As an entrepreneurial young lad always in need of pocket money, I worked at many odd jobs in our small town, usually for a dollar an hour. I would catch and sell worms and frogs, split and pile wood, dig trenches in the rocks and sometimes into the lake, and whatever else needed doing. My best paying job was skinning for some lodges, especially when the wealthy Americans came to hunt bears. They would pay me $5 per bear and a little more if I quartered the bear for them. This process took me about an hour and a half to do a good job. Sometimes I got a generous tip as well.
One day after coming home from school, Mom said, “The Lodge is picking you up. They have a couple of bears that were shot today and needed skinning.” The Lodge sent the brand new white Bonneville Pontiac to pick me up, and best of all, the driver was the owner’s daughter — sweet, charming and a beautiful young woman. Life couldn’t get any better.
We arrived at the Lodge, where I saw two dead bears hanging. I immediately got to work. As I was lowering a bear down onto the skinning table, the hunters walked over to me. “You look pretty young to be a skinner; think you can do it properly?” “Yes, sir, I’ve been skinning bears since I was 13 years old,” and with that sorted out, I went to work on the first bear.
The hunters watched me for a while, but when I proved to be up to the task, they left me to my business and went back to their cabin for more refreshments.
As I was working, a slight breeze stirred the air and scattered the leaves. Occasionally it sounded like something was walking in the nearby bush, and I would glance up. As the sun slowly sank and the shadows grew longer, my imagination took flight. I thought I saw movement in the brush and recalled some scary bear story I had read. My mind began to run rampant; I wondered if a bear would approach due to the smell of fresh meat. Suddenly I heard a rustling of branches and nervously glanced over my shoulder towards the bush edge — nothing there — but as I turned back, the bear that was hanging swayed towards me. That was all it took. I bolted, heading straight to the front door of the Lodge as fast as I could pump my legs. As I reached for the door handle, it hit me. It was the wind that had moved the bear, and my imagination had set my legs in motion.
Somewhat abashed, I quickly looked around, hoping no one had noticed my mad dash. As I turned to head back to start the last bear, the door opened, and a sweet voice said, “Can I help you?” It was the lodge owner’s daughter. My face flushed in embarrassment; had she seen me run? My brain went into overdrive, “I was just going to ask you where the light switch is, and then I remembered that it was in the fish cleaning shack, thanks,” I stammered. That beautiful smile of hers got me every time. I went back to skinning, laughing at myself for running from a dead bear. A person’s imagination can make you do funny things, but at least no one had noticed me.
Some sage advice
It was my fault; as a young kid, I would run over to my Grandpa’s house to insist on hearing him tell the latest bear tales from the logging camp. Camp Odenback was in the middle of Algonquin Park, and there seemed to be plenty of bears wandering around camp. The delicious smells of camp cooking brought the bears in hoping for a meal, or they might wait and try to break into the camp larders at night.
Now Grandpa could tell an exciting story, and I was a sucker for the excitement. Looking back, Grandpa might have stretched some of the stories; but as far as I was concerned, it was the truth, and I took them seriously. I had many bear nightmares, and even when awake, I would sometimes hear a bear outside my bedroom window at night, just waiting to rip out the screen and attack me.
Finally I decided to get help in solving my bear dilemma. Come Friday I went straight to my Grandpa for advice. Grandpa was a wise man, so surely he would know what to do. I asked, “What should I do if a bear is after me?” I looked up at him; he had that serious look on his face even though his eyes twinkled. “Well,” he said with a solemn pause, “if a bear is after you and closing in, reach in the back of your pants, take some of that bear deterrent and rub it on the bear’s nose. That’ll fix him.” “What bear deterrent?” I asked. With a smile, Grandpa said, “If the bear is close enough, the deterrent will be there, guaranteed, don’t worry.” I finally figured out what he was saying. Thank goodness I never had to use that secret weapon.
Back to work
I continued skinning but got to thinking. Now, I could have run from nothing and made a fool of myself, or I could have stayed and possibly wrestled a bear. What would you have done?
Finishing up that last bear was worrisome, even if I knew there were no bears nearby — or were there?
I was carefully checking the hide when a voice said, “How is it going?” I almost jumped out of my skin. George, one of the hunters, had walked over and I had not even heard him. He just chuckled.
“Almost done,” I said. At that, he went up to their cabin and got his fellow hunters. They gathered around and seemed pleased with the skinning jobs. “Great work, son. What do we owe you.” “Five dollars a bear,” I answered. They paid me the money then handed me an extra five American.
“Thank you very much; you guys sure did well with your hunt.”
George spoke, “Your Dad knows bears; we hunted for four days this week and hadn’t seen a bear. This morning we went out with your Dad and shot two. By the way, we will be coming back in November for deer hunting. Your Dad says you’re the dog handler, so I imagine you will be hunting with us.” That was great news for me. I was looking forward to it, two weeks off for deer hunting. I wrapped the hides and stored them in the freezer. I thanked them and said, “Goodbye, see you in November.”
I was thrilled but a little embarrassed as the lodge owner’s daughter drove me home. You see, bears have a distinct odour, mostly if they are hanging in the sun for a few hours. Even on a cloudy day, they start to smell. It gets on your clothes and, well, you stink. I had showered and changed clothes, but I could still smell that bear odour — or was that also my imagination? Hopefully, it was. On the other hand, I had made some serious cash and some new friends.
Years later, I was talking to the lodge owner’s daughter, and she mentioned that particular evening, “I don’t know how you could stand the odour of the bears.” So it wasn’t my imagination.
After high school, I moved to the city, and my buddy took over the skinning job. Years later, we were telling stories from the old days. He mentioned an incident where he was skinning a couple of bears; it was near evening, with a slight breeze rustling the leaves. Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw something and turned, one of the hanging dead bears moved. He was off, hightailing it for the lodge door. I smiled, “I can relate,” and we had a good laugh.
The experience of meeting and spending time with people from different walks of life is priceless. Time at the Lodge allowed me to learn about other people and have fun at the same time. Life in the Madawaska Valley brings back many fond memories from my youth, good times, good friends, and adventure. Visit us someday; you won’t be disappointed, the memories will last a lifetime! But watch out for your imagination; you never know what could happen.
photos: RT-images, KO Lodge, Rogers Ar