I was suddenly awakened in the middle of the night by a scratching noise on the side of the camp. As I lay there wondering what the noise was, I could hear the heavy breathing of a large animal. I came to the sudden realization that there was a bear two feet from my head, and all that was separating us was a window screen.
I lay in my bed motionless, hoping that the bruin didn’t decide to come in through the open window. After a few very long minutes, the breathing diminished and I heard the beast quietly walk away.
The year was 1977. It was my first season as an assistant ranger at Umsaskis Lake in the heart of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. Little did I know that my encounter with the bear that night would lead to a two week game of cat and mouse that the bear would eventually lose.
But first, an explanation is in order, back in those days, the department really didn’t have a policy about firearms in the workplace or for the removal of nuisance wildlife. If bears became a problem they were simply removed.
Two days after my night encounter with the bear, I saw him on the lawn at my camp eating food scraps that I put out for the birds to eat. I decided right then and there that I would stop that feeding the birds!
A few days later, the waterway received a report about a bear visiting a campsite and taking what he wanted from some unsuspecting campers at Sandy Point Campsite.
To address the situation, I met with waterway supervisor, Myrle Scott and briefed him on what had been going on concerning the bear. Myrle, who liked to talk in riddles said, “I guess you know what needs to be done”.
From that moment on, the chase was on. I took my trusty .35 Marlin wherever I went. Canoeists were reporting seeing the bear on a regular basis, but I was always one step behind him. Clearly, he was smarter than the average bear.
The bear then started visiting the Ledges Campsite on a regular basis. It became evident that he had acquired a taste for bacon, because he would show-up as soon as the campers would start cooking breakfast, scare the people away and then eat their bacon.
It got so bad that my end of the day routine included stopping at the Ledges to warn visitors about the bear and advising them to hang their food in a tree.
The encounters with the bear were actually starting to slow down when a group decided to put their food in the outhouse instead of hanging it in a tree. I don’t know what that group was thinking! Who would put their food in an outhouse?
That night, the bear stopped by and smelled the food in the outhouse. It then proceeded to tear the side of the outhouse apart to get at the food. He made a real mess of the outhouse. And guess who had to clean it up and repair the damage?
That was the final straw! Getting that bear had now become my top priority. In fact, while I was fixing the outhouse I left an open jar of honey on the picnic table as bait. I heard some canoes pull up on the beach in front of the campsite, when I went down to tell the canoeists that the campsite was closed, they told me that they had just seen a bear while they were walking up to the campsite. I thought to myself, he was right here while I was working on the outhouse.
The group insisted that they were not afraid of the bear and would take proper precautions. I let them stay at the campsite after making certain that their precautions did not involve leaving food in the outhouse.
Later that same day, the bear made yet another appearance at Sandy Point Campsite. Some folks who were staying there decided to feed the bear some bread.
After feeding the bear a couple slices, he closed the bag and took it in the tent. The bear wasn’t done eating yet so he followed the visitor right into his tent!
This bear was covering some ground and cruising waterway campsites was definitely part of his itinerary.
The next day while checking the ranger station at Umsaskis, I noticed that the trash cans were tipped over and garbage was spread all over the place. I had just finished picking up the trash when a young Game Warden, named Terry Hunter, showed up with his inspector, Oral Page. I told them all about my bear problems. Terry calmly said, “Is that the bear right over there” pointing behind the camp?
Sure enough, there he was! He stayed right where he was while I ran down to the canoe to get my rifle. I stepped around the corner of the camp, took careful aim and fired. The bear went down in a heap right where he was.
Finally, the deed was done; and I had killed my first bear!
The group that had stayed at the Ledges Campsite heard the shot and stopped by to see what had happened. They were a group of French Canadians who had taken care of game before. They asked if they could skin the bear, I said sure.
They immediately started skinning and dissecting the bear. One guy said he was a doctor, but I’m not convinced he was. I got quite the instruction on bear anatomy, it really was educational.
After we had finished and cleaned-up, I gave them a hindquarter off the bear and told them I would come down to their campsite for a bear feed that night.
After work, my 12-year-old brother Joe, who was staying with me, and I motored down to Long Lake Dam Campsite where they were staying.
When we got there, I was treated like a hero for killing the bear. They cut a bunch of steak off the hindquarter; put a big frying pan over the fire and proceeded to cook bear meat.
When the first batch of meat was cooked, they gave me a steak and said in a French accent, “you kill the bear, you get the first piece.” I had never had bear meat before and was a little unsure about actually eating it, but I took a big bite off the steak. To this day, I think that was some of the best meat I have ever eaten!
To make a long story short, my brother and I, the six Canadians, and another group that was staying at the old dam, ate the whole hindquarter that night.
After we had gorged ourselves on bear meat, my little brother and I motored back to Umsaskis on a cold, dark, rainy night. An evening that I will never forget!
Matthew LaRoche is superintendent of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway.