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I bear with my son as he wanders

My older son, Chris, has arrived in the Land of the Midnight Sun. Or at least in the neighborhood. For nearly a week, he drove a circuitous route in an Alamo rental. He swatted mosquitoes in Minnesota, dodged road kill in North Dakota, then crossed the border and headed west along the Transcontinental Highway from Winnipeg to Calgary and a grand finale in the Canadian Rockies.

He wakes me from a dreamy sleep with a telephone update; he's better at shifting gears than time zones. Though an 11:30 p.m. solstice sun dapples golf courses in Banff, Alberta, I curl my toes and yawn in the Land of Smoky Mountain Moonlight. Chris rattles on about the thrilling vista and the elk posing by a treeline.

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"Uh-huh, uh-huh," I say, trying to sound coherent at 1:30 a.m. Then he talks about camping out and casually mentions grizzly bears.

I bolt upright in bed. OK, I'm awake now.

Chris, my firstborn, the lone nomad of the clan, is on the road again and, through the wizardry of electronics and satellite communications, so am I.

Over the years, I've followed my firstborn's voice and e-mails through Africa, England, Scotland, and a three-week marathon across Continental Europe. This trip is a novelty - we're on the same continent.

Even on jaunts abroad, Chris has checked in regularly and entertained me with wild, wooly stories - from eating exotic dishes in South Africa to climbing jagged peaks in the Scottish Highlands, colloquially referred to as "bagging the Munros."

Chris is a seat-of-his-pants traveler - no reservations or scheduling to spoil spontaneity. You get an itch, arrange time off from work, and by land, sea, or air, you go, go, go. This adventure's starting call had come five days ago from Albany, N.Y., around 12:15 a.m.

"I scratched the Nova Scotia idea." His voice crackled with manic energy and a faulty cellphone connection. "I'm headed to Montreal. I want to see Eskimos and polar bears."

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"Excuse me?" I said. "Unless there's been a dramatic climate change, you won't find Nanook of the North or polar bears in Montreal."

He laughed. "No-o-o-o. I'm planning to use the city as a jump-off point and fly farther north. Look up Yellow Knife on the computer, will you? What's it near?"

Yellow Knife? What kind of name is that? My husband, John, rolled over and mumbled, "Whassa matter?"

"Nothing. It's Chris. He's headed for Canada."

"I'm happy for him." With a throaty purr, he pulled the blanket over his head.

I scrambled from bed and fumbled for my glasses. Stumbling to the back room, I flicked on the computer and Googled Yellow Knife. Hummmm. There was a Super 8 motel in the area. Couldn't be that primitive.

The description read: "Capital of the Northwest Territory named after an aboriginal tribe who used golden knives for hunting." Hunting what? Not scrawny Americans yearning for a challenge, I hoped.

What was it near? Absolutely nothing.

But Yellow Knife was merely another staging area, Chris said. His ultimate destination was an unpronounceable peninsula, very close to the North Pole.

After realizing a chartered plane to Yellow Knife and beyond would be too expensive, Chris left Montreal, zigzagged up and down the northern border, looped south past Detroit and Chicago, then snaked through Wisconsin and Minnesota lake country. In Fargo, N.D., he boomeranged due north. He documented the route by phone, once to tell me that Fargo looked nothing like the movie set, then again to ask if Big Foot hailed from Saskatchewan. Tonight's call from Banff, though jolting me awake, is a crazy relief. But it hasn't inoculated me against mother worry that comes with the territory and, like a stubborn carpet stain, refuses to go away.

After several minutes of excited description, he mentions buying an ice ax for the next day's climb, and oh yes, there's a bear - Bear 66 - stalking the area. He laughs, says he loves me, and signs off with "Bye-bye."

Bear 66? I slip back beneath the covers and nestle against John's broad back and rumbling snore. I close my eyes, but a foraging bear lopes through my consciousness.

What does 66 mean? Sixty-six maulings? Sixty-six winter-starved animals on the prowl? I throw back the covers and pad toward the computer room.

John stirs. "Whassa matter?"

"Nothing. I need to look something up."

"Oh," he says. The word slides into a low groan, then a raspy growl and snort. I switch on the computer and conduct an advanced search where I learn about mama grizzlies and their fiercely protective natures. With a knowing sigh, I lean back and read of their offspring - those overly large, curious, free-roaming cubs.


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