In 1949 jobs were scarce in Alberta. Desperate to support his young family, my father obtained permission from the Alberta government to cut a block of trees on Big Island. That spring he and one of his older brothers, George, rowed two kilometers across Chip Lake to the island and spent a full morning slogging through muskeg and brush searching for the corner stake marking his cut block.
At noon, cold, tired and hungry, they stopped at a small clearing and built a fire. While George broke branches into burnable pieces, Dad filled a billy with water. He was about to set it on the fire when he heard a snuffling noise. He looked up and his hand froze in mid-air.
“We've got company, George.”
His brother turned just as a lean, hungry-looking bear ambled across the clearing. The animal paid no attention to the men and soon disappeared into the woods.
“Should have brought my gun,” Dad said, letting out his breath.
George laughed. “Not scared of that puny, half-starved bit of scruff, are you?”
“Not a chance!” To prove his lack of concern, Dad casually added some tea leaves to the billy and dug a cheese and onion sandwich from his pack. He was about to take his first bite when the willow bushes across the clearing crackled and the bear ambled back out. Hunching down on his haunches, he proceeded to stare at Dad and George.
“You know,” said Dad as he casually rewrapped the rest of his sandwich and shoved it in his pocket, “I think maybe I’m not as hungry as I thought I was.”
“Well, far be it from me to get between a man and his fear,” George mocked. He shoved his own sandwich back into his pack and emptied the billy onto the fire. “Let’s just find that bloody stake and get the hell out of here.” He wasn’t quite running as he led the way along a rough trail that they thought might have been made by the government surveyors. Close on his heels, Dad managed a glance back. Seeing with considerable alarm that the bear was following them, he launched part of his sandwich at the bushes behind him. In the few seconds it took for the bear to find and inhale the food, he and George hightailed it up a hill.
“That stake should be right over in there,” George said, pointing to a distant corner of the muskeg.
Since the bear had not followed them up the hill, the men felt safe enough to return to lower ground. For the next half hour they sloshed through an icy soup of decayed vegetation and fought their way through willow and cranberry bushes and around deeper ponds dotted with muskrat mounds, but they found no stake. Finally they climbed out onto a patch of dry land cluttered with a mat of spruce deadfalls.
Just thirty yards away was the lean and hungry-looking bear.
“Guess he liked that snack you gave him,” George said over his shoulder as he began jumping from downed tree to downed tree.
Certain that the bear, being less agile, would be unable to follow, Dad tossed his last sandwich on the ground then tree-hopped after his brother. He soon discovered that while they were struggling to keep their balance on the downed trees, the bear was passing easily beneath them.
When the deadfalls ended, the men raced across a grassy clearing, dodging blueberry bushes and rabbit holes until they came upon a large ant hill.
“This should slow the little bastard down!” George snarled.
They kicked the hill apart, and exposing an army of angry red ants, then sped towards the wooded area ahead of them. Before disappearing into the trees, Dad paused long enough to see a dark ball of fur hunched over the ant colony.
It was the last they saw of the bear.
After a while they slowed their pace and finally stopped in the midst of a thick growth of mature spruce trees.
“This island’s not that big,” George reasoned, studying the trees. “I’ll bet you’ve got the only timber licence they’ve allotted.”
“You’re probably right,” Dad agreed. “And this is a good patch of timber.”
Neither man said anything more about the bear as they made their way back to the lake and headed for home.
For the next six weeks Dad worked from dawn until dusk felling trees with a crosscut saw. Then he barged a team of horses over to the island and used them to skid the logs along peeled-pole rollways to the lakeshore. When he had a substantial pile of logs, he dumped a load into the water and towed them with his rowboat across the lake to George’s mill. The following morning he went back for a second load only to find a large notice on the pile:
DO NOT REMOVE THESE LOGS. THIS IS PERMIT NO. 708 HELD BY THE LAKESIDE LOGGING COMPANY.
Investigation proved that my father’s timber permit was for a different location on the island—a mistake he blamed entirely on the bear.
Although he received no money for his labors, Dad was not penalized for the timber he had cut. However, since he needed cash to feed his family, he had no choice but to sell his lease and start a new business—one that did not entail finding elusive stakes or dodging hungry bears.