The Joys of Camping
Last May my husband bought a tent. Soon after, oddly-shaped packages started arriving in the mail: sleeping bags, a kerosene lamp, the parts for a stove. I didn't like the thought they conjured in my mind: Nick was planning to take us camping. I said nothing. Then one evening he came home waving something as though he'd been dealt three aces. What he was actually holding were three tickets to Vancouver, dated the last day of school.
I'd never been camping. Camping scared me. I like animals but not in my bed. It wasn't raccoons or chipmunks that bothered me. I never heard of anyone being eaten by a raccoon. It was bears. After bears came wolves, ticks, snakes... It wasn't just animals, either. There was getting lost, driving off a mountain road... Then there was Miscellaneous - dangers I didn't know of yet but that wouldn't stop them from happening.
I've lived in New York most of my life. I'm pale, aspired in high school and college to be an intellectual and have been called neurotic by people who wanted me to do something I didn't want to do. They understate the case: I'm not neurotic; I'm a coward. I feel the world to be a minefield of hidden dangers waiting to snap up the unsuspecting. Fear, then, is my ally. In fact, I consider fear to be the great underrated emotion. It keeps rabbits away from predators and watchful humans away from dangerous situations like camping.
Thus I get no thrill from a risk conquered. I prefer a risk avoided. I didn't want to go camping. But our son Alex was excited about the trip and I wanted even less for him to go without me.
"Oh, come on," Nick said. "Everybody goes camping. What do you want to do - keep Alex in the hot, filthy city all summer? It's beautiful out there. There are all kinds of animals; nobody ever sees a bear. People go camping for years who want to see bears - the bears run away."
This may have been true but I suspected it was irrelevant. I, too, knew families who loved camping and returned without scars from bear attacks. But I knew Nick wouldn't want to do it the way they did. From the glint in his eye, the way he'd planned the trip for months without mentioning it, calling for catalogues and investing in gear for the serious camper - a device to sanitize mountain water, an assortment of knives each of which I imagined in his hand, stabbing a bear through the heart - I suspected that a tame family outing was not all he had in mind.
At the company Christmas party, a colleague of Nick had described his vacation in Alaska. It was beautiful, he had said.
"Yeah, but I wouldn't do what he did, all that tourist crap, camp sites, all that," Nick had said afterwards. "I'd go where there's nobody, just Nature."
The colleague had told us that it was possible to register with the Rangers and trek deep into the wilds on your own. If you didn't return within three days of the date you'd put down in the Visitors' book, they went looking for you.
"There's rafting, kayaks," Nick went on, dreamily.
Oh, God, I thought, Alex can't even swim.
"Alex could see the animals,... " Nick had a faraway smile as he said this, with a hint of mischief at the corner.
And suppose the animals want a closer relationship than just being seen? I thought.
The more enthusiastic Nick became, the more I balked inside. My study of the obituary pages told me the death rate from accidents goes up during summer vacations: Sailing accidents, climbing accidents... When people go to unfamiliar places and act as carefree as when they're home, dire things, it seemed to me, happened. But I didn't say anything; I knew that an argument would only tighten Nick's position.
For a month after that, Nick had talked of Alaska. He brought home Jack London stories for Alex who was then eight. I hoped something would turn up to distract him from his new project. Nick doesn't take life lightly. He works hard and he wants the other parts of his life to make his work worthwhile. He wants to have something to show for his time on earth: to see, do, all he can of what the world has to offer. To this end, he boldly goes where few men have gone before, voluntarily, anyway: He volunteered for the Air Force during the Vietnam War.
It was the highlight of his life. He was shot; he shot others. He earned medals which we find at the back of the closet whenever we move and which he gazes at lovingly before closing them again in their black cases. For years, whenever we made a new acquaintance, Nick found a way to mention his flying days in the First Division in Vietnam.
Every so often, now, he exercises those death-defying muscles, driving at thirty miles over the speed limit, or dashing across Fifty-Seventh street in the middle of the block in the middle of the day. At these times, I don't like myself or Alex to be with him.
Nothing did turn up to distract Nick from his latest obsession, his newest raison d'etre. Not even money; he had frequent flier miles: We were going to Alaska.
I threw a fit. I'd given in on where we lived, how our apartment was decorated, what we did on weekends, what we watched on T.V. With Alaska, I cashed in my chips. I sobbed.
"All right," Nick said. "I'll find something more family oriented; a little closer to home, maybe Vancouver, O.K?"
I nodded. The "closer to home" line was a joke - it isn't direct flights that save you from bears - but "family-oriented" meant he would consider staying at a campsite. How could I complain now?
For a month, nothing more was said. Nick flew to Tokyo on a trip that was too speculative to be considered business and I wondered if he'd used his frequent flier miles for it which would turn the camping-out-West idea back into a dream.
Then May arrived and with it, the unfamiliar, bulky packages and the tickets.
I decided to learn about camping. Not to get into the spirit of the thing but in the belief that this was the only way we would survive. Nick brought home two books to see what there was to do in the Vancouver area. I went straight to the index and looked up "Bears."
The books advised as follows:
If you meet a black bear walk backwards, waving your arms to show him you're not a deer. Speak in low tones. If he "displays signs of aggression" you should "look big" but not look him in the eye. Hit him on the snout with a long stick. If you meet a grizzly do the opposite: Play dead and cover your neck with your hands.
I interpreted this last instruction to mean that grizzlies were more aggressive than black bears and would probably attack; so protect your spine and hope you get off without paralysis.
The crucial question, it seemed at this point, was how to tell a black bear from a grizzly. Black bears are not always black. They can be brown or blond. I called the Rangers' station in Vancouver.
Black bears' snouts are shorter than grizzlies', the ranger said. Black bears do not have the skulking gait of grizzlies that comes from the protruding bone in the grizzlies' necks.
This was useful information if the bear was on all fours when you met him and didn't have his back to you. And that's assuming I could tell a long snout from a short one.
I asked the ranger how to keep bears away, especially while you're asleep.
"Keep a campfire going."
"How do you do that?"
But he wouldn't tell me. He had his own agenda of fears and forest fires ranked high on it. Forest fires popped onto my mental list.
"Nine times out of ten," the ranger assured me as he signed off, "they're more afraid of you than you are of them."
Perhaps as a concession to me, Nick also bought a book called First Aid in the Wilderness. There were headings for Frostbite, Rabies and Giardiasis, a word that had only recently entered my vocabulary but was becoming uncomfortably familiar. I learned to be suspicious of sparkling streams. Giving form to my fear of Miscellaneous, there were also references to mountain lions and coyotes. In a final flourish of realizing the reader's worst nightmare, the authors provided instructions on how to amputate your own leg. They sounded casual about it as though, if you were reading the section with more than passing interest, the leg was probably frozen so you didn't have to worry about the absence of anaesthesia.
All the books said that if you saw "traces of bear," - a clawed tree or bear skat, for instance - you should leave the area.
The last day of school arrived, a Friday; we flew to Vancouver. We had been to the city before and I hadn't been impressed. But now as we rented a car and left Vancouver for the wilderness I looked back with longing. Its provincial sterility receded like a loved one I'd never see again.
For the next few days I was unusually indulgent of whims. If the others wanted to make a sidetrip - to any museum however dusty, any go-cart park however rusty, - I said, "Ooh yeah! Maybe they have a steam engine!" and, "Anyone want to race?" Alex couldn't believe I let him play all the arcades he wanted. But each night that Nick got tired of driving and swung into the parking lot of a motel was one less night outdoors. Eventually, however, we were in the mountains.
Along the way to the campsite Nick had circled on the map as our destination, we stopped at restaurants and gas stations. At each, I debriefed people about bears. How many were there? Where? What time of day?
Some people mistook my avidity for a desire to see a bear. For I was like Captain Ahab in pursuit of a different animal. When I told them No, just the opposite, they said, "Don't worry. Nine times out of ten they're more afraid of you than you are of them." This implied that the frightened bear would behave as a frightened human being might and run away. But what I knew about animals said that that was not how they behaved when frightened.
Everyone had a bear story. One couple had stopped to help a baby bear that had been hit by a car. They were attacked by the mother. A ranger had seen two tourists who had covered their child's face with honey to attract a bear for pictures. They were at too low an altitude for bears; the experiment failed. (This ranger also said he'd known tourists to pick up a handful of snow with the idea of taking it home as a souvenir.) The cook in one of the restaurants we ate in had been attacked when he walked home in his cooking clothes.
And everyone had advice:
Throw something to distract the bear. Don't throw anything; you might annoy it. Climb a tree. Don't climb a tree; bears can climb trees. A waiter told us of his uncle who had climbed a tree, pursued by a bear. The bear climbed after him. The man leapt to the branch of a neighboring tree. The bear, seeing that he would break the branch if he followed the man, climbed down the first tree and up the second. The man leapt back to the first tree. Man and bear went back and forth until the man's brother showed up and shot the bear. The tree-climbing advice became academic since in the two weeks we were in Canada, I didn't see a tree I could climb. They were all flagpoles without branches for twenty feet. And the branches they did have were the frail ones of Christmas trees.
Wear bear bells. Bear bells are too gentle; carry a radio. Whistle. Don't whistle; you'll sound like a marmot, which bears hunt. Shout. Don't shout; you'll sound angry. Don't wear perfume. Don't wear fruity perfume. (Nobody explained what that was). Don't carry fruit or use perfumed soap; Don't use lip balm. Don't carry meat, salmon or tuna fish sandwiches. Don't get your period. Walk downwind so the bears can smell you and you don't surprise them. Walk upwind so the bears can't smell you.
"How do you know which way the wind is blowing?" I asked a ranger who was of the upwind persuasion.
"Look at the trees."
"They don't move."
"Generally the wind goes with the sun; up the mountain as the sun rises; down as it sets."
This was more useful but it, too, was academic since if you were downwind as you started your walk, you'd be upwind coming back.
Don't have a dog. Cook fifty yards from your camp and change your clothes before you go to bed.
One thing people did agree on was bear spray, a mace-like substance, so we shopped for some.
I'd never been in an outdoorsman's store. It was another reprieve from camping and I savored it. For fishermen there was leech yarn and shiny thread with tell-it-like-it-is names like Worm Green and Cow Dung Olive. There was also Bucktail from Umpqua Feather Merchants and a book called The Art of Tying the Nymph. We bought two cans of bear spray and a bear bell each to wear around our necks like lepers and warn the bears away.
Outside, two women were talking as they headed for their car:
"Grandpa died. Then Grandma died. She wanted to be cremated. Afterwards they found Grandpa in the trunk of the car. She didn't want to go anywhere without him, I guess. Five or six years later. He'd been there the whole time."
I could almost get into this camping business if it weren't for the shadow of death hanging over us.
"Anybody hungry?" Nick said when we'd gotten back into the car and were on our way again. "There should be someplace soon we can stop and cook some lunch."
"All right," I said, "but you have to change your clothes before we go to bed, then."
"The bears can smell what you've been cooking."
"Aw, come on, where'd you pick that one up?"
"You want me to find it in the book?"
Ahead rose a sign for a Great Western. By way of answer, Nick swerved onto its driveway.
A busload of Japanese tourists had just arrived and, on their way to the restaurant, stopped to watch something in the grass. Alex ran ahead to see what was going on.
A tribe of ground squirrels were diving over each other into an underground highway of tunnels. More and more squirrels appeared, like hidden pictures in a drawing for children. Alex was mesmerized.
Inside the restaurant, I read the menu as he looked out the window.
"Twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five, ..." he chanted.
"What are you counting?" I asked, charmed at his fascination. "Ground squirrels?"
"No," he said. "Japanese tourists."
After the meal, Alex wiped his hands on his pants.
"What - !" I cried. "Don't wipe your hands on your pants!"
He looked at me in alarm. I usually don't make a fuss about messiness.
"You have to change those before you sleep outdoors."
"O.K., Mamma," he quavered, more scared of me than of the creature that caused my alarm.
Walking back to the car, I lingered over the ground squirrels, exclaiming, "Ooh, look at that one! Isn't this great?" With what now seems like touching optimism, I hoped to distract the others and put off our encounter with larger game. But Nick was not to be sidetracked.
"Come on," he said, without breaking stride towards the parking lot whose inviting, manmade concrete I wanted to chain myself and Alex to.
We drove another three hours, or rather, Nick drove. A corollary of my born-and-bred New Yorkerhood is that I can't drive. I sometimes feel guilty about this on vacations. But not now, with Nick leading us up the mountain of Death. I stared out the window thinking Canada really did look like the pictures in National Geographic, vastly green and boring; and wondering if we might reach a campsite too late to pitch our tent which would give us another night at a motel.
Shortly before dusk we arrived at the site Nick had been heading for.
The camp was Edenesque. As Nick got the tent out of the car I looked around. I was determined not to pitch in and make it easy for Nick to put our lives at risk.
Stellar jays hopped on the lowest branch of the pine under which we would sleep. A chipmunk stared then darted into a hole. A long-eared rabbit crossed from stage left. A scene out of Disney. I could almost hear the Pastorale Symphony rising like the smell of pine. In the middle of the campsite was a tall tree stump that looked like a hooded St. Francis preaching to the surrounding fauna. The beauty of the place startled me out of my fear and made me think nothing bad could happen here. That night, on one of our newly acquired inflatable mattresses I had the sense of surrendering myself to Fate and outer space. I slept well.
Monday afternoon, wearing our bear bells and carrying bear spray, we drove to a nearby trail for a hike. Every ten feet I shouted in bold but cheerful tones a paraphrase of the Act Up chant: "We're here; we're not deer. Get used to it."
There was no wild life in the woods that we could see. Not a squirrel. Not even a pigeon. Then, as we rounded the path back to the road I saw bear skat.
"Let's hurry up," I pleaded, remembering the advice of the guide books. Since we were heading out anyway, no one complained.
On the way back to camp, we were stopped by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. They were mounted in a white police car.
"What's that?" asked the officer, pointing at the bear spray Nick had next to him on the front seat. "Give it to me nice and slow."
Nick did as he was told. He's been stopped for speeding in thirty-six states and knows how to treat cops.
Weighing the can the cop said, "Do you know what this is? This is a concealed weapon. What are you doing with this?"
"We're camping," I said, eager to oblige him. "It's to use if a bear comes. You'll give it back to us, won't you?"
"Why, ma'am? Ninety-nine times out of a hundred they're more afraid of you than you are of them."
He was the sixth person to tell me that but none of them knew how afraid I was. And anyway, fear or no fear, the bear was stronger than I was. I refrained from pointing this out to the cop.
"Do you have any other weapons in the car?"
Nick shook his head. I thought of the knives, the hatchet and the other can of bear spray.
"Any other bear spray?"
"Yes, I have some bear spray," I offered.
"Where is it?"
"In here." I patted my pocket.
"Could you give me that please?"
I, too, am interested in staying on the right side of the police. With an impulsive flourish as of generosity, I handed over our sole immediate defense against bear attack.
The cop read the label, lectured us some more, wrote out a ticket and returned the small can of bear spray though not the big one.
It was dusk. There was no place within a hundred miles where we could replace the bear spray.
Tuesday: another drive; another hike, this time to Bear Creek.
As it turned out, this was no whimsical name. Immediately, we encountered bear skat.
"Let's go," I pleaded again.
Not only do the guide books advise you to leave the area when you encounter bear skat. (Ah! But in which direction should you go?) They also tell you to avoid running water where you cannot easily hear bears approaching.
"Just give it another five minutes," said Nick.
Thirty feet away was another lot of bear skat. And another and another. Either a bear lived nearby or four bears were traveling together in the vicinity and had made this a pit stop. I didn't know which scenario to prefer. Later, recollecting in the relative tranquillity of the car, I realized it was probably a mother and cubs, the most dangerous configuration of all.
As we drove back to camp, Nick planned the afternoon's hike. That done, he asked where I wanted to go for lunch. This sounded to me like setting the date of our execution and asking what I'd like for my last meal.
"It doesn't matter," I said.
The afternoon brought reprieve. The car putt-putted and we had to drive to town to get it fixed.
During the night I was haunted by the question that overcomes timid campers in the woods: To pee or not to pee. I decided not.
While in town, Nick had scheduled us to go riding the next morning. The ranch was an hour away so the next morning we woke up at six. The rest of the camp was still asleep.
I was brushing my hair when Alex said, "I'm going to the bathroom."
I'm overprotective, I thought, but what the hell? I'll go with him.
In the foliage a black shape stumbled around.
Not only was I a New Yorker, I was also in a state of some denial. "It's a homeless person," I decided, "rummaging for cans."
The shape stood up.
The postcard I wrote later that day to my mother read:
Alex and I were on our way to the bathroom this morning when what did we see twenty feet away but a BIG BEAR.
He was over six feet as he leaned with both paws against the trunk of the tree. In his ear was a red tag. He looked at me with curiosity like someone at a party who's open to conversation.
"Mommy," I whimpered. As somebody remarked later, it showed where my faith lay.
For reasons I have turned over in my head ever since, I decided the best place to be was in the bathroom with a solid door between us and the bear. To get there, however, we had to pass him. Alex was ahead of me and oblivious to the creature he was about to walk by. Did he think the bear was supposed to be there? I didn't want to call out to him.
What I did next is a road map of what you're not supposed to do. I grabbed Alex's hand and ran past the bear to the men's room which lay straight ahead, closer than the ladies'. When we were at the door I remembered the advice I'd collected. I turned around, waving my arms and pleaded, "We're humans." The bear looked at me with the uncomprehending yellow eyes of a drunk. There was no getting through to him. Dumb animal. We ran inside and I cranked open the window.
"Get the bear spray," I shouted to Nick, waking the rest of the camp. The sounds of a tin orchestra started up as people banged pots and pans to scare the bear away. If he was more afraid of us than we were of him he was putting on a good show of nonchalance. He sniffed a tent in which a half-naked couple with a French accent clutched each other. In the car later, Nick described apologizing to the couple for sneaking up to their tent with the bear spray. "Ees all right," they said. "Please do not go."
Nick didn't get the chance to use the bear spray. A lanky, stooped man who looked like a woodsman in a fairty-tale fired a blank shot. The bear took the hint and ambled off.
"He probably came during the night and fell asleep there," said the ranger when we reported the incident at breakfast. "They're nocturnal animals." I was glad I'd decided against going to the bathroom during the night. "Was it a black bear?"
"Huh! You're lucky. They're usually more aggressive."
Another piece of information I'm glad I didn't have at the time.
"You say he had a red tag?"
"Yeah; they do that when the bear's causing problems. It's like when you're a kid in school, you get a bad mark; the next time, you get detention? If a bear's acting like that, we gotto shoot him. Well, thanks for stopping in. We'll send somebody after him."
I got no satisfaction from this. My quarrel with bears was nothing personal.
Over breakfast, Nick studied the map, turning every so often to his sidekick, the guidebook.
"We're not too far from the coast. What do you say we pack up, then after riding, go down, maybe see some whales."
"What do you say?" was a figure of speech. Except in matters that are trivial to Nick, it doesn't matter what I say. We both understand that because he pays the bills, he is entitled to get his way. Where we deviate is at those times when I consider his way dangerous.
But that was not the case now. At the word "coast," my heart leaped. Bears live at high altitudes. Heading for sea level, I believed we would leave the bears behind us, forever. I realized, now, that in spite of the line Nick had taken back in New York, "There are all kinds of animals out there; nobody ever sees a bear; people go camping for years who want to see bears - the bears run away," the rabbits and the ground squirrels had been, for him, child's play. Seeing a bear had been Nick's purpose in the trip itself as well as in all the hikes. It was Nick who was Captain Ahab. Now that we had seen our bear, he wanted to move on. I would not stand in his way.
But in every sense of the expression, we weren't out of the woods yet. First, there was the morning's agenda.
Nick had described it as a ride "up the mountain." It offered spectacular views.
Spectacular views? All the ones we'd seen so far involved standing at the edge of a cliff. But I was willing to Be Open-Minded, Go See, Find Out What was Involved.
We arrived at the ranch, Beaver Hill, at nine. Two brothers in their early twenties, Dell and Clay, saddled the horses for us and the other city slickers going on the trail.
"What's the trail like?" I asked the older brother, Clay, who was going to lead the ride.
"We go up the mountain, come back, take about three hours."
"Is there anything on it that might be dangerous for a nine year old?"
"How wide is the mountain path?"
"What do you mean?"
"Five feet? Ten?"
"What about if the horse slips?"
"Horses don't slip." He smiled at the preposterous thought and we mounted the horses.
"Don't worry," said the ranchhand who was weather-beaten, smoking and had what doctors call a productive cough. "These horses won't do nothin' wrong."
Clay's horse reared.
"The only problem is that one," the ranchhand amended, cocking his head towards Clay's horse, "but Clay'll take care of him."
Clay's horse backed towards mine. Then, as though the first move had been in preparation of a sling-shot effect, he shot across the meadow.
"Whoa!" shouted Clay, kicking the horse. The horse ignored him. Clay slapped and yanked the rein. The horse settled down to a trot, muttering. But now my horse darted across the field after Clay's. I flopped in the saddle like a doll and pulled the reins. The horse tossed his head but returned to the group. I took the incident as an omen and was grateful it had come in time for me to change our plans. I no longer trusted these people.
"Ready?" said Clay.
"No, I think the boy and I will take a separate trail," I said.
This time nobody protested. Alex and I dismounted and watched the caravan sidle off through the trees without us.
After Dell finished breakfast and gave a good-bye kiss to a high school girl I had taken to be his sister, Alex and I followed him to the stable to find suitable horses for our own private tour of the forest. No mountains. The ranchhand gave us each a retired nag and Dell's horse was without eccentricity.
The forest was dappled with green leaves and patches of light thrown onto white birch trunks. A mother and baby grouse fluttered up, startled at our approach. Alex's horse had an eating disorder and stopped every few feet to munch. As her head was buried in her fourth bush, Alex whispered, "Look!"
Before us stood a deer, watching us like a curious child unused to strangers. We looked back. Apparently, looking deer in the eye does not carry the same threat as looking bear in the eye. The deer did not come any closer; they never do. I sympathized with the attitude. Having satisfied her curiosity, the deer turned and trotted off into the thicket, her tail up.
"She mooned us," Alex said, delighted. I was delighted, too, with Alex' image.
Although Dell was in front of me, I found the silence of our ride awkward and tried to engage him in conversation.
"Does your family own this part of the woods?"
"Do you ever get bored being here year round?"
He lived up to the laconic image of cowboys.
"Do you see lots of bear around here?"
"Nope. One came 'round ' few weeks ago. Haven't seen any since then."
I told him our bear story. He was unimpressed. I remembered the girl he had kissed good-bye and figuring he was still with her in spirit, gave up on conversation.
We got back to the ranch at twelve, a little before Nick and his company.
"You would have killed them," Nick reported in glee as he dismounted and brushed himself off. "The path up the mountain was about three feet wide and it was fifteen hundred feet down."
His description gave me grim relief: Relief Alex and I hadn't gone; grimness at the narrowness of our escape. What if my horse had shied as we were half way to the mountain? Would Alex and I have gone on or waited alone in the woods til the others came back?
We had lunch and got back in the car where, as we wound down the mountain, my tension unwound too, allowing me tentative happiness. The thought of returning from the nebulous mountains - the part of the vacation I'd most dreaded - to sea level was reassuring, like disembarking from a plane.
"Lightning doesn't strike twice," I thought with that misunderstanding of probability with which the unconscious comforts itself. "We can't have another close encounter.... can we?"
I wanted to hold onto my bear adventure. But each time I tried to reconstruct it I found it had receded further. The image that remained was of a massive black shape in the foliage. As bears go, he couldn't have been more amiable. But that same friendly curiosity that kept him from attacking when I did everything wrong was what brought him to the camp in the first place.
Through the window I watched the clouds move evenly in fixed relation to each other as though on a glass plane. One cloud, meeting a mountain, got stuck and was left behind.
In a valley half way down the mountain Nick spotted a home-made airport. Two-seaters and airplanes that looked as though they'd been made of balsa wood glued together sat in the grass like large hornets. A sign advertised "Soaring."
Nick got the Vietnam gleam in his eye. I steeled myself for a confrontation.
He swung the car onto the driveway, got out and conferred with a man in the hangar who apparently ran the place. Coming back, he leaned in the driver's window:
"They only have one rate - Seventy-five dollars for all three of us."
"You can go."
"It's the same if we all go."
"Uh - uh."
"Just me and Alex?"
"Uh - uh."
"It only takes half an hour."
Time was not the issue. As far as I was concerned, we had all too much time on this vacation. Height was the issue.
"You can go."
Nick returned to the man and took out his wallet, beckoning to me to get out of the car.
"' Be back in half an hour," he said, going off with the man, talking of his time in Vietnam.
Sitting at a picnic table to wait, Alex and I watched Nick get into the plane which headed for the mountains and disappeared. Alex grabbed my hand; not in fear; it was the linked-finger grasp that signalled he wanted to thumb-wrestle.
It was cold. What is it about airports that make them so windy - the wide open space? I mused, as Alex lifted his elbow off the table, thus winning eleven of our first thirteen games. Echoes of bygone flights?
A plane landed and the pilot emerged, passing our table on his way to the office. Nodding towards his plane I asked, "What does this do to your life insurance premiums?"
"Who cares?" he said as he swaggered off.
More thumb-wrestling. The pilot came out of the office, returning to our table.
"It's really very safe," he confided. "It's just when you get into winds you can get into trouble."
"Is this windy?" I asked. It was, to me.
"Not here. But up in the mountains, the winds are three times what they are here. Then it gets like water rushing over rocks. It forms eddies."
Ten minutes later Nick's plane arrived and Nick got out, feverish with excitement.
"You should have come," he gushed. "It was beautiful. There's no engine, it's completely quiet."
I've heard quiet, I thought.
"You've got to live."
"Yes, that is what I would like to do."
That night we had dinner in a pizza parlor. The woman taking our order had a wide, tan face and black hair: I thought, "A Native Canadian!" and looked around with new curiosity at the other workers. They seemed Native, too. While we ate, groups of teenagers, families and a man who looked homeless came in: All Native. We were in a Native Canadian neighborhood or town.
If countrysides could be described as prosperous, Canada's would be. The Native Canadians seemed jarringly, incongruously poor. How was that possible here?
We had seen no minorities since leaving New York, not among the Canadians nor even among the tourists. Did Canada discourage them? It seemed that the Native Canadians had taken on the role of local minority, as though somebody's got to do it.
I scanned the notice board: There was the business card of a Dr. Freesailing, Dentist, and a bulletin that read:
Nuu Chah Nulth Tribal Council. Ohiaht, Hesquiat, Toquaht. The Miss Nuu-Chah-Nulth Princess Pageant.
Look forward to letting Toastmaster build your self-confidence.
May be required: Attend Fall Fair Treaty Negotiations Meetings. First Nation Festival.
The notice was signed by April Titian and Kleco-Kleco.
The names enchanted me. I imagined the scenes they stood for - the First Nation Festival, with dancing and a peace pipe (What was in those peace pipes, anyway?); the Miss Nuu-Chah-Nulth Princess Pageant (Did they wear bathing suits?)
Completing my temporary happiness, we slept indoors, in beds at the Fairfield Inn.
The next morning, we went downstairs for breakfast. The general store-cum-diner where we had checked in the night before and stocked up on oatmeal cookies - a compromise between a healthy snack and something Alex was willing to eat - bristled now with the hiss of salmon cakes and eggs. We ordered pancakes for Nick and Alex and a muffin for me.
"Where ' you from?" asked our teenage waiter when he brought the pancakes.
"Really? What part?"
"Is it like the movies?"
What did he mean? A Tree Grows in Brooklyn? Spike Lee?
"What do you mean?"
"You know, like... Well, it's sort of scummy, isn't it?" he said with a gush of chutzpah to overcome his embarrassment. "Wow. I never thought I'd meet anyone from Brooklyn. Did you ever go to Lower Manhattan and see the David Letterman show on the Sony screen?"
It took me a moment to figure out he probably meant Times Square.
"Do you know who David Letterman is?"
I debated telling him I knew two people who worked on Letterman and decided that although it might make his day, it was cheap.
"Is Canada what you expected? Everyone thinks it's really cold. It's not. It's just that American weather is Fahrenheit and Canadian is Celsius."
While Alex and I ate, Nick went outside. My antennae shot up: What's he arranging now?
On the counter stood a rack of leaflets detailing the activities available in the area. Ever on the lookout for danger, my eye stopped at a picture of people in red suits standing like a row of shiny rubber devils on board a small motorboat, their hair blown back. I picked up the leaflet: Whale-watching. Alex and I weren't going whale-watching in a boat like that. The red rubber suits were probably in case the whale-watcher fell over the low railing into the sea. Or maybe a whale could overturn the boat. We were still a long way from home; still in Nature country whose ways we didn't understand.
Alex and I thumb-wrestled, sixty-three to four. Nick returned.
"Come on," he said. "We're going whale-watching in one of the big boats. It leaves in ten minutes. Get in the car."
That wasn't bad. The big boats were stalwart; a whale couldn't overturn them.
The trip was triumphant: The boat got within fifty feet of a family of whales, in violation of Canadian law but thrilling the tourists and gratifying the captain. I crouched on deck, choosing cold over the nausea that ballooned in me when I went in the cabin.
"Where ' you from?" said the captain.
"What's your name?"
My answer was overtaken by a retch.
"So, Brooklyn," the captain said to me, kindly, when we had docked, "I hope it was worth it."
"Oh yes," I answered with the fervor of gratitude to be back on stationary land.
Next on our agenda that Nick had worked out was a fishing expedition. We would find someone with a motor-boat to take us out to catch salmon or whatever the local waters offered.
"Just make sure they have a life-vest that's Alex' size," I said.
While Nick arranged for a boat I went into the fishing shop next door. Time was short so I got to the point.
"Have there ever been cases of a whale overturning a boat?"
"No, they're very gentle," assured the man behind the counter. "One motorboat even cut a whale but it didn't come after the boat. Really, they're more afraid of you than you are of them."
I knew whales were gentle, (except transients who eat sea-lions and other mammals and who, presumably, wouldn't turn up their noses at a human.) But I also knew, from a cocktail party at the Vancouver Aquarium on our previous trip that with the gentlest of intentions, a whale might bounce a human on the ocean floor in play. Still, so far, according to my research, whales didn't overturn boats.
"Are there sharks?"
The man shrugged.
"Haven't heard of any."
This wasn't reassuring. I stood there like Mike Wallace, waiting for my silence to elicit an admission. A customer with a German accent obliged what seemed to be my urgent need for sharks.
"There are basking sharks," he offered uncertainly, as though they might not count. The name conjured up sharks that lay around sunbathing instead of hunting. But in my mind, there was already a check next to "sharks." Alex would not run his hands through our wake.
Nick came in, breathless, as he often is on vacations. It's hard to accomplish everything on his mental list of things to do which is everything that the area has to offer.
"O.K., it's all set; we're going fishing. I got us a fourteen-foot motor boat and it has a small vest for Alex."
As we boarded the boat, its owner rummaged in the cupboard.
"Everybody's here," Nick said to his large behind.
The fisherman emerged, pulling out a battered life vest. His face was grizzled with grey. I noted also, with sagging optimism, that he had the girth of Santa Claus. His stomach swelled above his belt like the sun at about 6:45 A.M., rising above the horizon.
"Haven't used this, five, six years," he said, dusting the vest off off and handing it to Alex. It was indeed Small but for a small adult. I put it on Alex anyway.
"Bill," said the fisherman, nodding to me.
I introduced myself.
"Sit over there." He indicated the back of the boat. "Later you can help me drive," he added to Alex.
"Are you certified in life-saving?" I asked, as casually as possible.
"Are you certified in life-saving?"
He laughed and pulled the cord, revving up the motor.
"I am," said Nick. I leaned back with a sigh as we vroomed out to sea.
Crystal spray flew up as the boat shattered the water. Alex leaned over the rail, feeling the wind. I held him around the waist.
"This' the tough part," Bill said. "Boats get in accidents here; ' lotta rocks."
"Don't tell her that," Nick said with a between-us-guys chuckle.
"Mostly bad days, though, not like today."
Once we got past this Scylla and Charybdis the shore line disappeared.
"This should be all right," Bill said, stopping the motor.
He prepared a line for Alex, teaching him and Nick how to do it themselves. I didn't pay attention. My eyes stayed fixed on Alex who leaned over the rail to throw the line further.
The boat rose slightly.
"What's that?" I asked.
"A whale; swimming under us."
"A whale?!" Alex cried, thrilled, and bent down over the rail to see it but the whale was gone. "Mamma, there's a whale under us!"
"Yes, darling, I know."
"Daddy, a whale swam under us!"
"I know!" Nick returned, delighted as Alex.
"Have you ever heard of a whale overturning a boat?" I asked Bill, casual as ever.
"One time; that's all. Nine times out of ten, they're more afraid of you than you are of them."
"Yeah, that's what I heard about bears, too. Only we saw a bear and he wasn't afraid of anything. We couldn't get rid of him."
"Must 've been a campsite bear. They're not scared of people 'cause the tourists feed 'em." Ah. Why hadn't anyone mentioned "campsite bears" before?
"I got one!" Alex cried. Bill dropped his line and came over.
"Pull up like I showed you. That's it! Keep turning... You got it! Wow, nice one. 'T's a salmon."
The fish flopped on the floor and flapped around pathetically, staring. Bill hit it on the head with a hammer. He looked like Hemingway gone to blubber. But any fisherman with grey gristle looks like Hemingway to me.
He put the fish on a scale I hadn't noticed before.
"Six pounds, two ounces."
"I think I got one," Nick said.
Another successful day. Nick and Alex caught a salmon each and after I gave Alex my turn with the fishing rod, he caught an eight pound cod.
Back on shore we drove to the beach, found a picnic area and cooked the day's catch. It remains the only time in Alex' life that he has voluntarily eaten fish.
Cleaning up the table, I took our garbage to one of the cans at the corner of the picnic area. But it had no opening. Disposal involved reading the instructions on the side of the can.
A man came up with the same purpose.
"Got to keep the bears out," he explained as I fumbled with the top.
"I thought the bears were in the mountains," I said. But I wasn't surprised. I'd learned to be skeptical of all reassurance.
"Got 'em here, too. They go in the garbage, knock everything over. Like big rats."
We had seen a bear and come within a hundred feet of a family of whales. We had been lifted in the water by a whale and for a moment, ridden on its back. Alex had caught two fish and proudly eaten them. Nick started to take it easy. The next day, he decided, we would rent a boat to sightsee around the bay on our own, looking for seals sunning themselves on the rocks, or beaver or eagles. Well, I told myself, at least in the middle of the bay we won't meet a bear.
All the motor-boats had been taken so we got a rowboat. Beneath the seat lay a life-vest that fit Alex properly, lifting my spirits. Also, staying within the bay, we wouldn't lose sight of shore which gave me a feeling of control, at least, more control than I'd been used to in the previous week. By comparison with some of our other outings, this one felt civilized.
We rowed around, inspecting the shoreline for wildlife but not seeing any. Even I felt mildly disappointed although in a rowboat I would have worried about meeting a clan of seals. Small whale-watching boats - the kind I'd seen on the cover of the brochure at breakfast the day before - raced past us, their red-suited crews splashed and excited, on their way out to sea.
Giving up on our side of the bay, we rowed across to the other side. When we'd gotten half way there, quiet fell: A passing whale-watching boat stopped, its red-suited passengers watching something here in the bay. They were watching us. Why? I wondered. Our rowboat is primitive but is it that interesting? Then Nick's head started and his eyes widened as he stared straight ahead. I looked in the same direction. A puff of something like smoke exploded at the water's surface. We were thirty feet from a whale.
"Let's go," I implored.
"They're very gentle," said Nick and rowed closer. This was no time to impart what I'd learned about the gentleness of whales. But the whale felt the same way I did and, apparently realizing his wrong turn, puffed away towards the exit of the bay.
Two days later we flew back to New York. It was an uncompromising July day. The sky was the yellow-grey of wet cement, the traffic, choked, the air, unsatisfactory. But I, who do not pray easily, gave prayers of thanks for our safe arrival home.