MonsterQuest: My Trip to Canada as a “Mystery Bear” Expert
By Matt Bille, 2008
Ah, Montreal. Cultural center, so alleged, of the nation of Canada.
You’ve heard the jokes.
Canada is a nation of people named Doug.
The national motto is “Eh?”
Canada is the vichyssoise of nations: cold, half French, and difficult to stir.
I just made my first visit to Montreal, and to Canada for that matter, and my initial report is: I like the place.
My journey, courtesy of the MonsterQuest program on the History Channel, begins in Denver. Not much excitement there: I even find a good parking spot at DIA. Talk about your unsolved mysteries.
After I’d enthusiastically agreed to give an interview, arrangements were made by two production company employees, Meredith and Saskia, who were very skilled and had great accents. The company apparently does not have a huge budget for flying little-known science writers around: once I get to the air leg of the trip, it’s middle seats all the way. I can’t complain. I probably got this gig because the only real scientist with a Ph.D. who pays significant attention to mystery bear reports, a mammologist named James Halfpenny, is in the field and can’t meet the shooting schedule.
After a stop in Chicago, we jam onto something called an S80, I jetliner I didn’t know existed. Fortunately, I am kept from wondering about who built this plane by the designer’s brilliant decisions to distract us by foregoing any significant padding on the seats and making the tray tables so low a hobbit couldn’t get them to level over his knees.
My left-seat companion on this leg is a plumbing salesman from Canada who’s been in the US for a week of company training. He’s interested in what I am doing and offers a story from his childhood in northern Ontario, where he and a bear showed up at the same berry patch at the same time. He (the person, not the bear) opted to back off and hide behind a woodpile until both the bear and the berry patch had vanished. (I will soon find out nearly everyone in Canada has a bear story, regardless of where they live. There may be some kind of government employment program, like a Department of Jobs for Bears, where the critters amble around trying to run into everyone in the country at least once.) I think of Shakespeare’s actual stage direction from The Winter’s Tale: “Exit, pursued by a bear.”
Montreal’s Pierre Trudeau Airport features corridors about three miles long between the arrival gates and the customs area. (I am sorry; I should speak in metric terms now. Three miles is about 24.6 millipedes, or one hectate, or something.)
Customs is staffed by polite people who don’t carry visible weapons but wear Kevlar vests that remind one that even Canada is not quite an island of serenity in this fragmenting world. A lady who asks me the precise nature of my business in Canada is quite puzzled when I answer truthfully. She asks me to repeat it and adds a few more questions to get the details down. (As if she didn’t have bear interview subjects coming through every day. Come on. It’s Canada.)
The taxi driver is a very upbeat fellow who keeps me well informed on our progress as we jam into a single exit lane at Trudeau. We sit there a long time. I wonder if it’s something to do with the 87 or so visible airport construction projects in progress, but this particular stretch seems designed on purpose – if terrorists ever attacked the airport, the police could catch up with their getaway car without difficulty before they got ten meters (approximately 5.5 megapixels) from the terminal.
We head into Montreal, a city which seems, from this direction, to consist of large buildings alternating with giant piles of shipping containers, as if the whole city was in the process of moving itself somewhere less Doug-infested. A looming billboard offers a giant picture of a beaver holding out a Blackberry or similar Personal Digital Assistant. I am rather puzzled. If a beaver could use a PDA, what exactly would he use it for? Contracting out his tree-felling operation to cheap labor by whatever wood-chewing rodents live in Indonesia? Or was he texting? Who would he text, and what would he say? “Hey baby, slip over the dam into MY lodge tonight.”
My airplane seatmate had explained to me that Montreal and the surrounding province of Quebec were not his favorite places, riven as they were by separatist movements and the occasional threat of armed revolution. He said there had been revolutions in his home province of Ontario, but they consisted of occasions when (I’m quoting this directly) “about a hundred guys get drunk at a bar and have a march on Toronto. Then maybe five people get killed, and they all go home.” This story is so good I’m not about to look it up and see if anything like it really happens.
I am deposited at a Holiday Inn Express downtown, on a street everyone pronounces differently. The place is older and roomier than most hotels that go under that name. I’ve stayed in Expresses in the US I would not voluntarily use to store my worn-out athletic shoes, let alone myself. But this one is nicer, even if it seems to be converted from apartments: I have my own water heater.
I check out the TV. There is a dubbed BBC series apparently about some British version of the Scooby Gang trying and failing to nail a vampiress who rips out men’s beating hearts for fun. There are episodes of Stargate SG-1 and NCIS, also dubbed in French. There are a bunch of non-dubbed French shows. There is CNN in English. I re-read my thick binder of bear notes, papers, and articles, plus a handy book called Wild Bears of the World.
Saturday morning, the film crew shows up. They all speak English, which is nice, because my French is limited to zoological terms like “bear,” plus “grouper” and “giant squid,” which are useful only in seafood restaurants.
There is Jerome, the sound man, paper-filling-out guy, and general coordinator. Jerome is a very nice fellow, soft-spoken and European-y handsome, as in ‘I would not allow my teenage daughter within 6 centipedes (292 cubic acres) of him.’ Louis-Phillipe is the cameraman, also a very nice guy, new to this crew, and Jean is the director who speaks almost unaccented English and does seem to have read up on mystery bears. I learn the group spent 12 days in Alaska, much of it in the wilderness looking for fearsome-looking brown (a.k.a. grizzly) bears to film. (People keep going back and forth between “brown” and “grizzly” as names for the same bears in the species Ursus arctos. I’m hopeful we can just settle on something standard, like “Ursine American.”)
Despite a guide who insisted (this is true) on stringing an electric barrier around their camp every night, they met no bears. Really. There are thousands of bears in Alaska, and not one showed up. Maybe the crew would have had a better chance in Canada, where they could have just phoned the Department of Jobs for Bears and ordered up two grizzlies and a polar bear and had them amble over. They might have ordered up a “pizzly” (a polar-grizzly cross), but those are trendy these days, and there are very few of them, so who knows about their availability.
We find a very nice spot in a little park running along the St. Lawrence River, where I stand and do interviews on and off for a couple of hours, the “off” part coming when Louis-Philippe has to go ask someone to move out of the background. Everyone he asks complies without complaint. This reinforces my impression of Canadians as mellow people: in L.A., they would have demanded money to move, and in New York, they would have sent Louis-Philippe back in a non-functional condition and we would have needed a new cameraman.
Jean asks intelligent questions and treats me very professionally. For what they call “B roll” (those little snippets of people arriving, departing, and other non-speaking things), they shoot a sequence including 20 minutes of me sitting at a picnic table silently reading scientific papers on bears. I doubt much of that will get in the finished program. (If you put it in anyway and the ratings crash, guys, don’t blame me: I read those papers as compellingly as I could.)
I pitch Jean my idea of a show on the mystery giant fish that (maybe) inhabit Alaska’s Lake Iliamna. He’s quite interested, and indeed everyone is keen on another chance to go to Alaska. Maybe they hope to finally see bears. (Did you know the third-largest grizzly in history was killed near Lake Iliamna in 2004? Now you do.) Jean will take it up with the series producer.
On the way back to the hotel, Jerome explains the giant beaver with the PDA. There is a long-running series of commercials, rather like the GEICO caveman thing, about two beavers who live in a city where everyone else is human and doesn’t notice they are enormous buck-toothed rodents who are constantly texting each other. This, presumably, is the kind of superior culture Quebecois always talk about when they look down their noses at the rest of the continent. Culture? You can’t turn right on a red light in Quebec. Where’s the culture in a place like that?
All this leaves me with an afternoon to explore Montreal on foot. I do, wearing a camera pouch, cell phone, and other gear that screams “American tourist,” which is immediately pick up on by numerous downtown vagrants who assume correctly that I will give them a Canadian dollar coin (affectionately called a “loony”) to make them go away. One man follows about six inches from me and starts into a speech about how, even though he’s asking for money, he really cares about me. He actually says that. I look at him strangely, wondering how to deal with an actual Canadian loony and whether there is some form to fill out before decking a citizen. I don’t want him to care about me: I want him to go care about someone else, preferably in the next province. But the official form to use when decking a citizen is probably in French anyway, and therefore beyond my comprehension, so I give him a two-dollar coin and act like I understand neither his French nor his English (which is actually excellent). He goes away. Under my breath, I call him a giant squid.
The next street person I see is twanging some sort of small guitar and singing abominably in French that I might not understand even if I were a French person. I start picking my sidewalks more carefully.
Downtown Montreal is, well, a big-city downtown. It has a mix of high-tech buildings, fascinating churches and cathedrals, and old streets where people live above the shops. It has graffiti, lots of it, though I have to rate it artistically a notch below what I’ve seen in Los Angeles.
It has restaurants, of every taste and ethnicity, all of which have street-level or elevated terraces for dining. I am told that Montrealers are so big on terrace dining that they will do it even when the weather is so severe that the waiters are polar bears on a winter break from their usual Department of Jobs for Bears positions. There are McDonalds and Subway, both of which are flanked by establishments adorned by images of top-heavy women and signs saying things like “Sensuals Exhibition” and “Danse Contact” which require no translation (not that they deserve one). Apparently zoning is not a big thing here. There is an anarchist bookstore (does an anarchist bookstore need to apply for a license from the government like everyone else, and, if they comply, would that mean they are not really anarchists?). There are approximately 267.8 convenience stores per block which have signs sporting a winking red owl. There is a Chinatown with a really cool entrance gate flanked by stone lions which would impress me more if I hadn’t seen what looks to be the same gate and the same lions in at least two other cities. There is a fortyish Asian woman who compliments me on my black Stetson hat.
The signs are nearly all in French – they are really serious about this in Montreal. Fortunately, the shopkeepers generally speak some English, which makes sense: you can’t make a living off tourists unless you dissemble about the made-in-Mexico Canadian goods in a language they can understand. I find some genuine Canadian stuff and spend approximately the gross national product of Quebec (I’m sure the people of Quebec compute their own GNP, so they don’t have to share it with the rest of the country they grudgingly belong to).
I realize later they failed to give me a receipt. The US Customs and Border Patrol website makes it sound as though bringing back maple syrup candy without a receipt carries the death penalty, but we seasoned international travelers laugh in the face of danger. To reduce the possible penalty, though, I wisely eat one box, giving me a sugar rush that would make a moose tap-dance. (Moose, like bears and beavers, are everywhere up here. I wonder if they do tap dance. Maybe the Department of Jobs for Bears has a moose branch.)
In the evening, the streets get really full. People actually walk in Montreal, and a horde of Canadians mixes rather politely with a horde of Americans. This niceness may have something to do with the fact that a lot of people here have a self-destructive custom (smoking) in common, and some of the smoke, at least on this occasion, has a distinct herbal odor to it. There is a guy banging on pots, buckets, and other objects outside the Metro station. He’s actually pretty entertaining, although it’s not clear whether he has more than one melody in his repertoire. He tosses drum sticks twenty feet up the side of the building and catches them when they come down, which always gets him some applause, even though he often fails to catch them: he has a pile of extra sticks at his feet so he can keep playing.
The TV that night offers what looks like a Canadian version of So You Think You Can Dance, featuring dancers in outfits so tight you can make a reasonable guess about what said dancers ate for lunch. There are no moose among the dancers, so I lose interest.
I’d looked for a hockey game the previous night, assuming hockey would be on at least 66 channels, but didn’t find one. Tonight there is one, featuring English-language commentators making some strained analogy between hockey tactics and American football tactics. (Here’s the difference, guys. In hockey you can use weapons.)
Sunday morning, yet another helpful and polite Canadian, sent over by the production company, takes me to the airport. I have yet to meet a Canadian who is not helpful and polite, excepting the street dwellers, one of whom yelled “m-f-” at me because I had the temerity to be on the same planet, or something.
At the airport, I learn there is not, in fact, a death penalty for lacking a receipt. Indeed, no one even asks me for one.
I change my extra Canadian money back for US, then decide to hit a gift shop for a small jug of maple syrup and a Burger King for a croissant. The Canadian gift shop is happy to take American money, albeit at something less than the official exchange rate. Burger King, a humongous global American-based corporation, won’t touch it. I am later told that I missed out by not seeking out a classic local breakfast specialty: scrambled eggs cooked in maple syrup. Whatever diet you may be on, that’s pretty much guaranteed to be outlawed. Still, I’ll have to try it if I’m up here again.
Along the jetway are posters in which another giant talking beaver offers handy tips for enjoying your flight. What is it with talking beavers? I feel like I’m visiting Narnia.
It will later turn out there was a software glitch in the camera, all the footage was completely useless, and I have to fly back up and do it over again. But that’s another story.
Now it’s time to return to real work while I await my television debut on MonsterQuest. Farewell, Canada, I had a great time. In conclusion, let me just say, “Eh.”