Lions, and Tigers and Bears!
Updated: Dec 2, 2021
I recently listened to hostage negotiator, Chris Voss, talk about dealing with family members during this difficult time of quarantine. Getting people to do what we want is challenging at the best of times. But when humans are in confinement, certain behavioural characteristics begin to appear. Ask any astronaut or crew member of a submarine, and they are sure to tell you that sharing close quarters for an extended period of time requires training and skill. It may feel, at times, as though we are being held hostage in our own homes by an unseen, unknown presence. It's bad enough to be challenged by the risks this threat poses on our health, but how do our relationships survive the ups and downs of such difficult times? Gloria Steinem once said, "I can't mate in captivity." But for those of us who did, we vowed for better or worse to stick together with the understanding that we'd be able to get out of the house when necessary. None of us saw this coming.
I can only recall being fettered to another person with no chance for escape once in my life. I was rebounding from a terrible relationship and took the advice of my friends by opting to date instead, a man who was not my type. Andy was outdoorsy, a geography major from McGill with a streak of adventurer embedded deep in his psyche. He'd lived with Bedouins in Africa, swam with pilot whales in the Red Sea, was almost killed going up the Nile in a Faluka, and had been arrested for walking along a beach in Egypt with his unchaperoned cousin, Sabina. I was a bookish female. My most daring enterprises up to that point had been attending theatre school in New York and a gym membership to the YWCA. We had nothing in common except a summer job working with kids. But before I knew it, I was learning how to hang-glide, taking deep-sea diving lessons, and rock climbing. In the end, I wasn't successful at any of these endeavours and stopped before they killed me. Instead, I became the side-kick to his Indiana Jones and drove him to hospitals whenever he broke something from his thrill-seeking exploits.
Eager to prove my worth and dispel his friend's opinion that I was ill-suited to be his girlfriend, I agreed to go on a six-day camping trip to Killarney Provincial Park. Not just a camping trip, but a canoe / camping trip with our Labrador retriever, Cairo. It's worth mentioning that I had never ever been on a camping trip before in my entire life. I'd never spent the night in a tent, I'd probably been in a canoe once, maybe twice before, and I was (and still am) terrified of bears. This fear had something to do with being dragged by the head and eaten alive. Like most fears, it stemmed from some helpful video show to us at school to alert us to the dangers of such things as fires, railroad tracks, and wild animals. These instructional films always started with a date and footage of two carefree hikers laughing as they frolicked through the woods. Completely oblivious to the fact that they were about to be lunch, they picked flowers or tossed back a soda while just inches away, a bear was licking his chops. You'd see the bear bounding out of his hiding place, and you'd hear screams, then silence as the camera cut to a lone running shoe on the path. Given a choice, I'd rather spend a night in a zombie-infested village than within 15 kilometres of a bear. (although thinking about it, zombies and bears have a lot in common).
Nothing about this trip appealed to me, but Andy, convinced that it would be a learning experience, persuaded me to open my mind to new things. What self-respecting actor hasn't at one time in their life had someone say to them, "How can you be an actress if you haven't experienced…?" In fairness, he had, at one time in his life, been a prospector in Northern B.C., so I was definitely with someone experienced in the art of survival. After being dropped off by helicopter in the wilderness, he would spend three days collecting rock samples while making his way to the rendezvous spot where the helicopter would retrieve him. On one of these sojourns, he'd come face to face with a Grizzly bear hunting salmon on the edge of a stream. "His footprints were enormous," he told me, "I was pretty terrified, but luckily he was more interested in the fish than me." I'm not sure how telling me this story was supposed to assuage my fear of bears. Suffice it to say that it only made me more scared than ever. "They're not usually interested in humans," he stated rather matter-of-factly. The "…not usually" part of the statement didn't sit well with me.
We arrived at Killarney in the late afternoon, grabbed our gear and our permit and started out. As we were leaving the main lodge, I noticed the Alert Board with a number of bear sightings posted. Andy stopped to look, "Nowhere near us," he said. As far as I could figure out, bears could pretty much be anywhere they wanted. The man behind the desk sensed my concern. "Not to worry," he chimed in, "Never had a human/animal fatality in this park. Can't say the same for some others, but knock wood, so far we've been good." Well, there's always a first time for everything, I thought to myself.
The dog did not want to get into the canoe right off the bat. I assumed Andy had experience with this sort of thing, but even he was taken aback. I was thinking to myself, "What does that dog know that I don't?" Eventually, he had to be lifted inside and held in place until, like me, we were far enough out on the lake to realize we were hostages, and there was no going back.
The first night it poured. I naively thought that this might be a bear deterrent and wistfully hoped it would rain the whole six days. I mused aloud that soggy sleeping bags and wet clothes were a fair trade-off. But Andy corrected me. "Bears don't care if it rains," he said as he settled down to sleep. So now not only was I cold, damp, hungry, and sandwiched between a smelly dog and my boyfriend, but out there, beyond the tent, beyond the flimsy nylon barrier that created nothing more than a false sense of security, lurked a predator that in Andy's own words, "…usually wouldn't be interested in me." I slept two hours that night. In six days, I slept a total of eight. The only respite was the campsite we found on a small island where I convinced myself we were safe. At least it was small enough that I could see if something was coming for me…not that there was anywhere to run, but with luck, I might have enough time to arm myself with a weapon fashioned from a piece of driftwood. The dog was equally uneasy. Every owl hoot, branch snap, fire crackle, distant thunder, wolf howl sent him into fits of pacing, panting and growling at unseen things. Andy had brought along Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Life, the Universe and Everything, and So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish to read, just in case we got bored. Before the week was through, I read the entire collection. It was the only thing I could do to keep myself preoccupied. The earth's destruction was more appealing than bears.
We had to portage through the woods on the last day of our trip.
"Make lots of noise," he said, "to keep the bears away."
"I'm exhausted!" I screamed. "I'm sleep-deprived. I've eaten nothing but a bit of fish and some marshmallows, and I have my period, which means that I'm a walking hoeur d'oeuvre for anything that smells blood. What about this, don't you get?" I had reached the relationship point of no return. I didn't care if he liked me, admired me, wanted to be with me, stay with me or dump me once we got to the car. I wanted to go home. I wanted to eat a cheeseburger and fries (and I didn't even eat meat). I wanted a hot shower, an actual toilet, television. "Look," he interrupted, "I know this has been hard on you, but we'll be home soon." Seeing this had little effect on me, he added, "Let's take a shortcut to our last campsite by putting our canoe in here," he said, pointing to a spot on the map. "If we paddle from this spot, we can save ourselves a good two hours. What do you think?" I looked at the map. It was closer. No doubt about it, but the symbols on the map indicated that we'd be traversing swamp, and I said so. "Not this time of year," he corrected me. "Trust me."
"Fine!" I said, exasperated. "Let's take the shortcut."
Have you ever seen the movie, The African Queen? One of the most memorable scenes is when the boat becomes mired in the mud and dense reeds near the mouth of the river. Charlie and Rose try to tow the boat through the muck, only to have Charlie come out of the water covered with leeches. Our "shortcut" turned out to be a re-enactment of this famous scene when we got stuck in the swamp. Andy, determined to save face, jumped out of the canoe first. When that didn't prove successful, I had to bail into the quagmire as well while the dog sat, Cleopatra-like, inside the canoe, happy to be heading in the direction of home. I think our relationship was in trouble well before that, but certainly, an enjoyable final last supper by sunset was out of the question as I pulled leeches off my legs in absolute disgust.
I sometimes think about that whole experience when faced with a difficult situation in my marriage. To date, nothing has come close to the horror of that trip or my complete inability to navigate those six days of captivity in what was an out-of-the-box experience for me. I never did see a bear, though I once heard one. Like a life-threatening virus, it lurked just beyond the trees waiting for me to let down my guard. Surprisingly, my relationship with Andy did not end after that trip. Once I was back in the car, the whole thing kind of magically disappeared, and when I did think of it, it was with a certain sense of amusement. Warm, satiated, and on the brink of sleep, I congratulated myself on having survived. I deserved a medal. Wasn't I brave?
Eventually, we did break up, but only after he'd had an affair, which rhymes with bear, but isn't quite the same thing.
I don't know what it will be like when this covid crisis finally disappears. I imagine besides relief, we might all feel a bit the worse for wear. Then, in time we'll be able to say, "Remember when…?" We'll pat ourselves on the back and then get on with the business of living because eventually, astronauts land and submarines come up for air. In the meantime, I'll do my best to stay away from the bears. At least I have a better companion with me this time as I brave the wilderness and a dog that is happy to go along for the ride.