Canada: Great escape claws
Bears, chipmunks, forests and starry nights bring Keeley Bolger to the Canadian great outdoors in Ontario.
The black bear is a mere 10ft away from where I’m standing. So I’m not entirely convinced when Al Errington tells me: “See? She’s not interested in you.” But fortunately Al, the warm and responsible owner of Errington’s Wilderness Island Resort in Northern Ontario, has his trusty garden rake with him to scare the bear away. That’s right. A garden rake.
“The bears hate the sound of the rake scraping on the floor,” explains Al, who bares his teeth and makes a sheep-like noise in the bear’s direction.
We’re on the appropriately named Bear Point, a leafy enclave three miles east of the Errington’s Resort, which is nestled within Chapleau, the largest crown game preserve in the world. Al runs the resort with his welcoming wife Doris and an entourage of wonderfully friendly and knowledgeable guides and staff.
But friendly isn’t a word I’d use to describe the animal standing in front of me right now. “The bear is too busy eating,” Al reassures me. “But we want to make sure that they are instilled with a fear of humans, which is why I scrape the rake on the ground.”
To keep the bears at bay, the Erringtons save up their food waste and drop it off at Bear Point.
Bear numbers have dwindled in recent years and Al knows that if the bears are hungry, they’re more likely to go on the prowl for food. But today, this bear seems too engrossed in picking apart half-eaten fish, eggs and veggie scraps to start sizing us up.
Guests can stand on Bear Point with Al and his guides at their own risk, and they only ever ask people up when they’ve sussed out the bear and seen that it is safe for a few guests to join them.
Those who prefer not to be within touching (or clawing distance) of the female bear, congregate in boats on the surrounding lake. At just 40ft away, there is still ample opportunity to observe the “grrs”, as the locals call them, take some snaps and relax.
Many lodges wouldn’t be able to offer the chance to see a bear in its natural habitat, but Erringtons is no run-of-the-mill wilderness getaway. Al and Doris have made it their business to know everything about this area. Generous with their time and knowledge, they’re keen to make sure that every guest leaves knowing a little more about their beautiful patch too.
After a talk by our guide Ivan, a sprightly 81-year-old who used to be the chief of a native Canadian tribe, the patio doors are opened up, so we can soak in the beauty of the night sky.
There’s a cry in the distance. “How do you tell the difference between a loon (a type of duck that resides in the lakes surrounding Errington’s) call and a wolf’s cry?” Al asks as our eyes nervously dart around the porch.
“A wolf cry makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up,” he laughs.
It is just a loon call after all, but judging by the upright hairs on the back on my craned neck, you wouldn’t know it.
But there’s a more relaxing treat in store. Looking up, we are treated to a blanket of sparkling stars and the faint green shadow of the Northern Lights, dulled by the light of the full moon.
While those of us accustomed to light pollution in our own cities are in total awe, it’s nice to see that Al and the others are just as charmed by the star-spangled display.
“In the summer, we sometimes like to take out a picnic blanket and watch the sky,” Al chips in.
Considering the bear is a mere three miles away, I feel blissfully safe as I take one last peep at the stars, before heading to my cabin where the diligent staff have kept a fire burning all day long.
Armed with five layers of practical clothing and a growing cushion around my middle, thanks to plentiful hearty meals at the resort, I feel sufficiently prepared the next morning to join Ivan for a spot of fishing in Wabatongushi Lake, the water that borders the resort.
Guests are split into pairs and given the task of finding a catch of the day for lunch. I’m told that the water is full of walleye, pike and perch, but they don’t want to take a bite on my bait today. In fact, all I’ve caught so far is weeds and a small, unappetising log.
It seems that I am in the minority of poor fisher folk, as everyone else manages to snap up some juicy fish, which is later battered and fried on a barbecue.
As well as fish, we’re treated to sweetcorn fritters, homemade baked beans, steaming mugs of coffee and afterwards, if we can fit it in, a giant home-baked cookie.
To make sure we don’t doze into a food coma, Al and young guide Brad demonstrate how to make a fire using a bow drill, while at the table, Ivan is telling an enraptured crowd about his hunts over the years. “I’ve caught 19 moose,” he says, between mouthfuls of fresh fish. “But I’d like to make it 20.”
According to Ivan, moose do crop up in the bushes and wade out into the lake around Errington’s, their antlers “rising up” from the water. So far, though, they have shied away from us.
But it’s hard to feel disappointed with our lack of moose spots after we rack up several sightings of circling turkey vultures, a lone mink swimming in the lake, chipmunks feeding off peanuts on the stairs to the lodge, baby grouse, a gaggle of loons and three separate glimpses of black bears.
As we leave the lodge, laden with maps and homemade biscuits, we’re told to come back again soon. And I think I will do just that, but next time, I’m taking my own rake.
• Keeley Bolger was a guest of the Ontario tourist board. A three-night American Plan/Full Board vacation package at Errington’s Wilderness Island Resort (www.wildernessisland.com) costs $771 (£421) per person, including all meals and boat rides. Air Canada (0871 220 1111, www.aircanada.com) offers flights from London Heathrow to Toronto from £676.11, including taxes.