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by Craig Battle

The coffee has been shit since Cranbrook. Kyle takes some pride in this, that he is the only one on the tour who seems to notice. The other two are busy asking the attendant if this is where they are on the map and if they take this road to get to where they're going and whether or not they'll see any more totem poles on the way up. Kyle asked at the last station. There are some just up the road, plus a glacier or two between here and Stewart. These things are easy, he thinks. But recalling two months of bad gas station coffee, that takes dedication.

“What about kermodes?” Gaye wants to know.

“Maybe,” says the Husky attendant, all knowing. He could answer the question if he wanted, tell her the exact number of bears she'll see and their lineage, probably even the day she'll die and what she'll die of, but he's holding back. “Maybe not.”

Being native and working at a gas station, Kyle thinks. This guy must know as much about direction as anyone in the world. Kyle has told nobody it's his thirtieth birthday. Though the morning news advised, “Choose a path and charge. It is time you took yourself by the horns.”

“What's a kermode?” Elly asks, buckling her seatbelt. She had never left Vancouver before joining the tour. But something about Bear Aware, teaching bear safety to elementary school kids, made her drop university and take off in a van with two strangers. She learned to drive somewhere in the interior, got her license on a day off in Prince George, and is now steering north up Highway 37.

“White black bear,” Gaye says. “You know. Spirit bear.”

Elly says, “They say if you see a spirit bear your whole life flashes before your eyes.” Elly has bad vision, but wears contacts. She wore a white collar and a long black skirt for the interview, the day she and Kyle met. He thought, “Short and sort of round, but pretty.” Since then, he has seen her wear nothing but her uniform and loose grey jogging pants. She wears lots of toques and rarely looks at the road.

“They do not,” says Gaye.

“Life altering moment of clarity. Like a – ”

“Recessive gene. One in every ten black bears is white.” Gaye knows these things, she grew up in the Kootenays, though she also knows kermode bears only live on the northwest coast. She once answered, “Conversation Officer,” when a teacher asked what she would do if she could be anything in the whole entire world. She has straight brown hair. She was five.

Elly leans over the wheel and points across Gaye, who covers her chest with both hands out of habit, down a gravel road to the right. There’s a red schoolhouse. Some sort of church. A bear. A frog. An eagle.

“Totem pole,” she says.

Kyle is happy here, the first bench seat in the back. His job in the show is to wear the bear costume and scare the audience just enough. He is also the prop man. The idea to have all the kids sit in a circle and hold taught one piece of string to demonstrate impact assessment: his. He used to drive the van. It's not that he has a problem turning thirty, though it does make him seem ten years older than Elly and seven older than Gaye when, he thinks, it is really closer to nine and six.

His age hadn't mattered with Ginnie, or at least not in the same way. She had wanted him older, he has written in his journal. “And slower. Old as the fucking world.”

He and Ginnie met in Terrace a few years ago now and a hundred or so kilometres back along the road. Kyle had taken her photo on convocation day for the Weekend Advertiser (she graduated community college with high school equivalency, and if you look closely you can see a trail of smoke creeping over the left shoulder of her gown), and misspelled her name in the cutline. It was Ginnie. Short for Virginia. Two months later he saw her in the street and apologised.

“You did do that, didn’t you?”

Kyle had tried to look her up, and told her so, but failed. She said, “Why don’t I give you my number now?” and gave him her number. Home and pager and all. And ran off in the rain to pick up her kid from the park. When it ended months later he left town without the goodbye kiss he had hoped for. Just some photos of her wearing fake fur, sallow cheeked and inhaling in his headlights, and her kid dancing on the sidewalk like cowboys and Indians. Stopped at the light before the bridge out of town he wrote in his journal, “I don’t want to leave. I like this pain best.” But he went anyway. His contract with the Advertiser had ended.

He moved back to Calgary, learned to make soup and liquidated snow shovels and ladders and other merchandise with his father. Then he applied for the tour, which brought him back to BC, and stopped at three schools in Terrace over two days last week. He didn’t see her, though he bought a sandwich at the German deli and heard she’d married a mill worker.

“Someone with money,” Kyle thinks, dropping his head on the crumpled tawny fur of the bear outfit beside him. “In it for the money.” He hasn’t talked to Ginnie since he left. The Husky attendant, him and his blue coveralls and matching cap and footlong braid, would know for sure. But he’d say, “Maybe.”

And Kyle’s thinking, “Maybe.”

Gaye has propped her head between the window and the door, using the seatbelt as a buffer, and without turning around says, “Quit creasing your costume. Kids notice these things.” And, groaning, Kyle folds the costume and places it on the floor. Gaye adds, “Babycakes,” like she knows he wants her to say it.

“Babycakes.” Elly likes the sound of this.

Kyle says, “Where are we?”

Nobody knows. Somewhere between the Husky and Stewart, moving downhill into a bridge. Out the window there is a rest stop, outhouses and families, but Elly has learned to always assume lateness. Stewart is the last stop on the tour, and the last town before Hyder, Alaska, and they are expected shortly after noon. They are moving. Kyle thinks Elly drives like the fucking wind. She is the best driver he has ever met.

“Slow down.” Gaye gets nervous near water. There is a river on the right side of the highway, wide and strangely green.

Elly says, “We’re late.”

Kyle thinks, “It’s not easy being me.” He isn’t referring to the fact that he turned thirty today, though that is keeping him from napping. For the past month and a half he’s shared two beds with Elly and Gaye in one hotel room, only every third night he gets a bed to himself. It’s nicer sleeping with Gaye because she wears black pajamas and moves little more than he does. He doesn’t move at all. Elly rolls and rolls. Butts his arms with her head. Steals the covers. Kyle likes this too, just not as much.

Kyle wishes he was from Likely, BC. The strong come from Likely, he thinks, not Calgary. This is all he learned from the interior.

And the Husky attendant is back there thinking, “Maybe.” He says, “Maybe.”

Gaye says Stewart is one of the most important towns on the tour because, unlike most places they’ve visited, it actually has bears. And not just at the dump. She has a book. It says grizzly and black bears gather for the salmon run at Fish Creek on the other side of Hyder. The book, she says, makes no mention of kermode bears.

“Spirit bears,” Elly says. Gaye has given up.

In the photo there is a cedar bridge packed with people and large camera equipment leaning over the railing.

Gaye blows the hair from her face. “That’s asking for trouble.”

“What’s wrong with this picture?” Elly asks.

Kids’ hands shoot up all over the classroom. They know it, they know it. Boy, do they ever know it. One dirty faced blond kid can’t hold it in, blurts out the answer.

“People could fall over the edge and get eaten up by the bears.”

“Correct,” Elly says, and presents him with his very own Bear Aware sticker. The kid is the envy of every first grader in the room, he has never seen anything like this before.

“Let’s say, oh no! Somebody leans too far and falls over!” Gaye says, giving Kyle his cue. He runs in to screams of fear and delight. There are always one or two kids who pee their pants. “What if it was you? What should you do to protect yourself?”

“Run away,” says the same kid from before, hurting for another sticker.

“That would be the most natural thing to do,” says Gaye, “but it’s not the safest.”

“Play dead,” says another.

“Good answer again, but no, you should not play dead.”

The correct thing, she goes on, using Kyle as a prop, would be to speak calmly and move slowly and confidently away without turning around until the bear is out of view. He circles her and she remains calm. She walks away unharmed. The important thing, she says, is not to alarm the bear.

“Because he is more afraid of you than you are of him.”

Then Gaye and Elly have the kids growl and make bear faces at Kyle. He, in his grizzly suit, stumbles over as many little chairs as he can on his way out of the room. All of the kids get stickers.

“Now,” Elly says, “who can tell me what biodiversity is?”


We'd marry Craig Battle. If it was legal in the province he was born in. And the province we were born in. Or just if one of us was a woman.

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