The bear waded into the marshy bay along the edge of the small lake. It was hot and he had been sleeping the last few hours and he was thirsty. A pair of mallard ducks flushed from the reeds along the edge and flew low over his head. He watched without reacting. He had learned a long time ago that trying to catch a bird in flight is almost impossible, so he didn’t burn the energy.
Looking down, he noticed a large fish that had been disturbed by the flush of the ducks and was swimming into the shadows of the reeds. He plunged his mouth into the water and grabbed the fish behind its head. He had no way of knowing the big fish was a northern pike, he just knew it was food. He brought it to the shore and took his time eating it, savoring the rich flavor.
After drinking, he continued his search for food. It was the time of change. The nights were getting cooler and the plants were starting to change color. He knew winter was coming and with it the long sleep that he had done eight times already in his life. The first time was with his mother and sister, but he barely remembered them. After that, he was alone during the long, cold winters.
He had learned to find a good place, something deep, away from the cold and to line it with leaves. He remembered that first year on his own when he decided to crawl up against the root ball of a tree that fell over deep in the swamp. It was a lazy place, picked for that reason. He was young and stupid and he didn’t understand that what was comfortable in November was not necessarily good for February. That winter was brutal and he was cold for months. He was so hungry that twice he had left the den to explore the snow-covered wasteland. But there was nothing to eat, so he returned to his cold den.
Once, deep into the winter, some humans disturbed him. They were hunting rabbits with a beagle and the dog had found him sleeping. The men came to the barking and poked at him with sticks until he ran away. It was two very cold days before he dared to return.
By the time the snow started to melt, he was near death with exposure and starvation. He was lucky that it was an early spring and he was able to find some grass and other green plants growing along the open ground that crisscrossed this area. He expelled his grass plug and grazed on the meager plants until his stomach started working enough to try real food. A few days later he found a deer dead along one of the hard rivers that man built through the woods. With that protein, he survived, but barely. After that he put some time and thought into what would be his home during the winter months.
This time, he had a place in mind—where he denned last winter, a small cave formed by two huge rocks and covered by trees and the dirt from eons of leaves dropping. It was comfortable and with all the dry leaves he took in it was warm. But, it was many miles from here. The bear wasn’t worried as he still had plenty of time. Right now he needed food, lots of food. He had to pack on the weight so that he had fat reserves to survive not eating for five months.
He could smell the doughnuts and the molasses as he circled the place where they were. He could not smell any other bears, only a raccoon. He could, however, smell the man. The bear waited and watched. It wasn’t long before he saw a movement up in a tree about 10 feet off the ground. The man had some kind of shiny thing in his hand. He was staring at it and every few minutes he would flick it with his fingers. That movement is what caught the bear’s attention. The bear melted back into the woods and the man never knew he was there.
Many years ago, he didn’t know about the men in trees and late one afternoon he had gone into a similar place for a meal. The food was in a metal container with holes so he could smell that wonderful aroma. There was a flat piece of wood unlike any he had ever seen in the forest blocking the hole and a big rock holding it down. The rock posed no obstacle to his great strength and he simply swept it from the top. Then he moved that flat stick and stuck his face into the metal drum enjoying the wild aromas coming out of the thing. This was nothing like anything he had ever found in the woods. The sweet smell was intoxicating and while he didn’t recognize it, he knew it would taste as good as it smelled.
There was a loud sound like thunder, even though it was not the time for rain. He felt a sharp pain in his leg and he dropped and held perfectly still.
His leg hurt horribly. Worse than the aftermath of any fight he had been in. Worse than when he tried to cross a hard river and a huge metal rock had hit him and broke his ribs. This hurt more than all that combined, but he lay perfectly still. Instinct told him that to move meant death.
He listened intently and finally heard the sound of booted feet moving on wood and then the much louder metallic sound of a rifle bolt being cycled. Now that he knew where the danger was he reacted instantly, jumping to his feet and running, putting trees and bushes between himself and the source of his pain. He heard the thunder again, but there was no new pain, so he ran.
He knew of a place a mile away where the grape vines grew thick along the steep bank of a small brook. The high water had washed under the bank behind the vines, forming a small cave. That’s where he wanted to be, and 20 minutes later he crossed the brook and crawled into the hole. He was breathing hard from the run and the pain, but he soon calmed his breathing. He was used to pain as it was simply a way of life.
It was morning when he heard them coming. There were three men and they made a lot of noise, growling back and forth in a language he didn’t understand. Twice they walked on the ground above his hiding spot. They milled around for a long time, going back on their trail and following it back to the brook over and over. They would move up and down the brook, but always coming back to where he had crossed it late last night. The sun was high in the sky when they finally left, and he slept.
His leg hurt for a long time and it kept him from feeding. With the pain, he wasn’t that hungry anyway. He entered his winter den that year in poor shape. What saved him was another mild winter and the fact that he was in prime condition before his leg was hurt. By spring he would walk on it again, but it was stiff and never again worked as well as it had before.
After that, he avoided those places with that wonderful smell. They only seemed to appear during the time of change and before the winter. Early, when the change first started, the woods filled up with multiple places that held the sweet-smelling mysteries. Oddly enough though, there was always the smell of man around those places. Not always from a man waiting there, although sometimes they were, but from one that had come and gone. It was almost as if the man was bringing the sweet-smelling food.
After a few years he discovered that the waiting men always left when it became dark. Sometimes they just pretended to leave, hoping to entice him into making a mistake, but he remembered his leg and how it hurt and he never did. He learned that if he waited for a long while after the dark came it was safe to approach and eat those wonderful things the men were bringing.
There were many more men in the woods during the time of change. Most carried a metal stick with an odd oily scent. He found the men to be predictable, noisy and smelly, and avoiding them was not difficult. After a few years and a few close calls with men, the bear learned to move mostly at night during this time, as men are not in the woods when it is dark.
Once he was eating grass along the edge of one of those hard rivers when one of the metal rocks came, making a lot of noise. He crouched down in the high grass and hid. The rock stopped and a man got out with one of those odd smelling sticks. He pointed it at a grouse that was picking gravel on the edge of the hard river and it made that noise like thunder. Feathers flew from the grouse and it fell to the ground with its wings beating, but it didn’t fly. The man picked up the grouse and got back into the metal rock. It made a loud noise as he closed the opening, one the bear learned to mean there were men arriving.
He had heard the dogs barking many times before and had smelled their footprints, but didn’t know what they were doing. This time they seemed to be following his tracks. He was eating beechnuts along a ridge that crossed one of those hard rivers, but one made from dirt instead of rock. He heard the men talking and that odd noise the metal rocks made when they got in and out of them. Then he heard the dogs barking.
The bear waited. It was late in the change time and there was a lot of food that year. He had eaten all he could find and had put on a lot of weight. He had no way of knowing, but when he left his den that spring he weighed 320 pounds. Right now he weighed more than 460 pounds. He was one of the biggest bears around. He had not lost a fight in many years and most of the other male bears left him alone. He liked it that way; he preferred to be alone and eating.
It was morning when he heard them coming. There were three men and they made a lot of noise, growling back and forth in a language he didn’t understand. Twice they walked on the ground above his hiding spot. They milled around for a long time, going back on their trail and following it back to the brook over and over.
Suddenly two brindle-colored dogs appeared, running along the very path he had walked a short while ago. They had colorful things around their necks and it looked like small saplings were growing from those things. They barked loudly as they followed his footsteps.
The bear knew he was more than a match for those two puny dogs. He had no real enemies, feared nothing but man and was simply annoyed by these dogs. He backed up to a ledge to cover his back side and waited for the dogs. The Plott hounds were fighters and fearless, but no match for this bear. He managed to swat the younger one with his massive front paw, the paw that hadn’t been hurt. The dog flew through the air and lay still on the ground. The other dog grew more careful, it continued barking but never moved close enough for the bear to bite or hit. Still, the bear knew it was simply a matter of time before he could kill this dog too. Then he could go on about the business of eating beechnuts.
He heard more dogs barking. They were getting closer. Three more dogs came along the same path, followed by two more. This was too much and the bear ran.
With all the extra weight he grew winded rather quickly and stopped to fight the dogs again. This time he backed up to a big, erratic rock, left by the glaciers to stand alone in the hardwoods. He fought the dogs for several minutes, but they were cautious and he didn’t manage to kill any of them.
He heard the voices and then the footsteps of men. Watching that direction, he saw three men approaching and one of them had a metal stick. Fearing that stick, knowing how it made his leg hurt, the bear ran. Twice more he stopped to fight and catch his breath and twice more the men came and he ran. The bear wanted to get to a cave in the ledges where he had wintered a few times. If he could get deep into that place, the dogs would have to come one at a time and he could kill them.
He didn’t count on all his new bulk and it was a tight fit, so he was struggling to get through the opening in the rocks. He knew the cave opened up enough so he could turn around to face the entrance and the dogs, but he had to get through the tight opening first.
One of the dogs bit his butt and his anger and hate fueled the final push into the cave. When he got to the larger room deep in the cave there was a porcupine living there. The bear knew to leave him alone, but the porcupine wanted no part of this big angry bear and he headed out of the cave. The bear heard the dogs as they attacked the porcupine when it exited the cave. Then the men came. He heard lots of shouting and he heard the dogs yelping in pain. Finally they all left and he went to sleep dreaming of beechnuts, wild grapes and glorious fights.
This fall, the time of change, the bear was 10 years old. He was starting to hurt in his joints and a painful broken tooth kept him from feeding as well as he wanted. He was missing two other teeth and his molars were worn down so much that eating made his mouth sore. He had lost a fight for the first time during the spring breeding season and that had cost him a claw, torn from his good front foot. It was still sore and walking was difficult.
Food was abundant and he had eaten his fill every day. He didn’t get as big as in past years as he was not digesting the poorly chewed food very well. Still, he was nearly 375 pounds. In spite of his aches and pains from living a long life, the bear was content. He had lots of food and he had learned to avoid crossing the hard rivers in the dark so that the dogs had not found his scent at all this year. He had managed to breed several sows last spring before the bigger, younger bear had arrived and beaten him so badly. That was months ago and he now spent the time since sleeping and eating.
Until a few weeks back there were lots of those sweet-smelling food places and he had raided them night after night. Until his tooth broke and that food made it hurt. It didn’t matter; there were lots of beechnuts, grapes, choke cherries, mountain ash, berries, apples and other food that didn’t make his tooth hurt as much, so he didn’t have to work too hard to keep his belly full these past weeks.
Now it was cold. The skies were gray and a bitter wind blew the sleet and snow into his eyes. Even with all the food, he knew it was time. He had a den ready, one he had used before. He had slept in it the last few nights and he thought perhaps it was time to block the door with leaves and settle down for the winter.
The bear walked along quietly, making no sound as his feet hit the mossy ground. He would travel up through this low valley until he was even with his den, which was high in the ledges on the beechnut ridge. He turned at the trail to the ridge and started up in the fading light of late afternoon. He spotted a bunch of beechnuts that had washed into a pool with the rain that morning and collected in the small puddle of water. There was quite a bunch of them floating there and he stood for some time eating them all. The light was fading as he left that depression and climbed back to the trail he had used so many times in the past few days.
He heard a soft metallic noise that he knew was not natural. It came from high up in a hemlock and he stopped and looked at the sound.