It did not take us long to learn that, meat is plentiful in the North, a man cannot travel all winter on meat alone.
Grease is a necessity to go with the dry moose and caribou meat, and the best source of grease is a bear. A fat bear will yield a hundred pounds of grease, enough to last one man through the cold months. Every fall, along with fish, caribou and moose, we made our plans to have two bears.
There is no use hunting bears in the spring, although there are plenty of them to be had near shallow rapids where they catch fish on the way to the spawning grounds. But in the spring, bears are thin and the meat is poor. Besides, nature offers such a variety of good food at that time of the year that a seasoned hunter never bothers with bears. Even at the end of September, a man can get a big bear and find him thin -- but the same-sized bear, shot a month later, will be as fat as could be wished. The site of an old bush fire is the place to find bears. There, where the earth reflects the sky in a vast carpet of blueberries, they feed and fatten before denning up for the winter. Not only is the grease at its best then, but a bear cub caught in the fall furnishes the best meat that we have.
Before I learned how to get my supply of grease, I wasted a lot of time and energy. One year I trapped on Waterbury Lake with Fred's brother Howard Darbyshire. In this new country we had trouble finding bears, though we knew that we needed them. Close to freeze-up, when they are fattest and best, we did manage to get one bear and a cub, but that was enough for only one man. We needed another bear.
Not far from camp, I saw a big black bear track in the fresh-fallen snow. It was easy to track in four inches of new snow, and so I set out on the trail, even though I had twice before followed a bear track and never caught up with the animal itself. The signs were plain to read: This bear was wandering along looking for a place to den up over winter. He was particular. I could see where he had looked over several likely places and decided against them. All at once I came to the end of the trail!
This fooled me until I remembered the trick that bears use to deceive a tracker: they can turn around and set their feet neatly down in the tracks they have already made, thus invisibly retracing their steps. So cleverly is this done that there is no sign of a double footprint. Backtracking this way, when they come to a thick stand of bush, they jump aside where the ne prints are not readily seen. Then they carry on from there. In this manner all bears try to keep the location of their den a secret.
I tracked that bear all day long, and he backtracked five different times! Toward nightfall, I came to the ideal place for a den -- high moss close to a muskeg. Many times I have found bear dens in that sort of location. This bear circled the spot again and again. I could see how carefully he had examined it from all directions. In one place he had even started to dig. Then he seemed to have changed his mind. His trail led to a lake shore. It looked to me as if he had swum the five miles across the lake. In the end, I had to give up on that bear -- the third one I had tried without success to track in the fall.
Never again did I track a bear. But every fall I was able to get enough bear grease to last me for the winter and quite often I would have some left over. I found that it was usually easy enough to get a bear feeding on a blueberry patch near Russell Lake. If that failed, I could trap bears without much trouble, even though I couldn't track them. I had three bear traps and knew where the animals travelled between two big lakes. Setting my traps in their usual path, I normally could get a bear the first night. It was easy enough once I got onto it. The natives used deadfall traps for bears.
I discovered a peculiar thing about bears that were preparing for hibernation. When I cut up and dressed the meat, I found that the stomach was drawn up into a hard ball. This suggested to me that they couldn't eat even if they wanted to, once they were fattened for the winter, and that likely they no longer felt any hunger.
While a bear with cubs might attack a man, as a general rule bears in the North are not dangerous but they are often a nuisance. Many a time a bear has come upon a canoe that a man used for fishing and has torn apart with his sharp claws, searching for the source of the fishy smell. Since my canoes were used for fishing and also for hauling meat, I always liked to leave one of my dogs on guard when I beached my canoe.
Bears have caused havoc in several cabins, too, while trappers were spending their summer in the South. They break into camps, eat what they can find, and make a mess of everything else, destroying good equipment. But they will not cause trouble if a man is around. I have had a bear come to one of my overnight camps and start to take a sack of meat -- but as soon as I moved, the bear would run off. They do their mischief when the trapper is away from camp as a rule, but there are exceptions.
One time when I was asleep a bear stole a sack of meat from beside a big fire that I had built up to keep bears away. Halfway up the hill, he broke a twig and that wakened me. I grabbed my rifle -- but the minute I rose up, the bear took to his heels, leaving the meat behind.
A trapper friend of mine once killed a beaver to eat and for safety put it under the pillow that he slept on. During the night a bear stole that beaver out from under his head without wakening him. He tracked it a long way next morning in the snow and could see how it carried the beaver all the way -- but he never caught up with the thief.
Once I had a real fright. It was a time when I needed bear meat and I climbed a hill where I could see a bear moving about. He apparently heard me coming,
and reared up on his hind feet, making an excellent target. I fired and hit him. Instead of running away, he charged straight at me, possibly being too frightened to realize what he was doing. I kept shooting, hitting him every time, but he was almost on top of me when he finally fell. I was wet with sweat when it was over!
One first of November I had gone off with my toboggan and two dogs, leaving two thousand fish that I had caught, hung in my camp. The rest of my dogs were still where I had been fishing, so the camp was unguarded. When I returned, a bear had been there. What a mess! He had eaten as many fish as he could hold and had knocked the rest down. Tying my two dogs, I gathered up what fish I could in the dark, not wanting them to freeze together. Then I went inside to get my meal ready. The dogs began to bark. Hurrying outside, I could hear the bear on the hillside, apparently trying to scare the dogs away so he could come back for another feed of fish. I fired a shot into the dark and went back to my work. After supper I took a flashlight and went to see what had happened to the bear. He was lying dead on the hillside -- hit by my one lucky shot! I made a big fire and skinned him, but there wasn't an ounce of fat on that bear. He was very old and would probably have died in his den that winter.
Once a grizzly bear came through the country near Cree lake. Black and brown bears are native to the area but grizzlies are almost unknown there. This one raided a camp, ate some caribou meat, broke off a bunch of spruce boughs and lay on them to wait out a storm. When the storm was over, he left the camp. Four Chipewyans, out looking at their traps, came upon his tracks. They had never seen anything like them before, and were so frightened that they went right back to their camp on Cree lake. They are very superstitious people.