Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Grizzly Gorman

There were six of them, sitting in the hotel lounge and telling stories, getting acquainted and reacquainted, the night before the survey crew headed west. The four older men knew each other, as three of them were with the Power Commission, and the fourth was a bush pilot who flew for the Commission on contract. One of the younger lads, Russell Nikos, an engineering student, was familiar to the older fellows because he had worked for the Commission the previous year. He had been part of the crew that had gone into the survey area at the end of the summer to have look around for the next season and build a small dock at the south end of the lake.
But the other young man,Toby Skinner, had met none of these men until the day before, when most of this summer's crew, as many again as the group in the lounge, had gathered at the bus depot in Vancouver to make up their little cavalcade and head north at the end of the afternoon. They were supposed to leave the city closer to noon, but there had been problems with the trailer carrying their seventeen-foot outboard cruiser, their main supply boat. This had taken time to solve at a welding shop, so the men already at the bus depot withdrew to a nearby hotel for the inaugural get together of the long summer in each other's company. The boss, who was part of the evening affair in the lounge, had not joined the hotel crew in the city, as he was at the welder's. Nor had the pilot. He was with the lounge crew now because he had flown in from Vancouver Island to check on his hunting cabin, and then dropped down to spend the night in Williams Lake. He had known they were passing through because he would be flying for them later on in the summer.
They'd all had a lively time in the pub, back in the city, for most of the crew were students, engineers somewhat intrigued by having an arts man like Toby in their midst, especially as he seemed to have a lot of stories at his disposal. Also, from Russell, the first of the crew at the bus depot when Toby arrived, they'd learned that Toby had a banjo in his duffel bag and knew a lot of songs. Toby had also spent a lot of time with the military, although never near a combat situation, and that had helped with the flow of conversation with Ted Gorman, their equipment wrangler, and a veteran of the real thing. He'd been a paratrooper, a victim of the bungled drop at Nijmegen, but other than his time in the war, he seemed to have been more or less a professional woodsman, taken out of school by his surveyor father in grade four and earning his keep in the wilderness ever since. He was the oldest man in the group by a decade, but he seemed to have no family himself from what Russell had said about him. He was, Russell had said, an expert at his trade. Gorman's mother had been an Ojibway, and looking at his profile as they had sat side by side in the hotel pub, Toby thought he would have done well as a film actor.
The man on his left in the pub had driven the one-ton from Victoria, the Commission headquarters, with two more boats, cedar lap streaks, lashed to the iron frame, and loaded with their tents and other equipment. He was older too, thirty or so, from New Zealand and he had by then designated Toby as the crew member who would ride shotgun in his truck. His name was David Battersby. He was bachelor, and plainly a very decent fellow, and fascinated to learn that Toby was a musician. He had not been to university in New Zealand, but had studied as an engineer's draughtsman.
It was not the first time that Toby had acquainted himself with new friends and acquaintances. . As a boy he'd changed neighbourhoods and schools hand over fist, thanks to the war moving his father about, and he'd belonged to Cubs, Scouts, and cadets. Then had come the university newspaper, and officer cadet camp. In the previous summer he had worked for biggest newspaper in Vancouver, even reporting on the smaller fish in a provincial election. Always the challenge of getting to know new faces, new interests.
But this adventure was somehow different. The others had just seemed to happen. He would think out his next move, make a decision, and it would always prove to have been an interesting choice, and, as a writer in training, he'd come away with good stories and character notes. There had been surprises, especially in his first year in law school, but there was not much real negativity, no life shattering mistakes. Well, one mistake, but he hadn't been caught by it. And he knew he would not make it again.
He felt perfectly free, and wonderfully lucky, but he also knew he'd had to earn the luck. He'd had to mightily displease his father by leaving law school in his second year, and he'd had to disturb two employers by deciding to quit his jobs so he could put all his energies into reading as he wished, and write first thing in the morning. He'd even had to annoy his creative writing teacher the previous summer by choosing Ernest Hemingway as his mentor. That had actually been a smart move, even if he hadn't appreciated Hemingway so much, because it had exposed in the teacher, himself a writer recently published in a prestigious American magazine, the special stupidity some writers had about about their peers.
Toby had really loved Hemingway. He had read all fifty of his short stories, and two critical works that made him see the connection between Hemingway and the Greeks, Hemingway and the Bible. Well, at least the Old Testament. How much Hemingway knew about the New Testament Toby was not sure, even though later, in the middle of the winter when he was working on the railway mail car between the Coast and Kamloops, he had read "The Sun Also Rises" and was quite intrigued by the scene with Jake Barnes praying in the Spanish church. Toby had a feeling that he might know more about the New Testament than Hemingway had, but he could never have explained, then, how he knew this.
But he had loved the man's simple, direct, style and been overwhelmed by the feeling that he had at last found a writer who could show him how to write about his own experiences with all sorts of things, but especially with the bush. When you had grown up in Canada, but especially in British Columbia, where he had spent most of his time, the bush was what you were, and yet it was not easy to find the words to express this. But Hemingway had been able to do so. Hemingway's woods and streams were northern North American. "Big Two Hearted River" could easily have been set in Canada. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' "The Yearling" happened in Florida, too far south to be set in Canada. It was a hell of a book, given to him by his Nana, his mother's mother, in the Christmas after the war ended and the family was all together again, living in his grandparents' house over the winter before they went up coast, but it was not the Canadian woods Rawlings was talking about. Hemingway's Michigan, sticking up there between Lake Huron and Lake Erie, might as well be Canadian. Logging clearings, burnt forests, streams with trout in them, railroad tracks: Toby knew all of that stuff and not from south of the line.
The thing was, you had to know how to be quiet in the bush. Just quiet. You didn't have to catch anything, or shoot anything, although that was satisfying too, but it wasn't necessary. What was necessary was to be there, sometimes alone, sometimes with people who didn't disturb the magic, who simply let everything about the time and place flow through their skin into the bottom of their soul.
That's how Nick Adams was in "Big Two Hearted River". Sure, he'd caught some lovely trout, but you knew that wasn't the main point of the story. The main point of the story was the ability to be content with creation and solitude. To know what to do with whole days of freedom, and also write a story about such an experience without putting a gun or a girl into it. Toby had known and enjoyed plenty of stories with guns and girls and horses and cars and all the other instruments of travel in them, but few of these tales had echoed so well his own affection and respect for solitude and quiet, especially in the woods or along a stretch of water, as had so much of Papa's writing.
And yet, when he had learned that this story was about Nick Adams when he had come home from the war, and was twenty or so, he was surprised. From his own experiences on the Inlet he had assumed that Nick was sixteen or so. No comparison at all with himself at twenty, with three years of university behind him and, just before he climbed into the fifty tales, by his own choice an exciting ramble through his first philosophy text. So that was why it was good that a friend had insisted he read F. Scott Fitzgerald.
He had not taken a university philosophy course, neither in first year nor any other. He had enrolled in the freshman course in psychology, and been bored with most of that, whereas one of his high school buddies, a genuine scholar, had gone the philosophy route and crossing Toby's path one day, spoke of it in such a way as to show he obviously loved and was excited by the subject. But before summer school had started, with a hurt neck from diving off a board too high for him into the university pool, he had needed to rest on his bed in the frat house near the pool and read a language philosopher, and found his own excitement. It had impressed his father that he had taken psychology, but his father would not think much of the philosophy text, just as he had not thought much of his working for the newspaper, especially as it was very pro-union.
But in those months of the previous summer it didn't matter what his father thought. Toby had moved out; he was no longer under his father's roof, and his days and his mind unrolled in a fashion that anyone determined to be a writer would be an idiot not to rejoice in. And so he had lived a summer and an autumn and a winter and early spring that made him every inch his own man, with his own inexhaustible supply of things to do and think that were endlessly nourishing, and now this job had turned up.
It was as if his life had started all over again. And why not? He had, in a sense, done his four years of university, and from the standpoint of a general education done them very well indeed.
He had wasted little time: he had learned how to read. He still had miles to go, before he could sleep with the wise, but he was no longer putting off the greats, no longer either bored or mystified or frightened by them. He had learned how to make them work, line by bloody line, and stoke the fires in his soul by doing so, and now he was getting ready to move in on the Bible, the book that as a little boy he saw resting on his grandfather's night table.
Because the pilot was the latest to join the early stages of the safari, finding the crew almost as soon as it had sat down, he had been given the opening minutes of the story telling. Like all seasoned bush pilots he was full of sagas of narrow escapes, often meaning stories on himself. His Beaver too heavily laden, the lake too small for landing according to the book, trees too high for a comfortable takeoff. An ornery bull moose guarding the beach, a cache of food not strung high enough to escape the attentions of a black bear.
Toby had only flown three times in his young life, but there was at least one story with each flight. Yet these trips were not on bush planes, and he had his own story of a Beaver, of his first sighting of the plane, newly designed and the pride of the nation. "The first time I ever saw a Beaver was over Sechelt Inlet," he said. "We were coming down the hill after a cougar hunt which never saw the cougar, just his tracks. The cat had killed a dog, so this woman who'd grown up on the Inlet, just a ways along from our summer camp, took her dog and me and my friend who lived there on a hunt one afternoon. It was exciting for a while, always hoping you'd catch sight of the beast. I only had a twenty-two with me, which wasn't much use on a cougar, but Katerina had a 30/30 and this German Shepherd. But we didn't see any cougar and we got bored so we started back down. We were following this old logging road, which was mostly in the bush, but at one point all the slope below was clear, logged off some years before, with a clear view of the Inlet. We heard this low roar and looked up, and there was this float plane, single engine, broad wings, gliding down for a landing at Porpoise Bay. I've seen a slow plane or two in my time - one time my Dad took me to the firing zone at Point Petrie during the war and I saw a Lysander, towing a drogue for the Bofors to fire at - the 40 mm cannons - and that thing was no rocket. But that plane over the Inlet! It was incredible how slow the pilot could take her down. I'd been reading something about it in the Province, so I knew it was a Beaver. Beautiful. Just a interesting as any old cougar." He grinned at the pilot. "Probably more so now, seeing we'll being flying around in a Beaver with you."
"Maybe," the pilot said. "I might need some help now again with loading freight. But you guys will be hopping from place to place in a chopper. When do they show up?" He asked Mortimer, the engineer in charge. "Your helicopter guys?"
"A few days yet. There's no place for them, really, until we've set up camp at the south end of the lake and cleared the trees away to make a helicopter pad. Choppers cost a lot more by the day than you do, so there's no point having them hanging around when there's no way to put them to work. But once they get going they'll be busy enough. This job would be impossible without helicopters. You've flown over the Homathko gorges. You've seen what the country is like."
The pilot laughed. "I've done some crazy stunts is my time, but you wouldn't see even me trying to land my plane on that water. Even a Beaver has its limits."
"We know a helicopter pilot in our family," Toby said. "I mean, he's a family friend. We met him just after the war, when my Dad was logging in the Gulf Islands. He flew a Spitfire, and then fished and logged after the war and then when it looked like they were starting to put helicopters to work he went out to Sea Island and got his licence. He flies for Okanagan. David here said our choppers are out of Victoria."
"Right," the Beaver pilot said. "Great fellows. They're just small right now. Two pilots. Your guy was a trainer during the war. He flew Harvards."
"Our next door neighbour flew Harvards," Toby said. "In Alberta. Bloody small world, isn't it?"
"War always makes the world smaller," Battersby said.
"So does surveying," Toby said. "It's already anchored New Zealand right off Victoria harbour.
I've danced in the Empress, you know. Billy Tickle and his orchestra, right? And been along for the ride when they were firing the three point sevens at Albert Head. They're gone now, of course. By the time I got to Picton the anti-aircraft had gone American, with ninety millimetres.
Great town, Victoria. My home away from home, and my roommate all this past year was from there. He took me home one weekend in the fall, and that blew me right out of law school. Of course that had been brewing for months, but it was that weekend on the Saanich Peninsula, in the golden sun of autumn, that put the match to the fuse."
"But a guy like you should be working with his head," the pilot said. "You don't really want to be a chainman all your life, do you?"
"I think when the summer is over I'll go to Toronto and work as a journalist," Toby said.
The pilot took a long pull on his beer and then said, "Now, that does sound like a good plan. You had me worried there for a minute. A journalist is it? Well, stick around with us long enough and you'll have some stories to tell."
Gorman had been listening carefully. For one thing, he'd been made extra thoughtful already by Battersby's asking Toby to ride in the truck with him, which meant that Ted had to be content in the sedan with the rest of the crew, another five bodies. He'd come over from the Island in the car, but assumed that he would travel the rest of the way in the truck, with more room and a higher view of the countryside. Toby had been feeling his luck, and hoped that Gorman wasn't going to be sore about it. But office staff was of a higher order than a maintenance man, and anyone with army experience knew what that meant. But they'd all had a great dinner, and the mood in the lounge was mellow. They might as well make the most of their last night in civilization.
"Do you want to tell just your own stories, or other people's?" Gorman asked Toby.
"Any good story is worth telling," Toby said. "And I've been a journalist. The only stories a journalist tells are other people's, unless he's doing a feature on his own travels or something like that. Or maybe about some mistake he's made that it would be good for other people to hear about." He laughed. "I've got lots of stories about myself that will do for that, although I'm not sure anyone would read them. One of them, in fact, about my own writing. Up to now, I've only had three airplane rides in my life, but two of them were long rides, and good stories in themselves, especially the last one, where we all thought for a moment we were going to die. Well, probably the airmen knew better, being pros, but the rest of us didn't. But when I got back from the trip I wrote a very short tale for one of the least of the slick magazines and put a romance in it that obliterated the real story. What could be stupider than that? My only excuse is that I had not yet taken the creative writing course and started reading Hemingway, who I quickly learned would have know exactly what to do with my day in the sky. I was pretty ashamed of myself, I can tell you. One of these days I'll have to make up for it by telling the real story."
"Did you get it published?" Mortimer asked.
"Thank God, no. No, other than my newspaper work I've published very little. A couple of poems is all, actually. I was writing a novel this spring, but I ran out of money before I could finish it, and now I'm here, sitting at this table and having the time of my life. I've always wanted to see the Cariboo, you see. It's mythical country in our family, but only my Dad and one set of grandparents lived in it. And reading a book about it is the only thing that ever tempted me to run away from home."
"What book was that?" David asked.
"'Grass Beyond the Mountains'. By a fellow named Rich Hobson who came out from New York to work as a cowhand in Depression Wyoming and went up into the northern Cariboo with a buddy to start up a big ranch in the wide open spaces south of Vanderhoof. I was in grade eleven, the year I learned I was a writer, and I suppose I thought I needed more adventure in my life to write about. It was great tale, and I've always loved the outdoors, the places away from the city.
And horses. And hunting moose. I mean, the idea of hunting moose. I've never even seen one."
"That's what this story is about. Hunting moose," Gorman said. "And it's interesting that you know something about the country south of Highway 16. I found the moose just out back of a hunting lodge at the western end of the Nechako."
"Where we're going," Mortimer said, "You'll meet a hunting guide who takes parties out for moose every fall. Jim Reeves. He and his wife own the ranch we jump off from. When you're a rich and famous writer, you can come back and hire him to take you out."
"If you're going to do that," Gorman said, "You'll really need to hear this story."

It was a half-dozen years earlier, up in the Nechako country, before the Kenny Dam was built to raise the water level in the valley three hundred feet, to create the reservoir for the turbines at Kemano and power the new aluminum smelter at Kitimat. As in so many of the wilderness corners in the nation's most vertical province, there had been a hunting and fishing lodge on the shores of the river, and Gorman was one of the crew staying at the lodge while they charted the changes about to come over the landscape.
It was early in the fall, but moose season had begun and one sunny evening after dinner when Gorman went for a stroll, he took a rifle with him. He was not anxious for a kill, for the evening itself was lovely enough, in the light of the sunset and the gold of the leaves already come to the northern Cariboo. But he felt that he might have some luck, and anyway the staff at the lodge had talked of bears in this lonely part of the world, and he was out by himself, without a partner to talk with so as to warn them. And at this time of the year bull moose were not at all bashful about disregarding warnings altogether, even warnings as huge and swift and noisy as the head end of a freight train, further north on the CN line.
His route lay east, above the river and through some acres that had been logged not too long before, so the second growth was still on the small side, with aspens and cottonwood, and scattered conifers that had started later, and patches of willow. There was a stream further along, he had been told, and the path would cross it on some flat rocks set in place years ago by a couple of burly hunters. Bigger timber lay up the gentle slope to his right, and half-a-mile or so ahead, looming above the brush, but his route for the moment ran though low foliage, just the height for a moose to be browsing in. Gorman thought about his Ojibway side, his mother, and had no problem going quietly. Moreover, the gentle evening breeze flowed his way. There was not much movement in this little wind, but it was all in his favour.
He was almost at the creek when he spotted the moose, a huge brown form with a mighty set of antlers working over a willow bush near the running water, fifty yards away, suddenly visible around a short curve in the trail. The bull's nose could smell only what came from beyond them both, and his eyes looked in the same direction, yet there was enough of the left side of his neck showing to offer an ample target. He would never know what hit him.
The rifle came up slowly. Gorman fired once, and as the bull staggered a few steps, got in a second shot for insurance. The moose went down, his hind feet twitching for a moment, and then lay quiet. Still, the hunter approached quietly, gun at the ready for a surprise. Moose were phlegmatic, not always easy to kill, not always swift to die. It helped that the moose had not seen him. A moose was like a grizzly. If it saw where the sting was coming from, rage would keep it moving.
But the bull was thoroughly dead, inert as a log. It was not until he was sure of this that Gorman realized he had not brought any tackle for cleaning the animal. He had been too interested in the charm of the evening, the beauty of the countryside. A full grown moose was not a grouse or a rabbit, or even a little Coast blacktail deer that a strong man could hoist on his shoulder. An adult bull weighed over half-a-ton, often without its stomach. He'd need block and tackle for hoisting the carcass into a tree, and a saw and a hatchet for carving the brute into packable sizes. He was, moreover, lucky that in so much shrubbery there was a real tree at hand, a young cottonwood. It might bend a little, but it would hold the creature vertical enough.
Back at the lodge he came upon another clarifying realization: the rest of his crew, the lads that could have helped him carry the sections of moose, had walked down the river to try fishing. With light failing now, he could not wait. He could not leave the moose overnight, there were too many creatures that would be happy to come upon a free supper. A pack of wolves, for example, would do serious damage to his prize before morning. He loaded a pack with the cleaning gear and head back up the trail.
As he rounded the corner from which he had spotted his quarry, he thought his eyes were playing tricks. In spite of the general brush of the area, that particular fifty yards of trail offered a clear view, right down to ground level. He could see no dark bulk lying in the spot he had left it.
The evening light had started to fade, of course, but it was not dark. With every step he expected the moose to reappear, until he had covered two-thirds of the distance, and then could no longer admit that the bull had not vanished, leaving nothing on the trail but the sounds of the birds, and there were few of these, and from farther away than the immediate locale.
As Gorman reached this point in his tale, he paused. Plainly, he was coming to the climax. There are few men who can resist a good hunting story, and none of them sat in the chairs around table in the hotel lounge in Williams Lake, itself in the heart of moose country. Had it been a busier night, Gorman would have had at least half the room listening. He had almost an actor's voice, Toby thought, and one could not help feeling that he was telling a tale of Homeric proportions. Homer, the man who had recorded the practical as well as courageous genius of Ulysses. Toby felt singularly lucky that he had started to study the Greeks more seriously, since Hemingway's stories and Carlos Baker's book about him.
"To this day, I don't know what I was thinking. I mean, when I was captured at Nijmegen, it wasn't my fault. I wasn't the guy who dropped the attack plans out of the airplane and set up the Germans to be waiting for us. Mind you, it meant I survived the war, because I spent the rest of it in a prison camp. If the plans had stayed where they belonged I might have been killed. As it was I lived through the war only to almost get killed along the Nechako."
He paused for a moment, because he was telling a cautionary tale, and made sure the attention was undivided. "I made the mistake because I was angry, I guess. You never want to get angry in the bush. The bush doesn't like it, and it finds ways to get back at you. But I was angry because I'd gone to all this bloody trouble and my moose was gone. I never stopped to realize that there was only one thing in the world in those circumstances that could have moved a half-ton of animal. All I understood was that the moose was gone from the left side of the path, and there on the right side there was another trail, six or eight feet wide, going up the slope through those damn willows and crap. Maybe ten feet wide, with the little trees all bent over and smashed into the ground in some places like a bulldozer had just gone through. So I started swearing and stormed along this new highway for about thirty feet."
He paused again. He sipped his beer and was imitated by the rest of the table.
"And then I heard the growl," Gorman said. "And finally I stopped looking just ahead of my feet going through those goddamn broken willows. And then I saw the grizzly bear, about thirty feet away again. Reared up on his hind legs and growling at me. About nine feet tall and madder than hell that I was interrupting his supper, which he'd nicely begun. He must have come along pretty soon after I'd dropped the moose. Maybe he came because he heard the shots. I'd never been that close to a grizzly before, and never want to be that close again. Reared up and mean, but when I look back on it, a gentleman in his own way, giving me a warning, and prepared to let bygones be bygones if I got the hell out of there. Which I did. I didn't run. I had the presence of mind just to back away, making sure I didn't fall down. That might have tempted him. But once I was on the regular path, I moved pretty quick, I can tell you. I don't think I relaxed until I was back inside the lodge."
His listeners nodded. Their imaginations, their own memories, their individual nervous systems had been following him closely. Toby's mind, naturally, had gone one step further. This was a story he would definitely write one day. Maybe even this winter, when he was a free-lance journalist in Toronto, and idling his motor between features.
But he did not got to Toronto that winter, he stayed home in his own mountainous province, and it was fifty years before he wrote the story, long after he'd learned to deal with the grizzly bears of the spiritual life.

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