Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Bear Story, Part 1

Lulled by the whisper of a breeze through the trees, comforted by warm nights spent beneath a blanket of stars and invigorated by days with skies so blue it hurts your eyes to look, it's easy to forget that the landscape along the south shore of Superior is a great wilderness.

Pause in the midst of the place and it matters little that the original forest once fell fast to our hand and what's there today is nearly all 2nd, even 3rd & 4th growth woods, with different species of trees besides.

Nevermind that in its many lakes and rivers, hatchery fish swim beside native stock. Or that the narrow roads that bisect the landscape like an undifferentiated nest of gravel arteries are there solely to facilitate a search for wealth; from resource extractors to sportsmen to casual tourists, hermits and more. Hunters, all.

Forever altered by our attempts to tame it, wilderness remains resilient -- unbowed by our efforts to destroy it and utterly indifferent to any ambition of ours. To the forest, a human's greatest value is as one more dead thing struck down upon the forest floor, 'cause once there we're no different than a crumpled leaf, a broken stick, a fallen bird or a bear.

I once spent seventeen consecutive days tent camping in the Ottawa National Forest. That's time enough to sense these things, to indulge the rhythm of the woods and forget consuming construct like politics and other cultural contentions. Long enough even to forget you'll have to return to a job in the city, too. That is, at least when you're still a fresh kid caught full up in the boundless wonder of the landscape.

It's a place that marks some folks. Back then, it marked me but good.

Johnny, Heather and I fancied ourselves capable when it came to outdoor life.  In good years we caught fine fish, ventured ever deeper into the woods, sat agape at the northern lights and did our best to spend our time in concert with what we imagined to be the integrity of the landscape. Youthful enthusiasm met a profound foil in the forest and our spiritual inclinations feasted off its complexity. We yearned to be there when we weren't.

That year the weather proved fair for late September.  Eagles flew, fish jumped, we ate well and slept soundly.  I think perhaps it’s just simple human nature, that we ask for more even when our plate is properly full...

From a 4x5 transparency, captured during September, 2012

Bobcat Lake is a mere seventy-eight acres and its campsites turn to mud in the rain.

A humpbacked ridge rises across the lake, opposite the campground.  In late season that goes royal with color and the little lake spreads before it, playing the trees out atop blue waters.  In the morning, eagles often float over its shallow flats.  They glide above the place then rise on an updraft and are suddenly gone to some other place.  Osprey visit too. Their sharp little bird chirps whip snap the air while they hunt in pairs. Then with great wings folded tight to dive for prey, they penetrate the lake at speeds that'd snap our spines.

Loons herald evening, when bats come out to lead the night shift and everything begins all over again, only in full dark.

I’m entranced by Bobcat Lake.  I've done things I might otherwise never have attempted, had I not been in thrall of the place.  And so it was that year in September, when Heather and I decided it'd be a fine idea to canoe the Presque Isle River.

As it runs through low woods, the Presque Isle is gentle and inviting. It curls slowly through the forest in crazy tight switchbacks, with quiet wonders around every bend. During periods of high water, it spreads through the woods to leave bounty behind.

We put the canoe in just downstream from the dam at the Presque Isle Flowage, a weedy impoundment whose upstream end we'd often tried to explore 'cause in the flooded timbers of those obscure reaches were said to lurk Musky as long as your leg. Each time, a prevailing southerly wind prevented us from paddling all the way to Esox Valhalla. I'm ashamed now to admit, I've not made it back there still.

This time we'd go with the flow until a couple of miles past the little town of Marenisco and the bridge at US 2, where Johnny'd pick us up. It promised to be a pleasant trip on a perfect autumn day.

The eighteen-foot beast of an aluminum canoe held Heather and myself, our fishing gear, my photo equipment, fresh water and whatever else we thought necessary. Which as it turned out not much of it was.  I sported sneakers so that should we go over in the river, I'd not be burdened by boots. 

We bade farewell to Johnny and pushed off.  If the 'Kick Me' signs on our backs had glowed green neon and shot purple sparks, we'd still likely never have noticed.

Slipping into the sluggish current, it took only a few paddle strokes before the forest closed in from both sides of the river.  It seemed we'd traveled back in time.  The waist-high water grass, the birds in the trees, the dark water that swirled around the canoe, these didn't know us and we didn't recognize them.  Alone in this world and well outside our experience, we were as voyageurs.

After a bit, a pair of river otters joined us.  Curious and playful critters, they'd glide beneath the surface of the river then appear beside us to keep pace.  Disappearing again, they'd pop up in front of the canoe and swim backwards, supple bodies arched high above the water in the way of otters, providing us their undivided attention.  This was why we’d come to the river -- to sip at marvels and catch glimpses of things we'd never known.

The otter's gruff voices sounded like a reproach.

Distracted by our unexpected companions, I suppose the hissing of white water was audible well before it grabbed our attention.  We shook ourselves free from otter song and pulled hard to the right, landing the canoe at the river’s bank as soon as the forest along it allowed.

Woods are typically thick with scent, but here they smelled downright bad, as the odor of death hung from the place like rancid syrup.

At exactly that point on the riverbank where woods retreated sufficient for us to land, some late beast had died.  By the time we came upon it, the thing was well on the way back to primordial ooze. All that remained was an indeterminate slagheap of muck, matted fur and raw stench.

We secured the canoe and being careful where we stepped, pressed on downriver to see what we could see. The river curled hard to the left and the sound of rushing water grew louder as we followed along.

In just a few well hidden yards, the Presque Isle turned fierce as it funneled between steep bank and a massive boulder through a boiling chute that plunged something like six feet.  The river then emptied into a long flat, which surface was layered with distinctive ripples that betray the presence of submerged rocks.

It'd never occurred to us that our river might prove impassable. Nor did we expect to invite on our outing the poetry of physical danger.

Still, Heather & I didn't tuck tail and retreat.  Together we mentally marked the path to a successful conclusion and headed back to the canoe.  We reviewed what little we knew about whitewater safety, climbed in, hunkered down and back paddled out into the river.  I pulled my hat down tight as we moved into the current.

The otters were gone.  When the city kids chose to compound their error, they did so with only the great, dark eye of the forest as indifferent witness.

The chute was quick upon us.  With a great whoosh we passed into the rush, boulder hard to our right.  Airborne for the briefest moment, the canoe pitched downward at a precipitous angle but we flew right through it.  This moment of glory proved brief.  Spit out upon the flat, in an instant we turned completely around, facing dead-assed backwards and still riding the swift current.

“Shit!” I said. Or words to that effect.

Paddling furiously to force the canoe to turn downstream, we twirled halfway 'round like on a carnival ride, careened into an underwater pile of rock then slammed to a sudden halt, stuck sideways and rocking back and forth in the rushing river.

At least we were no longer backwards.

I tried to pry us off the rocks using my paddle, but our momentum wedged us solid and the current worked hard to keep us there.  Unable to free the canoe and after due consideration we decided the only course was to lighten the load. I'd step from canoe, get a good grip then pull us free by way of the anchor rope.

I climbed into the rushing water.  It reached to my thighs and did its best to force me over.  Carrying the anchor, I played out rope and carefully made my way to the bank.  Once there, I meant to pull with all my might.  I wasn’t sure the river wouldn’t rip the canoe from my grasp, casting Heather to an uncertain fate.

I swore to myself that if the canoe headed off downriver, it'd be with me clinging to the rope and trailing behind, like a played out fish on a stringer.

With a tug, the canoe came free.  Swinging on my fulcrum and riding the surface of the water like a mayfly, boat, load and Heather too came across the current to rest against the riverbank, a long rope’s length from where I stood. We’d navigated the chute, survived our brush with calamity and again stood upon firm ground, wet but completely intact.

The river ran a shallow shift over a crowded, rocky bed for as far as we could see.  Did it deepen somewhere past the next bend?  Was it once again the gentle cradle of otters and small-mouthed bass and foolish tourists in rented canoes?  In spring, we’d be half way to Lake Superior, rushing along on ice-cold water swollen by three hundred inches of fast melted snow.

Faced with the short water of autumn and with the river no longer inviting, we’d had enough -- knowing full well that the afternoon would quickly chill as the hour grew late.

We pulled the canoe from the water and prepared to portage the beast upriver, past the point of our brief success as white water canoeists. Then we'd paddle back to the landing, where our day would come to a premature and disappointing end.

Little did we know...

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