If You Go Down To The Woods Today…

24 03 2009


bear-wm1When I was little I always wanted to attend a Teddy Bear’s picnic. Later in life when I finally did go down to the woods, I began to re-think my wish when I nearly became a nibbly!


Many towns in Northern Ontario are troubled by black bears. Every summer evening, bears emerge from the forests and have their own picnic in backyards, dumps and garbage cans. The province do their best to control the problem but short of a hunt, it isn’t easy to solve…until one local campground owner saw an opportunity to engage in a bit of ecotourism.


After presenting his proposal to local authorities, he built a tall wooden platform in a forest clearing. His plan was to take people to the lookout, and then lure the bears away from the town with leftovers…much the same way that some African lodges lure leopards. It’s perhaps not the most genuine or natural experience but for people short on time or without the ability to venture deep into the bush, it was a great opportunity. And it helped protect the bears.


Late one afternoon, a van collected us from a remote rest stop. We turned off the highway and, after opening a large metal gate, continued deep into the forest. As the dirt track continued we soon spied our first bear ambling slowly through the trees nearby. A short distance later we stopped at the base of the lookout tower and turned off the engine.


The guide surveyed the clearing before opening the van’s door. The moment my foot touched the ground, a young cub tumbled from the trees and made an inquisitive beeline for our vehicle….and everyone knows that where there’s a cub there’s a protective mother. Armed with nothing more than a whistle and some pepper spray, our guide ushered us up the stairs to the platform all the while keeping a close eye on the cub and an even closer eye for its mother.


The platform had a roof but no other protection from the elements…and was obviously also a picnic spot for mosquitoes. The day’s leftovers were dumped in a large drum on the edge of the clearing and our only link with the bear-free outside world drove away. Within moments, the picnic was underway.


The first bear was an enormous male. I had seen them on television and in zoos, but a close encounter with a large, healthy wild bear is seriously impressive. His coat gleamed almost blue and every step resonated with power and authority. He loped to the drum and began digging around for dinner.  No sooner was his head buried amid the butcher’s discards than more bears revealed themselves until we were surrounded by eight adults and two cubs…which quickly raced to safety up the nearest tree trunk.


The feast continued and although there was clearly a hierarchy and the occasional aggressive grunt to warn off rivals, there were no fights or challenges. It then occurred to me that we were well and truly stranded in the middle of their picnic much like sweet pastries on a tiered cake tray.


“Right, time to go,” the guide announced.


“How do we, err, do that?” I asked, looking down to see us completely surrounded.


“They’ll be gone shortly, then the van will come back,” he replied nonchalantly.


With the sun dipped below the tree tops, the clearing was quickly in heavy shadow. The van arrived and our guide looked through the spy-hole in the door to see if there were any bears on the stairs. He cautiously opened the door and poked his head out to ensure we were indeed alone before leading us down to the ground. Every shadow, bush and tree trunk looked like a bear and only once we were inside the van did we heave a sigh of relief.


The moment we slammed the door shut and began scratching our mosquito bites, an enormous male emerged from the dark woods just yards away and stared at us.


“Hmmm,” our guide muttered. “I didn’t see him.” And with that we left the picnic and headed home for dinner.



Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan


Mace and the Maple Leaf

4 01 2008

“Do you have any weeds in the car?” the Canadian border patrol officer asked. I shook my head no and tried not to smile as the two Quebecois patrolmen rifled through my car seats, my bags, and my underwear. It was a chilly morning at the tiny customs outpost at the Vermont-Quebec border, and a “random search” (aka two very bored officers) had led to the discovery of my intention to smuggle a dangerous weapon into Maple Leaf Land: pepper spray. It had been a gift to me from my father, a cop, for protection in big cities and big forests, and I had tossed it in without much forethought. Unbeknownst to me, however, chemical mace was on the hot list of things NOT allowed to enter Canada- and now so was I. After finding such proof of my delinquency, the officers were convinced that this young couple and their wiener dog headed to Montreal for the weekend had something else to hide- namely, weeds.

“No dandelions here, sir” my boyfriend Joe replied, seemingly enjoying all of this a little too much. After an hour or so of futile searching, the cops decided that the pepper spray was enough to bring me in. I wasn’t worried at all until they began to read me my rights and informed me that my car was now the property of Canada. “Am I in trouble too, or is it just her?” Joe asked with what I knew to be a hidden smile. “Well, it is her car, her bag, and her pepper spray, so only she is in trouble. But we are going to search both of you.”

We were led into the small backwoods office, separated, and taken into different rooms. I was made to remove my shoes and socks, which seemed a thorough enough search for the officers who were hastily talking back and forth in French. “What about her purse? She has not let go of it yet! I bet the drugs are there. Look how she is holding it close to her!” and on and on. They knew I had to be hiding something- but didn’t know that I was fluent in French, disguised with my polite southern drawl. I had grabbed my purse by habit when we first got out of the car, and now the two men were just certain that it contained the pounds of illegal substances that they had been unable to locate in my vehicle. For a good twenty minutes they continued the debate about my purse, and whether or not they could search it without further assistance.

Finally I could take no more, I wanted to get this whole ordeal over with and get on with the weekend in Montreal. I stood up, with bare feet, and dumped the entire contents of my purse onto the interrogation table and handed the empty bag to the officer. “Est-ce qu’on peut partir maintenant?” (Can we leave now?) I asked, in perfect Parisian French. “Uh…ouay” they replied, shrugging, and I was led back into the front office. Minutes later we were ordered to pay a $120 fine to retrieve my car from Canadian impoundment and were released and allowed to enter the country. The two polite officers thanked me and warned that I would now be red-flagged as a weapons smuggler for five years at all border crossings and would have to explain myself anytime I wanted to enter Canada.

“Pas d’probleme,” I replied, “I’m moving to France next week.” Everyone smiled and we were on our way.

Shilo Urban