Soap Gum

Christine B. Swanson

© Copyright 2001 by Christine B. Swanson

Photo of two people on horses and one in an ATV.

The hometown of The" Grizzlies" is not really in Memphis and an Arctic Cat is not an animal but a mechanical beast. A Cat is an All Terrain Vehicle and a Grizzly is a bear, related to the black bear family but sports a boxy snout and a large "Quasimodo" shape on its back. They are the snobby ones of the clan and are ferocious, territorial and do not welcome intruders of either the human or the automotive species. My favourite grizzlies, wryly speaking are the shy ones and in particular the family that left us alone that day in July of 2001 when we had accidentally encroached into their town and then became stranded.

On that afternoon, four of us left from our campsite heading west, following the rays of the sun. He had been so evasive for most of the summer that we just didn't want him to get away so we followed his beams. The sun can be parsimonious with his gold until hours, late into the night, probably justifying his inattentiveness to Northern British Columbia. Our solar ray beam chasing party consisted of two children, two adults, two horses, an A.T.V, and two big full sized collies "Lassie" dogs. The day had all the makings of a Gilligan's Island theme, only instead of water we had land, beautifully landscaped terrain but still it was only to be about a "three hour tour".

The location of our expedition was between the two little towns of Terrace and Kitimat. This area is mountainous and hosts old logged roads and can sometimes be referred to as "big hills." That opinion however, lies in the eyes of each of the vision beholders, as to whether they are indeed hills or their enormous cousins the mountains. The size is irrelevant because the beauty of Mother Nature's work here can not be disputed. There are county -sized acres of land, and hardy trees wearing evergreen coats. Below, there is a sandy-bottomed valley and in the hazy distance a grand lake boasts a heavenly hue. The air is so clean and refreshing you can actually taste the zest of it.

We made a division of our party on the summit of a hill where other trees, the living logs once stood a life time ago. They too must have relished the sun until our kind, trucked their kind away. The stumpless roads pointed in all possible compass-directions. We were elevated in geographical heights as well as spirits.

The group was split, because my quarter horse (Abilene) displayed a disliking towards her mechanical friend and did not seem pleased with it at all. Now in her favor and for positive attributes of her breed she had her reasons. All last winter this A.T.V. skidded out round bales of hay to the feeder for her and her buddies and that to her was the only acceptable purpose of this odd metal horse. Now she had been following it for some time now and what "no hay, when was it time to munch"? I also believe that when horses are in the wilderness they rely on all their natural instincts even the domesticated ones and the noise of that A.T.V. interfered with her sense of hearing. "Abilene" scorned the ATV and she had her reasons and one of them and especially for a horse had been "right on the money".

The parties now consisted of one adult and one young person per group and we decided to meet up later, but no time was ever mentioned. That was a human error but we did specify a location. It was summer, so "see you in a while" seemed O.K. I optioned for the ATV as I had just been riding "Abilene" and it was a nice trade a leather saddle for a padded seat on an All Terrain Vehicle complete with a chauffeur as the twelve-year-old Greg, wanted to drive. "Maia" his ten-year-old sister and their mother "Roma" chose a path and left with the horses and dogs and we chose our direction hit third gear and boogied.

For about fifty-five seconds I was riding with my eyes closed, distancing myself physically and mentally from everything that seemed discourteous in life.

I felt the machine slowing down but it was just another fork in the road, left or right, who cares? I let Greg choose and then I spotted a marker that resembled a hockey stick. It was planted blade down and on its cloud ward handle was painted "Scully Crk. Road". That was the last sign of anything man made to be seen in the area. My eyes stayed open because of the enticing surroundings. We decided to head for that creek just because we were curious, and it was there.

The lack of human presence except for logging evidence of years ago threw me into such a state of mellowness that I missed all the bear warning signs until my thoughts kicked into gear. Swiftly I began to notice what was out there all around us. Fresh droppings from bears, but I couldn't tell which family they were left by. I saw humungous paw prints and sets of them patterned in different directions and in abundance. There were cave like impressions, large shadowy tunnels that had been molded into the shrubs; their town streets. There were twigs that had been broken off of branches that were still green and fresh indicating that the foresters had footed in this area quite recently.

I purposely neglected to check for any territorial claw marks on the trees where grizzlies stamp their homesteads. I didn't want to know at this point. I became decisive, WE"RE OUT OF HERE. I felt like a trespasser, an intruder an invader, whatever, but I had two things for bears, fear and respect. I tapped Greg on the shoulder and said "let's turn around" and this was only out of caution as I didn't think we had anything to fear at this point. The road appeared very narrow as we were now wheeling down a windy dirt path and it was difficult to turn the machine around.

I pointed to a bend and said "try that and see if it widens again". We did and it did not. It just dead ended on us at a ravine with an incline so steep that there was no choice now but to rotate the "Cat" and to retreat. I jumped off and Greg assured me that he could turn the ATV around doing a three-point turn. It was much easier to manoeuvre with only one person on it.

As I was standing there I saw spectacular scenery. I decided to climb a few yards up a steep sandy hill and in doing so the beauty of the land mesmerized me. I felt an euphoric sensation as my two eyes absorbed to their capacity such loveliness. My ears captured different bird sounds, and I think a raven was swearing at me but I didn't care.

Then I heard it, a twig had snapped, but in my mind only. But, why had I heard that bird? What happened to the sound of the engine? I looked down and there was the machine, appearing massive yet motionless.

Greg's eyes matched the color of the sky and almost the size of it as well and his voice like the raven's sounded annoyed." It won't start" he said. "What do you mean it won't start", I asked, very inquisitively? "It means" he answered with a twelve-year-old explanation; "I can't get it started". "I tried but it won't start."

For (mechanics 101) my G.P.A. was zilch so I tested Greg's knowledge. "Do you think you might know what the problem is" I asked? "Yup," he said; "it is stuck between two gears." We then both tried the gearshifts at different intervals and strengths, but with no budging and no success. Greg was upset so I didn't ask him why he key killed the "Arctic cat". Its permanent pausing however, up started some pangs of anxiety pacified only by the fact that it was now facing our (decided upon direction) or ( escape exit); either one entirely in Nature's hands and hindering on her humor.

 Greg tried to soften the blow with something he had suddenly remembered. "This happened to me last week, the same thing" he voluntarily disclosed. "So what did you do I asked"? "I went and got help he said." Well, it was a truthful innocent answer, but not a solution for our present predicament. We both made a couple of more attempts but the gears would not give. Greg became a little apprehensive and wanted to know what to try next. By his voice manner I think he actually expected me to have an answer. He is a very intelligent boy and picked up on the predicament quickly. I didn't think his eyes could have gotten any wider but they did and he scanned the terrain looking, looking for bears.

I gave him an answer, "the manual, lets see if we can start it some other way or try to by pass the gears". It had sounded like a good solution but it was really only meant to distract our uncomfortable thoughts. We discovered however, that there had been no manual. I studied the mechanical sleeping giant and silently had to admit defeat. Defeat can come at you from any or all corners and at any time. We had no way off of the mountain, and to me it was not a hill any more as now it seemed so massive, and we were almost at the top of it. It was too late and too dangerous to try hiking straight down the rock embedded mountainside and too long ranged to walk the paths and roads we had taken let alone even remember where they were. I knew precisely what Greg was thinking when he asked if "grizzlies" eat A.T.V.s"? That comment was a sacrificial offering to an angry bear. At least he didn't suggest a serving of his relative (me).

I then tried to remember what I knew about bears. Bad really bad idea, I had been chased by one once. I suddenly recalled that day even though it was a few years back. I had two dogs along with me a Shepherd and a Collie. I had been walking in my backfields when excited barking got my attention but I couldn't see anything as the grass was too long. I thought to myself "please not another porcupine." We had just nursed our Shepherd back from his last encounters of a rodent hunting trip.

"Angus" I yelled as I approached, and then stopped as I saw a little black furry mound a little black Labrador puppy, how sweet, I thought and then it changed to "Sweet Jeepers" that's a cub. The distraction gave the young fur bearer enough time to clamour onto its paws and head for the nearest tree. The cub got in the last word, and it's only word and it was a distinct and panicky call for help, a wilderness cry, "MAAAAAW". That sound was still echoing in my ears when I heard crashing from the bush area, and I saw a black head, and a crustacean nose pointing at me as she charged. Well I don't have eyes in the back of my head so that was all I saw of her, I was gone.

Adrenaline had kicked in as well as panic, fear and (please spare me wishes). I was running for survival. Now hay and long grass make a noise when it is parting, and my hearing, the one thing not on automatic detected the pursuer gaining on me. The little hairs on the back of my neck, weren't just standing on edge, they had soldiered right up and ran off in columns leaving skin so exposed that I could feel a warm breath. Maybe it was just the sun on my neck and the feel of rear air turbulence from the speed I was going. I knew she was eliminating the safety gap I had created from my grounded flight. I was actually anticipating being pulled down, and imaginary sharp pains pricked the back of my legs.

I hadn't physically fainted but all hope had when a dark furry head and an ebony back penetrated my peripheral vision. Then I somehow recognized my Shepherd. Then he passed me running, running for all his worth. He had been the one behind me the whole time. My speed was still fuelled by fear though as I rounded the corner of the barn and something silvery flashed at me. It was the extension ladder to the hayloft but I was going too fast to stop and climb it. I took in another partial field and burnt rubber on the soles of my gumboots.

Some distance away I heard a commotion, the sharp pitched bark of my collie and I glanced towards yellow fur and black fur. The collie was playing catch me if you can and running circles around the sow bear and she was spinning on the spot trying to swat him. The cub was still in the tree bawling. I reached the front porch of the house without touching a step.

There I saw my Shepherd, laying down, panting. "Angus Archibald" I yelled, "what was that all about"? His guilty grin was framed in by a shameful expression. Then he took on an inquiring appearance. One that silently stated," well, what did you expect"? "I am mans best friend, not bears".

 The collie came bounding home shortly after still excited and wanted to know what we were planning on playing next.

I learned about bears that day, don't intrude, there is no negotiating, don't surprise them and never accidentally come between a mother and her off spring.

 Reminiscing about that day certainly didn't help me very much with the situation we had at hand. So here on this mountain, survival instincts started wavering into my thoughts. Well "let's see what we have for emergency supplies." It is quite peculiar how picnic items can become emergency supplies. It didn't matter, as we didn't have any, we had the halters and ropes for the horses. We did have our jackets and that was probably because an ATV can become breezy when driven by a twelve-year-old.

I then noticed a black Motorola, my cellular phone strapped to the back of the A.T.V. A battery check enlightened our surmounting fear leaving hope, free to soar. My phone call was made to my residence; someone might be there. Then all I heard was the monotone of the non-musical flat notes of beeps and a red lettered statement appeared across the window of the phone. "NO SERVICE," in capital letters was flashed over and over again.

 I got the message the first time.

My first physical backlash inclination was to heave the phone outward and let gravity bring it to smithereens somewhere at the base of the mountain, murdering that message. The only reason it didn't fly was for the fact that I might have stumbled over the cliff myself if I lost my balance while throwing it. "Who were you trying to call" Greg asked. Trying not to show anxiety as it might have been interpreted as panic I told him that I had tried the pizza place. "If successful we would just follow the delivery person down off of the mountain". We laughed I think, or did our nerves just make our lips move? I then felt my left pocket and "yes", great; I had a package of matches. I knew that much about wilderness outings at least and that allowed some of our apprehensiveness to bow.

Talking helped us as well and was also meant to inform the non vegetarian predators that this spot on the mountain was occupied. A decision was made to stay put and not try to make it down off of the mountain as the sun's beams were not strong enough to cast just the safe identifiable shadows.

Darn, us humans anyway; we rely too much on mechanics and technology. The phone didn't work but what about our voices? What about yelling as there were two more people in the valley somewhere below us and they just might be within earshot. We yelled, hollered and then heard faint voices. The far off familiar words however, only belonged to our echoes. Other than that there had been no response; at least I didn't think there had been.

The first sign of anything out of the ordinary from the valleyers below was that Abilene had stopped and planted four metalled hooves into the dirt and focused towards the mountainside. Roma, who had been riding her, could not encourage her to move. Yes, Abilene had heard us. Our vocal sounds undetected by human ears also sent the dogs on a running rescue; their response.

 Meanwhile we had both sat down exhausted and feeling abandoned now and had let go of any hope we had bridged for our efforts. Our petrified thoughts of actually having to remain on this mountain were solidified now, enveloping us with despair. As we sat and pondered we became chilled, because the mossy ground was damp. "A fire lets get one going," I suggested. Looking around to see what was available only multiplied more misery. It was all tundra, with moist moss, evergreens and pine trees. There had been nothing dry enough nor anything near by that was flammable.Oh the gas filled muted machine crossed my mind but that would only be resorting to irrational revenge at this time. A metalled explosion later on may become an emergency measure if a weapon was needed for an attacking animal.

It was hard to remain at ease when spearing thoughts were triggering different reactions. I somehow managed to calmly reach into my pocket for the matches but pulled out a folded up package of soap gum instead. "Thrills", they were called; purple pieces of chewing gum that tasted just like soap.

By now I didn't even have the energy for any type of "getting even" with the gum as it only sank more survival expectancies, by tricking me earlier, into believing that I had a package of matches.

 Time, was the only thing we had plenty of and we just sat there and waited to see what Mother Nature was going to do for her next move. We knew the sun was fading and the evening mountain air was rising from its daytime hibernation. We somehow gathered efforts from somewhere and decided to try again. We yelled some more, thinking but not allowing any hope to be unleashed that maybe the riders were closer by now.

We didn't know that Abilene had been refusing to go anywhere, so we moved to the top of a high dirt mound. We were on such an incline that I was hanging onto a branch to prevent gravitational downwardness and Greg was clutched onto me. Even with Greg's sized eyes, he could not see a soul.

We started bellowing again, but from a different angle towards the valley. Maybe but most likely not; our voices would reach someone. Then we thought we heard something, but what was it? Was that the raven again, delivering his annoyance speech? No it was a different sound, a human -like noise. Now the tone had been the same as the ravens but the words; "what do you want" reached us. It was Maia, she had heard us. We then started yelling over top of each other calling out at the same time deafening each other. I am not sure what message they received from us but they figured out that we were in trouble.

Below, Maia in her sweet ten-year-old voice pleaded with her mom that if Greg didn't make it could she please have his room?

Abilene started to move now; she was heading towards voices and was agreeable as long as she was going in the direction she thought she was needed. Only the side of the mountain, steep and embedded with sharp rocks could stop her. Still however, we weren't able to formulate a plan to get off of the mountain, as it would take too long for the horses to reach us. At least it was known now as to where we were and it had made the idea of being stranded a little more comforting because come morning we knew we would be located.

A thought then struck me; if we could be heard by moving our location by a slight direction and altitude change then maybe I could pick up a signal for the cellular. We climbed skyward on clotted caked mud, creating bedlam with gravity until we reached a lonely tree, topped on a mound and grabbed its green sleeved branch. It was very hard to try and phone while hanging onto a shrub with someone grasping on to you. I managed somehow to press the appropriate numbers and then I heard ringing, a perfect pitched; precious sound: a symphony in the wild outdoors.

It was my neighbor Penny; she answered in her accent of English culture. There had been no time to exchange any fancy hello jargon. I asked to speak to "Shorty" her husband, a self made mechanic who knew about tractors and ATVs. I was afraid I was going to lose the signal, so I spoke fast and I 'm sure I sounded excited.

I gave "Shorty" our location, somewhere miles beyond Scully creek road, on the summit of some mountain facing a westerly direction. Then I presented the predicament, mechanical failure; the ATV won't start. "What do you mean it won't start" he inquired? Gee, that had sounded just like me hours ago. I explained the situation with the gears not shifting and then there was silence and then nothing from his end.

Damn phone teased me and then died. No, Shorty had just paused to think, about the situation and had been searching his brain for a solution to our predicament. "Try forcing it" he said, "no good" I yelled into the phone thinking that speaking loudly would boost the phone battery or maintain the signal. "Well" then he said "I don't know" and then his technological mind took over and he gave me specific mechanical directions to strictly follow. "KICK IT, SHAKE IT, ROCK IT, and ROLL IT BACKWARDS" he said.

 Oh right, (the vending machine solution) now why hadn't I thought of that?

 What; shall I seek guidance from some ATV "god" while I am up here as well? Those were two confined comments that I never vocalized.

I passed the phone message onto Greg and he released his grip on me and fast forwarded downward towards the machine. He grabbed the handlebars, and shook the monster; he kicked at the gearshift and rocked it and with brute strength he forced it backwards and suddenly there was a click and it nestled into neutral. My phone battery was low but I managed to give "Shorty" the vocal O.K. signal. The engine roared as the two of us were off as fast as that mechanical beast could go, right out of bear town.

We somehow managed to follow our own tracks to get out and eventually caught up with the riders. I called for the dogs and they returned, and we all headed back to camp over whelmed with relief. By the time we had reached our little rivered resort we were tired and cold. It was way past dusk at this point, but I still had to trailer the horses home and then return to camp.

Once back at the farm I unloaded the older pony and then "Abilene." The antiquated gelding headed straight for the pasture for dinner. Not Abilene, she stopped at the gate, turned her head towards me and her eyes sent me a message. That look was clearly understood. "I am home now; you should stay home too." She was drilling me with her eyes and deafening me with her silent scolding.

She was so demanding that I actually walked across the field, proceeded through the gate and went into the house and slammed the door so she would know I was home. I then looked out of the window and she was still staring up at the house. When she finally went out to the field, I snuck out of the house like a runaway teenager. I scurried down the driveway to where I had left the truck and climbed into it and floored it. I even glanced into my rear-view mirror to see if I had been caught or not. I hadn't been but I still felt like I was doing something underhanded and sneaky.

We all slept soundly that night and early in the morning we had a visitor from the Forestry office. I recognized the green symbol on the white truck and I also knew the officer "Daniel". He had heard from "Shorty" about us having been stranded so he stopped in to make sure everything was "tickety-boo" as he would say. He also brought out a forestry map and advised us that Scully Creek road no longer existed. The name had been removed from the maps years ago. He also informed us that the area we had been in was Grizzly territory and a sow and two cubs had been sighted just recently.

He shared camp coffee with us and then left.

So then we were plumb puzzled. Where was it that we been stranded, and where the heck was Scully Creek if there was no Scully Creek road? Well as it turned out believe it or not our campsite had been set up at Scully Creek the whole time. Yes, that wilderness experience taught me a few very good lessons about the big outdoor world.

 I am pretty sure I figured out something else as well.

 "Mother Nature" you better move over, there just might be an A.T.V. "god" mechanically speaking of course.

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Another story by Christine:
T. C., A Cat's Story

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