made camp in an outcropping of two huge granite boulders sitting ninety degrees to each other, nudging the base of a pine tree. One boulder had a curious indent in its shadow, enough for three wanderers to sleep like sardines. Solid to our left and backs, the path ran from above, down to the right and onwards through the rocks and scrub. It felt safe to stop.
We ate some trail mix, drank some water. Nobody was all that hungry. Our little area received minimal coverage from the pine tree, and the rain still fell. I collected the food and hung it several metres away, as high as I could string it in the tree. That bottle of wine looked very lonely.
We spread out Marwa’s sleeping bag on the bottom of the indent and prepared for the night. Everyone was surprisingly calm. I wanted someone to lose their cool, to cry or shout. Then the other two would have a purpose to console, to rally. Instead, each of us was mature, practical and almost serene. The plan was to rest until daybreak, and we would gain our bearings and make a decision to move on or go home. The darkness thickened and we could barely see past our hastily assembled camp.
The two of them settled, and I was the last to get in, pulling the three packs in close to my right. After all, I was the one out in the open with Jill practically gone under the rock and Marwa snug in the middle. That wall of synthetic backpack material and extra wool socks was my pseudo protection from evil leprechauns, prancing ponies or other mythical forest creatures that dispersed from Fairy Meadow when the sun went down.
I covered us with my sleeping bag and then a garbage bag. Fully clothed. Boots still laced. Glasses on my face. Wine unopened, hanging far away in a tree. And it rained. Not exactly your dream weekend, but the potential for an amusing story around the water cooler should we survive.
There’s nothing quite like the sweet sound of rain on the roof of a tent when you’re snug inside. The tippity-tap-tap of water soothes and comforts. For us, the rhythm was a hazy, sleep-deprived version under a dark green Glad garbage bag. Our makeshift plastic bag duvet cover was, at least, keeping us dry. The sounds of the forest had long stilled. Until I heard it.
It was heavy and low to the ground. It moved with purpose and it was coming closer. Thump, thump, thump. The owner of that berry-infused trail treat was coming right toward us from the trail above and behind. Marwa had finally dozed off, which was good because she had been muttering things earlier about everything under the sun; however, her erratic snoring was sure to be a dead giveaway to our sardine-can location. I needed her to shut up now. I grabbed her hand and dug my fingernails into it. “Do you hear it?” I hissed. “Tell Jill!”
The three of us lay hand in hand. Waiting.
Thump, thump, thump. The lord of the animals moved resolutely, taking the path stride over stride. Each step echoed down my spine and into the pit of my stomach. The weight of his footfall alone drew visions of what his sheer size might be. We grasped each other’s hands in panic and held tight as the sound of the approaching beast was practically on top of us. Imaginations exploded with every possible scenario of massive claws and unheard cries for help.
But that steady, solid pace didn’t slow for a second. Grandfather bear continued past our encampment on his nocturnal mission through the Adamants. My worst fear, of course, was that grandfather passed us by to lull us into submission, at which point he would stealthily sneak back, snuffle and rip back our Glad coverings to enjoy a tasty feast of human flesh. I could practically hear the massive teeth scraping across my skull. I could see my weeping family on the six o’clock news.
Marwa finally exhaled. Shaken, we spoke in whispers but none dared to lift her head outside the sleeping or garbage bag for fear of looking directly into the glassy eyes of a hungry predator.
A sudden clatter of hooves on rocks had us all clutching hands once again. Despite being in total darkness underneath our coverings, I squeezed my eyes shut so hard I could see brilliant sparks. The clattering continued, and then faded. Not long after, a heavy thud was followed by the sound a young tree slowing being bent. The splintering of branches, thumping and rustling continued for what seemed to be eternity.
“Our food!” I hissed to Marwa. Grandfather had found our food and when he was finished with that, we would be next. I cursed myself for not going out of my way to hang our food higher in the trees. When the wilderness racket calmed down, the dreadful anticipation of ‘what next’ set in heavily.
My husband would be incredibly pissed with me. And if I died out here in the backcountry, my little boys would never love the wilderness the way I did. There was no way I was going to die out here. I didn’t know what would happen or how I was going to react, but we were not going to die.
I tried thinking back to all those nature programs my family watches on the Discovery Channel and the Outdoor Living Network. Was it play dead with a black bear and yell at a Grizzly? Or fight a black bear and play dead with a Grizzly? What if I couldn’t tell which one it was in the dark? No good. What about Hollywood. Ah, yes. Bart the Bear. In The Edge, Anthony Hopkins had a spear of some sort and the bear fell on it, killed with its own weight. I took a firmer grip on my hiking pole.
We lay in silence. I hadn’t been able to communicate with Jill at all, as she was tucked so far under the rock. With any luck, Marwa and I would be eaten and Jill would make her way home unscathed. Jill could explain it all to our families. I hoped she would make us look heroic.
Marwa’s breathing evened out again as she lapsed into a light slumber, the keeper of dreams taking over her mind. After an undetermined amount of silence, I talked myself into taking a look around to see if I could spot the troublemakers. I think it took about ten minutes of solid self-encouragement before I carefully pushed back the sleeping bag, and then the garbage bag.
A gust of fresh, damp air greeted me as my wool hat, eyes and nose made their way out. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust. I squinted into the darkness. The drizzle was faint. The boulder field was a fine dusty grey-black, like peering into an ash-filled stove late at night. I couldn’t see our food bag. There was no evidence of any animals, big or small, and no other sound than the occasional drip of rainwater from the trees.
The boulders snugly protected us, and the pine tree stood straight and tall like a sentry. My eyes travelled up the tree from base to tip, and what I saw at the pinnacle of that tree made my eyes widen. The very top of the tree glowed with a warm yellow light. I glanced about to see if this was the sunrise – no. Light from a full moon – no. The sky was leaden, the air heavy with fog. Yet, this beacon rested gently at the top of our tree. I blinked and stared for a few minutes, thinking it might be my panicked imagination. It was still there.
I could do nothing more than trust that glimmer of hope in an otherwise chaotic day. Exhaustion weighed heavily and I could barely keep my eyes on the tree. The beacon glowed steadily as I pulled the sleeping bag over my face and fell into a fitful daze until past nine o’clock the next morning. So much for waking up at the crack of dawn.
I’d like to say the story ended there.
When we packed up we found the food bag …unscathed. Ah, the powers of imagination. We decided to carry on to Fairy Meadow; after all, we had booked two nights. If the scat and the scare hadn’t been enough of a sign to turn around, then getting lost a second time would have to be it. Amidst the morning gloom, we thought we were on the right track, winding our way through the rocks and trees once again, following the faint signs of a trail and the flagging tape, the occasional cairn. We assumed we were heading to the ridge. And that’s when I noticed a prominent root I had hauled myself up on the day before. And that we were slowly losing altitude. By the time we hit Swan Creek, we just looked at each other and knew. It was time to go.
With the wind at our backs and spooked beyond reason, we marched out of there like the Von Trapp children. The bear scat still graced the trail as we raced beneath the cathedral ceiling of rainforest, and by the time we reached the last leg of the path before the trailhead, Marwa was praying loudly in Arabic, begging to have our unworthy lives spared from ultimate disaster. The rising intonations and haste of Marwa’s prayers in an unknown tongue set Jill and me into a near panic, expecting to see an enormous beast come crashing through the brush at the climax of praise to Allah.
However, we did reach the Crown Vic in one piece, kissed the Adamants goodbye and were soaking in the mineral pools at the Banff Springs Hotel’s Willow Stream spa before you could say ‘aromatherapy.’
It was a good adventure. Yes, I have to explain that I got lost, and yes, I couldn’t find my way on a marked trail where loads of other hikers have gone before me. It reeks of the amateur hiker. These mountain exploits happen when you least expect it, with a gentle reminder that occasionally there is such thing as ‘can’t.’ That you’re fallible and far too human in the great scheme of things.
No one else had seen the yellow glow at the top of the pine tree. My mother later told me that the night we spent under the tree was a ‘feast day’, the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels. Not being up on my saints, I sat down with a beer one sunny afternoon and looked up Saint Michael. A sudden chill that had nothing to do with the air conditioning shot up my spine. Because September 29th falls so close to the equinox and the shortening of days Saint Michael was looked upon as a protector against the dark of the night. How fitting. Maybe it wasn’t even a bear? Maybe it was the footsteps of God?
Jill immediately countered with an article via email documenting that in past years, UFOs had been spotted hovering over the Selkirks.
I’ve yet to return to conquer the trail to Fairy Meadow and the elusive hut. I understand that since the autumn that I hiked with Jill and Marwa, the Alpine Club cut and cleared out the more unruly segments of the trail, marking the correct way with both flagging tape and cairns. But tell me, what would my memories have been then if I had so easily made my way, drunk the wine and ate the pasta? Exactly.
Kelly Fowler is an adventurer, writer and photographer who currently lives in Edmonton, AB, and runs away to the mountains at every opportunity. You can follow her other writings on her own blog: butterscotchpalace.com