Thursday, January 6, 2011

Barely Bear-able

During the summer before my Junior year in high school, I had some rather exciting adventures. My favorite uncle and aunt decided to take a vacation to Ely, Minnesota. When they went fishing, their three children were too young to stay by themselves, so Uncle T asked me to go along to babysit.

At fifteen years old, I was thrilled to be going on vacation without my family. It was the perfect arrangement for all of us. The grownups could fish all day, my cousins could safely swim and have fun, while I got to work on my summer tan. I don’t recall if I earned any money, but that was the least of my concerns.

We stayed at a family-oriented fishing resort with a dozen or so simple cabins arranged along the lake shore. In addition to a playground with a swing set and sandbox, there was a lovely sand beach. Keep in mind that until that time, I’d never seen a real beach before, so that was a special new experience.

The very first day we went swimming in the lake, I learned a critical lesson: always check each other for leeches when getting out of the water! Never having heard of them before, I was appalled to see the slimy little black creatures clinging to our legs and ankles. Hearing them called blood-suckers certainly didn’t make me feel any more kindly toward them, either. Fortunately, they were easy to pull off and toss back into the water.

Many years later, I finally learned to appreciate using leeches as bait when fishing for walleyes. I found it pretty easy to stick the barb of the fishhook right through the sucker, which allows the leech to undulate in the water. Of course, each time we start fishing for the day, I always seem to lose the first leech. No, I don’t lose it to a fish. When the leech twists around and starts sucking on my thumb, I get disgusted and toss it overboard. After that, I’m good baiting my hook for the rest of the day.

One other little adventure on that trip earned me a scolding when I got home. It seems that every night, we heard bears rummaging in the trash cans behind the cabins. The cans were covered with tight-fitting lids, but they were no match for a big black bear knocking them over and pouncing on them.

Uncle T and Aunt J left right after lunch to go fishing and the young boys had arranged to play for the afternoon with some kids in the next cabin. Cousin V was just a few years younger than me and came along to the local garbage dump to look for bears. We thought it was a keen idea to get a picture up close and personal, not realizing the potential danger.

Walking very quietly along the road to the dump, we rounded a curve and suddenly saw a black bear picking through the choice garbage. V stayed back near the road, while I carefully inched my way closer to the critter that was chomping away. From just ten feet away, I could hear the bear snapping and crunching through bones with her powerful jaws. I quickly took a couple of photos and silently walked backwards to the road.

Whew! My heart was pounding like a jackhammer, but the bear just snuffled a bit and moved farther toward the back of the dump. Only later did we find out the female had a pair of cubs that could have been nearby. Once back home, I got the pictures developed and, in my enthusiasm, made the mistake of showing them to my parents. They let me know in no uncertain terms that I would never be that foolish again.

In retrospect, I learned a lot from that summer, but especially, I knew that I was actually growing up. And with growing up, I had to face the responsibilities that went along with it.