PUBLISHED WRITING

My short story, The Bear, (a non-fiction account of our scary dealings with a problem bear in Alaska) won highly commended at the Words and Women prose writing competition 2017.

I'm very proud as there were almost 100 billion entries and I was in the top 23. That's definitely true, there's no need to check.

It's in the Words and Women Anthology: 4, published by Unthank Books and launched at their International Women's Day event in March 2017. I'm very excited and, yes, I'm showing off. You can read it below or buy a copy of the book here-

Unthank Books

or here

The Wordery


The Bear by Louise Dumayne
The first time we saw the bear we were down in the woods. My husband and I were living on a remote homestead in Alaska. We were alone. The owner, Hank, had left for six weeks over spring ‘break up’ when the Yukon River ice heaves, cracks and washes out. The river had broken violently that year and the woods below the ridge where the cabin sat were flooded with chunks of ice, some 30 feet thick. Jagged debris piled along the bank as high as houses. It was impossible to get a boat into the water anywhere. As there were no roads on our side of the river, just unending prehistoric taiga, we were completely cut off from the world.
Stepping down from a fallen tree we were using as a walkway I noticed, ambling towards me, an unfeasibly huge black dog. No, bear. Being British, I had to pinch myself to remember they are not merely the stuff of fairy tales. He lumbered slowly between the trees, massive, heavy and jet black.  I ducked back behind a spruce bough and whispered to Neil, ‘Go back. There’s a bear.’ ‘What!’ He screamed, ignoring every piece of advice we’d been given about slipping away quietly if you can. ‘Where’s the bear?’ As I glanced back, I saw him bounding off with a speed and lightness I would not have imagined possible in so hefty an animal.
We were caring for 12 sled dogs, all Alaskan huskies of various shapes and sizes, which we fed on dried chum salmon or ‘dog’ salmon. We had fished the river that autumn with a massive turning fish wheel, a beast of a machine hammered together with spruce poles, oil drums and odd bits of lumber. It scooped up hundreds of gleaming fish each day which we hung on poles to air dry in fenced shacks we called fish racks. Over the next week the dogs erupted in bouts of frantic barking mixed with a low ‘uff uff’ that is a more sinister warning. It means- there is something out there that I’m scared of. One morning, I noticed the wire at the back of a rack had been carefully undone and a couple of fish had fallen onto the mud floor. I knew it was Betty, a fox-faced little dog and consummate fish thief. A bear would have just knocked the whole thing down, surely? That was our first mistake. Not realising. A bear, even an aggressive bear, will often approach a new food source tentatively in case it belongs to a larger bear.
The next time we saw him we both remembered what to do but things did not go so well. Alerted by the furious barking of the largest of our dogs, Skookum, Neil and I grabbed pots, pans and a gun. We had been advised that loud noises will often frighten a bear away. We stood as near as we dared whilst Skookum held the bear at bay at the edge of the yard. We shouted, clanged and banged but did nothing more than dent our cookware. The bear swung his massive head and huffed. A stunning burst of energy exploded from his great bulk and he sent Skookum stumbling into a retreat with a mock charge. Ignoring the shots going over his head from my revolver, he clambered on top of the fish rack and opened the heavy tin roof as if it were a beer can. He hooked out his fish, held it delicately in his claws whilst he sniffed at it then left. Our second mistake. We should have killed him. He had become habituated to visiting the homestead and would not stop coming once he had eaten all the fish, but neither of us had shot a large animal before and we were scared.
The next morning the bear returned bolder, more aggressive. He approached through the vegetable garden, uncomfortably close to our cabin. Neil fired a powerful rifle over his head. We both took a step back as the explosion boomed through the air. The bear appeared not to hear it. He strolled directly towards us, ripped open the racks closest to the cabin, grabbed his fish and went. Another lost opportunity to kill him. Bears are creatures of habit and he would often return at around 4pm. Tea time. When he was away an agitated calm descended. We paced around, tried to get on with chores, tried to care for the dogs without going close to the edges of the yard. Each time the dogs erupted into frantic barking, we clambered onto our cabin roof, determined that Neil would shoot him from a safe vantage point. Nervous and hesitant, we could not get a clear shot. However, over the following few days, the dogs appeared to be forming a defensive pack and forcing him to retreat. We could hear them out in the bush periodically, battling.
Our third mistake, thinking the dogs had run the bear off. The back fish racks were in a small clearing in the bush. There was only one path in and the brush, thick with willow, rose hips and stunted spruce encroached to about 30 feet giving only a single escape route and no visibility. But the dogs had stopped baying, we had not seen the bear for days and things felt calm. What had actually happened, or so we think, was that the dogs and the bear had become acclimatized to each other. He was living in the bush behind the racks, they were happy in the yard. No one was getting hurt and there were plenty of fish to go around. In the meantime the dogs were gorging themselves on an ‘all you can eat’ salmon buffet through the holes torn in the fencing.
Our fourth and biggest mistake, going to the back fish racks, hemmed in by thick brush, to fix the hole in the fencing. We should have taken the rifle but the dogs were scared of guns and would cower in their houses when they saw one. We wanted them with us so I hid a .44 revolver under my jacket despite knowing that handguns are not good for bear defence. They are hard to aim accurately and lack the power of a hunting rifle. We approached the racks with 12 relaxed, waggy-tailed dogs milling around us. Neil ducked through the wire to pick up the salmon. He hooked 6 of the heavy split fish onto a spruce pole and, with his back to me, was on his knees trying to slot it into the rack. We knew the bear’s route but with shocking lack of sense had positioned ourselves so that we had no escape in the dense brush and would have to move towards him to get away should he appear. Without a woof or a whimper the dogs dispersed like leaves in the wind. I said, ‘Oh my God I think the bear’s coming.’ I turned to Neil, he was still on his knees facing away from me. When I turned back the bear had emerged from the brush and was walking towards us at a steady pace, head low.
Possibly our fifth mistake but not one I could have changed. At this point I realised, not only that we would have to go towards him to get away, but also that Neil was essentially holding a salmon kebab made of fish that the bear now considered his. I should have shouted, waved, tried to scare the bear off. Bears are short sighted and there was a good chance he hadn’t smelt us. The shock of hearing me may have caused him to turn tail. But, he was quickly approaching, 30 feet had become 25 was becoming 20, was about to be 15. If he did not turn tail then he was far too close. Contrary to their pudgy, ambling demeanour, bears are extremely fast. They can charge at 35 miles per hour.
I did not shout at him because I couldn’t speak or move. I understood then the true meaning of ‘scared stiff.’ Involuntarily, I pushed myself backwards into the wire mesh. Maybe he’ll just pass by and go on to…my husband. Adrenaline sharpened my thinking. I watched my arms rise with the revolver in my hands and cocked the hammer. I remembered 12 feet. Give him chance to turn around. Do not shoot before 12 feet, I’d been told. Bears often bluff and he may turn and go. I held my nerve until about 15. It felt far too close. I fired. The bullet went into the ground between his great front paws. A puff of dust. He stopped. I re-cocked the gun. I thought, ‘Please, go.’ He did not turn.  I remembered that the gun shot low and I fired again, higher. He flinched. I’d hit him. He turned and ran.
We moved in slow motion like characters in an action film, backwards through the yard, trying to see if the dogs were safe. We climbed onto the cabin roof where we had stored the rifle and ammunition. I reloaded the revolver, noticing that my hands weren’t shaking. Neil said, ‘I think you just saved our lives.’
We laughed a shocked, hysterical laughter. Unsure if the bear might return, angry and injured, we stayed on the roof. We were not going to look for him. ‘Dead’ bears will circle back on hunters and pop up behind them in the thick brush looking quite alive. But eventually we had to climb down. The hoo-hoo of an early owl echoed through the woods and the air seemed grey and metallic.
The homestead’s owner hired a local pilot to see if he could find a place amongst the rotting ice to land a canoe and try to spot the bear. We knew a shot from a revolver would not have killed him but it must have given him a nasty shock. When news came by email, it was not reassuring. ‘The bear is still alive and in the woods behind your cabin. There is a smaller bear there too. Right behind the cabin.’ We sometimes balanced our camping chairs out on the humpy taiga to read or relax. Recently we had had the sense to sit facing each other, both armed, in case something stepped out of the trees. It was not comforting to know there had been a bear on either side of us. We stopped doing that.
Hank managed to land a canoe a few miles downstream, hauling it into the ice debris and clambering over the chunks. After a couple of days he offered to look for a blood trail from the bear. Did we want to come? Sure. We followed the bear’s well-worn path. I was in front, our friend followed. ‘Nah, there’s no blood. You ain’t gonna kill a bear head on with a revolver. A bear’s skull is over an inch thick in places. I reckon you just brushed-’
I interrupted, ‘What’s that?’
The bear had collapsed and died about 50 yards from where I shot him. He was huge. Our friend’s guess was at least 300 pounds. The bullet hit him in the shoulder and passed through his essential organs.
I did not feel sorry. It was a fight. I won. I felt sad the meat had been wasted and I did not want a glory photo of me kneeling on a corpse with the gun. At our friend’s insistence we did one anyway. In the end, the only thing I kept were his claws. I cut them off with tin snips and made one into a necklace. I thought it might be a talisman, and that wherever I was, when I felt I couldn’t do something, I could look at it and remember. I wear it a lot because it looks nice but I seldom think about its significance. Life is like that. Occasionally I examine it for a few moments, now coated in Rimmel clear nail varnish to make it gleam, and I think that was one of the defining moments of my life. In London people sometimes ask me, ‘Oh that’s unusual? What is it?’ I tell them, it’s a bear claw. They say, ‘Oh cool.’ No one has ever asked how I got it but I’ve long since decided I will say I bought it on eBay.
To shoot a bear is no big deal for people in the bush and we are still looked upon with some scorn for the series of mistakes we made. But then I couldn’t see any of those guys make a life for themselves in London where solutions may be less dramatic but never so simple. So challenge, I guess, is all relative.
The corpse rotted to nothing and, being such a huge bear, Hank kept the skull as an ornament. Apparently, he still has it. I’ve never asked to see it.

Comments

  1. We can see you on Swedish tv right now.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Just read your story, The Bear, and wanted to congratulate you on not dying. My husband and I also live a rural lifestyle and have had problems with a bear, but have not yet shot at it. I'm hoping another hunter got him last bear season. Thanks for your blog, I enjoy reading and dreaming.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Great to hear you enjoy the blog. ours was a very unusual situation with all that salmon hanging around. We've had plenty of bears on this property but they just go on by as there is no food so I hope never to have to shoot one again, unless we decide to hunt one for meat.

      Delete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

In the land of the shape-shifters

Annoying the wildlife

Moose Encounters