Monday, November 27, 2006

pennsylvania black bear

I scoop them up all in my hand and cast them on the table like dice. They clink and clank like a wooden wind chime, a rain stick, the black bear claws my brother gave me for my birthday. I’m some sort of Iroquois medicine man looking to predict the future. I read the claws as they fall.

The smell was overpowering when the wind swept down the steep narrow valley and passed over us as we caught crayfish and built dams in the creek. It smelled like only a 400 pound mass of rotting flesh could smell. My grandfather played dumb. “I don’t know what the hell that smell is, but if you kids run across any big dead animals in the woods you let me know right away.”

It was July 1992 and I was 13. My friend Mike and I were spending another week at my grandfather’s house. It was a lot like summer camp but with less regulation and more four wheelers. He lived in rural north central Pennsylvania. His house was tucked back in the woods a mile off the road along a small, nameless creek that tumbled into the Clarion River from obscure headwaters high up on the Allegheny Plateau. My mother dropped us off once a summer and we shot BB guns and went fishing and rode in the back of my grandfather’s truck just like all good Elk County folk did.

There was one summer, after my grandmother died, when we subsisted entirely on ham and cabbage soup. My grandfather made 20 gallons of it the second day we were there like a lumber camp cook. Ten heads of cabbage, five pounds of ham, 10 pounds of onions and five hours of boiling made things simple for him, “I don’t know anything about cooking for these damn kids” he said to my mother. We also ate a woodchuck one night. “Um, Mr. Haight, there’s hair on this piece.”

You could see the dead bear from the kitchen window, a big black spot on the far bank of the creek. It took us a couple days to finally stumble over it. The carcass was flat but appeared to be breathing, pulsing up and down as the maggots gorged themselves. Flies in our eyes we ran back to my grandfather.

“Grandpa, grandpa we found it! It’s a bear!”

“Good. Now you boys go cut the claws off.”

He handed us a pocket knife and a pair of tin snips. We were a touch taken aback, confident for once that our rudimentary microbiological knowledge surpassed his sage wisdom. That bear was rotten. It was fouler than foul. If our parents had taught us anything it was that we shouldn’t be playing around in a rotten bear carcass. That’s a sure way to catch a cold or something. But this is why going to my grandfather’s was special.

So we set to it. Easier said than done. Tendon, ligament, bone, cartilage, and muscle were resistant to our snips and knife. But we persisted. Practically swimming in the fetid tissues of this former north country denizen we finally began to make progress as the claws yielded one by one.

It turns out that my grandfather “accidentally” shot this bear one night the week before we had arrived. He was having a lot of trouble with the bears. They were getting into his back porch and almost into his kitchen. They tore down the screen and tore up the porch. He’d had enough. So one night, when he heard crashing and gnashing at the back door, he rose from bed, grabbed a gun, POP! POP! POP!, that bear no more.

I knew my brother had the claws but I wasn’t sure why. I seem to remember that he was involved in their removal. I’ve been asking about them for a while now. I want to make a necklace. To remind me of Pennsylvania.


D Hanks said...

That's super cool! I don't know if you remember but I've got a grizzly claw (it's actually a ceramic replica but it sure looks real) that hangs in my Bronco. Hope you had a good Thanksgiving.


Matthew D Dunn said...

I wish I had a Bronco. With a grizzly claw.

D Hanks said...

I've got a house I wish I could pay someone to finish. You just name the right price! Just kidding. I don't think I could part with it.

I'm headed out with my backpacking class again this weekend and I think I'm going to take them to Roan. Look for some photos soon.


Pell said...

That's a wonderful story dude. As I recall, we had to let the claws cure in a mixture of salt and something else, could have been gasoline, and then we left for the summer, and then your grandfather ended up giving some of the claws to your brother and some to your young cousin because they were still there when the claws were ready. Those were fun times. Hell of a good gift on Adams part.

Matthew D Dunn said...

Are you building your own house Daniel?

Mike: thanks for filling in the details. A couple claws are for you at christmas.

Pell said...

Dianna and I were just commenting on what a cool picture of the claws that is. But don't worry dude, you keep the claws. I would just use them to make a glove to rend long cuts in D$'s ass. Her loss, your gain.

D Hanks said...

Worse than building a house...I'm remodeling a 1933 house. I'll try to find a photo and post it on my blog so you can see it. When I finally finish the house (who knows when that'll be) I'll post a whole plethora of pictures detailing the entire remodeling story.


Daddy said...

A friend of mine has his scrotum pierced with a Kodiak claw.

I'd suggest that, but like I said, it's already been done.

If I were you I'd construct a fatty bearclaw spork. Attach them inverted to a long piece of wood, or maybe a human femur. The spoonish quality may be lacking for negotiating your soupish meals, but my guess is that you'll be able to fork damn near anything.

Matthew D Dunn said...


I think I'll just make a necklace, even though the whole scrotum piercing thing is tempting.

very best
Matthew Dunn