The un-bearable lightness of camping

There’s a great story on the newswires today about a guy named Wes Werbowy who fended off a hungry polar bear with a punch to the nose. He was camping (Wes, not the bear) on the tundra in Nunavut with three other chaps whom he was training to be outfitters and was awakened at about 3 in the morning by the bear sticking its enormous head against the screen of the tent flap.

Figuring he had nothing to lose, Wes dealt the old galoot a punch in the schnozz – and the bear turned tail and headed back out the way he came. Lucky Wes. My friend Tim says ol’ Wes had rocks in his head for being up there without a portable electric fence (which I assume is like Wile E. Coyote’s Acme Portable Hole), and for not having his shotgun under his pillow. He’s probably right.

Anyway, it puts me in mind of a similar incident many years ago when I was camping with my mum & my little brother Jeff in Killarney Provincial Park.

Oh, I just love these things -- chewy on the outside and soft in the centre!

The park rangers had warned us, and everyone else, about bears, so after every meal we carefully stashed all our food in a metal cooler which we then locked in the truck, and toted our garbage out to a secure bin at the main gate.

The weeks passed more or less without incident, in a merry haze of marshmallow roasting, turtle hunting, swimming and canoeing, until one morning I woke up at dawn to hear a strange sound outside the tent. This was one of these cumbersome old canvas tents that weigh approximately 900 tons, take a team of stevedores to assemble, and smell like the inside of a dead man’s boot.

The sound I heard, and I will remember it till the day I die, was “squeeeep…whuffle whuffle whuff,” followed by something large and heavy pushing briefly on the other side of the canvas beside my sleeping bag. The “squeeeep” was the sound you get when you brush past a canvas tent (it probably has something to do with disturbing the mildew). The “whuffle” and the large, heavy thing was, well, God alone knew what.

For a microsecond I managed to convince myself that Jeff was up & about, playing “man of the house” and getting firewood together to make breakfast. He was 11 and just starting to get all manly about these sorts of things; he called me a “wimmin-folk” once, which caused me to fling him into the lake. Anyway, I figured he was at it again, rolled over to go back to sleep — and there was Jeff in his sleeping bag, his eyes the size of dinner plates and his face the colour of fresh cement.

“Mrrrrrrrrrrf…whuff, whuff,” went the thing outside the tent.

Our mother chose this moment to wake up, yawn and stretch, and say, “Good mo—“, and was interrupted by both my brother and me doing that silent scream you usually only do in bad dreams. I’m sure you could have fit our air mattresses in our mouths.

My mum’s own jaws shut with a click and she joined us in the “eyes as large as dinner plates” look that we were perfecting en masse at this point.

We lay there, the three of us, utterly immobile with terror, for what seemed like about seven weeks, as the Thing continued its leisurely exploration of our campsite. There was quite a bit of whuffing as it sniffed around the edges of our tent – the way one might sniff around the edges of, say, a box containing a Quarter Pounder. Mmm. Meat.

There was a soggy crash as it knocked the water cooler off the picnic table, and a “ricka ricka ricka” sound as it shouldered the truck a few times for good measure.

(There was also the sound of three human sphincters simultaneously slamming shut, but the less said of that the better.)

As the whuffing resumed around the door of the tent again, my brother suddenly burst into silent sobs. He looked at our mum, and then at me, and in a tiny, choked whisper he said “I’m so sorry. This is my fault. I have half a Mars bar under my pillow.”

Something in a nice sugary near-death experience for Monsieur?

No one said anything, although there was an approving Whuff from outside.

Finally, after approximately another thousand years, the whuffing and thumping subsided. We lay still, the three of us, for quite a while longer, too frightened to move. After we had begun to recover some of our vital signs, my mother slowly unfolded herself from her sleeping bag, took the three small steps to the door of the tent and unzipped it.

Nothing.

She stepped outside and looked left and right.

Nothing.

She turned back to give us the all-clear. “OK, kids, you can co—“ and there was the bear, sitting beside the tent like an enormous Newfie dog, looking at her expectantly with those oddly tiny eyes that bears have.

So good old Mum did what any unarmed urban female in a pink nightie would do in similar circumstances: she put her hands on her hips, scowled at the bear and said “Shoo! Now you go on home, you. BAD bear.” She clapped her hands for good measure. “Go on now, git!” She stomped her foot at it.

Inside the tent, my brother and I crossed our hands on our chests and resolutely prepared to die.

Outside, the bear got slowly to its feet, gave a last disappointed Whuff and ambled off into the bush, swinging its butt like a pole-dancer and shaking its ears a bit. It looked back, once, and gave us all a baleful glance before vanishing into the undergrowth. Even bears hate being cussed out, I suppose (although at least she didn’t make it go stand in the corner, or dock its allowance).

There was a brief moment of disbelief, and then the three of us exploded into action, leaping en masse into the truck — still in our pajamas — and hightailing it to the ranger station to report our visitor.

Nothing ever came of it – the visit was noted and logged, a caution was put out to the campground at large, and everyone was careful to make LOTS OF NOISE when heading off into the bush to pick blueberries. (I believe Jeff and I sang the theme song from Gilligan’s Island over and over again; in hindsight, it’s surprising the bear didn’t come back & kill us just to make it stop.)

We returned home at the end of the summer with a good story and that was about it; this was the mid-1970s and long before the days of Facebook, cell phones or even decent cameras.

The only damage done, as far as I know, was to the bottom line of a certain confectionery company, as I don’t believe Jeff ever touched a Mars bar again.

Anyone else wanna mess with our campsite?

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