Bruin At A Maple Sugar Party

ONE evening near the first of April, three years ago this spring, I was making my way the best I could down from the west branch of the Penobscot River towards the plantation of Nikertou. (Up in Maine they call an unincorporated town a plantation. Down south the word has a different meaning.) How and why I came to be in that wild section, at the hour of twilight, may need a word in explanation.

A month previously I had been sent up to the “Head of Chesuncook” from Bangor, by the lumbering firm of which my uncle was a member, to pay off one of their “gangs,” which made the “head” of that lake a sort of depot and place of rendezvous.

Both going up and coming back as far as the foot of Lake Pemadumcook, I had had with me, as guide and armed protector, an old hunter named Hughy Clives. But on getting down to the foot of this lake, and within six or eight miles of Nikertou, old Hughy had been seized with a sudden desire to leave me and to go to Millinocket Lake in quest of otters; and so giving me my “course” for Nikertou, he had bidden me “good luck,” and again started northward.

It was a warm, spring-like afternoon, though the snow in that region still lay to the depth of three or four feet; but on my snow-shoes I didn’t mind the depth; the main thing was to keep out of the brush and the dense hemlock and cedar thickets.

It was about two o’clock when I left the river; and I had expected to get down to the little “settlement” by sunset. But the sun went below the distant spruce-clad ridges, and dusk fell, with as yet no signs of a “clearing.” Had I lost my way? My little pocket-compass said I was all right—if Hughy had given me a correct course; and I had all confidence in the old man too. Still, as the twilight deepened around me, with the unbroken forest stretching drearily ahead, I began to feel rather uneasy; especially as (since parting with Hughy and his rifle) I had no weapon save a jack-knife and a little pocket-pistol I had brought along with me from Bangor—not very effective arms in case a catamount should take it into his head to drop down upon me from a tree-top, or a big black bear to step out from behind one of those low hemlocks, or even a cross old “lucivee” to rush out from some of those thick cedar clumps. For thoughts of these things had begun to pop into my mind. I was but seventeen then, and hadn’t quite outgrown my fear of the dark. And thus plodding timorously onward, thinking on many things injurious to a boy’s courage,  I had begun to think I should have to make a night of it there, somewhere, when the red gleam of a fire, from the crest of the ridge before me, suddenly burst out on the darkness, banishing all my fears. For a fire, whether in a hunter’s camp or a farm-house window, is good evidence of man’s presence, with food and shelter—the two great wants of the belated.

The bear invades the sugar party camp

Hurrying on, I made my way up the slope. The fire seemed to be in the open air, among trees—a woodman’s camp probably; and, knowing that these men are sometimes a little ticklish about having strangers come too suddenly into their night camps, I halted, while yet at some distance, for a good look ahead.

There seemed to be several large kettles, slung with chains from a “lug-pole” supported by strong crotched stakes at each end—a circumstance which struck me as a little odd at a hunting-fire. No one was in sight, though a sort of half shelter of hemlock might contain the campers. Whatever they were, it would be well to hail them. So, calling in my breath, I gave a loud “hullo.”

Two dusky figures rose from the shelter, and looked out towards me into the darkness.

“Hullo!” I repeated; and in response heard a clear boyish voice exclaiming,—

“Who’s there?”

“Belated tramper.”

“Well, walk up, Mr. Tramper, where we can see what you are.”

I moved up to be seen, and on my part saw a couple of youngsters, of about  my own age, who were tending what turned out to be a sugar-camp.

“Where from?” demanded the taller of the two.

“Head of Chesuncook. Going to Bangor. Can I stay here to-night?”

“Of course you can. Had any supper?”

“Not a mouthful.”

“Something left—wasn’t there, Zeke?” said he, turning to his comrade, who was now pouring cold sap into the “heater.”

“Enough for one, I guess,” said Zeke; and, taking a bucket and a wooden bowl from under the hemlock, he produced a slab of johnny-cake from the former, and, pouring out something like a quart of maple sirup into the latter, bade me “go ahead.”

I did so without further invitation, and never made a better supper, the programme being to dip the bread into the sirup, mouthful by mouthful.

The boys were now preparing their night’s wood.

There had been, they said, “an excellent run of sap” during the last few days. The kettles were kept boiling day and night, steadily. It was truly a wild scene. Clouds of steam gushed up from the surging kettles; and the fires gleamed brighter as the darkness deepened, while all about us seemed a wall of blackness. But my long tramp had thoroughly tired me down, and my recollections of the remainder of the evening are a little drowsy, though I learned in the course of it that the names of the two youthful sugar-makers, upon whose camp I had stumbled, were Zeke Murch and Sam Bubar; and I also helped to take off a large kettle of hot sirup, which we set in a snow-drift, two or three rods from the fire, to cool. This done, I was soon asleep, rolled up in an old coverlet, and knew very little till, hearing voices, I opened my eyes to the fact that the sun was staring me in the face from over the eastward ridge, as if surprised at my sloth.

Hastily unrolling myself, I saw Sam and Zeke out at the kettle we had set in the snow, pointing and excitedly discussing something.

“Old scamp!” exclaimed Zeke. “What work he’s made here!”

“All this sugar gone—spoiled!” cried Sam.

“What is it?” said I, going out to them. “What’s the matter?”

“Why,” said Sam, turning and laughing in spite of his vexation, “something has guzzled up ’most the whole of this ‘honey’ we set out here last night. Only see there!”

The kettle, which must have held several pailfuls, was nearly empty; and what was left hadn’t a very inviting look certainly.

“What in the world ate all that?” cried I.

“Well—a bear, we expect,” said Zeke. “There’s been one hanging round here for several nights. We heard him hoot out, down in the swamp, ever so many times, after you had gone to sleep last night. Didn’t think he’d come up so near the fire, though. But we both got to sleep a little while after midnight. I suppose he must have lushed up the sirup then.”

“Tremendous fellow, too,” said Sam. “Look at those tracks!”

Tracks indeed! There in the snow about the kettle were his broad, deep footmarks, long as a man’s boot, and much wider, pressed down, too, into the snow, as only great weight could have pressed.

“Gracious!” exclaimed I, “you wouldn’t have caught me going to sleep here if I had known there was such a monster as that round!”

“Rather lucky, I think,” said Zeke,  “that he didn’t take it into his head to top off his sirup with some of us.”

“And I’m mad, too,” continued Zeke. “We were depending on this kittle of sirup for our party to-night.”

“Your party?”

“Yes; we’ve invited a lot of the boys—and girls, too—to come up here this evening, to make ‘sheep-skins.’ You’ll stay—won’t you? We were going to ask you.”

“Don’t know,” said I, still thinking of the bear.

“O, I don’t think he’ll meddle with us,” said Sam, guessing at my hesitation. “I’m going down to get some fixins, and shall bring up a gun. If he calls again, he may get a dose of buckshot.”

No one is apt to be a great coward after the sun is up. Thus reassured, I concluded to stop to the party, for which the boys were intending to make a great preparation.

“Let’s do the thing up in style now,” said Sam.

We went at it. First we cut low, shrubby evergreens, hemlocks mostly, and with these made a sort of enclosure, some four rods in diameter, around the kettles, by planting them in the snow. Then clipping off an immense quantity of smaller boughs, we strewed the snow inside the enclosure with these. We thus had a sort of green room (without any roof), in the centre of which steamed the boiling kettles; and at the entrance, or doorway, we made a grand arch of cedar. For seats we rolled in “four-foot” cuts from the trunk of a large poplar they had lately felled, first splitting off a slab from the side of each to form a seat, which we cushioned with cedar.

Meanwhile another kettle of sirup was boiling down to supply the place of that the bear had drank; and filling some fifteen or twenty sap-buckets with clean snow, crowded down hard to make the “sheep-skins” on, we were ready for our company.

It was nearly night before all this had been completed. Sam had been down to the “settlement” and brought up a quantity of bread to go with our honey; and I was glad to see that he hadn’t forgotten the gun; for, as night began to close in again, I couldn’t help remembering the great tracks out there in the snow-drift. As it grew dark and the fire began to shine on the green boughs, our scenery looked even better than by daylight; and for beacons to our incoming guests, we fixed torches of pitch-wood upon stakes thrust into the snow around our camp, and at several points out in the woods, like lamp-posts in a town.

“Quite a show,” said Sam, surveying the preparation. “How changed and odd it makes it look all about!”

Ere long voices began to be heard coming up through the woods,—merry shouts and hails,—to which the boys responded, bidding them hurry, and promising a big “sheep-skin” to the one who first got up there.

A chorus of merry cries and laughter followed this announcement; and in a few moments a racing, panting crowd of a dozen boys and girls came up in sight, and poured under the arch—sturdy lads, and lasses in red frocks and checked aprons. And here be it said that a girl—a certain rosy Nell Ridley—won the sheep-skin by being the first under the archway. But the others were not far behind, and in another moment our green arena was swarming with the young folks.

Though a stranger, I soon found myself acquainted and on the best of terms with everybody. Sheep-skins were now being run by the dozen, the process being to pour hot sirup upon the cold, hard-pressed snow in the buckets, where it instantly cooled, becoming tough and of  the color of sheep-skin. And if one has a “sweet tooth,” nothing among all the “sugars” can compare with a maple sheep-skin.

We all had sweet teeth there, and were in the midst of a furious romp around the kettles in chase of Nell, whom some one had accused of appropriating “the great one,” when somebody suddenly cried,—

“Hark!”

There was an instant hush; when clear on the evening air there came a wild cry—a long, quavering “Hoo-oo-oo.”

“Bear! A bear!” exclaimed several of the boys, to whom bruin’s nightly cries were but familiar sounds. But save that a few of the girls looked a little startled, no one seemed to be much alarmed. I saw Zeke looking to the priming of the old gun, though; and for a while we were pretty whist, listening; but the cry, which had seemed at a considerable distance, was not repeated. Indeed, in the merriment which soon succeeded, the most of us had entirely forgotten it, I think. At least we were all in the midst of another scrimmage over the “last biscuit,” when a loud snort, like that of a startled horse, a sort of “woof! woof!” accompanied by a great rustling in our evergreen hedge, startled us; and turning, we saw—I shall never forget the sight—an enormous black creature coming through our fence, with all the independence of a sole proprietor! Of course, as Zeke afterwards expressed it, “if he was coming in, we wanted to go out.”

The girls were not of the fainting sort; but they did scream some, and we all sprang away like cats through the opposite side of the hedge. The gun had been left standing near the place where the bear had broken in, and was not to be got at, of course. But, catching out my pistol, as we scrambled through the hemlock, I discharged it at the old fellow, hitting him, I guess; for he growled and came straight after me. ’Twas no time to be loitering. Down the slope we all ran together, slumping and sprawling full length in the soft snow! Up and on again, knocking out spiles and kicking over sap-buckets, bumping and grazing ourselves against the rough bark of the maples; for it was pitch dark in the woods. But on we went for dear life, expecting every moment to feel the bear’s teeth or claws from behind. At first I had a sort of impression that we boys should have to wait and put ourselves between the girls and the bear; but I soon found I had all I could do to keep up with them. Such girls to run I never saw before! And we never stopped till, at a distance of a mile below, the forest opened out into a cleared field.

There we began to discover that the bear was not after us, and gradually came to a halt. After getting breath, however, we kept on—at a little slower pace, though—down to the “corners,” where, after seeing the girls to their respective dwellings, guns were procured, and, rallying out Mr. Bubar and Mr. Murch, senior, with several other men, we all started back to hunt up the bear. Going quietly up through the woods, we cautiously approached to a point where the gap we had made in rushing out of our enclosure enabled us to see what was going on inside; and there by the firelight we beheld the bear sitting cosily before the coals, and gazing wistfully into the boiling kettles. He had probably found them too hot for his use.

Raising their guns, the men all fired together—a murderous volley of bullets and buckshot. Rearing upon his haunches with a sullen growl, old bruin glared around a moment, then fell over backwards, and, with a few dying kicks and groans, was dead. And this was the end of Bruin and the maple-sugar party.