Part III: The Bear Dance
July 28th-8am-My cell phone rang. It was Ray. “Hey- got a call last night from my neighbor- he’s camped on site 66, just above us. He said “BEAR!” Came about 4am. He says they tried yelling at it, but it completely ignored them. So they shot fireworks at it- That’s all they had. He said he thought there might be two. They saw the small one. I’ve got the chickens and the pontoon boat- what’s the plan?”
“Robin, Mom and I will meet you at the State Bridge at 11. We’ll go cook chickens. Anyone staying with you tonight? You’re gonna have bears.”
“Yeah- I know. No volunteers yet. I’ll be OK. Lots of people coming. It’ll be fun. I’m not worried. See you at the dock.”
RJ and I had broken camp Wednesday. Ray was still in. His plan had been to do the cookout today, spend the night, then break camp, load gear, and head out in the morning. Our site reservation ended at 11am the next day.
11:00 am. Robin, My Mom and I drove over from Watertown and met Ray at the boat launch on Lower Saranac, packed for a planned day trip chicken barbeque to celebrate Ray’s birthday. The day’s planned itinerary played out in my head as we drove. 3 hours of grilled smoke wafting up though the woods. Bears 3 sites above us. Ray for the night. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. I was under packed. I sighed to myself. I’d deal with that later.
Ray had the pontoon boat, a Yeti full of chicken splits, four bags of charcoal, and three gallons of our family’s Cornell Chicken marinade.
We had a bacon wrapped, onion stuffed venison pepper roast I’d pre-cooked the night before, a tray of my Mom’s deviled eggs, and all the fixins for a berry infused whipped topping birthday dessert. Plus a surprise gift for my brother, unveiled at the ramp.
We’ve done many camp barbeques through the years. No matter the menu or season, one factor is constant dining “Chez Bull Rush Bay” – the wind. It’s a culinary camp challenge. How many times had a planned mid-afternoon “food’s on” gone late, or later, while hungry guests waited and watched while we battled wind. I’d designed a solution.
Several years earlier I had crafted my brother a 3’x3′ grill grate designed to fit the fireplace at Bull Rush Bay. Hardware cloth grill surface, reinforced mesh re-bar, sturdy wooden handles hewn from walking sticks the kids had cut and carved in camp and I’ve saved over the years. The wood handles char a bit more each use, but stay cool to the touch so that the grill can be lifted from the front, allowing cooks to tend fire. It’s ruggedly rustic, built to meet Camp Chef demands for any Bull Rush Bay feast.
My answer to the wind was a 3’x3′ grill cover; half inch plywood, bolted ironwood sidebars, a big grill glove friendly hand grip cut into the front- I’d free handed “Bull Rush Bay 2018- Bears- Wind- Fish – The Monroes” on top with a Dremel in my shop . It would hold smoky heat and keep out the wind. Ray hugged his approval. We loaded, boarded, and headed up the lake.
We met Margaret at the locks. She gave a bear update.
“Yeah- They’ve been busy. Up around Hungry Bay they think they saw 2- big one and a smaller one. ECOs came in, but they didn’t spot any. I heard shots last night, fireworks, maybe? Sounded like they came from up near 67, over that way.”
We traded further bear info as she helped us man the locks. We invited her to our barbeque. She smiled and passed. We reached camp, moored the boat, and waded ashore.
It was shortly after noon. We got right to work. We had pre-cut a good stack of hardwood splits. We started the fire- a bed of wood coals, augmented with charcoal. Our grill blend.
Family and friends arrived in small waves. Ray ferried some. Others came on their own. Chickens went on at 2, along with the roast. Somewhere along the way, a tray of sausage stuffed zucchini boats and cheesy stuffed mushrooms were added to the mix.
Our new grill covered worked great! My Robin was camp sous chef, lifting the cover while I tended chickens, slathering on layers of smoke sizzling sauce at each turn. My Mom, camp matriarch, supervised and sampled my grill work from her camp chair behind me.
People came, wine corks popped, the table filled, spirits flowed. The venison roast appetizer came off at 3:30. Ray came over and helped turn chickens between trips. He added charcoal, painted chickens, chatted up guests. We watched smoke waft up through the woods
“You’re gonna have bears tonight.”
“Yeah- I know.”
“Any takers yet?”
I turned and nodded to Robin- “You got one now- I’m staying.”
I wasn’t packed for a night. I’d only brought feeding formula enough for the day. Ray’s wife Patty hadn’t walked in yet. He got her on the cell.
“Hey- can you grab Dick 4 Starbucks? I think there’s some on the shelf. He’s staying the night but doesn’t have enough formula.”
My Sister in Law Doc and loving RN wife protested my choice of nutritional supplement. I laughed.
“I survived 8 weeks and a Fort Benning wake up on nicotine and MRE canteen cup coffee. I think I’ll survive the next 24 hours on Starbucks in a can.”
Ray left to get Patty and another boatload of guests at the walk in. I turned to Robin.
“You aren’t mad if I stay? I can’t be who I am and leave my brother here alone.”
She nodded. “I knew you were staying the minute we left the house this morning. He’ll have bears tonight. You’re his brother. Here- take my hoodie. You’ll need it.”
WORLD RECORD!!!! At exactly 4pm, Mom sampled the chicken and declared it done. We were eating on time. My grill cover came through.
We plated off the grill. People ate in waves, corks popped, spirits flowed. At some point folks played water volleyball in the bay. Cake came out, candles lit, a “Happy birthday” chorus rang through the woods.
Dinner and a show-While evening began its slow descent and guests enjoyed cake- I performed my best bear dance to much cheering applause. It got late. Those who boated in boated out while the lower locks were still open. I said my goodbyes, and Ray ferried Mom and Robin down to the state bridge. They took the grate, the grate cover, all the garbage. What was left of the chicken would walk out with Patty.
I mounted my rock and took imposing stance- Soaring Eagle, Startled Cougar, One legged Bow Hunter- Blew the air horn, long and loud. People cheered, people laughed- all agreed.
“You guys are gonna get bears tonight.”
A small group remained. The last wine glass got filled. As twilight descended guests demanded an encore performance- I lead a sing along bear dance. Armed with dog dishes, pots and pans, we danced, pranced and sang around the fire.
Then they all left. Ray ferried the last guests and family across the lake to walk out while I cleaned up camp, sprayed ammonia, set early warnings, built a bonfire, prepared for the night.
9:30 pm. The wind had subsided. Night settled in. I spotlighted Ray while he moored the boat. We armed air horns, set “bear bombs” next to us outside the lean to, threw logs on the fire, settled in. I manned the spotlight. Ray read by headlamp.
Something scampered across my chest, down my arm past Ray’s head. I hit it with the spotlight- a scurrying mouse. I remarked to my brother- “Mouse just ran across my chest and down my arm. I bet if we took a survey- folks would rather face a bear than that mouse.”
NOTE: I would later be most emphatically proved right. Post camp surveys on the Hierarchy Of Fear clearly showed – MOUSE! trumped BEAR! Just for the record-so did big spider. Although- I do wonder…..I’ve never taken refuge in Ray’s living room in response to big spider. Or mouse.
At 10:30 I scanned camp with the spotlight. THERE! Right behind my big rock, overlooking the coolers- two green circles peeking out at us from behind the trunk of a big hemlock.
“Ray- Bear. Up there on the hill. Behind the hemlock. Watching us.”
Ray got up and stepped out from the lean-to. “Yup, got it.”
The bear didn’t seem much concerned. I don’t know how long he’d been there watching us, waiting, biding his time above the coolers, plotting his next move. Ray tried to take a picture while I held the spotlight- but it was too dark.
Spotlight on him, the jig was up. The bear stepped out from behind the hemlock on all fours, standing on the rock where I’d performed not much earlier.
Ray grabbed a cedar bough bear bomb, I manned an air horn.
“Okay- Ready?” “Yup.” “On the count of three.”
Ray bear bombed the fire. I blasted the air horn. One startled black bear danced off into the night.
Bear photo by Jeff Nadler/Almanack archive