Tuesday, August 12, 2008
Shooting The Bear
Beside the pilot as we flew over Cook Inlet to Dr, Starr's Lake, it was me and the Doctor and his friend Ben who taught at an Indian school out in the bush, and whom you would have to describe, even in another story, as a big bear of a man, except with more facial hair.
As we came in over the lake I could see a moose grazing in the shallows and hundreds of trout swarming to spawn in the tiny inlet.
Rainbows, said Dr. Starr.
And when the chartered float plane left us at the dock and we started to the cabin with our supplies, we saw that the cabin door was open and hanging half off the hinges.
Bears, he said.
Nailed up on the side of the camp, was the skin of the bear which Dr. Starr had shot as it was trying to break in while was cooking supper one evening that Spring.
He had meant the skin to warn other bears away, but it had apparantly worked more like a clan flag.
This time, a bear had come in through the kitchen window, ravaged the cupboards, bitten through all the cans in the place, including fly spray, sucked out most of the contents, shat and puked all over the place, and then left by the door.
Of course Dr. Starr was pissed, but he seemed hardly surprised by a bear that comes in out of the woods to shit, and he was probably used to gory messes of all sorts.
We cleaned up, rehung the door, blocked the broken window, then we went fishing.
Actually it was more like harvesting than like the hope-based thing I had known in New York state as trout fishing. If not with just a frying pan, I could have caught all we wanted by dragging a fly behind the boat, but the Dr. insisted I do some of my fancy casting for them. The rod was shit, but I did some sloppy sky writing, and two more trout managed to leap and catch me on the fly. It was almost annoying.
Supper was trout fried in a pan cured with bear grease, along with potatoes , and whisky, and the back-up elk meat sandwiches, then more whisky. Afterward we threw the left-overs out on the garbage pile twenty yards from the cabin, so a visiting bear would not need to come in to get them.
When it was time to turn in, the doctor and Ben agreed that, since both of them happened to have already shot a bear that year, I should be the one to sleep out on the screen porch with the bear rifle......just in the unlikely event of the bear coming back again.
I put my mummy bag on the porch cot, leaned the gun against the wall by my head and lay awake for a couple of hours during which the bear did not come.
Then I fell asleep. I dreamed I was in the dark of the railroad tunnel shooting and shooting my revolver, but hearing nothing at all....... until I heard the sound of claws on screen, as the bear, standing on it's hind feet at the top of the steps, gently tested the door as if he were measuring for a replacement screen.
I rolled over reaching for the rifle, but fell onto the floor because I hadn't unzipped the mummy bag.
This knocked the gun over, alerted the bear, woke the two men in the main cabin.
I unzipped and got out of the bag, picked up rifle, and got to the door, rifle raised, just as the bear was headed off over the garbage pile.
I guess I was going to put a bullet in his butt, but merciful Ben came out and pushed the rifle off target before I could take aim......... and I didn't shoot. In that situation, he explained, I was unlikely to do anything but badly wound the bear, and then we would have had a much more serious problem. Now I feel like he stopped me just because he himself was a bear.
But as Daddy Ernie used to say every night, tomorrow is another day, And every day is a new opportunity, sometimes an old one knocking for the second or third time
. One evening few weeks later, back on the railroad, a new bear showed up feeding among the the usual free-loaders and it seemed to to me that he had a limp.
The three boys from Nebraska said maybe. Joe said nothing. The foreman was not there. So I went in and got his rifle.
I shot the bear. Three shots before all motion stopped. Two bad head shots, which totally missed is head, but blew most of his neck off, showering blood clear across the track, and a final heart shot that stopped the thrashing and spouting.. I don't know why I aimed for the head at first.
The bad misses or the mess didn't seem to bother much of anybody else.
The assistant foreman had a mamal skull collection which lacked a bear specimen so he helped me finish beheading, then skinning and butchering the animal.
It must have been nine o'clock already by the time we put the head in a five gallon can over an open fire to boil the flesh away.
We all but the cooks stood around as it boiled and bounced , even into the dark of night, the first I had seen in weeks, Darker than you might expect, given the short day. Like looking up through the chimney from the fireplace at Loon Island once, when I saw dark sky with stars in the day time.
And you would want to believe, that the Great Bear of the North Star constilation was looking down at this little circle of men around the glow of the bouncing skull, as they told bear stories.
But the bear encounter stories were soon exhausted and the white guys began telling jokes, not including the moose flop joke, but including the classic about the new arrival in the north who wanted to become a real Sourdough, as the old timers are known up there.
So he finds him a Sourdough in a bar who tells him that to become a Sourdough, he has to shoot a bear, hump a squaw, and piss in the Yukon.
So the kid goes off into the bush .
And he comes back to the bar a month later, all beat up, scratched and scabby, and he finds the same old Sourdough, buys him a drink. And then he says, " Allright, now where is that squaw I've got to shoot."
That's it. Maybe it is funny. I took it kind of personally.
The next evening I mostly finished scraping the fat off the hide. I took a shaker of salt off the table in the dinner car, sprinkled it all on the hide, and left it spread out in the line shack for a few days while the flies worked on it some more.
The Alaska Railroad was not supposed to feed us on non government meat, but the cooks barbecued bear for several days and it was so tender and good that you had to think that's what it would be like to eat a human. I don't know how much it had to do with the fact that they were eating about the same thing as we did. If so Davey's chickens should taste like bear meat. It was just the best meat I ever had except for the raw bass Pike and I ate one night at Indian Lake in another story later on.
On Thursday of the next week, before the hide could get too stiff, I rolled it up and wrapped it, then took it into Anchorage Friday and sent it by U.S. mail addressed to brother Davey in Ithaca. I figured it could be a rug in front of the fire place at Lake Bonaparte. Or maybe I could have it made into a blanket I could present to Carmella Mignano.
A month or so later I got a ride with shared gas expenses and driving stints down the Alaska Higway to Seatle. Then I hitch hiked and ended up riding the bus ........ all that way with a stone like a penis I had picked up from the railroad gavel, a souveneer railroad spike, and the revolver with some remains of my clothing in Daddy Ernie's suitcase. That long trip would be another story, and one worth telling, but I hardly remember any of it.
I arrived back in Ithaca and came in through the porch roof, because the family was up at Bonaparte closing camp. I left the suitcase with the spike and the stone pecker and the gun in in a closet on the third floor and then curled up beside it right there in the closet and slept for eighteen hours.
I looked around the house when I woke but couldn't find the bear hide. anywhere.
Later, Davey said the package with the bear skin in it had arrived pretty foul smelling before he and Daddy Ernie even opened it.
They never brought it inside, but opened it right there on the front porch, and might never have opened it at all, but he said they wanted to make sure that it wasn't my dead body in there, shipped back for burial.
The bear skin and all the wrapings went into a garbage can which he and Davey took to the dump and left there, can and all. Carmella Mignano would never know the difference.
When I went back to get the gun from the suitcase in the closet a year or so later, the stone pecker and the spike were there, but the revolver was gone.
After he died, I discovered the revolver's cilinder and the frame in two differnet drawers of Daddy Ernie's bureau, so that I guess he could probably have made a case that the gun no longer existed..
Daddy Ernie never even mentioned it .....or the bear skin...to me.
He died about twenty years ago, and I can't put him together again, but there once was such a man.