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Tuesday, December 3, 2013

(Non)Fiction #48: Sean Snowdon

My Life in Jeopardy

Making erratic decisions in my life has always been a typical living experience of mine. Never knowing what I truly wanted in life yet at such a young age, forced me to push nature to the limits to find myself. With this I have been fortunate enough to experience life before settling down with a family. Over the beginning years, there has been many situations where I have pushed life to the edge, however, there have been three where I truly did not know if the outcome would be death or the chance to tell the story. Here's my story of being at a stare down with the mother Grizzly and myself.

Tourists fly out to the resort, where they take are taken by bus to the spot to see the grizzlies on the river. Once there, there is a walk to two stands built so one can safely watch them eat and move around the waters. Of course I already knew they wouldn't let me camp out there so I phoned the Fish and Wild Life to make sure it wasn't private land and I had permission to be there. After I was told that they couldn't do anything if I were there, but I wasn't allowed to be up in the stands for that was private property I got on with an airplane charter out of Campbell River and hired a plane to fly me out to a small lake nearby. My plan was to then walk the trails to the road where the bus would follow and work my way over to the river where the stands were at. Easy!

I have been reading every book on grizzly bears over the last couple of years and was fascinated by the book "Among Grizzlies" by Timothy Treadwell. Grizzlies are not what everyone makes them out to be. nine times out of ten if a grizzly charges you, it is a bluff. All you have to do is stand your ground; if one has the courage, charge back yelling and it will back down. The one time out of ten it might keep charging if it felt threatened for its young ones, or had just killed and thinks the enemy is trying to steal its food. If this is the case, one needed to back down, protect the neck and play dead. If it thinks its intruder dead, it will leave him or her alone, hopefully not too damaged. Very, very rare will a grizzly want to eat a person, and if this is the case it will try and kill its opponent, then leave the carcass to rot and come back to finish it off later. Again playing dead was recommended. Now this was something I would never want to experience but at the same time I felt safe around grizzlies. The best time to come in contact with them was when they were eating at a riverbed, for there was more than enough salmon and this was one of the times when they would tolerate each other or another human close by. As for the river on the main land, the bears were already used to people taking pictures, so not only did they not feel threatened by people, but they had enough food to eat. Therefore, I felt this was the best place to go and explore taking photos and feeling safe in doing so.

I flew back to Vancouver, and this time met Ellie, the woman that I had been seeing, at the ferry terminal in Nanaimo, BC. I spent the night with her and her two daughters. The girls were 5 and 6 who hadn't seen me since that one day a few months prior during a visit, but the moment I showed up, they both remembered me instantly and were excited to play games again. I would have one on my back, while I chased the other around the house pretending I was an eagle. Another game the girls liked was I would be the bull, throw them on my back and try to get them off me. Usually I could frame a house easily, but after playing with them for an hour, I would be more sore and tired. It was just to hard to say no.

The next day I wanted to spend visiting Don and Teresa. I knew I was safe where I was going; however, I also knew sometimes things can go wrong and I was going camping in the wild with grizzlies. Even though I was taking no food with me, there could be a small chance that if something went wrong, I would need someone to know what I was doing who knew my parents. Because he was a good friend of mine over the years and was the only one that knew my family, it made sense to let him in on my new adventure. With the both of them knowing me over the years, they also new that there was no sense in trying to convince me not to go, for when I've made up my mind, I always pull through. Hell if Ellie couldn't, there wasn't a chance they would. In a way, I trusted them but it was a little selfish to put something like that on the two of them, for if I did get hurt, they would be the ones going to my folks. I have done some really insane things in my time but this was about the worst they had ever heard me planning to do.

That night I spent again with Ellie. Then in the morning a friend of hers looked after the kids, while Ellie drove me to the Campbell River airport. Laughing, she asked if there was anything I wanted her to say to my mom if I don't come back, but deep down I could tell she was a little worried. I checked in to the office for my flight, and had my gear, tape recorder and bear spray ready. I informed the girl behind the desk that I was camping at the lake. They would drop me off and they mentioned there were bears in the area and if I was okay with that. There was no way I was going to tell them my plans for I doubted they would take the responsibility of dropping me off. I waved good-by one more time to Ellie, and jumped in the seaplane, while the pilot closed the doors and started up the loud engine.

I watched out the window as we lifted off the ocean and started to ascend to 3000'. We circled around towards the inlet leading to the mainland and flew over the treetops headed north. We were flying for about 45 minutes when I spotted the lake that we would soon touch down on. The pilot did a sharp turn and started a quick descent towards the lake. The floats on the plane hit the water as the spray bounced of the windows of the plane. We started slowing down as we moved towards the rough dock leading to shore. He got out, tied up the plane, and helped me with my gear. After a few minutes of getting my packsack and camera gear organized he was back into the plane, ascending back off the lake, turned the corner and disappeared around the trees. I just stood there on the dock watching him go, then looked back into the forest at this small tiny trail that vanished into the firs. That was when my heart started to speed up. Everything I planned and wanted to do, was for the first time sinking in. Wow, here I was really going through with this, nothing was stopping me; I was here. I kept looking into the shadows half excepting a bear to walk out greeting me. This was what I wanted, but my brain was disagreeing with me. What do I do? Should I proceed or just camp on the edge of the dock waiting for my return? Am I going to get mauled by a bear? Maybe I should have thought this one through a little more. With it being to late, I did the only thing I could do, and put one foot in front of the other, and slowly disappeared into the thick mystery forest.

The trail was only several feet wide. There were trees forever on both sides, with small bushes and shrubs in between. As I walked the trail, there were areas where a large animal slept and bent the grass and bush in many spots throughout. Grizzly country; this is what I wanted, so I watched for them and kept walking. I knew enough that when on a small trail with bears, it's risky to spook them so I made enough noise so that they would know I was coming. I figured the rhythm of my heart should have done the trick, so I talked out loud, sung (which would scare anybody or animal away) and make noise. I walked this trail for perhaps a half hour before I came to a wider gravel road. I could tell that this was the road the resort used to send people back and forth to the stands. So I knew that if I stayed on this path, I would end up at my destination, so I kept walking.

After an hour, I started to realize that, yes there were bears around here, so it might be smart (correction it might be smart to still be on that plane heading back to Campbell River) to make sure that my bear spray worked, just in case. I checked the instructions, flipped the cap and without thinking twice let out a good spray. Yep it worked fine, in fact it worked so good, that the 20km wind coming in my direction turned the spray around and blew it right into my face. I couldn't believe that I just did that, coughing and gasping I had just pepper-sprayed my own face. For 20 minutes I couldn't stop coughing, not only were my eyes burning, but so were my lungs. I was sneezing, coughing and crying from the spray only happy that no one was around to watch my stupidity. My intentions are always thinking everything is easy out in nature, but boy do I screw it up over and over. Finally, after being able to tolerate the spray I kept walking on the gravel road thinking, "good, I am now covered in pepper for the grizzlies. The only thing missing is barbecue sauce."

After a while, a pick up truck showed up with a couple of people inside. I could only imagine their surprise when they saw me walking the road. They worked for the resort and Grizzly tours and wanted to know who I was, what I was doing there and where I was going. After telling them my plans, they quit arguing and let me jump into the back of the truck. Great, I would be there in no time now. We were five minutes down the road when they stopped at a small bridge with a creek running under it and told me that this would be a great place to see bears and that I should stay there for the day. They had to be kidding. This was no river, but a small creek bed I could have made while urinating. I thanked them for the ride, but said that I will still walk up the road, this was not what I wanted. So discouraged, they continued driving me to there destination.

We arrived at a large clearing where there was a small peninsula about 100' long with the river running up one side of it and back down on the other. The peninsula was only about 10' wide, with bush and rocks on either side down to the river and a small trail to the end. At the beginning and end of the trail about 60' apart were two tall stands that the resort built to view the bears. The moment I stepped out of the truck, a guy came down from the first one asking what I was doing there. I found him quite ignorant and after ten minutes of arguing with him, basically told him to get stuffed, there was nothing that he could do, I was there for the weekend, and to deal with it. I put aside my bag, grabbed my camera and slowly walked down to the river were there was a mother and cub fishing. The moment I spotted her, I stopped and set up my camera for I didn't want to overdue it and stand to close. I set up and watched them sauntering closer to me. She knew that I was there but didn't care in the least. She was around 30' away from me looking for fish with her cub. I couldn't believe this. I was excited, shaking and could barely take a photo. After all these years, I was finally in the wild this close to a grizzly. Poor Ellie came second for I didn't even think about her once. Then the mother jumped towards me. At first I thought she was charging at me, but then realized she was just going for the salmon. After a while, she slowly moved back down the opposite side of the river and disappeared around the bend.

That's when another one of the workers came back down the ladder and informed me that where I was sitting was a trail that the bears used to travel from one side to the other. If they came over the top they would stumble on top of me and be startled, so since I was too stubborn to leave, he suggested I stay on top of the peninsula half way in-between the two stands where I could see 360 degrees around me and the bears could see me from every direction. This would be a safer way for me. Agreeing, I thanked him and went to the middle and set up my camera.

After another half hour went by, a grizzly came running in my direction up onto the middle of the peninsula. It moved extremely fast and barely made a sound before it was up in the middle looking at me. All I could do was sit there and hope that it turned in the opposite direction. He looks at me, then looked the other way and started walking towards my camping packsack. Thank god, I slowly turned around and started taking pictures of him moving in the direction that I liked. He spent some time sniffing around my gear, with no food in it, continued down to the river on the same path that I was on earlier. I then turned and started taking more shots of the other half dozen bears looking for food. Another half hour, went by and I was still clicking pictures with over a dozen tourists doing the same thing in the safety of their stands when a mother and her cub came running again in my direction, but this time a lot closer. Within seconds, she was also up on the path with her little one on her heels. She was about 30' away from me and by the time she hit the path, I was only able to move 5' away from my camera gear. She wasn't running at me, but pretty close and that made me very uncomfortable. I was lying on my side supporting my upper body with my right arm by the time I froze. She was standing there looking in my direction; therefore, I wasn't about to move a muscle. I could see her out of the corner of my eye and was praying she like the other grizzly would go right and move away. But to my horror she turned and started to stroll towards me with her cub behind her.

That split second, everything changed. For the first time in my life, I didn't hear a noise, the wind, or my heart for at least a few seconds. Time pretty much froze, except for me and that bear still moving towards me. I must have read a half dozen books on Grizzly bears and I couldn't tell then how to spell Grizzly never mind how they acted in the wild. Everything I read was gone and lost, for the only thought was her moving closer and closer towards me. I didn't move a muscle, I don't even think I breathed for the next ten minutes and the noise of my heart now sounded like the pounding pistons of twin engines at full throttle. I couldn't control it, and worse my head wasn't covered. It was the first thing that would have gotten swatted and now it was to late to move so I was left with her hoping for sympathy. As she moved closer, she then disappeared behind me and now I couldn't see them. What seemed like hours just disappeared from my life. I did see a mother and a cub back in the river and was hoping it was her as I slowly moved my head around to look behind me. Thankful that she was now nowhere near me, I could breath and change my shorts. Everything I had ever read about grizzlies was just proven to me in that ten minute period, but that still didn't change how scared I was when she came in my direction. I have been stuck on the side of a mountain thinking I could die. I have been 160' below the surface of the ocean, and lost in the snowy back country, but this topped it all. I thought at one moment I would end up in the newspapers the following day. After that, my confidence with them did make me feel a little bit better, but it also scared me to be that close.

Once the tourists were finished up in the stands they descended to go back to the resort, where I had a few ask me questions. One guy was angry and let me know it, I guess I wasn't really thinking of them as this was happening to me, for they would have seen the whole thing and probably thought I was going to die. I asked how close did the mother pass by me and was told she walked up to me, stopped 2' behind, looked at me for about ten seconds then wandered off with her cub. They left with the group, and then it was just me out there with the bears. I went back down the path to the first stand, grabbed my gear and went to lay it out back at the end of the peninsula. I spent the next hour taking a few pictures of the bears but mostly just sat there watching them. I now had a couple more days with them before flying out. What was going to be my next thrill?

After that hour though, when I thought I would be by myself another truck came back up to the stands. Great, round two with these guys. I was prepared for an argument for I had the right to be there just as much as they did. This wasn't their land and besides who were they to tell me that I couldn't stay when it was okay for them to stay. So I went towards the truck, still shaken but ready for a fight. The owner was there this time, and politely told me I did have just as much right to be there as they did. He wasn't going to kick me out or try to. I could stay as long as I wanted, and they would even let me use the stand at night; however, he told me they had spent many years building up the resort for people all over the world to come and see the bears. They had sunk money of their own to start the business. If someone died from the mauling of a bear, then the bear would be shot, they would be closed down and no one will be allowed to come back for the tours. They built their resort for this alone. Not only that, but if something did happen to me, he would let the bear tear me apart, but some of his workers would now risk their own lives to help; therefore, I would be putting them at danger too. He asked if I could please leave and they would pay for a plane to come fetch me. After hearing this, it did make sense and he was very good about asking. I knew he didn't care about me and wanted me out of there but he was smart and played the game. I told him I would go, and when the plane came in, for him to come back and get me. That's when he said the plane was already phoned from the resort and would be there by the time we returned. Then, I guess I was on my way back to Campbell River.

Ellie was surprised when she received the phone call from me that night. At first, she thought I was seriously hurt, then came and picked me up. We spent the next several days together, and then it was time for me to fly back to Calgary and make some more money.


Sean Snowdon: I am a young entrepreneur always looking for better ways to gain knowledge of live and adventure. Over the last couple of decades, I have learned from many mistakes, and yet still able to accomplish much more than I could have dreamed.  I have a passion for adventure, and almost 40 still have a kid instinct of life in me. As much as I work 24/7, spending quality time with my family is still and always my favorite. I have been blessed with exploring most of the United States and Canada with them and being able to share some of the less dangerous adventures with my family.

With a hard work ethic, and a deep passion, I have been able to grow a successful business in construction and real-estate over the many years. Adding to this, over the last 2 years have written a 400 page memoir (not published), to which I have come to realize how much I enjoy writing.

I have put life and death to the test many times, dove 160' below the ocean surface, skydived from above and played with many dangerous wildlife. Having achieved this, and with a beautiful family forcing my adventures to be less dangerous. My next few goals are spending more time on learning how to write and a long time dream; learn how to fly.

My biggest achievement I can proudly say is my marriage and learning to surprise my kids on a regular basis.

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