As a boy, Isaac had a bear encounter. To this day he’s still scared of the wilderness. Hearing this, his best friend decides to help him conquer his fear.
Isaac Coleman woke with a start, his heart pounding at a sprinter’s pace. He could feel the sweat-drenched sleeping bag pressed against his body; he was still in the tent. Daylight was just starting to come in.
He could hear Ashley, his college friend, breathing deeply next to him. She had driven them out to Banff National Park to help him get over his fear of the wild. He hadn’t asked her to, he didn’t even know she was planning to; by the time he spotted the gear in the back of her car she had already locked the doors and set out for the foothills.
Although she was fiercely loyal, Ashley Higgins was also incredibly impulsive. Isaac met her when he joined the local photography club. They were both new to the city and being in unfamiliar territory together gave them something to talk about. The two of them would often go on walks throughout the city for inspiration and material to share with the club.
One afternoon in July, they decided to walk through the zoo. As they leaned on the railing of the bridge over the river Ashley sighed loudly and happily. “Ah, this is beautiful.” she said.
“It is indeed.” said Isaac. “The water’s so clear you can see straight to the bottom.”
“Is something wrong?” asked Ashley.
“What do you mean?” She noticed, didn’t she?
Worry tinged her voice. “You’re shaking. Like you’re scared of something.”
“Sorry, I had a bad experience a long time ago. Don’t worry about it.”
“No, that’s exactly what I’m going to do. What happened?”
Isaac took a deep breath. There was no getting out of telling her. If he didn’t, she’d come by the information in some other, more illicit way. He was sure of it. He walked her to a bench so they could sit while he told her his story.
Twelve years ago, ten-year-old Isaac went on a camping trip with his parents near Banff. He remembered the cloudlike appearance of the Rocky Mountains as they approached Calgary, and how the road went from mostly flat to a brake-testing series of hills the closer they got to the city. He also remembered getting violently carsick as they navigated the twists and turns between cities; the clear blue water flowing along the highway became slightly cloudier that day.
Once they arrived at the camp site they unpacked the car and hung their food in a tree to keep bears out of it. Isaac’s parents had told him not to worry but he suspected that most bears in the area had already figured out cutting the rope would score an easy meal.
While his parents pitched the tent, Isaac went for a walk with his camera. As his father would often joke, Isaac’s love of photography developed at an early age. He didn’t know what he wanted to take a picture of so he just let his feet carry him while his mind wandered. Two minutes into his walk he heard running water and decided to see whether he could get a picture of some fish.
He followed the sound and came upon a clearing with a small stream flowing over smoothed rocks and down to the base of the mountains. Birds chirped, butterflies flittered from one flower to the next and he even spotted a thicket of wild blueberries. Even without fish, this would make a perfect picture.
As Isaac pulled his camera from the case he heard a soft from the other side of the blueberries. It must be a bird, he thought. The rustling grew louder until the largest bear he had ever seen lumbered into the clearing. The bear chewed on a cluster of blueberries, unaware of Isaac, and turned to the stream for a drink.
As the bear lowered its head to the water its eyes rose to meet Isaac’s. He panicked and sprinted along the water’s edge; instinct took over and the bear gave chase. He didn’t know exactly how close it was but he heard an ear-splitting roar from behind.
As the bear closed the distance between them he heard another sound, a howl that seemed to come from everywhere at once. A gray wolf shot into view and bit at the bear’s hind legs. The bear roared in pain while the wolf growled through bloodied teeth, preparing for the next attack. Isaac tried to move but his feet were frozen to the ground.
The wolf lunged again, this time at the bear’s face. The bear swiped at the wolf, catching it in the side. The wolf let out a pitiful yelp as it tumbled into the water and dyed it red. Fear took over once more and Isaac ran back to the camp. He felt guilty leaving the injured wolf to fend for itself but he was thankful that the bear had lost interest in him.
When he could finally think straight again Isaac got his bearings and headed back to his parents. His mother bolted upright from where she was pounding a tent stake into the ground. “Isaac! What happened?” she shouted. His father came running and stopped when he saw Isaac. Isaac’s arms and legs were covered in scratches, clumps of burrs hung off his clothes and his camera was nowhere to be seen.
All at once, his body gave out. Isaac fell to his knees and started to sob. He tried to tell his parents about the bear so many times but the only sound he could produce was a wail. “Just breathe,” said his father, “slowly.” When Isaac could finally speak he told his parents about his encounter and about the wolf that defended him.
“They never believed me.” he said. “They always thought it was a dog or that I imagined the whole thing. Either way, we had to leave pretty much right after they got everything set up.”
“To be fair, you were young and probably terrified.”
“Yeah, but it’s always stuck with me. That experience. I have a hard enough time sitting here, surrounded by all these animals. It’s sad.”
Ashley’s voice cracked. “Why are you sad? Someone protected you. You should be thankful, not sad.”
“Easier said than done, I guess.”
Ashley’s hands slapped down onto her legs. “No, I can’t accept this. I will not accept this.”
“What do you mean?” Isaac knew something big was about to happen. Ashley never did anything in half measures.
“I’m going to help you make peace with this.”
Suspicion crept into Isaac’s voice. “How?”
“I don’t know,” she said, “but I’ll come up with something.”
“Something” turned out to be what she dubbed a “camp-napping.” And so here they were, alone in the wilderness. Isaac had spent most of the night awake but because Ashley was nearby he felt safe. She had a calming presence.
By the time Ashley woke up Isaac had already dressed and started a fire to cook breakfast. He sat on a small log he had rolled over, holding a long branch, and was busying himself with poking the fire for no good reason.
“How’d you sleep?” asked Ashley through a yawn.
“I didn’t sleep much, but it was good. Your snoring kept the animals away at least, so that was nice.”
She walked over the the log and thwapped him on the arm.
“I deserved that, didn’t I?”
“Most definitely.” she said.
After breakfast they went for a walk. Isaac’s camp-napper lead the way. As they walked under the canopy of leaves Isaac heard a familiar sound: running water. That scared little boy threatened to resurface but Isaac reminded himself that he was an adult now, and that he wasn’t alone.
“Come on,” said Ashley, “I hear water. We can clean ourselves up a bit.”
As they made their way towards the water Isaac began to feel uncomfortable. They came upon a clearing with a small stream flowing over smoothed rocks and down to the base of the mountains. It can’t be. He scanned the area and saw the blueberries. They looked exactly the same as last time.
Isaac stepped back as Ashley started to lift her shirt.
“Don’t worry,” she said, “I’m wearing a swimsuit.” She pulled her shirt over her head and unbuttoned her pants. Isaac stared, transfixed on her body.
“Ashley, your ribs…. Where did you get those scars?”
Her lip quivered as she tried to smile. “I got into a fight with a bear.”