MONTREAL - Don't talk to Bruce Beach about doomsday. He's been preparing for impending disaster for a half-century and has seen apocalyptic agitation come and go, like so many fads.
So forgive him for not panicking over the end of the Mayan calendar on Dec. 21, this coming Friday.
The 78-year-old former high school teacher, who has a huge nuclear bunker in Ontario, built his first shelter for the Cuban missile crisis in the 1960s.
He was prepared to go underground for the Y2K crisis, amid widespread concern that computer glitches might bring down airplanes in 2000. He received lots of calls from people seeking shelter during the 1982 Falklands War. But his busiest day was Sept. 11, 2001, when his website was bombarded with 85,000 hits within three hours.
People regularly drop in to seek refuge in the shelter he built in the 1980s, named the "Ark Two," which comprises 42 buried school buses.
His most recent visit was three weeks ago.
The labyrinth, with its kitchens, showers and separate bunk rooms for children and adults, is about 90 kilometres northwest of Toronto, in Horning's Mills, Ont.
"People have been in a panic because someone has prophesized the end of the world this particular week or whatever," Beach said in a phone interview from his home.
"They call us up just to make sure we have space in the shelter and I tell them, 'For sure, come on down.'"
Beach's main concern has always been the threat of nuclear attacks, which he fears are even closer than ever because of Middle East conflicts and Iran's suspected weapons program.
As far as he's concerned, the most troubling news as of late has come from the North Koreans — not the Mayans.
"Everybody was all excited about the North Korean (rocket) launch because you see if they put a satellite in space, they can also put up a nuclear weapon," Beach said.
But for all that planning, there's been a recent snag.
If the apocalypse happened to occur now, Beach would have a nuisance to contend with: busted generators. His two big power sources have broken down.
"We actually have about a dozen generators, but our two main ones are both down at this moment," Beach said in a recent interview.
Beach doesn't sound too worried but, on the off chance he required any consolation, he might have plenty of time to fix that generator.
Western University archeologist Linda Howie wants to make it clear that the Mayan calendar doesn't mark the end of the world, but only the end of a cycle.
She explained in an interview that the Mayans used several calendars, including a "long-count" calendar.
"The long-count calendar — the universal cycle — takes a total of 7,785 solar years for it to complete itself, so what Dec. 21 marks is the end of that long period of time," Howie said.
She said the Mayans never believed that this week would mark the end of the world as we know it.
"It's not the end to civilized society because they refer to dates that are actually even farther beyond Dec. 21, 2012, in some of their inscriptions," Howie said.
"They clearly had a concept of time extending beyond the end of the current universal cycle."
Howie blamed all the doomsday speculation on some missing hieroglyphics on a monument found in Mexico in the 1960s.
"It all comes down to a symbol which translates into: 'It will happen'," she said.
"All it says is that 'it' will be on Dec. 21, 2012, and then half the script is missing and the hieroglyphics about what will happen are destroyed. We don't know what the subject is."
Howie suggested the reason people are feeling a bit more nervous about the date is because it coincides with the winter solstice.
"We know that yearly events like that have had significance to us in the past (and) these points of the year were marked by celebrations and rituals," she added.
So if the general consensus is correct and there is no looming catastrophe this week, what happens next?
One man living in the countryside near Montreal says it's always a good time to get prepared for disaster. Dean, one of the spokespeople for the Canadian Preppers Network, doesn't want his family name used for security reasons.
The network brings together people who focus on emergency preparedness, self-reliance and self-sufficiency.
"I think most Canadians are very unprepared for any type of emergency," Dean said in a phone interview from somewhere in the Laurentian mountains, north of Montreal.
The 42-year-old married father of six said the network has close to 700 participants in Canada, who describe themselves as "preppers."
Dean admitted it's hard to say exactly how many preppers there are because not everybody is ready to reveal their location.
He said that, contrary to some unfortunate stereotypes, preppers are not "tin-foil, hat-wearing nut-jobs up in the woods" who happen to be armed to the teeth.
"We're normal people," he said.
"The only difference is we take a few extra steps to be ready to take care of ourselves and our families should the unthinkable happen."
That means stocking up with spare food, water and a few supplies should an emergency occur.
The "unthinkable" could be anything from a natural disaster — like Hurricane Katrina — to a major power blackout that lasts for days.
Dean said he and his fellow preppers aren't expecting the end of the world this week. But they do have some cause for concern.
"People who believe in (doomsday) may have some adverse reactions," he said.
"Whenever someone yells, 'doomsday,' there are people who go off the deep end, but preppers as a whole —especially in our network — are not expecting the end of the world."
Dean said one of the reasons he moved his family to the mountains north of Montreal was because there's a lack of preparedness by people in the city.
"I think the city would become quite a dangerous place to be in the face of an emergency," he added.
"People who are unprepared will tend to become even nastier than they normally may be if they can't get resources such as food and water."
Dean explained that preppers like to keep a low profile. They suspect that, when the big day comes, they would be targeted by people who don't have any emergency supplies on hand.
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