Don’t Step in What the Bear Left. Part V

The day was spent making the cabin and the surrounding area more and more inhabitable. Clearing brush, stacking lumber and clearing more brush. The first real construction job Mountain Man and I had was digging and then installing the outhouse. Since there was only one saw and hammer allotted to the project, I helped with the digging while my friend did the actual building. When the hole was deep enough for me to need help getting out of, I went back to clearing brush as Mountain Man hammered and sawed like a pro. Prior to completing the outhouse, when nature called you ran out of the cabin, grabbing a shovel on your way and headed for the bushes. The real trick was to be fast enough with your digging so that when it came time to do what dragged you out in the first place, the mosquitoes didn’t launch a full scale attack on your backside. It was just as pleasant an experience as you’re thinking it was. When the diminutive shed was up and operational, it was like civilization had found us. We were all elated. It’s amazing how when you have only the barest scraps of convenience, the smallest improvements seem like high technology. Now, we had our own privy!

Later on during one of our breaks, I couldn’t help but ask Mountain Man’s uncle about the rifle I had seen him with that first night.

“Oh yah! I figured that with us way out in the boonies, I should get a couple of guns. You know, for the bears and such.”

I could see the logic. “That makes sense. What did you get?”
I admit, I was fishing. I figured that what ever he had bought to keep uppity bears at bay must be pretty impressive and I was hoping to play with it a bit.

“Well, I got two guns, actually. The first one is a .22 rifle and the other is a 12 gauge shot gun. Here, I’ll go get them!” He seemed proud of his purchases and as I sat there waiting for him to pull them down from the loft, I worked on a good poker face. A .22?! What on earth good would that do? If you ever want to get a bear mad, I mean really, REALLY pissed at you, start shooting it with a .22 rifle. It’s roughly the equivalent of trying to stab a Hell’s Angel to death with a cocktail umbrella. It’s POSSIBLE to do it. You might hit an artery or they may eventually succumb to blood loss, but your personal survivability does not look good. The 12 gauge was more plausible as long as he didn’t just buy…”

“I just got a lot of buck shot for the shotgun, but I wasn’t sure what to get. Do you shoot? How do you think I did?”

I smiled what I hoped was an encouraging smile and told him that they were very nice. “You might,” I added, “want to pick up some slugs for the shotgun though. The buckshot isn’t really likely to stop a bear.” I hoped that he wasn’t offended but I need not have worried. Not only did he take the advice to heart but told Mountain Man and I that we should go shoot the guns for a while. This, for me, is not a hard decision to make. I gathered up everything and headed out back with my friend.

Back then, Mountain Man, was a bit of a bohemian in some ways. He’s an unbelievable outdoorsman and very smart, and tended to sit comfortably in the very left wing of politics and associated schools of thought. One of these views which is common from that vantage point is that guns are bad, bad, BAD. He had never fired a gun before and wasn’t sure that he wanted to start today. He had an Achilles’ heal on this subject, though. He liked cool stuff, and let’s be honest here. Guns are very, very cool. They are also seriously fun to shoot. With some light arm twisting and mostly the prospect of making loud noises in the woods with explosives, he relented and joined me for some entertainment. We took the .22 rifle with us along with a bit of hapless cardboard that would be the object of our attention. After the standard gun use and safety talk, we loaded the rifle and started plinking. After a half hour or so, he was having a blast punching holes in cardboard and any hesitation was long gone.

Anyone who is competent and wants to get people involved with shooting starts off the new shooter with at .22. It fires a very small round, isn’t very noisy, and has virtually no kick. Mountain Man was enjoying his uncle’s rifle as he got the hang of it and improved with each shot. During his focused attentions with this new, noisy past time, I slipped back to the cabin and gathered up the shotgun. Holding it by my side so as to keep it from being conspicuous, I walked back just as he finished off the contents of the magazine. He stood there, hot rifle in hand, looking appraisingly at the job he had done on the cardboard box.

“Nice job” I said.

“Thanks! This really pretty fun to do.” He replied. “You want a turn?”

“Okay!” I blurted out with a big smile on my face and with that, I swung the shotgun up to my shoulder and with a reverberating blast, blew the target right out of the tree.

I know! I know! Not the best way to introduce someone to shotguns. At least I didn’t pull the cruel trick of letting him fire it with out warning of the kick. His eyes were wide open and I sported a huge grin.

“These are the really fun ones!” I said to him through ringing ears. The rest of the day was quite literally, a blast and we burned through a small pile of ammunition. Even the mosquitoes didn’t bother us. Or were they hiding?

A few more days of work and swatting and it was time for me to head home at last. All this time I had spent in the wilds of Minnesota, working in the woods and sleeping under the stars, I had not seen any wildlife bigger than a squirrel. At night as I lay in my tent, I could hear coyote baying in the darkness or the occasional snuffle of a skunk or raccoon and even loons in distant unseen ponds but no bear visits or other large mammals. To be honest, I would have liked to at least gotten a glance of something big.

After a week, early in the morning, I packed up my little cloth dome and other widely dispersed possessions, fastened them again to my pack and with Mountain Man, headed back to the car to be driven to the airport in Minneapolis. As we bumped down the railroad cut one last time, my friend hit the breaks hard. Out of the seemingly impassible woods strode a fully grown bull moose, antlers covered with broken vegetation.

moose

He stopped briefly, taking stock of our little blue car and judging us to be not more a threat than the halo of mosquitoes he no doubt wore, he moved across the track and into the opposing woods, disappearing almost instantly. It was the perfect way to end my trip.

Returning to the civilized world was wonderful and though I missed the rugged beauty of the cabin, the lack of being nibbled to death by a thousand tiny mouths was more than a little relief. That and not having to worry about being devoured by a huge carnivore as you tried to make it to the outhouse at two in the morning. I will never forget my trip and I’m very grateful for the experience. I’m also happy to reflect on it rather than relive it. I doubt that I shall see the cabin again, but that’s all right too. After all, I still see Mountain Man from time to time and I have faith that at some point in the future I will again find my self standing there next to him saying something along the lines of, “Are you sure about this?”

He will, naturally, be completely sure and I, naturally, will go with him. After all, when it comes to finding a unique experience that will stand proud in my memory, he’s never let me down.

Don’t Step in What the Bear Left. Part IV

As we bedded down for the night, I had expected there to be mosquitoes. After all, we were in a place called the “Boundary Waters” and being filled with little bogs and swampy areas, it was also filled with those biting little menaces. It was what I mistakenly thought an unusually hot night and my sleeping bag was hot and sticky almost immediately. As I lay my head down, I heard the unmistakable whine of those little bloodsuckers. It’s been a belief of mine that if you wanted to drive someone not merely to distraction, but to out right insanity, all you needed was a recording of a mosquito on an endless loop, making sure that it sounded closer, then farther, then very close and then… nothing. The victim would be blithering in just a few days. This is what we were dealing with, times a thousand. The cabin seemed to be filled with the little bastards.

After my twenty-third time flailing at my face like a mad man, I retreated into the steamy confines of my mummy bag, pulled the drawstring tight and crammed my pillow in the tiny hole. From a pervious experience, (also with Mountain Man) I knew I would not suffocate. I’d just feel like I was.

Side story:

Years previously, I was sharing a cabin with Mountain Man, The Doctor, and Ioseph. It was late in the year and it got really, really cold that night. We had no fireplace so the only warmth came from what you keep hold of with your sleeping bag. At some point in the night, I must have done this same trick with the drawstring and a pillow to cut off the cold draft.

In the morning, my friends awoke and found my bag closed with my pillow partially sticking out of the head-hole. They watched the bag carefully in an effort to detect any breathing, but the thick down of the lining prevented them from spotting any movement. They could hear no respiration either.

Their line of thinking went like this… “If he’s alive, then we’re just going to wake him up and he might be grumpy. If he’s dead, then there isn’t anything we can do except call the authorities, in which case, we will miss breakfast. Therefore, we should go and eat breakfast and then see if our childhood friend is alive or dead. If he’s dead, he won’t care that he missed breakfast anyway and we’ll be fed and ready to deal with the corpse!”

You gotta love guys.

Back to Minnesota:

As I started my heat induced vision quest, Mountain Man decided to give himself to the mosquitoes. Pushing off his bag, he fell into fitful sleep as he provided fifteen thousand mosquitoes with buffet style dining. Neither of us looked good in the morning.

As we hunched over eggs and biscuits prepared my Mountain Man’s kind and ever upbeat father, we commented on the others appearance. I looked like I had been hit with a fire hose while he looked like a bad case of hives. The mosquitoes, apparently not satisfied with last night’s feast, were ready to tuck in to some breakfast of their own and were already merciless.

“Are the mosquitoes always this bad?” I asked.

Mountain Dad looked our way and enthusiastically nodded. “Oh yah! They’re brutal, aren’t they? We still have some windows to put in and a lot of cracks to seal, so there are probably as many inside as out”

I swatted madly while desperately shoveling the hot eggs into my mouth. These things were unrelenting! As soon as we had finished up and cleared the table, Mountain Man and I started back to the car to get our full packs. In the daylight, things naturally looked very different. The path was, just as he said, easy to follow and not very far at all. When we were just about there, he stopped and looked down at the ground.

“The last time I was here, ” he said, “we found the biggest bear scat right here in the middle of the trail”

“Bear scat?” My eyebrows were racing for my hairline.

“Oh yah. There are bears here for sure. Just keep an eye out and they shouldn’t be a problem.”

Since I didn’t posses laser vision, I wasn’t exactly sure what watching for a bear was going to do to help my life expectancy but still, I was a bit more mindful of the undergrowth as we reached the car and grabbed our gear. The very first thing I did was to put on my wide brimmed hat and pull over my mosquito net. I could see the little bastards immediately trying to get through, but at least my face was safe for the moment.

Mountain Man and his dad are great guys and really dedicated hikers. They are highly skilled, superbly outfitted and made of tougher stuff than the vast majority of men. They are, in short, hiking high priests. They are also used to taking only what is totally necessary and not one item more. I, to be blunt, am a marshmallow of comfort by comparison. I like to have everything I could possibly need in any situation and since I am also a bit of a human mule when it comes to lugging stuff, I happily pack for every possible occasion. What doesn’t fit in the pack goes on it. Because of this, the profile I cut as I wander through the woods is of an old fashioned tinker off to sell his wares. Mountain Man and Mountain Dad have another take on my mobile hardware store. They call me “Clampett”, after the TV show, “The Beverly Hillbillies” I don’t mind in the least.

clampett

I dropped my rattling pack on the floor and immediately got a chuckle from Mountain Dad.

“You forget anything?”

“Nope. I brought it all. Why? You need something”

“No! No! Just curious. How much do you suppose that thing weights?”

The jokes about my pot and pan festooned pack flew almost as heavily as the mosquitoes that day as we worked on the cabin. The heat and humidity was oppressive and the work was energetic, making you desperately want to shed your shirt. The bugs made that thought laughable, though. Instead, I found the only way to stay bite free was to put on my polar fleece shell, zip it up all the way, tuck the mosquito net into the collar, tuck the cuffs into my gloves and my pant legs into my boots. It was the sauna all over again but at least my blood was staying where it would do the most good. By the evening, we returned to the cabin to eat and talk.

“I’m going to go set up my tent out front while there’s still some light” I announced.

“Good idea” Mountain Man replied. “I’ll set up out back”

“You mean your not going to sleep in the cabin?” Mountain Dad looked shocked. “We built all this and you’re going to use your tents?”

“No offence, but my tent has one thing that the cabin doesn’t. Screens. I really need some sleep and this way I know I won’t wake up looking like a raisin.” I hoped he wasn’t hurt, but there was no way I was going to make a repeat of last night if I could help it.

“Well, you boys do as you will, but I’ll sleep in here.” He paused and then added, “Mind you, I do wish I had packed a mosquito net to throw over the cot though.”

I reached back to my open pack, sitting on the floor and pulled something green out. “You mean like this one?” I tossed it to Mountain Dad and smiled. “I’ll be in the tent, so I won’t need it.”

“Hey! Thanks!”

He beamed and unrolled the green netting to inspect it. It was made like a mesh box, just big enough to fit over a camp cot. Four little loops were attached to each corner to suspend it over the sleeper.

“Now all I need to do is find some string and some thumbtacks so I can put it up.”

With a little flourish, I reached back into the pack and produced both, tossing them into his lap. I smiled.

“Pays to camp with a Clampett, doesn’t it?”

“I guess so! What else you got in there?”

We enjoyed a convivial dinner and Mountain Man and I eventually went out to set up our respective camps. I thought of the bears again and hypothesized that they would be more interested in the cabin where all the cooking was taking place than my little nylon dome. I hoped so, anyway.

Back in the cabin, as we enjoyed the last of the conversation over the lantern light, I remembered to ask the uncle about the bears.

“Oh yah. There are a good number out here. That’s why I had the gun last night. I heard the crashing in the bushes before I heard your voices and thought you were a bad bear.”

“Bad bear? What makes a bear bad?”

“Oh,” he continued, “This region is a release area. This is where the state puts trapped bears back into the wild. You know. The ones who get up to no good in suburban areas.”

So that was it. We were camping with exiled bears. This was not quite what I had signed up for. Still, as I later lay in my tent listening to the night noises, the weariness of the previous lost night of sleep and the hard work done that day washed over me like a wave. If anyone came nosing around my tent flap, I didn’t hear it.

Above my nylon castle, mosquitoes cursed in tiny, furious voices.

-Possibly more to come. And it might have to do with guns!

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