Friday, October 12, 2012

The Bear Story, Part 2

Manicured for civil use, forest preserves sport trails. With an easy walk you've passed on through back to the picnic, the car, your house and comfy life.  Wilderness marks no such paths. A vague deer trail near to the river was the best we could find.

I took the rear of the canoe and Heather the front as we set off into the woods.  It's absurd to haul such an elegant craft through thick forest.  So swift and sure on the water, fully loaded it's deadweight clumsy over land.  With each step, our gear shifted inside the boat.  The terrain was typical -- patches of wet ground winding through thick walls of trees, broken by glistening bedrock and every step uncertain.

We lifted our burden over boulders and a mad tumble of obstacles, dragging it when we couldn't carry.  I swear we bent that canoe to go 'round trees where it wouldn't fit.  Heather blazed trail while carrying her end with scant complaint.  We weren't too far in before I made a queer noise and she paused to ask what was wrong.

 "A branch went through my foot,” I said.  "Keep walking.”

I’d stepped square on the sharp tip of a fallen pine branch.  It slipped straight through my sneaker, pierced the flesh of my foot, struck hard against bone then reversed the process when I lifted my foot in stride.  I felt every bit of it and knew precisely what it was.

The distance between placid water and rock-strewn hazard wasn't much when floating downriver, but seemed a great piece trudging back up through the woods.  After a time, we again came upon our dead stinking friend and gratefully put the canoe back onto the river where it belonged.

We were both cold and damp.  My foot hurt like Hell.

The trip upstream proved easy and we made it back to the dam.  One of us had to head off and find Johnny.   He might be at camp, or perhaps at the bridge, wondering where we were.  Maybe he was even nowhere, lost in the woods like us.  Heather drew the short straw, as her foot didn’t sport a hole.

 I later learned that as evening closed in and the forest grew tight to the road, she sang softly to whatever bears might be there, to reassure them she'd be just passing through and would be gone in a moment, if only they’d peacefully allow. It never hurts to be polite.

I needed to pass the time so standing flat upon a rock, pressing down hard with all my weight to keep my foot from bleeding too much, I fished.

Near the boat ramp on the flowage an older man parked a small pickup truck. He bent over the rear of truck’s covered bed and prepared a meal from inside.  After a while of catching no fish and seeing as how the man was done eating, I hobbled on over.

Years of weather and wind made his face a well-worn map, crisscrossed with memory and resolution.  His outfit was dirty and torn.  Maybe fifty, maybe eighty, here was a hardscrabble gent who’d spent ample time in out of the way places.  The truck’s bed was jammed with gear and enclosed by a rickety fiberglass top.

The old man seemed happy enough for the company, though I suppose he’d have preferred someone closer to his age, given the choice.  He was a bear hunter up from Detroit and after a couple weeks in the woods, his tag remained unfilled.  Upon learning where I was from, he proceeded to vent his spleen at the relative merits of Richard J. Daley, the late, legendary Mayor of Chicago.  This old Detroit native was near to exhausted with bitterness.

I took no offense.  All kinds seek solace in the woods, for as many different reasons.

Standing close, I was distracted by this bear hunter's appearance.  His teeth were mottled yellow-green and looked soft to the touch.  Tight around his head there hovered a living cloud of gnats and flies.  Every now and again he’d wave a gnarled hand past his face.  The cloud dispersed a bit then quickly reformed, drawn like scattered iron filings to a powerful magnet.  If the insects bothered him, I saw no sign of it.  I shuddered at his indifference.

Years later I'd recall this old man, the morning on the Presque Isle when I became indifferent to flies.

The light grew diffuse and provided poor warmth as the afternoon turned gray.  The bear hunter cleaned up from dinner and I returned to fish.  I caught a northern pike of fair size and nasty disposition, holding it aloft for the old man to see.  He grinned broadly with those teeth but after I’d released the fish, shook his head at me as if I were addled.  Only tourists or crazy folk throw away good meals.  I've no idea which he thought I was.

I finished fishing and secured everything into the canoe.  The old man drove away.  I sat, disconsolate  upon my rock, wondering where Heather could be and whether she’d found Johnny.  Were they coming for me even now, or had Heather been spirited away by some beast of the forest, never to be found?

A day begun so pleasantly turned bitter as it edged toward nightfall.  Winter lurked just beyond the horizon as if to pounce. It's scent filled the evening air.

Finally, welcome headlights turned into the lot and my rescuers arrived.  We loaded the car, put the canoe up top and returned to camp.  Under the bright beam of a flashlight I easily found the hole in my foot, despite deep pruning from all the moisture that'd soaked through my shoe.  I couldn't recall my last tetanus shot, so we’d take the drive to Ironwood and the hospital, not wanting to be any more foolish than we’d already been.  It felt good to bind my foot into the dry snugness of a fresh boot.  We piled into the car. I drove.

With full dark and at some point between Wakefield and Bessemer, the dreaded lights of a state patrol car flashed behind us. I’d been speeding but the officer was sympathetic to my tale of woe and sent us on our way with a only word of caution about traveling too fast for conditions.

The hospital at Ironwood was quiet.  We approached the receptionist.  I told her my story in brief and that it seemed prudent for me to receive a tetanus booster.  She agreed, then apologized.  I'd have to wait, as the doctor on duty was busy.  Not long before our arrival, a man was carted into Emergency.

He’d been mauled by a bear.

Our adventure became suddenly small.  We wondered over the circumstances of the incident and made nervous jokes before falling silent so I could complete the requisite paperwork.

I was shown to a room off a hallway, the door left open.  Across that hall, inside another room with an open door, a drawn curtain shielded a gurney.  On the floor shone bright pools of fresh blood.  Moaning rose from behind the curtain -- a low lament of genuine regret and profound discomfort.  I guessed the man was sedated, sorely wounded and beset by nightmare visions of the sort most of us never dream.  I sat in dread fascination at the shrouded spectacle.

Eventually, along with my tetanus shot, I got the story.

There're different methods to bag a bear, with hunting over bait the most common means in Michigan. At a likely place in the woods, over a period of some weeks the hunter leaves a smelly pile of bait.  Bear claims bait.  Hunter supplies more. Bear comes to depend on bait. Bear season arrives and the hunter kills himself a bear.

Seems unsporting, I know. But there it is.

This is what the man was doing when catastrophe claimed him: he sat in a tree near his bait.  The light dimmed and he stayed put.  After nightfall, when prudent men are gathered 'round the fire drinking bourbon from tin cups while spinning tales of heroics past and yet to come, something ambled from the dark forest.  The man shot it then climbed down to claim his trophy.

A bear cub lay dead at his feet.

Momma bear came roaring down on him like the wrath of Hell.  She shattered his arm, broke his leg and smashed any number of ribs.  She chewed on his face and shoulders.  He managed to put two shots into her and she tumbled off into the woods.  He crawled his sorry ass back to camp and his buddies rushed him to the hospital.

We'd be spending a long night alone in the woods, where a  wounded bear is important and wondered exactly where this thing had happened.  The only person present who knew was this ravaged hunter of bears. And he wasn’t talking.

It grew late and bitter cold outside.  I finally got my shot. We left the hospital and went over to Scotty’s for dinner -- a 16 oz. Porterhouse steak, potatoes, salad, coffee -- everything most excellent and all for only  $6.25 American.

Together we reviewed the state of our affairs.  I felt all right. The foot still hurt but food proved a tonic. A couple of tables over, a group of young folk hashed over the haunting of an abandoned local hockey rink. Everything considered, we tried hard not to listen.

Our options had winnowed down to two: find a motel  or head back to camp.  The Ottawa is something like 1,000,000 acres of woods and the hospital at Ironwood the only one in the entire region. Odds were overwhelming that the wounded bear wasn’t anywhere near our camp.

An ambulance streaked off west on U.S. 2 -- lights flashing, siren silent, whisking the hunter to Marquette and a surgically rebuilt face.  We piled into the car to make the long drive to Marenisco, followed by the short jaunt through the woods back to Bobcat Lake.

Typically, they rolled up the sidewalks in  Marenisco long about 9:30 every night, save for the taverns.  By the time we turned off the highway and onto the main drag into town, it was 11:00.

Which is where we found all the bear hunters and State Police in the world.

Flashing emergency lights reflected from buildings.  Men with rifles milled about in groups.  We drove slowly through the crowd, there being no need to ask anyone what the problem was.

At camp, a couple of miles and a world away from anyone who cared, we went over our non-existent options one last time.  Crawling into the sleeping bag, I placed my axe on the tent floor, lay down, put my hand around the handle of the axe and fell to fitful sleep.

Morning dawned gray and wet.

While preparing breakfast, we heard the shots that killed the bear.  If she’d looked for trouble, we'd been ripe & ready.  Instead, wounded and distraught, she’d sought refuge in the woods.  That was something we understood.

Later, Heather and I waited in a short line at the checkout of Leo’s woeful insufficient grocery in Marenisco.  In front of us stood a woman fully three years older than dirt.  She was tiny, wrinkled and bent.

We all paused to listen as a voice on the radio recounted the story of the man and the bear.  Then the hunter spoke from his hospital bed in Marquette.  He talked like Daniel Boone and told how he'd held closed the jaws of certain death with only his bare hands.

The story finished. We stood silent for a moment, contemplating what we knew and what we’d just heard.

The old lady shook her head and said to no one in particular:

“Son of a bitch should've died.”

While he'd survived the wilderness with quite a tale to tell, of course we thought then she was exactly right.

Though over the ensuing years, I've come to realize and appreciate the elegant truth of this magnificent landscape. In fact, that's essentially what draws me back again & again, to test my fast aging mettle against the mighty indifference of wilderness to all human concern.

It's a truth so simple and pure we've turned it into an aphorism:

Some days you get the bear. Other days the bear gets you.

To which wisdom I'd append only slight qualification:

Save for those exceptionally rare times during autumn -- with death brilliant upon the woods, when winter throws an awakening breath over a magnificent landscape and prompts youth to dare reach beyond its grasp -- occasionally fortune intervenes. Then the contest between who we are and what we dream comes to a brief, uneasy rest.

And so it goes...

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