“Comin’ down the mountain, boys,
What’d I see,
Bear tracks, bear tracks,
Comin’ after me… “
—- “Slew Foot” – traditional., recently recorded by James McMurtry
A grizzly up on his two hind legs, big round head raised. A team of huskies, in an arc curving forward from a sled, heads down, working. Two iconic northern images — separate images, though. Were we to see them juxtaposed, say for instance in a mural on the side of a tourist lodge, with the bear and the dogteam painted together in one view, it would immediately look wrong, and bush-savvy people would scoff – after all, when sled dogs run, grizzly bears are asleep. Right?
This cliché northern life of mine, replete with log cabins, bush planes, and huskies, has offered up some sobering surprises, some moments when tidy know-it-all assumptions and predictions have been blown away, or gone through the ice, or up in smoke. Moments and days when the wildness that is, thankfully, still afoot in the world, has asserted its absolute freedom to be and do as it pleases. Times that continue to assist the “sustained effort to demolish the cliché…” that John Haines admonished northern writers to make.
The grizzly bears of November 2007, for instance…
Ten years ago on a mild November afternoon, I was riding the sled runners behind a small team of six veteran dogs. We were ploughing through soft wet snow, downhill and heading for home. The sled was crammed with a load of gear I had just taken out of our plane, which was tied down at a sandy bench a few miles up the trail.
I had been out with the dogs for hours, checking the thickness of ice on a couple of small lakes and stopping to visit the plane at the little landing strip. The snow was getting deep there, and the plane was on big tires, not on skis. The airstrip there is very short, and thus my big sled-load: I had pulled almost everything except the pilot seat out of the plane, to lighten it up for takeoff in another day or two.
With a Saturday-night sauna and the evening at home ahead, I was daydreaming happily as the trail dropped down to Dietz Lake. The dogs were quiet and eager to be home, too, and working steadily… and then something stopped or slowed them, maybe a dog barked (I can’t remember) and I glanced ahead. On all fours, facing the lead dogs and about five yards ahead of them, smack dab dead center on the narrow trail, was a grizzly bear.
And then this all happened, in far less time than it takes to write or read the next couple of paragraphs: The bear stood on its hind legs, head lolling side to side, tongue out. Dropped to all fours again and charged forward. I was waving my arms, shouting in a voice as booming and confident as I could make it, “Hey bear, hey bear, off the trail, it’s us, comin’ through,” or some such jibber-jabber.
The bear came on, and my next thought was “There are going to be dogs killed here.” But no – as the six dogs in three pairs heaved themselves in unison off to one side of the trail, the bear galloped right past them, reached the brush bow at the prow of the sled, still coming on, past the heaped-up sled-load, and rounded the back runners.
I was still shouting – (was I?) – and waving – (was I?) – and the bear was there.
Right there, his big furry round face maybe sixteen inches from mine. A glimpse of a dark eye and yellowed old teeth, and I remember that my mind flashed two pragmatic thoughts: 1) “this is really gonna hurt;” and 2) “now I should hit the ground, tuck, and cover the back of my neck with my hands.” And on top of or mixed in with those thoughts, a third odd voice flashed, corny as could be, lifted straight out of the final scene of the movie version of Jim Harrison’s novella Legends of the Fall, where the Cree narrator One Stab murmurs quietly, “Every warrior hopes that a good death will find him.”
That face-to-face instant, inches apart, my mind (and his?) blurred and racing, certain that nothing good was going to happen next. And then he (I say “he,” because three days later I confirmed that he was a “he”) dropped to his fours again and body-checked me with a thick shoulder, bumping my hip and nearly sending me down. Then he was past and up a slope to a knoll on the north side of the trail, huffing, chuffing, and clattering his jaws – I do remember those sounds.
I stood to the runners, steadied myself on the handlebar, picked up the snowhook and called to the dogs: “You guys ready?” The team agreed that moving out of the woods and across Dietz Lake toward home seemed like a very fine idea.
The drawn-out denouement of that brief clumsy dance on the snow took several days and nights. The team brought me home, and within 24 hours that same bear had followed the trail down out of the hills and was in the woods nearby. We had met on a Saturday, the fifth of November, and by Monday at dusk he was moving along the edges of the dog yard, trying to take frozen dried fish from a metal barrel. I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, since he had done the same for me, so I yelled and fired some shots over and around him, trying to scare him off. I walked toward him and he slowly retreated. Half an hour later he was back, it was almost fully night, and I began looking for a killing shot. I took one shot, not a good one, and he disappeared again. A few minutes later as I took off my parka, up in the house, I caught a glimpse of that big round head again, right at the northwest window, peering in. This was getting very strange.
That was a long night. Confusion and uncertainty as to the bear’s motives and condition (was he wounded now?), real fear for the dogs’ safety, intermittent noise from the dog yard, a couple of glimpses of the bear on the path just below the house. I slept in my clothes, down on the couch, and at 2 a.m. Kristen called me from upstairs, the third floor of our house. “He’s on the path coming this way again; I can see him.” Together we stepped onto the second-floor deck, and she lit the bear up with the spotlight. I pulled the trigger and he fell. Disappeared, actually, out of sight. It was quiet then, but we were not sure what had happened. At dawn, many hours later, I walked very slowly down the path from the house. Kristen watched from above, on the balcony. The bear was there where he had fallen, hidden behind a low hump of rock and snow, silent and completely still. Dead.
Some of the strangeness and confusion of the past few days dissipated as I stood over the bear and realized that it was very likely the second time the two of us had been so close. I ran my hand over his torso. Ribs! Ribs right there to feel, just under the skin, on a bear in late autumn! I folded his lips back and the teeth told the story of a very long life. Broken and worn, some horribly rotted and some missing altogether, his mouth a dentist’s nightmare of yellow and green. This was an ancient animal. Denning up for winter had not been an option for him. He was starving, and possibly half-blind, maybe deaf, who knows? An old soul at the ragged edge of life.
Andy McMullen, who has made a career of delivering solid advice on safety in bear country, told me a few weeks later in Yellowknife that “when you run into a bear anytime after Halloween, that bear is a bear in trouble.” This seemed to explain that first encounter.
And yet – there is more. Nineteen days later, exactly ten years ago today, another grizzly was here, apparently healthy and fat – on the 27th of November! That is a story for another time, but the gist of it is this – a bear ran full tilt into the dog yard in the light of early morning, and then ran away again, with some urging from Kristen and her rifle, back out onto the ice of McLeod Bay.
And there are more – a grizzly bear, first the tracks and then the animal itself, lit up by the headlights of a snowmobile, as our distant neighbors Rick and Lance came down the final miles of Pike’s Portage, just a day or two before Christmas back in 1988. The bear my friend Roger told me about, up on the ice of Artillery Lake at 30 below zero in early winter, feasting on the carcasses of caribou that had drowned after breaking through thin ice. And the cold night in November 1990 when we had two big strings of dogs, resting alongside the trail, and all twenty dogs suddenly peered off into the woods, restless and barking. In the snow on the next lake, fresh tracks of a grizzly.
I was regaling a young biologist with a sampler of these Ursus Novemberis and Decemberis stories one day as we were flying around, on some sort of grizzly-bear research project. He looked baffled, and then, I could tell, he more or less discounted the entire conversation. (“Pilots are so full of bullshit sometimes,” I could almost hear him thinking.) I think he will learn, as he moves through the coming decades of his chosen field of study, that there are mysteries afoot out in the world, and that not all bears or wolves or caribou or birds have read the textbooks, so to speak. Scientists, especially young scientists, sometimes forget to allow for variety, vastness, and quirks, while older scientists, in my experience, allow more room for mystery, more room for a shrug of the shoulders and a quizzical, pondering, “Hmmm.”
Just a few days ago Kristen was running a dogteam up in the hills north of home, and suddenly, just a foot or two above her head, coming silently in from behind, wings level and steady in a five-foot span, was a Great Gray Owl. The next day the bird was there again, watching her pass with the dogs. Such are the lucky encounters that are out there waiting one day out of a hundred, maybe, as we come and go.
With such odds I can hope that someday I might be so lucky as to have another encounter with a grizzly, from the unusual vantage point of a dogsled, in winter. Maybe he could be about a half-mile off to one side of the trail this time, clear across an open stretch of tundra or lake. Maybe he could rise to his hinders and throw his massive head around again, then drop down and hit the ground running – away! I’d like that.