Mountains. Snowcapped, brutish, untamed and intimidating. They surrounded the McBride airport. This was a change from the flat farmlands of Delta she’d left behind this morning. Here, among these glaciated peaks the mighty Fraser River began, back home was where it ended flowing into the Strait of Georgia just a few kilometres from the sanctuary.
Mattie had completed her first flight on a twin engine turboprop aircraft, disembarked along with eighteen other passengers via portable stairs and was standing on the tarmac in the scorching afternoon sun feeling humble.
“Pretty impressive, eh?”
Mattie turned. A young man had approached from the small building that passed as the terminal.
“I guess you get used to them.”
He looked at the mountains and then back at her. “I don’t. Every day is like the first time I’ve seen them, you know?”
“Are you my ride?”
“Are you Madison Saunders?”
“Simon Issac.” His smile was broad and friendly, white teeth against copper skin. His deep brown eyes lingered on her face. “Welcome to The Rockies.”
Mattie shook the nicked and calloused hand and smiled. She felt warm and safe. How had that happened?
“Where’s the other student?”
“Backed out at the last minute.”
Simon raised his eyebrows. He picked up her backpack with and swung it over his shoulder while she carried her computer bag and camera. “The white pickup.” He pointed to a newer truck parked next to the terminal.
“Is it always this hot?”
“At this time of year.” Simon drove down Airport Road. When he came to the junction of the Yellow Head Highway he stopped.
“I usually get one of those special coffees when I’m in town.”
“Sure.” Was he asking permission?
“Just a short detour.”
McBride was small, like five numbered streets intersected by three with names small. Simon pulled up to the Beanery on Main Street running parallel to the railway tracks. Mattie got out with him. She’d been on her butt most of the day either riding to an airplane, waiting for an airplane or sitting in one.
“Hey, Simon.” The woman behind the counter was hard middle-aged. “No protests today?”
“There’s still daylight, Marie. Do you know of any?”
“I heard you got arrested protesting the pipeline down south. Hope they throw you in jail.”
“Under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is in prison.”
“Who said that, another Indian with a chip on his shoulder?”
Simon smiled. “This is Madison. She’ll be one of the students studying hummingbirds this year.”
“You don’t say.” Marie looked Mattie up and down.
Mattie wasn’t sure how to interpret the greeting, the visual assessment, or the interaction between her driver and the barista. She ordered an iced Americano to cool her off and keep her awake. Simon had a frothy concoction with more syrup than anything else.
“Say hello to Larry for me,” Marie said.
“Your professor, Larry Larkin.”
“He’s coming in on Thursday,” Simon said.
“I won’t,” Mattie said. “Marie, at The Beanery.”
“Just Marie, he’ll know who you mean.”
Simon drove east along the Yellow Head Highway. He wasn’t much of a talker which usually would have suited Mattie except after a sleepless night she struggled to stay awake. Conversation would help.
“Were you one of those people who chained themselves to the gates of Kinder Morgan in Burnaby protesting the Trans Mountain Pipeline, Simon?”
“You got arrested?”
“Are you going to jail?”
“Trial is in six weeks.”
“Is it worth it?”
“I think so.”
“So are you some kind of eco-warrior?”
“I like that. Eco-warrior.”
“Well, are you?”
“No, I was down there to show solidarity with the Tsleil-Waututh Nation.”
“How’s your family feel about this?”
“Not so good. Our band, the Simpcw, support the pipeline.”
“I thought all First Nations were against it.”
“Not by a long shot.”
“But what about the environment?”
“They say what about jobs?”
Mattie decided to shut up. What did she know about pipeline politics other than headlines and news clips which likely just scratched the surface of the issue? Better not to offend someone she might have to rely on.
“What made you want to be an ornithologist?” Simon said.
“I own an exotic bird sanctuary.” Mattie was relieved he hadn’t taken offense.
For the next twenty minutes, Mattie told Simon about the history of the sanctuary, what was involved in running it, and anecdotes about the birds and Leo, the resident forty pound Leopard Tortoise. By the time they arrive at the trail head she had him laughing out loud.
She’d never had a conversation with a First Nations person. She hoped they all were as quick to laugh and eager to listen as her companion, but she imagined they’d be like most people she met, barely tolerable. She was usually insensitive to people’s feelings, so why she was she so concerned about Simon’s? She didn’t know, except he was a nice guy and she could use a friend.
“Are we nearly at Tete Jaune Cache?”
“We passed it ten minutes ago.” Simon pulled the pickup onto the shoulder. A few feet from the truck, a steep, rocky trail angled up the side of a bluff.
“That leads to the cabin?” Mattie said.
“It levels off after a couple of hundred metres.” Simon got out of the truck. He hefted Mattie’s pack on his back and adjusted the straps to fit his body.
“I should carry that,” Mattie said. “You’re not hired as a Sherpa.”
Simon smiled. “Did you bring insect repellant?”
“Shit.” Mattie could see the plastic bottle right where she left it after rushing out to greet Raj.
As if on cue, a mosquito buzzed in her ear and three more lighted on her bare arm.
“Too bad.” Simon started up the trail.
The slope was steep, the rocks loose and the walking difficult. Ten minutes out and perspiration dripped from Mattie’s chin, her thighs burned and her knuckles were scraped from recovering from falls. The camera and computer bag were a burden, carrying the pack was out of the question. Every time she stopped to catch her breath she a squadron of mosquitoes dive-bombed her.
“How are you doing?” Simon was waiting on a rise.
Mattie was too out of breath to respond.
He handed her a water bottle. Mattie drank and splashed liquid on her face. The salty mixture stung her eyes.
“Do you have anything with long sleeves in your pack?” Simon was looking at the blood smeared on her arms.
“Yes, but if I open it we’ll never get it closed again.”
They continued on and up. After ten more minutes the trail leveled off. Being able to catch her breath allowed Mattie to take in her surroundings. Evergreens crowded the trail and the scent of pine and fire spiced the air. Bunches of vibrant sword ferns trimmed the verge and sheltered delicate mauve and purple wildflowers. A breeze materialized and seemed to keep the bugs at bay as well as drying her sweat-streaked face. When the two ravens, who’d been carrying on a noisy commentary while following them from the treetops shut up for a second, it was quiet. A quiet that was more than just the absence of noise.
Simon had stopped and was examining a steaming black pile at this feet.
Mattie swallowed. Bears were cute, even loveable, and she enjoyed watching them with Bodine in their living room on the fifty-five inch, high definition television, but that was about as up close as she wanted to get to them.
“Should we go back to the truck?”
“Don’t worry. They rarely bother hikers.”
“But not always?”
“This year the forest fires have put them under a lot of stress. There’s limited range and lots of competition.”
Mattie looked into the wall of green on either side of the trail. “Maybe we should keep moving.”
For the rest of the way she was on Simon’s heels.
When they reached their destination Mattie forgot all about the bears and their plans to have her for dinner. The trail opened onto a meadow of lush grass highlighted by swathes of pink wildflowers framed by dense forest. The cabin was situated at one end with the hummingbird feeding stations in the middle. On the far side a barren rock face jutted out from the woods and a silver veil of water cascaded from the summit into a pool at the base, emptying into a stream that disappeared among the giant trunks and boulders.
In contradiction to this tranquil scene of delicate beauty loomed the overwhelming massive of Mount Robson, its peak capped with ever-present snow, its flanks furrowed by time, indifferent in its magnificence.
“Let me show you your new home and how things work.” Simon opened the cabin door and handed her the key.
The building was divided into three rooms; two small bedrooms and one large room where everything, other than sleeping, was done. There was a sink and cupboards along one wall and a counter with a double-burner propane stove, a microwave, coffee pot, and a bar-size refrigerator on it.
A table with four chairs was in the centre of the room, and a bottled water dispenser topped with a five-gallon jug was near the door.
Simon switch on the lights to disperse the late afternoon shadows.
“There’s power,” Mattie said.
“There’s a generator, but the fridge and the hotplate run on propane.” He opened the small refrigerator to reveal a dozen eggs, cheddar cheese, and a quart of milk.
“How do you get all these supplies up here?”
Cans of soup, beans, and pasta sauce filled the cupboard shelves. He took down a sealed plastic container, pried the lid open and inside were two packages of spaghetti. “Keep all food in these containers otherwise the mice will eat it.”
“Wood mice, but don’t let the name fool you, they’re quite at home indoors. They’re harmless and kind of cute.” Simon resealed the container put it away. “Don’t leave food scraps in the cabin. Put them in the bear-proof garbage container out back.”
“Should I be making notes?”
“The outhouse is behind the cabin,” Simon said. “The shower is the waterfall at the end of the meadow.”
Mattie dragged her pack into one of the bedrooms. There was a single bed, a chair and a desk. When she returned, Simon was standing at the door.
“I have to get back to the truck, you can’t negotiate that trail in the dark. You’ll break an ankle.”
Dark. Soon. Alone. Wilderness.
“Is there a number I can call if there’s a problem?” Mattie took out her cell phone.
“No, not from the cabin. You can usually get a signal down on the highway or if you climb up one of the surrounding bluffs.”
“I’ll be bringing in the Professor on Thursday. I’ll see you then.”
Thursday and this was Monday. Three sleeps.
“Don’t worry, Mattie. You’re safer here than in your big city.”
“Almost forgot.” Simon took a canister from a cupboard. “Bear spray. Take it with you when you go out. If you see a bear in the meadow, maybe wait until it’s gone. If you're out studying the birds and one comes by don’t look it in the eye, they consider it a challenge. Talk softly so they can identify you as a human and walk, don’t run, back to the cabin.”
“When should I use the spray?”
“Only if it’s charging you. Then wait until it’s close or it won’t be effective.”
“Twenty feet. About from here to the end of room.”
“And make sure you’re not down wind.”
“What does that mean?”
“The wind’s not blowing in your face, otherwise you’ll get sprayed, not the bear.”
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