An amateur’s foray into the backcountry
“Bear, bear, bear!”
These words of warning brought my wandering mind back to our present situation. I glanced up at my travelling companion, explorer and author Adam Shoalts, then followed his gaze to my left.
“Oh shit,” I said.
A massive grizzly was charging right at us.
I knew this might happen when I agreed to the expedition. In fact, brushes with danger are part of what makes Shoalts’ line of work so enviable. But as I watched the enormous animal come crashing toward us through the brush, the bear-free nature of my home office looked more and more attractive.
We’d been in grizzly territory for more than a week, but this was the first one I’d seen in person. Travelling on foot along the Athabasca pass we encountered plenty of signs, including massive fresh tracks and scat. On a few occasions, in thick brush, we were close enough to smell the bears, but they stayed out of sight. Between the noise of our packs and occasional trail chatter, most had plenty of time to steer clear of the two humans passing through.
But today was a little different. Eight days of hiking and mountain climbing with 50 lbs of gear on our backs was beginning to catch up with us. We’d covered some 15 kilometers of rugged terrain already that day, and we were finally closing in on our campsite. As we climbed over boulders and fallen trees, I was more focused on the steady aches growing in my knees and shoulders than on any potential predators nearby.
But I guess that’s what separates the hobbyist outdoorsman from the Royal Canadian Geographical Society Explorer- in-Residence. Shoalts had walked the same punishing miles I had, with the bloody and blistered feet to prove it. But he was still constantly aware of his surroundings. He could always point out interesting plants, animal signs, and the occasional small creature hiding in the underbrush.
And, of course, the bear. At full speed, a grizzly bear can cover about 150 feet in three seconds. This bear was much closer than that. Shoalts was shouting it down before I’d even registered a problem. If he’d been a little less vigilant, if he’d let his guard down for just a few seconds, we’d have been mauled, or worse.
As it was, Shoalts noticed the bear before the bear noticed me. I was a dozen or so feet behind Adam, wearing various shades of green and brown, quietly trying to keep up with his pace. His warning gave me enough time to see the danger and shout my involuntary expletive. This, in turn, let the grizzly know there were two of us, which, in a cosmic affirmation of the value of swearing, caused her to think twice. She stopped no more than 30 feet away.
Oh, that’s right, the bear was a she. As the bear charged, Shoalts stood his ground without flinching, like a 19th century British general calmly facing canon fire. I’d also stood my ground, but more like a conscripted British private too terrified to move. Still, I was mentally applauding my dry underwear when I saw the two little bear heads pop up from behind their mother. Never has something so adorable filled me with such terror.
“She’s got cubs,” said Shoalts, in the same easy tone of voice he uses to point out neat-looking mushrooms.
“She’s got cubs,” I repeated, in the tone of voice one uses when they’ve watched the bear-mauling scene in The Revenant. Suddenly all the bear-deterring tactics I knew were out the window. Normally I’d get big and loud to drive off a bear, but wouldn’t that just confirm that I was a threat to her cubs? And if I did the opposite, wouldn’t I just look like easy prey? Would a bear-banger scare her off or piss her off?
She sat there glaring at us, huffing air angrily from her massive, 700 lb, silver-brown frame.
I’m going to die, I thought to myself.
“Okay,” said Shoalts. “We’re just going to move slowly down the trail. Don’t run, no sudden movements, let’s go.”
That was good enough for me. We backed slowly down the trail, and to our relief she turned and took her cubs the other way.
Later, by the fire, I had to ask.
“How many times have you been charged by a bear?”
For me, Charged by a Grizzly is a story I’ll tell for the rest of my life. For Shoalts, it was just another Saturday in the woods.
“That’s the second time I’ve been charged,” Shoalts told me. “And I’ve had some other close encounters, including an aggressive black bear who didn’t budge at my bear banger, and a polar bear that growled at me as I passed uncomfortably close to him in a canoe.”
Again, his tone of voice didn’t really align with the subject matter. And that’s probably another thing that separates the hobbyists from the pros. For me, Charged by a Grizzly is a story I’ll tell for the rest of my life. For Shoalts, it was just another Saturday in the woods.
Epic wilderness adventures are a dime a dozen when you seek them out the way Shoalts does. Last year, he took me to Labrador on my first expedition. We were researching the legendary Traverspine Gorilla, a seven-foot-tall bipedal creature covered in hair that terrorized a small settlement in the early 1900s. Most people read about something like that and think, “that’s weird,” and then go about their day. Shoalts reads that story and thinks, “I’m going to scour archives across the country, read everything ever written about this creature, then drive 36 hours to find the old settlement before setting off into one of the least inhabited parts of Canada to figure out what was going on there.”
And he did it. Using a few clues scattered throughout some primary texts, we tracked down the old settlement. Then we went deep into the creepiest woods you can imagine, where just 100 years earlier—the 1920s—several eyewitnesses claimed to have seen a monster. We canoed up a river after the locals told us it would be impossible. We were devoured by blackflies that left every inch of exposed skin bloody and swollen (before tents and bug spray, this occasionally drove men to suicide). I’m a semi-professional athlete, and it was one of the most physically and mentally grueling things I’ve ever done.
At one point, we set out to climb a distant mountain. The brush was so thick we had to fight for literally every step. After 150 meters, I thought Adam would surely see it was impossible and turn around. He didn’t. When we made camp that night, exhausted, dehydrated and bleeding, having travelled something like just five kilometers in the entire day, I told Adam what I’d been thinking when we began.
“Yeah, people often think stuff like this is impossible,” he explained. “They said it when I was canoeing up the Coppermine River on my solo trip across the arctic. Couldn’t be done. Too difficult. But the simple truth is, if you keep putting one foot in front of the other, you’ll eventually get where you’re going. There were days on the Coppermine where it took me 13 hours to travel one kilometre. It was hard. It was exhausting. But I kept going, and I eventually got through it.”
That attitude is part of what makes Adam so successful. He pushes limits others aren’t willing to push, he goes places others aren’t willing to go, he faces dangers others aren’t willing to face. And as a result, he’s seen things no one else has seen, and done things that no one else has done.
It’s easy to curl up with one of Shoalts’ books and feel envious of his lifestyle. And he’ll be the first one to tell you how great his job is. But take it from someone who’s seen him in action. The wildlife, the scenery, the adventures— they don’t come easy. You’re away from your family for weeks and months at a time. You get wet. You get cold. You get hungry. And sometimes you get charged by a bear. ◆
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