Tales From The Far Frigid North…Lesson One!
A True Story (…for the most part)
By Patrick C. Marks
My father told me I really didn’t need to be so terrified of bears. But of course – I knew he was lying. He had to be lying because everyone knows that bears are savage eating machines. Even average Americans in intellectual utopias like Kansas know that. Bears especially like teenaged city-dwellers marooned helplessly on Canadian islands that just happen to be located about 7,000 miles from the nearest electric light bulb. I know this because I was once the helpless teenager stranded on the Canadian island. And I was a very average American too – even though I am from California.
I do have to tell you from the beginning that my dad is an honorable man, at least on Tuesdays over coffee with the boys down at the Omelette Factory coffee shop…and around my Mother…but when it comes to bear facts – I was convinced at the time that Dad was a pathological liar. Please note I use the word “pathological” rather than “intentional.” This is because there simply must be a pathology in believing that bears are nothing to fear and my dad certainly had a sense of certainty about his irrational beliefs. But, then again, there are forty-year-old men who dress in pink ballerina outfits and believe they are Napoleon too. And they have a high degree of certainty in their beliefs so, like I said: “pathological.” Connection? I’ll let you decide but what is certainly true is that my father remains, to this day, a very intentional guy.
My dad is a “Man’s-man”, not just tough, mind you, but a mystical blend of Chuck Norris and Godzilla. Growing up, I wasn’t always sure which part had the greater percentage too. I mean – I was afraid of my own shadow but my dad didn’t even cast a shadow – his shadow just sort of took off running at the mere sight of his scowl. Dad didn’t even need to spank us as kids either. All he had to do was glare and we were reduced to puddles of whimpering goo. If my sisters or I were ever foolish enough to step out of line, we would rather devise amazing schemes to move to Dallas (and that’s scary) rather than face him after school.
I suppose you might think he was abusive or wicked. Well, since he might someday read this harrowing account of wilderness survival – I better set the record straight at the forefront. Dad was neither abusive nor wicked, at least in the strict sense of either word. In fact, the truth is you can probably count on one hand how many spankings my dad actually administered when I was a kid. Now that I’m a parent, I can say that I was completely innocent of all charges and never deserved any of those spankings – unlike my children. But that’s beside the point. It was the mythology of my father that was enough for me, my two sisters and probably half of British Columbia, Canada. My dad was simply a legend in our minds. And he’s still a legend…at least in his mind.
I was born and raised in Southern California, a city boy from San Diego. But my father is from Canada. His whole family is just two generations removed from the Scottish highlands and everyone knows that during World War II, the Germans called the kilted Scots, “The Ladies from Hades”. The Scots took this as a great compliment so I wouldn’t try telling a kilted Scot today that he looks nice in his “skirt” since from his perspective, World War II was just a minor skirmish. The Scot reputation is genetic, at least as far as my dad is concerned – but it must have skipped a generation in my case.
For some unfathomable reason, I was born with a genetic defect called – “being afraid of everything.” At birth, I was so afraid of the doctor I turned blue. They said it was a circulation problem requiring an incubator and an enema but I know now it was just plain fear. I ran crying from the room whenever the Cookie Monster came on Sesame Street and rather than brave the twelve dark feet from my room to the bathroom in the middle of the night, I just peed in the closet. Needless to say, my phobias presented a challenge for my parents. So it wasn’t that dad was abusive – he just scared the spit out of me. But then again, I was terrified of butterflies too.
In stark contrast to my frailties, my Dad grew up in the “the bush”. He was one of nine children growing up in a two-room house with one bathroom. The family was involved in the logging and gravel truck business and while the family had given up the kilts a few generations before his birth, they had not given up the highlander battle cry – especially used in the battle over using the only bathroom in the Marks house. He grew up tough too, tougher than a Republican living in San Francisco. In fact, to toughen him up for the logging business, his baby bottle had been laced with sawdust and chain saw oil. He was cutting down cedar trees with his bare teeth by the time he could crawl and sharpening his pencils in grade school with a razor sharp axe. I mean, growing up in a modern city – how do you compete with that?
Now, I was just a cream puff from the city so to add to this indignity, every year Dad would drag us all back to the west coast of British Columbia – his home haunting grounds. We went from climate control and flushing toilets to mosquitos the size of canaries that routinely carried off small children and outhouses. It was a bit of a shock to the system. To be fair, it is true that Dad’s family had indeed upgraded to running water by the time I was born but they still insisted on strange things like eating fish that didn’t come pre-wrapped in cellophane. Seriously, I came from a town where they had a milk cows in the zoo. We even took field trips in elementary school to see them.
“Yes, boys and girls…this is where milk comes from…”
But these people actually knew where fish lived. It was bizarre, and to think that I am STILL related to these Neanderthals.
Now, the story is that Dad fled British Columbia in the 60s to escape the rain but his five brothers, three sisters, aunts, uncles, more than sixty first cousins and pushing two hundred other assorted relations of every shape, size and container are all strung about (and some are very strung OUT) from Vancouver to Manitoba. Add on top of that, my father can’t walk four feet without tripping over a friend and you have a rather powerful magnet pulling our little portion of the Scottish highlands out of the States and into the far frigid north no less than twice a year.
What this means to you, dear reader, is that I am bi-cultural. That may seem rather queer to you in straight-up America since most Americans have the disadvantage of thinking Canada is actually “upper U.S.A.”. I assure you – it isn’t. Canada is a real foreign country and not just because they have colorful money with a picture of the Queen on it either. When I was a kid, most of my friends in the States could only imagine “The Queen” as a guy from our neighborhood who liked to wear skin tight leather pants and whistle show tunes. But Canada, I assure you, is really a whole different country. And the Queen does not wear skin tight leather pants – at least in public.
My father grew up in the logging business. Of course, this is not politically correct to admit these days but even in the 21st century, things like houses and toilet paper owe their existence to trees. Even terrorist-level environmentalists should appreciate toilet paper, at least once a day. So someone has to go get the poo-paper trees, hence the logging business. In fact, my dad would often say, “Son, we’re just helping God out. After all, it says in the Bible; ‘God said, let there be light’ and those trees are blocking the light.” I’d like to think he was joking, but you never know.
Now as a teenager in San Diego, California, I was used to an entirely different business. I was into the “checking out the bikinis at the beach” sort of business and there is an epic difference between these two lifestyles. But every year, my dad would pack us all up away from the bikinis, the beach and modern civilization and migrate back to the clan. Once there, in an effort to fatten me up as bear bait, he would separate me from my mother and two sisters and take me to his brother’s logging camp on Craycroft Island. And this is where the fun really begins.
You have likely guessed by now that Craycroft is an island…in Canada…somewhere significantly north of wherever you happen to be right now. There are a lot of islands off the west coast of Canada and many of them have been human-free since before the time of reality TV, which as we all know is essentially forever. This is why many terrorist-level environmentalists describe these islands as natural sanctuaries for wildlife, free from the evil constraints of modern human contamination. I describe them as cold piles of kelp-covered rocks inhabited by lions, tigers, bears, the occasional terrorist-level environmentalist hiding in the trees (who after a few days in the natural sanctuary finally admits he has a natural need for toilet paper) and no cable TV. Craycroft is just one of these rock piles and when I was a teenager, Craycroft was still a long ways from modern civilization (about 7,000 miles). You can still find it on a map, just off the northern coast of Vancouver Island along the Johnstone strait which just happens to get its name from a guy named Johnstone. The Johnstone strait is about five miles across between Vancouver Island and Craycroft but you’re not going to be swimming this distance any time soon. The water is cold enough to kill you in fifteen minutes but if the cold doesn’t get you, the Orcas might. They say that Orcas don’t kill humans but I’m pretty sure they’re lying about that too. Remember, I am from San Diego and there is a reason they don’t let tourists swim with Shamu the killer whale (killer whale is a non-descriptive, unscientific word for Orca that in no way implies a propensity by these whales to, say, kill), unless they’re tourists from New York in which case, Shamu gets a free pass. Needless to say, crossing the strait is an adventure all its own.
Craycroft is nearly thirty miles long from east to west and about eight miles wide from north to south. In between is an endless green tangle of cedar trees the size of skyscrapers, skunk cabbage leaves as large as green trash can lids with fuzzy yellowish fur and Devil’s Club bushes wrapped like barbed wire through the underbrush. In places, the bushes are twenty feet deep. It was from my experience on Craycroft that I finally understood what the Nature Channel meant when it explained that wild animals are not just TV props. They’re actually wild. On Craycroft, there are real mountain lions, wolves the size of VW beetles and horse flies that cannot be killed with a twelve gauge shotgun. My mother once had an encounter in the outhouse with a slug so large she mistook it for a snake, which is why there’s a Mom-shaped hole in the side of the outhouse.
Oh…and lots of bears.
Ahh, but the island held another secret. Unknown to me at the time, it also had a magic I couldn’t escape. There was a beauty there that gripped my soul, a wildness and vivid color that daily threatened to turn my fear into wonder. Untouched by the modern world except for the bulldozers my uncle had floated in on barges from the mainland, Craycroft was a kaleidoscope of greens and blues like I had never seen in my wildest dreams. Southern California is essentially brown sandpaper occasionally spit upon by a little rain twice a year but Craycroft was a cool rain forest. There were trees soaring over a hundred feet tall, clouds swirling over the tree tops dropping like ethereal mists into the bay below our camp. In the early morning, the Orcas in the bay would take their searing breaths and the ravens on the shore would argue over a crab they had pried out of the kelp-covered stones. The island was like an oasis of mystery and breathtaking beauty in my desert of the modern world. To this day, the island is a place of refuge in my memory from mortgages and managers. But at the time, I was too afraid of the dark to let this magic truly charm me.
Into this labyrinth of mist and darkness we descended every summer. Of course, my father was unaffected by my clearly normal and reasonable fears. Even butterflies didn’t bother him. But where he lacked in understanding the true terror of this place, I made up for with a teeth-chattering cadence every day.
My fear was all-consuming. I had nightmares about bears. Even when my dad and my uncle were safely in the cabin at night, each fast asleep but within arm’s reach of at least two firearms, every noise from the woods outside made me jump. I was convinced the bears were out to get me.
Now, bears and human beings have co-existed for a long time but so far, the bears have had the advantage. I’m not really certain what impulse drove primitive humans out of the woods and into the nearest 5-star hotel, but I’m fairly certain bears had something to do with it. Whatever the cause, I had inherited the genetic predisposition for the 5-star hotel, likely from my mother, so finding myself stuck on a forested island far from the comforting sounds of police sirens and road rage incidents was a bit like being in a hospital gown in a windstorm. And finding out there were bears in the woods was even worse. I just couldn’t get past the image of hair and teeth and claws! But it wasn’t just the claws; it was the image of getting waylaid from behind by a shadowy demon intent on making a meal out of my butt cheeks that simply paralyzed me.
You really shouldn’t judge me a coward although my father certainly did. He wasn’t trying to be mean, just intentional…or at least motivational. I was certainly motivated to scream like a little girl at the mere thought of a bear. In fact, I was motivated to avoid the creatures at all costs – even at the expense of my fragile dignity. And while deathly afraid of the dark, I wasn’t afraid to hide in the cabin all day until my need to go to the outhouse was so great I was nearly leaving a brown streak in my wake. Each day, at the point of a rectal near-death experience, I would finally brave opening the cabin door to see if any of the foul beasts were nearby. Then, after peering intently into the velvet black of the forest receding away from the front door, I would set one foot out upon the porch. It was here at this crucial moment that all my father’s encouragements, cajoling and outright shaming of my cowardice would collide brilliantly in my mind. The conflux between his admonishments that the black bears on our island were too small to consider me much of a meal and my own terrors clashed violently in my thinking.
Dad: “You’re missing one of the most beautiful places in the world. This is ridiculous. Go outside.”
Me: “But that’s where the bears are.”
Dad: “They’re probably more afraid of you than you are of them.”
Me: “But that’s where the bears are.”
Dad: “They’re not going to hurt you.”
Me: “But that’s where the bears are.”
And of course, I knew that he was lying. But usually about the time my need to get to the outhouse drove me to thinking at least as rationally as a terrorist-level environmentalist thinks once a day, I would brave the 100-yard dash to the latrine.
I suspected that my father probably just had it in for me. He had, in fact, clearly described the nature of our relationship over the years:
Dad: “I brought you into this world and I’ll take you out”.
Dad: “You do that again and we’re going to have a little round. And there WILL be a knockout before the first bell”.
These and other such pithy statements led me to believe my existence in this life was tenuous at best. This is why I wasn’t sure that Dad’s incessant attempts to get me to face my fears might not have a more sinister motivation. After all, why was he putting me in this living horror film if not to madden me into rushing in crazed panic into the waiting claws and teeth of the enemy? Surely this would be a convenient way of getting rid of me?
You might think I overstate the case. But the evidence was overwhelming. Dad simply wanted to scare me into a brain aneurism I was sure of it. That way, I would either be eaten or a far more compliable teenager in the end. Either way, it was a win-win for my parents.
I suppose my recent experience suffering through the black hole of the Jr. High soap opera was to blame. To put it mildly, I didn’t perform well. In fact, the word “Dweeb” would sum up my character from this time period. Since my father was anything but a dweeb, I guess I must have shamed him into concocting this brilliant plan for my demise. Whatever the reasons, every day I found myself standing on the cabin porch deciding between death by fecal poisoning or being maimed by wild beasts. And every day I found myself able to run the hundred yards from the cabin porch to the outhouse in ever-increasing feats of gold medal level dashes.
My dad and my uncle were not completely aware of what transpired during the day. After all, they were up the hill killing trees while I was left alone in the cabin to fret out the daylight hours. But if I had given it much thought, the cabin shouldn’t have been much comfort anyway. Believing the cabin was actually safe was like believing a brown paper bag would make an excellent bullet-proof vest. You see, bears are not in the least bit intimidated by cabin walls, doors or even bazookas. If they really wanted to get into our cabin they could have simply pushed down a wall, eaten me and everything else in the kitchen and left. No one would have been the wiser except for the missing wall and the missing kid. When I finally considered this, the cabin seemed altogether less comforting.
The cabin on Craycroft was truly part of the adventure too. When my Uncle Ray first staked a logging claim on the Island, there had not been a human presence there for more than thirty years. There were no roads, no houses, and no 5-star hotels – or US Marines to protect us either. Instead, Uncle Ray, under the direction and influence of my grandfather, who believed that eating a full inch of butter on his toast every morning “greases up my joints”, built a cabin from drift wood, cedar shakes, rusty nails and several miles of duct tape. It was a true architectural wonder. It even had a picture window. My grandfather had found a broken piece of glass shaped like an enormous letter “w” on the beach one morning. He simply traced out the shape of the piece of glass on the inside wall of the cabin with a piece of charcoal, carved out the shape with a chain saw and put in the glass. Voila – Even Martha Stewart would have approved, had she survived the trip.
Needless to say, the cabin was not exactly bear-proof. It wasn’t vermin-proof either. Mice infested the island and happily infested the cabin too. The solution was to import domestic house cats to kill the mice. But the cats were essentially considered after dinner mints to the local mountain lion population and had to be replaced at least twice a year. We did, however, have one cat that survived nearly eleven years. We named him “Pot-Licker” (Not that sort of pot – the sort you think of when you want to cook potatoes or when you don’t want to leave the cabin in the middle of the night to go potty). His survival record was based entirely on the fact he was the single meanest housecat I’ve ever seen. Pot-Licker didn’t like people very much. He stayed around the cabin mainly to amuse himself by defecating on beds, particularly my bed. The nasty creature had a sandbox the size of New Jersey just outside the front door but insisted on making a deposit on my comforter. I figured he was in league with my dad’s nefarious schemes because in order to clean the blankets, I had to use a hand-cranked washer on the porch. This required me to expose my soft underside to the elements and the predators at least once a week. My uncle gave him just enough cat food to keep him nearby but not enough to discourage his appetite for mice or his need to relieve himself on my bed.
This is not the sort of cat you want. Trust me. After meeting Pot-Licker, even a life-long member of PETA would consider poisoning his food. No, I wanted a cat named “Fluffi-kins” who purred at the sight of me and wouldn’t mind one bit if I sacrificed her to the bears to make my escape. But I had to live with Pot-Licker – just another perk in my vacation from the bikinis.
Now, by the time I was a teen, we had improved the cabin with its unique picture window to include a porch, a skylight (made possible by a lightning storm), a wooden floor and a bathtub. We even had a first-rate furnace built from an old 55-gallon fuel drum, two cinder blocks and a lot of diesel fuel to get the wood burning. This could have been a fire hazard but we were prepared for this with a handy bucket of water. The rule was “never toss diesel fuel onto live coals” and it was a good rule. We once had a visitor to the island named Henry who misunderstood this rule only to find his eyebrows tattooed to the back of his head one fine morning.
By the summer of my thirteenth year, Uncle Ray had built a second cabin for lost relatives or stray friends or employees of the Uncle Ray Logging Adventure Incorporated…and a new outhouse. The original outhouse was a slime covered log over a hole. The new and improved model included an actual toilet seat over the slime-covered log (also found on the beach after high tide). Slime seemed to be a regular component of Craycroft-ian life since the snake-like slugs smeared it all over the walls and it rained pretty much every day.
Every day my uncle, my dad, Marcel the French mechanic who taught me all sorts of interesting French words (the kind you shouldn’t use in mixed company even if you don’t speak French) while trying to fix various machines that should have been consigned to the garbage heap years ago and whoever else was on the team at the time, would climb aboard my uncle’s bulldozer to make the five-mile trek up the hill to the logging claim. We also had a rubber-tired “skidder”, which is sort of the unholy marriage between a bulldozer and a monster truck. The skidder had rubber tires six feet in diameter, a “winch” tower and a one-inch-thick steel cable for dragging logs out of the bush. This machine was Marcel’s personal favorite. He named it “le gros crapo verte” which roughly translates to “the big green turd.”
Every few hours during the work day, Marcel would pilot the skidder down the “skid trail” to our camp dragging logs. Below our two cabins at the ocean’s edge was a large area about twenty acres across cleared of trees that we called “the landing”. Marcel would drop off his logs on each “turn” and return up the hill for another load. I looked forward to hearing the roaring sound of the skidder every few hours. I was quite confident the sound would scare the bears away and it was for this reason that I tried to time my bowel movements to Marcel’s daily routine. But too often, either Marcel or Mother Nature didn’t cooperate and this left me stewing for a solution to the intestinal question of the day. Just imagine a steam locomotive boiler or a pressure cooker where my behind was the main pressure release valve and you get the picture. This is why I often found myself on the porch so desperate to get to the outhouse, I was shaking like a dog trying to pass a peach pit.
Every evening my uncle, Marcel, my dad and whichever other relative was slaving away at the camp at the time, would gather around the dinner table and happily tell bear stories between passing plates and passing gas. How this was supposed to help me deal with my phobia was beyond me but it became clear that my decidedly un-manly fear was a disease my dad was intent on curing and he was a believer in a very direct approach to these sorts of problems. He felt the best way to teach a person to swim was to drop him in the deep end of the pool – and this is the literal truth in my case.
For example, when I was eight years old, my parents tried to teach me to swim but I wasn’t a cooperative student. In fact, I was blessed at the time with a high-pitched scream that would have earned an Academy Award and I happily used it to convince my parents that I didn’t need to learn to swim. They tried all of the politically correct alternatives – the YMCA, the public pool, a psychiatrist, even a cattle prod. But anti-psychotic medication and bovine torture devises were not enough to get me to go into the water beyond the depth of my ankles. I was convinced there were sharks in the water or at least the Loch Ness Monster and I was not going to learn to swim. I distinctly remember sitting on the edge of the public pool screaming unholy murder while my mother tried to pretend I was someone else’s child. No one could teach me to swim.
After a few such incidents, my dad had had enough. He decided a new approach was needed and made arrangements to use a friend’s pool to solve the problem. I was unaware of the plan but I soon caught on the day my father collected me, my pristine, brand-new, unused swimsuit and a roll of duct tape from school one day. I’m not sure what the duct tape was for but on the way, my dad made a fatal announcement, “Today, you’re going to learn to swim.” I figured I had his number and warmed up my vocal cords right there in the car but it didn’t work.
- I do remember getting to the pool.
- I remember changing into my pristine, band-new, unused swimsuit.
- I remember Dad taking a handful of my swimsuit in one hand and some other part of my anatomy with the other.
- And I remember how small the pool looked from twenty two feet up in the air when he launched me toward the deep end.
I don’t remember a whole lot after that…but I did learn to swim.
Of course, I believed that facing my bear-a-phobia was a different concept entirely from learning to swim. My dad thought differently. Of course, I was prepared to use my vocal cords again but at thirteen, I had lost the glass-shattering effect of my pre-pubescent pipes. Besides, stranded on a deserted island, only the bears would have heard me holler anyway. And such a distress call just might have brought them in for supper so I wisely kept quiet.
My father and my other relatives tried to reason with me at first. He reminded me that I was famous for being afraid of everything from the dark to butterflies so it was only reasonable to conclude that my real problem was just being afraid in general. This effort made exactly zero impact on me since it was obvious in my mind that bears were man-eaters and butterflies were just plain creepy. So trying to say that what I feared most was just fear was in my mind like saying the Democratic Party believes in lower taxes.
Dad attempted another reasonable approach by explaining that while bears certainly could be dangerous, with a little caution, there was nothing to really fear. In fact, about the worst thing that could happen would be to surprise a bear. This was why many hikers wore tiny bells on their backpacks to warn any bears that they were coming round the corner. They sometimes carried pepper spray too…but we didn’t have any tiny bells or pepper spray on Craycroft. There was just me and my need to get to the outhouse without getting eaten. My dad’s arguments were not having the intended effect and, without knowing it at the time, I was getting dangerously close to the deep end of the pool once again.
In his continued efforts at reason versus irrational fear, he explained that black bears were not much to worry about anyway since they were primarily vegetarian. On Craycroft, black bears spent a great deal of time on the beach turning over rocks seeking crabs. This was, my dad told me, the extent of their carnivorous behavior. On the mainland, Grizzlies were indeed known to kill people just for the sheer joy of ripping something apart but our black bears were content to maul baby crabs, not people.
I wondered how he knew for certain there were only small black bears on the island. What if a Grizzly made the swim over from Vancouver Island? What if the first person in Craycroft’s unrecorded history to be consumed by a Grizzly was yours truly? What then?
My uncle tried assuring me there were no Grizzlies on the island. The only bears he had ever seen were small black bears. The only bear scat he had ever seen came from black bears and the only tracks he had ever seen came from bears too small to be in the market for teenage human rump roast. But I pointed out that searching for bear poop was not at the top of my uncle’s daily routine. How did he know for certain that the feces he had seen came only from black bears? Since when was he an expert in all things fecally related?
Uncle Ray patiently explained that black bear scat was commonly small, tube shaped and filled with black berry seeds or other vegetable matter. He called them missile turds. Grizzly droppings, on the other hand, were more along the lines of cow pies and had a stronger scent.
A stronger scent? Yeah – and I was willing to bet they smelled like pepper spray and were filled with tiny bells too. There was simply no way I was going to be convinced by any argument to get into the water above my ankles. It just wasn’t going to happen. I was bound and determined to waste away my time on Craycroft holed up in the cabin all day except for my daily hundred-yard dash to the outhouse. No one was going to get me to face my bear-a-phobia.
Except my dad…
I guess teaching me how to swim gave my dad a resume with which to combat my will…and a fair number of devious ideas about how to force me to face my fears. He began with the nightly generator routine.
If you’ve been paying attention for any reasonable length of time you know that Craycroft is many miles from any sort of decent civilization (about 7,000 miles). This includes simple things normal humans take for granted such as electric light bulbs, paved roads and police men carrying anti-bear Uzzis. This meant we had to make due with log cabins, kerosene lanterns and wood stoves. Over the years, we got a bit more sophisticated and installed some electric wiring and light bulbs attached to a gasoline powered electric generator. Since importing gasoline was a difficult, dangerous and expensive business involving tug boats and barges sailing up the coast from places like Nanaimo or Campbell River, gas was strictly rationed. The generator was only turned on for an hour or so in the evening. My dad decided it would be my job to turn the silly contraption off every night.
This may not sound like a serious problem, but please picture the scene. A gas generator is loud and obnoxious so my uncle stashed the thing in the forest behind a log about a thousand or so feet from the main cabin. While the light was shining and the generator was running, I was comforted by both the sound and the light. But the moment the kill switch was activated, instant darkness swallowed everything in its evil, velvet cloak. Worse, the sound of the generator, which I assumed no self-respecting bear would approach, disappeared just as quickly as the darkness descended. Please understand what I mean by darkness and silence. Being from the city, my idea of “night-time” was filled with neon lights, street lamps and headlights. Even at the witching hour, just past midnight, San Diego was never truly dark.
Or quiet. Always in the background, even from a great distance, were the comforting sounds of police sirens, gun shots, arguments and 18 wheelers on the freeway illegally air breaking around a bend. In San Diego, it was never truly silent either.
On Craycroft, the darkness was utter and vast, stretching away limitlessly into the trees except directly above my head. There I found an amazing sight. Trillions of tiny points of light, more stars than I had ever imagined could exist. In San Diego, the city lights block out all but the brightest of stars. On Craycroft, I was allowed to see the glory of a universe I never realized was there. Until living on the island, I didn’t understand what King David meant when he said, “The heavens declare the glory of God…” Despite my all-consuming belief that dark = bad, I couldn’t help looking up on the blaze of glory in the Craycroft sky at night. I was in awe of the stars and even more so with the Northern Lights sweeping across the tops of the trees in brushing waves of green and gold. In fact, looking at those stars was the start of another path I have journeyed along to this very day. It was then I realized only God could have pulled this universe out of nothing.
Well – it was easy to wonder and sigh at the sight of the stars and the Northern Lights when surrounded by my dad, my uncle and the knowledge that a rifle the size of a Middle Ages cannon was within easy distance. But Dad saw to it that it was my job to shut the generator off at night…alone. Walking the thousand feet to the generator was the easy part. Sprinting over uneven ground, vaulting over logs and getting back to the cabin unmolested was a different story. I never could get back to the cabin before the lights went out although I did my best to run at the speed of light. Clearly, his plan to get me to face my fears of the dark and the terrifying beasts I was convinced were ready to way-lay me on my thousand yard dash back to the cabin wasn’t working.
The sum of all my fears happened just days after my fourteenth birthday. As was my habit, I cowered in the corner of the cabin for most of the day. But I had been thinking about my dad’s consistent arguments. After all, Dad wasn’t afraid to walk down to the outhouse. Dad wasn’t afraid to walk on the skid trail over to the creek to catch a few trout either. Maybe he wasn’t a cyborg after all. Maybe he had a point. Maybe I didn’t have to suffer near renal failure every day.
It was at this point that I had a fantastic idea. What I needed was a lookout, a fail-safe, all-clear diversion to keep the bears occupied. And I had just the solution…Pot-Licker the Cat. The abominable cur had it in for me anyway and all’s fair in love and war. I figured that putting Pot-Licker out onto the path leading to the outhouse was a perfect plan. If any bears were nearby, Pot-Licker would either sense their evil presence and escape up a tree…or get snapped up as an appetizer. Either way I could watch from the cabin window and know if the coast was clear. It was a win-win for me.
At first, the plan appeared to work to perfection. I scooped up the cat from his nest in the boot room and tossed him out the front door into the path before he could bite, scratch or poop on me. He was ruffled by the indignity of being launched into the middle of the trail but otherwise unharmed. I watched him look first one way, then the other and instead of bolting for a tree, he simply sat on his haunches and began to clean himself. Since Pot-Licker was a survivor, I didn’t think he would take a bath if he smelled an enemy in the undergrowth. I concluded it was safe.
Still, I was cautious. You never could tell with Pot-Licker. He was just wicked enough to have the same sort of thoughts going through his little cat brain as I might have in my own mind. Perhaps I was the bait. I shook off the thought. Surely a cat couldn’t comprehend such plans…right?
But I was wrong. Pot-Licker had it in for me.
I remember stepping out onto the porch. Instead of bolting for the outhouse, I almost casually sauntered past the cat. I think I even tipped my cap in his general direction. I made it to the outhouse without incident and did what needed to be done with transparent ease and luxury. Pot-Licker had saved the day. It was on the return trip that I discovered Pot-Licker’s satanic side.
The fiendish little beast was still licking his paws when I passed him. His little cat brain was probably already contemplating his next contribution on my comforter as a sort of coup-de-grace. That’s right! Pot-Licker had it in for me because as I rounded the bend in the path, I looked up and froze in my tracks. My breath caught in my throat like ice in a drain, my hair stood up and tried to escaped my scalp before the rest of my body could take flight. There on the porch of the cabin was the enemy in all his black-furred glory.
In the blink of an eye, I saw all fourteen years of my life pass before me. The bear turned my direction. I expected him to launch himself in fury. Instead, he almost casually stepped off the porch and disappeared into the woods.
It was more than I could take. It was one thing to be attacked by a vicious predator, it was quite another to be toyed with like a mouse. I turned tail and ran for my life. Past the stupid cat who didn’t even twitch, past the outhouse, down to the landing. In one mighty leap, I scrambled to the top of the latest log pile Marcel had left on the beach. At the summit, I turned around expecting to see a nine-foot behemoth with razor-sharp claws crawling up the logs behind me.
Nothing. No sign of the enemy. No rustling of underbrush from the hunter trying to approach by stealth. No freaky growls echoing out of the trees. Nothing.
It took a few minutes for my heart to settle back out of my throat and back into my chest. I didn’t quite know what to do. The rushing sound of blood in my ears slowly subsided to be replaced by the eerie Craycroft quiet. Everything seemed to stand out in stark contrast. A raven on the nearby beach squawked. I could hear logs bumping into each other in the bay. Terrible, earth-shattering quiet.
I dared not climb down from the log pile. There was no telling where the enemy was hiding. Clearly, I was dealing with a master serial killer. He was stalking me, waiting for me to climb down from my sanctuary so he could slip out from the dark and kill me. But I wasn’t going to fall for his little game. No way. Not me. Not this cream puff. I would just wait him out. I was an expert at cowering and waiting.
It’s amazing how boring it can get sitting on top of a pile of logs, swatting horse flies and waiting to be dismembered. Still, I couldn’t summon the courage to crawl down until I heard Marcel’s skidder coming down the trail. About the time the sound of Le Gros Crapo Verte was strong enough to shake the logs under my behind, I finally hopped down to the mud. Marcel gave me a funny look since I generally never left the cabin. I tried to get his attention to tell him about the murderer in the bushes but he didn’t seem to care. He dropped his load, unhooked and was back in the cab before I could get to him. I had to race back to the cabin before he disappeared up the trail.
Later that afternoon, the crew returned to camp. As usual, they were by far too exhausted to care much about my story. I tried to explain that a nine-foot Big Foot with green, razor sharp fangs had assaulted me before I drove him off with a dinner fork and a cold sausage. They didn’t buy it. Particularly Dad. He had had just about enough.
It was time for me to learn to swim once again.
“That’s it,” he said. “I’ve had it with you hiding in the cabin all day. You’re nearly leaving a brown streak behind you before you go to the outhouse once a day. I’ve had it. I swear I’m going to lock the door to this place and I don’t care if you sit at the top of a tree all day, you’re not sitting in here anymore.”
There was a fair bit more to this speech that I don’t remember very well. The bottom line was that my lifeboat was going to get punctured. I was nearly hysterical. It wasn’t fair. I wanted my mother. But expressing this sentiment seemed to cause my father to bloat up like Vegan at a beef rib eating contest. I guess being a fourteen-year-old male whining about wanting my mommy was the height of wimp-i-tude.
- I do remember seeing Dad exploding out of his chair.
- I remember thinking he was by far more frightening than any bear I’d ever seen.
- I remember Dad taking a handful of my pants in one hand and another part of my anatomy with the other.
- And I remember how small the porch looked from twenty two feet up in the air when he launched me toward the forest too.
Somehow, I landed on my feet, still bare from having been so recently in the safety and comfort of the cabin. I turned back to try and figure out a way back in but dad was standing menacingly on the porch.
“Take this box of garbage down to the dump.”
“But Dad…That’s where the bears are.”
I don’t remember what happened after that but clearly we must have had an argument – and I LOST. But I do remember finding myself holding a cardboard box full of coffee grounds, egg shells, empty mac and cheese boxes, and left over breakfast pancakes smeared with honey. Bears may have brains the size of toad spawn but they have an amazing sense of smell. And they love honey. But Dad wasn’t about to let me go back into the cabin to get my shoes or the elephant gun so he tossed me a pair of my uncle’s slip-on clogs and said, “March!”
Since Craycroft is about far away from modern sanitation services as the moon is from the earth, we devised an efficient, civilized system to keep the garbage from contaminating the cabin…a big hole in the ground. Everything went into the hole and occasionally we would bulldoze some dirt over it. Fill up the hole, dig another hole – very efficient. Most days, we stoked a smoldering fire in the hole to keep the garbage smell from escaping because there’s just one problem with this arrangement…bears LOVE garbage.
I don’t mean they LIKE garbage, I mean, they swoon in ecstasy at the mere thought of garbage. Garbage is to a bear what perfume is to a man in love, what half-price sales are to women, what votes are to criminals…I mean, politicians. And the more rotten, the better too! Bears, by and large, are about as blind as rocks but they have an extra special nose. And stink-i-ness is like a barometer for bears moving from moderately pungent, at which point they are simply excited, to rancid, at which point bears are nearly in a coma of lust. This means that trash dumps are bear magnets, truly the deep end of the pool for bear-a-phobics like me.
Somehow, I suspect my dad knew this.
Anyway, I found myself doomed. I wanted to cry out “dead man walking” but there was no one to hear my lament. I dared not go back to the cabin because I feared my father by far more than my demise by goring. Resigned to my fate, I trudged forward. There was the off chance I could survive the trip. If I was fortunate, the smoldering in the bottom of the hole had done its job or I might simply get to the hole before the enemy did. Either way, I wasn’t on a sight-seeing trip. As I had by now achieved near Olympic levels running the hundred yard dash so it was my plan to dump the box and go for the gold getting safely back to camp.
The trails connecting our camp to the logging claim, the landing, the outhouse and the trash dump were basically long tracks of mud. Occasionally, there would be a lull in the rain (20 minutes or so) and the trails would dry out. Then, when it rained again, the top layer would take on a slurry consistency that was basically slicker than snot on a doorknob. The trash dump was about five hundred feet up one of these connecting luge slides linking the camp to the main skid trail. This meant it had a slight incline going away from the cabin. Unfortunately for me, it was also due west from the camp too, directly into the sun which was then just setting at the tops of the trees. I squinted and blinked as I walked, unable to see exactly where I was going. There was a slight breeze in my face and the sound of my feet clopping in shoes four times too large for my feet was muffled by the mud from a recent rain.
I remember topping over the edge of the trail because it was just then that the sun dropped below the level of the tree tops so I could finally see what was in front of me. I guess either the breeze had masked my scent or the intoxicating aroma of the garbage dump had hidden my approach. Whatever the cause, when the sun suddenly snapped out of my eyes I found myself face-to-face with the black bear happily seated in the middle of our trash dump not even ten feet from where I stood.
He saw me at exactly the same time I saw him. I let out a scream, the bear let out a howl and stood straight up just like you see in a B-grade horror movie, paws raised. I jumped straight up out of my uncle’s shoes, dropping the box as soon as I launched. The bear dropped to all fours and I must have taken at least twelve steps before I actually hit the ground. I took off without looking back but I made it no more than twenty feet before my right foot tangled with a root. Down I went. My forward momentum tossed me headlong into a superman-style dive. I hit the ground face-first, taking a full mouthful of mud expecting to feel the vicious pain and misery of bear teeth in my backside at any moment.
Instead, the only howl I heard was my father laughing maniacally from the front porch of the cabin. I looked up to see him nearly falling over from glee. Twisted old man! What sort of maniac finds humor in baiting a bear with a boy from San Diego?
I supposed the least I could do would be to turn and face my death with as much dignity as possible. That and the fact that I couldn’t stand the waiting made me roll over. What I saw is still burned into my memory as if it happened yesterday.
The bear was scrambling in a panic trying to get out of the garbage hole. It finally crested the ridge of the hole and took off running full tilt in the opposite direction from me. The stupid creature was so busy looking over its shoulder at me that it ran smack into the butt of a log, head first. The force of the face plant threw the animal backwards whereupon it tried to get back onto its feet but the mud created a slip-and-slide. Paws flailing wildly, the bear finally managed to get to its feet only to run head first into the log again. It let out a howl that I swear sounded like “HELP”.
I don’t remember much after that…but I do remember finally learning that my greatest fear was indeed simply fear itself. I mean, it’s one thing to read in the Bible “the Lord has not given us the spirit of fear…” and quite another to see your fears running face first into a log. It just makes it all come home when you see something like that.
Since then, I’ve faced a number of other fears so much greater than any bear I’ve ever seen. I was afraid when I became a single parent, I was afraid to get married again and I was afraid when my daughter spent a week in Natal Intensive Care on the edge of death just after her birth. But the sum of all these fears was just fear itself. I learned that day on Craycroft to trust what my daddy told me and that meant I learned I had to face my fears – head first. And what he told me most of all was to trust God and stand up like a man. And I have.
Yes, bears can be dangerous but with a little caution there’s no need to hole yourself up in a cabin until your bowel movements resemble volcanic eruptions. I suppose there could have been an easier way to learn this lesson…at least for the bear, who I imagine nursed a pretty serious headache for a few days.
Thanks for reading “The Far Frigid North: Scared Spitless”. Look for the sequel soon on Amazon.com. In the meantime, you may be interested in my novel (which isn’t supposed to be funny) and my non-fiction book (which is only funny when you realize how ridiculous the theory of evolution really is).
“Legend” (Kindle price $1.99, http://amzn.to/uwHATL) A full length, Christian Suspense Thriller.
“Someone’s Making a Monkey Out of You” (Kindle price $2.99, hard copy $9.95, http://amzn.to/snubN1). Why Evolution is science FICTION. Foreword by Dr. Duane T. Gish, Vice Presidend emeritus, Institute for Creation Research, Dallas TX.