The sparkling of open water could be ignored no longer.
Break-up was under way, slowly and haphazardly, and had created an open spot of water right by our doorstep. A few hundred metres to the south and a kilometre and a half to the north, the ice still refused to budge, but I declared paddling season to be open.
Joyfully, I collected my PFD and drybag with extra clothing and emergency supplies for the first canoe outing of the year and raced down to shore where the old canoe had been lying at the ready and waiting for the past few days. Grinning broadly with excitement, I dragged it into the water and pushed off, my body immediately remembering how to balance in the boat.
Water dripped off the paddle every time I brought it up again at the end of the J-stroke and created a multitude of rings on the lake’s surface. The canoe nosed its way gently along shore through reflections of sky and clouds while a light breeze fanned my face. The greyish glint of the ice barrier to the north did not show any signs of movement but no matter, it was exhilarating just to be out on the water again.
A dark shape of the inkiest black sat snuggled into a sun-drenched hollow on the hillside, surrounded by entire carpets of kinnikinnick. “Hey bear,” I said calmly. The bear, a three- or four-year-old I guessed, sat up a bit more and regarded me with a cocked head. I let the canoe drift.
“Nice and cozy spot you got there, and with berries all around.” The bear who looked like the blackest of his kind I had ever seen, without a shade of brown or white hair on him, lay down and put his chin on his front paws, blinking sleepily at me. “Well, I’ll paddle a bit further but I’ll be back along this way fairly soon because of the ice there. See you then.”
I nudged the canoe back on course and continued along shore, casting an eye back on the bear now and again. What a nice little guy. Should I tell Sam about him when I got back? I wasn’t too sure. Of course we usually share all the wildlife sightings with each other, but he wanted to shoot a bear this spring for meat. I didn’t have a problem with that but there was something about this particular bear that endeared him to me. He was so obviously enjoying his beautiful day as much as I was, and he seemed so sweet-natured and gentle. But any other bear would prefer to carry on with its life just as much as this one. Who was I to doom another bear just because this one struck my fancy?
When I passed by the bear again on my way back, he was sitting up again, dreamily gazing at the mountains. As I paddled closer, he looked at me. “OK bear, this is the deal: when I get home, I will tell Sam that you’re here. If he comes, he wants to kill you. So why don’t you start moving in a few minutes, all right? Don’t be like this if you see him.” The bear looked mildly at the far mountains again. I started paddling home with mixed emotions; should I really tell Sam? I’d feel a traitor either way.
When I got to the cabin, I ended up telling Sam about the bear after all, mimicking how he had sat up, how he had rested his head on his paws, telling how sweet he was. Sam’s brows became more and more wrinkled as I carried on with my tale and by the time I was done, he was glowering at me.
“Do you think I can still go and shoot that bear after you tell me all this?” he cried. “That’s just great, thanks. Well, I’m going to drive down there and have a look, but by the time I get there, he’s probably already gone anyway.”
It was a tense hour that I waited at home while Sam was gone and I fervently hoped that the bear had taken off. When Sam finally returned, he had a sly grin on his face. “I saw your bear, but he sure didn’t sit pretty for me. He was already on a different slope and he ran like possessed when he noticed me. Not a chance of shooting that guy! But I didn’t want to anymore, anyway.”
And that was the perfect ending for all involved on our first day of open water.
Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters
of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.