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

There was an awful quiet as I slowed and then stopped the car.

“Missed… what, exactly?”

“You know. The landing. I’m pretty sure we missed it back there. This doesn’t look right to me.”

I was having a hard time with this for several reasons. The first and most compelling was the fact that we had been driving in a strait line through a heavily wooded landscape, devoid of any landmarks. The view had been an unending parade of young trees and blackness. How this spot looked any different from any other spot we had seen since starting down the cut was beyond me. The other reason my right eye was starting to twitch lightly was that we were on an elevated road with zero maneuvering room and were towing a trailer. Turning around successfully was going to require concentration, skill, luck and a whole lot of colorful language.

Mountain Man looked around at the darkness again and decided that no, this was not the place. We needed to go back. This was going to either be my finest trailer driving hour or a total debacle. I did have some good experience of driving with a fifth wheel but I knew that driving in reverse for anything more than a few dozen feet was just begging for a spanking. The trailer was going to start to wander and then I’d try to counter it, making the car susceptible to falling off the road. We briefly discussed the possibility of detaching the trailer and then… what? If I did turn the car around, we’d just be facing our own trailer. Nope, there was only one real solution. I was going to have to spin the whole thing.

We drove a bit farther in search of a spot that afforded the lowest banking and the most space. A few minutes later, we came across the best we thought likely to be found. I put the car in reverse and started to crank the wheel, carefully backing up and feeling for the trailer slipping over the edge. There was no talking in the car at all. Mountain Man might be nutty some times, but he knows when you’re concentrating and kept a respectful silence other than air sucked between clenched teeth and occasional profanities from me. In the end, it took roughly seventeen hundred back and forth movements with minute wheel turns but… we did it. With less swearing than I expected and a lot of sweat, I managed to very slowly turn the whole thing around and keep the car on top of the road. The trailer had collected a good bit of brush, but was still intact and attached to the car and that was the important thing. We slowly, oh-so-slowly headed back down the cut in search of the mysterious landing that we’d some how missed on our journey down.

“There! That’s it!” My friend was pointing happily at a bit of blackness that I’d somehow overlooked. All it looked like to me was a spot where the trees weren’t so thick, but he was adamant. “I’m sure of it. Pull off here!”

Thankfully, I did notice that where he was pointing, the side of the railroad bed seemed to be flush with the land and I slowly brought the car to rest in a diminutive clearing. I’m glad that he spotted it because I didn’t until I’d actually parked on it. I grabbed my Colman keychain and we got out of the car and into the silence of the moonless night.

dark-woods

“There’s a path right over here somewhere. The cabin will be just down it. Let’s go!”

“Wait. It’s eleven o’clock, pitch black, we have no flashlights and we can’t even see the path. Why don’t we just put up our tents here and go find it in the morning?” It seemed like a logical decision to me, but I had never been here before either and therefore, no idea what was beyond the blackness of the trees right in front of me. My friend though, had and his explanation that the cabin was a grand total of seventy, maybe a hundred yards away seemed to take the wind out of my plan.

“It’s not hard to find at all. There’s only one path and it takes you right to the cabin. My dad and uncle are waiting there for us and might worry if we don’t show up. You could probably hit it with a stone form here! Hey! I bet they can even hear us!”

With that thought, Mountain Man cupped his hands on either side of his mouth and bellowed, “DAD! WE’RE HERE! CAN YOU HEAR ME” We waited for a reply but heard none. He was nonplussed. It wasn’t far and they were no doubt just sleeping. Yah, that’s it. Sleeping.

I protested a bit more and Mountain Man decided that come hell or high water, he was crashing in the cabin tonight. The prospect of being left behind at the car as the “party pooper” gnawed at me like an old woman’s Pomeranian and so, reluctantly, I grabbed my bedroll and held my little light above my head in an effort to see where the heck we were walking. Within fifty feet of the trailhead, we were lost.

For those of you who live in urban environments, you most likely haven’t experienced what “dark” really looks like all that often. With no moon and zero ambient light, you quite literally can’t see your hand in front of your face. There are no pools of light or sweeping beams from cars heading down the road. It’s just black. The only light comes from the stars and if you throw in a canopy of leaves, you don’t get that either. That’s how dark it was as we stumbled along off the unseen path and into the brush and small trees, my keychain provided just enough illumination for me to spot low branches inches before they gouged my eyes. Mountain Man was still confident though. I was starting to curse. Every few minutes, he’s stop, cup his hands in the guessed direction of the cabin and yell. As time passed and scratches accumulated, the inflection of Mountain Man’s calls started to change.

What had started out as a loud and self assured, “DAD!” started to morph into, “DAD? HEY, DAD?” and finally transformed into it’s final form: “DAAAAD?! DAAAAAAAAAAAD???!”

Sonofabitch! The branches were scratching us like they held a personal grudge, plus we had been discovered by the mosquitoes and they were eating us alive. To add the toping to the situational sundae, our tents had been left back at the car and there was no prospect of finding our way back at this point. Just about the time I was considering using my friend’s lifeless carcass as a shelter half, we heard a faint, “Hey? Is someone out there?”

Then, somewhere off between unseeable branches… a light! In the distance, the pinprick of light shone like a beacon. The two of us whooped and thrashed our way toward salvation. On the porch stood Mountain Man’s uncle, a lantern in one hand and a long gun in the other. We had made it! We were safe! After blundering around in the black woods, the cabin looked like the Four Seasons to us and we happily stepped inside and dropped our bedrolls. It was very late by now and we were scratched up, blinded by the light of one lantern and pooped. After a round of sleepy introductions, we grabbed our sleeping bags and got ready for a restful night’s sleep. A pity that it wasn’t on the menu. We really would have loved that. What we did get was a choice. We could either sweat out fifty percent of our bodily water content in an oven made of nylon and down or bleed to death from a thousand tiny bites, delivered on miniature, whining wings.

I picked the sweat lodge, Mountain Man picked death by bloodletting.

-Next installment soon.

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