Jonaki Bhattacharyya ventures out into rugged Canadian wilderness to research wild horses — but does she have what it takes to survive?
This story was produced as part of the Springer Storytellers series. Hear and read more at www.beforetheabstract.com/
Jonaki Bhattacharyya, PhD, does applied research in ethnoecology (focusing on Indigenous and traditional ecological knowledge), conservation planning, and wildlife management. Integrating cultural values and knowledge systems with ecological issues, her research endeavors have ranged from remote villages in India to backcountry meadows in British Columbia (BC), Canada. As Senior Researcher with The Firelight Group Research Cooperative, Jonaki works with First Nations and communities in Western Canada. Focusing on relationships between people, animals and places, she seeks to make applied contributions to conservation and human management practices around wildlife, protected areas, natural resources, and ecological systems.
I have been known to make decisions in life that led me to wonder down the road, “Why did I think this would be a good idea?” Usually in pursuit of adventure and new experiences and higher learning, one of those decision moments arrived for me about ten years ago at 5:00 a.m. in the form of a small Toyota pickup truck that was loaded to the gills and it drove up to the front of my house. It was driven by a tall man with a white beard in his late 60’s and he was wearing a black, felt cowboy hat.
Now, I barely knew this guy. I had met him once before, but my decision was whether to get in that truck with him. If I did, I would be driving hundreds of miles away from anywhere I’d been before to the interior British Columbia, Canada. See, I was a new PhD student and I wanted to study wild horses where they roam in Canada.
The man in the black hat, his name is David Williams. He was the head of an environmental NGO, nonprofit organization, that researched those wild horses and worked with the indigenous people, the Xeni Gwet’in First Nation who know them best.
Now, something you should know about me, though. I grew up on the West Coast of North America. I’m the child of first-generation immigrant parents. My mom is from England, my dad is from India. So befitting my heritage, I grew up with a diverse skill set that did include things like working really hard for good grades in school and baking scones. I did not grow up camping, lighting campfires, sleeping outside, paddling canoes or doing any of those quintessentially North American, back-country activities, so I really wanted to learn those things.
When the man in the black hat pulled up to my house, I thought, “This is my chance,” so I got in the truck.
We drove for two days. We drove from the coastal rainforests of West Coast British Columbia, through the mountains, through steep, rocky river canyons, dry desert and sage brush right up into the interior grasslands on high plateaus. We started out on highways. We drove onto paved roads and then those became gravel roads, and those became dirt roads and, finally, we were quite literally at the end of the road.
We were in Xeni Gwet’in territory. We were in barren cougar country. We were in big sky country, and it was absolutely beautiful.
At the end of the road, David pulled the truck to face a small rocky trail that disappeared into the woods. He turned to me and he imparted the first piece of wisdom from his wife, Pat, and said, “This is where Pat usually takes a couple of Advils.”
And I laughed good-naturedly but, I can tell you, I gripped that seat a little tighter and I wondered what I was in for. And what I was in for was a lesson in the slow, bumping precision of real 4x4 driving when you’re in a truck loaded with gear and you’re trying not to shred the environment you’re in.
So we would stop to check steep descents. We would gear down. We would get out and chainsaw or, sometimes, handsaw fallen trees out of the way and heave them off the path. We would go into low four-wheel drive for creek crossings and then we would stop completely to gauge the depth of rivers before driving right through.
After about two hours of this, I was getting nervous. We were so far into the bush I didn’t actually know where we were. Despite a degree in geography, I didn’t know how to use a compass, so I was a little afraid that I didn’t know how to find my own way out if I needed to. And I do like to be somewhat self-reliant.
The forest, by then, looked the same to me in every direction and, in fact, I had trouble picking out where the path was quite often. So, to make things worse, a young woman had actually gone missing in that area a few months before that. As we drove in, all around, there was the flagging tape that was left behind by search and rescue crews, and I kept seeing this as this disturbing, eerie reminder. She had never been found.
So I was feeling scared, trying to calm myself down, thinking about the fact that I had decided to get in the truck with a man I barely knew. When the road disappeared completely into a swamp, David muttered something about hoping it wouldn’t be too deep and drove straight into it.
So we plunged forward into this water. It was all around the truck, made good traction at first and then the tires started spinning. We had a snorkel so, thankfully, the engine didn’t quit on us but we got completely stuck. At that point, I just thought, “What have I gotten myself into?”
I was actually terrified about what I figured would be the temper tantrum he was about to throw. I thought, “I don’t want to be stuck in a swamp with a man I don’t know who’s going to curse. This is just too much.”
To my surprise, he turned to me and had a huge grin on his face, like this was the best thing that had happened so far this day. And he said, “Guess we’ll have to use the winch.”
And he pulled off his shoes and socks and opened the door, plunged out into thigh-deep water and the cab flooded with water right up to the gear box. He didn’t close the door. I was sitting there feeling completely useless, and he showed me how to play out the winch, hook up to a tree, climb back in, and time the winch with the 4x4 to get that truck pulling itself out of the swamp.
We carried on like that for a couple more hours. The sun was getting low, cutting trees out of the way, winching out of swamps and, by the end of the trail, we were almost at our destination, he assured me, it got so rough and rocky that I received the second piece of wisdom, by proxy from his wife Pat. “This is where Pat usually gets out and walks.”
But to be honest, I was too tired. I was still really worried. I’m not used to being in situations that I can’t control and that I can’t look after myself. I was uncomfortably dependent on this person that I was with and I had three weeks ahead of me to get through on this trip.
So as we got to where we were going, suddenly we were out of the forest and it opened up into this wide expanse of lake. I could see snow-capped mountains in the distance and the sun was setting over the lake, birds were setting up a chatter and this little cabin appeared. It’s called Far Meadow.
This was a cabin that the man in the black hat, David, had built by hand and this was our destination. We’d made it.
It seemed, in that evening light to me, through my tiredness even then, quite beautiful. It seemed like the logs were glowing gold in the light.
So we unfurled our sleeping bags under respective bunks and unpacked gear and swept some mouse droppings out of the corner and settled in to take in the sunset on the porch. I can tell you, though, that I think we were probably having pretty different experiences because David, for his part, heaved a big happy sigh and sank into a folding chair, put his feet up. He was a man who had just arrived home. He was completely at peace.
I, on the other hand, was managing my emotions. I was just sitting there, thinking, “Go to sleep. Wake up in the morning, deal with this in the morning. You’re too tired. You can’t figure anything out now. Just go to sleep.”
All of a sudden, David yelled, “Quiet!” And I jumped and everything fell dead silent. All the birds just stopped.
I’m like, “What now?” Slowly, the birds started to chatter again. There was an echo of his voice across the lake. I swear the birds sounded like little old ladies who had been very rudely interrupted. They were kind of disgruntled in their twittering. And he started to chuckle and he just turned to me and said, “I like to play with them, let them know I’m home.”
So at that point, I excused myself and went to bed.
The world that I woke up to changed my life. I woke up to the creek and the low rumble of a wood stove being lit and the smell of fresh coffee mixing with that wood smoke. I woke up to light streaming in the windows of the cabin and loons calling on the lake outside. And when I stepped out the front door, mist rising off this lake with a bright blue sky day behind it. It was just stunning.
Over the next three weeks we, most of the time, left the vehicles behind and we walked and we walked and we walked. I learned to track animals. Most of the footprints I saw were not human. They were animals and we were in their land. We were the guests.
I learned to see the subtle markers of the Xeni Gwet’in people who dwell on that landscape. I would see blaze marks by trails and well-trodden footpaths that they’ve walked for hundreds, thousands of years. We would see berry bushes that were quite deliberately beside those trails. We would see abandoned hay racks in meadows where people used to gather wild hay. I learned to appreciate that landscape.
I had my first bear encounter, which was actually lovely, and I had my first wild horse encounter. That was a fun one. We were out for a walk in the evening just looking for wildlife. And these are the truly wild horses, not the kind that stand beside the road and munch while you drive by. So they are primed as prey animals. They will take off before you even know they’re there quite often.
So we were out, we were in this forest that had burned several years before. It was surreal. There’s black, sooty trees, standing dead timber all over the place. Then again, it was evening, so there was this yellow sunlight glancing off of tall pine grass and wildflowers and those little bugs that dance in the air were all around us.
We suddenly heard a sharp snort, kind of a huffing snort. David dropped to the ground and I thought it was a bear so I thought, “I better do what he’s doing,” and wondered why we would drop to the ground for a bear. Not good practice.
But quickly realized it was a stallion and that’s the warning snort that they give to their groups. Another snort, I was craning my neck trying to see the stallion. I couldn’t see it. The horses took off and, as they ran, their hooves just thundered through the ground and it rumbled right up into my own body. I could feel them in my chest.
So I never saw them, but feeling them that way was the best first encounter I could imagine having.
By the end of that three-week visit, I knew that I was going to come back. And I did. For every year for the last ten years I’ve gone back to that place for study, for pleasure, for research. I couldn’t have told you at the start why it was a good decision to get in that truck. It turns out it was, though.
Now, when I go back, I’m loading my gear into my 4x4. I’m chainsawing the trees out of the way myself. I often still do go with people, but I have the skills I need to be out there and I’ve learned them from the man in the black hat and from my Xeni Gwet’in colleagues who are out there, who continued to teach me to understand that land in new ways.
And it’s changed me. As a scientist, I’ve learned from being there that no matter how many books and peer review papers I read, I am illiterate on a landscape until I get out there and I walk and I learn to know that place. If I don’t know that place, I don’t fully understand it. It’s led me to truly appreciate the local knowledge, the indigenous knowledge, the people who do know their places have to share and the different ways they might understand them.
As a woman, it’s actually been incredibly empowering. I feel stronger when I’m out there. I don’t feel as much of the lack of confidence that tends to dog me in my city life. And I can tell you that after three weeks-to-a-month of being out in the bush, covered in dirt, bug bites, and bathing by jumping into lakes, I feel oddly beautiful, hairy legs and all, in a way that I don’t in the city when I’m scrubbed up.
Finally, as a human being, it’s changed me because I actually love going to places where I’m not in control. I love going to places where I’m a guest in a land that is primarily that of animals and I’m not the top predator. It’s just a privilege. There’s not very many places left like that, and I love going to those places.
So, I realized, looking back to that moment when I got in the truck, that I wanted to go have an adventure and I fell in love with that place because it was wild and far away, Far Meadow. And I still love it for those reasons. It is wild. It is far away. But to me when I go back there now, I’m the one sinking into that porch chair and it feels and it smells and it tastes like home.