Last night I was jogging down the Trans-Canada Expressway, or whatever they call it. It runs right through the park. I jog for transport since I still can’t drive, and I was heading over to see Ranger Tim’s evening naturalist program, ‘Canoeing at Lake Superior’, in the hope there might be National Film Board of Canada cartoons. That’s how media-starved I am. I will run four miles down a highway roaring with 18-wheelers on the rumour of an educational Canadian cartoon from the 1960s, shown in an outdoor amphitheatre with wet seats and shouting six-year-olds.
(Canadians seem to have real affection for these cartoon shorts. Maybe they are like those weird kids who have never tasted sweets: ‘Mum, can I have a raw carrot? Ple-ease?’
Maybe they didn’t suffer the psy-ops tactics employed by our national television station in the seventies. ‘…and now, children, after the Núacht, there will be cartoons.’ Cartoons! We would sit through twenty minutes of dandruffed bumpkins reading the news in phlegmy, unintelligible Gaelic, waiting for some Chuck Jones relief. Instead, often as not we got The Story of Caves, or worse, the fecking Log Driver’s Waltz. For my baited-and-switched generation, The National Film Board of Canada opening titles inspired as much love as the nine times tables. Educational cartoons? If I were Elvis, I would have shot the telly out.)
Back to the highway. A few seconds after a truck passes, my baseball hat is grabbed by displaced air. I play a little game: I guess when it will happen and try to grab my hat just in time. I lose my hat and retrieve it from the middle lane, fast as a squirrel. Many of whom are now squirrel pancakes.
These days, truckers schedules are so tight that they make no stops at all. The shoulder of the highway is littered with what look like half-full bottles of dark iced tea. It turns out these are the pee-breaks of dehydrated men. Annick the maintenance ranger drives around to pick up them up, which is more than I would do for six bucks an hour and a beige uniform. There are dark rumours among the rangers who hitch-hike that some truckers can lift their seat cushion to reveal a hole right through the floor, an inhouse outhouse.
Truckers are too busy even to honk at sweaty women, so the endless caravan of bikers picks up the slack. The bikers are chunky middle-aged men on two-wheeled SUVs, and I like watching them when it rains. I save my sympathy for the real bikers, pedaling a foot-wide shoulder through the endless drizzle of Superior. They are the only ones lower on the highway hierarchy than me: I can see where I’m going, at least when I stop veering towards wild raspberries.
A woman in an SUV stops and rolls down the window.
‘Watch out,’ she says, ‘There’s a bear just over there by the side of the road.’ She points about 20 yards ahead and drives off.
I am two miles from home and two miles from the campground, and naturally the road is now completely empty. I jog a little more slowly, which is very slowly indeed. My brain, never one to say nothing when it has nothing useful to say, is humming.
I try to calculate the odds that I will be the first person ever mauled by a bear on the side of the Trans-Canada Expressway. Then I realise I’m innumerate, and therefore incapable of assessing this probability. (When I report this later to Adam Stein, he says: ‘My mother’s advice in this scenario would be, “Someone’s got to be first.” ‘)
I remember Tim’s bear from a few weeks back. That story ended up on the CBC radio news. I don’t want to end up on the news unless I am telling the story myself. A wry, self-deprecating anecdote that nevertheless reveals me as both sensitive and heroic.
(Perhaps I save a toddler from the bear. The child has wandered out from the campground, and is lost on the side of the highway, crying for her mother. The bear is maddened by her cries. He snorts and stamps. He charges the child, swiping a huge paw to scoop her up. He holds her close to his face, examining the morsel before he gobbles her up.
I…jog over and make special bear noises. I win him over with my easy charm and gentle wit. Or something. Anyway, the creature is transfixed. He begins to croon, perhaps to weep. Gently, he sets the little girl down and ambles towards me. The little girl follows; she is no longer crying. The bear lays his head on my shoulder and snuffles. The little girl clings to my leg. We have a moment. A crowd gathers. Then the TV crews arrive. I am feted: a humble immigrant with a touch of greatness, like Wayne Gretzky. Soon afterwards, Chrétien calls, offering to make me an honorary Canadian citizen in recognition of my ‘eroism. No paperwork.)
It is more likely I will win a Darwin Award. I am still running cautiously towards the unseen bear. The road is still empty. A year ago I was so terrified of domestic dogs that I didn’t like to walk by myself in the suburbs, let alone the countryside. I decide it will be a good progress milestone if I can now jog past a black bear. I have no mop to defend myself, but not to worry. Bears are smart, I tell myself. I like bears. It’s berry season, I tell myself. They don’t want no trouble.
Cut to Adam Stein’s instant messenger commentary again:
Well, I’m sorry. This story is going nowhere. I’ve wasted your time again. I wasn’t mauled by a bear. The bear didn’t even appear. I made it all the way to the campground, pumped up. Tim showed two National Film Board of Canada cartoons and a slideshow, a media feast that left me as buzzed as the first Matrix. We sat on very wet benches, which the Michigan kids next to me found a great source of wit.
‘AN-drew! Did you PEE your PANTS?’
‘Andrew, you shoulda gone to the BATHROOM instead of wetting your pants. You are so disgusting and gross.’
‘Ew, Andrew, do you need DIAPERS?’
I leaned over and told them what was really in the soda bottles on the highway. For future emergencies.
Postscript: My young bear, most likely the brother of the fellow shot last month, has been wandering the campground and the rangers’ work centre. The junior rangers laid a trap, but the park superintendent told them to take it down. He is just acting like a bear, not bothering anybody. When last spotted, he was sitting in a patch of grass outside the work center, happily eating a bunch of daisies.
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