Matt Beam is the accomplished author of six books, most recently City Numbers, Last December, City Alphabet and Can You Spell Revolution? He is also a photographer, artist and the type who can go meta with Winnie the Pooh.
To his regret, Matt was also once a treeplanter in Ontario. It was here that he met up with the great Cinnamon bear who roamed the camps between Hearst and Kapuskasing in the early 90s.
Like some of the best stories, Matt’s tale takes place as much in the head as in the heart. And it gets scary at the end (he kicks a bear!).
How did Matt get a new window in his tent? Read on.
TAKING ON THE BEAR by Matt Beam
Treeplanting in Ontario in the 1990s was not great experience for me. Its features – hard work, outdoors, camaraderie, and competitiveness – are things I’ve enjoyed, and thrived in, in the past and yet with treeplanting’s version of these things, I was somehow stifled instead of inspired.
One reason for this disconnection is the inherent machismo in the culture of treeplanting. There were a slew of encouraging remarks barked at us day and night that I can’t quite conjure, or have completely blocked out, but can approximate such as “Give ‘er” and “Throw’em in” (er, the trees in the ground, that is). Indeed, there was a hefty dollop of 1990s PC-backlash sexism infused in most of these appeals. We were in the manly woods after all.
These exhortations were really orders though, and the message was simple: Keep on working, dude, do it fast as you can, to the quality-level expected, 14 hours a day, tree after tree, 6 feet by 6 feet, row after row, until all the trees are planted, some 8 weeks later, and if you do that, and do it well, then you are a real man, if you can’t, you aren’t. And I bristle this kind of macho crap.
And yet, machismo is too simple a term to use for this idiosyncratic backwoods culture. There were women, after all, who were “real women,” who kicked ass out there in the bush, tiny-framed things that could throw them in better than the most barrel-chested of the bunch.
And that was it: tree-planting, like all the vaunted cultural pastimes (I’ll give it that much) was as much in your head and heart as it was in your physique and strength, and let’s face it, women, when it comes down to it, are mentally (and organizationally) and in some ways physically more robust than men. At the very least, there were women who dealt with the macho BS much better than I, even flourished in it.
And yet there are more harrowing psychological aspects to treeplanting that must be accounted for, anything from how you dealt with the bugs (this is also a physiological issue as some people’s ballooned-to-blindness eyelids were sweet tasting to the black flies), the hierarchical politics (for most of us, powerlessness of existing on the bottom rung of a very isolated, modern-day feudal system), and it has to be said, the benefits and complications of sexual interactions, including “shacking up” aka finding a soothing sexual partner for the season.
And herein lies the rub: or at least mine, or least … my lack thereof. While I might not have been positioned to be a great treeplanter, I did come in with some qualities (endurance, athleticism, competitiveness) that suggested I’d be a pretty darned good one. But treeplanting, or life really, pierced me well and hard, in my psychological soft spot, my Achille’s … heart; I was crushed before I could really learn how to plant hard, dumped on my ass by my girlfriend of 6 months, my one and only tent-mate, and my then best friend.
There’s the back-story: Unmacho guy in macho setting gets further humiliated by getting the heave-hoe by his, um, chick, and ends up wandering the woods for the next few months, subsisting on a dime a tree, in burnt-out land, and only barely surviving emotionally.
Enter 600-pound cinnamon bear (but not the one I kicked): About a week into the season, we heard tell of a cinnamon bear on site, which was just outside of Hearst, Ontario. Post dinner, for successive nights, we’d get updates and warnings from our supervisor and with these pronouncements, we found ourselves sitting over empty desert dishes, hushed and pensive, envisioning not the multi-coloured Grateful Dead bears dancing on our friend’s VW bumpers, but thick-shouldered monsters lumbering through forest, searching for their next kill.
Around the same time, before I moved out of my ex’s tent (yes, somehow, someway, she convinced me to stay for a few days), we’d bought some food in town on a day off, an amazing new snack called Smart Food, and with a mixture of early 20s arrogance and ignorance we put the snacks in the vestibule of our tent.
That night my ex and I got a visit; alas the bear was only interested in the white-cheddar-sprayed popcorn. Still, we awoke with a startle and listened with keen interest; I was more amazed than afraid. The bear’s mastication was like nothing I’d ever heard in my life, mere feet from my head. It sounded as if the bear had found not popcorn, but a beach-ball-sized apple, with microphones attached. This was eating as a wall of sound.
I didn’t actually see the bear that night, and never did that summer, although it visited me again, several times near my new home, my own tent in a little village of longhaired dudes into which I was accepted as an old friend, and I quickly learned their nightly rituals, incantations such as “Do you hear that?” “It’s pretty damned close.” “Holy shit.” “Who’s got food in their fucking tent?”
The truth was I was so messed up emotionally that the presence of this 600-lb beast didn’t really register. “Take me,” I probably would have said, had I the will to say it. The bear, one more psychological hurdle for the planter to endure, wasn’t big enough to scare off my broken heart.
Nor was the cinnamon bear big enough to scare off the company. It was finally shot dead because after trying to relocate it and then wound it with a few small bullets from a 22 in its gut, the company had no other choice: trees needed throwing in the ground.
The next spring, I returned to planting for the same reason a boxer drags himself off the mat after a count of nine. I wasn’t going to let this adversary beat me, even if it already had.
From the start, the season had disaster written all over it: A big, un-unified camp, swampy, terrible land, a horrible leader, and a tough checker, the government employee who samples small circular plots of trees to ensure quality.
Our site – this time a one-hour drive from Kapuskasing – was on a large field in between a river and a forest, and for whatever reason, about twenty of us lined ourselves along the edge of the woods. Again, there was a rumour about a black bear visiting the cook shack during the day (The cooks stayed home all day, and in some ways had the most dangerous job: Protecting the food and feeding us ravenous, sometimes ill-mannered, drudges). Several of planters, me included, had their food snatched by another bear “on the block” aka from where we left it on the road while we planted our trees.
To extend the boxing metaphor, in the early part of that season, I was off the mat but dazed and doubtful that I’d made the right decision to get up. I was planting fine, but I was fine-tuning my derision for the activity, like a porch-dweller whittles his stick (sedentary/shrinking phallic object analogy, not accidental). Luckily or not at the time, I found a comrade-in-disgust, now one of my best friends, and as we taped our fingers on the bus each morning and donned on our bug-beating t-shirted headdresses, we dreamed of not planting ever again.
One night mid-season, the night in question, I went to bed at the usual time around sun down, which in that part of the woods was around 9pm. I lived on my own in a small two-person tent with vestibules running the length of both sides. On one side, my entry point, I put my day-to-day stuff, my boots, tape, etc. and on the other side, I stored extra stuff, my toiletries, for example, which included my toothpaste. The mention of this product will raise some experienced-campers’ eyebrows, as it’s well known that bears like toothpaste because of the strong scent. (An unconfirmed myth from the time had it that bears could also smell pop from an unopened can.)
Coming into planting, I had a healthy fear of bears, given my years canoe-tripping in Ontario, and my other adventures in BC and the Northwest Territories, the more daunting grizzly regions. I knew that black bears predominated in Ontario, and they, at the least the sane ones, are not that aggressive – they simply want our food. They are enormous and yet not as quite as tenacious as raccoons.
But the toothpaste has to go somewhere, right? So I put my brush and tube on the edge of the vestibule, an offering not to the bear Goddess Artemis but to my own ursine deity, for even those of us who have seen a bear at a distance know we know nothing, and that nothing is filled with myth and trance-like visions – close up, intestine-chomping, intensely terrifying revelations about how the end might come.
Anyhoo … apparently this bear liked the smell of something else in my tent.
I wasn’t a stoner, and in fact, didn’t really like getting high at that point in my life, but I was still in the habit of thinking I liked it, which meant that I had a baggie of untouched pot, hanging at my feet in my tent.
Had I thought it through, I probably could have figured out that the wheelchair bud I fondled dreamily with my toes each and every night would be just as fragrant to a bear as a capped tube of Crest. What can I say? My frontal lobe was not fully developed.
If I could only step aside now and let the bear tell the rest of the story, for it is he or she who knows what happened best. Alas, all of us are given certain gifts on this earth, and while bears can outrun, out-swim, out-climb, out-kill (or simply kill) me, I’ve got a serious leg up in the storytelling department.
This is what I know: I fell asleep. I woke up because I felt a heaviness on my feet, as if my tent were being steamrolled. I kicked – a lying down, leg-recoiled thunk against a big body. Think of giving your younger sibling a swift one to the thigh because she is hogging the remote control – it was Charley-horse worthy.
After the kick, I was in between two worlds, reality and dream-life, with simple and yet foggy questions running through my mind: Where am I? What just happened? Did I just kick something? Was it a bear?!
Able to answer the basics, I couldn’t, lying there in the dark, confirm the unimaginable. And there wasn’t much I could do in my groggy state but I lie there in my sub-zero sleeping bag and wait.
I didn’t have to wait long. I heard yells and screams and the word “bear” many times, in between “fuckin’s” and “holy shit’s” and “be quiet’s” and “be really really loud’s” and when it died down five minutes later, and flashlights and planters bodies stretched light and shadow across the firmament of my tent, I was able to parse the story: There was a bear. No one got hurt. We were safe.
With that knowledge, I got right back to the task at hand: sleep. (And likely dreamt, as I did many nights, of planting more trees!)
The next morning at 6am, the camp horn went and I pried open my eyes. My body creaked. My tent walls were wet with condensation and I was freezing. I unzipped my door and stuck my feet into frigidity of my vestibule. There I forced on a pair of frost-encrusted leather boots, turned over on my stomach and backed out of my tent.
As I stood, I saw other bodies emerging from their tents. And then I remembered: I kicked a goddamned bear last night!
I hurried to the end of my tent. There was it was: the evidence.
My fly, the thin, rain-repelling cover for my tent, had three one-metre diagonal tears across it like bolts of lightning. Holy shit, I thought. I stepped forward and looked through my narrow, newly made windows and remembered the pot.
I hurried back round the tent, crawled back in through the vestibule, and grabbed the baggie, which was intact. I backed out and then made my way excitedly to the mess tent.
At last, I had something to contribute to this godforsaken camp, this godforsaken job.
It was a story … and a bag of dope. It was really time for me to stop smoking the stuff.
© Matt Beam 2013