The Pleasures and Perils of the Festival Tour: Banff

In Banff, where I taught at the Banff Publishing Workshop from 1981 to 1988, I ran into the usual elk stories. The drifting herds of elk were  a prominent part of the campus , and in rutting season (October, and thus Writers’ Festival season) there were so many problems that I remember Roddy Doyle complaining that he had experienced a lot,  touring the world to promote his books but, as he put it in his worried North Dublin accent, this was the first time he had been in danger “of being focked by an elk.”

One of the things I’ve learned about being on the writers’ festival tour is that you’re on a magic carpet, whisked by kindly drivers from the airport to your hotel, which comes complete with a hospitality suite. Even better, the suite comes complete with an interesting group of other writers, who tend to be on the same circuit. So in Banff, and then Vancouver, and so on, I found myself running into the same people, in very convivial circumstances. Sometimes they share a programme with you (in Banff, after my own event, I had fun chairing the final session, featuring the fiction quintet of  Germany’s Thomas Pletzinger, my old friend Madeleine Thien, Scotland’s Stuart McBride, Helen Humphreys, and David Bezmozgis). And sometimes they are old, close friends like Guy Vanderhaeghe, whom I’ve published right from the start, until his current fine book, A Good Man.

Guy’s  Saturday night reading was the high point at Banff, where he alluded to an elk story, without elaborating. I know the story, and can reveal it here. Some years ago (possibly even before Roddy Doyle’s complaint) Guy was staying at the Centre, in rutting season. Coming out after breakfast he noticed that the herd had drifted across to block his path up to his residence, and that the male was looking aggressive. So he prudently waited at the foot of the stairs, a barrier to the elk. A confident young woman came out from breakfast, and Guy politely suggested that it might be best to wait for ten minutes until the elk moved on. She took this suggestion badly.

“I will walk wherever I please!” she announced, and strode towards them.

The male elk had not read the proper books. In Guy’s words, “She ended up behind a tree,” yelling for help.

Guy is familiar with cattle and horses, so he tore off his jacket, waving it as he bravely approached the elk, to distract it from the trapped woman. It worked. The woman was able to escape up the hill while the elk charged Guy, who just made it to the safety of the stairs with the elk in snorting pursuit. Guy did not sprain an ankle. The elk did not stay in the area for long. And the woman did not seek Guy out to thank him.

— Douglas Gibson

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