Earlier this spring I was sitting by the River of Golden Dreams with a man who resembled a handsome lumberjack when he spotted a bear running across the golf course.
"Where?" I asked, skeptical and squinting. "Isn't that a dog?"
An experienced outdoorsman (for the record, he is not an actual lumberjack, but can reportedly cut down a tree, if required) he assured me it was, indeed, a bear — his first spotting of the season and my first-ever in Whistler. Later, as he enthusiastically relayed the story to friends, I began to piece together just how different the relationship between bears and humans is in Whistler compared to other places.
This wasn't just a bear; it was a sign of a new season. More bafflingly, this furry killing machine wasn't a cause for concern — it was just no big deal.
This is not the way we react to bears in Alberta. At my parents' cabin, neighbours exchange news of sightings nervously and with warning.
"Don't you go running alone," they say.
I would anyway, risking whiplash as I swiveled my head violently in the direction of a rustling bush only to spot a squirrel or bird.
One night, years and years ago, after my sisters, cousins and I had gone to bed and our parents were out by the campfire, a black bear wandered up onto the cabin porch. My dad spotted it first, turned to the fire and calmly told everyone to go into my aunt and uncle's trailer. My mom, whose fear of bears borders on phobia, only caught the "B" word and bolted to the cabin doors.
I didn't see any of this, but I like to imagine my dad picked her up by her shoulders and simply turned her around — her legs still flailing on autopilot like a panicked cartoon character — so she'd run off in the other direction.
So, these are the experiences that shaped my view of bears when I arrived in Whistler.
"You'll see them everywhere," everyone told me with an apathetic shrug.
Knowing what I know now, I feel like a ridiculous city slicker remembering how my eyes would grow wide at the thought of it. I would be meandering down the valley trail, bump into one of these beasts and be promptly swallowed whole, I figured. I would be pissed from beyond the grave at my pointless death, my mom would be devastated and it would be my fault because I knew better.
Luckily, my first real run-in — besides the distant encounter near the golf course — did not unfold like that. I was running on the trail past Rainbow Park when there it was: a big, ol' lump of fur sitting directly in my path. My heart skipped a beat as he (or maybe she? Bears are always male in my mind) looked up slowly and without concern. And that was it. Deciding I should probably take this relationship slowly, I cut my workout short and turned around rather than attempting to scare him off.
Two bikers headed towards me a little way down the path and I wondered about Whistler bear etiquette. Should I warn them about this roadblock or would I look like an idiot? Against my better judgment I let my Alberta roots show. "There's, uh, a bear up there," I said, avoiding eye contact. "You know, just so you know."
They didn't mock me, but thanked me and peddled towards him anyway. When I got home I changed my Facebook status to mark the momentous occasion. Cleaned up for publication: "Finally ran into a bear on my run. It made me feel like a Whistlerite the same way having a man flash his (insert your favourite euphemism) at me on the subway made me feel like a New Yorker." (I got 18 likes!)
But it did feel like a rite of passage. I had encountered a bear and sort of managed to feign nonchalance (not unlike how I reacted on the downtown 1 train during the flasher incident).
I don't want to brag or anything, but I'm a seasoned bear spotter now. I've seen one plodding around near Lost Lake, another hanging out near railroad tracks and even a couple of cubs playing around as a pack of bikers watched gleefully.
Earlier this week I spotted three on my run, including one that startled me, only because a barking dog scared him out of a nearby ditch where he was hiding.
I shrugged at the dog's owner and carried on my way.