The story of an encounter with a bear at one of the Star Lake campgrounds.
JUNE 26, 2012 From the Blog: Popping Off
My Dad, the Ghost Indian Chief, and the Bear: A Truly True Tall Tale (And Other Stories)
In my first post of this blog (which was, like, a whole week and a half ago!), I promised I’d tell a great story from my childhood camping memories. Well, yesterday, I got a big box from my mom filled with old family photos (I’d bribed her to send them by offering to organize them into archival-quality albums), so now I have pictures to augment the story.
As I mentioned in that first post, I went on my first camping trip when I was 9 months old. Until I was a teen, camping is what my family did for vacation, period—and, if the notes on the backs of these old photos are to be believed, when I was very young, we did it several times a year.
The back reads “Lake of the Ozarks, Summer 1966?–so I was 20 months or so. Already an old pro.
We were living in St. Louis, and we camped mainly in state camps in and around the Ozarks: Alley Spring and Round Spring, Lake of the Ozarks, Lake Pomme de Terre, Table Rock Lake, Taum Sauk. My dad loved—I mean loved—to fish, so we camped where there was good fishing.
That’s not to say he wouldn’t do anything but fish. Sometimes, he’s sit around camp and play his ukulele. Alley Springs, 1966. I’m still not two.
But he loved to fish. This is apparently such a good fish he wanted a picture of it after he got home. Summer 1968.
It’s such a good fish, in fact, you should get a picture with your 3yo old daughter holding it, too.
In fact, my first memory of camping, which is disconnected from the context of any particular trip but occurred when I was five, is of catching my first fish with my dad—a little catfish I promptly named Lisa.
Now, The Catching of Lisa became a Family Story, so I’m actually not sure how much of Lisa I legitimately remember and how much has been cemented in my head by the many loric retellings, but I remain to this day very fond of Lisa.
The story is that my dad took me to the dock with my little bamboo pole with its little red-and-white bobber on the end and taught me to fish. I assume he baited the hook for me—though I have baited many a hook in my day, I would imagine my prissy five-year-old self, who wouldn’t wear anything but dresses, would have been NOT OKAY with touching a slimy, wriggly nightcrawler. So my dad baited my hook, and I dangled and bobbed my line in the water, and eventually snagged pretty little Lisa. I was very excited, and we ran back to camp to show my new friend off.
My friend Lisa and me. Fishing in a dress is totally the thing, btw.
But Lisa wasn’t faring so well up at camp. It was, well, a dry heat, you know? And I started to get very worried about Lisa’s well being. So we ran her back to the lake, and my dad knelt down in the water with her, trying to drag water through her gills to revive her.
All this I feel like I remember. But the Family Story contains information I wouldn’t have known. My dad dragged that wilted little fish back and forth for a long, long time, but she was a goner. He looked back at his crying, worried little daughter. And then he rooted around on the lake bed for a rock, buried Lisa under it, turned to me and said: “Hey! Lisa’s all better! She just swam away back to her mama and daddy!” And for the rest of the trip, we looked out in the lake for Lisa and her family, and every now and then, my dad would say, “Look! I think I just saw Lisa!”
Shortly after that summer, my dad got transferred, and we moved to Milwaukee. My most vivid camping memories come from this period, when we camped every year in northern Wisconsin. By this time we weren’t taking multiple trips every year (at least we weren’t as a family, though my dad would go off for fishing weekends with the guys every now and then), but the one trip we took would be weeks long.
Those trips were interesting in that in some ways the days weren’t dramatically different from our days at home. My mom and dad would rise early, and my mom would make breakfast and pack a lunch for my dad (one of my favorite sense memories is waking to the rumbly low sounds of morning camp, my parents speaking quietly so as not to rouse my brother and me as we still slept in the tent), and then my dad would hike off to the lake, where his little green fiberglass johnboat was docked.
My dad, heading out on his own.
Most days, my dad would fish all day. My mom, my brother, and I would be at camp, and my mom would basically keep house—cooking, cleaning, keeping track of us kids. We’d play games, or take a hike, or go to the swimming beach, or play on the playground. We got to know other camping families, so sometimes we’d play with them while the moms (fishing widows all) chatted.
My dad would hang around with us some days (I’ve come to wonder whether those weren’t days when my mom said something that started with, “Dammit, Don!”) and go swimming or whatever with us, and some days he’d take us all out in the boat. But we didn’t create an environment very conducive to catching dinner, so those were short jaunts before he deposited us on the shore.
I didn’t name this one. Alas, the cynicism that comes with age.
Some days, my mom would pack us up and we’d head into town for groceries or to do laundry (these trips, remember, would last a while). Or we’d go sightseeing, if there were sights around worth seeing. Then, in the late afternoon (sometimes really later), my dad would return to camp, his day’s catch cleaned and ready to cook. Musky was what he was after, but I remember lots of walleye and bass, too. Some days, there wasn’t much of a catch.
Okay. Even I know that’s a good fish.
My mom would cook dinner, clean again, and we’d sit around the campfire talking and telling stories until bedtime.
On rainy days, when it was too wet even for my dad, we’d spend the whole day in the big canvas tent, trying not to touch the sides, playing cards and board games, and reading. My brother and I had the extra activity of bugging the crap out of our parents.
I don’t see any blood, so it must not have been raining long. And no one’s touched the sides yet.
Come to think of it, I’m not exactly sure why my mom enjoyed camping so much. Maybe that’s why, when I was thirteen, she suddenly declared that we were taking sightseeing vacations from now on, and she was sleeping in hotel beds. And if we were going to vacation on a lake again, we’d stay at a resort.
Anyway. The bear story.
Mom, brother, and me hanging out at camp. This picture is mostly important because of the canopy. Read on.
We were camping at Star Lake. The fishing hadn’t been all that great, though, and one day we loaded the boat on the trailer and took it and my dad over to nearby Lake Laura, where he’d heard from other camping dads that the muskies were biting. We left him there, and my mom took my brother and me to the Mille Lacs Indian reservation for the day. There we saw all the things tourists see at Indian reservations—people in full tribal garb, a storyteller, various tribal dances, beaded dolls, etc. IT WAS AWESOME. And a little scary, to my seven-year-old self.
Awesome and scary Ojibwe Indian chief. Also, I’m noticing it took my mom a really, really long time to get photos developed. This would have been taken in summer 1972, but it was developed in April 1973.
It was late by the time we finally got back to camp, after collecting my dad and the boat, and by the time my mom made camp stew and we had dinner, it was full dark and everyone was exhausted. My brother and I were packed off to bed.
There are bears in the woods of northern Wisconsin (at least there were 40 years ago), and so there were signs around the campgrounds that cautioned campers never to leave food out in camp, especially not overnight. So every night after dinner, my mom would wash up all the dishes, pack up all the food, and put it in the car for the night.
Washing dishes at camp is a big pain in the ass. You have to deal with the garbage first, and then you have to haul the water from the pump and heat it before you can wash, and you have to have hauled enough for rinsing water too. Maybe camp stew, in the big cooking pot, wasn’t the best choice for this particular night. Maybe this was more of a PBJ kind of night. But my mom made camp stew. And then was too tired to deal with the dishes.
She also didn’t want the dirty dishes stinking up the car all night.
So she washed all the “easy” dishes—the bowls and utensils and stuff—and all that was left was the big pot. The big, pain-to-clean pot, which needed whole fresh tubs of washing and rinsing water. What to do, what to do. Put the lid on it, tie a rope around the whole thing, and leave it on the table? Sounds like a plan.
And off to bed.
Of course, my brother and I, having been sent to bed already, weren’t privy to these decisions (not that we would have had the interest or acuity to forestall them). We were snuggled in our sleeping bags—you know, the really comfy old kind, with the cotton flannel lining printed with hunting dogs—sleeping the sleep of the innocent.
Until I was roused violently from sleep by the powerful and terrifying war cry of a ghost Indian chief. (Why a ghost Indian chief? I don’t know. I was seven. Ghosts were scary, and I was a gloomy kid. Move on.) And then another cry—a searingly loud, unholy wail that made my butt cheeks clench. By now, my brother was awake too, and crying. My mom skitter-crawled across the tent and grabbed us both, whispering, “It’s okay, it’s okay.” Not very convincingly.
My actual memory of the night stops there. Apparently, being three and seven respectively, my brother and I were, in fact, convinced and were lulled back to sleep. Some holes got filled in for me the next morning. Others were filled in during the MANY MANY loric retellings of My Dad’s Favorite Story of All Time Ever.
Here’s what happened:
Surprise, surprise: bears like camp stew. One bear, anyway. A big black bear, who sauntered into our camp, attracted to the alluring aroma of my mom’s cooking. Bears not being known for their table manners, and apparently slightly flummoxed by the rope around the pot holding his dinner, this bear was making a ruckus in our camp, and that ruckus roused my parents.
My dad, being The Man of The House (er, Tent), went out to investigate and came face to face with our guest. What would Nick Adams do? he wondered (okay, I’m speculating about that). And my father roared. The bear responded by standing up on his hindlegs. And my father roared again. The bear came back down to his forelegs, bringing the canopy over our picnic table down in the process, turned around, and sauntered off in a huff.
As one might imagine, the bear, and my dad’s war cries, roused our neighbors, and eventually that night the whole campground was buzzing with the story of my dad and the bear (the ghost Indian chief was mine alone). The next morning, there was a traffic jam through the camp exit, as many families had, literally, broken camp. We, of course, stayed on. My dad had faced down a bear. He had A STORY, and he wasn’t going anywhere.
(They did make sure to pack up all the food from then on, though. I mean, how many stories does one guy need?)
My dad took that yellow-and-blue-striped canopy, which had shaded our camp tables for years, down that day. He folded it very carefully, so that the two huge, perfect bear paw prints were right on top. We kept that canopy for the rest of my dad’s life, but we never used it again.
We preserved the evidence.
Comment: Charles Forbes says: November 13, 2012 at 9:43 pm It’s a great story, but you got your Indian reservations mixed up. Mille Lacs is in central Minnesota, about 5 hours drive from Star Lake. On the other hand, Lac du Flambeau Indian Reservation is about 45 minutes away and could have provided all of the activities you mention. Star Lake is a great lake for camping! Charles Forbes, summer resident of Star Lake,