Night Crossings

Jane Futcher
Sunday, January 7, 2007
San Francisco Chronicle Magazine

We had hoped to see bears in Alaska and British Columbia, but the most exotic land mammals we encountered were two newlyweds we visited on a small island six hours and three ferry rides north of Vancouver.

Annie is a statuesque, 6-foot, blue-eyed beauty whose ex-husband started an organic potato chip company and whose new man, Merv, is a nearly toothless, half-Iroquois songwriter who plays six instruments, maintains Annie’s fleet of motorboats and can tell you how to grow killer marijuana without irrigation, fertilizer, imported dirt or hassles with police.

“Hurry, before we lose the light,” Annie yelled as we yanked a duffel from the rental car. We had missed the last ferry to her island, and, at twilight, she’d insisted on crossing the channel in her motorboat to pick us up. “Keep your eyes out for big logs. Can’t see a thing with my glasses fogging up. We’re headed for that blinking green light.”

The faint green light and dark silhouette of land across the straits seemed frighteningly far away as the bow of the little skiff slammed into 4-foot swells, and rain pelted our faces. My partner, Erin, and I glanced wistfully at the orange life vests piled in a wet, unreachable heap behind us.

Erin sang sea tunes to bolster our spirits, which soared when at last we neared the blinking green light, then sagged when our nearsighted captain told us that unless we found two unlit buoys quickly we’d crash on a bunch of rocks.

“Over there,” I cried, pointing a dark object off the bow. “The other’s just beyond it.”

“Right on,” Annie shouted. “Now to the two rock islands, then the gorge and the oyster beds and we’re home.”

“Should we ask Merv to turn on your dock light?” I said, squinting at the shore.

In an instant, Erin found her cell phone and dialed; miraculously, the thing worked, and Merv answered, promising to wave us in with flashlights.

Later that night, as we sat around Annie’s cozy kitchen table, our hostess shook her long white mane and poured a little more Amarula liqueur into her chai. “I’ve never crossed when it was that dark before,” she laughed. “But we made it, didn’t we, girls?”

“Right on,” Merv said. “A toast to the travelers.”

Five days later, we flew back to San Francisco, and, car crammed with luggage and groceries, we headed home in the dark to Mendocino County, chuckling about our wild ride with Annie. We were cresting the long grade between Ukiah and Willits on Highway 101 when a huge, unearthly creature appeared in front of us. There was no time to scream or to swerve. Bam! We collided. The airbags deployed, the windshield shattered, the horn blared maniacally into the night.

“What happened?” Erin whispered from the driver’s seat.

“I’m not sure,” I said. “Are you OK?”

“I think so.” She edged the car forward onto a turnout as the airbags fizzled and smoke seeped from under the dash.

“We might be on fire,” I said, reaching for my seat belt with trembling hands. “We should probably get out.”

As we huddled by the highway watching traffic roar by, a bearded man with gleaming eyes jumped from his pickup. “You all right?”

“They hit a bear,” said a woman who had stopped to check on us. “A big one.”

“A bear?” Erin gulped. “Is he OK? Is he …?”

“Died instantly,” the woman said. “Some boys are pulling him off the road.”

A Highway Patrol officer approached carrying a megaphone and herding gawkers away. “What happened here?”

“They say we hit a bear.” Erin wiped her eyes. “He came out of nowhere.”

“I need your license, proof of insurance and registration,” he said.

Erin looked uncertainly at the battered Ford Taurus. The left fender was smashed, the hood was curled and the windshield was a spiderweb of fractures. “It’s in the car. We saw smoke and thought we might blow up.”

“That’s the powder they put in the airbags to keep them from sticking,” the officer said. “Looks like smoke, but it’s not. You’re safe to go in.”

The guy from Triple A, a boy, really, craned our car up behind him and dropped us at a 24-hour cafe in Willits. “You were lucky,” he said. “The Chippie’s hunted bears all his life and said that’s the biggest he ever saw. I’ve towed four bear accidents myself but never one that big.”

Our friend Melinda drove us home, jamming on the brakes to stop for a kangaroo rat that darted across the road.

On Monday morning, I called Caltrans. “The CHP said you removed a bear we hit on Highway 101 near Ukiah Saturday night. Do you still have him? We’d like to come visit, maybe do a little ritual for him. It happened so fast we never really saw him.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “We buried the bear already. He was a big old guy. Measured 5 feet from paw to shoulder and weighed about 500 pounds. You were very lucky. I wouldn’t have wanted to run into that bear, not on the road, not in the woods.”

But run into him we did, which may be why they say be careful what you wish for. We cruised Alaska looking for bears and were very nearly killed by one 20 miles from home.

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