Mattie awoke refreshed and invigorated. She'd survived the night unscathed except for a few more mosquito bites on any flesh that had been left exposed. She dressed, put on the coffee, grabbed her bear spray and headed for the outhouse.
On the way back to the cabin she purged her olfactory glands by inhaling the fresh, aromatic mountain air. Hands thoroughly scrubbed, she poured a cup of coffee and stood outside.
The face of the massive, shimmering in the early morning sun, appeared if not welcoming, at least benign. Dew sparkled among the grass and flowers, already alive with busy buzzing. Mattie heard the trill-chip-chip-chip call and there, hovering and darting in a fierce competition were a pair of Rufus Hummingbirds. Time to get to work.
Mattie filled two of the largest pots with water and put them on to boil. Then retrieved a dozen sterilized feeders from the storage box. When the water was boiling, she added one cup of sugar to four cups of water, brought it back to a boil and then took it off the heat to cool.
As she readied the gear for a day of capturing, examining, recording and then releasing these tiny precious creatures, Mattie felt the stress from the drama of the previous three months emerge from deep inside. It began as a trickle, a stream and then a torrent overwhelming her defenses. She put a hand on the wall to steady the room, her chest felt constricted and like she couldn’t get enough oxygen. She sat down, put her head between her legs and drew slow, steady breaths.
After a few minutes the episode past leaving Mattie shaken. Was it better to “Have loved and lost...” she wondered? Relationships sure took a toll.
Enough introspection, she had hummingbirds to feed.
Once the solution had cooled, she filled six feeders and loaded the rest of the equipment into a wheelbarrow and went out into the meadow.
The sunlit clearing was surrounded by brooding forest, but Mattie was much too busy to worry about what was watching her.
She hung the feeders on posts and suspended netting cages over them. When a bird visited, she’d pull a draw string to close the entrance. Then gently grasping the bird, she would quickly examine it and recorded species, sex, age, weight, measurements and overall condition while speaking into her cell phone adapted with a special recording app.
Using a specialized clamp she then fastened a band the size of a grain of rice to the bird’s leg.
Because hummingbirds were constantly processing nectar, they were also constantly expelling it, so by the time she finished the bird would have left a urine and feces sample which she would collect for analysis.
The tests would indicate the amount of pesticides in the bird’s system picked up from the flowers it fed on. Populations of Rufus Hummingbirds were on the decline and this research was necessary to identify the reasons.
Mattie was used to handling birds and had been well-trained in this procedure by Professor Larkin. It was a thrill to hold this glorious array of iridescent feathers up close and feel it vibrating with life while knowing the information she gathered was vital to the well-being of the species.
Her only company were the Ravens, perhaps the same pair that had laughed at her stumbling up the trail. There were also two Bald Eagles, but they paid her no attention being much too busy flying back and forth to their massive nest in an ancient battered spruce on top of the bluff at the far end of the clearing.
And Raj had given all this up to go into business.
The return of clouds of no-see-ums and the encroaching shadow of the mountain heralded the end of the work day.
BY EARLY AFTERNOON the following day the searing sun and the lack of shade made field work impossible. The waterfall at the far end of the meadow was beyond enticing. Mattie could cool off and get clean, which wasn’t such a bad idea since Simon would arrive tomorrow with Professor Larkin.
She abandoned the field station and traipsed through the long grass and wildflowers. The way she felt could only be described as carefree, and she was, at that moment, free of care.
At the base of the cliff, the pond was the size of a backyard swimming pool. The waterfall ran down the rock face and dropped fifteen metres into one end, and a stream flowed out of the other. Tracks of wild animals were imprinted in the sandy shoreline. Mattie recognized lots of deer, wolves or coyotes, and a couple of massive ones that reminded her she’d left the bear spray at the feeding station.
Was she going to walk back in that scorching heat to get it? Had she seen one bear since she arrived? Simon’s warning was probably nothing more than him having a little fun at a city slicker’s expense.
Mattie took off her hiking boots, stripped and waded in. The water was clear, cold and waist deep beneath the waterfall. She ducked herself and vigorously scrubbed her body sans soap for fear of polluting this pristine environment. She faced the rock wall and let the water splash on her face. The refreshing shower, the cool breeze on her bare skin, the primal scent of the forest, the shrill cries of the ravens made her intensely aware of being alive.
The sensation lingered and then ended, the racket the ravens were making didn’t. What’s bothering those two, she wondered? When she turned to head for shore, the ravens went silent.
A bear had been taking a drink at the shallow end of the pool, not ten metres from where she was. Her movement had caught its attention, and it rose on hind legs to get a better look.
It was a monster, tall enough to slam dunk a basket ball without even jumping. Its fur was brown, darker on the legs, lighter on the belly, and tipped blond on its flank.
Simon’s instructions were to not make eye contact, talk softly and walk slowly back to the cabin, but he didn’t expect her to be naked, waist deep in cold water, and have a Grizzly between her and safety.
The bear dropped to all fours, huffed and swung its huge head back and forth.
“Hello bear,” Mattie said in a low voice. “I am in no way a threat and I hope you’re full of huckleberries, though that seems unlikely since you're about the same size as Bodine’s Range Rover and I’m sure it would take a lot of tiny red berries to satisfy your appetite.”
The Grizzly growled; a low and menacing rumble and began to walk along the shore toward her end of the pond.
Mattie tried to avoid making direct eye contact with the beast, but it was difficult to ignore a two hundred and fifty kilo, top of the food chain killer with no sense of humour stocking you.
She wondered which would be worse, having a Grizzly shred you with claws as long as steak knives, or being crushed and then swallowed whole by a Rock Python, like the one she confronted helping Liz retrieve food and equipment from The Reptile Refuge.
The bear stopped. The only thing separating them was three metres of shallow water. Her feet were numb, and she was shivering uncontrollably. If the Grizzly didn’t make up its mind and kill her, she’d die from hypothermia.
It roared again and pounced down on the water with its massive front paws sending a small tsunami washing over Mattie’s breasts. She cringed, backed against the cliff and closed her eyes. Who’d of thought her life would end mauled by a Grizzly in the shadow of Mount Robson? Then fear evaporated, just as it had when she was sure Liz would put a bullet in her heart, and was replaced by calm, clarity and comprehension.
The Ravens started up again and when Mattie opened her eyes all she could see was the rump of the Grizzly heading into the forest.
She was out of the pool in a flash, grabbed her boots and clothes and ran for the cabin, stopping only to pick up the can of bear spray from the wheelbarrow next to the feeding stations. Once inside with the door locked, she decided it was safe to dress.
An hour later she’d recovered, and armed with her can of spray went out to retrieve the gear she’d left at the feeding stations before nightfall. She’d survived a close encounter with a Grizzly, what more could happen? The Ravens were waiting to accompany her.
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