Never Look Back

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Chapter 21

Currents of freedom flowed through climbers. Freedom from stress, from work, from relationships, from traffic. Freedom from the world. Freedom on demand; straight into the bloodstream. Despite a safety harness, thirty pounds of equipment belted around my waist, an extra rope slung bandolier, an unbound feeling persisted. Sometimes I found the entrance to Sasamori’s spiritual Way when I climbed. My ego evaporated. The sense of self and its reflection of the world around me dissolved. The concentration needed to maintain balance, to remember where each limb was, to choose the next handhold, to test lip, nub and ledge, vanquished peripheral thoughts. Moderately difficult ascents challenged my climbing skills. What I lacked in refinement, I recovered in strength and ingenuity.

The existing ascent turned out to be tougher than the climbing guide foretold. Mapping out a new ascent had turned out to be over-ambitious. While there were various deviations available to me, the nature of the wall forced a return to the original route time and again. Exploring alternate paths up the face increased the complexity of the climb and helped me hone my technique. Later this summer I planned a taxing ascent designed to challenge and to redefine my skill set. Until then, practice was the prescription. Like kendo, climbing placed incredible strain on muscles and tendons. Each sport required focus and harmony.

That last thought summoned the Watchtower. It felt as though a bulldozer had run me over and then reversed for a second pass. Full force anxiety had attacked my central nervous system. My foot slipped. Suddenly I clung to the cliff face by four fingers and a thumb, feet scrambling for purchase.

Focus. Second hand first. Right foot and then the left.

Become mindless or end up dangling by the safety line.

At the first pitch, some two-hundred feet up, I tied-off to enjoy a drink of water and to take in the panoramic view. While sipping from a bottle attached by a nylon cord, I absentmindedly watched wind-spurts rough up ripple patches on the lake’s glassy surface. Like cowboys wrangling cattle, tufts of wind corralled a watery ripple herd, coaxing it here and there. When the wind died and the surface smoothed, the herd dispersed. Another herd appeared farther on and the rodeo repeated. The region’s full scenic backdrop promised to be breathtaking at the summit. Miles of pine, birch and maple trees went on forever; crowns undulated under the breeze, a verdure ocean capping back and forth. Not far from the beach, cherry shrubs and wild blueberry bushes speckled dell and glade. We should return in autumn for harvest.

Next to the canoe, Odera laid on a beach towel suntanning. She had turned the canoe on its side to shade the knapsack containing our lunch. The clearing she occupied went from sand to river rocks, to earth mounds and then to forest. On the short side of the clearing, where tall grass and scrub growth dominated, a black bear broke tree cover. It stopped to listen and smell. Their sight is weak and ineffectual if their quarry remains motionless. Black nostrils lifted into the air, sampling, before again ambling along the shoreline, head sweeping left to right as though the route was part of its daily jaunt, sniffing and nosing berry bushes that had yet to ripen. It appeared no larger than a dog when viewed from my height, but mature males exceeded five-hundred-pounds. Odera had positioned herself between the bear and the food beneath the canoe.

Ishouted, “O-der-a!”

No response.

More rapidly than was safe, I switched to rappel mode and disconnected my safety line. Precious seconds passed while I turned the two-inch-wide nylon diaper into a Swiss seat. Often, I ran down cliff faces, Australian style, controlling the rope with one hand while holding the other as if I cradled a shotgun broken at the breach, but Australian style was too slow for my need today. I tied a bowline knot in one end of the rope to the karabiner snapped through a piton and let it go. The rope snaked out below me. Next went my utility belt, scraping and bouncing, cartwheeling down the cliff face. Even before it hit the water with a dull sploosh, I bent my knees until my ass nearly touched my ankles and leapt out and back. Nylon-sheathed rope screamed through the aluminum karabiner.

“Odera!”

When l passed the point of apogee, the granite wall rushed inward again. I closed rapidly on an overhang. Too rapidly. To decrease my inward speed, I released more rope. Just before impact, I locked it off. It snapped like a whip and flung me against the rockface. Both feet, followed by my knees and then my shoulder, slapped granite.

“Odera! Bear!”

Now sitting up, she saw me pointing at the bear with one hand while fumbling to release my rigging with the other. She turned her head toward the bear. A rough estimate concluded the water should be deep enough to slow my velocity before I hit lake bottom. My rigging snapped loose. Even as I straightened my body to knife into the lake, Odera screamed my name. The lake bottom showed crisp and clear beneath its waters.

Just before surface contact, I clamped my elbows to my sides and my hands over my face. Though my second jump had occurred from the one-hundred-and-thirty-foot mark, my descent speed had been restricted by the friction of the rope passing through the karabiner. Not so with my second jump. I entered free-fall accelerating thirty-two feet per second per second, rocketing toward terminal velocity with a force of 3.81 multiplied by the product of my two-hundred-and-thirty-pound bodyweight and the total freefall distance in meters. Hitting the water felt as though I crashed through two-inches of ice. Watery friction tried to force my elbows up and outward.

Down.

Down.

Down, I went.

Twenty feet of watery resistance slowed my descent. Suddenly increasing pressure popped my ears. The lake bottom gently came underfoot firm and smooth. I pushed off, kicking hard for the surface. Sunlight slashed through the depths in a rainbow of yellows, reds and oranges.

Ten feet. Five feet. Two feet.

I broke the surface gasping and searching. Shrieks met my enquiry and provided coordinates to focus on.

“Odera,” I croaked and gulped more air before acknowledging a disbelieving sight. “Odera! Do not throw stones at the bear!”

Rocks landed around the black bear as if it was no more than a raccoon digging in a garbage can that needed to be chased off. When she ran out of ammunition, she picked more up and continued to annoy the beast. I dug in, front crawling, pulling hard for the beach, squeezing out more speed with faster kicks. Rather than drive the bear off, she had attracted it. It lumbered toward her.

She turned to run.

“No! Don’t run. Odera, hold!”

At my impassioned plea, she turned toward me.

“Don’t run? Are you crazy?”

The bear closed within thirty feet.

Odera turned to bolt.

“Hold position! And do not look it in the eye.”

Feet touched lake bottom. Spongy muscles dragged me up out of the water forty feet from the bear. Kendo breathing automatically began to recharge my system and helped to recover my wind. Slow and deep.

“You’d better be right.” Her voice quavered. The bear waddled closer. “Oh my God, I’m scared. I think I’m going to pee my pants.”

“You’re not wearing pants.”

“Shut up! That’s not funny.”

“Until you start jumping foot to foot doing the pee-pee dance, you’ve no worries.”

“Stop it. You’re not helping.”

“No big deal. He looks like a Sesame Street bear,” I intoned as it drew within ten feet of her and still Odera stood statue-still. “The first rule of engagement is to outthink your opponent.”

“I don’t care about rules, just make him go away. He stinks like sour old socks. Oh my God. Oh my God, he’s too close.”

“Not a muscle now. No matter what happens. Look at me. Right here.” I came up behind the bear, now close enough to sense Odera’s fear, to see that her body had gone wild and panicky. And though she shivered like a member of the polar bear swim club, trust anchored her feet. Those brave blue eyes had not strayed from mine. “Over here!” I shouted and picked up a heavy stone. “You ugly black rug. Turn around you flea-bitten, garbage-eating, wanna-be-trophy!”

The bear twisted its wide head. Small, gently rounded ears swivelled. Its stubby tail flicked side-to-side, swishing windshield-wiper fast. A woodpecker banged away at a tree. A mosquito bit my neck. I threw my stone and missed. It bounced once and nearly hit Odera.

“Come here,” I yelled and waved my arms moving sideways toward the canoe. “Lunchtime, you furry black ball.” The bear swung its head back to Odera. “Hey, you! Grub-eater. Get the fuck over here!”

It refused to alter its direction and closed on Odera. I ran toward it yelling like a madman, which triggered its defensive instincts. It spun on a dime. Rasping breath whistled through nostrils as loud as bellows feeding a forge. Musky animal odour coated my throat. It reared and roared. Sunlight glinted in coal-black eyes and a snot stringer dangled from moist nostrils. What I wouldn’t give for a katana. Scratch that, a katana would just piss it off. Its neck and head stretched forward while it released an ursine holler. That primal roar stilled all forest voices. Its lips flapped like luffing sails, teeth bared, snout twisting side to side.

Ugh! Bad breath bear.

I glide-stepped backwards, working hard not to entice a charge. It was a long, agonizing heartbeat until it dropped to all fours and padded after me, head low, swinging side-to-side, agitated, rumbling low growls. No way was I presenting my back. Bears have incredible acceleration. Rather than look into its eyes, I focussed on a shoulder. Using my peripheral vision, I snatched up the knapsack as I passed by the canoe. With smooth and measured steps devoid of panic, I slid sideways, gradually increasing the distance between us while staying near the shoreline, certain that I could swim faster than it could paddle its furry fat ass. Let fear work for you. Be ready to jam an index finger into an eye if it comes to that and bolt like a beaver for water, I thought.

“Hey, you! Yogi!” Odera shouted and threw a rock. It hit the bear’s black rump. As if her rock was a pebble and not a fair-sized stone, her missile lazily caught its indolent attention. “Over here.”

“What do you think you’re doing?”

“Saving you,” she replied as the bear looked to her and then back to me. “And lunch. Don’t give him everything.”

The absurdity of her remark made me shake my head.

“Ready the canoe. No sudden moves. No running. Walk. Go.”

Yet retreating, I waved a tuna salad sandwich in the air. The bear lumbered forward, a fuzzy juggernaut, all raw power and potential death. White sand transitioned into river rocks, to grass and finally into weed tufts. Curved sabre claws scraped and scratched over river stones. Those rasping sounds reminded me of the danger I faced. A single swipe would open my midriff and tear my guts out. It must be a garbage dump bear to have lost its fear of humans and ventured so close to us, which increased our danger. Its long pink tongue licked a snot-slavered lip.

“Save some for us,” Odera called out while shaking sand lose from her beach towel.

Afterwards, she tugged her shorts on over her swimsuit, collected a bottle of sunscreen lotion, neatly wound earbud cord around her iPhone and set her sunglasses on top of her head. If she stopped to brush her hair, I promised myself that she was swimming to the car and hitchhiking back to the city. I tossed the sandwich in the opposite direction of the canoe.

Moist, black nostrils flared delicately. A stout, whiskered snout lifted. What was the likelihood the open sandwich smelled stronger than what remained in the knapsack? Higher than average, I hoped. I should have thrown him all the damn food. After a moment of indecision, the bear followed his nose to the sandwich. The second it turned, I headed calmly but resolutely for the canoe. Odera sat in the bow with her paddle jammed into the soft lake bottom. I hopped into the canoe and shoved off. When I looked back from six or seven yards offshore, the black fuzz ball stood there longing after the remainder of our lunch. It was a long, long way around the lake if he wanted to meet us at the car.

Crisis over.

“Christ that was close. Thank God you heard me yell.”

“I did not hear you yell.”

“Say again?”

The bow surged as I dipped and pulled.

“I had a premonition. When I found you, you were falling. I thought that you were in danger.” Odera wore a mystical smile. “Then I saw the bear.”

“Next time hang the knapsack from a tree limb.”

“Next time I’ll leave it in the trunk. Where’s your gear?”

“At the bottom of the lake.”

“Isn’t that stuff expensive?”

“I was in a rush. I try not to drop into the water at a hundred miles an hour more than once a month.”

“You did that for me?”

She rested her paddle across the canoe runnels and rewarded me with eyes that had convinced me to redefine my priorities.

“I came back for lunch. Dip and pull, pee-pee pants.”

“You were trying to make me laugh on purpose.”

Odera smacked the water with her paddle.

“Go easy, I went through some little risk to save this lunch for you to get it wet now.”

Odera splashed me again.

“I’d love to tell Daddy.”

“Forget it. Paddle.”

“Fine.”

“Good. Consider yourself prepped for bear encounters.”

“He was just hungry,” she decided.

“I hope this doesn’t stop us from returning. The view up there was surreal. The open space kept expanding until one realizes that we play a very small part in a much bigger picture. Perspective always finds me up there. I wish you could have experienced it.”

“I will. When you teach me to climb; if I’m not too fat to learn.”

“You’re not fat.” When she smiled appreciatively, I said, “Voluptuous, certainly. In Japan, you’d be considered on your way to prosperity.”

“Just when I let myself think there might be an ounce of hope for you, you yank it out from beneath me.”

“I thought you preferred honesty and disliked politically correct buttheads?”

“Never tell a woman her jeans make her look fat. Tell her they do not fit as well as the next pair will.”

“What’s the difference between what you said and saying ‘That pair makes your butt look big, try on another?’ What if I prefer voluptuous?”

“Work it out for yourself. You have to be the dumbest smart person that I know.”

If I was a dumb smart person, she had just called me a smart dummy, which was really a dummy. That Odera’s most scathing observations about my deficient social skills happened to lack malicious intent did not make them less true.

The bow struck sand.

Our conversation replayed itself until I was thoroughly confused. Clues for what? Was there a test later? Okay, my remark about Japan was over the top. I know one does not meet a person with a huge hairy mole growing from their chin and declare, ‘Wow! Want to borrow my hedge trimmers?’ Which was another reason to remain aware of another person’s ego and how honesty sometimes conflicted with kindness. According to Kira’s father, without the reflection of the ego mirrored against the world, rational perception was extinct. It was all about tact and perspective, I decided.
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