CHAPTER 7 — THE WEDDING FEAST
By all means marry;
If you get a good wife, you'll become happy;
If you get a bad one,
you’ll become a philosopher.
Among the ancient traditions of the Cree Indians is a belief that when a marriage is consummated by the couple eating the heart and liver of a bear, many strong sons shall come forth from that union. I explained the ritual to my new bride as we loaded the boat in preparation for her first trip down the shores of Lake Temiskaming to the lodge in May 1976. Pat and I had been married less than a week and she, having been raised in the golden valleys of central California, did not put much stock in the customs of the Northern Cree. I implored her to be open-minded, but she just smirked and said, “You can eat all the bear guts you want, Honey; just don’t expect me to cook them up for you.” I told her not to worry about cooking them because, according to ancient custom, the organs must be devoured raw, immediately after the kill, to have any effect. She was not impressed and reminded me of a promise I had made before we were married. I had assured Pat that bears would not be a problem around the camp. I told her that despite numerous hunting expeditions the previous year, Jim and I had seen only a few tracks and not a single bear.
That semester I was living in a tent on the banks of the Provo River, a choice which had little to do with the survival course and everything to do with a personal aversion to student housing and apartment dwelling.
Pat and I had met a year and a half earlier out on the west desert of Utah. She was eighteen and building a lean-to from sagebrush, pinion boughs, and juniper bark, a task which was part of a wilderness survival course we were taking at the university. One evening, after a strenuous daylong march through rugged terrain, Pat offered me an ash cake straight from the coals of her fire. It was a simple gesture on her part, but for me it kindled a flame that has never died.
That semester I was living in a tent on the banks of the Provo River, a choice which had little to do with the survival course and everything to do with a personal aversion to student housing and apartment dwelling. Living in a tent just five miles upstream from the university was quiet and comfortable, but it left a dubious impression on some of the girls I had dated. Pat, however, was less judgemental and acknowledged that my tent was a step up from a primitive lean-to. It has since been my opinion that a person who has lived happily in a cave or a lean-to can be content almost anywhere.
By the light of the west desert moon, while cooking ash cakes and horsetail tea, I recounted stories to Pat about the cabin on the Kipawa River some twenty-five hundred miles to the northeast of Utah. In time I asked her to accompany me there. Perhaps it was true love, or maybe my tales of Canada merely sparked her sense of adventure; at any rate, she accepted my invitation. We were married in Salt Lake City on May 5, 1976. The next day we departed for the north woods.
We journeyed east for nearly a week through America’s heartland in a Datsun pickup truck with a small camper shell, which we had traded for the old Volkswagen bug Jim and I drove the previous summer. After retracing the route our pioneer ancestors had taken from the Mississippi River to the Great Salt Lake, Pat and I turned north and crossed into Canada between Lakes Huron and Michigan. Arriving in Fabre, Quebec, on May 12, we loaded the boat and prepared for the twelve-mile trip down Lake Temiskaming. Under a clear, blue sky, with a gentle north Wind to our backs, we traveled past steep, rugged hills blanketed with pines, maples, and poplars. The sun had cast an amber glow on the massive, lichen-covered cliffs rising up the water, and Pat noted that the only sign of civilization was a small abandoned cabin near Pointe Martel about five miles north of the Kipawa River.
When we rounded the final bend and the lodge came into view, Pat’s expression was a mixture of excitement and anticipation. After traveling for several miles along rough, inaccessible shoreline, the sight of the small protected bay, where our house of logs stood surrounded by the tallest trees and greenest grass in all of Quebec, was a pleasure. Before stopping at the docks, I maneuvered the boat into the mouth of the river so Pat could appreciate the immense rapids and feel the force of the current as it pushed the boat out into the lake. When we neared the docks, I pointed out the boathouse, the Main Lodge, and the River Cabin. Then, as I directed Pat’s attention toward the icehouse, a black bear ambled out through the doorway to see what all the commotion was about. Apparently the animal had spent a quiet winter sleeping in the small log structure and was disturbed by the noise of our motor. He pawed the ground a couple of times, then headed out behind the lodge as though he owned the place.
I looked at Pat a bit sheepishly, then grabbed my rifle as we stepped out of the boat and walked cautiously down the dock. We approached the corner of the building and I checked the chamber of my rifle to be sure it was ready. Pat was mumbling something about the tranquil valleys of California and what a prevaricator she had married, so I stopped and said, “Pat, we are the luckiest of all people. This is the perfect opportunity to assure ourselves of many strong sons while lending credence to ancient Cree tradition at the same time.”
"Cheer up,” Pat said. “Let’s just be thankful we are skinning the bear rather than him skinning us."
We stepped out behind the corner of the lodge and saw the bear still pawing at the ground several yards away. The animal caught our scent and made a deep woofing sound, then turned and rushed in our direction. As the bear gained momentum, I dropped to one knee and raised the gun to my shoulder. All at once everything seemed to be in slow motion. The movement of the bear and the touch of the rifle stock on my cheek felt strange and unreal. How I had time to notice the bear’s powerful shoulder muscles rippling underneath its shiny black coat of hair is impossible to explain. That dreamlike moment was suddenly shattered by the blast of the rifle as I pulled the trigger. The bear did a complete somersault before coming to a halt a short distance away.
As we carefully approached the animal, Pat asked if I was sure it was dead. “Look at the eyes,” I cautioned. “If they are open and still, he is dead. If they are moving or closed tight, watch out!”
I set about the task of skinning and cleaning the bear but was disappointed to find the bullet had pierced the animal directly through the heart, thus threatening our chance of verifying Cree tradition.
“Cheer up,” Pat said. “Let’s just be thankful we are skinning the bear rather than him skinning us.”
I found the liver still intact, but Pat would agree to eat some only if we fried it up with bacon, onions, and lots of ketchup. I felt that to be a breach of Cree tradition, but she had her way. Nonetheless, it turned out to be the sweetest, mildest, most tender meat we had ever tasted.
That evening after dinner I went to work stretching the bear hide and preparing it for tanning. First I tacked the heavy, wet skin to the back of the boathouse door by pulling the nose, tail, and four legs as far apart as possible and driving small nails about every six inches all the way around the hide. In order to scrape the excess fat and meat from the hide, I left the skin side exposed to the air with the hair side against the wooden door. I needed both my crescent-shaped skinning knife as well as a large butcher knife for scraping the hide. By pounding a small block of wood onto the tip of the butcher knife I created a sort of draw knife that could be held on both ends and pulled evenly across the hide. It worked perfectly for fleshing.
Once the hide was relatively free of fat, I salted it down with a pound of Morton’s table salt. Two or three pounds would have been preferable, but other than a half-filled shaker that Pat was guarding inside the kitchen, the Morton’s was all I had. The salt is important because it eats away at whatever fat is missed by the scraping knife and also holds the hair to the hide for years to come.
Finally, before turning in for the night, I cracked open the skull of the bear and removed the brain. The Cree and numerous other Indian tribes have used brain as a tanning agent for centuries. It cures and softens a hide as well as any chemical process in use today, and almost as if Mother Nature had intended it so, every animal’s brain is sufficient in size to tan its own hide. Although I had never brain-tanned anything larger than a badger skin, I knew that it would outlast a factory-tanned hide by many years.
The following morning when Pat complained about the plastic bag full of bear brains in the refrigerator, I told her how optimistic I was about our future as parents of many strong sons. She smiled and reminded me that medical science had proven the sex of a child is determined by its father, not by the ancient customs of Indians. Many years later, after the birth of our fifth daughter, I came to the conclusion that Cree tradition, though untested by modern science, might very well be valid. Perhaps the fate of our many strong sons was indeed sealed by the bullet that pierced the heart of that bear.