Grizzly Mountain: The Bears and I avoid Covid

Updated: Sep 25

Though I prefer to focus on upcoming pleasures when preparing for travel, my planning usually involves a quick assessment of threats and risks. While arranging to cross international borders and go into the wilds of Alone's Grizzly Mountain, a.k.a. Chilko Lake, British Columbia, two dangers jumped out:

*Covid

*Robin-eating bears

Fortunately, neither proved fatal.

Covid represented the biggest hassle because it adds extra layers of bureaucratic requirements. Proof of vaccination and recent negative Covid tests seem reasonable to me--in fact, I felt safer with all that—but getting everything to various agencies in an acceptable fashion offered challenges. Vague online advice often made the process more confusing, but I now possess firsthand experience to help jump over the hurdles.

The challenge for already-vaccinated travelers starts with the initial Covid test, which varies from country to country. Canada requires the more complicated molecular polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test offered at fewer venues and featuring a longer analytic time than the rapid antigen test. Most airports offer sufficiently quick turnaround times for these tests—but at a price.

That makes it more cost efficient to book a test somewhere near home, where familiarity with a nearby CVS, Walgreen’s, Walmart, or similar venue makes it easy to find a swabbing location. No matter which operation you choose, all require making an appointment online at a site like MinuteClinic (cvs.com). Each person books a separate appointment—no family groups. And forget getting as anal about prebooking as me—most scheduling calendars only go out about a week. This means monitoring the exact day your preferred time shows up. The spike in Delta Covid cases increased the number of people wanting the test, so slots fill quickly.

I suspect many people demonstrate good decision-making values when selecting their test site; I chose CVS because the store always provides a good price for the Ghirardelli chocolate mints I like. Following my usual OCD planning routine, I called their Minute Clinic and nearly fainted when a person with a real voice answered and spent about 20 minutes trying to explain that while I should worry less, all the disaster scenarios I imagined could in fact happen. This meant despite the promise of a 48-hour turnaround, the test results might not arrive before my flight left. Stuff like that.

My advisor suggested I remain calm. She liked that my 2 p.m. appointment came at 69 ½ hours before my departure from the U.S. to Canada. If that flight got delayed by 2 hours—a possibility—I’d still be covered. “Even if it’s not your fault that the plane leaves late, they won’t let you on if your test is older than 72 hours.” More on that later.

She agreed that jam ups in test numbers might delay return of my results. “If you don’t get them in 50 hours, call the hot line and be prepared to wait on hold an hour or so. It may take a long time, but we really work to get those results to you.” Fortunately, my results came in a mere 26-hours, and I never dealt with this complication.

My negative Covid test meant I could finish filling out the “Arrive Canada” form, easily found with an online search (canadaarrivecan.com). No early bird opportunities come with this form—it will not allow you to enter much of anything until 72 hours before departure. The form seemed complicated, so my traveling companion Barbara and I put our phones on speaker and filled ours out simultaneously, using our Reno departure time. Since our husbands Fred and Chad qualified as relatives, we could include them as part of the package. This seemed wise because our spouses hate forms.

Annoyed that the system would not let us continue without filling each page in order, we got more irritated by a tendency to lose information that led us to hit “save” a lot. We had no problem using the phone camera to input our various vaccination cards and expected the same with our negative Covid forms, but all we had to do was swear we passed the test. Given that you will eventually take another Covid test before entering the United States, the “Arrive Canada” form next wants to know your 14-day quarantine plan should you get a positive reading.

“Plan!??!” Barbara and I cried in unison. I quickly went into another site and found a list of hotels offering accepted quarantine quarters. I looked at vacancies and room rates, which ranged from $120 to $1,200 a day. We stuck in the address of the airport Hilton and the form seemed happy with that (no requirement to pre-book rooms we likely would not need). But with those room rates, a positive Covid test seemed the worst threat of the trip. Or getting eaten by a grumpy grizzly.

But before any grizzly got a shot at us, we had to get to Bear Camp, and it all seemed fine as we left on an early flight from Reno to Seattle, where we would change planes for a 30-minute jump over the border. We handed over our Passports and got boarding passes in Reno. Fog in Seattle caused our plane to leave late, and passengers already started the boarding process for Vancouver as we handed over our passes and Passports. The agent refused them: “You need a yellow dot on them.”

We stepped over to the next window and handed over our passes, Passports, vaccination cards, and negative Covid sheets. The agent stuck a yellow dot on passes for Fred and me. She looked at Barbara and Chad’s papers and said “These won’t work. You took your test 30 minutes too early.”

WHAT????

Barbara based her test time on our departure from Reno. But that doesn’t count as departing the country since we changed planes in Seattle. Our second departure mattered, not the first one. Surprise! No one along the way clarified the distinction. The website reads, “you must take a test within 72 hours of the scheduled departure time of your flight to Canada,” phrasing that allows room for different interpretations. “Arrive Canada” misleadingly accepted all our applications, providing authorization codes for getting into the country.

“You can get a quick PCR test here and I can get you on the 8:15 p.m. flight,” the agent promised. Sounds simple but talk about a pain. While Fred and I boarded our 11:20 a.m. flight to Vancouver, Barbara and Chad navigated the Sea-Tac Airport. First, they picked up their luggage which got kicked off the plane. Then they found the testing center where they paid $200 apiece for another test. They got their negative results a couple of hours later and went off to reduce stress by ordering a glass of wine. They saw a menu: pinot grigio, $20 a glass from a bottle that wholesales for about $8. At that rate it seemed more fiscally sound to buy a bottle for $70.

Meanwhile, up in Vancouver where the flight arrived on time, Customs offered a typical slowdown. Use machines to read Passports, pose for the world’s most unflattering photo, stand in a long line and wait to see an agent, and…

“Was that your name they just called?” I asked Fred. Noise reverberated throughout the Customs room, but I swore I heard “Frederick Northrup Holabird,” a combination that always meant trouble when it came from his mother. Actually, it rarely means anything good. We perked our ears in bunny rabbit fashion and picked up “muffle, muffle, muffle, Frederick Northrup Holabird, muffle, muffle.”

e luggage bin. I waited at the bin while Fred searched for a potential source of the muffled announcement. Bag after bag went by. As the process repeated itself, I felt a heart sinking realization about that announcement and sure enough, found Fred at the missing luggage stand.

Nice people there, and they promised to do their best at getting our bag full of gear to us, since we needed all our specialty attire for the next day’s flight to Bear Camp. My carry-on suitcase with extra shorts and a swimsuit seemed unlikely to keep us warm for various hiking, kayaking, and boating adventures in a remote mountain region where hail falls in summer. We really wanted our bag back but prepared for the worst by identifying sporting goods stores near our hotel in case we needed an early morning shopping spree.

Vancouver Airport return And back in Seattle with Barbara and Chad: Their 8:15 timeline worked, Canada customs offered its usual slowdown, and an Uber driver spent about a half hour taking the duo to our downtown Hilton, where they checked in at 10:04. “I need wine,” said Chad. The bar closed at 10.

Oddly enough, Fred and I had a bottle of wine in our room. The front desk sent us a corkscrew, plus our luggage arrived in its own taxi. A discombobulated schedule for sure, but the Earth still rotates on its axis, and we got to Bear Camp the next day.

As for our return to the United States:

We only needed the quicker antigen test, but Canada offers no program similar to CVS. My preparatory paranoiac phone conversation with a real person at the airport’s testing facility led me to accept that we had to make appointments—not drop in—preferably 4 hours before our plane’s departure. Plus we had to prepay the $139 per person cost since our Medicare cards would not work in Canada. After much debate, Barbara and I sadly caved in and set everything up before leaving the States.

Later chats with locals validated our actions. Locals go to the airport and pay because the free in-town services take too long and only give you a printed form if you test positive. You need a form specifying a negative test to get out of the country. Locals also advised avoiding the main airport entry and instead getting dropped off at the Fairmont Hotel. Walk in those doors and turn right—the testing center lies a few yards off, clearly marked.

Lines vary but we got short ones and each of us waited only a brief time before a masked health care worker swabbed our noses, bottled the results, and sent us off to sit and wait for the promised 30-minute turnaround time. Sure enough, someone called each of our names a half hour later, and we all clutched our sheets in relief, realizing we avoided our nightmare of a 14-day quarantine.

And fortunately, we also avoided the nightmare of playing snack for a grizzly. But not because of good luck.

It turned out both salmon and bears ignored our “Arrive Canada” form and did not align their dates with ours. Sure, thousands of salmon showed up at the Chilkotin River, but they arrived two weeks late and were still actively laying eggs. The Darwinian cycle of propagation means the fish spawn, then die, and float to the surface. This plethora of fresh food provides easy pickings for lazy bears. I get it—I don’t like to work all that hard sourcing my meals either.

And while we spent far less time photographing bears than planned, we all filled our cameras with amazing shots of dramatic scenery. Some came on the hour flight in a sea plane—a first for all of us. Flying low through fluffy clouds to glaciers and mountains that jutted like spikes from a punk rocker’s hairdo, all of us—even the pilot—felt an irresistible pull to commemorate the sights with our cell phones and fancy cameras. No wind, no rain or anything stopped us from easing into a soft, floating, pillow-like sensation.

The aerial view of Chilko Lake showed how long and wild it runs, an idea I picked up watching the Alone: Grizzly Mountain show. Given the region’s expanse, I figured the program’s locations lay out of my reach, but it turned out we could see the title site from our deck. Towering above the water and looming with a “climb me” challenge for avid hikers, the peak goes by the name Tullin. Some call it Grizzly Mountain for more alluring drama in the show’s title.

Qualifying as avid hikers, we tackled the 2,700 ft. climb with guides Juan and Tayla, who spent lots of time hollering and making noises to scare bears. (They also carried one of those items not on our packing list, bear spray). Their skills worked. Despite spotting clear, fresh prints in a mudhole, we never saw a bear on the hike. Probably a good thing, given attack statistics that show most fatalities occur on hikes (but not with groups of four according to camp owner Brian).

With nothing furry to spray or photograph, we focused on eagles, grouse, and salmon, though the fish proved difficult to capture with a casual lens. The region’s sockeye salmon look a lot like Tahoe’s landlocked kokanee, only bigger. Their bodies turn reddish orange during spawning season, topped with a green head and pointed nose.

Swimming in large groups, they created colorful water patterns, broken by the occasional leap that inevitably proved too fast for any of us to snap. Fred kept hoping one would confuse him for bait and jump in the kayak—no such luck. Overall, it seemed more suitable to put the cameras down and just go into a Zen state while paddling or simply floating in kayaks on the calming waters. All of this made the trip more than bearable, a startling and refreshing getaway into a land that inspires wonder and adventure.

***

…should I admit I actually saw 5 bears? In one instance, three cubs and their mom (a sow in species terminology) zipped into a forest across the river from Bear Camp. Before that, I spotted movement from a big male (or in the lingo, a boar). Though too far off for a decent photo, the boar failed to bore me. I excitedly snapped a couple of shots, feeling thrilled at the sight--and happily unavailable as an appetizer.

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