Bring It To Bear
Picture the boy. He is ten or so, maybe eleven, a bit pudgy and with few friends. He is starting to outgrow his action figures and Legos; these days he spends most of his time playing in the woods. Today he creeps through the tall grass of the vacant acre lot below his Hillside home. Elephant grass, his father calls it, and if it is not quite tall enough to hide a pachyderm, it is taller than the boy’s head, like a canebreak on the Kentucky frontier of a bygone era he has read about in the novels of Don Wright and William O. Steele. The boy moves carefully, but not because of Indians. There are spiders in this grass, big ugly things with abdomens the size of his thumbnail and black-and-white striped legs that look like something out of a horror film. He can feel their eyes upon him.
The grass is not his goal, however, it is a mere obstacle to be passed through. There are blueberries on the other side, just a few, enough for a couple handfuls. The boy hates picking berries, he dreads the berrypicking expeditions his parents drag him along on, but he loves the taste of blueberries more than any other fruit. Part of this is because he has never seen fruit growing on a tree, and the half-ripe hand grenades sold in the grocery stores of these subarctic latitudes are hardly the sort of thing to entice a young lad to embrace fruit on the conceptual level. For this child, the first mouthful of blueberries is the very taste of summer.
He steps out of the tall grass and into a broad glade hemmed in by tall spruce trees. In the middle is his favorite climbing tree, and just a stone’s throw away is what he thinks of as his medicine tree, a birch and a spruce growing up from the same base with their trunks welded together. The berries are just beyond. There is a neighbor’s house maybe fifty yards away, so he is quiet, placing his feet down carefully amid the moss and dogwood flowers.
There is a grunt, a whuffling sound, then the smashing of brush as the black bear and her cub explode from the brush, bolting away to parts unknown. All he sees is a broad shaggy back plowing through the understory while he stands still as a spruce hen, his heart thumping.
He does not tell his parents about this incident, knowing they won’t let him play down here anymore if they know.
Now the boy has grown to the age of sixteen and is working his first real job. He is at a remote fishing lodge on the Naknek River, away from home for the first time and gradually being hardened up by the bush. His boss is a long-time fishing and hunting guide, trapper, cabin builder. A good mentor, and the person the teen will one day credit with teaching him how to tell a story.
There are no clients today, and the boss is away. The teenager works alone, stacking basketball-sized rocks in front of the main lodge as a breakwater against river erosion. After lunch he clumps down the boardwalk in his hip boots to the weathered old shop of gray boards and rusty corrugated iron where he pinches a Camel cigarette from his boss’s stash. He props it between his lips. A light rain rattles on the tin roof, pockmarking the surface of the river as he digs in his pockets and realizes he left his lighter back in the main house. He starts out the door but freezes on the step. There are two brown bears pawing at a dead magpie on the woodpile between the shop and the main house. They are teenagers themselves, juveniles whose mother has recently told them to hit the road.
The two bears sense his eyes upon them and turn to look. He is thinking of the loaded shotgun standing in the arctic entryway of the main house, on the far side of his uninvited visitors. The distance is perhaps sixty feet, but it looks a whole lot more like several miles.
There is the guest bunkhouse between the shop and the main house; the teen slowly slides over to it and crawls beneath the foundation. There is cold gravel and porcupine shit. Strands of fiberglass insulation hang down to tickle the back of his neck as he crawls. The bears are watching as he comes out the other side of the foundation and slips up the stairs toward the kitchen. They spread apart, advancing with their eyes upon him and their heads down. He makes the kitchen door, reaches inside and breaks the shotgun to see that it’s loaded, then stands in the doorway and looses a shot over one of the bears. They both jump as if electrocuted and race into the willows as the buckshot splashes down on the far side of the river.
The teenager stands for a long while there in the doorway with the shotgun in his hand, thinking of how several years before, a brown bear chased his boss through this selfsame door, right into the kitchen and in several seconds of bashing dishes and shrieking in-laws trashed the place as his boss managed to thumb a couple cartridges into his three-hundred and drill the bear through the head, dead as a doornail on the linoleum.
It is September on the aspen hillside, and the he has been hunting ruffed grouse all afternoon and evening, shooting three. He is well out in the woods; it’s a good 45 minute walk to the nearest trail, and that’s only if the walker knows the hill like his own bedroom, which the boy-man does. Dusk gathers slowly in the Tanana Valley sky as he lays his overnight pack under a grandfather white spruce and goes about collecting firewood for the night. It has rained heavily the night before, though the day has been clear and the night looks to be the same and the forest has mostly dried out. He breaks the dead lower limbs from the big spruce, dry from the sheltering foliage above. With his axe he chops several weather-gray aspen poles into manageable lengths, a stack big enough for cooking and a little relaxation by the flames with a pipe and the stars above.
There is no tent, just the living roof of spruce boughs above him. He pulls out his sleeping bag and pad, then his battered, blackened billy can. A half loaf of French bread and the sausages he brought in case there were no birds. He lays the bird breasts next to his gear, opening the Ziploc bag so they can breathe.
Cranberries grow just a stone’s throw away and their scent fills the air. With his fire going, he decides to pick a canful for dessert. He steps through teabushes sprinkled with fallen yellow leaves. The evening air is chilly and his vision becomes grainy in the long dusk. He kneels down and begins stripping the dark, ripe berries from their ground vines.
There is the crack of a twig. Footsteps shambling through the dry leaves. The boy-man looks up to see a dark shape just up the hillside, moving through the trees. He thinks of his single-shot twelve gauge propped against his pack by his fire. He always carries a few slugs with him for times just like this, but they’re not much good to him in their present position.
The black bear has not seen him, though surely it must have seen the fire. The boy-man stands up as the bear passes behind a clump of birches. A light wind shakes loose a shower of poplar leaves. One of them lights in his hair as he watches the bear trundle along, oblivious. He thinks of speaking, but he has not spoken a word all day and it seems anything he could utter would only profane this stretch of woods he loves so much. He keeps watching as the bear draws closer and closer, knowing he should say something but keeping silent until the bear is just twenty feet away and his good sense finally overtakes him.
“Evening, Uncle,” he says.
The black bear stops in its tracks and looks right at him. Then it wheels and sprints away through the forest, back the way it came.
The boy-man cooks and eats his birds and sausages with his dessert of cranberries, then rolls into his sleeping bag and dreams of a girl he knows does not like him the way he likes her. Later that night he is awakened by a flying squirrel landing upon his chest and staring down at him with eyes like shiny black marbles. Later still he wakes again and lies shivering in fear as something that is not a bear but is large and distinctly two-legged makes several circuits around his spruce camp, breaking branches left and right and making no effort to be quiet in the moonless dark.
Several years later, the young man is living on the other side of the world, far from the northwoods where he was raised. There is desert scrub, white beach sand, and wave-battered limestone cliffs. The swans are black, and Christmas comes in the summertime. He has not hunted for over a year, but surfing has taken hold of him like nothing else. All around him is a life and a country that is new and bright and beautiful and full of girls that actually want to talk to him. When camping at the beach, he can only scratch his head and smile at the fact that for the first time in his life he doesn’t have to worry about bears. Still, out of long habit learned in childhood he keeps a clean camp.
The morning is cool but will warm up fast as he wades into the turquoise waters of the Southern Ocean with his surfboard and strokes for the outside. It is mid-week, and he’s the only surfer out. The swell is a bit lumpy, but rideable nonetheless. He picks off several waves, losing himself and time together in the pulse and the rhythm and the amber morning light.
He is sitting back in the lineup waiting for the next set when he sees it. The triangle fin cutting through the water. Not a dolphin. A wave rolls in and the fin is submerged but then the young man is buoyed up on the rolling hump and he sees the fin exposed once again in the trough behind it. The shark attached to it looks to be ten or twelve feet long. Not huge by any stretch, but certainly big enough to ruin his day. Blinking in the morning glare, he watches as it cruises past, maybe ten yards away.
The young man has often pondered what he would do if he ever had a visit from the man in the gray overcoat. He has laid awake at night thinking about it, dwelling most particularly on the chilling notion that while a bear might chew you up, he won’t drag you down under the water where you can’t breathe.
He is later surprised by the cold calm that settles over him as the shark passes. He knows enough not to run lest the predator instinct kick in. He lets it go by, then he turns and catches the next wave into the beach, thinking in a moment of unwelcome clarity that he has never paddled so hard for a shitty wave in his entire life.
He is back in the northwoods now. He still surfs and still hunts grouse and waterfowl but now he splits his year between the Cook Inlet coast and the Wrangell Mountains, where he has a job with the National Park Service at Kennecott. There is no surf in this inland valley, and the bird hunting is abysmal, so his main form of entertainment during the work season is drinking at the bar in nearby McCarthy. This will before long morph into a dangerously unhealthy habit, which is a polite way of saying he is in the early stages of becoming a drunk.
The day has been hot and dusty with neither a cloud in the sky nor a breath of wind. There is the slant of the evening sunshine on the red and white buildings from the copper boom days. A moonscape of pulverized mine tailings and gray rockflour blown in from the glacier below town. At day’s end he climbs onto his mountain bike and starts down the trail to the bar. He rides pell-mell down the old wagon road, past the last couple cabins, past the old cemetery with its teetering crosses. He bombs around corner after corner, for it is beer-thirty and there are five miles between him and his first cold one of the evening.
It is somewhere around mile three when it happens. He doesn’t see the bear until it is too late. It is a large old blackie, the bull of the woods, stepping his paw out onto the gravel to cross the trail just as the drunk comes tear-assing around the curve. There is no time for either of them to react. The drunk sees a dark shape in the soapberries alongside the trail, then he is up next to it, close enough to smell it and to see the whitesocks buzzing around its warm form. The bear and the drunk lock eyes as he blasts by, staring into one another’s startled souls. In that split second, all he can think of to do is stand on the pedals and pump them for all he is worth.
Later, at the bar when he has calmed down, it occurs to him that he was close enough to reach out and smack the bear across the chops. And that meant that the bear could have just as easily reached out and clotheslined him off of his bike, a possibility he does not care to contemplate.
He orders another Sapphire and tonic, double lime.
Now the man is thirty-four years old and his first book is out in print. He has quit drinking, and feels healthier than he has in years. He still has to work a day job, though, and for reasons beyond his ken has had to take a summer job back in his hometown. But the work season is nearly done, and he is getting ready to build a homestead cabin on the surf coast come the fall. His thoughts are filled with the long, drawn-out drumming of clean waves and with the trilling calls of the sandhill cranes that flock together near his homesite. Of the spruce grouse that feed in the trees on his land and the hummingbirds that kept buzzing his ears in the spring like the world’s largest bumblebees. But there is still a month of work to go, so for now he must be content with picking blueberries in the hidden bogs tucked and forgotten pockets of woods throughout the city.
His mind is blissfully clear of conscious thought as he works his way through the soggy muskeg, gingerly stripping berries from the bushes and dumping them into his plastic coffee can. The view of Flattop Mountain is the same as it was in his youth. The bog sucks at his rubber boots and the sweat pastes his t-shirt to his back and there is a comforting certainty in that. But then he sees the bear shit and the trampled weeds and is brought back to the immediate present. There are bears in town now. People have told the man that this is a good thing.
He looks down at the pile of bear shit, stained purple from the berries that have moved through the animal’s digestion. The pile is fresh, and the bear is without a doubt close by. He wonders idly how many more interminable bear safety training sessions he will have to sit through for the sake of his day job. The very thought of it makes him weary, and the knowledge that the only reason he must do this is because of lawyers and lawsuits and the profit margins of insurance executives makes him feel like burrowing into the spongy muskeg and changing himself into a wood frog
The words of an Alaskan old-timer regarding bears come to him, something he read when he was younger: If you ever come up to your cabin way out in the sticks and find that a bear has broken in and wrecked the place, that all the food and supplies you were counting on for a winter’s worth of trapping are gone, and you’re standing there in the snow at forty below looking at that mess with your dogs tired out and the wind picking up and the trail sweat in your longjohns just starting to chill your skin, well then maybe you’ll start to understand why it was that we killed every one of them sons of bitches we could find.
Or words to that effect. The man toes the blueberry shit and wishes he could remember where he read that, but it has been too many years and too many bears. He likes bears, enjoys watching them and studying the tracks they leave behind, and he knows that such a hard-line sentiment is hardly a prescription for dealing with bears in the modern world. Times, after all, do change, though the current trend of discussing “problem” bears as if they are misbehaving seventh-graders fills him with an irrational desire to punch people in the mouth. Not incidentally, he has noticed that this is the same attitude “bear safety consultants” generally adopt toward their hapless instructees.
In the old-time Indian and Eskimo stories, animals are generally a lot smarter than people, probably with good reason. It occurs to the man that humans are forced to perceive reality while animals are content to simply inhabit it. Bears, like other animals, have the good fortune to live on a moment-by-moment basis untroubled by the very silly-assed notion of self-awareness, and the man smiles at the thought that such a state might more appropriately be called zen.
He looks into his berry bucket as hoots and cheers from the nearby football field push through the evening air with the roar of the traffic beyond. The man has perhaps two quarts of berries, maybe a little more. A decent evening’s work. Soon he’ll be gone from town, building his homestead, hunting birds and chasing surf. There are plenty of bears down there to worry about, and no reason to go crowding this one. He turns, fixes up his pack, and moves into the trees.
© Kris Farmen