Bear vs. Birch-Bark.
Charles G. D. Roberts
It was on the upper waters of the Oromocto river that the case of Bear vs Birch-Bark was decided. The tributary of the St. John is one of the noted trout streams of New Brunswick. Hither had my friend C—-and I betaken ourselves, in our birch-bark canoe, to cool off a little, get the city dust out of our eyes, and, most important of all, to take some Oromocto trout.
The Oromocto is for the most part less rapid than other trout rivers of New Brunswick; in fact, for long distances its current is quite sluggish, a characteristic finely suited to our indolence and luxuriousness of mood, Paddling quietly, or poling when the water was swift, we had soon left behind as all traces of civilization. Instead of beautiful open meadow shores shaded with here and there a mighty elm or ash, we entered the ruggedest parts of the original wilderness, where the soil was too barren and stony to tempt even a squatter, and where the banks were clothed with dark hemlocks to the water's edge. Sometimes, these sombre woods gave back a space, and a wild confusion of many kinds of trees took their place— pines; ash, birch, basswood, birch, and beech, mixed with fallen trunks and staring white boulders. Sometimes, again, in the midst of the most impenetrable forest, a delightful little patch of intervals, or icy water-side meadow, would open up before us, inviting us to pitch our tent amid its deep, soft grasses. Such invitation as this we were generally prompt to accept. These tiny meadows were always studded with elms and balsam poplar, growing wide apart, so that the grassy carpet between them was warmed by the sunshine. Scattered through the grass were clumps of tall wild lilies, their orange blossoms glowing amid the green; and around the stately heads of the wild parsnips, which made the air heavy with rich perfume, fluttered and clung the silver-throated bobolinks. What wonder we rested when we came to these wilderness gardens whose possession there was none to dispute with us! We found that as a rule we might count upon an ice-cold brook near by. Where-ever such brooks flowed in there would be a deep pool, or an eddy covered with foam-clusters, or a pebbly musical rapid; which means a day of glorious activity for our rods and reels and flies. Here were the trout, many and hungry, and only at such spots it was worth our while to cast a fly, at least till we should come to the outlets of the lakes, still many miles of paddling beyond.
After several delightful days of this sort of thing, we came upon a place where two brooks emptied within a stone’s throw of each other, coming in through a deep shaded valley on either side the main stream. These brooks were noisy and rapid, full of races and tiny falls; the pools at their mouth were deep and ample; and our neat trials were risen to with an eagerness which promised unlimited sport. High up on one of the hillsides we espied a snug grassy “pocket,” wherein we established ourselves for a stay of some days. It was a remote, unusual camping ground, combining to our minds the charm of a hill fortress and a desert island. About this nest the breezes blew deliciously, and mosquitoes and sand-flies seldom found their way thither. The fishing proved to be all we had anticipated, and we doubted if the lakes themselves would be side to give us anything better.
It was the third day of our stay in this rare nook, and, after such a morning with the trout as had left our wrists well tired, we were inclined to give our rods a resting spell. The afternoon was sultry and drowsy- it was toward the close of July,-and C-‘s highest ambition was to take a long siesta in the tent door, where an overhanging beech tree kept off the sun, and a sweet breeze seemed to have established its headquarters. There was no wind elsewhere that I could perceive, yet round our tent a soft breath of it was wandering all the day.
For my own part I didn’t feel like loafing or lotus-eating. The fever for specimens was upon me. I have an intermittent passion for the various branches of natural history, and am given at times to collecting birds and plants and insects. This afternoon I had visions of gorgeous butterflies, rare feathered fowl, and various other strangely lovely things, thronging my brain; so I put into the canoe my gauze net and double-barrelled breechloader, and set off up stream in a vague search after some novelty.
Let me confess it, my taste was destined to be gratified beyond my hopes. Indeed, for some time afterward I had much less relish for novelties.
Above our camping-ground the river for some distance was swift and deep. Beyond this it widened out and became almost as motionless as a lake. Along these still reaches the shores were comparatively low, and less heavily wooded, with here and there a little corner of meadow, a bit of wet marsh covered with cattail flags, or a dense fragrant thicket of Indian willow. There were water-lily leaves in broad patches right across the stream, and the air was gay with green and purple dragon-flies which lit on my gunwale and glittered in the sun like jewels. There was not even a rustle of leaves to break the silence.
At last, as I noiselessly rounded a low bushy point, right ahead I saw a splendid blue heron which was watching intently for minnows in the shallow water. He spread his broad wings and rose instantly. I had just time to let him have one barrel as he disappeared over a thicket of alders, flying so low that his long legs swept their tops. I felt certain I had hit him, for straightway rose a great cackling and struggling among the bushes beyond. In my haste I failed to notice that this disturbance was rather too violent to be proceeding from any wounded bird, unless it were a dodo.
Running my bitch ashore alongside of a mouldering trunk which had fallen with half its length in the stream, I made my way, gun in hand, through the underwood without stopping to load my empty barrel. There were no signs of blue herons where my bird was supposed to have fallen; but to my unlimited astonishment I beheld a black bear cub making off at his very best speed, badly scared.
At my sudden appearance he gave a curious bleat of alarm, and redoubled his efforts to escape. He had little cause of alarm, however, as I did not want him for a specimen; and had I wanted him ever so much, I could not well have bagged him with no heavier ammunition than bird shot. I was watching his flight with a sort of sympathetic amusement when, with a most disagreeable suddenness and completeness, the tables were turned upon me. In the underbrush behind me I heard a mighty crashing; and there, to my dismay, was the old she-bear, in a fine rage, rushing to the rescue of her offspring. Considering that the offspring’s peril was not immediate, I thought she need not have been in such a tremendous hurry.
She had cut off my retreat. She was directly in the line of my sole refuge, my faithful and tried birch-bark. There was no time left for meditation. I darted straight towards the enemy. Undaunted by this boldness she rose upon her hind legs to give me a fitting reception. When almost within her reach I fired my charge of bird shot right in her face, which, not unnaturally, seemed somewhat to confuse her for a moment. It was a moment’s diversion in my favor. I made the most of it. I dashed past, and had gained some paces toward the canoe, when my adversary was again in full chase, more furious than ever. As I reached the canoe she sprang upon the other end of the log, and was almost aboard of me ere I could seize the paddle and thrust out.
Fortunately I headed down stream, for the made brute took to the water without hesitation. Had the stream been deep I should merely have laughed at this, but in these shallows it was no laughing matter. The channel was deep enough to impede the bear’s running, but by no means to make running impossible. I felt that the question of speed between us was now a painfully doubtful one. My back bent to the paddle. The broad blade flashed through the water with all the force and swiftness I was a master of. Close behind, though I could not spare time to look back, I could hear the animal plunging in pursuit, and I was drenched with the spray of her splashings. I was a skilful canoeist; I have won many races; but never was another canoe race I was so bent upon winning as this one.
At last, snatching a glance over my shoulder, I saw that I had gained, though but slightly. It was well I had, for the tremendous pace was one which I could keep up no longer. I knew the deep water was still far ahead, and I knew, too, the obstinacy and tireless strength of my pursuer. There was therefore a grave uncertainty in my mind as to whether I could succeed in holding the lead much longer. I slackened a little, saving my strength all I could; but the beat at once made up her lost ground, and my breathing space was brief. At a little short of my best, but still at a killing pace enough, I found I could keep out of reach. But if a shoal should come in the way, or a sunken log, or any like obstruction, the game was up. With this chance in view I had little leisure for watching my pursuer’s progress. I could hear, however, and feel, quite too much of it.
After what seemed an age of this desperate racing, we came to a part of the stream where I expected a change in my favor. For a quarter of a mile I would have a fair current, in a narrower and deeper channel. Here I gained ground at once. I relaxed my efforts a good deal, gave my aching arms a moment’s rest, and watched the angry bear wallowing clumsily after me, able now neither to run or swim. This ended the matter, I fondly imagined; and I drew a long sigh of relief.
But I was far yet from being out of the wood! I had begun to “follow” now every bound of her great black form. The sharp chattering laugh of a kingfisher startled me, and I noticed the bird fly off down the stream, indignant. How I wished I might borrow his wings! Just then the bear, having got a little in advance of me, sprang for mid-stream, so sagaciously timing her effort that had I kept on she must inevitably have seized or upset me. But it was this I was on the watch for. In the nick of time I backed water with all my might, swerved aside, and darted past close behind her-so close that I could have clutched her shaggy hind quarters. I had no special reason for attempting this feat, however, so I sped on.
And now began a second stretch of shoals. For the next half-mile it was much the same old story, save that I gained a better start. There was one little variation, however, which came near making an end to the whole affair. In rounding a sharp turn I did just what I had been dreading- ran aground. It was only on the skirts of a sloping shoal, and I was off again before I had time to think; but the distance betwixt pursuer and pursued had grown painfully less in that moment. I could all but feel the animal’s hot breath upon the back of my neck. The strain was terrible; but soon I began to take heart again, I thought to myself that surely I could hold not till clear of these last shallows; and after that I knew the shores were such as might be expected to baffle even this most indomitable of bears. When again we reached deep water I was paddling a splendid stroke, and the bear, apparently as fresh and as wrathful as ever, was floundering along perhaps two canoe-lengths in the rear.
By this time the camp was in sight, a good half-mile off. I beheld C----- come lazily out of the tent, take a glance at the situation, and dart back again. Gun in hand he re-appeared and ran up the shore to meet us. Feeling that now I had matters pretty well my own way, I waved him back. So he took his stand on the summit of a precipitous bluff and awaited his chance for a shot.
As soon as the bear found herself again compelled to swim, with a snort and a growl she turned shoreward to repeat her former manoeuvre. She took the opposite shore to that occupied by C------. The banks were steep and crumbly, clothed along top with bushes and fallen trees and rocks, and a tangle of wild vines. Yet the unwearied brute managed to overcome these difficulties by her stupendous strength and actually outstripped me once more. It was all she could accomplish, however, and just as she sprang for the canoe the edge of the bank gave way beneath her weight, and in an avalanche of stones and loose earth rolled head over heels into the river. I was far away before she could recover herself. I saw that she was utterly disgusted with the whole thing. She clambered ashore and on top of the bank stood stupidly gazing after me. Then I laughed and laughed, till my overstrained sides were near bursting. I could hear peals of mirth from C- at his post on the bluff, and was calmed at last by a fear lest his convulsions might do him some injury.
Reaching our landing place I only wait to pull the canoe’s nose up on to the grass, then threw myself down quite exhausted. A moment later the bear gave herself a mighty shaking and, accepting her defeat, moved sullenly back up stream. Then turning with pride to my trusty birch, with her swift and graceful outlines, I fervently congratulated myself that the case of Bear vs. Birch-Bark was satisfactorily settled at last.