Mike looked like a tough guy.
So if he was so tough, the boy asked himself bitterly, how did he ever find himself in this miserable position in the middle of the wilderness?
13 years old, the blonde, husky boy looked older. His shoulders and arms were as broad as a man's and his hands were as large as bear paws.
The very word sent Mike's mind reeling in fear. Tough he may look but Mike knew inside he was a chicken. And he had read enough about bears to know he wouldn't want to meet one.
A foster child, Mike was used to acting tough and talking mean. He had always rebelled against authority. Each time he had been placed in a foster home he had run away.
And now, here he was, forced to go on a wilderness canoe trip with new foster parents and a foster brother before school started. School in a new place where new kids would taunt him and new enemies fight him.
He winced. His arms ached as he continued to paddle. He had paddled one-and-a-half hours already and all he could look forward to was a long portage.
He hadn't wanted to come on this dumb trip at all. He hated the out-of doors. He hated camping. And he fought against it with his stubbornness but Mr. and Mrs. Bowes firmly insisted. Their real son, Jordy, just loved these wilderness trips.
So Mike had been forcibly driven to Algonquin Park, fitted with a 35 pound knapsack and forced to paddle a 10 mile route into the interior. And the portage! Carrying a 70 pound canoe over his head with Mr. Bowes while mosquitoes and deer flies bit mercilessly into his exposed skin was not Mike's idea of a good time. He
hated this. If he could escape, he would get out of here so fast!!
Finally a campsite was found, suitable enough for old Mr. Bowes. They pitched tents, had a bite to eat, and Mike fell exhausted into his sleeping bag as night descended. He shared his two-man tent with Jordy.
"I hate this," grumbled Mike.
Jordy turned to him in the semi-darkness and flashed a sarcastic smile.
"Man, how can you say that? This is great! I love it! You're just too soft, boy!"
If Jordy hadn't been sixteen and bigger, Mike would have punched him. He hated Jordy as much as he hated Mr. and Mrs. Bowes and this camping trip.
"Let's hope we'll get some action tonight," taunted Jordy. "Maybe some bears will stroll into camp. Maybe we'll make you get up and scare them off. "
Mike didn't appreciate that comment. Not at all. His dumb social worker would have called Jordy sadistic. The worst part was that Jordy was probably right. He had heard the park rangers warn: "Don't eat in your tent. Don't leave food in your tent. Hang all your food in a tree each night so the raccoons and bears can't get at it."
It was the dead of night when Mike woke up with a start. What was that he heard? His body ached from lying flat on the ground in one position but he dared not move. He listened intently.
He could hear Jordy's even snore. He could make out the loon's cry and the bullfrog's deep croak. He could even pick up the distant howling of a wolf and his skin prickled.
But there was another noise that occupied him more. One quite close to him. It was the distinct sound of something climbing the tree beside his tent ... the very tree where the food hung!
Mike's breathing stopped. Every muscle in his body froze. His ears strained to hear the sound outside his tent.
Yes ... something was there. A bear? Mike began to pray. He had heard terrible stories of bears gnawing off people's arms or attacking campers when they became frustrated. And Mike was certain the bear would become frustrated because he wouldn't be able to get at that food!
Scratching. The bear was scratching now. Should he wake up Jordy? What about Mr. and Mrs. Bowes? But they were in their own tent. And besides, Jordy might indeed send Mike out after the bear!
The minutes dragged intolerably on. The night was cold but Mike knew his teeth were chattering from fear, not from cold.
Suddenly, piercing, blood-curdling snarls filled the air!
Inhuman sounds! Terrible sounds erupted outside the tent! Growls, cries, whimpers, an animal in pain, another viciously attacking! Mike could just see the scene outside his tent! There must be more than one bear! And what would happen when they finished fighting!? Would they attack the tents!? Mike knew they would! Oh, God, why had he been forced to come here! He didn't want to die now! Not here! Not with these people who didn't love him! All he wanted was to find a family of his own who could love him and he could love them and they
could live happily ever after! Oh God, save me! He screamed in agony to himself.
"Get outa here you devil! Move!" It was Mr. Bowes' voice. "Jordy!" he was ordering. "Get out here! Help me!"
Instinctively Mike reached over to shake Jordy in the darkness. Already the older boy was on the move. Without a moment's hesitation Mike, too, leaped from his bag. Throwing himself out of the tent right behind Jordy, he turned just in time to see the flashlight pick up the gleaming eyes of a bear!
"Quick," yelled Mr. Bowes waving the flashlight. "Get down to the canoes. The bear's scared. Just get out of his way and let him be!"
With one gigantic leap Mike hurled himself down the bluff in the darkness. He felt a sharp pain as his ankle overturned but it didn't matter. All he wanted to do was reach the lake and safety!
The bear retreated, and so did a raccoon. As Mr. Bowes pieced together what happened, he decided the raccoon had come across the food cache first, even managing to pry loose a bag of marshmallows and muffins.
The bear must have come on the scene later and challenged the raccoon.
It all seemed so logical, so calm in the early morning light as the bacon sizzled over the campfire.
"You know," smiled Mr. Bowes, and his smile was kind. "I was proud of you, Mike. You actually came out to help when I called Jordy."
Mike couldn't bear to tell Mr. Bowes he was really terrified and just wanted to escape.
Then Jordy smiled. A real smile this time. "I even teased Mike last night that he'd have to scare away a bear.”
"Never mind that, you two," frowned Mrs. Bowes. "The poor boy's ankle needs looking after. Look at how swollen it is!" And she reached for the first aid kit.
Somehow, and he wasn't sure why, Mike felt part of this family. Maybe it was the adventure the night before. Or maybe it was the way Mr. Bowes winked at him. Or the way Jordy handed him his bacon and eggs.
All he knew was that he didn't feel quite so lost or alone. In fact, he didn't even want to escape.
And for a fleeting moment as Mrs. Bowes tenderly bandaged his ankle, Mike fervently hoped this family would eventually become his family.