Day 2 on the Athabasca River.

The elk crashed through the shoreline spruce trees about 30 yards to our right, crossed a shallow creek in two great clops, then disappeared into the dense greenery of a small island.

Immediately, a black bear popped out of the same spruce hole, running at a gallop. But instead of crossing the creek, it changed course to intercept its prey on the far side of the island.

"Either that bear was chasing the elk or a very big beaver is after both of them," said Don Rabern after the Athabasca had carried our canoe too far to see the finish line. "Either way, I think I'll sleep in the boat tonight."

Careful campers, we are a long way from Disney World. Out here, we are but potentially tasty morsels in a giant food chain, so we keep our eyes open, our food outside the tent and remember not to pet the bears.

In the last two days, we have seen enough wildlife to stock Marlin Perkins' "Wild Kingdom," and most of it has been eating. Mule deer have stared at us from steep hillsides, frozen in mid-chew by our unexpected appearance. Bald eagles have abandoned choice fishing spots in our path. Dozens of red-tailed hawks have taken temporary leave of varmint hunting to screech angrily at our trespass.

Only the moose have seemed unconcerned by our presence. We are barely worth a nod from these giants, even when we pass just yards from their grazing.

Our problem is choosing what to watch. For every animal we see, there are hundreds of wildflowers blooming hot pink, yellow, blue and white. And everything is overshadowed by the jagged range of Rocky Mountains that need no bright splashes of color to impress.

But this river, wide as a football field, is still running downhill too fast for any lengthy commune with nature. There are rapids at almost every bend and islands that support hidden sand bars and rocky shallows. Pay too much attention to the white-tailed deer with her two fawns and you may find yourself swimming to shore.

"There will be time to slow down and look at things more closely later," said Donna Berglund, our apparently inexhaustible leader, after stopping to camp at 10:30 p.m., about half an hour before the northern sun sets. "Right now, we have to make miles while the river is moving."

In two days, we have covered 87 miles, which is about like paddling from Woodbridge, Va., to Richmond. But we are still well short of Berglund's goal of 63 miles a day. A few of our party of eight have already wondered aloud if that goal is possible--let alone reasonable--especially in the days ahead, when the land levels and the current slows.

But the energy spent maneuvering through so many rapids have left most of us too tired and exhilarated each night to care for much beyond food and sleep.

We have found sponge-soft floors beneath tall stands of evergreens both nights for camping, fresh mountain streams to fill water bottles and few mosquitoes to plague us. Wild roses and tiny violet orchids share our campsites. For such company, sore muscles and blistered hands seem worth the effort.

Our most visible neighbors are the beaver who live in holes that straddle the water line. Regularly, we are startled by the loud whack of a tail used to propel its owner from home to underwater safety.

It was beaver that brought the first white canoeists to this wild river. They were trappers--first French and then English and Scots--working for either Hudson Bay or the North West Company.

For the sake of beaver pelts used to make top hats for European gentlemen in the 18th and 19th centuries, all of western Canada was explored. Ten years before Lewis and Clark blazed a path across the continent, a Scottish fur trapper named Alexander Mackenzie found his way to the Pacific by canoe.

Canadian historians credit the fur trade, which led to a system of forts and outposts covering a million square miles of waterways, for saving western Canada from the grab of U.S. colonists who believed it was their Manifest Destiny to rule anything they could stake out.

By the time European gentlemen adopted new fashions in hats, Canada was explored and settled. The beaver, although still trapped, was no longer worth such monumental effort.

Already we have passed the sites of two old outposts. There are no visible traces they ever existed. There is much evidence, in felled and debarked trees, of beaver.

Because it is spring here in the Rockies, many of the animals we see are accompanied by their young. A half-dozen times in the last two days we have turned a corner and surprised a mother goose or duck out for a swim with the kiddies. Invariably, the mother will sound an alarm, sending the chicks underwater or to shore while she flies across our path, feigning injury to a wing. She flops along, just far enough ahead to entice her potential predators. When she thinks we are far enough removed, she takes flight, circling back to her young. One performance today by a Canada goose was so well done we gave her a 30-second ovation.

As interested as we have been in furred and feathered things, we are even more watchful of one another. There is nothing sneaky about our surveillance. This is the shakedown portion of the cruise, the time to discover who snores, who disappears when the hard work is being done and who you would want to share a canoe with when the water gets rough enough to kill.

Marvel Harrison, who has been as bright and friendly as a smile button so far, has been slightly unnerved by the process. "We are all constantly trying to figure each other out," said Harrison, who has already figured out one unhappy truth--paddling a canoe weighing hundreds of pounds is not at all like paddling the lightweight kayaks she is used to.

Dick Sears, the oldest member of the group at 52, and Barry Crouch, the youngest at 18, are obviously not hitting it off. Sears is a skilled paddler; Crouch barely knows the names of the strokes he has just been taught. But already Sears is finding it impossible to keep up with Crouch's pace.

"I don't like him, but then I don't like any 18-year-olds," Sears said. "I just wish I had his strength and endurance."

After a first-night dinner of macaroni and cheese, soup and hot chocolate, we crawled immediately to our tents. Tonight, we had the energy for about 25 minutes of after-dinner conversation. The highlight was the recitation by Pat Leonard of a Robert W. Service poem: "The Cremation of Sam McGee."

The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,

But the queerest they ever did see

Was that night on the Marge of Lake Lebarge

When I cremated Sam McGee

Now it is drizzling and cold. Something just took a chunk out of my wrist, but it couldn't have been a mosquito. It looked like a sparrow carrying a sword.

Next: Rain and signs of revolt.