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An Angler's Journal: A Bear Tale

By King Montgomery

After examining the droppings, the third or fourth pile he'd seen that morning, Tom Harvey looked up and asked Jerry Dunlop, "Do you run into many bears up here?"

"Sure," came the quick answer, "but we just yell and stomp a bit. If they don't run away, we go up and kick 'em in the butt." His reply would almost prove prophetic.
Dunlop works out of one of the Gangler's Lodges in Canada's Manitoba province. Harvey and his friend Pat Thompson from Virginia were helping Dunlop move a new johnboat from one lake over a short portage to another body of water where they would fish for the day. The boat would replace a leaky one that would be returned to the Lodge for repair.

Each year Harvey, Thompson and a few of their friends travel to the Northwest Territories for a bit of outdoor living and, of course, excellent fishing for northern pike, lake trout and walleye. This was their first visit to the Maria Lake region and Gangler's Lodge. And they're likely to return.

Dunlop went ahead to the next lake, while Harvey and Thompson gathered gear for the short trek. Dunlop suddenly reappeared, running down the trail, wide-eyed and gesticulating.

"Bear! Bear!" he shouted excitedly. Apparently a good kick in the bear's butt hadn't worked. After a few anxious minutes, they determined the bear was not in hot pursuit, but they would have to modify their boat-launching plans because the bear was blocking the put-in point. They decided to launch elsewhere, but still nearby. Rounding a bend, they could see the bear was still in the place Dunlop had originally seen it. The black bear yearling looked a little undernourished and seemed lethargic. With occasional furtive glances in the direction of the bear, the group quietly launched the boat and went fishing.

The three men fished for a while, boating mostly northern pike, and discussing the strange bear event. The bear hadn't seemed normal and they agreed to return to shore and check up on it. When they returned, the bear was still there. They wondered if it was sick or hurt and decided that in spite of the potential danger, they had to find out.

"Well, he's hungry," said Harvey, as they tossed fish carcasses to the ravenous animal. One of the pike landed a little farther away from the bear than the others, and the bear went for it, but was abruptly pulled up short as if it was on a tether. It was. The men could now see the snare tight around one of the bear's front legs. The poor creature had worn and gnawed away most of the paw in a vain attempt to escape. The sapling that anchored the snare was almost chewed away to the point of escape, but the bear had stopped chiseling at the wood, probably out of exhaustion. The men would later find the bear's claws from the missing paw lying loose on the ground.

The men were several hours from the lodge and the animal was doomed unless they acted quickly. They'd have to do it without help. They couldn't even dispatch it humanely because they were unarmed. The collective wheels began to turn.

First, more fish. The bear couldn't possibly be full. It must have been trapped for many days, at least four or five, they thought. Of course, it must be thirsty. While it was tethered on the shore, the bear couldn't quite reach the water. The bailer in the boat was a plastic Clorox bottle with the bottom cut out. It would hold water, but how to get it to the bear? They whittled a boat paddle until the handle would fit into the ring on the neck of the Clorox container. They held that out to the bear, who promptly swatted it, sending water flying everywhere, including onto itself. The bear lapped the water eagerly from its damp fur. The next attempt, however, was successful and the men repeated this three or four times until the bear had enough.

Except for the swipe at the water bottle, the bear hadn't exhibited aggressive or threatening behavior. Now, full of food and drink, it seemed to settle down even more. The three men huddled, came up with a plan of action, and, with great risk to their own safety, set out to free the hapless bear.

While Dunlop held the boat paddle over the bear's eyes and Thompson distracted it with sound and movement, Harvey reached down and freed the braided steel cable from the small tree. But realizing the bear still had the noose of the snare around his leg stump, they went one step further. Again, Thompson distracted the bear while Harvey held the injured limb and Dunlop, aided by a pair of needle nose fishing pliers, gently loosened the cable and slipped it off. Then they all stepped back.

More fish served to keep the bear distracted. It was a few minutes before the young creature realized it was no longer tethered, and it moved farther out to grab the offered fish. Finally, Harvey, Thompson and Dunlop had to leave; the bear was licking what was left of its paw, hopefully beginning a process of healing. They left a pile of fish behind and when they returned two days later it was gone and there were fresh bear tracks that matched those of the trapped animal.

Perhaps the bear would have a chance to survive. It was spring in the Northwest Territories, a time of plenty, and the only predators the injured bear would have needed to worry about would have been other bears and humans.

Yes, Harvey and Thompson probably will return to the Maria Lake area. Not just for the beautiful scenery or for the wild solitude, nor just for the great fishing, but for a more important reason. They left a part of themselves with the injured bear, just as the bear had left a part of itself with them. They had a stake in each other and it will be worth a trip to see if the local Indians and lodge guests are telling stories about a big, healthy, three-pawed bear that has a distinct taste for northern pike.

Issue 1.11: July 6, 2006