I’d seen the bear scat earlier. A pile of half-digested berries in an untidy heap in the middle of the road. I saw lots of things on the roads during my early morning bike rides. Although I preferred seeing live things like the white-tailed deer or an elusive fox, I usually had to settle for a flattened snake or twisted dragonflies.
A real bear, though, I’d never seen during my morning rides, but bear scat was a pretty common sight. Only out on the Bay would I see them; on the islands, swimming across a channel or lolloping up the granite rock to disappear into the pine forest. Mostly brown bears, but they’re shy and only appear near civilisation when the wild berries shrivel up during a drought.
I’d taken a job up here in the North when the ice went out and the tourists came in. They fish in the spring, then holiday in cottages in the summer, arriving with jetskis and sailboats and all manner of equipment. In the fall they hunt. I’d been working construction mainly, hearing the kids screaming as they were pulled behind a boat on an inflatable tube while I hammered in the shingles on a roof.
Sometimes the local government hired me to go around checking the channel markers and buoys, to make sure they hadn’t shifted after a storm. That was the best, out in a boat on the water, on my own, watching the eagles circle and hearing the loons call. My sister calls me a loser when she can’t get hold of me for weeks but I think she understands my need for space now. Plus, I don’t do well with city people. They ask too many questions, I feel as though I can’t breathe.
I bought a road bike after high school with money saved from my first real job and would spend hours stripping it down and cleaning it. I love the precision of the gears, the balance of the ride.
My bike hummed beneath me now, I was warmed up. The pre-dawn start had been chilly as September usually is but the sun was out now and the breeze was light through the trees along the road. A few of them were turning the golden yellows and rich reds of the fall but most of them were pine, ever green through the coming winter months.
I hadn’t seen a car yet today, which wasn’t unusual. Most of the summer folk had left a week or so ago. It was also Sunday and I’d noticed that the bars in the nearby town had been pretty raucous last night when I’d driven through from dropping my sister at the bus station. Wasn’t really my scene.
In fact, none of that stuff interested me, the sports bar down by the Rotary Club, deer hunting in the fall, hanging around and whistling at the girls by the movie house. So I just stayed my course, did my own thing, and got up early for these long bike rides, looping up and down the little paved roads that led from marina to cottage through First Nation reservations, crossing and recrossing the main highway that cut due north.
Pssssst. Damn! My front tire was flat. I stopped the bike, and silence wrapped itself around me. The steady whirr of the pedals and the wind across my ears was gone, leaving nothing but the sound of crickets in the long dry grass at the side of the road and a whisper from the nearby poplar trees.
I spun off the front wheel, unsnapped my seat bag, and pulled out a new inner tube. Looping it around my neck I used the tire levers to get the tire off the metal rim. There it was, a tiny sliver of metal embedded into the rubber. I carefully removed the shard and flicked it into the ditch. I could patch the tube when I got home but for now I would just switch it out. As I fed the new inner tube back into position and got ready to lever the tire back on I heard a noise that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
I turned slowly and spotted a bear maybe thirty metres away, a yearling, I would think, judging from his size, which meant he may still be living with his mama. With rich dark fur and rounded body he looked pretty healthy. Fortunately, bears have notoriously bad eyesight, and he was busy searching for berries, pushing his nose through the low shrubs growing out of a small rock face, huffling loudly, filling himself in preparation for the long winter’s hibernation. With a wheel in one hand and tire levers clutched in the other, I had to think fast. Running was not an option. Bears can easily outrun a human. And they climb trees, too.
I slid one lever under the rim, and then another farther around, without letting my eyes leave the bear, and slowly slid the tire back onto the rim. Moving slowly, I picked up my bike and put the forks back onto the axle of the wheel. I leaned down to tighten it. Good, except there was no air in the tire. I needed my CO2 cartridge and the attachment in order to fill it. The cartridge clicked as it locked into the inflator and the sound must have carried in the still air as the bear suddenly turned his head towards me. I kept working as fast and calmly as I could; unscrewing the black end of the valve, loosening the locking nut and jamming the mechanism on to inflate the tire. The bear started moving towards me, slowly at first, and then as the CO2 blasted into my tire with what seemed like a shrieking whistle, the bear broke into a lope, running down the middle of the lineless road.
I unclipped the cartridge and took two seconds to tighten the air valve so that it didn’t deflate the moment I climbed on. As the bear approached I threw the old inner tube in his direction hoping that would distract him. It was a good shot, dropping right in front of him, and he stopped. He picked it up and sniffed it. I could have sworn he licked it and then stretched it between his paws like a kid with a bungie cord. But for now I just felt as though my feet were leaden and my hands covered in sticky syrup as I gripped the handlebars and threw a leg over my bike.
I needed to move away slowly yet steadily. I lifted the bike and started to pedal. The bear saw me take off and dropped the tube. He was about as tall as me, although decidedly thicker and heavier. Now that I was mobile I started to think about his mama.
I kept pedaling but my heart rate eased as I moved away from the bear, scanning the sides of the road as I went, wanting to hold back a burst of speed in case mama bear appeared. The yearling dropped onto all fours to run and although I was surprised by how effortlessly he picked up speed. I felt curiosity more than fear, as if we were playing a game.
There! What was that dark shape at the edge of the trees? Only fallen tree roots covered in heavy moss. The bear wasn’t getting any closer, so I started to breathe easier. He would lose interest soon and drop out.
I glanced back at him, still loping behind me and smiled, then laughed out loud. The adrenalin had eased and I felt a shiver of excitement over the close call, the strange encounter.
Suddenly, I became aware of a noise in the distance, a thrumming growing steadily louder which I couldn’t identify. I glanced over my shoulder and could see that the bear had slowed down to an amble. The noise grew into a grey Chrysler Lebaron appearing around the corner, a car from the ‘80s with mismatched paint on the doors and jacked-up back tires. A couple of guys, remnants of last night’s drinking sessions at the bars, were hanging out the back windows, pointing at nothing with beer cans. This was the only drawback of going out really early on a Sunday morning – there were times I’d come across drunken partiers, probably not even able to walk, weaving their cars home, and they’d drive beside me, shouting things like “nice outfit, faggot” or “let your balls breathe!”
So I watched the car warily as it approached and felt a claw of anxiety rake my chest. They must have caught sight of the bear then because one of the guys in the back thumped the car roof, and the driver swerved and stopped halfway into the shrubs on the side of the road just in front of me. I stopped my bike.
“Hot damn, look at that son of a bitch!” all the doors flew open and four guys half tumbled to the ground. The driver stood holding his door with both hands while his legs weaved beneath him in the early morning sunlight. The bear sat in the middle of the road, maybe thirty yards away, picking at something in his fur.
“Hey, man,” a dark haired guy waved a beer can at me, “you okay? That bear chasing you?”
“No, you dickhead – he was chasing the bear. What d’ya think?” and the other guy from the back seat threw his empty can at the dark-haired boy and they both clutched the car, laughing hard.
A crack rang out, and I jumped. The boy from the passenger seat was holding a rifle, taking careful aim using the top of the door. He’d missed.
Bang. Another shot. The bear flinched visibly and got to his feet.
“Hey!” I shouted, getting off my bike. “What the hell are you doing?”
“Man, that bear was attacking you. I’m going to make hamburger out of him,” and the boy finished reloading, took aim and pulled the trigger again. The bear had made it to the side of the road but I could see he had been hit in the shoulder. When the next shot came he let out a bellow and collapsed on the ground.
I dropped my bike and ran towards the bear. The sudden shift in scene was ripping my heart out. I wanted to be playing our game again as we moved along the road together, dancing to the tune of the wild, the wind and the north. A final shot winged past me, and the bear became a pile of sticky fur at the side of the road.
A shout went up from the car and I could hear the engine starting up.
“Man, Jeff, you are good! Jesus! Wait ‘til I tell your old man. That was awesome.”
The shouting washed over me, and I heard the car back up with a squeal and a spin of its tires, and then roared past, just missing both me and my bike.
Their whoops disappeared down the road and the silence closed around me. I crouched next to the crumpled bear, his once-playful heft now still and lifeless. He had fallen on his side, a limb twisted under him, his head heavy on the gravel spat amongst the wildflowers. Sadness and helplessness washed through me as I squatted and laid a hand on his still-warm fur.
A deep-throated growl came from the woods beyond and made me look up. A massive mama bear appeared and came towards me, stopping every few feet to shake her head from side to side and let out a roar, mournful, echoing in the still morning air. She was beautiful, and alive, and angry.
I stood up and watched her approach. She stopped and looked at me, her eyes small and glittering, her ears pulled back. I felt the spirit of her cub rise up between us, and I felt no fear. I stepped back and turned away. Towards my bike and a day with all its beauty stripped away to reveal the bones of death. Time to move on.