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Recently ROBERT TWIGGER, one of our more intrepid members, crossed the Rocky Mountains in a canoe in search of adventure.  He found it.

IF YOU WRITE adventurous travel books as I do there is a  requirement that at least a little adventure is encountered on each trip. Naturally I don’t want to imperil myself or do something really stupid, but even a cursory examination of true-adventure books shows that the ‘adventure’, is usually a successful escape from some elementary blunder. Ranulph Fiennes is a brave man but most of his adventures occur because of some mistake he’s made. This is the dilemma: good stories seem to demand bad judgment. One way around it is to make yourself much more frightened-sounding than you really are: if you increase the wimp factor the danger seems more dangerous. The other, less satisfactory technique is to describe what could happen (tigers, sharks, cannibals, you name it) but fortunately doesn’t.

But there is another solution. If you go on long enough trips in wild enough places, adventures do occur by some law of averages favouring writers. Bearing this in mind, I decided to make a really long and difficult trip across the Rocky Mountains in Canada using a birchbark canoe I’d built myself (with expert help). My aim was to be the first person since 1793 to follow this route using a bark canoe. Because the route is passable only in summer it would take two summers, plus another summer to build the canoe and get to the remote starting point on Lake Athabasca. So far I’ve done two summers – one to go.

LAST JULY I set out on a two-month trip to get to Peace River Town, the half-way mark. Most of the time we (me and a crew of three) paddled against the current of the mighty Peace River through remote areas with only odd Indian settlements reachable by air or boat. For one memorable nine-day stretch we paddled without seeing another human being, boat, or teepee.  But we did see bears.

The previous summer we’d seen a bear a day, sometimes two. These were black bears, smaller than grizzlies, but still weighing 300lbs or more. Black bears are supposedly more aggressive, more inquisitive, more likely to charge than    grizzlies, but also more likely to be scared off if you make a stand. That’s the theory. But I’ve gone into the bush armed with theories before and it doesn’t feel good. In my reading on the subject I’d gleaned that bear researchers carry aerosol air horns as used on pleasure boats. A blast from such a horn – the bear horn we called it – was meant to be enough to put Bruin to flight. I wasn’t against guns and one backwoodsman we met was so concerned for our safety he offered to lend me his twelve-bore. We practised shooting the gun behind his cabin but when crew-member Barney (a former professional rugby player with paranoid tendencies) accidentally discharged the thing into the woodsman’s dog kennel (leaving a huge embarrassing hole but missing the dog) I decided we’d be more in danger from ourselves than from bears.

There are also bear sprays, like souped-up anti-mugger pepper sprays, on the market, but they are a last resort. I took a measure of comfort from the statistic that there are no known bear attacks on groups of five or more. There were four of  us. Barney  was  big,  but, as  he  wasn’t  twice  as  big  and didn’t have two heads, the margin of danger remained.

UNLIKE THE year before, we saw no bears for days. Barney complained. He wanted to see a bear, ‘just so he could say he’d seen a bear’. I was happy for him to be disappointed.

In the middle of our nine-day stretch without seeing anyone we camped at a river which several Indians had told us was good for fishing. The next day we planned to test this. The campsite was not great – the beach was the kind of mud that looks dry but after a while water starts to seep up where you are standing. By morning the fire and campsite area looked like a World War I battlefield. I was up early with ‘unlucky’ Dave, another crew member, who the previous night had lost his mess-tin while washing up in the river. Two days earlier he’d lost his sandals and was now bravely going barefoot. We were both engaged in an early-morning grunted conversation when he pointed to Barney’s tent, where Barney was sound asleep. A huge bear was trying to get in under the fly sheet. Where was the bear horn? In the tent! While I dithered Dave shouted. The bear looked around, then lumbered off into the willows that bordered the beach. I ran to the tent for the bear horn. Barney was still sound asleep. Back at the fireplace Dave was filming the opposite bank of the river. Another bear was calmly munching poplar leaves. I fired off the horn and the bear looked round and carried on munching. Then Dave pointed up our bank and yet another bear was eating leaves a hundred and fifty yards away. What was this? The teddy bears’ picnic? Suddenly a huge crashing sound came from the willows directly behind us. We were being charged.

I fired off the bear horn repeatedly but the crashing just got louder. ‘Aren’t you scared?’ I said to Dave. ‘Not while I'm filming you,’ he replied. I reached into the fire and pulled out a big flaming stick. Thinking I looked pretty resolute I waited for the bear to break cover. Cavemen used burning sticks to protect themselves. From an evolutionary point of view it must have worked.

THE CRASHING sound was highly unpleasant. It was so close now we could see the tops of the willow trees violently shaking as the bear charged towards us. I fired the bear horn off again for good measure. Then I kept my finger down and gave it one long blast after another. The bear crashed to the edge of the willows less than ten yards away and then stopped. What now? I pressed the bear horn but it only gave a feeble poop – I’d squandered all my air. I raised my flaming stick except now the flames had gone out. There was a shuffling sound then the bear abruptly turned and ran away.

On the video I didn’t look resolute, I looked like someone poking around in a fire looking for his lost baked potato. When Barney got up he was sad he hadn’t seen a bear, except of course in the way he had seen bears before –  on television. We packed up camp in nine minutes – a record we were never able to match later. We paddled up river and set up camp on a sand island with nothing for bears to hide behind. One adventure a day is quite enough material for any writer. □

© Robert Twigger 2004

This article was first published in The Oxford Writer in 2004. Robert Twigger's Rocky Mountain adventures are described in his new book Voyageur: Across North America in a Birchbank Canoe published in February 2006.
The book itself begins with a dream of travel:

The canoe was not silver coloured like a silver birch but light golden brown. It sat on a vast expanse of water. The water was still and double sided, reaching down into its depths through the mirror image of the boat, the trees and the sky.

To read the whole of the first chapter, ‘Pitt Rivers Dreaming’, about how a reverie of travel turned into a reality, click here to go to Robert’s website. Then hover over the arrow on the right-hand side to scroll down the page.

Robert Twigger is the author of Angry White Pyjamas: An Oxford Poet Trains with the Tokyo Riot Police (Phoenix, 1996) which won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award and a Somerset Maugham Award. His second book, Big Snake was made into a Channel 4 documentary. His Being a man . . . in the lousy modern world  (Weidenfeld 2002) was reviewed in the New Statesman by Robert Winder. 

Robert has been described by Tony Parsons as ‘a nineteenth century adventurer trapped in the body of a twenty-first century writer’. For a BBC profile, click here. For the Guardian’s 1999 piece, click here.