When you sleep overnight in the bush, your mind wanders to bears. Even if there's no noise outside the tent from a small mammal scurrying about. It's automatic. Too many tales of people being eaten out of tents at night to avoid the subject.
I spent five days in a tent a few weeks ago. It doesn't take long for the circadian rhythms to reset: you sleep soon after the sun, and wake when it does. When the birds start chirping, the bear worrying time has passed. Time instead for mucking about: building fires, swimming, fishing, canoeing, portaging, cooking. Whatever the day holds.
Being outside and getting bitten reminds you how much you're a part of this cycle of eating and being eaten. We eat fish, berries and gorp to compensate for the energy spent on the trails. In turn, we are eaten by mosquitos, leeches and the occasional bear. (We also eat insects, as this video aptly points out.)
But being eaten by a bear is an entirely different business from the occasional bug bite. The fear is visceral, engrained. It is most unacceptable for a human to be eaten by a bear.
If humans eat a bear, well that's a different story. We have the right to fear and resent being eaten. The animals we eat don't retain this same right.
My father went on his own wilderness adventure in early June. He's taken up fly fishing in recent years; a thrilling and delicate pursuit, full of fly tying and line gliding. More art than hunting.
My own dabbling in the subject has led to mixed results. After my first lesson, I was buoyed. The grumpy instructor who chain smoked and cursed more than I did, complimented my abilities. I was a quick learner. Even if I didn't catch a fish, I was good at this whole casting thing.
But after a year off, my muscle memory waned. Now I was catching more trees than fish.
And there is that business of catching a fish. I tend to get lost in the casting. The movement of arm and line demand attention. Your mind is fixed on a steady pattern: 10 o'clock, 2 o'clock, 10, 2. The wrist must be straight, the wind ideally weak. And with some skill, you'll avoid hitting yourself with the fly on a backcast, or wrapping the line in a thousand tiny knots.
So when a fish strikes, I am always caught of guard. I've forgotten by this point that I'm engaged in fishing, rather than a complex dance of string, wind and motion. If I manage to yank my consciousness fast enough to yank that line, and if the fish doesn't slip off the unbarbed hook while I reel the long string in, then I am faced with the toughest problem yet. I'll have to decide if this is catch and release or catch and dine.
When you are faced with the decision to kill a being, the food chain is suddenly shortened. The abstract notion of flesh is transformed into the flapping fish in front of you, straining to breathe. You are reminded that eating is always a matter of ethics.
My dad's first job was cleaning fish, so for him, fishing is less an exercise in ethics than a joyful pursuit followed by a delicious meal. Eating fish doesn't remind him that he himself could be eaten by a bear. It just reminds him of fishing.
He kept a few char from his fishing trip and brought them back for eating with the family in every way imaginable. He began with gravlox, and moved on from there. Myself, I imagined the only kind of smoked salmon I like: so-called "indian candy." Essentially, this is thick strips of heavily smoked fish, basted with maple syrup. I sent him Hank Shaw's recipe, and we set about making it.
My dad cleaned and prepped the fish. Then cured it overnight in salt and sugar. Next went in the basting syrup. Rather than just using maple syrup, he got creative and added elderflower syrup and beer. That's my dad for you: thinking outside the box. I can't imagine anyone else has made this particular elderflower-char-candy variation.
After six hours in the smoker, the candy was cured and ready to go. He was proud of his creation, which was sweet yet buttery, with just a hint of flower in the aftertaste.
Before long he was proposing we take the candy on our canoe trip. So we packed some up in his vacuum sealer and added it to the barrel.
Midway through the second day, after a long morning, paddling winding creeks and getting eat by leeches, we pulled out the char candy for lunch. At first, we thought we'd just eat half. But after carrying the boat for 2 km on my shoulders, I was hungry. I was grateful to be eating this fish.
This is the complexity of being human: we are smart enough to know that the animals we eat die at our hands; and compassionate enough to mourn the loss. Let us also be grateful enough to savor the wild animal when we are privileged enough to eat it, knowing it lived and died in the wild. If the same is true for me someday -- if I feed mushrooms and insects with my body or bears -- so be it. I'll only be repaying a favour.