Sunday, July 13, 2008


The title of this post is taken from a Jeff Bridges movie released in 1986. It is a run of the mill cops versus drug dealers movie that is not really worthy of reviewing. I just like the title.

There are lots of ways to die. Discount "natural causes" like age, disease, etc and you still have a few million I'm sure. What's significant is that we all have brushes with death, probably many such brushes, all through our life times. Many people live very long lives, dodging the karmic bullets and for some people, the bullet catches up with them on the very first go round.

Collette and I were watching some program that featured a guy who had become paralyzed when, as a teenager, he did a cliff jump into water. The day this happened to him all his friends were doing the same jump, all without incident. But that one jump, that one moment where his body did something different, damn near killed him.

Collette thought back to her teenage years in the Parry Sound area, the number of times she and her friends did "stupid things" in cars on the region's high ways and came out unscathed. Her niece Amanda, with her friends, was driving in the same area, not even doing "something stupid" and in a terrible tragedy, did not escape that karmic missile. Why is that? We all make mistakes, we all push the envelope just a little, some of us many times; some of us survive, some of us do not.

When I fell out of a tree and shattered my ankle, it was due to a series of small mistakes stitched together in such a fashion that I ended up with a permanent injury that, while not being so disabling, has certainly affected certain aspects of my life. That was not the first time I made mistakes, not the only day that I had potential to hurt myself but it was the one where it finally caught up with me. I don't why. I mean, I know why I fell out of the damn tree with a chainsaw in my hand, I just don't know why it had that end result; it could have happened so many other times in the past.

Here is my little countdown of the number of time Vic should have died and yet, did not:

1) 1978 - Northern Manitoba. An abandoned industrial water tank in an old mining camp deep in the bush, just west of Thompson. The oil tank in question was about 25 feet high and maybe 12 or 14 feet across. The former owners of the mine had sealed the tank, welding a larger medal lid across it, to make the ruin "safer". Myself, and my friends Norm and Michelle stumbled upon the site and of course, our first thought was "Let's climb it!" And it was nice, high up in the jack pines, above the bush, able to see down across the valley, the spring air crisp and redolent of the forest .. and naturally, that was not enough for us. Norm and I decided that the most sensible thing to do now, was, race around the edge of the lid. Hey, we were young, we were miles away from anything and there was a pretty girl there ... yup, we were guys. So around we went, running on the raised edge, all of about 13" wide, wearing steel toed work boots, the metal a little slick from a spring rain, nothing below us but muskeg and permafrost ...

And I slipped. I remember thinking "This is where you shift your body weight to fall onto the lid ..." but my boots were already leaving the metal. My next thought was "I wonder if the muskeg is soft enough to cushion me from 25 feet up ..." and then, I felt the air under my feet, my bare wrists felt the barb of the jack pine tree that was growing up right next to the tank, the branches overhanging it a bit. Then my body was turning, my arms were stretching out, and I had a hand full of tree limbs. I sort of flung myself into the tree; it was so thick and dense that my legs were going onto branches before I could even grab any. I slid down in the tree for a few feet till I finally got my arms around a good sized limb. And I just hung there for a few seconds while the reality of the situation sank in; death missed by a matter of inches.

When I fell out of my tree a few years ago, Collette tells me that she could see me trying to save myself; I grabbed at the tree but there were no limbs there, I tried grabbing the tree next to it, I was trying to position my body to land on my back instead of my feet... but I was unsuccessful. Why did it work in Manitoba? Well, 22 year old reflexes may have something to do with it. But those reflexes would have been useless without the proximity of that jack pine. .. Was it luck? Intervention? I really don't know.

2) 1979 - Prince Edward Island. I was working with a crew clearing brush as a prep for laying a new nature trail. This was a government sponsored training kind of program so naturally, we did not have a lot of the proper tools normally required for this kind of work. That day we were working with axes, bow saws and scythes. I was working with a group of people hacking small trees and dense brush with axes. That particular day I did not have my hair tied back, it was loose, but I was wearing a toque. I was standing at the edge of the clearing we had created, bent over a bit, using my axe to limb out this tree we had just felled when I felt something brush by me; it moved my hair. I looked up to see another worker, maybe six feet away from me, standing there with his mouth open, holding an axe handle. I wondered "Why the hell is he holding an axe handle?" Then it dawned on me. It was the head of his axe that I had felt brushing by my hair.

Now, in all reality, if the axe head had hit me, it probably would not have killed me. But it would have hurt. And I would have been pissed off. And the young man who had failed to properly secure his tool, would have been sent far too early to meet his maker. So a death would have occurred.

3) Lennox Island - 1979 Lennox Island lays just off the north coast of Prince Edward Island, connected by a short causeway. It is a Mi'kmaq community of some 400 people. Wood Island is a small uninhabited island off the coast of Lennox. That winter we were involved creating a "nature appreciation centre" on Wood Island to help promote eco tourism for the Lennox Island First Nation. Again, this was a very low tech endeavour. To get from Lennox to Wood, we simply hoofed it across the ice, carrying our supplies in a sledge. There was a small cabin over there and we would stay there for a few days at a time, constructing the structures and out buildings for the nature centre. There were two routes between the islands. Going straight our from A-frame on Lennox over to Wood was about a mile and half across the ice; but all of that was in Malpeque Bay and it was "good" ice, quite thick and solid. The other way was to go about three miles along the shore of Lennox and then make a passage of less than 1/4 of a mile, but here you were closer to open ocean with some serious currents so the ice was less stable, especially in the spring (you can see where this is going I'm sure)

As spring came in, we approached the time of thaw where travel between the two islands was impossible by either ice or boat. In our cabin on Lennox we realized that we had left some gear on the other island, in particular an expensive remote radio system that we did not want to sit over there for the duration of the thaw. So off we go, myself, Mark, Andre and Emmett, our crew chief.

We go the long way across the ice, across the bay; it is cold this morning and although Emmett knows that the ice has thinned, we still have a few feet of it under us. We go to the cabin and begin our cleaning up process. It takes longer than we had participated and, in the way of the Maratimes, the weather changed dramatically. Four hours later, when we stepped out of the cabin, we felt that the temp had increased and a sultry eastern wind was swirling. Storm clouds choked the skies and we could feel a few drops of stinging rain pelt our faces. Going back across that mile and a half of open ice, with the wind and the rain slapping us the whole way was not appealing. Maybe it was wiser to cross the short strait and have the longer part of the hike on land, were there was shelter. So we each hoisted up our packs, maybe 25 pounds a piece, and headed off.

To say we made a mistake in judgement is an understatement. By the time we got to the channel crossing the weather was growing evil. It was around 4 pm in the afternoon but the clouds made it dark as night and the wind was hard, you could feel its teeth, with rain on its back. The wind had shifted and ocean was blowing in across the channel; as we started to cross, there was water almost up to my knees. And the ice under the water was slippery. Twenty feet out, Andre lost his footing and it was only Emmett's reflexes (he was a competitive boxer) that save him from being blown out to sea. After that we tied ourselves to a long braid of rope. Walking was hard. We were moving into the wind now, doubled over, the 25 pound packs feeling like 40. We were wearing work boots but the ice under the water was so slick we could not get our footing. We had to use hand axes to hack foot holes in order to make our way.

It was exhausting. I felt almost as though I was in some kind of trance, aware of what my body was doing but not really in control of it. Everything that could ache, did so. I felt more machine than human, and it was only Emmett's encouragement that kept me moving. That quarter mile passage, which should have taken us 20 minutes, took us in excess of four hours. By the time we reached Lennox island we were in deep physical exhaustion and suffering from exposure and hypothermia. And we had a three mile hike ahead of us.

Luckily, our absence had been noted and search and rescue found us about a mile into the hike back home. We spent the night in the hospital. We all had some mild frostbite, but basically no serious injuries. Could we have died? Oh yeh, no doubt about it. If we had left an hour later when the temperature plummeted, if Emmett hand not caught Andre on the ice, if search and rescue had not found us ... there was real potential for kicking it. A series of small indiscretions led us to that experience. The kind you can commit every day. Some times you skate through it, sometimes you die.

4) Wrong Lake Manitoba - 1984 Back in my old stomping grounds of northern Manitoba. I was working as a cook in a fly in fishing lodge located on Wrong Lake (really, would I go to the right lake?) Pretty big place, half a dozen staff in the lodge, 8 Cree fishing guides who lived in their own camp, up to 20 guests at a time. Well maintained but where there are humans there is garbage and where there is garbage there will be bears. In particular, a young male black bear who had discovered the remote dump some half a klick from the lodge. He wasn't much bothering the lodge or the guests and the Native guides often had him around their camp.

Then the owners showed up. They were unhappy about the bear. Collette's family owns a fishing lodge and they are never happy about bears around their business and I can understand this, bears are bad for business. Dealing with garbage bears is a delicate situation and I seem to get myself there more than one sure. No matter where this story is going let me assure you: This was not my first bear.

On morning I was cleaning up after breakfast and starting the lunch prep when I heard a sound from outside: Pop, pop, pop ... I go flying out to the back deck and find the owner's wife taking pot shots at the bear .. with a .22 caliber rifle. She had hit him, at least one shallow flesh wound. I took the weapon from her hands and told her "Well now you pissed him off" The bear was indeed mad and not likely to return to the bush. A call was put in to the Ministry to come do a live trap but this is a fly in only lodge in summer, they could not come for at least a day.

As fate would have it, the lodge was over booked. Full of customers, full of the owners, and full of their special guests. Which means Vic had to give up his room. Which meant Vic had to sleep in the quarters usually given over to temp workers or visiting Ministry ecologists. This was a small trailer, way in the back of the property, supported on cinder blocks.

I'll cut to the chase here. Here is Vic, some 500 meters from the lodge building, in this little trailer, one flimsy door, two windows, no firearm, all by his lonesome. Oh, not so alone. I became aware of the bear around midnight. Very quiet and still back there in the bush. Everyone asleep in the lodge as well as the guide camp. I could hear him snuffling, right outside the door. I don't know if he was actively sniffing me, searching for food or just generally grumpy from the big hot hornet that had stung him. I tried to be quiet but maybe he heard him. He was not very happy with humans at this point in his life.

He brushed up against the trailer as if just testing it. It was a test for which he got an "A". The little building trembled. I trembled. And couldn't remember if I had locked the door. I flew out of my bunk and just as I turned the latch, something hit the door. I think it was his paw. The whole thing moved. I just stood there, frozen, trying to stay quiet, hoping he would go away. Normally he would have. But not tonight. Tonight he was hurt and scared. And definitely pissed.

He hit the trailer again and this time it was not with his paw. The whole thing rocked. I made a sound like a school girl. I went for the only weapons I had: A hatchet and a Buck knife with a 6 inch blade. I cursed; my Henckels were in the frigging lodge. Funny, the lodge was filled with hunting rifles of varying rifles but the weapon I most desired with which to fight off a 250 pound black bear were my chef knives. So there I was, all 165 pounds of me, in my shorts and bare feet, a hatchet in one hand and hunting knife in the other ... and he took another poke at the trailer. I thought for sure it was going right off the cinder blocks. Just as I was going to yell, his paw came through one of the windows. This was the second time in my life I've seen the paw of a bear come at me through a window and really, the sequel was no less scary than the original.

I did scream this time, in an octave higher than my normal range but I was too far away from the lodge for anyone to hear me. But it had an affect. Maybe the bear was confused why something that smelled human was sounding more like a chipmunk or maybe it was just tired from playing with the big Lego. At any rate, after a short time, he went on his way. Days later the bear was live trapped and taken deep into the bush and Vic flew back to civilization.

If the bear had gotten me (not really likely, there was not enough motivation for him to actually bust into the trailer) I would have been dead or terribly injured. Human versus black bear without a firearm is a one sided fight. The bear didn't really want to kill me, he was just hurt and scared and angry. But he could have. And the circumstances that put me in that situation were both predictable and complex: Shoot a bear with a 22 and you don't kill it, you just endanger other humans. But if the wife had not been there, if the lodge had not been full ... things would have been different.

So we all have our brushes with premature death. Usually they are more mundane. Like almost stepping into traffic or avoiding a 20 pound block of ice falling towards you from a four storey building in Quebec City. We avoid these situations all the time. Then we don't. Is it just the law of averages? Or is it something else?

As usual I am not trying to answer any questions here. I am just thinking out loud. If anyone wants to relate how they dodged the Big Bad Bullet of Fate, please feel free to comment.

If you have any clue why your number wasn't called that day, let me know.

No comments:

Top Blogs Pets

Add to Technorati Favorites