Miserable Mike, me and the bears
- John Cuthand | February 18, 2021
One time I was backpacking in the Arctic Circle, northeast of Fort Good Hope, NWT, doing an archaeology survey. I was young and strong. I was placed with a grouchy mountain man nobody wanted to work with. He was strong like a bull and hated people in general. I was given compass bearings each morning with a destination and he would take off, leaving me to my own devices. He insisted we never camp near each other. There was a time I found him waiting for me by a fast-flowing river. He just jumped in and swam across. I wasn't going to let any white man degrade me and so I pushed myself. I fought my fear and made two trips while being carried on the current.
After I crossed Mike was gone. He had his ways of testing me. One time I saw him some distance away up a spruce tree howling like a wolf. I figured he wanted to scare me and so I pretended I was scared. He no doubt found this quite amusing. He was for the most part blunt and condescending. I later found out there were others who simply quit because they couldn’t tolerate him. Mike seemed to enjoy breaking people, preferring to be alone.
I had had my fill of racism since childhood and my response was to stand up to anyone, including Mike, if only in silence. Finally, we had the occasional grudging interaction. He wasn’t much of a listener but appeared to appreciate someone who would listen. He told me once he hated cities. Among other reasons, he was convinced disease wafted up from manhole covers. I don’t know why he left Saskatoon and chose to live as a virtual hermit in the wilderness of the North West Territories and I never asked. Our boss only told me he had some understandable reasons but that’s all he would say.
We were fishing by a place called Axe Lake. We were both sick of freeze-dried food and had improvised a fishing pole out of spruce. Our safety pin wasn’t up to the job. He told me to look into the bush and hidden among the shadows was a black bear watching us intently. We kept fishing and then it came out huffing and slapping the ground. It was a beautiful bear. I then realized we were occupying its fishing ground and we were definitely not welcome. I later found out in bear language his slapping the ground meant back off.
Mike, to my surprise and that of the bear, flipped out, pounding the ground with our fishing pole while screaming obscenities. Bear eventually backed off and shot up a tree. I don’t know which was freakier Mike or the bear. I stayed up all night keeping fire while he slept soundly. Night was just twilight. In the morning a chopper picked us up. The pilot wanted to get away fast. He was scared of bears. As if a bear would hang around a roaring chopper.
Any way we eventually camped with the others in our team. I was glad to meet normal people. Mike, however, reveled in putting me down in front of the others. Again, I kept silent but others spoke up on my behalf. A bear and cub got into our grub tent while we were swimming. They spilled flour everywhere and we could see their tracks in the mess. Then I alone spent the night keeping fire and chasing them away. They were very sneaky but the cub’s big ears gave them away. Once a bear gets into your grub there’s no getting rid of it. You either move camp or shoot the bear. Bears are always hungry. Once fed, they hang around like certain relatives I know. Between Mike and bears it was too much. I quit. As the float plane lifted off, I could see him going toe to toe with the bears screaming at them and pounding the ground. It was all too weird but most memorable.