We’re exploring themes of wildness and wilderness, into which Nikki van Schyndel’s book, Becoming Wild: Living the Primitive Life on a West Coast Island, is a perfect fit. van Schyndel is not your typical survivalist. She is a contemporary, urban young woman who threw off modern comforts to spend 19 months in a remote rainforest with her housecat and a virtual stranger. Set in the Broughton Archipelago, a maze of isolated islands near northern Vancouver Island, Becoming Wild is a story of survival in the pristine wilderness. Sometimes predator and sometimes prey, 29-year-old Nikki and her companion, Micah, fend off the harsh weather, hungry wildlife, threat of starvation and the endless perils of this rugged raincoast. To survive, Nikki must rely on her knowledge of BC’s coastal flora and fauna, and the ancient techniques of hunting and gathering. In this excerpt, she faces the practical and spiritual ramifications of having to trap a bear.
On our 196th day I saw a big, healthy bear rolling rocks on the beach a hundred yards from the trap. I rowed closer until Gribley eased up to the shoreline. I sat quietly admiring her beauty in the downpour, listening to her munch the tiny crabs she had uncovered.
The bear’s black fur shone with a dark indigo hue, as if reflecting a light that glowed from within. Raindrops glistened on her shiny coat. I fell in love with her magnificence. After I observed her for a blissful half hour, the bear slowly made her way to the edge of the forest, toward the trap.
“Is this our bear?” I asked the universe. I thought it would be impossible for her not to sniff out the rotting fish, and I reasoned her instincts would compel her to enter the trap for the rare treat of putrefied salmon. “How could she not?” I mused.
As if hearing me, the bear turned her head. She stared straight at me. “Do you think you’re the only one who is taken care of?” a voice echoed in my head. The question surprised me.
The bear immediately sauntered into the forest. I rowed closer to the trap’s location, sure I would hear the crash of falling logs. The moment felt surreal.
I strained to hear the sound of the trap over the loud plunking and plopping of raindrops. Instead I heard music. Lovely music. Like an orchestra playing a heavenly symphony that only I could hear. The gloomy green landscape shone with an unearthly electric radiance. I felt my chest vibrating with a surge of energy, as if butterflies were fluttering at light-speed in my chest. Captivated by the music, I spoke softly aloud, “If angels had come down from heaven, this is the music they would play.”
My logical self could not accept ethereal music playing in the forest. My deeper, heartfelt self was thankful. Half of me wanted to pull ashore to investigate, while the other wanted to stay put so as not to startle the bear. My rational mind picked up the oars and rowed home. As the music began to fade, I prayed for the blue sparkling bear, torn between a wish for her safety and my need for winter food.
I didn’t know what to say to Micah. When I stepped into the shack to tell him about my experience, I felt bombarded by hard-fact reality, as if the shack were sucking away the enchanted feeling that quivered through me. Micah had gotten used to my “dropping of the veil” stories. When I told him of the blue bear, his eyes widened and he beamed me a non-judgmental smile. He motioned me outside and lifted up his newly carved hemlock spear.
The next morning I heard footsteps running up to the shack. The door flew open. “Come quick,” Micah panted. “The bear triggered the trap.”
Shocked, I blurted out, “What? Is it dead?”
“No, it’s gone. Let’s go.”
As I pulled my raincoat off its nail, I glimpsed the large, Rambo-type survival knife hanging near the door. We had never used it or even carried it before, but for some reason I grabbed it, strapped it to my belt, and tied it around my leg.
I rushed to the boat to catch up with Micah. With a heave I pushed Gribley off the beach and jumped in, hoping the bear tracks wouldn’t tell the story of a wounded bear. Micah’s heavy, six-foot-long spear lay across the boat seats. I let out a sigh of relief. At least one of us had finally carved one.
Approaching the trap area, we tracked the large depressions the blue bear had left in the soft debris the day before. They paused in front of the trap. Long claw marks tore into the main crushing beam, which now lay on the ground. She had pushed over the immense log, climbed over it, walked to the back of the pen, ate the fish head, sauntered away to the creek for a drink, and then ambled up into the forest, unharmed. To our disbelief, the bear had figured out how to dismantle the trap without getting hurt, a difficult task even for us.
As a hunter, it’s easy to be caught up in the illusion that humans are the ones taken care of by the spirit that moves through all things and that this divine energy is on “our side.” The magical bear taught me otherwise. The world needed her to live more than I needed her as food. The revelation humbled me.
We reset the trap and then trudged up the mountain to check the snare. I’ll be able to make a perfect spear with one of these saplings. I’ll try to hurry.”
“No problem,” he replied. “I’ll whistle if I need you.” We imitated a few birdcalls to relay messages when human verbal communications could disrupt the forest.
As the tenth wood chip fell from my spear, I heard a strange lamenting sound filtering through the forest. I cupped my hands behind my ears to amplify the noise.
“Fee-bee-bee, fee-bee-bee.” Micah’s chickadee call interrupted my straining concentration. I quietly followed his whistling. When I spied Micah crouching behind a gigantic log, the mysterious sound abruptly changed. It no longer held the same melody. I dropped my head and closed my eyes, listening to the now familiar sound of a bawling bear. I crept behind Micah, placing my hand on his arm. He didn’t have to say a word. The look on his face said enough.
As we sharpened our spears, we whispered a quick plan for assessing the horrifying situation that lay ahead, then crawled over the log. Gripping the spears, and in a thigh-burning crouch, we silently stalked towards the snared bear.
I felt like Ayla, the main character in one of my favourite books, Jean M. Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear. Ayla ran away from her adopted Neanderthal clan to venture alone into the vast unknown. In her journeys she became proficient with the sling, discovered how to make fire, tamed a sabre-toothed tiger, and trained a prehistoric horse. She was a Paleolithic superhero.
Unfortunately, I didn’t feel a drop of heroism in me as I prepared to risk my life to spear a bear. I trembled. My heart pounded with an ancient fear that throbbed in my wrists and hands. Every rustling leaf caught my attention, every faint crack of stick sounded like cymbals crashing beside my ears. A primal fight-or-flight sensation rippled through my body, as feral instincts passed down from distant ancestors surfaced. I was about to fight a cornered bear with a wood-tipped spear. Red ochre rock paintings of stickmen spearing woolly mammoths came to life in my imagination.
Excerpt from Becoming Wild by Nikki van Schyndel, 2014 Caitlin Press. Used with permission of the publisher.