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A DIFFICULT TRAIL AND BEARS

By Jim Davis

The mist swirled through the giant cedars in a surreal scene enhanced by the ebbing roar of the swollen stream in the gorge below. It wasn't raining but it might as well have been. Giant ferns overhung the trail, collecting the mist and releasing a pent up shower of dewdrops as we brushed past them. Our already heavy pack-boards were gaining weight and we had miles to go the old mine and a sheltering cabin. Our spirits were lagging, along with our wet boots, when Len Maley, our guide, stopped in the shelter of a large tree, swung off his pack and produced a large thermos of hot soup. Len, a grizzled old prospector, was proving to be full of surprises. The night before he had regaled us with prospecting stories of the north country while showing us the merits of Canadian whiskey - the effects of which were now taking a toll on my associates and me while Len marched on with light spirits and what seemed a brutal pace up the steady climb up the wild valley of Karnes Creek. Invigorated by the hot liquid we were soon on the march again and the next two miles were a delightful hike as the trail assumed an easy grade, the sun poked through the rough clouds and dazzling peaks took over the scene in the far upper end of the Karnes Creek valley.

Our objective was an old mine that had produced (reportedly) rich ore. We were six in all - Len, Stu Merwin, our boss; Foster Howland, geologist; Bruiser and Danny, packers; and myself. Len had recruited Bruiser and Danny to pack supplies in and samples out. Bruiser (our nick-name for him) was a recent resident of the B.C. penitentiary. Len had found him living in a parked boxcar living on a case of dried macaroni that he had filched. He was a giant bear of a man but gentle, belying his felonious resume'. Danny was a boy, but eager to help, just out of high school. Stu, Foster and I worked for a small uranium company looking to diversify. The Karnes Creek mine had produced silver, lead and zinc with rumors of developed reserves. The workings were open but access up Karnes Creek had been reduced to a foot trail and, as we were to find out, not even that.

The trail gradually turned downward into the thicker spruce forest and the sound of the stream, fed by the rapidly melting June snows in the higher peaks, increased to an angry roar. Suddenly we were next to it, the swirling waters left mounds of foam over the banks of the creek but that was all. The trail ended there. Where there had apparently been a bridge there was nothing but the raging water. Len shook his head, "I was afraid this might happen - not the first time. Well we'll have to find a log." We found one, fifty yards upstream, a large spruce had lost its footing and fallen across the creek, its branches quivering from the force of the water. After inspecting it and prodding its slickness with a sturdy stick, Len shrugged up his pack, grinned at us and quick-stepped across the log. The "bridge" was a couple of feet above the water and less than twenty feet across. "That looks pretty easy." I thought and stepped onto the log, then another step. I could feel the quivering beneath me. Another quick step - I could hear the boulders rumbling beneath me. "That would be sort of like falling into a ball-mill!" ran through my mind. I dropped to my knees and crawled the remaining distance to the hoots from my geologist pals. But they fared no better. I looked at Len with his wiry frame and begin to wonder if maybe his tale of climbing a tree and fighting off a pursuing bear with a sharpened stick might be true after all.

Safely across, we thrashed through the underbrush to find the continuation of trail. To our chagrin the trail lasted only for a brief few yards. The soggy mountain-side had moved in a massive land-slide and we found ourselves faced with a cliff of tangled roots, tipped over trees and muddy boulders grasped by the tree roots. It looked unpassable until Foster found he could climb up, under and round the network of tree roots. We reckoned the height of the soggy scar was fifty feet or more but after an hour of struggling we were on the top. We were muddy and tired but elated to find the trail that made its way gently along the valley slope, alternating between steep, grassy meadows, patches of timber and talus scree. Another two hours of hiking, interspersed with frequent rest stops Len announced that we were almost there. The trail dropped into a boggy meadow along a stream. The trail had been used, but the tracks were all bear prints, some bigger than our own. I wondered if we could make to the safety of a climbable tree in time but now I realized why Len had a couple of cooking pots banging together on his pack. Crossing a still intact bridge we immediately ascended a steep hill, still following the bear tracks, when suddenly, in front of us, was a sizeable cabin, its lower side on stilts of large cedar trees. The cabin was in surprisingly good shape, built from giant logs with split cedar boards and shingles. A ramp and draw bridge led out to a small tree house for bear-proof food storage. Len soon had a hearty supper put together for us.

A mine opening was only a short distance up the hill and we were on the job early the next day, first checking to find that the air was flowing freely through the drifts. We had an old map which appeared to be up to date with the workings. Our only lights were flashlights and candles but we got the mine sampled with a Brunton survey in a few days.

We still hadn't seen any bear although there were plenty of fresh sign. It was on the last day, my pack loaded with samples on a high cliff-side trail on the way out that I found out that the big tracks were matched by big bears. The young packer, Danny and I were on the trail ahead of the others. As we rounded a sharp bend around a steep point of rock we were shocked to see other travelers only a few feet ahead. A bear and her cub. The cub squalled in surprise and the sow rose up to her full height which several times mine (or so it seemed). There were no trees in sight and I didn't have a sharp stick either. Suddenly the sow dropped down, let out a brief woof!, swatted the cub and they disappeared in the brush below the trail. After a brief rustle through the brush all was silent. Danny and I stood, transfixed, wondering if the bear was gone or would she return. We waited for the rest of the crew before we moved on. Len shook his head in disbelief. "You were lucky." A little further down the trail we were again startled by a roar and a shaking tree a hundred yards or so above us. Len set the pace with a fast trot and the words, "We'd best get out of her territory, she won't tell us again."



 

The DREGS collection of memoirs from this page can be found at www.dregs.org/memoirs.html