Holy Bear [Human Sacrifice]

Look kids, a real live bear!

Look kids, a real live bear!

To hear most family members tell it, the annual camping expedition of 1997 was a total disaster. First off, we took our local Catholic priest with us. He stole bread and wine—body and blood to most people we knew—from the church’s sacristy. After a thirteen-hour drive from Kentucky to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, within the hollow walls of the Ironwood Motel, we held mass. We asked for a blessed trip.

The summer’s worst storm began the next morning. To reach our campsite, we canoed the winding channels of Crooked Lake, portaged to High Lake, cut a diagonal, and established camp in the pine trees. I was thirteen that year, and by then the woods were as familiar as my backyard. Usually, the trip and set up took five hours. That day, fighting fierce headwind and spears of drizzle, we clocked ten.

Still, Dad insisted we proceed with all rituals. Before leaving Crooked Lake, he wrestled my brother’s new fishing pole from the bottom of his canoe.

“The honors,” Dad said, handing the pole to Father Dave.

“Been since Boy Scouts,” Father Dave muttered, grinning. He experimented with the reel’s release lever in his palm. He heaved forward and at the peak of his cast, instead of releasing only the lever, released his entire grip. Rod and reel dove together to the lake’s bottom.

My brother extended his small fingers, as if to catch it. “My pole,” he whimpered.

For a moment, no one else spoke. Even the loons were quiet. Obscured by the mist, the water seemed immediately still.

“You’ll love the portage,” Dad said, putting in a hard paddle toward the shore.

Once at the campsite, we hurried through unpacking the canoes, pitching the tent, chopping and covering the wood. Thunder stumbled across the lake.

Dad gathered us for the final task, the food hoist. He tied a rope around a rock, and I threw it over the chosen branch. He threaded the rope through a pulley and tested the knot at the other end. Every year, the knot and pulley secured a week’s worth of dry food—instant chili, bread mix, fruit—from bears. That year, the system also supported a box of wine, a sedative packed at the last minute to quiet our jumpy guest.

Dad wound the rope around his hand, one loop around his thumb, and heaved the load into the air. It was heavy. He grunted and stepped back to wrap the rope around a support tree. Behind him, exhilarated, Father Dave picked up the slack and offered an extra yank. The rope in Dad’s hand tightened and—pop!—his thumb lifted out of socket.

Son of a—” Dad swallowed. He jiggled his thumb back into place. Rain cut through the upper canopy.

When the storm really unfurled, we aborted dinner and zipped ourselves into the big tent. We ate peanut butter crackers, which Mom made clear were a rare and dangerous treat. We should cross our fingers the storm discouraged the bears from foraging, because otherwise we might all be devoured. My brother curled around his NOAA weather radio, and the mechanical forecast walled us into sleep.

The week continued like this, right up until Father Dave’s last day, when the priest was stoking the fire with wet leaves and smoke billowed low over the whole campsite. Father Dave, however, had to leave a day early in order to make mass back in Kentucky. His last day was not ours. On Saturday morning, after Dad paddled him out and returned alone, we sighed collective relief. With one night of our unspoken rules unexplained, automatically followed, we might resurrect the trip.

Leftovers mean more weight to pack out, so that night we ate all our remaining food. Mom and Dad finished off the boxed wine. Rather, they tried to, but when they were drunk, they waved me into the woods to dump the dregs. Night in the Sylvania Wilderness is the darkest dark. One step feels like ten, and one step uphill feels like one hundred. At least, this is what I realized later.

We woke around midnight to Dad tugging our sleeping bags, almost imperceptibly. He was telling us to be very quiet, real careful now, because we were about to see our first live bear. In the lower right corner of the tent, Dad held the zipper between thumb and pointer finger. In the center of that wall, the center of the tent door, pressed a giant bear head. The head snarfled in the nylon, and with each breath, the fabric retreated into and puffed around the nostrils. Through our sleeping bags, my brother pressed his hand against my shoulder.

Mom went ballistic. Cursing everything north of the Mason-Dixon, she shook the sides of the tent. The bear ran for his life. In the green light of the nylon-filtered moon, my parents seethed at each other.

“Melinda,” my dad said. “You have ruined the chance of a lifetime.”

In the morning, seeing the slope behind our tent, we decided that I had walked only a few feet out of the site, drained the wine onto the hill. The fermented fruit had puddled at the base of our tent.

“So it’s Kate’s fault,” my brother said, diffusing the blame as much as he could, as always.

Truthfully, we all knew Dad wouldn’t have unzipped the whole door. There are two layers to the tent, the solid flap and the transparent scrim. Dad isn’t an idiot. The half-awake fear, though, after the ruined fires, the dislocated thumb, the torrential rain, had exhausted all of us. We drove back to Kentucky deflated. Dad chain-smoked out the window, the wind blew the smoke into the back seats, and the White Sox commentators reported more field errors, another loss. Immediately, my brother and I, even with our limited perspectives, registered the trip as legendary disaster.

When my dad tells the story, though, the trip is a near-triumph. Father Dave wasn’t bumbling and I wasn’t lazy. In Dad’s version, that summer he consciously lined up the risks so that stunning success might be possible. When Dad tells the story, he acts out the part with the zipper. He holds the pose long enough so we see the outline of the bear, we strain to know the whole face. In the retelling, we want him to unzip the solid flap, leaving only a transparent scrim between breathing beast and our young, ordinary family. Dad snaps back, skidding into the story’s end. The abruptness is impossibly sad. Right then, the trip has only one real blunder, and it is not meeting the bear face-to-face. —Kate Erickson grew up in Kentucky and now lives in Brooklyn. During the interim, she house sat on islands and drove produce delivery trucks over mountains. She is a frequent storyteller at The Moth storytelling series in Manhattan.

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6 Comments

  • 1
    Brittany
    April 14, 2010 - 4:02 pm | Permalink

    The details in this story are phenomenally vivid and yet so understated: the sound of the little brother’s whimper (and the imagined look of devastation in his eyes) as his shiny new fishing pole soars over the water; the small but insufficient comfort of the dangerously delicious peanut butter crackers in the crowded, grumpy tent; the smell of the wine near the tent in the morning; the push and pull of the tent door with each of the bear’s breaths.

    Thank you for posting such a beautiful, dryly funny piece.

    [Reply]

  • 2
    Ali
    April 14, 2010 - 5:39 pm | Permalink

    This is a beautiful piece – what a wonderful storyteller!

    [Reply]

  • 3
    Melinda
    April 14, 2010 - 6:41 pm | Permalink

    Disaster, near-triumph,…whatever the trip was in reality, the retelling is wonderful and made me laugh out loud. Thank you for sharing your memories with such humorous details.

    [Reply]

  • 4
    Ailin
    April 14, 2010 - 9:37 pm | Permalink

    I refuse to believe you only had one local catholic priest.

    [Reply]

  • 5
    Cousin Emily
    April 20, 2010 - 10:22 pm | Permalink

    Kater- fabulous rendition of the family camping trip! I was imagining every last detail and laughing out loud. You have enormous talent, keep writing and send me more!! xoxo em

    [Reply]

  • 6
    September 30, 2010 - 10:10 am | Permalink

    Wow, great story! thanks for sharing. There is nothing like a family camping trip. I have many fond memories.

    [Reply]

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