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The Walker's Anthology - Further Tales

The Walker's Anthology - Further Tales

Sample 1: Encounter with a bear, 2007

Contents | Introduction | Sample 1: Encounter with a bear, 2007 | Sample 2: The Road Not Taken, 1915 | Sample 3: Preparations for a long walk, 1933 | Sample 4: Travels in West Africa, 1894


Encounter with a bear, 2007


Septuagenarian Dervla Murphy travels from Moscow to the Russian Far East in the depths of winter. She seeks some time to herself staying beside Lake Baikal but is not alone on a walk through the snow.

For all his limited English, Fyodor perfectly understood my yearning to be more alone with Baikal than is possible in Ust-Barguzin. Looking conspiratorial, he revealed the existence of an isolated hunters’ hut some six miles up the shore where I could commune with Lake Baikal in solitude. But he didn’t want to be involved; the authorities might disapprove of a non-hunter, a foreign babushka, using this hut. It had a wood-stove and a supply of logs which hunters replenished before they left; leaving roubles instead would be OK. But could I cope with a wood-stove? Yes, nothing else heats my home. Candles would be needed – did I know about being very careful when using candles in a wooden hut? I assured Fyodor that I knew all about candles, had in the 1960s written two books by candlelight on a tiny island off the west coast of Ireland. He then sketched a map: I couldn’t get lost, a little-used loggers’ track led to the hut. But I mustn’t go wandering off on vague inland paths through the taiga... I promised to keep close to the shore and decided to enjoy two reclusive nights; according to the weather forecast, there would be no ‘winter-road’ traffic before the weekend. ‘If you start early,’ said Fyodor, ‘no one sees which way you turn.’

The hut track began not far from the Ski Lodge and I was on my way by dawn at – 21°c under a clear sky. The first climb was steep – and suddenly the taiga seemed hung with golden lanterns as the rising sun burnished each pine’s frozen burden. On the ridge-top I hesitated and without Fyodor’s sketch map would certainly have gone astray – straight ahead instead of sharp right. For a mile or so the lorry-wide track ran level on this long ridge: easy enough walking despite deepish snow. The stillness was absolute: not a bird fluttering. not a pine cone falling, no sound but my own squeaky-crunchy footsteps – until someone coughed hoarsely. I paused, slightly startled: no other prints marked the track’s virgin snow. Looking towards the sound, I saw amidst the trees, scarcely twenty yards away, a large dark brown bear lumbering through snow almost up to his belly. Simultaneously the bear saw me and also paused, perhaps to consider this unexpected source of protein after his winter fast. Sensible Baikal bears hibernate until at least the end of March (I had checked with Fyodor) but perhaps the previous snowy day’s warm noon hours – up to -13°c – had misled this one. Siberian bears like their meat and are six to seven feet tall when upright, a posture occasionally adopted to kill reindeer or people. As this fine specimen of Ursus arctos stood staring at me, most probably with no ill intent. I felt seriously frightened. Vividly I recalled advice given me forty years ago about the Himalayan black bear, also occasionally homicidal and sometimes encountered in those days (but probably not now) on mountain paths high above Dharamsala. ‘Lie with your face to the ground. feigning dead. Don’t try to run away, you’ll lose the race. Bears like to amble but can move fast when they choose.’ Snow had drifted to the side of the track between the bear and me and when I dropped out of his sight and lay flat I could hear my heart thumping with terror. It sounded louder then a gradually receding rustling crunch as the ‘Master of the Taiga’ went on his way. He was coughing again – could a chest infection have roused him prematurely? Reassuringly, his way was not my way; an hour later I saw his prints crossing the track.

(From Silverland – A Winter Journey Beyond the Urals; John Murray Press, an imprint of Hodder & Stoughton, London; © 2007 Dervla Murphy)

The Walker's Anthology - Further Tales


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