Thursday, August 23, 2012

Time travelling, and fears that make bears bigger than they really are...

Mount Sir Donald (r), in the Selkirk Range of British Columbia.
It's been a while since we last posted. The "re-configured" life gets busy, but it's probably just us catching up on everything now that there are fewer formal responsibilities, at least for the time being. We also took a trip...back in "time". Don't let all the complex quantum physics or the challenges of comprehending the time-space continuum, and other such mathematical models ever put you off such an amazing adventure. With apologies to Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking (literally, the "rockstars" in these fields!), it was remarkably simple.

To be honest, our time-travelling was quite unintentional. In the beginning, our plan had simply been to make a quick road trip out to Alberta, to visit family. Little did we know, that our High Mobility Kayak Transport Vehicle (HMKTV) was also a capable "Time Machine". (Strangely, it maintained its appearance as a "Subaru".) So, securing the narrow boats in the house for a brief rest, with the promise that we wouldn't leave them for long, we lightly loaded the HMKTV with a few essentials, strapped ourselves in, turned the ignition key, and left the present...for the past.

Sir Donald's peak, as if exhaling a "puff" of breath into the high mountain air.
The spectacular "Matterhorn" profile of Mount Sir Donald rises above Rogers Pass, British Columbia, to a height of 10,774 feet. Far below, alongside a remote Canadian Pacific Railway siding, is the former site of a small, temporary, summer survey camp. It's long forgotten, except perhaps, by the handful of us who worked there. Many have passed by it in the comfort of a railway coach, but few have spent much time there, living in the wilds of the Selkirk Mountains. En route to Alberta, we both decided I needed to revisit this place, accessible by a little known railway access. Certainly, we felt the HMKTV would be sufficiently off-highway capable - to take us down the "road"...and back in "time".

Forty-one years ago, a railroad survey engineer braved four long months with a small crew of long-haired, bearded, frequently unruly, university students - at least one of which was sent to this remote place to do some "growing up". (That was me.) In the darkening hours of the late evening, on those regular occasions when the transcontinental passenger train, the Canadian, was briefly stopped in the siding to wait for a priority coal train, passengers must surely have wondered at the extraordinary sight before them. Some of us took great delight in sneaking up to the observation dome and dining / bar cars and standing motionless while increasing numbers of curious passengers gathered to stare back in wonderment from behind the plexiglass. Who were these mountain "creatures", dishevelled and grinning broadly. We were, after all, in the middle of an uninhabited wilderness.

There was a little growing up there although, happily, that process is still incomplete. (And long may it remain so!) It was, however, in the remarkable isolation of Rogers Pass that I had to confront the daily fear of leaving the relative safety of our work camp, to go out into the mountains for the long 12-hour-day.

It was all about the bears.

Another crew member and I did "cross sections" along the survey route. Our job was to measure the steep upslope and downslope angles with handheld devices called inclinometers. We'd claw uphill and often tumble downhill, every 100 feet to get readings. There were times when all we wanted to do was throw those instruments as far as we could! The work was great for the quadriceps but it was physically exhausting and we were alone...the rest of the crew, with their chainsaws, well out of earshot. Rogers Pass was (and is) a grizzly stronghold. I was certain I'd be eaten before the summer was out. I wanted nothing more than to be fired and sent back to Toronto where I could surely find a safer summer job - maybe in a library, shelving books. Alas, my job was so simple, there was little I could do to screw it up. And then there was the matter of pride and public face. None of the other guys seemed to be overly worried about their safety.

Fears can be debilitating but sometimes when there's no easy way out, you're forced to face them. I was deathly afraid of the grizzlies, but there was no easy way out. I remember thinking long and hard and finally realizing that it was my "fear" of what might happen that was causing the distress. It was not the actual likelihood of an encounter with the massive ursus horribilis. It was all about the fear itself.

Last week, when our capable HMKTV took us down the dusty, rough, switchback access to the railway line, I could feel the time compress. Leaving our vehicle, to find the site where our survey camp was located, I could feel all the old fears surface. It was as if I was back in the summer of 1971. I half expected a massive grizzly to rush angrily out of the woods and charge us as we stood vulnerable and far from the relative safety of our vehicle. It was a strangely familiar feeling, after all these years. I could feel the old emotional response rising. But I ignored it.

Deep in the valley, HMKTV...and paddling partner.
There is a German proverb that says, "Fear makes the wolf bigger than he is." Our emotions can be incredibly powerful and they can easily transform us into trembling jelly - if we allow that to happen. When we allow our fears to take over, we stop wanting to discover and explore. We may even stop wanting to dream. Frozen in our situation, we cease to grow. Really, we cease to live.

Forty-one years ago, I came to the realization that it was my super-sized fear that was the problem - not the bears. Here I was in, arguably, one of the most beautiful mountain landscapes in the world, getting stronger and fitter every day - and the railroad even paid us! I could retreat home to the city and look for a job in a "library"...or spend the better part of four months wallowing in fear...or, I could come to the understanding that it was fear, not bears, that was the problem. Of course, we had to be responsible out in the woods, but putting a cap on the fears was the first step to achieving freedom and liberation from the torment. Realizing the source of my distress, I put the "lid" on the fears - and it was a great summer.

My tree and me - together again, after 41 years.
There was a very special tree out there. On weekends when we were off, I used to sit under its towering canopy and read, and think longingly about home and about Joan, the very special girl who I would marry the next year. Even back then, it was tall and strong. It was also, however, in danger of being cut down in the process of our survey. I remember painting a small "peace" symbol on it - I was, after all, a product of the "sixties". :) The tree is still there - it is taller and stronger. Seeing it again was a powerful reminder to stay "rooted" in the face of fears. Of course, we need to be responsible, but we must not ever let fear get its own way - unless it makes a VERY good case.

Travelling back in "time" last week was a rather extraordinary experience and a reminder of lessons learned, long ago, in a remote siding amidst majestic soaring peaks. Since that time, those lessons have freed us to experience many wonderful adventures together.

Remember the proverb. Wherever you want to go or whatever you yearn to experience in life, don't ever let the "wolf" (or the bear) get any bigger than it really is. It'll make all the difference.



  1. Awesome posting Duncan. If we allow it fear can control our lives and stop us from experiencing life to the fullest. We need not to think about what could or might happen but just live in the moment. Often though it is easier said than done.
    Glad you were able to travel back in time to a place that was meaningful in your life and that you were able to let go of your fear.

  2. Thanks for that, Linda. I was, admittedly, keeping one eye on the HMKTV and another on the woods. Joan was clearly amused...but I can run faster. :) Not that running from a bear would be very bright. D.

  3. Always appreciate you coming by, Lee. Now, to get back on the water. :)