In The Momich Lands
Incredible big paw bear shoving the side of our tent, he’s outside in the dark his hairy legs and long brown snout nose investigating what’s in there meat or sweat. Karen’s trembling, hands hugging her legs. She’s beside me in her sleeping bag. The hairy id powerhouse pushes away, then jumps for the bag of food I hung way up over a fir tree branch. We hear the landing thump of bear weight. The food is high enough.
I am irritable moody on this trip so far, angry when it’s quiet, and calm when it’s noisy. The bear pisses me off. It’s trying to steal our almost gone supplies. I tell Karen of my urge to grab the axe and confront the beast.
“You must respect the bear,” she says, in a quavering voice. “Keep the energy peaceful.”
She’s a wiry, arty, pagan elf girl. I’m a skinny, fragile bossy boy. We’re both 19. In this place, far from civilized noise, a spirit’s been rising in silence between us. It started even before we launched the canoe into Adams Lake one week ago. That crashing bear awakened me from sleep, but she already heard it coming. She’s always listening for the future. When I opened my eyes, I could sense those huge brown owl-like orbs behind that night face hollow darkness, staring at me. She knows more than she is telling.
The bear thumps some more, then it’s quiet again, so I unzip the tent, clamber out cursing. I stoke the campfire higher, and sing in a loud voice. Karen remains inside with her sleeping bag up over her head. I hear her praying to the bear god. She believes in all the hoodoo stuff.
The beast does not return. I watch the light rise above the trees, walk around singing lalalalala til the sun rays up over the lake..
We’re right by high water roaring Momich River, where it hurtles into Adams Lake. It’s early May 1974. No cel phones, no texting. No life jackets. Way before they logged the area, it’s all old growth up here. We’re canoeing Adams Lake after a college year. I’ve been calm so long because my world’s been busy and noisy. But now, with Karen, just the two of us padding up the lake for a week, I’m as pissed off as a wet bobcat. It should be a coming together for us, in the wild places of moose and wolf. But it’s a fading away. We’re talking less and less. I’m communicating mostly by noises.
Karen’s hardly eating, though we have little food anyway. She’s a spoon thin dark-haired hatchet cheeked girl at the front of the canoe most days. I steer in the back, giving orders on which side she should paddle. Now at Momich River it’s a three day camp to explore up into the Hum A Milt wilderness.
We met four months ago, in college, bonding on a belief in ghosts and spirits. Karen thought there were ethereal forms embedded and shimmering through the visible world. “These dark shadows influence and control us.” she said. I found this idea inventive and thought provoking. I liked her white teeth and intense dark eyebrows. We talked for hours about the secrets vibrating inside the real. We walked home every afternoon together, along the rushing traffic main street. I felt good possessed by vehicle noise, as we shared with each other our ghostly theories. We mixed nature and romance, burning off energy hiking for hours, often past midnight up the hills round Kelowna. Other people passed through our lives, friends, family, strangers. But with each other, I know we felt a mystic bond. On this trip, just us. I figured we’d be quiet and meditative and adventurous. But she’s been quiet and glum this whole voyage, and I’ve been loud and irritable and pissed off at everything.
Romance is within the curve of any relationship, bringing it to a full circle. Over the time we’ve known each other we’ve touched a few times. She seemed like a sister, or maybe even a brother. It was that kind of love. We’ve gone straight, not sure where it’s leading. Maybe I’m going one way on the line, she’s going another. On this trip, we sleep on opposite sides of the tent.
Now, we’re portaging the canoe up a very old, grass covered logging trail, destination Momich Lake. Karen read the map and said we should turn off a side trail, the lake was in that direction. I overruled. “You’re reading the map wrong.”
A half hour later, we’re with the canoe way up the mountain and the logging trail ends. I put the back end of the boat down, Karen lowers her part.
There’s no sound. Karen stands with fingers together, in a Buddha pose. She stares off into the distance.
I step back from the canoe, start screaming and yelling. It’s my own fault. Should’ve listened to Karen. But I’m mad at her too, because of the frustration, and the quiet around us. All the hidden wildness comes out in the silent forest. Not even a slight breeze. Sweat drops tumble down my back and I reach round to wipe them, still yelling. “Damn, screw it all, I blew it again!”
Karen lowers her arms, shakes her head. “I never thought you were like this.”
Neither did I.
She walks over to the shadow of the big cedar at the end of the road, her back to me.
My yelling reminds me of the roaring Momich River below us. No calm until the lake. And I reach the point where there’s no more voice. I sit down on the canoe with my head in my hands.
My true self is leaking out, I put my hands over my head and mumble “Sorry. I thought that I’d protect you up here, but I took us up the wrong trail.”
Karen shakes her head. She squats, sits cross legged on the ground. She pulls out her tattered notebook and begins to write. With that head shake, I believe that she will never see me in the same way again.
I look up. The colours of the forest don’t seem right. They seemed brighter only a few seconds ago. Throughout this trip, stories disappearing, changes of perception with every paddle stroke up the lake. The sky a sidewalk grey now. Karen looks like an outline bordered by dull green. The firs and pines are tinged with a blackness, like there’s a mold on their needle edges. It’s quiet again, after my yelling, and there’s a dark towering cedar where the road ends. The noise fade has increased my awareness. I perceive the silence, which now is not really silence. I can hear a twig twitching in the branch above me.
I feel something watching. A sense of green eyes. Something that heard my eruption of fury, and became aware. Like it was moving in a different direction, then turned.
“Do you feel something?” I ask Karen.
She shakes her head. “I just feel tired,” she says. “And kinda scared.”
She put out a lot of energy carrying that canoe. It’s heavy fibreglass. Her purple kerchief and a big red plaid jacket make her look bigger than she really is. She has the thinness and bony back of a boy. At night, we lie in separate sleeping bags. I hold back each evening, in silence.
“I think there’s some presence here,” I say. “Observing. And we’re on its territory.”
“There is a spirit of the forest,” Karen starts picking up the canoe paddles. She looks at me. “I feel comforted by it. Sure you’re ok?”
“I think I need more protein,” I tell her. “I might be hallucinating.”
“Maybe you should try to get some sleep,” she says. “I always see you awake at night.”
We don’t talk any more. We pick up the canoe and hike down the steep logging road with the long red boat over our shoulders. The side of the canoe bumps my collarbone. I feel eyes watching us all the way back to the camp site.
The camp’s an ideal one right by the lip of the river mouth, looking out on the vast long mountain lake with sweeps of tree tops down the hills to the water, the nearest cabin a day’s paddle, on the other side. Maybe no one living there this time of year, it’s a summer place.
If there’s something out there, perhaps fire will keep it back. I take the swede saw into the bush behind the tent and start cutting up dead branches.
Karen brings in a load of wood, I watch her. How small and fragile she looks. She’s always so calm. Perhaps she’s more at home here than me. She goes and sits on the river bank, meditating out at the view. She pulls out her notepad and pen, and starts writing again.
“There could be a lot of strange things up here,” I talk from behind her.
“Don’t cut anyone with that saw.” Karen says, without turning around. “You’re being kind of forceful with it.”
I bang the blade side against a tree .
“I can hold the saw however I want,” I say. I shake the blade in the air. “I’m not aggressive. How can you say that?”
Then I feel the eyes again. How far back behind me are they? I stare into the bush, the thick trees, living and dead, randomly appearing further and further back, the new spring green rising from the undergrowth. The farther back I look, the darker it becomes, even though the sun’s come out from the clouds, in the late afternoon. I can turn around and view the wide flat lake, and Karen’s back. The wind has come up and white caps roll towards us all across the bay. It’s like they’re pushing me towards the bush.
I notice Karen’s lifted herself up, she’s standing on the riverbank, contemplating the whitecaps as well.
“What are you doing?” I yell. “We need more wood or else that bear’s going to come back!”
Something behind the forest seems to be making me act this way. The thought of those eyes, boring into my back. Karen puts her hands over her ears. She walks down a path to the river’s edge. She can’t hear me down there with the water roaring.
That night, we eat another can of beans, split equally. Karen eats a lot more than usual. Before, she’d take just a little, then offer me the rest. Now, she consumes her share, though she eats slowly, allowing time to chew and swallow. I watch her pony tail bob from beneath her white kerchief, like a hanging rope on a scalped head.
How much do I really know her? She’s been so quiet and hard to reach, and it’s my fault.
If we could make love, forge a new start in sex, but she says this would ruin our friendship. On this trip especially, she’s hunkered down, and I’ve had to walk off into the trees when I think of curvy river girls. Karen spends more and more time meditating, and writing in her notebook.
As the sun goes down, I build a big fire with a large stump on top to keep burning all night.
Karen stays outside. “It seems like some kind of a cat,” I tell her as we watch the fire just before bed.
“I think it’s comforting to be watched,” she says. “Maybe it’s a good spirit, to make sure we don’t go off track.”
“Do you feel it?” I say, jumping up.
“I think the woods are alive,” she says. “There’s all sorts of spirits in the trees and the rocks.”
“No, no!” I say. “I meant the big cat eyes. Like something between a cat and a human.” I grab my axe. “It doesn’t like us here. We’re on its territory.”
I place mothballs all round the campsite, they’re great bear repellents. Karen doesn’t like the smell, she coughs, but I don’t care. She stands up, steps in to the bush and from the growing darkness announces in a clear voice f “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” She walks stil further in and says “I’m standing in deep shadow and all I feel is peace.”
I dive into the tent and burrow deep in my sleeping bag. Maybe I can escape from those green eyes here.
In the night, the bear comes again. Or maybe it’s a different bear, or something else. This time, it snuffles and pokes around by the food cache. It seems to poke, then stop, then poke again. It’s almost like a human being, how it’s investigating.
Karen breathes in and out across from me. “Just let it be,” she says. “Sometimes it’s best to let the beasts alone.”
“I wish they’d make more noise,” I say. “So I can figure out what they’re doing.”
“You’re the one disturbing them,” she says. “This is their territory, we need to respect that.”
After a few minutes, I stealthily rise from my blankets. The green eyes are on my back, and I want them off. I start singing. I take the axe.
I come out to the smouldering fire and the rich scent of slow burning pine stump. I sing loudly. “La la la la la la.” There’s a shadow behind the fire. A few sparks fly up, and a twirling of blue smoke.
I rush forward yelling, “get the hell out of my space!” and I see a tunnel mouth open where the shadow begins. “Yes,” I think, “The door to the real world, at last.”
I’ve been expecting this for days. Some kind of change. I felt it within myself, with my irritability and temper and bossiness rising from the quiet of the lake, and our paddles swinging up and back, up and back. I felt it from the green eyes appearing after the canoe portage, and the shake of Karen’s head.
I stare at the hole, hypnotized for a moment. At the last minute, I bring myself to yell again. “You can’t hurt me, you bitch!”
I dodge and whirl around the opening. I’m on an edge, looking in. It smells like pine pitch and wood smoke. A shimmering tunnel about three feet in diameter spirals away from the opening, and through the forest. I hear a thundering from within the hole, and fall back to the fire. I see a tiny green eyed thing leaping out, over the flames. It’s a form without shape, and the eyes bend and disappear as It lands on my shoulders and I fall, fighting.
I’m on my back lying on the ground by the blackened fire, smoke still rising from white ash.
It’s light, the sun’s just up and the rays reach my feet. I feel down the front of my bare chest, it’s slimy and I pull my fingers back and there’s red. I gaze down and see two long scratch marks from my throat to my belly button, not deep but stinging now and open with blood seeping through. I turn my head, see the flat lake and out in the distance a moving dot. Looks like someone paddling down the narrows. I watch, then raise up on my elbows. The canoe’s not there.
I rise dizzily to my feet, shout “Karen!” and stagger to the tent, it’s open, my own sleeping bag heaped inside.
I run down to the beach. I know it’s her now, she’s paddling away from me.
“Karen! Karen” I scream. “I didn’t mean it!” I stand and wave my arms. “Karen! I need you!”
Now I feel the eyes again, and they’re coming from inside me this time. I know that running will not help now, or singing, or the axe, if these things would ever help.
Help. I hope that’s what Karen’s canoeing towards. I can’t blame her for leaving. I’ve been very irritable. She’ll bring someone back to pick me up. I know she will. Or else I'll walk out. Yes, I think I can walk out. These are old logging trails, but they must lead somewhere. There’s a map in my pack. But it’s too quiet. I need to hear a chain saw. Even an airplane. Or a chipmunk. Anything to distract, to keep me out of myself. I feel those green eyes now, on either side of my chest, staring out. I’d start singing, but there’s no one to hear.
I turn back to the tent, then pass it and begin moving up the logging road, as a great silence enfolds me.