BY JANN EVERARD
This essay is part of the Great Lakes Review’s Narrative Map project.
My voice takes on that peculiar tone of warning, low to start, pitch rising, two syllables made out of a one-syllable name. “Jim.”
He’s ahead of me on the narrow path. Before I’ve even closed my mouth, he’s turned and started back, eyes on my face. He doesn’t run, doesn’t even pick up his pace. One twitch from me and I know he’ll ditch his pack to free his movements. With his back to the danger, it’s a matter of trust. But we’ve been through this before. I keep my eyes on the bear. It watches my husband’s retreat but doesn’t move.
We backtrack along the path. “Big or small?” Jim asks.
“Adult,” I say. “But I’m pretty sure it was alone.” With that, the tension recedes a little. Our first close encounter with a bear took place more than twenty years before on another island—Vancouver Island. I had our infant son on my back when the three of us somehow came between a cub and its mother on a narrow trail in dense bush. We made it back to camp safely, but the memory of our fear—the other possible outcomes our imaginations conjured up—still sticks with us.
I glance back. The bear is eating. Blueberries, I suppose, although it’s late in the season. “Wait it out by the water?” I ask, as if we have any real option. We’ve pulled up our canoe at the start of the portage to avoid rounding a windy point. The spot is boggy and breezeless, rife with whining mosquitoes.
“I guess,” Jim says, testing the wind with an upraised finger. It’s clear he wishes we’d pressed forward on the water, despite the westerlies. It’s me that’s afraid of the rollers and opted for the safer route. Back at the boat, I scrabble through a dry-bag and hand him a granola bar. “We’ll give it ten minutes,” I say, “then try again.”
The pinkish-grey rock where we sit is warm and smooth. We swat bugs as we eat. We’re delayed, yes, but not dissuaded. The bear will move on and the hard part of the day is over. We’ve packed up and left the city three hours behind, manoeuvred through the busy harbour, and paddled the open-water crossing. Already our skin has the sun-toasted smell of late, late summer. The susurrus of white pines has replaced the background track of traffic. Simultaneously, we exhale deeply and lie back to sunbathe while we wait.
But soon I pop up, my mind less willing to relax than my body. “Did you remember the rope to hang the food,” I ask.
“Uh-huh,” Jim mumbles, already halfway to sleep.
Of course he remembered. After dozens of these trips, we don’t forget the essentials. I settle back on the rock. This is how another weekend on Franklin Island begins.
Franklin. One of thousands of islands in Georgian Bay on Lake Huron. It’s a popular spot for canoeists and kayakers, novice and expert. We’ve been coming here for three decades, sometimes with our children, more recently by ourselves. As Crown land, it has the dual advantages of being uninhabited and accessible. Over the years, we’ve circumnavigated the island, clockwise and counter-clockwise, and used it as a jumping-off point to paddle to smaller, more remote island chains farther offshore when the weather’s been right—the Minks and the McCoys. On occasion, we’ve been lazy, paddling no farther than the first unoccupied campsite we’ve come across, quick to sling a hammock and uncork a bottle of wine. When a weekend opens up on short notice, or we just need to get away without much planning, Franklin has been our go-to place.
Experience has shown that the shoulder seasons—spring, or September-October once school resumes—guarantee the best choice of campsites and greater solitude on the water. Our favourite site is at the base of a deep, wide bay on the western side of the island. There’s a large plate of rock, the same runnelled granite that is found throughout the Georgian Bay islands. A patch of sandy beach is just big enough to land a canoe or air-dry on a towel after a swim. The lichen here ranges from a brilliant pumpkin colour to saffron; the sky and water gleam shades of cerulean blue. Storms and wind buffet this place and so the trees lean inland, some bare of branches on their exposed sides. Any one of them could be a model for a painting by the Group of Seven.
On our next sortie down the portage trail, the bear is gone. We pitch our tent on a spongy bed of needles. The day is relaxing but night is best on Franklin, the moon a slender white paring amidst a fizz of stars. We watch the sun set, the clouds settling in inukshuk shapes against a crimson horizon. The scent of resin clings to my hands; my hair carries the perfume of woodsmoke. We snuggle into our fleeces as September warmth is edged back by autumnal chill, listen to the rustles of small nocturnal creatures preparing for winter ahead.
Two summers later, we’re back, our favourite campsite unchanged. It’s a comfort to know that other people who enjoy this place treat it with respect and pack out their garbage. The ring of rocks that mark the campfire is tidy. No cigarette butts mar the miniature beach.
“Lunch, then a dip?” I call out, as Jim deposits the last of our dry-bags by the door of our tent. This trip, the weather is perfect and we’ve paddled around the island’s often-dicey southern point. Shoulders ache pleasantly.
We chow down on bagels toasted in bacon grease, on raw carrots and apples. Eager to swim, we toss our clothes on the sand, leave lunch cleanup until later.
Mid-stroke, I look up at our site. The sun glints in my eyes as a large, black shape ambles across the rock towards our makeshift table.
Like a repetitious bird, I sing out the same familiar song. “Ji…m.”
Jann Everard of Toronto, Canada, is a writer and part-time health administrator. Her short fiction and creative nonfiction have been published in literary journals, newspapers and anthologies including The Fiddlehead, The Antigonish Review, Grain, Whitefish Review, The Los Angeles Review and Coming Attractions 15 (Oberon Press, 2015). Jann is a frequent traveller and an outdoor enthusiast. Please visit her at www.janneverard.com