Mo and I stopped to take a few deep breaths and talk about what had just happened. We had been paddling close to the Artic Willow lined shore when we had seen the bear. It took a couple of steps back into the willows away from whatever it was feeding on. Then it decided that it did not want to relinquish this meal to us. It reared up on its hind legs, huffed and popped its jaw. It came out into the water a few steps and seemed to tower above us. I mentally reviewed my file on Grizzlies; but nothing came up about being in the bow of a canoe about 15 feet from one. Mo began to back paddle. I joined him. The bear understood our retreat and also retreated back into the brush; but kept looking back and was clearly unhappy at being disturbed. It was over in a minute but it was an experience when so much is crowded into a short period of time. We discussed what had happened and decided that we had done the right thing. We had kept calm and had slowly backed away. We weren't calm now as we relived it. Could I have stopped an attack with my paddle? If the bear injured us, what would we do? It seemed that my satellite phone was not working. I could hear my wife; but she could not hear me.
I'm getting ahead of myself. The first thing to explain is how two complete strangers spent two weeks together in the Northern Canadian wilderness. Mo and I "met" on the CanoeCountry.com electronic bulletin board. I posted a message saying that I was interested in northern Canadian rivers, particularly the Thelon and wondered if anyone on the board had gone or was thinking of going. Several people answered. Mo's message of January 9th stood out. I've been
"Thinking heavily about doing it solo this year (before I get too old). I must admit, I am a little apprehensive about going alone. This week I must ____ or get off the pot."
This was my situation also. I didn't want to wait; but was not quite ready to do it alone. We started to email and somewhere along the way decided that we were compatible enough and decided to go as a team. But until money was actually spent, this commitment was just words. We made reservations with Big River Air, Ltd. but Doug is a very nice guy and doesn't require a deposit. So the moment of truth came when we purchased maps and split the cost. When Mo reimbursed me for his part, I knew that we were working on a real trip.
From this point things fell into place quickly. We each took out own gear and food. The main "community property" was a tent that Mo bought and a cooking shelter that I purchased modified with mosquito netting. We left home on June 29. We met for the first time in the Minneapolis airport. I arrived first and immediately recognized Mo. We flew on to Edmonton, spent the night and then flew to Ft. Smith, NWT. In two days we had passed through the city with America's largest mall and the city with the world's largest mall to the small town of Ft. Smith where Mo spent a lot of time wondering where the "town" was. A taxi driver informed us that our motel was in the center of town.
In Ft. Smith we knew that we had begun to leave malls behind. In the tiny airport terminal Europeans in nylon pants, hiking boots and fleece vests grabbed their dry bags and squeezed into an outfitter's minivan. A couple grabbed their bleached and worn Duluth packs and paddles and loaded up a taxi. We found our 4 bags; but didn't see our tent. Since there is a limit of 2 bags/person, Mo had been told in Edmonton that he would be notified if his bag was not on the flight. He heard nothing. Mo very strongly asked that the plane be checked for the tent. It was there after all; we called a taxi to get to the Pelican Rapids Inn. Mosquitoes buzzed around us while we waited.
We walked down to the muddy, chocolate colored Slave River, which flows into the Great Slave Lake. The Rapids of the Drowned flowed over and around huge rocks. Mo and I were struck with the immense power of the rapids which came in our minds to represent all that awaited them farther north in Canada--huge volumes of water flowing powerfully through the vast Boreal forest where man is an insignificant afterthought.
A colony of White Pelicans inhabited a calm central portion of the rapids. They were busy fishing, jockeying for position and resting. They were quite at home in the rapids and had in fact turned a dangerous place into their home.
After dinner at the Ha Ha Café (if you were operating a Chinese café in Ft. Smith, NWT, would you be laughing?), we went over gear and food. We were allowed 600 pounds including our own bodies. It seemed fair to split this evenly and then make an allowance for the main tent. So Mo would have something like 310. But he outweighed me by 20. We went through his food. He was used to cooking for at least two and had a vast amount of vittles. He took out about 15 pounds and we felt that we were very close to the weight.
I called Big River Air. "When are we leaving tomorrow?"
Trevor, "Come here around 8:00"
"We're close on our weight." (Meaning how picky are you going to be about it?)
"We'll weigh you in when you get here." (We debated the meaning of this cryptic answer for a while).
The next day, July 1, was Canada Day. All restaurants were opening later, if at all. So we ate some of Mo's discarded granola bars and called a taxi to take us to Float Plane Base.