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Of Bears and Boys

Part I


There is nary a field geologist that has worked in Northern Canada that does not have a story about black bears. They are curious, they can be damn nuisances, and unless treated with some respect, they can be extremely dangerous.


About six days into my first stint as a full-fledged party chief with a five-person party, I noted that one of our two new axes was missing. I told myself that it would eventually turn up, and went back to compiling the first threads of the geology immediately east of the Renabie Mine on the new mylar base map. But it didn’t show. A couple weeks and one camp move later I casually mentioned its apparent loss to one of the assistants. “Oh, it’s not lost,” he replied “Joe has it stashed under his bed because he’s afraid of bears. And,” he added, “He sleeps with his hunting knife under his pillow for the same reason!”


Now our Joe was an interesting young lad. No matter what the subject, he been there, done that! He had obviously packed a lot into his short lifetime given that he had just finished first year at Carleton. I remember one day suggesting to him that it might be less dangerous if he took his foot off the stick of firewood he was chopping. His response was not to worry; that he had always cut wood this way. No sooner did I turn around but he proceeded to cut his ankle and had to be flown out to have it attended.


In any event, by the time of our third base camp Joe had 'fessed-up' to being less than enamored with bears, and the second axe had been reintegrated into camp life.


Our third camp was an idyllic spot! Sandy beach, south shore of a large lake, esker immediately behind camp, and small clear cool stream flowing out of cedar swamp on the west side of the beach. After about a week at this campsite Joe came back from the garbage pit one day and announced that we had bears. Due to his paranoid condition he was not taken too seriously, but I did go up to check things out - some paper scattered around, likely a simple combination of wind and ravens.


We were in this camp for about three weeks. On our last full day there Joe was left to look after camp chores while the rest of us went out to map those areas that either have been missed or require more detail. It just so happens that about ten o’clock in the morning I had to go past the camp to get to another one of these last minute locations. Joe was in the office tent doing whatever he was assigned to do, and a bear was sitting near the fire pit searching for last night’s poorly burned pork chop bones. By the time Joe heard us and came out to wave, Mr. Bruin had retreated into the bush. Should we tell him??? Yeah, we’d better! Joe was definitely not impressed with the circumstances.


That night we returned about seven o’clock and the defensive perimeter of the campsite was a phenomenon to behold. A large bonfire going in the fire pit! Cans of camp fuel strategically placed to be ignited as required! Several sharpened 12 foot poles strategically placed to be quickly brought into play should the circumstances require!


Upon landing we found that during the day Joe and Mr. Bruin had had a disagreement about the milk the bear was stealing from our cache in the cool creek under the cedars. The final score for the day was six quarts consumed by Mr. Bruin, six quarts saved by Joe. We had a tied game!


With the exception of hearing the bear smashing stumps on the hill behind the camp as he searched for grubs, we didn’t see him again that evening. Bedtime saw Joe in his tent next to the fire pit, the rest of us a considerable distance down the beach. Sometime about two o’clock I was awakened by a loud unfamiliar clanging noise coming from down the beach. As I got myself focused I realized it was Joe banging a hammer against the top of a galvanized garbage can and shouting over and over “Yeah bear! Go away bear!” The noise went on for the better part of 15 minutes before I realized it wasn’t going to stop of its own accord. Getting up, I went down the beach, got Joe’s shouting terminated, lit a Coleman lantern, and sat down with Joe to prove to him that really the end of the world was not at hand! We probably sat there for half an hour staring into the thick bush and by this time Joe was relaxed and ready to go back to bed. We did not see or hear the bear during this time, but my six sense indicated he was just back of the glow thrown by the Coleman, probably trying to figure what in the name of Sam Hill these crazies were doing at this ungodly hour!


We both hit the sack and quickly fell asleep. In the morning we could see the bear’s tracks in the sand. He had come out of the bush, done a quick survey of our clean fire pit, made three circles of Joe’s tent, sauntered calmly down the beach past the other tents and went up on the esker.


Joe’s request to site our next camp on an island was met without any derisive comments.


Of Bears and Boys

Part II


It was a poor berry summer and the bears had started to approach our camp by the middle of July. The pact we established was simple - “Bears, you don’t bother us and we won’t bother you!”  Until the end of July the pact had worked, and although we kept a close eye on each other, no serious interactions had occurred.


In early August I had left the geological mapping and the camp in the hands of my capable senior assistant for a few days. He was to pick me up by boat on Tuesday morning and take me back in to the camp. Tuesday morning arrived bright and early and so did the assistant, but he had a bit of a mad on. It seems he had arrived back in camp at about six the previous evening to see three bruins finishing off the last of our meat supply. Not only had they cleaned out the meat, but they had demolished its container and our pride and joy - a sawdust-filled chest which allowed us to keep frozen food in good shape for up to 10 days.


As we were getting a new meat order at the local grocery store he explained that after surveying the damage he had considered the pact broken by the bears, and had gone down the lake and borrowed a rifle from the local prospector. The bears had not returned last evening however. Prior to leaving that morning he had sent two of the other crew members out to continue the mapping. The third, a jolly young farm boy from Saskatchewan named Jim, who had absolutely no experience with either bears or guns, had been left in camp to complete a few chores.


When we arrived back at camp at about 10.30 am all looked peaceful and serene. In this particular camp we had our 12x14 canvass cook tent erected over a 2x4 frame, and had added a small board pantry on the back. We continued to look for signs of life as we unloaded the boat, and finally saw a head appear over the top of the cook tent - our jolly junior assistant was perched on the only high spot he could quickly navigate, the roof of the pantry.


It appears that he had decided to bake a couple pies. When he opened the door to put the second pie on the front step to cool with its slightly older and cooler sibling, he had come face to face with one of the bears which, it appeared, had a fondness for pies as well as meat. They both let out a bellow, turned tail, and ran; Jim slamming the cook tent door and retreating inside, the bear hi-tailing it down the shoreline as fast as his legs could take him.


In his aroused state of concern for his personal safety Jim automatically made for the rifle and some ammunition, and the highest and safest perch he could find - the pantry roof. Once safely ensconced with some distance between himself and the ground, he realized he really had no idea how this rifle he held in his hands worked. But being a good farm lad, a positive characteristic of which has always been their problem solving skills, he managed to figure out how his only means of protection functioned, loaded it, and waited.    


Some 20 minutes later his attention was captured by a movement of a large black shape in the bush about 25 yards away. When the bear appeared, our daring young James pointed the rifle in its general direction, and fired. The bear disappeared and Jim had a black and blue shoulder. Discretion being the better part of valor, Jim elected to spend the next couple hours on the pantry roof, only coming down after he observed that our activities on the dock were not being interrupted by anything with black fur, claws, and long white teeth.


But Jim’s fine efforts had saved at least one pie, and we had no more bear problems that summer.