October 20th, 2013
Spaced along many miles of highway system in southern Ontario is a singular cautionary sign. It shows the silhouetted profile of a high stepping bull moose and underneath the caricature is the cautionary statement, “night danger.” Untold numbers of hapless drivers and equally hapless moose have collided with dire consequences along the dark and lonely thread of roadway that slips through miles of impenetrable boreal forest. Perhaps it was a rainy night mist that further dimmed the car’s headlights from detecting the approaching disaster or the blinding scatter of an approaching truck’s lights on wet pavement. No matter really, the results are not good, but the traveler’s warning is repeated often and the threat is all too real. Beware it says. But this story isn’t about moose, no not about moose at all. The sign recalls to my mind a different night.
It was the ninth and final night along the banks of the Sutton River in far northern Ontario. The river is fabled as a brook trout fishery. Eight adventurous souls have meandered along its riffles and pools for eighty eight miles beginning at Hawley Lake and canoed north to the shore of Hudson’s Bay. The river’s ancient geology, limestone enriched water, clear pebbled bottom, and gin clear water has produced an embarrassing number of three to five pound brook trout for our crew. Fly tackle or lures work equally well on the hungry and aggressive brookies. Summer is short and the fishs’ feeding frenzy is constant. It is a special treat, one well worth the effort made to get here.
Like a wagon train plodding the prairie we have wended our way downstream, stopping to camp and fish as we see fit. This is the Little North, Rupert’s Land, marked in earliest fur trade days as beyond the 50th parallel, vital routes for Ojibwa and Cree peoples who met with dour Scotts to trade in the currency of the day, beaver, mink, or otter. Away from the ribbon of black spruce, stunted birch, aspen, and willow sustained by the river’s nutrients, this land stretches away in an endless void of infertile muskeg, a flat and dreary landscape of patterned mounds, ridges, pingos and ponds. It is constantly changing shape with the freeze-thaw of the permafrost that holds it together. Man cannot hope to walk out of this quagmire. Only canoes and something with wings offer a ticket home.
Our weather has been mostly rainy and misty, but this last day the gray mantle dissipated and we stroked our craft eighteen miles with determined cadence under blue skies and quartering headwinds. Now, the final camp is spiked in the upper estuary of the Sutton. A flashy red sign designating this as the pickup point for our float plane service hangs loosely and upside down covered by willow and clumps of cotton grass. Four tents and the dining fly are clustered closely together, hemmed by waist high brush and the muddy river bank. Peering northwest I keep my eye on yet another approaching weather front bearing downwind along the shore of Hudson’s Bay. It is a fast mover and I know we’re in for another soaker, one last reminder of nature’s fickleness served up in spades in these subarctic climes.
With gear unloaded, the canoes stacked, and bedrolls unfolded in our tents, we all gather in the dining fly for dinner. The conversation is relaxed and congenial with most of the talk centered on fishing stories, both past and present. There’s only casual mention of our being camped in the middle of Polar Bear Provincial Park. Details of previous sightings by other parties are vague and tales of various encounters are mostly hearsay and third person pass along. False bravado is nervously muttered among us as twilight deepens and the storm closes in. Two nights ago, Len, one of our guides, states matter-of-factly that he’s now sleeping with his pepper spray at arm’s reach. I take note of his actions and have done the same thing. Everyone agrees that seeing a polar bear would be great…………as long as the bear is on the other side of the river away from our claustrophobic encampment. This portion of the park is where the white bears lounge around four months or so waiting for the ice to refreeze Hudson’s Bay so they can venture onto the ice and hunt ringed and bearded seals. It is also the maternity ward for females and their cubs. Wonderful I think, just marvelous.
Our dinner is a huge steaming kettle of bratwurst and polish dogs. Wonderful I think, just marvelous. We top it off with a double stacked birthday cake. Jerry has turned 64 and brought along a red velvet cake mix. He bakes it in a hobo styled stack of stainless bowls set on top of the gas grill. It is slathered with cream cheese icing and we all have two helpings of this convection perfection. It is 10:30 and nearly dark. The rain has started and we all retire to bed. It’s been a long day for a bunch of retirees. I fall into a peaceful sleep almost at once. It is good to feel surrounded in the comfort of my warm and dry down bag. The only sound, and I have, for once, left my hearing aids in, is the tapping of steady rain like a snare drum on top of the tent. Life is good.
I’m wide awake in an instant. It takes a couple of seconds for things to sink in that something is amiss. Blinking away the mind fog, I recognize the terrified screams of a woman. It is Patty, our next door neighbor only ten feet away. She is screaming and hollering without interruption. Interspersed between panic laden verbiage I hear the words,
“get out of here!”
Jerry and I spring upright in our beds. Flashlights are turned on, and I grab my can of pepper spray and slip off the safety latch. We are expecting to be pounced on at any moment, but Patty’s continued screams moves us to action. I place my Petzel headlamp against the open screen of the tent so I can see what I fear is coming my way. Pepper spray in hand, flashlight between my teeth, I grab pants, shoes, and hat. Its fight or flight time. Jerry’s doing the same thing and covering my back looking out the back screen of this ridiculously flimsy and vulnerable cocoon. I have broken one of my own personal cardinal rules of hunting. Corollary number #5, never take chili pepper to a bear fight. This is insane. This is what you read for entertainment in Sports Afield or Outdoor Life magazines. This shit happens to others, never to you. God, I desperately want my old Winchester .375, but I’m talking with God anyway………….help………………please help.
Several people are all hollering incoherently now and light beams dance in the dark like Luke Skywalker’s saber. I rip the bottom zipper open and crawl into the maelstrom fearful that this bear has gotten hold of Patty. In a crouch I whirl to my right to face this bear, one that I know can’t be more than ten feet from me. I’m still uncertain about what I will do or what I will see. What I see through the rain dripping off my ball cap is Patty’s husband, Whit, low to the ground and peering out from what is obviously a shredded tent. He is literally nose to snout with Nanuk, the great white bear of the North. Cream colored and huge (all bears look huge in the dark of night) this bruiser is highlighted in Whit’s headlamp. Whit hollers for the bear to get away, as if this ursus son of bitch understands English with an Arkansas accent, then Whit ducks back inside what’s left of that side of their tent.
The bear is totally nonplussed by all the activity livening up this miserable rainy night along the banks of the Sutton River. I reflect back now that through it all the bear never showed the least sign of emotion and never uttered the least sound of a growl or a roar. You know if a grizzly is agitated or scared. He will let you know in no uncertain terms, but this polar bear appeared unperturbed. The face was impassive, his coal black eyes emotionless, his pose was stoic. This bear fears nothing. He didn’t get this way eating berries or raiding garbage cans. Uh uh.
Fearless? Oh yes, without a doubt.
You can literally bet your life on it. This guy was like Hannibal Lecter in a white fur coat; smart, calculating, king of all he roamed, and without remorse for his actions. These observations were an even more chilling moment in an already tension filled night. Night danger………..night danger……………night danger.
With flashlights still focused on this apparition, I hear the shot as Stu fires a round of #8 birdshot into the shoulder of Nanuk from ten yards distance. I see rainwater fly off the wet hair at the impact. Incredibly, the bear doesn’t react. He does at least turn away and step over the muddy bank of the river and amble off into the shallows. He turns broadside, belly deep in the water, to survey this cluster of humans and their camp. Perhaps deciding that this meal isn’t worth the trouble, Nanuk turns and swims into the darkness toward the north bank of the river. It is over, or is it?
The dials read 12:30 a.m. as I glance down at the raindrop spattered crystal on my watch. The whole confrontation couldn’t have lasted over five minutes. We take stock of the damage. Thankfully, Patty is O.K., just had the beejeezus scared out of her. We all have. Another tent has been ripped and some camp gear has been shredded and gnawed on. We have been lucky and blessed. Thanks to God above that no one has been hurt or worse. No one was bitten or clawed in the fracas. The sound of Patty’s screams are not something that I’ll never forget. Nor do I want to experience anything like that ever again. At the start, I was sure that the bear had her in his grasp. That’s just not something you want to awaken you in the dead of night.
Everyone is up standing in the pouring rain, and we all gather around to talk away the built up tension and adrenalin charge, recanting the sequence of events to point of exhaustion. Nearly all the flashlights are peering through the rain, weakened rays reaching to their darkened limits, still fearful of the polar bear’s return. With the immediate danger gone, people start to drift back to their shelters. Any thought of sleep is hours away for all of us. I tell Stu that where ever that shotgun goes on this night then so do I. He’s got it fully charged with slugs now. No more mister nice guy. No more warning love pats for Nanuk. We settle under the canopy fly of the dining tent, rain pouring steadily off nylon fabric. I am sitting just behind his right shoulder facing out into the underbrush and muskeg . Len is out in the drizzle patrolling along the river’s edge guarding against the bear’s return. Tom is covering the upriver end of our little enclave. It is my concern that if this bear is determined, then he may very well come back. If he does, he may likely approach from downwind, which is the landward side of our camp. The brush is thick. It glistens and sparkles with the wet rain. A thousand pound bear wouldn’t be noticed until he charged out of the willows with murder on his mind just off the muzzle of Stu’s shotgun. This really isn’t any fun.
And so we wait. I spend the next two hours with headlamps and flashlights constantly sweeping my self- imposed sector back and forth, looking for something white and out of place. Time creeps forward, nerves stay on edge, and every once in a while I realize I’ve sort of been holding my breath. I make a deep sigh and exhale, my breath condensing fog with the mist in front of my headlamp. Then the whole ritual starts over again. The UDAP bear spray sits in my lap, safety cap back on. Rule #5? Yeah, right.
About 3:30 a.m. I decide that maybe the bear has left the night to us, step inside the dining fly and rest my head up on one elbow, covered loosely by a space blanket. It’s still an hour until daylight breaks, and I doze fitfully from fatigue. Stu is still manning the shotgun outside the door.
With the coming dawn, life’s outlook improves. Night danger dissipates in the brightness. Last night’s rain has spent itself and welcome rays of sun burst periodically through the cumulus. It is a good day for flying home. Our fishing crew emerges in the morning light and we all work at lightening up the conversation. Patty emerges spritely and feisty from the shredded tent and I stride straight over to her and give her a friendly Montana sized bear hug. I pronounce her the reigning champion and queen bear fighter of all of southern Hudson Bay. All of us give thanks Above where it is due. The float plane is reached via satellite phone. Fortunately the pilot has spent the night at a Cree fishing camp on Hawley Lake upriver anticipating our call for pickup. The turbocharged Otter is on approach within the hour.
We quickly clamber aboard, point the floats into the wind, and make a climbing right turn away from Hudson’s Bay. Peering down on the vast tundra we all immediately spot a sow and her cub on the north side of the river. Just beyond her, is a sow with two cubs. And on the camp side of the Sutton River a large boar is working his way toward our vacated campsite, downwind, his nose pointed toward last night’s stand. Perhaps he’s gotten a hint of bratwurst or red velvet cake. None of us say a word. There’s no need for conversation. The bear is magnificent, and so much more appreciated from above. Time to go home and leave Nanuk to his.
One day later………………Mile after beautiful forested mile across southern Ontario, the moose warning signs are posted. They’re more common than mileage markers or curve markings. Each one posts the admonishment, night danger. I can’t help it, but every single one elicits visions and memories of a very scary and rainy night on the shores of Hudson’s Bay. It was a midnight test of mettle for all eight of us. I’m sure we all look back with some of the same thoughts and perspective. Eight kindred souls from New York, Minnesota, Arkansas, California, and Montana are forever linked with the trip down the Sutton River to Hudson’s Bay. In the end it wasn’t about fishing after all.
Through the windshield I see another road sign along U.S. 71 in northern Minnesota. It says, Deer Crossing, next 875 miles. There, that’s more like it. I feel better already.