I'd be walking home through the forest, glancing back over my shoulder every 10 or 12 steps with the absolute certainty that a bear had emerged from the bushes and was hot on my trail.
Yes, I too have heard that Whistler black bears are pacified like over-sized canines, but with 28 years of the media drilling into my head that BEARS WILL KILL ME (or steal my picnic basket), I beg your forgiveness for feeling a teensy bit uneasy when walking through the forest alone.
You see, it's the silence that gets to me. Every single time: that deafening, abrasive silence. When I first moved to Whistler in 2010, I was beyond thrilled to leave the city life behind, to find peace of mind and some quiet time amongst the trees. Only, having lived in a city my entire life, I found the vast, rugged wilderness surrounding my neighbourhood completely unnerving. As stupid as this sounds, I felt more comfortable walking down Vancouver's addict-ridden Hastings Street than I ever did walking alone down certain parts of the Valley Trail.
See, nature scares the hell out of me. The natural order is one that is as alien to me as a Mongolian baby shower. I've been raised — coddled, in a way — by the urban order. City folk, even those who claim to prefer nature, get very used to this way of existing. It's a synthetic order — one that has been constructed over time by the values and routines of society — but it's an order we get used to and abide by. We know how to avoid being hit by buses, and how to avoid violent altercations with faux-hawked buffoons and so on.
Even now, after having lived minutes away from dense mountain terrain, and having spent a fair bit of time hiking and running through it, I'm still very uneasy when faced with the wild natural order. Even the most insignificant noise is noticeable — magnified tenfold because it's pitted against nature's deafening silence. Every rustling bush and cracking twig calls me to attention. Every time, I am certain beyond certain that a bear is lurking around the corner. And if it's not — if there's no bear around — it absolutely has to be a cougar lurking in silence, waiting to pounce.
Suffice to say, nature walks are not the pleasant experience mountaineers, hippies and other earthy people have been insisting they are. Nature scares the hell out of me. I like camping, but never alone, where there's wild animals. Where there's bears, there's imminent death. I love to swim, but never in oceans or lakes, where sea creatures live. Where there's fish, there's probably an undiscovered prehistoric eel the size of V-2 missiles that has been woken from its million-year hibernation.
(And, since I've always been told that I'm special — that I'm a unique snowflake among many — it stands to reason that this prehistoric eel would choose me as its first victim in two million years. Or it would be me who falls victim to Whistler's first fatal bear attack ever. It will be me who is picked off by a giant pinecone.)
Sadly, the city has ruined nature for oh, so many of us.
Without decrying city life (it has its bonuses, for sure), that synthetic order shielded me from the raw, dominating force of nature, so much so that even walking 10 minutes into the bush raises my anxiety levels. Many of us say WE LOVE NATURE, but how many of us could comfortably trek through the Tantalus Range on our own for two nights? I'm at the point now where I'm distrustful of city parks —I avoid going barefoot in case I step on a bumblebee. By insulating ourselves with buildings and cars and culture, most of us humans have zero intuitive sense of how to deal with the natural world.
I was nearly swept into some rapids while swimming in the Seymour River last month. The current was much stronger than it looked and when I tried swimming across, it took me with it. I held on to a rock and managed to pull myself back to the riverbank, panting and acutely, intimately acquainted, for the first time ever, with nature's raw, unforgiving authority over us, the (comparatively) feeble humans.
It helps to be reminded of this once in a while. It's certainly helped me, in a way that media coverage of natural disasters never could. I know that the dangers are real, very present, and that I must respect nature.
The result of all this, of course, is that I'm more terrified of nature now than I ever have been. Nature: 8. Stephen: 0.
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