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first person

Illustration by April Dela Noche Milne

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This summer, it was a relief to throw our hiking gear in the car and get away for a few days. We booked a backcountry campsite in Waterton Lakes National Park – my family’s first overnight hike since we moved to British Columbia. Driving east from our home in the Kootenays, I watched as the land unfurled, mountains and valleys, cabins set in forest clearings and pretty little farmhouses with flower baskets hanging from the eaves. I wondered what it would be like to step out onto a porch like that each morning, my hands cradling a warm mug of tea.

Inserting myself into landscapes, imagining alternative lives – it’s become a habit this past year. Pandemic upheavals meant my husband and I lost our jobs in Oman, where our family of four had been living for the past nine years. We needed to repatriate, but it wasn’t clear where to. I grew up in Toronto. My husband is from Scotland. Our kids have lived on three continents. We had always vaguely planned to settle in B.C., so without jobs or any other connections, we found a house to rent in a small mountain town, packed up our life and took the plunge.

The move brought many of the advantages I envisioned: plenty of outdoor opportunities and a safe friendly community for the kids. Still, I’ve found it hard to adjust. I don’t know where to shop for winter clothes or what to pack for my daughter’s school lunch. People are lovely, but we don’t share a history or common experience. My body language feels stilted and I’m cold all the time. Lately, I’ve been reflecting on my first immigration to Canada. I was born in South Africa and moved to Toronto when I was 5. My childhood home looked a lot like my house does now, filled with reed baskets and shells from faraway beaches. I, too, had a family who ate dinner long after my Canadian friends had cleared their plates. As I try to integrate myself and my kids into this new place, I feel like an immigrant all over again.

By the time we arrive at the trailhead for Bertha Lake we’re all a little cranky from the long drive, but the weather is glorious and we soon fall into a rhythm, soothed by the simple pleasure of putting one foot in front of the other. The narrow trail climbs slowly, winding through dense forest and small meadows of wildflowers and tender grasses. I name some of the plants I recognize for my kids: yellow aster, fireweed, blue columbine.

When I was a child, we spent many summers hiking and camping. I remember going on wolf howls in Algonquin Park, canoeing to beaver dams and the wonder I felt the time a family of skunks paraded through our campsite. I realize now that those experiences were as new to my parents as to me, the nature trails and interpretive programs a kind of how-to guide to the wilderness for immigrant families like ours. Now, walking through this forest that smells of conifers and damp earth – the smells of Canada – I feel at home in a way I haven’t yet in town.

I’m spent when we finally arrive at the lake. The campsite is simple – four levelled tent pads and an outhouse beneath the sweeping boughs of Engelman spruce. We set up camp, then, after a short rest, head out to explore. The lake is nearly a kilometre in length, shaped like a lopsided hourglass. Rocky mountain peaks form a semi-circular wall at the far end, snow clinging to shaded crags. Despite the cold, my daughter decides to swim.

When we return to the cooking area to start dinner, another group of campers has arrived. Two women, in their mid-20s I guess, sit on a log, munching on something in a Ziploc bag. They look as tired as I feel. An older gentleman relaxes in a hiking chair. I am always in awe of people who carry those chairs up the mountain.

We exchange small talk – the beauty of the lake, the unexpectedly steep grade of the trail, where best to collect water – then each turn to our own dinner preparations.

But my curiosity is up. I could hear that the man had an accent, but I couldn’t quite place it. Somali? Ethiopian? Now, I overhear that they are speaking to each other in Arabic. The lilt of their speech is different from the Arabic spoken in Oman so I can only pick out a few words, but still, the guttural sounds and the way they wave their hands around when they speak brings on a wave of nostalgia. I want to share the connection I feel, but am shy, I don’t know how.

Suddenly, there is a small yelp and breaking twigs. One of the women comes running out of the woods clutching a bag of toilet paper.

“I think I just saw a bear,” she says.

We gather together and peer in the direction she points. The sun is dropping, the forest shadowy and indistinct. We look and listen – dreading? hoping? – but there’s nothing.

“Maybe I imagined it,” she relents. “Maybe it was just a stump.”

We relax, laugh at how menacing stumps can be. But the imagined bear has brought us together and dissolved a barrier. We speak easily now, sharing our stories.

“I’m terrified of bears,” the woman says. “I’ve never been camping like this before. My uncle convinced the two of us to come.”

I tell them that I recognized their Arabic, that we recently lived in Oman. The gentleman tells us he is from Djibouti. The two women, his nieces, are of Somali heritage.

“Oman,” he says, shaking his head at the coincidence, “Omani, Somali, Yemeni, Djibouti – all that region is the same, like family. We used to marry together.”

We sit quietly for a moment, marvelling at the coincidence of finding each other here, so far from a region we all used to call home.

In the morning my husband wakes first. He heads down the path to the lakeshore. But there’s something there. Something big and brown. The bear.

I can hardly believe it when I wake up and he tells me. That bear was real, possibly prowling around all night. We get the kids up and catch the other campers before they head down for breakfast.

Just like the night before, we gather together and peer into the woods – looking and listening. Once again we don’t see anything, although we know the bear is out there. But this morning, we’re not scared, just excited. In bear country, you’re supposed to stick together and make noise. This morning, we’re a large noisy group, and there’s really nothing to fear.

Ruth Kamnitzer lives in Kimberley, B.C.

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