Column: Big Bears, Mosquito Coffee and Traveling With a Child’s Eyes

  • Columnist Willem Lange recounts some of his grizzly bear experiences. (Rick Shreve photograph)

For the Valley News
Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Last week I wrote about the swarms of black flies and mosquitoes inhabiting the latitudes north of 45 degrees. A couple of days later I got an email from Larry Whittaker, a dear friend who lives on Coronation Gulf at the broad mouth of the Coppermine River in a house he built himself, with a view out across the fabled Northwest Passage.

Larry affirmed that the flies were bad enough there to dissuade him and his wife, Helen, from visiting their outpost cabin until August. Even they find them odious. Once, chatting with an elderly Inuk in Baker Lake, a not-so-sensitive member of our party noticed he was waving his arms around his head to fend off the flies. “I thought you people didn’t mind the flies,” he observed.

“Are you kidding?” said the old man. “If you’re in, like, Niagara Falls right in January and you see a man coming down the street waving his arms like this, you know he’s from Baker Lake.”

Larry, in his email, said one thing that triggered a great memory. “I’m surprised,” he wrote, “you didn’t mention boiling the pond water at Hepburn Island, full of mosquito larva that turned red like tiny shrimp.” How could I have forgotten that? I’ll correct that today. But first ...

You know, when you travel, especially to places very unlike your normal surroundings, you travel with a child’s eyes: Many things seem wondrous. Wondrous or not, they create lifelong memories.

Almost all of us in northern North America live on land that’s in isostatic rebound: It’s rising slowly from the weight of the continental ice sheet having been removed from it. But under a river that four of us paddled in 1991 the land was rising so much more rapidly that the river had been finding new channels and abandoning old ones. It was almost moonlike. We ended one portage by lowering the canoes down the face of what had once been a large waterfall into a beautifully circular plunge pool at its foot. My canoe partner, Knox, flung a large Dardevle into the pool and after a struggle, brought up a lake trout longer than his arm. If that doesn’t sound memorable, hold out your arm and imagine a trout longer than that.

The first time we went north, especially, our infants’ eyes noticed everything. Familiarity hasn’t altered that situation much. Barren of trees, the land lies open like, as T.S. Eliot would put it, “a patient etherized upon a table.” You can see everything, even things that haven’t quite happened yet.

One year, instead of taking canoes, four of us opted to take a trek on foot across the tundra. Larry and his family dropped us off on the east bank of a little river where we’d camp for the first night. Larry went to the west bank; his family piled out and started fishing. The river was full of char. I looked upstream, and here came a big old tattered, cinnamon-colored grizzly ambling unawares down the far bank.

For just a moment I thought, should I warn Larry, or watch to see what happens? Then I hollered, “Larry! Bear!” and pointed upstream. The family was back in the boat in 10 seconds. Larry grabbed his rifle, while his beagle, Gypsy, ran bravely barking toward the bear. Startled, it stood up straight; Gypsy turned and ran back to the boat; Larry fired over the bear’s head, and it went galumphing over the nearest hill.

We’ve never been bothered by grizzly bears, but we’ve seen many, and are always on the qui vive for them. On an evening after supper, Alex Medlicott and I hiked from camp down the river to a long, quiet pool to fish. Alex was at the falls at the head; I was at the foot, sweeping a big streamer through the current. I heard Alex yell and looked up. He was gesticulating, and I thought, he’s telling me to turn around. I did. A big boar grizzly stood at the top of the cut bank about eight feet away, peering at me and swinging his head to get a whiff.

Alex says I swelled up just like a cat trapped by dogs. I told the bear that if he’d give me five minutes, I’d be far away and he could have his fishing hole back. He thought about that for a moment, then turned and disappeared, the willow bushes waving back and forth as he passed. Then I did some gesticulating, the message of which was, “It’s about time to go back to camp, anyway, don’t you think?

The incident Larry mentioned in his email is unique in my experience. We’d just reached the mouth of the Tree River, which had never been run before (and never will be again by anybody sane). The bay was brackish; there was no water for cooking or coffee. Scouting around, I found a little pool of fresh water between a riverside dune and the rocky shore. I scooped up at potful. It was full of hundreds of tiny mosquito larvae. With no way to strain them out, we just put the pot over the fire. They stopped moving, turned pink as their fellow arthropods, the shrimps, and floated around in there. We found the entrée and the coffee that evening strangely crunchy, but not unpleasant. Both were full of fresh protein; and we’d only done to the mosquitoes what they’d’ve done to us if they’d had the chance. I’ll tell you: My old principal was right when he told me one day that experiences were far more valuable than any possessions.

Willem Lange can be reached at willem.lange@comcast.net.