IN TENTS EXPERIENCE
Maybe you have known fears that felt like deep terror. Like if a plane
spirals down out of control, your vehicle plunges off of the road, or your in-
laws show up at the door unexpectedly.
When it comes to horses, fear that feels like terror comes in a few
packages. A runaway horse or a bucking bronc would surely send many
riders into fits of horror. The deepest fear that struck my horse camp was in
camp itself, while the horses grazed peacefully in a nearby meadow, deep in
Wilmore Wilderness of the Alberta Rockies, many years ago.
Four of us were headed into some wild country beyond Grande Cache,
Alberta. There was Joe, a capable grade nine student of mine, Shannon, a
calm, good natured gal who was quiet by nature, and Ronnie. Ron was about
thirteen years old, the youngest son of a family who’s other siblings had
been in my class. His mom thought it would be a good experience, baptism
by fire - throw him into the wilderness as a kid and if he survived he would
emerge a man twenty-four days later.
But two things were immediately apparent. One was that Ron was ill
equipped. In a few miles the sole of his cowboy boot began to flap like a
dog’s tongue, and he had no other shoes. Second, was that Ron tongue also
flapped constantly. He was a talker. As with many youths his conversation
helped him keep his center of gravity. Shannon, being an understanding
female, was soon the target of Ron’s need for motherly approval. I rode up
front, far enough ahead to enjoy the peace and quiet while avoiding eye
contact with Shannon.
We rode for two days up the Smoky River and over Dry canyon to Sheep
creek. We were in wild country, and it was getting wilder by the minute. As
expected, the odd grizzly bear track or scat marked the trail. A grizzly track
in the mud gets a person thinking. We made a nice camp at Sheep creek with a fourteen by sixteen-foot wall tent.
The isolation of remote wilderness, the night sounds, and bear sign, make it difficult to sleep, until one adjusts. Those first nights I lost sleep trying to examine each little noise. Each little sound, we convince ourselves, is something scary about to shred us to pieces.
The fourth day out found us on foot with fishing rods in hand, dodging
willow thickets enroute to Sheep Creek. The willows thinned out and we
stood at the end of an old airstrip. We knew it was an airstrip
because one side was lined with several large, orange, metal cone markers
about as high as my waist. Not in line along the strip as one would expect,
but tossed about.
“What’s all those holes in them.” Ron asked.
The markers looked as if they had been shot to pieces with buckshot, but I knew it had nothing to do with buckshot. A Grizzly had shredded the metal cones like they were made from tinfoil. But the metal was as solid as the body of a ’56 Chevy. This was one powerful and mad bear.
We fished for a short time but spent most of our time looking over our
shoulders and around thickets. Ron did not say much about the markers and
Shannon never did say much about anything. Joe was neutral on most topics
and probably spent as much time looking over his shoulder as I did.
Lack of sleep caught up with us that night and for the first time since our
adventure began I passed out quickly. For those of you who live adventurous
lives there is likely a small part of you that wonders if one day the odds might catch up with you - you might get hurt riding, maybe your canoe flips in
rapids, maybe falling off a mountain, or maybe a bear. You wonder when
the odds will catch up with you. I fell into a deep sleep, but those mauled
cone markers had awakened these suspicions in my psyche.
Mom always said, “Sooner or later you’ll get it out there.” And mom was
There was no tangible beginning. One moment it was a deep sleep and the
next it was a complete and horrible conscious reality.
The world exploded. Screams, shrieks, bodies being slammed about, stove
pipes, folding table, and pack boxes knocked into tent walls.
“Oh God, oh God, I said to myself, please let me get to my knees.”
I began to turn from my back to my belly, clenched my gun laying beside
me, then my flashlight in the other hand. Seconds felt like forever, I turned from my back to my belly, rose to my knees gun in hand. A miracle.
I had to move! Total darkness, no choice, had to bump the bear with the end of the gun barrel - but the flashlight would not turn on! I crawled ahead on my knees, moans and groans, things crashing and shaking, metal stove and pipes banged about, the tent filled with chaos. I could not shoot because
it was complete black.
No matter how hard my thumb pushed the switch the flash-light would not turn on! I moved on my knees, shoving and poking the barrel of the gun ahead, my finger tense and ready to fire any second, hoping to shoot yet terrified in the moment.
The greatest commotion came from the corner of the tent where Joe slept.
My thumb felt like it was going to break as it pushed against the big bump
on the flashlight. I could not believe it, I had not yet hit or been hit by the bear.
The air had a heavy, strange smell.
Then I realized, my thumb was pushing against the square fridge magnet that was part of the old flashlight. In an instant I found the real button and the light came on. I still could not see! The bag of flour that had been sitting on the table had exploded and flour dust filled the air!
Guttural moans, blood-curdling sounds from the corner of the tent. The tent shook as if in a wind. There! A body being drug out of the tent, two legs and feet still in the tent, then gone. I dove to the corner, went under the wall and out into the blackness of the night. The flashlight danced.
What I saw was a greater shock than if I had seen a body being tore
up and dragged away.
No bear. No blood. Ronnie groveling, moaning, convulsing on the ground.
As if a bear was mauling him, but there was no bear! Ronnie was untouched!
I went back into the tent. It was completely destroyed. Shannon was a tight
ball at the bottom of her sleeping bag. Impossible how she curled up so tight
in the bottom of a sleeping bag. She later said that she actually thought she
had died. That her heart had literally beat so hard in fright then stopped.
I talked, coaxed Shannon and Joe out from what was their own greatest
And it was a nightmare. Ron had completely enacted an entire and brutal
mauling in his dream, complete with every realistic sound you could
imagine. To this day I am convinced it was a miracle that in that confined
pitch-black space he did not bump the end of the gun barrel. I could have,
should have, would have shot him.