Tuesday, May 29, 2007
Meditation on a bear's bum
I was standing beside the mossy rock viewing this impish brown thing for the first time. "What the hell . . . ?" I could barely make it out on the Sony's teeny weeny LCD. It kind of looked like a brown monkey. Was that a small face beneath a domed head? Or was the squinched little face higher up? Could it be a runtling Sasquatch? Was it doing step-up exercises on the mossy rock?
I clicked to the next picture, and then I knew. I had been fooled by a bear's "bum" (as the British would say).
Then I clicked up the date stamp: the bear had been there three days ago. Hmmmm. Not likely it's still around, I thought, but this little bear is too small to be independent. Wherever it is now, mother isn't far away, and any fool knows that finding yourself between a bear and its cub can be hazardous to your health.
The thought gave way to more serious considerations. . . . I mean, little bears can be dangerous too.
I learned that lesson in my curator days. One weekend in the 70s, a well-intentioned tourist from Washington D.C. delivered a bear cub to our facility. He found it crossing a country road near Shenandoah National Park. The little guy was as solid as a medicine ball, weighed about 12 lbs, and was crazed with hunger. I was finishing a tour when the cub arrived, and my guests immediately began to coo. Now the bear expert, I offered the cub my hand as if we were old friends. It was one of those Marlin Perkins moments, when the show doesn't go according to script. The jaws of little bears, I discovered, have the clamping power of a bench vise.
Which makes me wonder about a bear story that visits us every decade or so during family reunions -- did Uncle Fred know that bear wrestling was fraught with danger? Or did he have a trick up his sleeve? I mean, maybe he knew a secret hold that would render the bear helpless and allow him to collect the bets? Whatever the answer, it was a turning point in my grandfather, Poppy's life. His big brother was too reckless to be a partner in any venture.
The Norberg brothers were backwoods Swedes from Jamtland. When the earthquake struck San Francisco in '06, "Poppy" decided to find a safer haven, and succumbed to his brother's entreaties to join him in the Klondike. He arrived in Skagway as a stowaway in late summer. When they finally got to Uncle Fred's digs, it was too late for serious mining.
So the cabin-bound brothers rationed their whiskey and spent the winter playing cards, and dining on sheep meat. When the thaw came, they headed for Dawson City for supplies. That's where Uncle Fred got snockered. There was a bear tied to the hitching post outside the saloon, and Fred started taking wagers that he could whip it's. . .er . . . well, it's bum.
Poppy was appalled. The bear looked like a cub, he said, and may have been muzzled. What started as comedy became a brouhaha with calls to "get the drunk Swede out of here". Poppy decided to part ways, and became a lumberjack in Washington State.
We never did learn what possessed Uncle Fred to be a bear-fighter. Maybe whiskey fooled him like my Sony's teeny weeny LCD.
Or maybe it was just like Robert Service said,
"There are strange things done in the midnight sun by the men who moiled for gold. . .".
Postscript: In WWI Uncle Fred fought in France with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, became a Canadian when he returned, and received a homestead grant of 700 acres in Northcentral British Columbia. In 1955 he was swept away in the Frazier River during the spring thaw. He was reckless to the end.