A cherry Kool-Aid mustache stained the upper lip of my childhood. The Kool-Aid man burst through walls during my cartoon commercial breaks, and this same joyful anthropomorphic mascot was the punchline of more than a few wildly inappropriate ‘Yo mama’s so fat’ jokes being thrown around by the ‘town kids‘ in the back of my school bus.
And it’s this visual—this gigantic, smiling pitcher of Cherry Kool-Aid crushing through concrete walls and bursting into kitchens—that I force to consume my thoughts as I sit bolt upright inside my tent pitched 15km from my car in Kananaskis country. The jovial visual a clear substitute for the image I am actively willing away — the one where the gigantic, not-so-joyful, real-life bear circling my tent bursts through the paltry nylon wall that separates us. Sans Kool-Aid.
Somewhere in the blurred space between awake and asleep, I had responded to burglars outside my tent in dreamland by bolting upright and bravely letting out an irritated and likely unintimidating, ‘Hello?’, in real-life. At the end of Day One of our annual Girls Gone (into the) Wild trip, Janelle and I had cozied into our sleeping bags hours earlier, our heads at opposite ends to maximize space in our tiny tent. And while the burglars had indeed been only in my dream, the wide eyes staring up from the mummy-bag beside me suggested that my fearful state was not altogether unwarranted notwithstanding the lack of actual bad guys outside.
Because there was something outside. And this was bear country.
Not wanting me to further attempt to engage whatever was outside in conversation, Janelle managed to utter a nervous, Shhhhhh, in my direction, and I did my best to blink my way into the world of fully awake. My eyelids the only part of me that dared to move. As if the tiniest sound might send 1,000-pounds of instinctive curiosity crashing into our sanctuary to investigate.
So. Much. Snorting.
The snorts were close, but also kinda cute. And almost playful. At first. But perhaps I wasn’t quite awake. I pictured a cute bear cub rolling around in the space between our tent and the edge of forest that we had deemed as the coziest campsite the night before. Perhaps he agreed. The scratching sounds and the heavy footed lumbering that followed, however? Not as cute. And heaps more terrifying. Maybe baby has a mom.
There is a game you play if you’ve ever been in the backcountry. Not like a game-game, but after hours on the trail covering all manner of topics that would make most mountainmen blush, the conversation will inevitably turn to ‘What-ifs’. What if we encounter a bear, being at the top of the list. And though we may feel like capable bad-ass outdoorsy women-in-the wild, we also make a hella lot of noise coming down the trail, preferring to practice encounter-prevention over encounter-reaction. Sure, we have our bear spray holstered to our hip belts, but whether or not our trigger time would be wild-west worthy has never actually been tested. And in exactly zero of the what-if scenarios had a middle-of-the-night encounter been contemplated. So…what if?
Janelle has clearly been awake for a while. She doesn’t move, and I can’t quite tell yet if she’s paralyzed in fear or totally zen. Me? My heart is racing. I immediately assume death is imminent (I have never been the rational one). And so we remain motionless, allowing worst-case scenarios (the only kind that exist in the darkness of 3AM) to swirl in our subconscious and adrenaline to fill our veins. In the absence of any actual threat (yet), my imagination is happy to fill in the blanks. In these moments, second only to the fear of an unprovoked bear attack (which incidentally seems highly probable at 3AM) is the fear of being ridiculed by the authorities upon discovering our bodies. Obviously. An errant chapstick or a granola bar wrapper found in a jacket pocket—clearly bait for the keen nose of a hungry bear—held up with a headshake for the news cameras as evidence of the stupid humans. I am already picturing the cruel comments section of the online article outlining our demise as I do a mental inventory of my pocket contents. I am sure I put everything scented in the bear locker. Not as sure as I was before the arrival of the threat outside the tent. But, ya know, pretty sure?
More lumbering about outside.
Determined not to become click bait or bear bait, and still trying not to make a sound, I hold my breath as I ever so slowly unzip the vestibule zipper just wide enough for my hand to slip through to find the bear spray still attached to the hip belt of my pack. I brace for the pop-pop-pop of the velcro loops letting go, releasing the canister from the holster while simultaneously sending a succession of adrenaline doses and anticipatory doom through my body.
Still bolt upright, now armed with bear spray, I internally debate whether or not to remove the plastic safety clip. Just in case. I do. No objection from Janelle. I set it down between us. We are ready. We both know I will let Janelle grab it first
if when the bear The Kool-Aid man comes to get us. The noises outside continue. Our visitor seems unaware of, or at least uninterested in, my panic. Which seems at once cruel and a relief as we lay in wait. Through whispered conversation, we debate the pros and cons of actually peeking outside to confirm our suspicions, but we opt for the if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it approach. And wish for sunrise. Because everything will be better in the light. Right? The lumbering steps become distant. And just as my body surrenders to sleep, they return. And then retreat. And then return. And then retreat. The wee hours, a broken record.
In the light of morning, the scat, the scratch marks, the bear tracks, the hair balls, and the dear john letter I was anticipating (or was I hoping?) to find to corroborate our story, to justify the sleepless night, to prove we hadn’t simply scared ourselves silly, were distinctly absent.
And it’s not that we weren’t grateful that our Girls Gone Wild trip had not turned into Girls Gone, but, determined to confirm our close (or was it?) encounter, we did spend the drive home listening to recorded audio of wildlife sounds nonetheless. And while we were able to rule out porcupines, skunks, and all of the ungulates, I solidly maintain that big bad bears (and the Kool Aid man for that matter) remain solid contenders. And I have the imagination to prove it.