Fire Eyes

 

 

 

 

We moved to the Yukon in the mid seventies and the purpose behind leaving the Caribou district was to escape both sides of the family. My grandfather had a distant dream of moving to the territory but it never transpired for him, only it did happen for his son. My father was an army man turned wilderness adventurer and for moving so isolated, my parents were both catastrophically judged as rebel hippie children. However, that did not settle well with either of them.

We set up our camp on the spectacular shorelines of the West Arm of Bennett in early summer and I remember the day we arrived. It was a blistering sunny day and the south wind was just beginning to gust in its proverbial fashion. Within the week we had everything assembled the way we needed it and that is how most everything would stay for the rest of the summer. So we thought.

Unknowingly, we had trespassed the territory of an ancient grizzly. He monitored our moves closely. The first time we were all gone away to the distant village for supplies, he ravaged the camp. When we returned after three days, it looked like a war zone. There was blood and fur strewn about the yard, as he had effortlessly devoured our two pet rabbits, upturning their miniature log cabin that my father had lovingly built. That was the day that I began to hate bears without reservation. The mustard and honey were busted wide open and mixed in a muddle on the ground, the roof of the storage tent was sliced open, and the sleep tent was ruthlessly knocked down. Our one dog had broken loose and was wandering aimlessly in the distant back bush. Nothing was left in its proper place. The soya sauce was in the edge of the trees and the cooking planks were floating at the lake shore. He was not far. In fact, he came back in the dusk while we were still unloading the boat and accidentally ran into us on the trail. Head down to the ground, poor of hearing, and short of sight….he did not realize we had returned home until he finally smelled our scent. He spun around and went running in the opposite direction. When caught off guard, he had not the courage to face us. My sister went into the collapsed tent crying because she and my dad had seen him at only a few minimal feet. What a night.

An unsettling quiet came over the camp that week because we knew he would continue to plague us into the autumn. My sister and I cried for days and whenever we’d walk by the torn pen, our hearts would break. We wanted justice. Life was taking on a new meaning for us and innocence was fading. That was August.

The next time we needed to buy more supplies, my mother stayed to protect the camp and all our necessary belongings, while my father journeyed by boat the distance. Someone had to stay at camp and I believe she decided to stay. There were not many options for the brave. She would later recognize how the bear would seem to sense when my father was gone and when she was left with the responsibility of the camp and tender children. She swore it felt her vulnerability compared to dad who had more experience in the wilds. I have no doubt it did, as animals are incredibly intuitive; when they are not wandering along distracted and day dreaming like he had that once.

At about eight at night, our dog Bobby began to alarm us by his barking and my mother knew she would have to stand watch. It was just becoming dark and we had already eaten. I remember she told us to stay calm in the tent and to not make any noise, so to not draw in the bear more readily or to distract her attention from what was going on outside the tents. We were quiet. I remember she came into the tent only twice for a few seconds to check on us all night. The grizzly kept her fully on edge. She would build the fire up higher when Bobby would become more agitated and we could see the fire glow through the canvas of the wall tent. Eventually I drifted into sleep while she stood her ground with our beloved dog Bobby who was a shepherd/sheepdog cross.

She could hear it breaking branches near the dry creek, expressing its annoyance at everything in our camp. A moment later she caught a glimpse of its huge shoulders floating through the camp on the other side of the fire, no more than fifteen feet away from her. Bobby was freaking out at how close it was keeping. I think she finally let Bobby off his chain and told him to stay real close. The poor thing was a good watchdog but when the bear was too close for comfort, he would suddenly become silent. That is when she would know it was only feet away and would prepare to have to shoot it in the pathetic firelight. Never quite sure what direction it would come from. One time she shot into the air, as it stood silently glaring at her, trying to determine what she was capable of. One moment toying with her and the dog endlessly, the next moment contemplating a massive attack on the entire camp. It could not quite make up its mind what approach it wanted to take with us. It was neither fully intimidated, nor fully driven to anger as yet. Not that night. Yet it would not give up and its compulsion was unyielding. It pretty much had us where it wanted us, but it did not like the fire my mother had built. She kept it as high as she was able that night, and we all feel that nothing else would have kept the bear at bay. The fire was the determining factor and particularly when Bobby went silent on several occasions. It was twilight before she could finally let the fire die down and the old grizzly had run its nocturnal course with her. Forget sleep, as it was completely out of the equation. That was not the first time she had been alone at camp but it was the last time before the cabin was built.

It was October now. They had no sooner finished the log cabin and we were still on the first floor with plastic on the windows and a rough plank door. That was when the grizzly returned for his final assault on us. I am sure we had been in the cabin only four days, when two young hunters traveling through, had asked to stay in our old tent grounds, with a canoe full of freshly harvested moose. They were proud of their hunt. Just boys of fourteen and sixteen, they were afraid to stay a night alone with the canoe full of steaks. They knew it was a dangerous idea. They also figured we would protect them from nighttime predators. Forgetting their rifles in the canoe, they went to sleep in our one remaining tent, early that evening.

I remember bedding down so blissfully at about nine that night. We had a nice big bed underneath the new front window; two doubles had been pushed together for warmth and safety. That front window was the highest point of the house, probably seven feet from the ground which provided a false sense of safety. Despite the footage, I could easily envision coarse fur and claws reaching in and hooking any of us out of bed before we knew what was happening. No rough furniture as yet. The room was nearly bare. Only an army cot in the far corner where our new dog was underneath and about to give birth to a litter of pups. I was four years old and drifted into a wistful sleep in the extreme comfort and beauty of our new home. So fresh a home, the pitch was leaking out of every imaginable crack in every single log.

Around midnight I was instantly startled out of my sleep. Dad was on his feet like lightening and mom about as fast. They raced around the room for flashlights and guns. I knew the reason. My mother found the flashlight to assist my father who was already at the door. I heard him pushing something aside to clear his path. I saw them with their guns. Then I saw or heard my father throw his gun down on the inner doorsill which absolutely was not like him, only to hear him yell to my mother for her gun. He did not realize she was already handing it to him. They were so fast. Like in a nightmare, his favorite and reliable rifle had actually jammed. Never before had it failed him. Then I heard the first shot from that second rifle. Then silence. Dad was no longer near the door but fully outside. Then I recall she shouted to be careful. He was standing only a few feet from the grizzly, which appeared to lay dead on the ground. He gave it another shot for good measure and proceeded to prod it with the muzzle of the rifle. I could not see but I know because my mother was reporting. It was dead. In the middle of it all, seven pups were being born.

In the dim moonlight, the grizzly had come into camp for the canoe. When he started throwing Bobby around on the chain, my father had busted out of bed grabbed his Ruger rifle in hand and made it through the door. The grizzly was prepared and already charging him by the time his gun seized on him. Where the grizzly fell was only eighteen feet away from him, in the dusk of the moon where a man can barely see. It was twenty-five years old and weighed five hundred pounds dressed out. The two young men slept through everything that night. So they said.

 

By Shirly Ambrose 


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