I could have published this story as another of my adventures: the place was Curator Lake Campground in Jasper National Park, the time was six years ago, and the events occurred almost exactly as described. In fact, I initially wrote it in first person and put it aside because I didn’t have a blog then. When I decided to try my hand at fiction, the grizzly encounter seemed as good a place to start as any. I changed the landscape a bit and added a female character named Mora Lassan. She seemed interesting, but I didn’t know her well; at the time, she was simply a backpacker, much like myself although certainly not me. What follows is Chapter One of my mystery, Frozen in Death.
The grizzly appeared without warning. Mora caught the movement in her peripheral vision as she was rummaging through the food bag that lay open on the ground beside the picnic table. Sensing danger, she angled her head for a better look, her eyes also taking in the food that was spread out for a late lunch. The bear must have come up from the creek that trickled over rocks beside the backcountry campground, and it was digging beneath an aspen sapling that was barely sixty feet away. As yet, it hadn’t seen her.
Having six hundred pounds of uninvited furry guest interrupt one’s meal would send most backpackers into at least a mild panic, but Mora Lassan wasn’t the average backpacker and this was far from being her first bear. Still, she insisted on certain proprieties in such encounters.
You’re a little too close for comfort, big boy. Addressing silent comments to her visitor, she reached automatically for the bear spray on her belt, only to discover that she had left belt and spray in her tent at the far end of the narrow campground, and of course, on the other side of the bear. That certainly got the adrenaline flowing.
“You woolly-pated loon!” she muttered, annoyed with herself.
Uncomfortably aware that she was alone in the campground, being the first to arrive that day, she drew a deep breath as she weighed her limited options. Even if other hikers appeared in the next few minutes, they were just as likely to make a quick exit as help. Grizzlies had that effect on people.
Still bending motionless over the food bag, she scrutinized the powerful muscles that rippled under the lustrous coat as the bear lazily pawed clumps of dirt from the ground, partially uprooting the young tree. Above the sleek cinnamon fur of the body, the hair on the massive, pale-blond hump showed the grizzled tips so typical of the species. This was an adult, almost certainly a male from its size, in prime condition.
Her experience with grizzlies told Mora that she could probably back away safely, but then the opportunistic bear would be drawn to her food, so much richer in calories than its normal, vegetarian diet. And that would be the first step on a march to death. Once a bear found human food at a campground, it tended to return and become first a nuisance and then a menace, eventually forcing the park staff to destroy it.
I can’t let that happen to you, big boy. Not when you’ve caught me sitting here like an idiot tourist, with no way to protect myself or my food. I have to try.
Taking another deep breath, she rose to her feet so that the bear could see what she was. Startled by the motion, the grizzly swung its enormous head towards her. Its sleepy expression and close-set, blinking eyes gave scant evidence of the intelligence and perfectly adequate vision that she knew it possessed. Mora held her ground but was careful not to stare directly at the intruder.
Making an agile about-face, the bear galloped back to the creek, where it reared up on hind legs to a towering height. Even from a distance, Mora could see the lethal claws that extended a full four inches straight out from the toes of its huge forepaws. Rotating its head side to side, the grizzly sniffed the air, trusting nose more than eyes or ears to identify the thing that had disturbed it.
That’s right, big boy. Keep that nose working. You’re totally wild, and you have no idea what I am or what kind of threat I pose. Let’s keep it that way.
Mora was relieved by the animal’s shyness, guessing that it wanted nothing to do with her, but she had to get the bear spray just in case. It wouldn’t take much to trigger an attack—any hint of fear or aggression would do the trick—so as she walked past the aspen and into the tenting section of the campground, she avoided looking toward the creek. I am woman, the supreme predator, she told herself, hoping to project an aura of confidence that the bear would sense. Yeah, sure.
Oh, really well done, Mora! Belt and bear spray were in the tent vestibule, where she had stupidly dropped them in her haste to make a cup of tea and satisfy her hunger. Canister in hand, she headed back toward the picnic table. The grizzly was still in the creek, on all fours now, but alert. When it saw her returning, it turned, bounded up the hill from which the creek descended, and disappeared into the trees.
Heaving a sigh through pursed lips, Mora sank down at the table and reached for her water bottle. I’m really getting too old for this, she reflected, shaking her head. Two minutes later, another backpacker strode across the creek and into the campground.
“You just missed the grizzly!” Mora announced with a satisfied grin. She knew that she would have a great story for other travelers that evening and for her friends at home. Without a doubt, the close encounter would be the highlight of her trip.
She had no idea how wrong she was.
If you enjoyed this first taste of the novel, you can find the book on Amazon Kindle for $2.99 USD.