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Authors: Claire Cameron

The Bear: A Novel

BOOK: The Bear: A Novel
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To Dave, Ben, Max, Keith


“There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”

The Bridge of San Luis Rey,
Thornton Wilder


In October of 1991, Raymond Jakubauskas and Carola Frehe pitched their tent on Bates Island on Lake Opeongo in Algonquin Park, nearly three thousand square miles of wilderness situated two hundred miles northeast of Toronto. The couple had planned to camp for a three-day weekend. When they failed to return on Monday, friends contacted the police. The partially eaten remains of Jakubauskas and Frehe were found on Wednesday. A large male black bear was standing guard over the prey.

Both victims had died as a result of a broken neck from a blow to the head. To the extent that the events can be reconstructed, it appears that the couple arrived on the island, set up camp, and was preparing a meal when the attack occurred. Frehe was most likely the first to be assaulted. It seems that Jakubauskas attempted to fight off the bear with an oar, since a broken oar was discovered at the campsite and the bear later found to be responsible had long bruises on its body.

In an article about the incident in the book
The Best of the Raven,
park naturalist Dan Strickland remembers the phone calls received after the attack. Many callers wanted to understand why the attack occurred. Strickland says that the bear had no signs of disease or other conditions that might drive it to attack humans. Menstruation, which is often thought to be a cause for bear interest in humans, did not play a role. The other question callers had was about the bear’s attraction to food. Although the couple had been cooking at the time of the attack, an untouched tray of ground beef was found at the campsite five days later. The couple’s cooking was not the main attraction.

Why did this attack happen? In very rare instances, a black bear will prey on humans—and in these cases, the predator is usually a wild bear rather than a “garbage” bear, which scavenges around campsites and is familiar with humans. Jakubauskas and Frehe did not make mistakes in setting up their camp or do anything foolish once there. Since the bear was a large animal, weighing 308 pounds, it is difficult to say that they could have put up a better fight.

There is no clear reason for what happened other than that a hungry bear decided to take a chance on a new source of food. What is most frightening about this explanation is the idea that there is no blame to place on either the people or the bear. Identifying fault can comfort us because it provides a way to isolate the circumstances of an incident from our own situation, ensuring that what happened to these people will not happen to us. But in this case there is no apparent rationale for the attack other than predation. The couple happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In the summer of 1991 and 1992, I worked as a counselor at a summer camp in Algonquin Park, leading groups of teenagers on canoe trips that ranged from seven to fourteen days in duration. After the attack, I heard many stories and theories about what had happened on Bates Island—whispers around a campfire at night, all of us searching for the consolation of control, the comfort of story.

The Bear
is based on my memories of and research into this bear attack. I added the kids.






Part I



Bates Island, Lake Opeongo,
Algonquin Park, 1991


I can
hear the air going in and out of my brother’s nose. I am awake. He is two years old and almost three and he bugs me lots of times because I am five years old and soon I will be six but it is warm sleeping next to him. I call him Stick. He always falls asleep before me and I listen to the air of his nose. I can hear my parents’ voices. They are farther away than I can reach and whispering because they think I can’t hear. I let out a squeak to let Momma know I am awake and she says “We’re right here” from too far away. I squeak again and the tent zipper undoes and I can see the sky in the crack. Her cool hand brushes my hair back and her fingers touch my cheek. “Shh, Anna,” she says and the sky zips away again. When I am inside a tent the outside is far away.

The tent is blue and sniffs like dust. My parents have a fire because it is the end of summer and they are cooking something too and not sharing with me. Bacon. I love bacon. My tummy rumbles and I want bacon but it will make Daddy mad. I sniff Gwen teddy bear instead. She is brown and smells like us. I hear the air whistle when it leaves Sticky’s nose. I feel nervous and I don’t know why. The night will be dark soon. And it might be the meat is making my tummy weird. When we were back at the cottage, Sticky was chewing on bacon and he shoved another in his mouth and another and another. When Momma saw she said “Chew your food” but Stick couldn’t chew because his mouth was all full. He started to go red and his eyes got watery and I thought he was crying. I said “Ha-ha Alex’s crying” and Momma came and thumped him. A ball of bacon came out of his mouth. Momma got Stick in trouble for not chewing and I looked at the meat. It had spit on it. I felt a barf in my mouth. And I didn’t eat that bacon ball but it’s making my tummy feel weird.

The air is cold. I roll closer to Stick. His breath goes in my ear and it is warm. A little piece of light from the fire is having a dance on the side of the tent but only a little because it is not dark yet. There is no music except Stick’s nose air and still the light flicks and rolls on the side of the tent. I can’t sleep. I tuck Gwen under the covers so she isn’t cold and I creep over to the door. The zipper has teeth that grab onto my skin. I go slow so it doesn’t bite and I open it just a little bit so my face can be out. The carpet here is made of pine needles. They smell like the yellow bottle I use to help Momma clean the bathtub. There are prickle pine trees all around our camp. These are the ones that forgot the needles on the ground. The moon is going to switch with the sun and the moon will have a tail that shows up on the water. The water is not chop chop chop anymore. It sits quietly in the lake now because it is sleeping. Close to the water, really far away from me, I can see two shadows. I can hear from the whispers that it’s Momma and Daddy and they are laughing. Momma leans forward and I see a ponytail like a horse’s hanging down. Her face is smiling and I can see her teeth in a nice way. The only other thing I can see is Coleman.

Coleman is green like grass and he is so heavy I can’t lift him up. We bring him on canoe trips to carry our food and keep it cold. And we use him so that bears can’t rob the food from us. Bears like our food if we let them and we don’t want to do that. So Coleman holds everything cool inside his body and has a metal tooth in the front that keeps him shut tight. He is really really big and a metal box. Stick and I can both fit inside him like when we play hide and seek at home. We can stay so quiet and hide in Coleman from Daddy and try to stop laughing with my hand on Stick’s mouth. When Coleman sits in the canoe he can’t fit across sideways and so Daddy needs to put him pointing to the front. Only Daddy can lift him up. When Coleman has to pee he has a little button at the side where I can push and his pee comes out and when I see it sometimes I pee too. Coleman is why we camped on the island because he is so heavy and big. The water was chop chop chop because the wind was whistling in my ears and Coleman makes the canoe go tippy. If we went down the path to the next lake where we were supposed to camp then Daddy would have to carry Coleman and the canoe but Momma wanted to be here at the island to see the tail of the moon. Once I tried to pick Coleman up and I can’t.

I whisper hello to Coleman and Daddy’s head turns away from the fire: “Back in the tent, Anna.”

I stay still to make me dream.

“Did you hear me?”

I am awake.

“Last time, okay?”

“Yes, Daddy.”

“Sleep tight.”

I poke my head inside and Gwen missed me. She looks lonely and I tell her with my eyes that I am coming. I carefully take the zipper in my fingers. They feel furry in the tips and too tired to pull. Zipper will bite if I don’t watch out. I pull again and the zipper tries to get me between my thumb and pointy finger, the soft part that looks like it could be on a frog. I sit back and pull my hand away. The zipper must be hungry and so I will stay away. I grab Gwen and sniff and tuck her back into the sleeping bag.

I lie on my back and snuggle and the fire is dancing more on the side of the tent because it is a little more blue and gray outside. I watch it and my eyes start to shut but I don’t want them to. Maybe if Stick is asleep then Momma will pluck me out of bed and feed me bacon. I want to ask out loud but my teeth are too fuzzy. My head is heavy like a rock. My eyes shut again and I peel them open. I hear a sniff. It might have been from Sticky’s nose but it sounded bigger than that. Stick’s nose must be growing and in the middle of the night it will hog all the air. Something moves on the side of the tent. I see some fluff beside the dancing fire and I think the fluff is Stick’s hair. He has escaped. It might be his little white head sneaking out for bacon. A few of his fluffy hairs are sticking up as a shadow just outside the tent. His nose whistles beside me so I know it’s not, but the hair stands up and I think it looks thicker. The hair stands there shaking like my fingers when I am hungry. I watch it and it moves forward only a very little, as slow as a snail. It would be a hairy snail and much bigger and that means it probably isn’t a snail anymore. And the bacon smells and my eyes fall down and now I can open them only a crack. I see the hair move and I think as my eye shuts how did Stick stay sleeping and sneak out of the tent for bacon at the same time?

BOOK: The Bear: A Novel
6.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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