An English New Year’s Eve

An English New Year’s Eve

When the clock struck midnight on 31st Dec, I was standing on a hillside in south-west England with my old war-time buddy Ant and his wonderful wife Harriet. Around us some of their friends had gathered, sipping whisky out of hip flasks, or swigging champagne from plastic cups.

All around the grass was encrusted with hoar-frost, and the rutted track up the hill had been icy and tricky to navigate in the dark. But at the centre of our small gathering was a roaring fire, like a medieval hill-top beacon, that must have been visible for miles around.

As the seconds ticked by and the old year gave way to the new there was a muted but primal cheer. It wasn’t any old year that we were saying good-bye to but one studded with loss, tragedy and a strange and enduring sense of lives only half-lived.

We all knew that it was too soon to mark the passing of the rainclouds – the agonies of Covid, the frustrations of a long-drawn out and divisive Brexit, and the shadow of other more personal tragedies – but nevertheless there was a sense that somewhere ahead there was light.

Like so many wilderness tourist operations Wild Bear Lodge remained firmly shuttered in 2020. After returning to Canada in March I had waited and waited for things to get back to normal, eager to open and bring some life back into the place.

Finally in September I gave up hope and, when I was offered a job teaching at a Budapest university, I took it with enthusiasm.

Through October and November I held lectures for smart 21-year-olds wanting to know about war and the media. Then in mid December I headed for the UK and a couple of weeks with family and friends.

Now, a week into January, the nightly television news is still grim. But the light at the end of the tunnel is surely growing brighter. And – in that spirit – we have started to plan the re-opening of the lodge, set for Sept 1st, and just in time for grizzly bear season.

There will be changes, of course. Without Kristin, Kim will be taking over the cooking (to be fair she was already doing much of it). Graham has asked to be relieved from guiding duty and will be replaced in the field by long-time rafting and nature guide, Andrew.

I have also hired Tommy, an old friend, to a new position of Conservation Director. An accomplished bushman and veteran environmental campaigner, he will be working several days a week on our charity initiatives as well as beefing up the guiding cadre during bear season.

The wonderful Sage, who has been with us for four years now, recently completed her biology degree. She is spending the winter tracking urban coyotes in a frigid Edmonton for her Master’s thesis. Come spring, she too will be back at the lodge.

At the management level I also have a new business partner (and investor). Joel, a guest who came to the lodge with his wife Corri three years ago and fell in love with it, will be spending much of the season with us. While I will be running the lodge, Joel will be learning bushcraft and advising on the business side.

The plan is for all of us to meet up at the lodge in early May. We will then spend two or three months doing what we do best: tracking animals, watching bears, and scouting new terrain by  bush plane and on foot. By September, when our first guests of the year are due to arrive, we will, I am sure, be working as a fully-melded team.

Of course, without Kristin, it will be a bit of an emotional challenge for all of us. But I know that she wanted the operation she had worked so hard to build to continue without her. She believed hugely in the whole endeavour and, in my darker moments when I was struggling with this or that piece of inane British Columbian bureaucracy, she would often remind me of all the joy and wonder the lodge had brought so many guests over the years.

Even as I mark some painful anniversaries I also know from experience that nature is a great cure for loss, grief and pain – right up there with close, supportive and loving friends. It only seems right that the lodge – tucked away in the heart of an ancient world where grizzly bears still roam and little has changed since the last ice age – will now reopen with new energy and new passion.

(Until then enjoy the gratuitous photo of a grizzly bear rolling in the snow captured by one of the trail cameras on our property not long before Christmas. With thanks to Sage.)