Above me, the soft honking of swans. Necks stretched south like reverse compass needles, their wings cup the cold air as if it were a solid thing. Like a vanishing heartbeat, their call gets weaker and weaker until finally, they’re gone.
I sigh, suddenly inflicted with a strange sense of longing, although a trip to Vancouver or Mexico doesn’t even begin to feature on my winter wish list. Nooka fixes me with mournful eyes, every feature of her face hanging down as if gravity suddenly got a grip on it and pulled. There never was a dog with more dangly jowls, longer ears or saggier eyelids than Nooka in a boat.
I shift my weight, the frigid water tangible against my knees on the other side of the fibreglass, and crane my neck to see how our puppy is making out. Not-so-little-anymore Wilson is sitting rigidly, his eyes glued to the shoreline that’s sliding by at a stately pace. I guess it doesn’t quite compare to the rush of car rides, but then again, he’s only ever had a couple in his life.
This is his initiation to canoeing, I’m embarrassed to say – somehow, summer was too short again. “Good boy, Wilson. This is nice, eh?” I coo, hoping fervently that no grouse will explode from the bushes and catapult fifty pounds of dog fur and muscle out of the boat. “Should we maybe paddle out a bit more?” I ask Sam. Nooka succumbs to gravity, folding herself together in slow and complicated motion, not without giving me a dirty look first. Wilson, who’s supposed to learn from her depressed example, maintains his alert pose.
“Would be just a longer swim to shore,” says Sam, obviously harbouring the same doubts about the puppy’s ability to curb his usual excitement when anything (real or imaginary) happens. “How far should we go?”
I chew on my lip. A patch of yellow poplars slips by, optimists still clinging to their leaves when all their neighbours have long cast theirs. “Until he relaxes, I guess. Wilson, lie down. Down.” His ears twitch in my direction, irritated with the words as with a fly. “Hey,” I growl and become the recipient of yet another dirty dog look as he throws himself down with an exasperated sigh.
Behind me, the silver V carved into the water by the canoe continues to widen and ripple. I catch a glimpse of clouds in it, and suddenly, there’s a dark shape, pulling its own wake behind it. “There’s a – a moose, I think,” I whisper to Sam.
“A moose? Where?” He twists around. “Oh – the dark thing?” All sound has vanished except for the drip of our paddles, now resting on the gunwales. “But it’s too small. Where are the ears?”
We stare at the mystery shape that’s coming across the lake towards us. The dog noses go up and before I can finish hissing “Lie down” at them, both Nooka and Wilson sit and scan the air. “I think that’s a bear, Sweetie,” Sam says happily.
“Great,” I mutter. “Nooka, Wilson: lie down! Let’s paddle, OK?” The dark shape seems to be aiming right for us. Unbidden visions of a watery bear chase rise before my inner eye. Wilson has not met a bear yet – would he know just from the head sticking out of the water that there’s a large animal attached to it?
“I want to see the bear,” Sam complains as I start digging my paddle into the water.
“So do I, but not with the bloody dog in the boat,” I yell, hoping my voice will tell the bear that we’re not a drifting log. The dogs have reluctantly lain down again, but their noses keep pointing skywards. We pick up speed as the bear approaches shore, some 50 metres south of us. I brace myself as his shoulders emerge, his back – it’s a black bear. Raining curtains of water, he jumps to shore, ignoring us except for a brief glance. A powerful shake and he disappears into the forest so fast that even the dogs miss it.
I remember to breathe and look at Wilson, who’s still lying down and venting his frustration by chewing up a rope. Canoeing 101 went pretty well, but it looks like Introduction to Bears will have to wait until next year.
Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.