copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
Click Here to return to
Beasts of the Field
Click here to return to
the previous chapter
MOOWEEN THE BEAR
EVER since nursery times Bruin has been largely a creature of imagination.
He dwells there, a ferocious beast, prowling about gloomy woods, red eyed and dangerous, ready to rush upon the unwary traveler and eat him on the spot.
But Mooween the Bear, as the northern Indians call him, is a creature. He is big long white teeth and very different kind of and glossy black, with sharp black claws, like the imagination bear. Unlike him, however, he is shy and wild, and timid as any rabbit. When you camp in the wilderness at night, the rabbit will come out of his form in the ferns to pull at your shoe, or nibble a hole in the salt bag, while you sleep. He will play twenty pranks under your very eyes. But if you would see Mooween, you must camp many summers, and tramp many a weary mile through the big forests before catching a glimpse of him, or seeing any trace save the deep tracks, like a barefoot boy’s, left in some soft bit of earth in his hurried flight.
Mooween’s ears are quick, and his nose very keen. The slightest warning from either will generally send him off to the densest cover or the roughest hillside in the neighborhood. Silently as a black shadow he glides away, if he has detected your approach from a distance. But if surprised and frightened, he dashes headlong through the brush, with crash of branches and bump of fallen logs, and volleys of dirt and dead wood flung out behind him as he digs his toes into the hillside in his frantic haste to be away.
In the first startled instant of such an encounter, one thinks there must be twenty bears scrambling up the hill. And if you should perchance get a glimpse of the game, you will be conscious chiefly of a funny little pair of wrinkled black feet, turned up at you so rapidly that they actually seem to twinkle through a cloud of flying loose stuff.
That was the way in which I first met Mooween. He was feeding peaceably on blueberries, when I came round the turn of a deer path. There he was, the mighty, ferocious beast — and my only weapon a trout-rod!
We discovered each other at the same instant. Words can hardly measure the mutual consternation. I felt scared; and in a moment it flashed upon me that he looked so. This last observation was like a breath of inspiration. It led me to make a demonstration before he should regain his wits. I jumped forward with a flourish, and threw my hat at him.
Boo! said I.
Hoof, woof! said Mooween. And away he went up the hill in a desperate scramble, with loose stones rattling, and the bottoms of his feet showing constantly through the volley of dirt and chips flung out behind him.
That killed the fierce imagination bear of childhood days deader than any bullet could have done, and convinced me that Mooween is at heart a timid creature. Still, this was a young bear, as was also one other upon whom I tried the same experiment with the same result. Had he been older and bigger, it might have been different. In that case I have found that a good rule is to go your own way unobtrusively, leaving Mooween to his devices. All animals, whether wild or domestic, respect a man who neither fears nor disturbs them.
Mooween’s eyes are his weak point. They are close together, and seem to focus on the ground a few feet in front of his nose. At twenty yards to leeward he can never tell you from a stump or a caribou, should you chance to be standing still.
If fortunate enough to find the ridge where he sleeps away the long summer days, one is almost sure to get a glimpse of him by watching on the lake below. It is necessary only to sit perfectly still in your canoe among the water grasses. When near a lake, a bear will almost invariably come down about noontime to sniff carefully all about, and lap the water, and perhaps find a dead fish before going back for his afternoon sleep.
Four or five times I have sat thus in my canoe, while Mooween passed close by and never suspected my presence till a chirp drew his attention. It is curious at such times, when there is no wind to bring the scent to his keen nose, to see him turn his head to one side, and wrinkle his forehead in the vain endeavor to make out the curious object there in the grass. At last he rises on his hind legs, and stares long and intently. It seems as if he must recognize you, with his nose pointing straight at you, his eyes looking straight into yours. But he drops on all fours again, and glides silently into the thick bushes that fringe the shore.
Don’t stir now, nor make the least sound. He is in there, just out of sight, sitting on his haunches, using nose and ears to catch your slightest message.
Ten minutes pass by in intense silence. Down on the shore, fifty yards below, a slight swaying of the bilberry bushes catches your eye. That surely is not the bear! There has not been a sound since he disappeared. A squirrel could hardly creep through that underbrush without noise enough to tell where he was. But the bushes sway again, and Mooween reappears suddenly for another long look at the suspicious object. Then he turns and plods his way along shore, rolling his head from side to side as if completely mystified.
Now swing your canoe well out into the lake, and head him off on the point, a quarter of a mile below. Hold the canoe quiet, just outside the lily pads, by grasping a few tough stems, and sit low. This time the big object catches Mooween’s eye as he rounds the point; and you have only to sit still to see him go through the same maneuvers with greater mystification than before.
Once, however, he varied his program, and gave me a terrible start, letting me know for a moment just how it feels to be hunted, at the same time showing with what marvelous stillness he can glide through the thickest cover when he chooses.
It was early evening on a forest lake. The water lay like a great mirror, with the sunset splendor still upon it. The hush of twilight was over the wilderness. Only the hermit thrushes sang wild and sweet from a hundred dead spruce tops.
I was drifting about, partly in the hope to meet Mooween, whose tracks were very numerous at the lower end of the lake, when I heard him walking in the shallow water. Through the glass I made him out against the shore, as he plodded along in my direction.
I had long been curious to know how near a bear would come to a man without discovering him. Here was an opportunity.
The wind at sunset had been in my favor; now there was not the faintest breath stirring.
Hiding the canoe, I sat down in the sand on a little point, where dense bushes grew down to within a few feet of the water’s edge. Head and shoulders were in plain sight above the water grass. My intentions were wholly peaceable, notwithstanding the rifle that lay across my knees. It was near the mating season, when Mooween’s temper is often dangerous; and one felt much more comfortable with the chill of the cold iron in his hands.
Mooween came rapidly along the shore meanwhile, evidently anxious to reach the other end of the lake. In the mating season bears use the margins of lakes and streams as natural highways. As he drew nearer and nearer I gazed with a kind of fascination at the big unconscious brute. He carried his head low, and dropped his feet with a heavy splash into the shallow water.
At twenty yards he stopped, as if struck, with head up and one paw lifted, sniffing suspiciously. Even then he did not see me, though only the open shore lay between us. He did not use his eyes at all, but laid his great head back on his shoulders and sniffed in every direction, rocking his brown muzzle up and down the while, so as to take in every atom from the tainted air.
A few slow careful steps forward, and he stopped again, looked straight into my eyes, then beyond me toward the lake, all the while sniffing. I was still only part of the shore. Yet he was so near that I caught the gleam of his eyes, and saw the nostrils swell and the muzzle twitch nervously.
Another step or two, and he planted his fore feet firmly. The long hairs began to rise along his spine, and under his wrinkled chops was a flash of white teeth. Still he had no suspicion of the motionless object there in the grass. He looked rather out on the lake. Then he glided into the brush and was lost to sight and hearing.
He was so close that I scarcely dared breathe as I waited, expecting him to come out farther down the shore. Five minutes passed without the slightest sound to indicate his whereabouts, though I was listening intently in the dead hush that was on the lake. All the while I smelled him strongly. One can smell a bear almost as far as he can a deer; though the scent does not cling so long to the underbrush.
A bush swayed slightly, below where he had disappeared. I was watching it closely when some sudden warning — I know not what, for I did not hear but only felt it — made me turn my head quickly. There, not six feet away, a huge head and shoulders were thrust out of the bushes on the bank, and a pair of gleaming eyes were peering intently down upon me in the grass. He had been watching me, at arm’s length, probably two or three minutes. Had a muscle moved in all that time, I have no doubt that he would have sprung upon me. As it was, who can say what was passing behind that curious, half-puzzled, half-savage gleam in his eyes?
He drew quickly back as a sudden movement on my part threw the rifle into position. A few minutes later I heard the snap of a twig, some distance away. Not another sound told of his presence till he broke out onto the shore, fifty yards above, and went steadily on his way up the lake.
Mooween is something of a humorist in his own way. When not hungry he will go out of his way to frighten a bullfrog from his sun-bath on the shore, for no other purpose, evidently, than just to see him jump. Watching him thus amusing himself, one afternoon, I was immensely entertained by seeing him turn his head to one side, and wrinkle his eyebrows, as each successive frog said ke’ dunk! and went splashing away over the lily pads.
A pair of cubs are playful as young foxes, while their extreme awkwardness makes them a dozen times more comical. Simmo, my Indian guide, tells me that the cubs will sometimes run away and hide when they hear the mother bear returning. No amount of coaxing or of anxious fear on her part will bring them back, till she searches diligently to find them.
Once only have I had opportunity to see the young at play. There were two of them, nearly full-grown, with the mother. The most curious thing was to see them stand up on their hind legs and cuff each other soundly, striking and warding like trained boxers. Then they would lock arms and wrestle desperately till one was thrown, when the other promptly seized him by throat or paw, and pretended to growl frightfully.
They were well fed, evidently, and full of good spirits as two boys. But the mother was cross and out of sorts. She kept moving about uneasily, as if the rough play irritated her nerves. Occasionally, as she sat for a moment with hind legs stretched out flat and fore paws planted between them, one of the cubs would approach and attempt some monkey play. A sound cuff on the ear invariably sent him whimpering back to his companion, who looked droll enough the while, sitting with his tongue out and his head wagging humorously as he watched the experiment. It was getting toward the time of year when she would send them off into the world to shift for themselves. And this was perhaps their first hard discipline.
Once also I caught an old bear enjoying himself in a curious way. It was one intensely hot day, in the heart of a New Brunswick wilderness. Mooween came out upon the lake shore and lumbered along, twisting uneasily and rolling his head, as if distressed by the heat. I followed silently, close behind, in my canoe.
Soon he came to a cool spot under the alders; which was probably what he was looking for. A small brook made an eddy there, and a lot of drift-weed had collected over a bed of soft black mud. The stump of a huge cedar leaned out over it, some four or five feet above the water.
First he waded in to try the temperature. Then he came out and climbed the cedar stump, where he sniffed in every direction, as is his wont before lying down. Satisfied at last, he balanced himself carefully and gave a big jump, with legs out flat, and paws up, and mouth open as if he were laughing at himself. Down he came, souse! with a tremendous splash that sent mud and water flying in every direction. And with a deep uff-guff! of pure delight, he settled himself in his cool bed for a comfortable nap.
In his fondness for fish, Mooween has discovered an interesting way of catching them. In June and July immense numbers of trout and salmon run up the wilderness rivers on their way to the spawning grounds. Here and there, on small streams, are shallow riffles, where large fish are often half out of water as they struggle up. On one of these riffles Mooween stations himself during the first bright moonlight nights of June, when the run of fish is largest, on account of the higher tides at the river mouth. And Mooween knows, as well as any other fisherman, the kind of night on which to go a-fishing. He knows also the virtue of keeping still. As a big salmon struggles by, Mooween slips a paw under him, tosses him to the shore by a dexterous flip, and springs after him before he can flounder back.
When hungry, Mooween has as many devices as a fox for getting a meal. He tries flipping frogs from among the lily pads in the same way that he catches salmon. That failing, he takes to creeping through the water grass, like a mink, and striking his game dead with a blow of his paw.
Or he finds a porcupine loafing through the woods, and follows him about to flip dirt and stones at him, carefully refraining from touching him the while, till the porcupine rolls himself into a ball of bristling quills, — his usual method of defense. Mooween slips a paw under him, flips him against a tree to stun him, and bites him in the belly, where there are no quills. If he spies the porcupine in a tree, he will climb up, if he is a young bear, and try to shake him off. But he soon learns better, and saves his strength for more fruitful exertions.
Mooween goes to the lumber camps regularly after his winter sleep and, breaking in through door or roof, helps himself to what he finds. If there happens to be a barrel of pork there, he will roll it into the open air before breaking in the head with a blow of his paw.
Should he find a barrel of molasses among the stores, his joy is unbounded. The head is broken in on the instant and Mooween eats till he is surfeited. Then he lies down and rolls in the sticky sweet, to prolong the pleasure; and stays in the neighborhood till every drop has been lapped up.
Lumbermen have long since learned of his strength and cunning in breaking into their strong camps. When valuable stores are left in the woods, they are put into special camps, called bear camps, where doors and roofs are fastened with chains and ingenious log locks to keep Mooween out.
Near the settlements Mooween speedily locates the sweet apple trees among the orchards. These he climbs by night, and shakes off enough apples to last him for several visits. Every kind of domestic animal is game for him. He will lie at the edge of a clearing for hours, with the patience of a cat, waiting for turkey or sheep or pig to come within range of his swift rush.
His fondness for honey is well known. When he has discovered a rotten tree in which wild bees have hidden their store, he will claw at the bottom till it falls. Curling one paw under the log he sinks the claws deep into the wood. The other jaw grips the log opposite the first, and a single wrench lays it open. The clouds of angry insects about his head, meanwhile, are as little regarded as so many flies. He knows the thickness of his skin, and they know it. When the honey is at last exposed, and begins to disappear in great hungry mouthfuls, the bees also fall upon it, to gorge themselves with the fruit of their hard labor before Mooween shall have eaten it all.
Everything eatable in the woods ministers at times to Mooween’s need. Nuts and berries are favorite dishes in their season.
When these and other delicacies fail, he knows where to dig for edible roots. A big caribou, wandering near his hiding place, is pulled down and stunned by a blow on the head. Then, when the meat has lost its freshness, he will hunt for an hour after a wood mouse he has seen run under a stone, or pull a rotten log to pieces for the ants and larvae concealed within.
These last are favorite dishes with him. In a burned district, where ants and berries abound, one is continually finding charred logs, in which the ants nest by thousands, split open from end to end. A few strong claw marks, and the lick of a moist tongue here and there, explain the matter. It shows the extremes of Mooween’s taste. Next to honey he prefers red ants, which are sour as pickles.
Mooween is even more expert as a boxer than as a fisherman. When the skin is stripped from his fore arms, they are seen to be of great size, with muscles as firm to the touch as so much rubber. Long practice has made him immensely strong, and quick as a flash to ward and strike. Woe be to the luckless dog, however large, that ventures in the excitement of the hunt within reach of his paw. A single stroke will generally put the poor brute out of the hunt forever.
Once Simmo caught a bear by the hind leg in a steel trap. It was a young bear, a two-year-old; and Simmo thought to save his precious powder by killing it with a club. He cut a heavy maple stick and, swinging it high above his head, advanced ~o the trap. Mooween rose to his hind legs, and looked him steadily in the eye, like the trained boxer that he is. Down came the club with a sweep to have felled an ox. There was a flash from Mooween’s paw; the club spun away into the woods; and Simmo just escaped a fearful return blow by dropping to the ground and rolling out of reach, leaving his cap in Mooween’s claws. A wink later, and his scalp would have hung there instead.
In the mating season, when three or four bears often roam the woods together in fighting humor, Mooween uses a curious kind of challenge. Rising on his hind legs against a big fir or spruce, he tears the bark with his claws as high as he can reach on either side. Then, placing his back against the trunk, he turns his head and bites into the tree with his long canine teeth, tearing out a mouthful of the wood. That is to let all rivals know just how big a bear he is.
The next bear that comes along on the trail, seeking perhaps to win the mate of his rival, sees the challenge and measures his height and reach in the same way, against the same tree. If he can bite and reach as high, or higher, he keeps on, and a terrible fight is sure to follow. But if, with his best endeavors, his marks fall short of the deep scars above, he prudently withdraws, and leaves it to a bigger bear to risk an encounter.
In the wilderness one occasionally finds a tree on which three or four bears have thus left their challenge. Sometimes all the bears in a neighborhood seem to have left their records in the same place. I remember well one such tree, a big fir, by a lonely little beaver pond, where the separate challenges had become indistinguishable on the torn bark. The freshest marks here were those of a long-limbed old ranger — a monster he must have been — with a clear reach of a foot above his nearest rival. Evidently no other bear had cared to try after such a record.
Once, in the same season, I discovered quite by accident that Mooween can be called, like a hawk or a moose, or indeed any other wild creature, if one but knows how. It was in New Brunswick, where I was camped on a wild forest river. At midnight I was back at a little opening in the woods, watching some hares at play in the bright moonlight. When they had run away, I called a wood mouse from his den under a stump; and then a big brown owl from across the river — which almost scared the life out of my poor little wood mouse. Suddenly a strange cry sounded far back on the mountain. I listened curiously, then imitated the cry, in the hope of hearing it again and of remembering it; for I had never before heard the sound, and had no idea what creature produced it. There was no response, however, and I speedily grew interested in the owls; for by this time two or three more were hooting about me, all called in by the first corner. When they had gone I tried the strange call again. Instantly it was answered close at hand. The creature was coming.
I stole out into the middle of the opening, and sat very still on a fallen log. Ten minutes passed in intense silence. Then a twig snapped behind me. I turned — and there was Mooween, just coming into the opening. I shall not soon forget how he looked, standing there big and black in the moonlight; nor the growl deep down in his throat, that grew deeper as he watched me. We looked straight into each other’s eyes a brief, uncertain moment. Then he drew back silently into the dense shadow.
There is another side to Mooween’s character, fortunately a rare one, which is sometimes evident in the mating season, when his temper leads him to attack instead of running away, as usual; or when wounded, or cornered, or roused to frenzy in defense of the young. Mooween is then a beast to be dreaded, a great savage brute, possessed of enormous strength and of a fiend’s cunning. I have followed him wounded through the wilderness, when his every resting place was scarred with deep gashes, and where broken saplings testified mutely to the force of his blow. Yet even here his natural timidity lies close to the surface, and his ferocity has been greatly exaggerated by hunters.
Altogether, Mooween the bear is a peaceable fellow, and an interesting one, well worth studying. His extreme wariness, however, generally enables him to escape observation; and there are undoubtedly many of his queer ways yet to be discovered by some one who, instead of scaring the life out of him by a shout or a rifle-shot, in the rare moments when he shows himself, will have the patience to creep near and find out just what he is doing. Only in the deepest wilderness is he natural and unconscious.
There he roams about, entirely alone for the most part, supplying his numerous wants, and performing droll capers with all the gravity of an owl, when he thinks that not even Tookhees the wood mouse is looking.