From early April until denning-up time in November we were often aware of the presence of bears but rarely did we see them.
These bears are not to be confused with the garbage-eating and begging bears that frequent our national parks. The wilderness bears were truly wild. In the areas of the Cree Lake wilderness that were off the main travel routes, it was likely that if you came upon a bear in the woods, that bear was making its first contact with a human. The bears, as a rule, faded silently into the bush, like evening shadows, as soon as they became aware of us. They were about at all times in summer as evidenced by their tracks, strongly resembling human footprints, the tracks that showed up in minute detail on the sand beaches where each toe was imprinted, the ball of the foot, and on the hind foot, the heel imprint. There were clawed tree boles in the woods. Big dung heaps where quite common in the bush and there were unmistakeable ursine doggy smells along certain game tracks when these cut through dank swampy terrain where we walked on a warm autumn day and where mosquitoes and sandflies gave us torment.
Upstream, above the Cree Lake cabin, the Indians had built numerous deadfalls for the taking of bears. The remains of these log deathtraps were so old that the logs were all but decayed away to yellow dust. The Indians had probably made these sets to secure bears for meat, but possibly there had been a market for bear skins at that time. When we were trapping there was no demand for bear skins at all.
A bear just before hibernation carries a great deal of fat. I have seen, in winter, Indians eating back fat of bears. From their food bags they drew out long strips of back fat, with the black hide and hair still upon the strip and the fat was three or four inches thick. Jim Buchan showed me a big pail of snowy white bear fat which had been given to him by an Indian. Since we had constantly craved fats in our winter diet, we decided to make a special effort to gather in a fat bear just before the following winter was to set in.
That summer we purchased a bear trap. Harvey MacDonald, Hudson's Bay Company factor at Ile-A-La-Crosse, led us out to the company warehouse where amid the bundles of used traps that the Indians had turned in to pay for summer purchases, he lifted out the great steel trap and sold it to us for five dollars.
This was an instrument of torture that must of had its original design in Inquisition times. Two powerful steel springs clamped together the jaws on the insides of which steel teeth were offset. The jaws, when opened, had a spread of twelve inches. The trap was swivelled and attached to a short length of logging chain. The free end of the chain was linked to a steel ring six inches in diameter. The trap could not be set by hand so that a clamp made of two poles tied together at one end and with which each spring was depressed , tied down, the trap set, and the tying cord cut away.
It happened that Ab took the bear trap to Albert's House, his outcamp on lake one, on an October afternoon, just before the lakes were to freeze over. On a previous trip to the secluded cabin he had sat on a hilltop on a fine warm evening and watched two black bears feeding in lush blueberry grounds on a neighbouring hillside, as the sun set in the western wilderness. He watched for some time as they fed heavily, pausing occasionally to bat away the troublesome sandflies that bother bears constantly and bite them particularly about the ears, eyes, and nose. Ab figured that this was to be the locale for his attempt at trapping a bear for our larder, come denning up time.
On the visit during which the bear trap was brought in, Ab decided to put a wooden floor in the small cabin because the sand floor had proved somewhat annoying and unsanitary the previous winter. Behind the camp was a fine stand of straight jack pines. He cut down enough of these to make a floor. He squared of three sides of each log and cut them to fit so that when they were placed side by side and partly buried in the sand of the original floor he had a new white wooden floor surface, the fresh-cut logs giving off a pleasing pine fragrance.
Then as evening approached, he launched his hunting canoe and paddled around a nearby point where big pike could be caught so that he could fry a fish steak for his evening meal. He had no trouble at all landing one of the largest pike that he had ever caught in these waters.
When he paddled around the point as he traveled cabinward he thought that from a distance he saw a fleeting dark shape near the cabin. On paddling closer he saw the door stood ajar. He was positive that he had closed the door and set the wooden latch before he had gone away. On arrival he saw that the door had been opened by forcing it inward and breaking the latch off. A bear, having crossed to the cabin from the other side of the river, had approached wet and dripping. It had walked over an area where we had burned all the branches of the pines when we built the cabin and now a good deal of charcoal lay there. Thus soaked and dirty it had smashed the door inward and entered.
The new floor was black as the top of a wood stove. Inside the cabin there was a sour, doggy smell. The tin stove had been knocked off its sandbox base, cuffed about, and the ashes scattered. The tin smoke pipes had been clawed down and flattened, the grub box overturned and the contents devoured, the bedroll torn from the bunk and befouled, and the hand towel ripped from its nail hook and dirtied.
Ab was understandably vindictive. He set to work cleaning up the cabin. It was already dusk when he took the bear trap a short distance back of the cabin. Using the head and entrails of the big pike for bait, he constructed a crude pen of dead logs and in it hung the bait from a pine branch so that it dangled about six feet above the ground. He topped a lesser pine and slipped the trap ring over it, spiking it down to ground level with three spikes that were in the cabin. The trap was laboriously set, placed in a hollow scooped in the sand just below the bait, and all evidence skillfully camouflaged with reindeer moss. He returned to the cabin in semi-darkness, satisfied that he was now in a position to retaliate should the bear return.
When he finished cleaning the soiled cabin, he retired to his bunk, for darkness had descended upon lake one. He fell asleep at once. Sometime later, he was jolted awake by a great roar. the ground actually shook. The bear was caught, was fighting mad, roaring with pain, and periodically moaning, scratching, and ripping at the thing which tortured and made it captive. At intervals it lifted the trap as high as the chain allowed, then crashed it to earth so that the ground shook.
The night was cloudy, moonless, and black as only such a night can be in the woods. Ab had to respect the bear. To go out there, even with his rifle would have been foolishness. It could be suicide. The bear might break loose, and it was possible that, in its condition, it would attack him. Out of compassion for a dumb animal and out of rage for its mis-doings, Ab would very much have wished to dispatch it with a .30 .30 slug between the eyes. He did not have a flashlight to attempt this task in the dark. Thus he endured the noise, falling asleep when the bear lay quietly for short periods and then reawakened by the roars, scratching, snarling and rattling of the chain.
As soon as the dawn light came Ab arose quietly, readied himself, checked his rifle, and stepped outside, approaching carefully the site of the bear trap. There was fog rising from the river at dawn. The area where the trap had been set was partly shrouded in mist as he stepped closer. He saw the bear lying down and he heard it moan. Then the bear became aware of the careful footsteps and whirled to its feet, looking at the man with its little piggish eyes. It was a mature black male, well caught at the front paw as high as the wrist. It began to struggle with renewed vigour, so agile that at one moment it tore at the base of a tree and a split second later the claws of its hind feet ripped the bark from a tree at a height of seven feet from the ground! A more savage, wrathful, and soul-shaking exhibition Ab had never seen. The brutality of the trap struck him forcefully. Deliberately, he rested his rifle barrel over a convenient limb. As the dawn light grew a bit brighter, he looked through the rifle sights. The crack of his rifle ripped the morning silence far downstream where some resting mallards rose almost vertically and flew swiftly in a big arc toward the far end of lake one.
Frank Fisher shot a prime bull moose as he paddled his canoe along the shore of an unnamed lake near the headwaters of the American River. It was late September and Frank had ascended the river from his home cabin just to assess signs of fur animals in preparation for the coming trapping season. After he had skinned out the meat, he hung it all carefully from the trees that it might drain and cool out properly. As night was coming on, he returned to his outcamp near at hand, and planned to pick up the meat early next morning and freight it down to the home cabin.
Frank was a man of neat and methodical habits. Imagine then his chagrin, when he returned for the meat next morning to find it all ripped to the ground, and rolled in the sand, the tallow chewed off, the meat dirtied and ruined for human use. Even the hide had been dragged away. What had been order and promise was now a filthy mess.
Frank did not own a bear trap. He possessed however a .38 revolver which he often wore in a holster when on his lonely travels, rather than pack a cumbersome rifle.
After his original shock, his thoughts began to collect. The moose meat was ruined, but there was a chance to kill the responsible bear. He constructed a log platform on which he piled the dirty meat. He blocked off three sides of the platform with logs and brush so that the bear must approach from the open side. Here a key log was set, so that when the bear stepped on it an attached cord would pull the trigger of the revolver that was attached to a jack pine limb just overhead.
Frank went away for a day, returning the next morning. Only the wiskey jacks were about the meat. The set had failed. The bear returned in due course, but as he stepped onto the platform, its weight was so great on the key log that the revolver had been pulled askew, discharging it at an angle that missed the bear completely. Left on the ground were the bears tracks where the moss had been raked off the ground as the starter pistol had barked the signal for a great leap on its way to more quiet parts where no trapper was operating.
It was the first week of December. Ab and I were ranging far south of the main cabin, hunting moose. We opened our eyes wide in surprise as we came upon the trail of a bear in the snow. The track was large, indicating a full grown-bear, and it was also quite fresh. What surprised us most was the fact that the bear was still abroad even through winter was well established. We had assumed all bears to be in their dens at this late date. The weather was very cold, the lesser lakes had been ice covered for some weeks. Even the ice on Long Bay was so thick that we had crossed on it some days before to set traps on the far side.
We reckoned that the bear was traveling to its den for it moved generally straight southward, it seemed, like a homing pigeon. We figured it to be would be rolling fat so that we would track it down and shoot it to obtain a supply of bear fat.
The bear did not stop to investigate anything or to do anything that bears normally do on their travels. Straight through the bush the trail continued. After several miles the trail led through big jack pines where the land was fairly level.
In a section of a smaller, thick stand of jack pines the tracks abruptly vanished. They were simply no more. It seemed that the bear had taken wing. We looked at one another, puzzled for a moment. Then Ab's keen eye studied the last few tracks and discovered that their pattern was somewhat altered- the bear had backtracked itself! Carefully, we followed the trail back and found where the bear had leaped to one side of the trail, over a low bush, and continued on its way. Twice more it made this maneuver before reaching the shore of a lake. Without breaking stride, the bear had stepped on the lake ice and legged it to the far side in a beeline for its den. We picked up the trail on the far shore and followed it into a heavy black spruce stand that bordered on open swamp.
It proved that our bear was a late-retiring individual indeed. We approached the thicket carefully, yet it heard our approach and we found only its bed in a shallow depression under a partly fallen black spruce. We did not consider this to be its winter den for it was too exposed. The bear was apparently not ready to den up. Certainly, we had been outsmarted for the bear was gone. That day it snowed heavily so that the trail was lost.
We had two separate encounters with bears on the same day. I had set out for Caribou Lake on foot across country in October to do some work at my outcamp. I had moved to a new location where the two small creeks entered the lake's western end. I deviated somewhat from my usual trail and veered off to the westward into unfamiliar country toward a high hill that I intended to climb in the hope of sighting a moose. I reached the hill and started up its steep side. I found that the hill was surrounded by small lakes, divided by narrow sand beaches, all lying clear and blue among the green pines. Near the crest of the hill I crossed a bed of lichen-covered rocks that were made slippery from a sharp rain shower in the night. On a rock shaped like a loaf of bread my foot slipped and I fell heavily on my right knee so that the sharp edge of a rock struck me just below the kneecap and in the knee joint.
I felt the knee. It throbbed dreadfully but there did not appear to be broken bones, I could not bend the knee and there was an ugly blue welt forming where the rock edge had made contact. By walking stiffly on the leg, I could make some progress. I would have to get home somehow though the way would be long and painful. I set out at once, coming down the hill in a straight line toward my trapline trail where the ground was more level and the walking easier for a man with a game leg.
I judged my speed to be about half my normal walking pace. Every step was so painful that I stopped to rest at the base of a small hill. As I resumed my journey I climbed the hill slowly and came upon a big brown bear. When I saw the bear it was standing on its front feet with the hindquarters still in a lying position. The head was cocked to one side, for it had heard something as it lay digesting a blueberry feed. A brisk wind was carrying off my scent so that it could not know what was approaching. Then it saw me and bolted. I shot twice at its vanishing backside from which blueberry residue streaked at every leap. I missed the target each time and blamed the poor shooting to the fact that I was in considerable pain and not able to maneuver properly for accurate shooting. At sundown, I limped into the home cabin.
Ab, meanwhile, that same day was returning to the home cabin from Albert's House. He had staged his canoe above a rapid, and since his pack was light, he decided to walk the last six miles to camp in the hope of running onto a fresh moose trail on the way.
As he neared the falls he saw a dark object amid the pines. The thing was at a considerable distance and he stopped and peered at it. He was about to take it for the base of an uprooted tree when it began to move. It gained speed and was coming toward him. He suddenly saw that it was a she-bear with two cubs that scampered off in another direction. Meanwhile, the bear charged on toward him.
Ab had sometimes wondered just what he would do in such a situation. He found himself kneeling to one knee and drawing a bead on a target that loomed larger and larger. When he saw the white marking on her chest, he squeezed the trigger. As the slug ripped into her she veered off to one side, crossed the river, and died in the black spruce stand on the far side.
Somewhat shaken, Ab arrived at the home cabin earlier than I. When I limped in we had a conversation that lasted well into the night.
The bears of Cree Lake country survived through periods of such scarcity that they were all but starving; and then fed through times of plenty when they gorged themselves to such a degree of gluttony, that I am certain they suffered a good deal of physical pain. At the time when the blueberries were ripe it was an easy life for the bears. I have come upon the beds of bears where they have slept off the effects of gargantuan feedings of lush blueberries. The bed is discernible for here the reindeer moss has been flattened down so that it is smooth as a floor where the bear's fat heavy body has rolled form one side to the other to relieve his great bellyache. Ringed around the bed at a few paces are heaps of what are apparently blueberry residues for the piles are dark indigo in colour. Here the animal has lain for some hours, until the digestive process and the emptying of the bowels had relieved the pain of the pressure of its bloated stomach. It is then ready to take on another feed.
In the season before the blueberries ripen, life is more serious for bears so that they range far and wide, eating the ants, beetles, and grubs that they find by cocking an ear to the wood. When the insects are heard working inside, a bear will demolish a rotten stump with one cuff of a forepaw. Not a small item of its food are mushrooms that grow on the forest floor. The one food that it favours above all else is to be found on the rotting carcass of some animal which it mauls about licking up the maggots that drip from it.
In the beginning of one trapping season, Ab caught a silver fox. It had been recently trapped and was not at all crippled. He decided that the pelt was not yet fully furred, so he built a small pen of logs and threw the fox a couple of fish of fish each time he passed the pen on his trapline rounds. After a couple of weeks, the fox was seen to improve in the length of its fur. Ab would pelt it on his next trip. In the meantime, a ranging bear, attracted by the smell of fish found the pen. It scattered the logs of the pen left and right and the fox escaped. These happenings were shrugged off as bad luck.
Bears caused us considerable annoyance at the beginning of each trapping season. When it was not yet quite cold enough for them to den up, they were attracted to our fox baits, set off the traps, and ate the food. One of them caught the large toe of the hind foot in one of my number four traps. It gave one lunge and the toe, as large as my own great toe, complete with long black claw and six inches of tendon were left in the trap.
On top of a small knoll a few miles back of my outcamp at Caribou lake, I found a recently killed yearling cub. Its trail went back to the shore of a small lake where the wilderness tragedy had occurred. Here its back had been broken by a slap of the powerful forepaw of a mature bear.