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


Adventures Around The Corner

23 12 2008



On a lonely windswept island in James Bay, northern Ontario, there sits a small cemetery. The headstones are worn by relentless sub-Arctic wind and driving snow and bleached almost beyond legibility by the summer sun. The ground that never thaws below a few inches of mud each spring, has left the markers at precarious angles like the teeth of a gnarled fisherman.


The legends on the stones are a tale of toil, struggle and suffering: men and women in their 20s and 30s and infant children barely born. The view from the graveyard is desolate even now and even on a sunny summer’s day. James Bay, the southern extension of Hudson Bay, looks dark and menacing while the trees are already stunted as they continue their trek like lemmings towards the end of the treeline and the tundra beyond.


The permanent residents of the small square of grass arrived hundreds of years ago. They were dropped by a ship in late spring as soon as the ice had thawed enough to navigate the large waterways. They hurriedly erected sturdy shelters and gathered firewood and food for the murderous winter that would all too soon be upon them. While much of the rest of the northern hemisphere was still enjoying the colour and fading warmth of early autumn, the settlers were already experiencing their first snowfalls.


They would stand and watch their only contact with the outside world sail away towards the Arctic Ocean and Europe beyond and know that with it went any way of leaving. If they became ill or injured, if their homes burned down, if the snows destroyed their shelters or their supplies perished there was no one to call on for help and no way of contacting home, never mind returning there.


Today, Moosonee and Moose Factory sit at the very end of the railway line. They are beyond the roads and despite modern technology accessible only by an airstrip…and a train that still stops in the middle of the bush to pick-up and drop-off trappers who stand in clearings to flag down the once-daily locomotive. The train carries supplies, local residents heading to or from the south, and tourists destined for a taste of the far north. The streets are still unpaved and the infrastructure basic but there is the insatiable curiosity of the children who run and bike to the train station and the warmth and hospitality of the local people who prepare lunch in the church basement or shuttle visitors across the dark waters to Moose Factory. They share stories of life in the north, of the belugas which live in the depths, the bears and wolves in the forests and the dancing Northern Lights in the sky.


At the end of the day, the majority of tourists board the Polar Bear Express for the return trip to Cochrane. A handful stay in one of the several small motels and explore further afield to learn more about the settlement’s history, to buy Cree handicrafts or perhaps to venture out fishing with a local guide. Whether for a few hours or a day or more, every visitor is touched by the isolation and hardiness of the current and former residents.


Adventure travel doesn’t have to be expensive or on the other side of the world. It doesn’t have to occupy weeks of precious vacation time. It doesn’t have to be dangerous or adrenalin-pumping. Sometimes, the best adventures and the most eye-opening experiences can be around the corner.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan