The weathered face, stoic and inscrutable rose slightly and the old man sniffed loudly, "Uhn, I smell bear shit," is all I heard him grunt. I was busy helping Tom lift a six foot long four inch round pole to get our tent in place before nightfall and I didn't think much of the old mans statement at first but soon a huge brown bear lumbered out of the wood above our hillside camp and rushed down the embankment disappearing into the mist below not noticing us a wit. I surely took notice of him and of the old Indian for the first time since I'd jumped the 5 feet from the copter to find him laboriously lugging timber in order to erect the six man gov't issue canvas tent that, due to lightning striking, would be our home for the next two weeks.
This excursion was the jewel in the crown of my previous two months. I'd found my way to a base camp on the Fraser River patrolling a fire that had jumped said river in June and roared to life on the west bank causing the Canadian forest service to respond by hiring any and all available hands including scruffy and wandering souls such as I.
An attempt to hitch hike to Quebec with my girlfriend Sue had ended when we were robbed by a "kindly" Pakistani and left barefoot and penniless by the side of a desolate highway, Sue had found a greyhound in Hope B.C. and headed home to her mother. Mom was happy to wire her daughter the funds to get away from the likes of me. I had found the area ranger station on the advice of a couple of locals while sharing a jug of "electric" vino. We had freaked into the wee hours at a youth hostel I had ventured upon and they suggested I avail myself of Canada's liberal laws concerning national emergencies and forest fires. Canada was user friendly to vagabond youth with a yen to travel.
Life took a surprising upswing when I landed this gig. I had been given a ratty pair of boots at the hostel, and upon being hired I was transported back up the Fraser Hi-way to Boston Bar where we traversed the formidable Fraser River via a cable gondola large enough to accommodate one truck and 10 bodies. We swung out and over the roaring river suspended by a thin (to me) thread of cable attached to our box shaped cage and glided on a series of pulleys and cable to the opposite bank. The river narrowed here where the crossing was named Hell's Gate, an apt name as water roiled and a torrential current threw plumes of white spray high. Water glistened in vaporous sheens shot through with rainbow spectrums of kaleidoscopic beauty but nature's fury far out weighed the cascading wisps surrealism.
An hour later we arrived at the edge of the still growing inferno and were summarily told to start cutting a break, my stamina was severely tested that day as I took my Pulaski and hoed a 2 foot wide break inch by inch and hour by hour until well after night had fallen. I had only a few moments to assess the flames licking at the forest and us as I was concentrating on the task at hand and focused on that small inroad I had made. All day I heard snapping and hissing, timbers cracking, groaning and igniting in my auditory background. The heat was palpable and encompassing even after dark had arrived and the few times I cast a furtive look I could see the glare and glow from a host of burning trees and brush while a pervasive pall of smoke engulfed the forest. Some time in the early morning we were relieved by another crew who seemed as green as us and just as willing. We gladly relinquished our duties till the next day.
© 2003 - John Germain