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Driving: Bear Necessity

Halfway through a 1,300-mile road trip in remote northern British Columbia, I began to suspect that an encounter with a grizzly bear was, on the whole, far less likely than the chance that my fear of it was going to make me lose my mind. For days I'd been hearing stories: from the campground operator who was chatting at a pay phone when the fog lifted, revealing a rampant grizzly 10 feet away; from the park warden who opened the outhouse door and found one sitting on the can. Soon I was spotting them everywhere—bears on the hillside, bears in the valleys, bears right by the side of the road! On closer inspection, all these apparitions dissolved into logs, boulders, black plastic garbage bags shifting in the breeze. No matter. One night I saw so many snouts and claws against the wall of my tent that I abandoned my lakeside campsite for the stale air of a cheap motel.

Quivering in my boots, let me just say, was not my initial response to the Great Outdoors. A week earlier, when I was still in Vancouver, I was mostly filled with desire—to see a grizzly, to see the country in which it flourishes. As I pored over maps, my eyes kept wandering toward a great loop of northern highway. Passing towns called Toad River and Telegraph Creek, crossing five mountain ranges and two time zones, it promised to bring me into a vast subarctic wilderness, perhaps the last true wilderness south of Alaska and the Yukon. I talked a friend into joining me, then rented an SUV. The promise of wilderness is the promise of human disappearance. The only question was, just how lost could we get in a one-ton, four-wheel-drive GMC?

Given the choice between driving and washing dishes, I would just as soon wash dishes. The constant roar of the engine, the ceaseless vibration, the immobilization of every muscle but those in the eyes and hands—drive like that for eight hours and when you finally crawl out, you're lucky to be able to walk and talk. As it happened, the Alaska Highway, which we took across northeast British Columbia, was no longer the teeth-chattering endurance feat it must have been when U.S. and Canadian troops first poured the gravel back in 1942. Now mostly paved, the highway passed enough scruffy roadside settlements for us to find three hot meals a day and, when we tired of camping, a bed under a dry roof. But earning our I DROVE THE ALASKA HIGHWAY bumper sticker still meant putting up with long distances; broad, empty plateaus; and pavement straight as a line of longitude.

After four days of driving, though, we finally reached Stone Mountain Provincial Park, and a whole new landscape wheeled into view: rugged, sawtooth peaks aproned in black shale; turquoise glacier-fed rivers rushing through the valleys; intrepid bands of willow and spruce clinging to the banks. Evening was coming on, a milky twilight that lingers at this latitude for three hours, and large flakes of snow drifted through the August air like ash. Heading down the far side of the pass, I once again spotted dark shapes in the woods, but these held their ground. I coasted to a stop, killed the engine, and marveled at this bit of symbiosis: a young bull moose and his female companion had skittered out of the trees to lick minerals from the surface of the road. For 20 minutes they ignored our presence 15 feet away and feasted on the highway, breath pluming from their nostrils. When they'd had their fill, they turned and cantered along the side of the road, stiff-legged, hoofs splayed, as if they couldn't quite get their front legs to operate in concert with their rear. And for half a mile, we drafted them with the hazards on, sharing the road.

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