When we set out for the Old World in the frigid temperatures of an early December morning more than two months, we were as excited as kids on the last day of school term.
With the mercury hovering around 10 below in our little valley and the snow and ice crackled underfoot it felt good to be fleeing the onset of winter and the impending seasonal snowstorms.
Soon, we comforted ourselves, we would be in Europe, basking in more temperate climes. Not exactly the Bahamas, but nevertheless a nirvana of cleared pavements, mornings without shovels and iceless roads.
Of course the main reason we headed off to Europe was not for the weather.
We were keen to catch up with friends, hang out with our families, drink beer in English pubs, walk the banks of the Thames and pig out on the dozens of variety of pork the Magyars serve up.
But fleeing the dark months of snow when we are often engulfed in several feet of the white stuff and it seems that we spend our entire waking lives just shovelling was certainly a bonus.
Imagine our consternation then when we arrived in Europe, jetlagged and worn out by the long series of flights, to find the needle fixed well below zero and the continent in the grips of a deep freeze.
In Hungary we struggled to get to my Dad’s little house in the country through more than a foot of snow and, once there, shivered as the wind howled down at us from the Russian steppes.
Even the UK, that haven of rain and moderation, was blanketed in white, sparking talk of a national emergency, and much of the public transport network had shut down.
At first we responded with our smug “Cold? We have this all the time in Canada” speech. But the temperature kept dropping until it really was cold, even by the standards of the Canucks.
My Mum, who lives among the small folk of west Wales and usually has barely a frosty night in the course of a whole year, was facing temperatures of minus 20, a catastrophe not visited on her village since the English invaded several centuries ago.
In London we watched as office workers came scurrying out of their offices in leather-soled shoes only to slide uncontrollably along the ice-encrusted pavements struggling comically to stay upright.
With the unusual weather, of course, came disruption and delay. The day we left for Hungary our flight from Heathrow was cancelled and we struggled to find an alternative from Gatwick.
Arriving early at the airport we watched as hundreds of easyJet thrill-seekers were told their plane would not be leaving. A riot broke out in the terminal with lots of shouting, swearing and threatening.
What saved us that day was that the flight we had rebooked onto was operated by Malev, the Hungarian airline, and the crew, facing several days holed up in a cheap hotel without their beloved salami or gulyas, were apparently desperate to get home.
In the end I think ours was the last flight out of Gatwick for several days.
All this shivering and discomfort was, however, only a prelude of what was to come. When we arrived in Estonia to visit Kristin’s family the temperature fell below minus 30 and stayed there stubbornly for a week.
In central Russia I heard that they had the highest pressure ever recorded.
I was secretly hoping that the polar temperatures might mean my annual sauna ordeal with Kristin’s family would be postponed for a year.
Not a bit of it. With a wicked gleam in his eye, Kristin’s father, Tiit, stoked the sauna until it was so hot that the roof started to smoulder. When we entered, the tiny wooden cubicle was a searing 122 degrees celsius.
And so began the masochistic ritual of which the Estonians are so fond. Five to 10 minutes in the sauna at 120 degrees followed by a roll in the snow at minus 30. Once, twice, three times, four times and each time I thought my heart was going to burst out of my chest.
Of course the cold weather wasn’t all bad news. I got to try out a new winter jacket I had bought myself.
And one day, on a visit to the island of Muhu in the Baltic Sea, I went for a three-hour walk with Ott, a friend, on the frozen sea ice, a sublime experience I will always remember.
But it seemed that the whole time we were in Europe we were constantly skirting weather-induced disaster. Once Kristin lost control of the Land Cruiser she was driving on ice and ploughed into a snow bank.
In early February in Budapest, after yet another snowfall, clumps of hard snow and ice began crashing off the buildings onto the pavements making even a walk to the local shop a game of frigid Russian roulette.
We watched as one large clump came down on a car parked outside my flat in Budapest. It shattered the windows and left a large dent in the roof.
After much cursing and moaning the owner had the car towed away and then, parking spots in central Budapest being rare, another driver sneaked in to chance his luck. His car too was flatenned within hours.
Finally, after nearly ten weeks away, and deeply homesick for the peace, quiet and beauty of our lonely valley, we headed back to Canada.
“We will be shovelling snow for at least a week when we get back,” I manfully told my European friends. “Perhaps even two or three.”
Imagine our surprise when, as we circled at the closest regional airport, we looked out the window to see not even a patch of white just the gentle greens of early spring.
When we got home three hours later there was barely a foot of snow where we had expected four or five feet. It took us only half an hour to shovel off our front deck.
In Vancouver, where they are holding the winter Olympics, we watched skiers struggle through slush and rain. The temperature one day was 14 degrees.
“It’s been the warmest winter anyone can remember,” a neighbour told us. “I’ve only used the snowplough once since you left.”
As we settle back in, hundreds of birds singing in the yard, there are large bare patches of green grass and our roofs are all bare. This time last year we could barely see out of our windows.
Maybe next year, then, we won’t bother with the European trip at all. We’ll just stay here and bask in the sunshine.
Meanwhile, friends and treasured guests, it’s shaping up to be a glorious one. We still have few spots left for the spring and summer if you are tempted, and one or two in the autumn, but they are filling quickly.
So why not leave freezing Europe behind, take off your big coats and gloves, fish out your swimming gear and plan a spot in the Canadian tropics.
In retrospect it may have been a little foolhardy, but after several days finishing off late season tasks around the ranch, I was up for a small winter adventure.
So last week, with the mercury down to minus 18 degrees celsius, I took Karu, the braver and more dexterous of our two German Shepherds, and set off into the wintry bush.
For months I had wondered about a particular stretch of wilderness on the far side of our river, a small sliver of land between the mountain and the water.
Of all the spots on the river it is the one most favoured by the grizzlies in the autumn and we have also seen black wolves up there in the early morning.
Long intrigued by the spot, I even took a couple of our most intrepid guests in this year, balancing on driftwood to cross the river and hopping across small gravel islands.
What we found was even more alluring, a small labyrinth of wildlife paths, wet wallow spots and brush. Among the many tracks were grizzly, wolves, moose and elk.
One especially shy grizzly mum with cubs that we had been watching had passed that way recently, bolstering my suspicion that it was an important wildlife route.
Instead of heading straight across the river as I had done before, I decided to bushwhack in from the north and take in a wider swathe of land.
I wasn’t completely unprepared. In my pocket was a GPS and I also had a heavy mountain jacket which I bought for the mountains of northern Iraq several years ago.
At first all went well. Leaving the car where the road ended I found the remnants of an old logging trail that headed south, hugging the river.
On the way upriver I had plugged my destination, a bridge, into the GPS. I was reassured to see the spot was only 4.4 km away, as the crow flies.
Easy, I thought to myself, I would be there by lunchtime and home shortly afterwards. I would even have a couple of hours in case the trip took longer than expected.
For the first half hour or so I followed an ancient trail, almost skipping through the forest, the dog running here and there in high excitement.
To help with the icy sections, I strapped on two mini-crampons. But we had had almost no snow and the going was better than easy.
After a while the trail, which hugged the mountain, moving up and down with the riverside terrain, became a little fainter.
Fallen trees began to block the way, but nothing I couldn’t easily climb over or walk around. For Karu, a particularly athletic dog now in his prime, this was light work.
Then the path became more difficult still. Sometimes it was so faint I lost it for several hundred metres. At other times I had to make wide detours.
So I tried my luck right down on the riverbank. But here I was caught up in an endless jungle of driftwood and logjams, each more treacherous than the last.
I doubled back, first this way, then that. I tried the forest again and then the shore again. By now I was getting tired and frustrated. I looked at my watch and was shocked to see that three hours had gone by since I left the car.
The GPS was longer working because of the tree cover but I felt that I must have covered the lion’s share of the route.
Finally when I broke out one to a section of old river bed, I took out the GPS and oriented it. For a while it hesitated and then it clicked in.
More than two kilometres to my destination! I had covered a total of 1,800 metres in a straight line. How was that possible?
I began to look at this stunning winter day in a different light. The beginning of the afternoon shadows, so alluring and magical, seemed suddenly treacherous and full of foreboding.
The beautiful river, fast-flowing and set around with an edging of ice, was menacing, a frigid barrier between me and the gravel road that would take me home.
With only about two hours left until darkness, I decided to push on. It was in any case too late to head back.
I calculated that there was a spot only about a kilometer to the south where we could both scramble across the river.
It would mean a long walk back to the car in the dark, but at least we would be back on the gravel road.
But after half an hour I had made less than 100 metres headway. I tried scrambling along the icy rocks by the river, but that route soon went from dangerous to impossible.
Then I backtracked and tried scrambling through the forest. But the slope now was almost vertical. As I move from one tree to the next, one slight slip would have sent me tumbling dozens of feet into the freezing, fast-moving river below.
For Karu the dog this was all becoming treacherous too. He was now crying incessantly as he scrambled from one precarious foothold to the next.
I became more and more frustrated as the bush bit at my face and neck and I struggled along treacherous ledges.
And I was becoming clumsy too as my body tired and my impatience and anxiety grew. I didn’t fancy my chances if it came to a night in the open at minus 20 without a sleeping bag and began to fight a rising sense of panic.
Eventually we got to a point where I could go no further. Karu was stuck a few feet behind me. The proud male dog of an hour or so ago was a thing of the past – he looked pathetic now, all whimpering and shaking with fear.
So, reluctantly, I turned around. My options were beginning to run out.
The best course it now seemed was to strip off, hold my clothes above my head as I waded or swam the river and try and make it back to the road and the car.
The water was fairly low and the current not unmanageable, but it was now extremely cold and I wondered whether I would be able to get my clothes back on before my muscles began to cramp.
Then, of course, there was the matter of Karu. Well-insulated enough for a quick paddle, could he survive a thorough soaking in these ungodly temperatures?
I tried to think back to what I had learned from Jack London and the story about the man who died trying to light a fire in the freezing Yukon winter.
But I couldn’t remember the point of the story, or if there was a lesson at all.
Then, as I desperately wandered the shoreline looking for a shallow spot to wade or swim, we had our first lucky break.
A large tree had fallen right across this section of the river, high above the hurrying waters. On top of the log was a thin layer of snow. In the snow was a single set of wolf tracks.
If a wolf can make it across on the log, I thought, so could I, and also, probably, so could the dog. So I gritted my teeth and began to inch across the log.
A slip from either of us and we would be in trouble, but the grip on my boots was good and Karu followed me closely.
When we finally made the other side, a sense of relief swept over me. There was a spring in my step as we bounded off in the direction of the road.
And then, as the rushing of water once again grew noisier, came the awful realization – we were now on an island. Far from crossing the river we had only traversed one branch of it and were now mid-stream.
We either had to turn around and head back or… and then just as it seemed that we were in for a frigid dip after all I spotted another log that had fallen over the river.
This one was a little thinner and there were no tracks at all on it. But it was strong enough to support my weight. I leaped on to the log and began to edge my way across.
Don’t look down, I thought. Just keep moving towards the other side. Karu swallowed his fear and followed just a few inches behind. Just one little move this way or that and we would end up in the water, but somehow our luck held.
Less than an hour later we were back at the car and half an hour after that warming our toes in front of the fire at the ranch.
Kristin looked at me thoughtfully and said. “You did something stupid, didn’t you?” I shook my head.
As I write this now we are already in Europe, nine time zones from home, fighting the usual jetlag.
Here in Budapest, the streets are full and the crowds are pushing and shoving as they seek out Christmas bargains.
It is all so far away from our lovely, lonely valley with its incredible wildlife and seemingly endless space.
And though I am itching to see family and old friends again, I am already missing our treacherous but beautiful wilderness.
If there is such a thing as a macho month here in the Canadian wilderness, a time when the many facets of manliness are called upon at one sitting, November is surely it.
As the weather turns cold and bitter and the rain, sleet and snow begin to batter our little valley it seems that even the most menial of tasks takes on Herculean proportions.
To make matters bleaker, some of the year’s toughest jobs line up at this time of year, each howling for completion before the heavy snows of winter finally descend.
First off is a bout of chimney-sweeping on slick, treacherous roofs.
This is a daredevil process that involves clambering up two slippery ladders and manhandling a spindly device with a small wire brush down a small reluctant opening.
Once the brush is in place you must yank it up and down with vigour to displace 12 months of accumulated soot without destroying the delicate folds of the metal chimney.
I took one look at the slippery roofs, remembered how Kristin mocked my hesitating ascent and shaking knees the last time I attempted the task, and quietly begged Sunny, our friend and neighbour, to do the chimneys.
Next on the list was several days of chain-sawing logging-truck-sized timbers from the forest and hand-splitting huge sections of wood with a splitting maul heavy enough to kill a moose.
Then finally there is the last-minute frenzy of splinting and bracing our various out-buildings against the snow loads of deep winter than can reach up to three or four feet deep and each weigh several tons.
All this makes for a painful bout of muscle-straining activity and, as I sit at my table and write, the snow falling thick outside my window, we are still less than half way through our checklist of man-sized November tasks.
In theory this should be a breeze of a month, a time of the calendar given over to watching movies carefully stowed during the busy summer, whimsical strumming of the guitar and morsels nibbled in front of the glowing wood stove.
We have just closed our six-month season, our last guests have safely made it home, the grizzly bears have headed up the mountain to hibernate and the clock moves forward bringing early darkness to the valley and longer evenings.
In keeping with this illusion of anticipated sloth we make it an annual staple to head off to Vancouver for a week of sipping lattes, gorging on Chinese food, hanging out with our urban friends and parading up and down Robson Street (Vancouver’s Oxford Street).
Then, later in the month, we host our annual friends, staff and neighbours party where we serve bottles of ice-cold vodka in shot glasses inscribed in Cyrillic (To the Defence of Stalingrad is one) and Russian appetizers to the worthies of our valley until they howl with pleasure or pass out in the corners (that’s coming up this Saturday.)
But all this bacchanalian pleasure merely makes the intervening periods of muscle-tearing labour that much harder to endure and the frigid touch of snow on cheek more bone-chilling.
In a bid to soften the transition I even went for a run or two while we were in Vancouver.
But it did little to prepare me the groaning aches of chain-sawing up half a dozen cords of wood, heaving each hefty slice on to one of our battered trailers until the tyres threatened to burst, and then disgorging it in our front yard for splitting.
After the first day of labour – a lonesome affair – Kristin joined in, lifting, stacking, delivering, unloading, all with little more than the occasional grunt. She also held the shorter logs to stop them jumping as I sawed them up.
It takes a certain kind of woman to hold firmly onto a slippery log with a razor-sharp chain slicing away only inches from your extended fingers at thousands of revolutions a minute.
Once the wood was bucked (loggers’ terminology, I think, for cut up into cake-like sections) and plonked down in the yard, the wooden-handled maul (an axe with a wide head designed to split) came out.
After two years using a light version, I finally switched to a much heavier model last year – Heaven when it comes to splitting recalcitrant blocks of wood, but Hell on my spindly wrists and forearms.
One of the joys of this whole autumnal process, is that I get to use my fancy logging gear: steel-toed boots, kevlar trousers, a smart set of orange braces with Husqvarna written on them in large blue letters and a matching orange hard hat with ear protectors and a face shield.
This year I also added a new chainsaw bar, half a dozen freshly-minted chains and a stump vice, a small and ingenious little device that anchors the saw as you sharpen the chain, to my already long list of accessories.
And then for good measure, and to get us both in the spirit, we bought a DVD called Axemen, a glitzy reality show that chronicles the travails of four logging companies and as they turn the US Pacific Northwest into a wasteland.
It’s not exactly cerebral entertainment and the men on the slopes are far from eloquent but it made our task ahead seem a little less daunting. (I was also secretly pleased to recognize some of the brands that I use in the hands of the professionals.)
After a couple of episodes, fired up and dressed for the occasion we set about sawing and hand-splitting an entire year’s supply. (That’s the main house and three wood-hungry cabins.) Hour after hour, Kristin set the logs on a stump and I hammered away at them with the splitting maul.
Four days into this plodding task we are both sore and aching. We grunt and groan as we stand up and sigh as we ease ourselves back into our armchairs each evening.
For the last three nights we have both been fast asleep by 9.30 in the evening – and we are still less than half way through this monstrous task.
I remember vaguely back in October looking forward to this month. It seemed a week or so of good, honest work. It now seems like a task from hell as I stare at seemingly unending pile of wood to be chopped.
Anyway, enough with the whining. Time to don my freezing gear, clamp my head into the icy hard hat, corral my hillbilly wife to the task ahead and swing my way to a full woodshed. Ah, the romance of life in the bush.
Photo by Jim Lawrence www.kootenayreflections.com
As I approached the spot where the protest was to be held, hundreds were already milling around looking expectant and the local police – all three of them – were out in force.
“We’d better park the car around the back so when the fighting begins it doesn’t get damaged,” I said, turning to Gillian, our second guide.
She looked at me strangely. “Nobody’s going to fight. Nobody’s going to trash the car,” she said laughing. “This is Canada.”
A protest without the possibility of a scrap? I thought. How reasonable.
As a foreign correspondent with a British broadsheet until I hung up my notepad four years ago, I had spent half my professional life covering protest and conflict.
There was the storming of the parliament in Belgrade when half a million angry protestors gathered to overthrow the Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.
As I stood there that day, tears streaming down my face from the waves of CS gas and fighting the urge to vomit, I remember the euphoria that coursed through my veins as the riot police turned tail and ran.
Then there was the 100,000-strong throng I joined as they stormed through the streets of Tbilisi in 2003 to seize the seat of national power and oust the corrupt old leader, Eduard Shevardnadze, defying government thugs wielding skull-breaking iron clubs. I even kept one of the clubs for a while as a memento.
There were other revolutions too that I followed from the street – in Ukraine, in Albania, in Romania. Sometimes there were bullets, sometimes just clubs and batons. Each time it was only when the authorities were faced with the unstoppable force of people power that they finally gave in.
As Gillian and I emerged into the crowds outside Kaslo’s Secondary School last month the scene couldn’t have been more different. Instead of flying stones and bottles there was singing, multi-coloured banners and happy clapping.
Two young ladies, angelically adorned, passed by high above my head on stilts with drapes of muslin streaming behind them. Drummers beat a steady beat with their hands. Others tapped tambourines in time.
“No to greed,” read the banners. “No to greed,” chanted the crowd in a lilting tenor. The total size of the crowd was a little over a thousand.
Nevertheless for the West Kootenays, the small and kooky region of British Columbia that we now call home, it was quite a turn-out.
For a while, as I stood, I tactically considered the layout, as I might have done in downtown Teheran, the journalist in me scanning for escape exits, crush points and agent provocateurs with weapons under their jackets. But I needn’t have bothered.
The most menacing characters there that evening were a smattering of federal and provincial MPs, a First Nation chief or two and a few hoary old backwoodsmen who had arrived in rusty pick-ups.
Alongside were hundreds of ordinary Kootenay folk, some washed, some not, some in ordinary summer wear and others resplendent in organic sandals and eclectic biodegradable dress.
They chanted and they sang. A lady from one of the First Nations spoke emotively about the sanctity of the wilderness. Another decried the greed of the politicians. The speeches were passionate but hardly rabble-rousing. People hugged each other. Not even a whiff of violence.
The issue at stake was certainly important as local matters go.
A private power company had hatched a plan to dam two much-prized and boisterous mountain rivers in our backyard, some of the most pristine wilderness left in southern British Columbia.
Cables would be run through virgin valleys, the wildlife would suffer, the wilderness would retreat a little further, and a distant investor would make a small return. In exchange they promised a few local jobs.
The entire process was skewed from the start.
In an attempt to ram this and other such projects through, the right-of-centre provincial government had annulled legislation requiring the support of local MPs and hearings such as this one I was attending had been downgraded and were now merely “advisory.”
Government officials, seemingly working in cahoots with the power company, had called the meeting I was now at to allow the locals to have their say. But the presiding bureaucrat, squirming a little on his plastic chair, admitted that the numbers and nature of the protest would have no effect on the outcome.
For a while I stood and watched the proceedings, detached, cynical and a little bored. Over the years I had watched rulers use countless tricks to hoodwink their hapless subjects.
As the protestors clapped and sang, I stood, arms crossed and silent.
But then, slowly, as the evening wore on and one indignant local followed another to the microphone to protest, I felt something inside me begin to soften.
Perhaps it was the gentle reasonableness of the protestors. Or their naïve hopes. Or the ham-fistedness with which they expressed their ardour.
Or perhaps it was the hopelessness of the cause, the way that the politicos had snidely skewed the outcome before the process had even begun, or the fact that so many people had travelled so far in a fruitless attempt to have their voices count for something.
I’m still not sure what it was that I found so overwhelmingly endearing about the gathering. But even as I chided myself for being such a naïf, I felt a lump come into my throat.
The people were trying to have their say. The rulers were having none of it. Exposing such injustice was exactly what had motivated me in my years as a journalist.
And as I stood there surrounded by my mountain neighbours, the smell of unwashed feet gently wafting up from a set of unusually hairy toes beside me, I felt a warmth towards my fellow souls in the Kootenays – this wonderful collection of hippies, homesteaders and non-conformists who inhabit a dozen small communities nestled in the foothills of BC’s Selkirk and the Purcell ranges.
They might not be sophisticated or particularly lucid but they were so colourful, so earthy, so human, so honest and, ultimately, so loveable, especially compared to the cardboard cut-out officials and company representatives arrayed on the other side of the table in their drab grey suits with their carefully-manicured doublespeak.
A few days later we threw a party down by the river. We invited our friends and neighbours and they turned up in numbers.
Sunny – neighbour, friend, carpenter, crooner and model of simple, wholesome living – was, as ever, responsible for the music.
I watched him as he lovingly took his most precious possession, a $5,000 hand-made Marten acoustic guitar, from his $400 rust bucket of a car and somehow I found the financial differential between the two, which said so much about his priorities in life, immensely pleasing.
Gillian came too with an unusual entourage that included her new boyfriend – a young man making headway in the local tree-planting community – and two children that she had borrowed for the evening.
Michael, the local bear biologist, appeared in a ragged old cowboy hat.
Forest and Jen, fellow residents of the upper valley who homestead on a beautiful plot of land in the forest, arrived with their four children, the younger ones traipsing after their mum like ducklings after a mother duck.
As the conversation ebbed and swirled, the river flowed past blue and powerful, the campfire burned, all flickering oranges and yellows, and the guests ate huge sticks of Russian-style shashlyk. There was cider, beer and a few bottles of vodka.
Fortified, I even brought out my guitar and tried out some of the tunes Sunny had taught me during the long winter evenings. I don’t think anybody clapped, but they didn’t hiss or whistle either.
That weekend we ran the river in our whitewater raft for the first time this year.
This first descent is always something of an event and I picked four of the hardiest men I knew – Sunny, Steve, Forest and Michael – and brought a chainsaw and coils of rope to try and keep us all out of trouble.
Despite some wicked waves in the rapids we made it down unscathed.
Then we ran it a second time, just for fun.
This time Sunny and Michael, not content with the adrenalin rush that the first run had provided, took out a beautiful virgin cedar canoe that Sunny had lovingly hand-built.
It was a madcap idea and I told them so.
Against all the odds they made it through the rapids upright but were unhorsed by a freak wave and plunged into the icy torrent, heads struggling to stay above the surface.
It took a rescue with emergency throw ropes to save the two as they were swept down the swollen river. The casualty list included some badly strained muscles, acres of bruising and scraped skin and a canoe smashed beyond repair on its maiden voyage.
As I watched Sunny struggling to catch his breath, I felt a wave of affection for this crazy man who was willing to risk his live on a whim. And I realised, not a little shamefully, that my earlier judgment had been far too harsh.
Were my new friends and neighbours reasonable? Perhaps. They certainly eschewed conflict and physical violence. But boring? Hardly. Insipid? Not a bit of it.
Slow to flare and fiercely proud, they could be some of the craziest and most daring people I have met. Mad as a Montenegrin. Rash as a Russian.
And as I reflected on the hardy men and women that have made these hardscrabble mountains their home, I realised that that the grey suits in charge in Victoria are extremely lucky that they are apolitical as they are.
If they chose to direct their fervour into politics and rebellion, it would have taken more than a few weasel words from the emissaries of the men in power to keep the lid on their anger.
Mark Franchetti of the Sunday Times came to the ranch earlier this month. More used to covering wars, conflicts and violent parts of Russia, this was his first travel piece. Here is the review he wrote.
Deep in the remote wilderness of British Columbia, I was in the back of a 4WD as it negotiated its way along a mountain dirt road.
A spectacular view opened up in the abyss below, across an emerald-green lake ringed by infinite thick forests. Mesmerised by the unspoilt beauty, I was almost day-dreaming when the car came to an abrupt halt. “Bear!! Bear to the right!!” cried out Julius Strauss, my guide.
I have seen bears before, but either caged or as tasteless decoration before a fireplace. This was entirely different — my first live bear in the wilderness.
The animal, a hungry midsized black bear recently out of hibernation, was nibbling grass by the side of the road, its back turned to us. Slowly we edged closer, killed the engine and stepped out of the car to get a better look. The bear turned and spotted us. We froze. It froze.
“In the unlikely event that a wild bear charges you, stand still. Do not move. Whatever you do, don’t run away!” Those were the strict instructions Julius had given me. Easier said than done.
Briefly, I wondered if I was about to go down in the annals of bear-viewing as a chicken-hearted coward who tried — and failed — to outrun an enraged black bear.
But as I learnt in my four days with Julius, not only are bears intelligent, they are also shy and generally good-natured. They need a good reason to attack, let alone eat you — more later on what to do in this case, other than panic, obviously.
Some 30yd apart, we and the bear by the roadside stared at each other for a few minutes. It sniffed the air to make us out, took two final mouthfuls of grass and then yawned — a mild stress sign, whispered Julius. Then, with a few agile steps, it was gone, vanishing in the thick forest. It was truly a lovely moment.
If you are inclined towards experiencing pristine wilderness, you will be hard-pressed to beat a few days at the Grizzly Bear Ranch in British Columbia’s Selkirk Mountains. Or if, like me, you are an urban beast whose love affair with the wild is limited to watching David Attenborough, then you should try it, for it is quite an eye-opener.
The ranch is owned and run by Julius, a British former war correspondent, and his Estonian wife, Kristin, also a former journalist. Before I go on, let me come clean: they are friends of mine. I promise, nonetheless, to remain unbiased.
Three years ago, Julius and Kristin — both self-confessed “townies” — turned their back on a life of urban comfort, financial security and high-flying jobs to move to British Columbia.
If you’re thinking of one of those television programmes — say, about a family from Milton Keynes packing up and moving to sunny Spain to open up a restaurant — well, think again. This is the real thing, because the spot they chose is stunning, but it’s also very, very remote.
The ranch — several wood cabins — sits on the banks of a fast-flowing mountain river at the top of an enchanting valley covered in thick forests of firs, cedars and hemlocks that stretch as far as the eye can see.
Towering above are snow-covered ridges and peaks that reach 9,000ft. The closest hamlet — population a few hundred — is an hour’s drive away. The nearest proper big supermarket is two hours. The area is off-grid: there are no phone lines and no mobile coverage.
In winter, when the two-lane dirt track to the ranch can turn treacherous, there is up to 4ft of snow and temperatures drop to -20C. Skip snowploughing for a few days and you risk being stuck until spring.
For all its beauty — and, trust me, this is untouched wilderness at its best — I would end up insane and divorced in less than a week were I to move to such isolation. That, of course, is why the bears like it so much. They are not into people. Both black bears and grizzlies — whose numbers are dwindling — populate the forests around the ranch, alongside moose, deer, wolves and coyotes.
Between late May and late October, Julius and Kristin take in six guests at a time for three days and three nights. They stay by the aquamarine river in simple but comfortable wood cabins, which are supplied with fresh linen and fitted with a wood-burning stove, a hot shower, composting lavatory and electricity — supplied by the ranch’s independent power system. They have also installed satellite internet, so if you really don’t want to get away from it all, you can always e-mail and Skype.
Kristin, whose formidable cooking talents make her as special as the bear-viewing, serves guests a hearty breakfast, a very generous packed lunch and a two-course dinner — or a barbeque feast. All food, which is nearly all organic, is freshly cooked and every meal is different. Breakfast and dinner are served at a communal table in the hosts’ cabin.
The place is so remote that you can walk for hours without coming across a single person. “We keep the number of guests down to keep the experience more personal and to disrupt the bears as little as possible,” said Julius. “Our bears are not usually habituated to humans. Some may never have seen a person before. It’s not bears on tap, it’s not a safari park, but we have never had a guest during bear season who has left without seeing one.”
Julius has seen up to 10 bears a day.
In my four days at the ranch, at the very beginning of this year’s season in early May, I came across six. We climbed up old logging and mining tracks on foot along steep gorges and clear mountain streams. Julius looks for bear prints and scat, which he attentively examines like some rare delicacy. What did the bear eat and when did it relieve itself?
I very much got into the spirit of things and by the end of my stay found myself becoming excessively excited at the sight of fresh bear scat — too much pure air, clearly. Another guest was soon taking bear-scat snapshots. To my bitter disappointment, on day four, when I thought I knew enough to put Julius out of business, I found myself carefully poking a stick into some mud I had mistaken for poo and lovingly studying it.
The bears proved shrewder, for while I was trudging heavily in the snow, looking for them high up, they were lazily feeding by the roadside, which is where all my six chance encounters took place.
Late May to the end of June is when you are most likely to see black bears. Grizzly-viewing season runs from mid-September to the end of October, when bears weighing up to 800lb and measuring up to 8ft — standing — descend to the valley to catch fish as they spawn in the river that runs past the ranch.
If that sounds worrying, don’t be alarmed. You are far more likely to get run over by a car than mauled by a bear. Every year in Canada and America only two or three people are killed by bears. While minor attacks are more frequent, in most cases an unprovoked wild bear will not attack a person if you stick to a few basic rules.
Bears are very fast runners, reaching speeds of up to 35mph. So if you come across one face to face, do not run — unless you are in tights and matching vest, on an athletics track and your name is Usain Bolt. Running away from a bear provokes its hunting instinct. It is sure to run after you and almost certainly spoil your holiday. They can also swim rapids and are great tree climbers.
Talk to the bear. Try “Yo, bear”, “Good bear”, “Nice bear”. Seriously, that’s what the experts teach you. And walk away slowly. If, however, you are exceptionally unlucky and the bear charges you, then you are taught to distinguish between a bluff charge and a predatory assault.
The first and most common of the two could give you a heart attack, but will come to an abrupt end without ever reaching you. Here, too, you must not run. Yeah, right. I know. But as part of his ABC of bear-viewing, Julius shows a safety video with footage of people doing just that, and they are all Canadians, so it must be possible.
If, however, the charging bear is determined to have you for lunch and does not stop, then you should first fall to the ground and pretend to be dead — so advise the experts, who also say that if it continues to attack you, then you can always grab a stick and try to fight it off.
No, the video does not show anyone pulling this off, so good luck. Remember, such attacks are exceptionally rare. Julius has never been charged by one, but for safety he always carries a can of bear spray — a powerful form of pepper spray.
He and Kristin disclose the exact location of the ranch only to guests who have prepaid part of their holiday, to avoid attracting bear hunters from other regions. Shockingly, hunting of both black and grizzly bears is still legal in British Columbia.
This, even though most of its residents are in favour of a ban, at least to protect grizzlies — some 400 of which were killed in British Columbia last year. Commercial bear-viewing also now generates more revenue than bear-hunting, which Julius is lobbying the local authorities to ban.
So forgive the less than detailed map. But believe me, the Grizzly Bear Ranch is not a Nigerian money scam. It’s real, as are the bears. I’ve been there and saw them. And I loved it.
Mark Franchetti travelled as a guest of British Airways and the Grizzly Bear Ranch
My Russian has never been particularly scholarly or grammatical, but with a Slavic shrug here, a sibilant grunt there and a well-chosen bitten-off expletive tossed into the mix I have usually managed to get by in the former Soviet Union.
Once during my incarnation as an itinerant journalist I shaved my locks down to nol pyaty, the standard coiffeur for a Russian conscript, and, dressed in a Red Army uniform, impersonated my way onto a military helicopter and into the then war-torn republic of Chechnya.
This last week, however, the scope of my knowledge of the language of the proletariat was tested to its limits and found wanting as Kristin’s Dad, Tiit, made his first visit to the ranch since we moved out here more than three years ago.
A man of action with little time for the finer things in life, he had barely rubbed the jetlag from his eyes when he dived into an elephantine task that I have been putting off for some time: insulating the crawl space that separates the floor of our house from the ground.
The previous owners of the ranch had never bothered much with such niceties such as insulation and during the long cold winter evenings our feet lose all feeling and turn blue after prolonged contact with the kitchen floor.
Furthermore – eco-friendly citizens that we claim to be – there really is no excuse for pouring away thousands of log-hours every winter just to warm the gravelly and indifferent British Columbian sod.
By any measure the task at hand was a nasty and as Tiit disappeared muttering under the house I donned headlamp, kneepads, overalls and a clutch of tools and followed him into the bowels of the building.
As each of us lay on our backs in the wet dirt, surrounded by the putrefying remains of long-dead mice and other small vertebrates, we contemplated the job ahead: stapling 1,200 square feet of reflective film to the underside of the wooden beams.
The surface area was huge, the gap between the earth and the floor little more than two feet, and the work fiddly, claustrophobic, tiring and bitingly painful for the stomach muscles.
As soon as we were in position, Tiit, a man who runs his own large engineering company in his native Estonia and is used to being obeyed, began to shout out long and complex orders in high-speed Russian.
His vocabulary was heavily industrial, included a tumble of Estonian and Finnish words and was delivered with an execrable Nordic accent that left me almost no chance at comprehension.
As I lay in the dirt, nose crammed against a dank water pipe, rock chewing at my back, I tried to pick out the words. Molotok was one I recognized but couldn’t remember what it meant. Pyla another.
Then, just as I struggled to make some sense of the latest delivery he would pump out a fresh interrogative. “Is your copper gas pipe 5mm or 6mm inside diameter?”
These would throw me completely. First of all I would have to convert millimeters to inches, then translate the whole lot into English, work out the answer and put it back into Russian.
By then his train of thought had moved on and he would have launched into a fresh Slavo-Finno-Ugric verbal contortion, part philosophy, part order, part soliloquy.
I felt like I was being subjected to a linguistic version of water-boarding. My brain told me that the ordeal was survivable – that one day I would see the sun again and breathe fresh air – but my mind had difficulty accepting that premise.
Finally, in a fit of pique, I threw down my tools and headed for the escape hatch and the outside world.
Ten minutes later Tiit put a staple through a main power cable.
Even under pedestrian circumstances connecting with 120 volts is, literally, shocking, but Tiit has the added excitement of being surrounded by half an acre of aluminium foil. It lit up like a Christmas Tree.
He came out of the exit hole like a ground squirrel with a weasel on its tail, hair on end, white-faced and giggly with shock. I admit to feeling a little pleased and hoped that we might now abandon the whole sorry venture. But half an hour later we were back down the hole again.
By the time we finally took off our overalls four days later we had fixed a whole list of infrastructural imperfections.
Collectively the tally of mended, improved and installed items included two wood-burning stoves, a wonky door, a new dishwasher, two chimneys, a toilet, a kitchen tap and two new layers of loft insulation.
By the time we headed back for Calgary airport at the end of the week, I felt like the walking dead and even Tiit, giperactivni that he is, was finally beginning to wilt.
The adventure, however, was not quite over. Just a few miles from the airport and check-in the large purple Land Cruiser, our automotive pride and joy and conqueror of the mountain trails, threw a mechanical fit.
First the automatic gearbox stalled. Then it began to shudder and kangaroo hop at low speeds. The only remedy was not to slow down and with every mile that became more and more treacherous.
When we finally reached airport parking – and without the option of slowing down, stopping or reversing – we came screeching into the lot, cannoning over the pedestrian islands like drunken hillbillies.
Once stopped, the car was clearly going nowhere. So Kristin and I decided to make the best out of a bad situation and checked in to a luxurious little B&B we know near the centre of town. (It’s called River Wynde and we highly recommend it for any of our guests heading through Calgary this year.)
There was, of course, more consolation to come. We spent the next two days eating Vietnamese, Indian and sushi and drinking fine coffee and draft beer.
As for our poor abandoned Land Cruiser it seems the transmission is broken. We’re looking at several thousand dollars to mend it – not a welcome outgoing at a time when the global financial mess is finally hitting the British Columbia tourism market.
So the car has stayed at the mechanic’s and is booked in for a long remedial holiday while the specialists put together a diagnosis and order the necessary parts from the US.
Kristin and I, meanwhile, had one grand stroke of luck – Peggy, a friend, gave us a lift all the way from Calgary to our own muddy front door yesterday.
Not a moment too soon. Anticipating a quick turn-around, neither of us had brought more with us on the trip than a change of underwear and a toothbrush.
Kristin, of course, looked immaculate as ever but I was beginning to appear a little ragged around the edges and had noticed the occasional disparaging glance from the slick townies.
Definitely time to head back to the wilderness where folk don’t turn their noses up at an unwashed lumberjack shirt and a pair of dirty working trousers.
It seems that wherever you turn there is the rumour and sign of their passing.
Olli, our septuagenarian German neighbour who has spent more than 20 years up here in the bush, reports three wolf kills on his 500-acre plot.
Across the river from us there is another kill and Ed and Lynda have seen the coyotes and eagles scavenging what the wolves have left behind just across from their house.
Today, for the second time in a week, I crossed the river to investigate. There are no houses over there and the wild animals run just a little freer than on our lightly homesteaded western bank.
Taking the two dogs – German Shepherds, our own two socialised wolflets – I set off through the three-foot deep snow.
It was fairly warm out and the snow was heavy and cloying. With not a single snowfall in the last three weeks every track stood out firm and strong.
At first I traced my own footsteps – made last weekend on a first foray – but after a few hundred feet I branched off to the right and upwards.
It was heavy going, I had stripped my snowshoes down to their minimum and I sunk ever deeper as I struggled upwards. Every now and then I stopped to catch my breath.
After a few minutes I came across the first wolf tracks. Just one lone little trail. Then another trail joined in. Then another.
Soon I was walking on what can only be described as a wolf highway. I looked for signs of humans but there were none. Once or twice there was a larger tracks – probably elk or moose.
And then we came across the first wolf scat – a fairly compact dog-like turd but packed with hair.
My two charges looked alarmed. Until then they had happily snuffled along in the snow, sniffing at this and that, content in the belief that their omnipotent master was with them.
Now they looked at me – unarmed, red-faced and breathing heavily – and I could see the thought cross even their dull canine minds: will he really be able to see off a pack of wild wolves?
Of course the brave duo had chased townie doggies around Anchorage last winter but now they were up against real lupine hillbillies that feast on live animals and drink the blood of ungulates.
They looked worried. Then we saw another wolf scat, and another. As if to the fall of an invisible conductor’s baton, they both arched their backs and pinched off their own rather less fearsome looking product.
I was not sure if it was one of those dog scent-marking moments or perhaps the prospect of a face-to-face meeting with their undomesticated brethren that had loosened their bowels.
Of course, I have always wanted to see a wolf, but so far my efforts have been barren. Since arriving in wolf country it seems that everyone has seen one except me.
Last year while out guiding, the guests in Gillian’s car (Gillian is our excellent, second guide) twice saw wolves – once a lone animal and another time a small group of four or five on a magical frosty late autumn morning.
We have even had a guest who took a close-up snapshot of a wolf, not a mile from our house. At first she thought it was a neighbour’s dog, it stood so still and calm.
When the photo arrived in our email box one morning – the guest had been leaving when she took the photo – there it was: a magnificent black wolf, with piercing green eyes.
There was one time, driving near the ranch late at night, when I fancied I spied a wolf in the headlights but it may have been a coyote, an animal we see fairly frequently.
With only one recorded human death at the hands of wolves in north America in the last 100 years, I was willing to take the chance of running into a whole pack of them.
The dogs, I suspect, were not, and they stuck to me like barnacles for the next half hour or so as we passed several more hairy turds and pools of blood in the snow.
At the bottom of one incline there were the remains of what looked like an elk. The wolves had done themselves proud.
All that was left of the unfortunate was fur and the herbivorous contents of it’s stomach.
Tramping through the snow on a sunny day is only one of many delights we have discovered in our first full winter in the valley.
We did, however, cheat a little over Christmas and visited Europe for six weeks since my last posting.
We travelled to England, Wales, Hungary and Estonia and spent a wonderful time traipsing around cafes and restaurants and catching up with family and friends.
Of course with the trip came jetlag – and an opportunity to catch up on some of the European reading we miss so much here in the New World.
Both Kristin and I read Charlotte Hobson’s beautifully-narrated account of a year spent in a provincial Russian town the year that Communism fell.
I also read Arkady Babchenko’s brutal account of fighting in Chechnya. But the find of the trip was Patrick Bishop’s A Good War.
Patrick was once my foreign editor at the Daily Telegraph. Since then he has gone on to greater things with the publication of three non-fiction books in as many years.
A Good War is his exceptional first novel. It is so much more than just a good war story.
I don’t usually plug products in this blog – especially not those written by my friends – it would somehow seem wrong.
But both Kristin and I enjoyed the book so much I have to mention it. So, next time you’re looking for something for a winter evening by the fire, that’s our recommendation.
When we finally got back to north America the ranch was buried under three feet of iced, crusted snow.
Far too tall an order for our feeble catalogue snow plough, we called on the services of neighbour Ed who ploughed a small path to our front door with his yellow digger.
Once we had the water working and the house heated – which took the best part of 48 hours – the next task was to clear the snow off the roofs of the outbuildings.
During our first two winters we have both times lost structures to the weight of the snow and were determined to avoid the same this year.
For days on end I stood on the roofs and shoveled, no mechanical shortcut available.
For the wolflets – now three years old and no smarter than the day they were born – this was a pleasure almost too much to bear.
For hours at a time they stood below and fought over the flying chunks, growling, barking and snapping at each other as if each icy missile was the juiciest, meatiest morsel.
Since arriving in our remote valley nearly three years ago we have, despite our struggles, been viewed by the more fibrous of the mountain men that live around us as something of outsiders, townies even.
Part of the problem is that we drive a purple SUV and not a pick-up. It doesn’t help that we don’t hunt. Neither of us drink American Budweiser and we mostly drink organic beer – hippy juice to the redneck.
But the most condemning facet of our existence, one that stands head and shoulders above all our other sins in local eyes, is that each winter we pack up and head out.
Never mind that for the last two years we have headed north not south and spent the cold months not in the Bahamas but in that unlovely northern city, Anchorage. For the diehards that matters not a bit.
Of course this is Canada, not the US, and even that saltiest locals are too polite to say rude things to our faces. But we can see the looks, hear the mumbled comments.
Prissy part-timers, seasonal lightweights, sunny-weather wannabes.
Each time we head into the local village (an hour’s drive on an icy road along a frigid lake) we are greeted with the words: “Heading out again for the winter?” or “Off somewhere nice this year?”
The comments somehow rankle and behind the smiles we often half-suspect a mixture of pity (Ah… They’re not up to it!) or smug condescension (Of course our winters are tough. Aren’t you?).
Well. I’ve got news for the mutterers and old-timers. This year we will not be heading out of the valley. We are – I almost feel a lump in my throat as I say the words – staying for the winter.
So what’s the big deal, you might ask. It’s not exactly the old days when you laid in your provisions in October and didn’t open the cabin door, except to trap marten and mink, until May.
There are no armed prospectors and thieves roaming the hills and the nasty beasties of the forest are all nicely tucked up in their winter dens.
Well, that’s true, but in some ways, it is a big deal. First of all there is the snow.
Of course I’d seen snow before we came to Canada.
I’d struggled across the cold blown plains of Siberia in February past the ruins of Stalin’s gulags and caravanned through the Afghan Hindu Kush in January with gunmen for company.
Some of the places I have been have winter temperatures several tens of degrees lower than the place we now call home.
But nowhere I have seen in a life of wandering, nor even imagined in the most raw and exotic dreams, have more snow than we have here.
We have buckets of the stuff, truckloads, whole mountains of white that creep into every crevice and fill every hole. Sometimes it falls relentlessly for day after day after day.
At times it is light, powdery and playful as a kitten – at other times wet, heavy, stolid. When it melts and then refreezes it turns into immoveable ice formations that require a pick or better to dislodge.
Then, of course, there is the isolation. Highway 31, never a magisterial transport artery, turns into an icy track – a tenuous thread that struggles to keep the valley connected to the world.
Every day or so, it is true, a huge yellow plough – all flashing lights and scraping metal – appears like a pre-historic animal and does battle with the encroaching white stuff.
But as soon as it has passed the snow once again begins to mass, squeezing our lifeline to the south, our supply of fuel and groceries and our physical route out of this arctic hide-away.
When the road is impassable there is of course the satellite. Our internet and telephone connection are both channeled through an 18 inch dish perched on the back of our house.
But during heavy falls that too gathers precipitation and reception slowly fades to nothing. The only option then is a red-blooded trek through waist-high snow to scrape the dish free of its icy crust.
If our systems fail – and they always seem to die during the coldest days of winter, never during the far-off warming days of summer – we fall back on the basics: firewood, candles, warm clothes.
So why, you might ask, go through all this? Why not head out? South? West? East? Anywhere with better infrastructure and a gentler climate?
The answer, I suppose, is simple. The winter, for all the trials that it brings, is just gorgeous: a time of year to be embraced and relished.
It is a time of unearthly quiet, knitted pullovers, long hours by the log fire and beautiful sunny days when the entire valley sparkles as if host to a celestial light.
Today I walked with the dogs down to a bend in the river a few miles to the north of the ranch. (It is the place we take our guests to look for grizzly bear and wolf tracks in the sand in the autumn.)
There was two or three feet of snow on the ground and nobody had been that way since the latest fall. As I snow-shoed down towards the river I saw fresh deer tracks and some small scat, probably from a weasel or some other mustelid.
For a while I stood and just stared at the sparkling water, the snow and the sun on the distant peaks. It seemed incredible to have all this beauty in one place, and with no one else for miles around.
When darkness begins to fall – and dusk is now coming around 4pm as we approach the shortest days of the year – we retreat to sit in front of the fire. Sometime we watch a European art movie that we have been saving up, other times we read.
Every Wednesday evening Sunny, a treasured neighbour who lives a mile or so to the south, comes over. Kristin cooks something and we drink wine and play the guitar. (He’s teaching. I’m learning.)
Olli, who lives a little further down the valley on 500 acres of cleared forest, drops by some dark evenings to tell us his stories of 30 years spent in the Canadian bush with grizzly bears, elk and wolves.
At other times we take up a neighbour’s invitation to party, chuck a chainsaw, some snow chains and a couple of six packs into the back of our Land Cruiser and head south through the blustering snow.
Once a week or so we make the two hour drive into Nelson, the nearest town of any size and home to an eclectic collection of hippies, loggers and left-wing radicals, to take in provisions and meet up with friends.
Not to say they are so wedded to the wilderness that we never leave.
Next week we will be departing on a trawl through Europe – our annual pilgrimage to catch up with old friends and families – that will take in England, Wales, Hungary and Estonia.
We’ll leave the dogs with friends in the village, drain the water, shut off the power and let the snow slowly engulf everything.
But by mid January we’ll be itching to be back again. The rush, the bustle, the rudeness of the big cities makes for a pleasant visit, but a poor place to live a life.
Anyway, friends, guests and colleagues, the wilds are calling. Time to put down my pen and don my hat, gloves and boots – and take up a shovel.
Meanwhile Kristin and I wish you all a very Happy Christmas and a marvellous New Year. And in 2009 we hope to see as many of you as can make it out here at our little wilderness paradise.
By any measure it’s been a fine year here at Grizzly Bear Ranch.
The bears have been healthy and numerous in our valley (with the exception of a slow week in September), the weather has, for the most part, been glorious and our guests have been plentiful and pleasant.
After putting our hearts into making every holiday at the ranch a winning one, the end of October marks that time of year when the grizzlies head into the high country to sleep, our guests return to their winter habitats and we baton down the hatches against the approaching winter.
November is usually a month of mixed blessings – many of the animals depart, the weather turns cold bringing in driving rain and snow and the road at the end of our driveway turns into an ice rink.
But we also get a chance to pay off our debts, visit our friends in the valley, read cherished books we have carefully squirreled away for just such occasions during the busy summer, and get in the firewood.
November is also the month we make our annual pilgrimage to Vancouver to feast on Chinese food, take in the multi-ethnic sights, sounds and smells, stock up on provisions not available locally and browse the multi-story bookshops.
Inevitably, perhaps, this year it has not all been plain sailing.
After spending thousands repairing and replacing the suspension, steering and brakes on one of our Land Cruisers at a specialist workshop in Vancouver, it spluttered to a stop 10 miles from home.
The alternator had blown. For the second time in two months. As we struggled along in the dark the words that the mechanic who last fixed it used to reassure Kristin came floating back to me: “I’ve rebuilt it… it’s as good as new… will last forever.”
We finally made it home in our second car but the highway that leads to our house (a glorified goat track as those of you who have been to the ranch will know) is now so potholed that it is shaking our remaining Land Cruiser to pieces.
Back at the ranch we threw ourselves at the firewood with vigour. Every couple of years we buy a logging truck of timber – each load must scale in the tens of tons – and it was waiting patiently for our return.
Sporting a fancy mesh face shield, ear protectors, kevlar gloves and steel-capped boots (I’ve learned a thing or two since arriving in the wilderness) and with Kristin keen and willing to help, we set about dismembering the first of several dozen nuclear missile-sized trees.
And then the saw broke. It didn’t explode glamorously in a fiery inferno or fling bits of searing metal around my head but merely putted-putted disappointingly to an early death.
“Your cylinder’s blown,” the local man told when I took the hapless machine in for repair.
“Can we nurse it back to life?” I whined. “At least for another season or two?” The global economic downturn has been weighing heavily on my mind of late.
“A season or two!?” He looked at me as if I was stupid. “It’s not going to start again. Not even once.”
An hour later, and several hundred dollars poorer, I walked out with a new chainsaw and a worried knot in my stomach. We have six months without income ahead and you certainly can’t eat a chainsaw.
Then, back at the ranch, the house electrics began to go haywire. One of the two chargers that is the backbone of our off-grid system went bonkers and began to spit out unprecedented levels of amperes threatening us with a Chernobyl-style meltdown.
I dived for the main cut-out switch, just in time I’m sure, and, unlike this time last year when we fried the entire system, we are still, thankfully, fully-lit and computerized.
As always in this valley, however, every cloud, it seems, is somehow balanced out by a ray or two of sunshine.
The weather has indeed been beautiful and this morning we woke up to our first proper dusting of snow. The dogs charged around the garden in fits of ecstasy snapping at each other and ingesting huge mouthfuls of the white stuff.
Even better tomorrow we have our annual vodka party for our friends and neighbours in the valley. It’s one of two annual parties that we host.
The first is a reasonably cultured and civilised affair at the end of October, when we invite a small handful of grizzly biologist friends to the ranch to talk bear and raft elegantly down our beautiful river.
Tomorrow’s, if last year’s performance is anything to go by, will be a mad, frenzied free-for-all. If the grizzly biologist party is the social equivalent of Bach, tomorrow will be Iron Maiden.
Last year it was left to Kristin to emerge shortly before dawn, eject the recalcitrant hard core and detach me from a bottle of liquor as I slurred the words to Sunny’s alcoholic riffs on the guitar.
This year I promise to behave better. On a more sober note, we have another milestone to celebrate tomorrow too.
After a happy visit earlier in the year, Patrick Barkham, one of the Guardian’s most lucid and elegant scribes, has put pen to paper to detail our exploits and endeavours here in the valley.
His article is in today’s paper. The link, for the e-friendly among you, is: http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2008/nov/22/bear-watching-british-columbia-canada
For the Luddites and hold-outs who prefer your news hard, raw and on paper, you should find the article in the local newsagent in the Guardian’s travel supplement.
The last time I was in a position to flaunt our little operation to such an audience – that time it was on BBC radio – I was so scatter-brained that I forgot to mention the name of the ranch.
This time, fortunately, the ball is in safer hands. If making us out to be a little odder than we actually are, Patrick has nevertheless done us proud.
We stood mesmerized as he moved towards us, clearly oblivious. With a bound he started in our direction, before stopping to pounce on a red salmon in the river.
We stood there, hearts beating hard, pepper-spray canisters in hand, weighing the next step. Was he alone? Was his mum around? If we sprayed him would she rush to his defence? So many unknowns.
Then the training and all those hours of studying bears kicked in.
“Never surprise a grizzly bear at close quarters.” The mantra flashed through my mind. “Always make sure the bear knows you are there.”
By now the grizzly was barely 100 feet away. We raised our arms and clapped and shouted. The bear came to a sudden and surprised halt. He circled this way and that. Then slowly he moved off into the bush.
As bear encounters go, this was an exciting one. Coming face to face with a wild grizzly fishing for salmon in the wilderness, unarmed, on foot, and on its own terms is an experience to be savoured.
On the BC coast some bear-viewing operations offer the commodified experience of watching bears from purpose-built viewing platforms. But the bears are habituated to people, predictable, and somehow distant.
We prefer the less consistent but more varied viewing that comes with operating around totally wild bears. Some are indifferent to humans, some not, but each has its own personality, history and behaviour.
The encounter with the young grizzly today somehow represented a culmination to months of learning about these icons of the wilderness.
There’s more to bears than just watching the animals themselves.
There is the scat – slightly smaller than a horse’s produce but significantly larger than a human’s. Some are red and heavy with berries, others green and apple-scented.
When the bears begin to gorge on the salmon the scats take on a grey colour and a pungent fishy smell.
Then there are the tracks. On a grizzly print the claws are further from the toe-marks than on a black bear and the ball of the foot less curved.
There are less obvious signs too: scratches and bite marks on trees that the bears like to rub and urinate on leaving their scent for the next animal that comes along.
There are bear paths through the bush and tiny snips of hair caught on twigs (black bear hair tends to be uniform in colour, grizzly hair usually varies throughout its length).
Wherever you find bears in our valley you also find sign of other co-residents. In the last few days we have spotted the tracks of elk, moose, a porcupine, a bobcat and several wolves.
Of course learning the lore of the wilderness does not happen overnight. For the past three years I have been studying the forest floor, consulting books and steadily learning.
When I came here I could scarcely tell a willow from a Christmas Tree. Now I can reliably spot a hemlock, cedar, fir, pine, aspen or birch.
I can identify Devil’s Club, thimbleberry, mountain ash, cow parsnip, horsetail and a host of other spring bear foods.
I can tell a juvenile bald eagle from a golden eagle at several hundred feet, separate a Steller’s Jay from a Clark’s Nutcracker, spot a kingfisher, an American dipper and some of the various kinds of hummingbirds.
Kristin, who was always better-versed in these matters than I was, watches the birds in our yard avidly, binoculars in one hand, Sibley field guide in the other.
Her list, which she started in the spring, includes the Downey woodpecker, black-chinned hummingbird, yellow-headed blackbird, evening grosbeak, yellow-rumpled warbler and slate-coloured dark-eyed junco. There are doves, finches, waxwings and pine siskins.
When I was younger and more callow I used to laugh at birders and biologists and their anorak ways. Politics, philosophy, wars and conflicts seemed infinitely more interesting than the natural world.
We still listen avidly to the BBC World Service, have a subscription to the Economist (surely the only one in our valley), and try to keep up with the New York Times on the web.
Georgia, Russia, Iran, Iraq and, of course, Sarah Palin are never far from our dinner table conversations.
But wilderness talk is slowly taking over: the weather, the winter, the leaves, the trees, the garden, the wild animals and, of course, and especially, the bears.
In a bid to better understand them I travelled to Knight Inlet on the west coast of BC in May and have brought experts to the ranch to train Gillian (our other guide) and me in ursine ways.
I have read studies, ploughed through books and listened to those who know more than I do.
At this time of year all that work and patience finally begins to pay off as the grizzlies appear in our valley. After the lament of my previous blog entry, nature is now making up for her former parsimony.
In the last few days, even before the latest encounter, we had seen five different grizzlies in our valley, as well as a mum with two cubs. Two of them have been really showy bears with attitude and character.
Those of you tracking my transmogrification from vodka-swilling city-slicker into turd-sniffing bear nerd will also be pleased to know of another small accomplishment.
I have recently been promised promotion to Full Bear-Viewing Guide (as sanctioned although not yet formally endorsed by the Commercial Bear Viewing Association of British Columbia).
It’s not exactly a pensionable profession, but it is certainly a new direction. Hopefully the bear encounter related above will be the first of many such thrilling meetings with these wonderful animals.