"A Wilderness Romance"

with Dennis Kaska
Photos by Martin Pytela

It’s all Lord Byron’s fault. Lord Byron’s and all those who followed in his footsteps. He, the larger than life hero, the rebel, the rumoured incestuous lover, the brooding enigma, the gallant nobleman fighting for the Greek insurgents against the Turkish oppressors, the poet who unwittingly stumbled upon the greatest advertising scheme - dying young. (This trick does work to this day - James Dean, Kurt Cobain - but most of the fame-hungry stars perverted the original romantic scheme of "dying young" to a more convenient and hedonistic "forever young" scheme.)

Now, over 170 years after his death at the age of 26, and in spite of the efforts of people like Henry Miller and P.J. O’Rourke, the western world from Prague to San Francisco, from Rome to Buenos Aires, is still in the clutches of romanticism. Lofty emotions, un-manageable passions and larger than life revolutionaries (especially if they die young) sell well; every women’s magazine prescribes a candlelight dinner (preferably in one of the more expensive restaurants) as a great (almost compulsory) start for a passionate evening of sex, the writers of formula romances are the best paid people among the contemporary word-slingers, and Che Guevara’s poster used to hang (quite recently, measured by the historical distance between us and His Romantic Lordship) on walls in teenagers’ rooms from Helsinki to San Diego (with the possible exception of teenagers’ rooms from Moscow to East Berlin because teenagers in that part of the world usually did not have rooms they could call their own, and because the Romantic Supreme, great Che, was a friend of the Politburo-approved revolutionary Fidel Castro, and therefore unacceptable as a teenage idol to any self-respecting youngster behind the Iron Curtain).

This fascination with the romantic does not limit itself to sex and politics. Led by lumina- ries such as Jack London and Farley Mowat, the romantics enter the cathedral of Nature to either purify their souls and get closer to their roots or to experience the danger of ruthless wilderness. Bewildered readers then often wonder why, for example, wolves behave like people; one day they read about cunning, bloodthirsty demons, next day they can’t help but fall in love with benign and benevolent maintainers of cariboo herds.

Oh, I still remember the exciting days of my own romantic longings. Fresh from the Old World, eager to explore the supposedly unspoiled paradise of Beautiful British Columbia, I was stuck in a totally unromantic job, dreaming of wilderness adventures that had been unavailable in overpopulated Europe since the days of King Arthur.

However, my longings were a bit of a mystery to me since I’m not a brave person. The courage I had been allottted was being used up on coping with the hostile and inhospitable realities of the corporate world. Tracking a wounded leopard in a thick riverine bush, snorkeling in shark-infested waters, exploring cities like Mendelin and taking a leisurely midnight stroll in New York’s Central Park were not my favorite activities. Yet I was dreaming about a wilderness adventure. (Since then my romantic ideal somewhat evolved. These days I’m dreaming about a cabin on the shore of a pristine lake that is inaccessible to the hordes of ghetto-blasters-carrying, all-terrain-vehicles-riding, and beer-bottle-smashing punks who fulfill their romantic dreams at lakeside campsites in an uneasy symbiosis* with the owners of mammoth-size motor homes, equipped with mini TV dishes and "quiet" generators, and boats as big as their temporary dwellings.)

Where was I? Oh, my evolved romantic ideal! A cabin on the shore of a pristine lake. Well, actually, before that I was talking about my dreams of a romantic liaison with wilderness, a wilderness adventure. I was still young then and I romanticized wild places the way history-deprived Canadians romanticize Roman ruins or medieval castles. It took a full year of unromantic labour in the capacity of a slave to one of the corporate gods before I earned two weeks of freedom for which the corporate deity invented the term "annual leave". But finally my romantic dream was coming true. I had fantasized for months about the haunting silence and serene tranquility of deep wilderness.

I bought a used pick-up truck; a king cab with a fiber glass canopy and 6.5 liter motor. It had two 100 litre gas tanks (yes, those were the days when gas bills did not amount to 30% of your income, when taxes did not eat up another 50%, and when you had more than 20% left for beer, mortgage, groceries, and corporate uniforms; these days only MPs, LMAs, prime and other ministers, senators, bank executives, rock and hockey stars, and drug dealers - simply put, the folks who compose the middle class today - can afford the luxuries, like two 100 liter gas tanks on a vehicle, that were within the reach of every sawmill labourer twenty years ago), and a special carburetor that any racing car would have been proud of.

I told my girlfriend about my plans and I got an enthusiastic ally. She’s a German; the Germans are consumate romantics (i.e. Richard Wagner). She brought maps of B.C. interior (her favourite was a detailed aeronautical map) and traveled all the back roads with her index finger. It was exciting, but our sex life deteriorated - she was constantly talking and making plans.

Finally, one brilliant July morning everything materialized. The pick-up was going down a gravel road, my girlfriend was happily chatting away on the seat beside me, mountain tops sparkled white in the distance, the bush beside the road smelled like a bubble bath.
We came to a bridge across a river but we did not cross. There was a narrow track that followed the river into wilderness. Monika had found it during one of her finger trips on her aeronautical map.
We went up and down, we crossed a shallow creek - and in a glade Monika spotted a black bear destroying a large ant hill. Our first bear! Who could wish for a better start of a romantic holiday? Monika gave me a kiss and we watched, from the relative safety of my truck, the systematic destruction of an ant city. We watched with benign dumb smiles (the kind grandparents wear when they watch their adorable grandchild consume a big piece of a cream pie) but the bear did not give a damn and shuffled out of sight. Now we were sure this was true wilderness. Even the track changed dramatically. Gone was any trace of gravel; we drove over miles and miles of deep ruts.
"Can you imagine what would happened if it rained?" I asked Monika but it made no impression on her. The sun was shining and she was having a true wilderness experien-ce. Her illusion did not last long. We came upon a ranch. We felt cheated. So this was the deep wilderness: an old tractor, a rusting bailer, a half-decomposed barn, and all sorts of domestic animals out in the pasture behind a rotting snake fence. No people in sight but two border collies were supervising a couple of goats, a bunch of rabbits, a flock of geese, and two pigs. This was not the romantic place we had dreamed of.

The track turned away from the ranch and climbed for two miles straight up.At the top, we stopped and consulted Monika’s aeronautical map. It showed our track going south parallel to a large lake for about twelve miles. At the southern tip of the lake it followed a river for some forty miles until it joined a major forest road. The problem was that there was no trace of any lake. It was a mystery, and mysteries are quite romantic. We pressed on. Instead of going south, the track went straight east, and it kept on climbing. It was very puzzling. Finally we reached level ground. A wide, deep creek across the track was very scenic. White water was rushing over boulders. Two huge logs with rotting boards nailed on top served as a bridge. The access ramps on both sides seemed older than the "bridge". Monika was optimistic. My pragmatic genes fought with my romantic alter ego. Monika and the alter ego won. The logs held, my nerves almost didn’t. It was a very romantic experience. I took a beer brake to recuperate. Monika joined me and made fun of my trembling hands; it wasn’t her pick-up.

The scenery changed drastically soon after we left the creek behind. Trees got smaller and smaller. Soon there was just short grass and rocks. Monika spread out her aeronautical map on her smooth thighs.
"We must be at least 6,000 feet high," she chirped happily.
"Are you sure?" I asked her anxiously.
She was. The track cut across an alpine meadow. Treeless cliffs towering above us made me feel claustrophobic. Suddenly we were at the edge of the meadow. The lake was sparkling 2,000 feet below. Behind it, stretching to the horizon and beyond, there was the most breathtaking display of snow-capped mountains we’ve ever seen. We stared and stared, and the beauty of it fried my brain. That’s the only plausible explanation why I drove down that bluff.

When it dawned on me what kind of jam I got us into, we were half way down and the brakes were smoking. I knew our only hope was to go forward until we reached the forestry road forty miles south of the lake. But what if it was impassable, what if we got stuck? I tried to swallow a non-existent lump in my throat. Monika did not seem to have any worries. I clenched my teeth and pushed on.

The valley at the bottom was in full bloom. We crossed a shallow creek and I spotted a perfect campsite. I parked the truck under a pine tree and Monika ran into a meadow full of wild flowers. She came back holding an ox daisy, love in her green eyes. It was very romantic. I could not spoil it for her, I kept my worries to myself.

We made a small fire and warmed up some horrid stew from a can. To cover up the aftertaste, we opened a couple of beer cans. The dinnertime entertainment was provided by the setting sun. The mountains turned pink which slowly turned to purple. I gave Monika a kiss, grabbed my towel, and went along the creek in search of a romantic bath- room. Just around the bend , I found a narrow sandbar. I stripped and jumped into a small pool. The water felt like razor blades. I came out as fast as I went in.

Feeling refreshed, I looked around. It was an enchanting place. The purple haze gave everything a soft look. Even the dark, steaming pile on the narrow trail I was walking on looked more attractive in the romantic light. I studied it and decided that it was not there ten minutes ago. A closer examination led to the realization that I was facing an ursine excrement. Given its size and the ecosystem in which it was deposited, I came to the con-clusion that an ordinary ursus americanus was an ulikely depositor. Logically, that led to another conclusion: the likely depositor was a well-built specimen of ursus acrtos horribi-lis.

In some mysterious way, the second conclusion was instantly translated by my body into a somewhat elevated puls rate. Although I knew on the conscious level that running away from a bear was a no no, my legs lacked the sophistication of my conscious mind. I reached the camp at a speed surpassing the well-advertised Ben Johnson’s drugged performance at the Seoul Olympic Games. Monika was already in her sleeping bag under the canopy when I landed beside her and slammed the tail gates shut. My news weren’t exactly an effective lullaby. We lay there in the growing dark, sheltered by a quarter inch thick fibre glass shell, our eyes wide open and our ears pricked.

We woke up in the morning to find fresh deep scratches on the trunk of a pine tree that stood mere fifty feet from the truck. We didn’t waste any time with the relatively unim-portant activities like washing, brushing our teeth, and eating. I drove away as fast as the quality of the track allowed.

It was a beatiful day. The sun was shining from the cloudless sky. We crossed a marsh, we crossed two more creeks. We were lucky the weather was so dry. At last we got a glimpse of the lake. We stopped by an old log cabin. There was no sign of people outside but when I pushed the door open, I could not believe my nose. There were dirty dishes, spilled ketchup, greasy tools, patches of oil, and a bunch of fishing rods and reels in various stages of disrepair. A swarm of flies was buzzing above a rotting fish in a plastic bucket. Someone had to be around but I was not going to wait for him in the cabin. The southern tip of the lake was just a stone-throw away. We drove around the cabin and ended up on a beach that was half a mile long. Finest white sand and swarms of black flies. Monika sprayed herself with bug repellent and ran on the wet sand, waves lapping at her bare feet. She was very happy. The scenery was gorgeous, our isolation complete. How romantic.

I was getting so worried that I had to occupy myself with something practical. I gathered dry twigs and branches and started a fire. Monika came back from her romantic jog and hugged me and kissed me. She was laughing, she was silly like a puppy. Something in my expression made her stop.
"What’s wrong?" she asked, her face suddenly serious.
"Oh, nothing. It just occurred to me that we’re stuck here if there is just one big fallen log across that forty mile stretch from here to the forestry road. Or a couple of deep mud holes. Or what happens if it starts to rain?"
"Oh, schatz, don’t worry, it’ll work out," she comforted me.
"Shit, don’t you see it’s serious?"
She looked hurt. She sat beside the fire and pouted. Before I could get mad at her, I heard an engine.

A beat up four-wheel-drive truck crawled out of the bush and headed for the cabin. I ran after it. It was coming from south. The driver had fresh news about the condition of the track ahead. The four by four stopped behind the cabin. The driver got out and saw me. By the time I came up to him, a woman walked around the truck and sat down on a stump. They were quite a pair. He was short and fat and she was tall and skinny. Their clothes were probably never washed and they smelled of rancid grease and smoked fish. I told them about my fears and asked them about the track. They just stared at me. It was quite uncomfortable. Finally the guy lit up a cigarette and cleared his throat.
"Do you have a four by four?" he asked and squashed a horsefly that landed on his forehead.
"No," I aswered and my heart sank.
"Well, this track ends up at an old mine about ten miles south of here."
"You mean it doesn’t ..." I didn’t finish.
The woman chuckled. I wanted to cry. The guy puffed on his cigarette.
"How do I get back up that cliff?" I asked quietly.
"It’s been done before," he mumbled.
"What if I get stuck?"
"Weeeell, we will stay here until tomorrow. If you’re stuck we’ll give you a ride."
"What about my truck? Could you pull me up?"
"Nope, that’s a job for a cat. A friend of ours is coming to do some work with his machine at our ranch. He could pull you up but it would cost you."
"How much?"
"Thousand bucks or so."
I gasped. This was turning out to be a very expensive holiday.
The guy must have felt sorry for me because he added, "You have a half decent chance to make it because it’s so dry. But if I was you I would start right now. If it rains tomorrow you’ll be out of luck."

The woman got up and began to unload some gear from the pick-up box. The guy walked behind a clump of bush to pee. The audience was over. I said "thanks" and "bye" but nobody answered.
When I broke the news to Monika she looked scared for the first time since we left the main gravel road. Within ten minutes, we were on the road again. It was almost noon when we reached the foot of the cliff. It was a very hot day. I parked the truck and we had a bite to eat. We ate in silence and eyed the track in front of us.

Climbing up to the first switchback was quite easy. The second switchback made us spin the wheels on lose rocks but, somehow, we made it. Then the engine stalled. The sudden silence of deep wilderness was not music to our ears anymore.
"What’s wrong?" asked Monika in a small voice.
I got out and lifted the hood. A plume of vapour was rising from under the radiator plug. It was simply too hot and too steep. Within half an hour the engine cooled down. We climbed through two more switchbacks before the engine stalled again. To make a long story short, it took us three hours to reach the top. I was emotionally exhausted. The view was as impressive as the day before but we weren’t very impressionable; we wanted to be out of there as soon as possible.

After THE CLIMB, the log "bridge" was peanuts. I drove over it like a seasoned backbush pro. I was not stopping. We still had the deep ruts ahead of us. If it started to rain we’d get stuck. Spending our whole holiday at the "ranch" that was operated by border collies was not my idea of a good time. After I saw the cabin at the lake, I refused to even imagine what the ranch house looked like inside. Not talking about the smell. Monika did not say a word. A black bear ran across the track in front of us and I kept on going. Monika did not protest. We passed the "ranch". The collies were still on the job. It was too darn hot, we were hungry and thirsty, but I drove over the ruts, I wasn’t stopping for anything.

Well, I thought I wasn’t. Until I came over a hump... and there it was. A big D8 bulldozer was coming up the track. We had nowhere to go. I honked my horn to let the operator know we were there but the monster kept coming at the same speed. That’s when I realized there was no operator. I shifted into reverse and stepped on the gas. Over the hump we came and I was praying that our wheels didn’t slip into the deep rut. The yellow behemoth climbed on top of the hump. Monika stared at it wide-eyed, her hand squeezing my forearm. But she did not have to worry - the hump threw the steel King Kong off its course. It left the track and pushed its way through the stand of medium size pines. The trees were snapping under the blade like toothpicks. We watched in utter disbelief. The cat began to climb a hill and knocked down a big fir. There was a huge boulder further up hill. The monster hit it with the blade but the rock held. It took a while for the diesel engine to stall. There was nothing we could do. Very carefully, I drove over the hump again, hoping it had been a rare apparition. The path was clear. Half a mile down the track we spotted something moving through the bush. It was moving in circles. We stopped and had a better look . It turned out to be a man on his hands and knees. It looked like he was sniffing out truffles. But he wasn’t sniffing, he was touching the ground like a blind man looking for something. I got out of the truck and walked over to him. He wore greasy coveralls and smelled like a still in the backbush of Tennessee.
"Are you okay?" I asked him.
He looked up but could not locate my face with his eyes.
"I losht my glasses," he slurred, "I can’t see nuthin’without them."
"How did you get here?"
"I’m drivin’ my cat to my friends’ place down the road."
"Where’s your cat?"
"What d’ya mean?"
I told him what had happened. He did not seem to be overly concerned. As soon as I told him where his monster was parked, he did not mention it again. As it turned out, he had jumped off the cat because he needed to pee, but was so drunk that he did not realize that it was still moving. When he landed he lost his glasses. We never found them. He asked us to drive him to his place which was mere three miles from the bridge which we had never crossed. He fell asleep on the back bench. The truck was bouncing a lot, and just before we reached the bridge he vomited on his chest. The smell was overpowering. Monika had a hard time to to keep the contents of her stomach to herself. I crossed the bridge and drove down to the river. Somehow we managed to get him out of the truck and made him take off his coveralls. I washed them in the river while he sat on a rock in his undershirt. Monika made him get up and wash his face. Cold water woke him up and he began to sing. We had a hard time to get him back into the cab.

Ten minutes later we parked in his backyard. He lived in a very old trailer. The yard was littered with rusting pieces of machinery, empty oil drums, and many bottles. A skidder and a bucket loader were parked beside a fenced area with a chicken coop. Chickens were all over the yard and a big dog was watching over them from under a five hundred gallon gas tank that was sitting on two logs. Someone kicked open the door leading on a small porch. Out came a woman who, judging by her use of language, definitely wasn’t a lady. She paid no attention to us, the verbal abuse was aimed at the cat operator. We assumed that she was his lawful wife. He stumbled, skinned his shin on a rusting backhoe bucket, and fell down. We hopped into the pick-up and backed out of the yard.

The road led us to an Indian reserve. We did not spot anyone. We drove through the village and were chased by a pack of strange looking dogs. About half a mile past the last house, the road was going around a filthy looking swamp. A native teenager had a pick-up parked on the road above the swamp and was throwing garbage from the box into tall reeds. Several old cars were rotting in the stinky water. I stepped on the gas. The Indian kid and his pick-up disappeared in a cloud of dust. I looked at Monika. She now looked quite serious.

A wooden sign nailed to a tree pointed to the left and said "Lake". No name, no mention of the distance. We followed the track the sign was pointing to. The track was well-traveled. "Lake" with a campsite and aquamarine water was just two miles off the road. It wasn’t big and it wasn’t surrounded by high mountains. The campsite was empty; it had three picnic tables and an outhouse. Loons were calling and a family of ducks was quacking near the boat launch area. We were emotionally drained. Trying to have a romantic adventure was more exhausting than exhilarating, it was more stressfull than office politics. We stripped and went for a long leisurely swim. The water was warm and clear. Fish began to feed; they were jumping all around us.

We spent the evening staring at the flames of a small campfire. An owl was hooting from a big fir tree behind the outhouse. We agreed that we had found our spot.We spent relaxing ten days swimming, reading, sitting around campfires, and daydream- ing. It did not rain once and the most exciting thing that happened was the arrival of a middle-aged couple with a tent and a canoe. They were quiet, kept to themselves, and stayed only two days.

Monika still remembers that holiday. I met her the other day. She has two kids and a husband who climbed quite high on the corporate ladder. They have a motor home and they go skiing to Aspen. But she told me that those ten days were probably the best time she has ever had. And I had to agree with her - it was really romantic.

Article copyright 1997 Dennis Kaska
Photos copyright 1997 Martin Pytela

© 1996 Interactive Broadcasting Corporation