This is inspired by a true story a neighbour told me about a bear encounter. I couldn’t stop thinking about it so I decided to try to bring it to life with a short ficitonalized story. I hope you enjoy it.
Painting by Jammie Mountz. Thank you to Geoffrey Cole and Dom Prevost for their feedback.
– JR, January 2022
Painting by Jammie Mountz. Thank you to Geoffrey Cole and Dom Prevost for their feedback.
– JR, January 2022
Who belongs here?
To make a thief, make an owner; to create crime, create laws.
– Ursula K. Le Guin
Robert Olsson had been awake for several hours.
He rose well before dawn most days. He found he needed less sleep as he aged. Now nearing eighty, five or six hours was often enough – though these came broken throughout the night as he oscillated between wakefulness and shallow sleep.
Rising from his bed, he left Elke sleeping under the duvet and padded barefoot into the hall. He ran his calloused hand along the beams of their log house as he found and descended the staircase in the dim light. The treads creaked under his familiar weight, echoed by his protesting joints.
In the kitchen he rekindled the wood stove, its coals quiet but still warm. He added a few sticks of fir from the neat pile beside the firebox, then a split log of birch. A single long breath blown over the coals, and the fire sparked back into existence. He scooped grounds into the coffee maker and started the machine burbling. He sat, the cast iron doors of the stove open. The reborn fire gently warmed his feet.
Outside, a clear April morning dawned. Long shadows draped across the low forest and small patches of cultivated land, clinging to the night's cool moisture.
The dawn light warmed the imposing vertical face of the ridge looming over the valley, slowly turning it from grey-blue to peach, then ivory. As the sun climbed, the rolling contours of the farm revealed themselves. Songs of robins and the clarion calls of thrushes welcomed the new day.
The Olssons had purchased the acreage four decades ago. A modest plot of heavily forested slope between the ridge and the river, efficiently logged and cleared for farming. Stables and tidy drive sheds were scattered among the small rectangular fields, housing animals and the machines used to maintain the property.
Two log homes stood in commanding positions upslope from the farm at the treeline. One for Robert and Elke, the other for their children and grandchildren to share. They built the homes with the logs of the cedars they cleared from the land. Robert was rarely without a chainsaw, axe, or chisel and hammer in his hands in those days.
Robert bought the land from a pair of men named Davis and Diekstra, who in turn bought the land from the Crown. The Crown stole the land from the indigenous Lil̓wat7úl people, who had lived there for longer than anyone knew how to count. The Crown quickly set down lines on maps so that they could convert nature into territory and territory into property.
A fast-moving glacial river crossed these lines, wending through the valley of mixed forest and wetland. Douglas fir columns towered over tangled groves of cedar, in turn kept company by slow-growing hemlocks. Where the shallow-rooted firs had blown down, tight clusters of birch and alder sprang up and just as rapidly began to die from the top down, making inviting apartment blocks for woodpeckers and the insects they ate.
Ravens surveilled the premises from their lofty position in the treetops, coasting on the air currents that flowed in the sky above the river below. Lichen and fungi reclaimed everything that fell to the forest floor.
That spring of ‘98, the Olssons were occupied with a new endeavour: alpaca farming. The crown jewel of their enterprise had just arrived – a beautiful young herd sire named Hot Shot.
Hot Shot had been awarded First Overall at the Northwest Alpaca Showcase. The judges remarked upon the exceptional fineness, uniformity, and density of his rich red-brown coat. Particular attention was paid to the consistency of the crimp. His fleece was rated Superior and given a perfect score. This result, combined with Hot Shot's excellent lineage, set a high price for the juvenile stud. He would fetch $15,000 at auction.
By the time he arrived at the farm that price had grown by a third to include the cost of import permits into Canada, veterinary assessments and certifications, transport fees, and the necessary documentation of his lineage and award showing.
He joined the Olssons’ small flock of five female alpacas: Cloud, Chestnut, Coral, Candy, and Chipmunk. He would be tasked with passing his consistently-crimped mahogany fur down to the next generation of the herd.
The family welcomed the new animal as the snows were melting in the valley.
Robert's granddaughter Josie pulled on his collar and leaned eagerly toward Hot Shot with her stubby fingers. Robert sidled along the fence to give her better access to the animal from her perch in his arms. She promptly gripped a fistful of the alpaca's densely curled fur. She squealed exuberantly, making her grandfather wince and smile with the special indulgence he reserved for his youngest daughter's youngest daughter.
Fortunately for Josie, alpacas are tolerant of small fingers and the children that wield them. Hot Shot sniffed patiently at her and awaited more raisins. Robert scooped another handful from the pocket of his jacket and eased them into the toddler's unoccupied hand.
She released her claim on Hot Shot's neck and gravely offered the sweets to him, her round eyes intent and serious. The animal gently accepted her offering, snuffling the food from her tiny palm. This elicited another ear-piercing squeal of delight from the girl. Little puffs of her excited breath hung in the chill air, illuminated by sunlight.
Upon Hot Shot's arrival, the farm also invested in a guard llama. Larger and rather more surly than their furry cousins, llamas have a reputation as unpleasant obstacles to anything that might consider making a meal of an alpaca. The older Olsson grandchildren named him Falcor. His bushy white-grey brow hooded his expressive eyes, lending him a dignity only slightly diminished by his ridiculous protruding jaw. He had cost the farm an additional $4,000.
While Hot Shot endeavoured to grow the family herd, Falcor and Yeti – the family's beloved Great Pyrenees – would keep watch. The wilderness surrounding the farm was home to many creatures, particularly black-tailed deer and the wolves, cougars, and bears who hunted them.
The coffee machine mumbled and sputtered to the conclusion of its morning routine. Robert put on his wool sweater, battered work jacket, heavy socks and boots. He poured his coffee – black with brown sugar – and took his mug out to survey the fields.
Yeti was right outside the door in the enclosed veranda. He whined and wove his bulky body around Robert's legs, jostling his coffee and almost knocking him down. He shooed the old dog away with one boot and maneuvered through the door. Robert usually found the huge dog dozing in one of the wicker chairs at this time of the morning, his masses of fluffy white fur making him look like a pile of sheepskins or perhaps a warm snow drift. Yeti was perturbed.
Robert shook the dog off and went through the outer door down toward the driveway and the pasture gate. As he neared the stable he understood Yeti's mood. Part of the fence was askew, two posts lying on the ground with the adjoining wire mesh slumping down between them. The stable door was open. He stepped in and found the female alpacas huddled in a corner, Falcor beside them.
Hot Shot was nowhere to be seen.
Robert searched the stable once more, then returned to the pasture. He scanned the field, one hand raised against the rising sun. He cursed under his breath. He must not have secured the door properly last night. Returning to the stable, he looked at the llama with a silent accusation. The llama returned his glare placidly, chewing his cud in a sedate rhythm. Yeti wagged his tail weakly and whined.
Shaking his head, Robert set out to search the fields. The morning dew lay heavy on the spring grass as it pushed through the brown remains of last year's pasture. Finding nothing out of the ordinary, Robert returned to the downed fence. He lifted one of the posts, grunting with the effort, then let it fall. He stood staring at the disordered edge of his property, feet now heavy and cold in his field-muddied boots.
He gazed at the edge of the dark forest, where the bright open field of his neat pasture shifted abruptly to a dense tangle of undergrowth. Heavy conifers and spindly cottonwoods swayed in the light breeze above the forest floor.
Just beyond the fence he spotted a tuft of red-brown wool on a snag of wood. Yeti sniffed the ground and barked with excitement, looking toward the forest and back to Robert. There was blood on the grass. The blood of his $20,000 herd sire with perfectly crimped fur.
Gritting his teeth, Robert closed his eyes and cursed again. He called for Yeti to heel and set off back to the house.
Robert banged open the kitchen door and entered, muddy boots still on.
"Robert?" Elke called down the stairs, her voice groggy.
"Something's taken the new animal," he said, voice pitched to carry up to her.
He heard her questioning response, but didn't stop as he proceeded to the den where he kept his shotgun. He unlocked the case, retrieved the Winchester and a handful of buckshot shells, and turned back to the kitchen. Elke stood there in her nightgown, her still-long grey hair braided over her shoulder.
"What's happened?" She asked. "Why do you have that?" She retained a slight accent of her Swedish heritage, mellowed by her many decades in Canada. She was swiftly shedding the confusion of sleep and mounting her usual matter-of-fact manner. She arched her eyebrows suspiciously at her husband.
"Something's taken Hot Shot," he said.
"What do you mean?"
"Into the forest."
"He's not in the fields?"
"No. I'm going to find him."
"Let me call William."
William was their daughter Johanna's husband. He lived with Jo and their granddaughter Josie in the second house on the farm.
"Don't bother William." Robert said, turning toward the door.
"Robert, you haven't fired that gun in years." Elke said, trying another tack as he walked by her. "Calm down, for heaven's sake."
He continued out the door and back toward the stable, Yeti close behind. Elke looked skyward and reached for the telephone on the kitchen wall.
Robert entered the forest beyond the broken fence and followed a trail of disturbance through the woods. Broken branches, disturbed leaf litter, and scrapes in the moss beds and occasional lingering patches of snow led up the slope toward the cliff face. Yeti's nose, close to the forest floor, confirmed what was obvious to see: the alpaca had been dragged across the ground.
As Robert got farther into the woods, he lost sight of the sunny pasture behind him. The sounds of birdsong and breeze from the valley receded and fell silent. He stopped in a clearing ringed by young cedar trees and listened.
A long moment passed. Yeti let out a keening whine, then a series of sharp barks.
For the first time Robert reconsidered the wisdom of his wife's arguments. He loaded a shell into his single-barrel shotgun and aimed at the patch of sky in the tree canopy above him. He fired, startling a nearby pair of Steller's Jays. They cawed in irritation and flew swiftly to a distant perch. The sound of the shot echoed back from the ridge, and again from across the valley.
He reloaded and carried on.
Yeti sniffed and circled, his nose to the ground. Robert, breathing heavily, reached the dog and saw a series of large tracks. Wider than they were long, with five pointed claw marks in the snow. A bear had taken Hot Shot. Black bear. No grizzlies in this range of mountains.
Most people in the area dismissed black bears as a nuisance. They broke fruit trees and alarmed the neighbourhood pets. But every few years someone would lose livestock. Often to a cougar, but sometimes to an aggressive bear. A bear large enough to drag a 150 pound alpaca over a fence and half a kilometre uphill through the woods.
They reached another small clearing after following the trail for some time, and found Hot Shot
It had been a bad night for the young alpaca. The prize animal was partially eaten, his organs devoured. His neck and hindquarters were brutally mauled. What remained of the animal was an ugly mess of fur, blood, and bone.
Robert looked up from the gruesome remains, his face a rictus of anger and disbelief.
He felt the creeping tension in his forearms and the wideness in his eyes, cold fear awakening to replace the heat of his anger. The primal recognition of wild violence.
Robert's breathing was ragged from the uphill climb, the discovery of Hot Shot, and the weight of his many decades. He could feel his pulse heavy in his ears and fingers as he gripped the gun. Yeti was anxious, his tongue lolling and eyes rolling.
Turning slowly in a circle, Robert watched and listened in tightly controlled fear. The bear could not be far away. The woods dilated giddily with the possibility of the predator's presence.
A sudden movement overhead made both man and dog snap their heads upward. The same Jays, flickering between the high boughs, scolding the intruders with their strident caws.
Robert waited a long moment, then turned to head back down the slope. As he arrived at the fence, he met William walking toward him down the driveway.
"Elke called," William said. "Did you find anything?"
"Come help me clean it up and you'll see," Robert said.
The two men and the dog walked back to the house. They passed Falcor and the female alpacas munching their breakfast in the pasture, bathed in morning sun. They appeared to have gotten over their shock.
"We can call the Conservation Office," William said. "They'll destroy the bear." William sat at the kitchen table with the coffee Elke had poured him.
"They'll come in a few days,” William continued. “I can take care of it if you like, Bob." Elke nodded briskly in agreement.
"In a few days we won't have any alpacas left." Robert replied after fixing William with a grim look. He liked his son-in-law well enough, but disliked his reliance on others to solve problems. When a tractor broke down on the farm, William would call a mechanic before trying to fix it. When the woodshed got low, William would call for a delivery rather than start the chainsaw. Elke said he was practical.
"Dad, what else are you going to do? Go bear hunting?" Johanna asked in exasperation. She bumped Josie on her knee, scooping porridge toward her. The toddler fended off the spoon, successfully avoiding the bite. Jo persevered and managed to get most of the next spoonful in. The little girl wiped the rest into her curly hair and babbled.
Robert furrowed his brow and said nothing, turning to look out the kitchen window toward the fields. Jo looked at her mother, who gently shook her head, then at William. He spread his hands in a silent shrug. Josie pounded the table with her tiny fists and grinned.
"The bear will come back," Robert said. "He will want another meal." Robert was certain of this. He would make sure no other members of his flock were dragged into the woods.
They buried Hot Shot at the western edge of the farm. Robert and William dragged the remains out of the woods on a tarp, loaded it into a wheelbarrow, and dug the grave with spades from the drive shed.
Each shovel of dirt taken out of the earth felt heavy with defeat to Robert. He looked at the poor alpaca's remains and saw the months of effort and thousands of dollars they'd invested to bring him to the farm. Each shovelful thrown back on the animal's body stung like salt in the wound. He said nothing as they finished and William returned the tools to the shed. His back ached.
"Do you think you'll replace him?" William asked as they repaired the downed fence later that afternoon.
"We've missed the season for this spring," Robert said.
"Maybe next year," William ventured. Robert nodded, though without much conviction. William finished hammering the post down into the hole they had dug in the earth. The fence was no worse for wear and back in its place.
"Coffee?" William suggested. "Beer," Robert replied. They walked back to the house.
That night Robert set watch. Down the pasture from the stable a small earthen-floored shed sat at the juncture of two fences. It was used to store tools, feed troughs, bits of fencing and wood, baling twine, and the many other sundries that accumulated on the farm. It smelled of hay, soil, and animals. It had a view of both the stable and the forest beyond.
It was cold. The golden promise of that morning's dawn was long gone, chased by the shadows of the valley and the chill night air. It would likely frost tonight.
Robert was dressed head to toe in woollen layers. His long johns, insulated winter boots, fisherman's sweater and quilted jacket had felt warm inside the house. He had dressed while Elke tried to reason with him.
"Robert, it's freezing out there. Lock the stable and come to bed." She was dressed in her own warm clothes, her arms crossed. "This isn't the frontier any more and you can't just shoot any animal you like."
"I'll be fine, Elke. It's only a little cold." He said as he pulled on a second wool sweater. He could see that his efforts to placate her were not working.
"But you do not need to do it yourself. We can call the conservation office, like William said, and be done with it. You are not so young now." She was right, but he could not explain to her that such reasons would not change his mind.
The bulky clothes felt heavy on his frame now. His thick toque was pulled down to his eyebrows. His breath curled in the air before his face.
He gazed across the pasture toward the dark shadow of the forest. Yeti dozed at his feet. The stable was closed and locked. Robert sat with his gun, loaded and leaning against the corner of the shed, looking out the top half of the building’s Dutch door.
The night was clear and windless. Before midnight a half moon rose, faintly illuminating the valley with its serene glow. It climbed in a graceful arc across the southern sky.
Robert shifted on his stool. It grew colder. He sipped from the dented thermos of coffee he had brought to keep himself warm and alert. His knees throbbed.
He dimly remembered stories his grandfather had told him. Of awaiting the wolves to come at night in the snowy expanse of the taiga in Sweden. Stories told by the fire when Robert was a small child. Of watching and waiting to protect his family's herd of cattle. In his mind's eye his grandfather sat alone on a mountaintop, gun aimed and ready, peering down the barrel at a lone wolf on a frozen lake. But there were no mountains where his grandfather was from. And Sweden had few wolves these days.
He drifted near the edge of sleep, then shivered awake. The moon finished its traverse of the stars and sank swiftly behind the mountains at the western edge of the valley.
The bear did not appear. Whether aware of his presence, or simply full from devouring Hot Shot, he wasn't sure. As the sky imperceptibly lightened and the birds began their dawn chorus, Robert returned to the house. He unloaded his gun, pocketing the shells, then laid it and his jacket down beside the door, barely able to stay upright as he removed his stiff boots. He climbed the stairs slowly, fell into bed, and slept.
"You know you don't have to do everything yourself, Dad." Johanna said as they walked slowly down the gravel road behind Josie and Yeti that afternoon. The huge dog waited patiently as the meandering toddler investigated mud puddles, panting in the sunshine under his heavy winter coat. The trees remained bare along the roadside, their spring buds just beginning to show.
"And besides, the bear is just hungry and following its nature, right?" She looked at Robert, a slight challenge in her eyes.
Robert shook his head, though not to refute what his daughter said. "Yes, and it's my right to protect my investment," he answered.
"It's not the bear's fault that people bring helpless livestock into the mountains," she said, ignoring his argument. "And then are surprised when they get eaten." Johanna sighed and coaxed Josie out of a puddle which was threatening to reach the tops of her boots.
Robert didn't answer. They walked another few minutes in silence.
"William called the Conservation Officer this morning." Johanna said. "He said they've had a few reports of livestock being taken, as they usually do this time of year. He'll come tomorrow." His daughter didn't meet Robert's eye as she told him of his son-in-law's mutiny.
"I wish you and your mother would just let me handle it." Robert scowled, knowing after a lifetime of experience that this was among the more foolish wishes he might make. Johanna picked up her daughter and turned to her father.
"It's okay, Dad. They'll take care of it and we'll be back to normal. We can find another alpaca." She squeezed his arm and continued down the road.
Robert hunched his shoulders and followed, reflecting as he often had that his youngest daughter had inherited a double helping of stubbornness from her parents.
Robert resumed his watch that evening. Gravid clouds obscured the moon, which showed only in brief glimmers. Robert stood and paced to warm himself. Tonight he had replaced the coffee thermos with a hip flask. He took a nip of whiskey, bracing himself and warming his throat and belly.
A barred owl hooted its distinctive unearthly call. It repeated several times, then quieted. Yeti sniffed at the shed door and resettled himself, wrapping the fluff of his long tail across his nose.
Robert gripped his gun and grimaced at the dark field before him. He didn't want the conservation officer here. He could take care of the problem. The officers he'd encountered over the years never seemed to make situations better, with their flat expressions and idling trucks.
He thought again of his wife and daughter. He didn't feel any different than he had when he and Elke had bought the land all those years ago. They had been young and ignorant of what they were getting into, and completely captivated by the idea of converting a piece of land into a farm and a home. Of living surrounded by this magnificent wilderness.
What did his age have to do with a bear taking his alpaca? And who could argue that he shouldn't protect what was his? There were plenty more bears in the woods.
It began to snow. The heavy flakes silently filled the valley, obscuring the ridge and blurring the forest. Robert peered into the flurry and listened to the far-off rush of the river. All other sounds were muted.
Within half an hour the field was lightly carpeted, turning the grassy hummocks from mottled shadow into a blank canvas reflecting the glow of the broken moonlight. The yellow porch light from the farm house glowed dimly far up the hill, beckoning him back to a place of warmth and safety. He took another sip from his flask.
The sky began to lighten softly, the black shroud of clouds overhead becoming faintly visible with the first hints of dawn. The world slowly expanded to encompass a wide grey landscape, gauzy with the snowfall.
A movement at the forest's edge made Robert sit upright. A low bulky shadow separated from the larger deepness of the woods and made its way out onto the blanket of snow. It snuffled at the ground near the fence. The bear stood and began to climb a post unhurriedly. On its rear legs it stood a full head above the fence.
Robert froze. He clutched his gun and watched. Now the bear was here he found his certainty had evaporated. The bear easily scaled and descended the fence, nimbly easing itself down into the field. It moved out into the open expanse of snow.
The animal was heavily built. Its long head ranged from side to side on its powerful neck as it moved forward. On stocky legs it took shambling strides across the uneven ground. Its broad, thickly furred back swayed with the motion of its black body. Small plumes of steam rose from its nose as it puffed and smelled the air in the dim light. A large, solitary male, hungry from a long winter.
The bear stopped halfway across the field. It raised its head and looked toward the shed. Robert held his breath and cursed silently, suddenly remembering the sensitivity of a bear's sense of smell. Of course it knew he was there. He had chosen his vantage point for the perspective it offered him, not thinking about what the bear would see and smell.
The sting of foolishness almost overcame his fear. What was he doing here? Why wasn't he in his warm bed beside his warm wife? Why did he think himself a match for this animal? Yeti stood still and alert at Robert’s side. No doubt he could smell the bear as well.
The snow fell silently. The bear remained still. It peered his way, seeming not to feel the same uncertainty churning his own thoughts. Instead it waited, patient and unbothered, its nose flexing at the end of its brown-furred nose, its head tipped up slightly. Even while still the mass of its body conveyed its strength. Robert stayed rigid, facing the bear across the field. It looked at ease in the gentle pre-dawn snow. An ancient resident of the land.
After a long moment, the bear appeared to dismiss him – or at least the smell of him. Robert could not tell if it could see him, shrouded as he was in the shadows of the shed. It turned to move up the hill toward the stable. Toward Robert's herd.
Robert gathered his nerve and aimed his gun. He sighted along the barrel in the dim light and put his cold gloveless finger on the trigger. The bear was drawing closer to the stable, tracking uphill. Robert held his breath and fired.
The bear flinched at the sound and hunched down, then veered back toward him, dipping its head and taking several quick strides in an abbreviated charge. It huffed and blew a stream of hot breath from its muzzle, stopping in a small cloud of snow and steam. It looked in his direction, seeming to gauge the effect of its bluff.
Yeti barked wildly and charged past Robert. The dog forced the shed door open with his massive body and bolted across the field toward the bear.
“Yeti! Get back here!” Robert yelled.
The bear growled and slapped its front paws on the ground as the dog reached it. Yeti barked and circled the bear, who half-reared on its legs in response to the sudden appearance of the dog.
Robert fumbled to reload his shotgun, still yelling at Yeti to come. The shell slipped from his cold hand into the snow. Robert grasped another shell from his pocket as he stepped out into the field. This time he managed to load it into the barrel.
The bear paced and puffed from side to side as Yeti harrassed it, ignoring Robert’s cries. Robert approached the skirmishing animals, shouting as he got closer.
Yeti closed with the bear, lunging at its hindquarters. The bear retreated, then turned as Yeti circled again and landed a swipe that knocked the huge dog on its side. Another swipe opened savage claw marks across the dog’s belly.
Robert raised the gun to his shoulder, his heart beating swiftly. He felt the sting of tears in his eyes.
He held his breath, aimed, and fired. The bear bellowed and twisted away, retreating quickly back across the field. It stumbled slightly as it approached the fence, favouring its front leg, then scrambled over it in one awkward leap and was gone. Yeti lay still.
Robert let out a shuddering breath. He waited several moments, then walked across the field. He knelt beside Yeti and stroked his mighty head. The dog whined and licked Robert’s hand gently.
The sky lightened toward morning. There was blood on the new-fallen snow.
They buried Yeti beside Hot Shot. Little Josie laid a small posy of spring crocus and snowdrops on his grave. Robert held Elke and looked on, feeling immense weariness. Johanna patted her father’s arm and laid her head on his shoulder, tears seeping from her eyes.
A week later the Conservation Officer returned to the farm. Robert and his son-in-law had tried to follow the bear, but did not find it after the small trail of blood disappeared into the forest. They had seen no sign of it since.
The trap the officer laid had likewise failed to attract the bear. Robert watched him retrieve the trap, load it into his truck and drive slowly down the driveway. William waved to the officer as he passed them.
The two men returned to their work. A new electric fence for the pasture.