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The Bear-Man of Sharprock Falls
James Hegyi

"There's been some talk..."

There was a moment of excitement when they crossed the border. It all wore off hours ago.

Bang! Phil winced as his old Ford wagon hit another hole in the gravel road. He backed off a little on the gas, staring ahead for the next one, his hands tight on the wheel. They were going too fast. The Jeep ahead kept on going, throwing up a thick cloud of dust. He let the jeep pull ahead a few hundred meters, then brought the wagon up to speed again. The men in the Jeep had the only map, and he didn't want to end up at some God-forsaken dead end if he got too far behind.

Fourteen hours. The last two on winding gravel. Brett Pearson and Pat McCafferty were up ahead in the jeep, leading the way. Pat organized this canoe trip just a month ago. Phil remembered the meeting where old Ben Somers brought up the Sharprock...

A patch of washboard road appeared as the wagon reached the crest of a steep hill. Phil gritted his teeth and stabbed at the brake as the wagon bounced over. Miles Anderson, his companion in the passenger seat, reached up and pulled on the nylon strap that ran from window to window - the strap that held down their canoe. He turned to Phil and nodded. As their eyes met, both men might have remarked that they didn't look very good, but years of living with women taught them to keep their comments to themselves. Phil nodded, then turned his tired eyes back to the dull gravel road.

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Chapter 2
Somers - Ben Somers. Somers was old now - too old to go on any trips. He often drove the school bus that the club used to shuttle canoes and people from launch to take out. If the group camped at the end of the trip, Ben would stay and usually there was a story he would tell. Somers was all right. It would have been good to know him when he was younger.

Phil remembered the meeting when Ben brought up the Sharprock River. Actually it was just after the meeting. Brett Pearson had finished his presentation about an "expedition" that he led last September. As usual, Brett's presentations left you with the feeling that the outfitters were all crooks, the pilots were chicken, the natives were conniving and apart from the storm / rapids / moose attack - the trip was rather boring. When Brett was done, Ben Somers started talking. Evidently he and his old wife went driving through Ontario, met some interesting people...

The Jeep was stopping now, and Phil pulled up behind. Pat was out, a map in his left hand, a compass in his right. He walked out away from the cars while Brett lit up a cigarette and leaned on a fender. They were out of the clear cut area now, and stunted jack pine and poplar made an impenetrable barrier on either side of the road. There was no wind, and the air seemed thick and heavy. Clouds covered the sky and the smell of rain was in the air. Phil swatted a mosquito on his neck and rolled his window up. The men climbed into the Jeep and Brett punched the gas, sending a shower of gravel that rattled on the grill of the Ford.

Somers started talking, but Brett cut him off. That's how it happened. Ben mentioned that he met some people - a town near some river. Brett heard the word "river" and launched into a talk about another of his river "expeditions." Ben shut up then, but later he took Pat McCafferty aside and talked to him for about half an hour. Pat suggested the Sharprock trip at the next meeting and Brett quickly became the leader. It all seemed pretty exciting back then. It didn't feel that way now.

Forty minutes later they saw the cabin.

The cabin was old, built from logs and chinked with oakum. A plywood shack with fake red fire-brick siding was next to it, obviously added well after the cabin was crafted. There was a widening in the road beyond the shack, and Phil thought he could see trailers and a few trucks back there. A curious wooden sign said "Paquette's Bar" and there was an ax stuck into the top of the sign. Brett had the Jeep pulled over and was stretching and smiling as he talked to McCafferty. Phil pulled up behind, hitting a final rock that seemed to grow out of the hard gravel. He hadn't noticed before, but there was a boy, a young boy standing next to the bar sign. He was looking at the men, looking intently at them. He suddenly smiled and ran down the road toward the trailers. Miles, Phil's passenger and canoeing partner for the trip, was checking the straps and ropes that held the canoe down.

Phil automatically pulled his camera out of the wagon and motioned for Brett and Pat to stand in front of the sign. He was part of this trip because he could take good pictures. As he lined up a shot, he wondered if that was the only reason he'd been invited.

The cabin was old. Thrown up long ago when men rushed in to find gold, it was briefly a prospector's winter cabin. When promising core samples were found, it became a company office for a while. Three courses of logs were added - the prospector was short and didn't believe in wasting energy. The search for gold didn't pan out and the men moved on. For quite a few years, the cabin stood empty. A lumber company moved in and widened the road. Soon after, old Bill Paquette pried open the door and chased out the mice. He laid fresh paper on the roof and nailed together a bar near the long wall opposite the door.

The door opened now, and Brett entered, a broad smile on his bearded face, laughing loudly, waving his arm as he acted out some joke or story for his companions behind him. He stopped and squinted in the dim light, finally focused on the bar, and slid onto a middle stool. He was a man very sure of himself, a big man, not older than thirty. He relaxed, waiting, as though a performance for his benefit was about to begin. Pat followed him in quietly, the smile from his partner's joke slowly fading as he took the next stool.

Phil entered now, somber faced and tired. He was a shorter, younger man, with brown, scholarly eyes framed in wire rimmed glasses. His beard was short and well trimmed. His new gore-tex rain suit rustled as he walked to the bar and pulled up a stool that had seen better days. Miles pulled up next to him, too tired to laugh or even listen to Brett's jokes. He twisted in his stool, looking first left then right at the furnishings on the wall. He had seen such objects in theme restaurants back in the cities to the south. The snowshoes, the rusted and waxed traps hanging from pegs, an old tea tin wedged near the roof... He might perhaps be surprised to know that Paquette was simply too lazy to remove the old junk that was already hanging there when he moved into the shack. Miles turned around and planted an elbow on the bar. He rested his chin on a closed fist, slowly stroking his dark brown beard with the back of his hand. Behind the men, behind the dirty pane of a small window, a pair of dark eyes watched calmly, observing the visitors as an artist might study a model.

Paquette now entered, walking slowly across the room.

"What's yer pleasure, gentlemen?" Paquette's voice was smooth, his manner relaxed. He was lean, with broad shoulders and he limped heavily, his right ankle not moving at all as he walked up to face the four men. He had thick, white hair, cut well and short. A gnarly hand dusted the bar with a stained towel and moved one of the old, tin ashtrays in front of the big man. Taking his cue, Brett pulled a cigarette from a pack in his front pocket. Another pocket produced a wooden match. He lighted the match with one hand, flicking a thumbnail across the head, almost like a magician. No doubt this was a well practiced maneuver, intended to impress the less dexterous.

"A nice cold Molson's would sure hit the spot." The big man pulled hard on his cigarette then blew out a cloud of blue smoke.

"Molson's, please," said Phil. The other men nodded.

Paquette reached under the bar and produced four bottles. He popped the tops and placed them in front of the men.

The bottles were quickly drained and the men were working on the next round when the door again opened. Outside it was nearly dark, unusual so early for this high latitude. The room filled quickly and the four visitors were somewhat surprised at the sudden influx of patrons. They perhaps forgot for a moment that the road that brought them here was, after all, a logging road. There were one hundred and nine kilometers of rough gravel to the nearest town. For the men that ran the heavy equipment used to harvest the pulp trees Paquette's cabin was no worse than the bar in Neepa at the end of the road.

A wide doorway led to the fire-brick shack attached to the cabin, making one large room. There were a few crude tables out on the floor, and they filled quickly with a rough and tired crowd. Perhaps twelve people were now in the room, but it was surprisingly quiet. Paquette was busy now, moving quickly to bring up beer, brandy or tea. The boy was back, and he shuttled trays from the bar to the tables.

The door opened. Phil noticed a change in the room and turned around, a curious look on his face.

A woman entered, a slender woman, mature but not yet old, her hair long and straight and dark as midnight. Her eyes were downcast and modest as she quietly turned to close the door, holding it so that it would make no noise. Her feet were wrapped in soft moccasins, and made no sound as she stepped to the side of the room. She wore the same rough, dirty clothing that the loggers wore, making the moccasins seem out of place. Over her soiled flannel man's shirt was a vest of dark, smoke softened leather. The vest was trimmed with lynx fur and decorated with fine stitches, a pattern foreign to this northern land, or perhaps foreign to this time. The boy came forward with a chair. He placed it in a darkened corner, near a small table. The woman nodded to the boy, and sat gracefully on the chair. Paquette now brought a candle, placing it and a small teapot near the woman. With no change of her somber expression, she produced a swatch of leather from a scrimshaw bag and began to stitch. As Phil turned back to the bar, he heard a soft voice. It was coming from the dark corner, from the strange woman. She was not speaking, but humming quietly.

"That's a nice Jeep you got there fellows." Paquette gestured at the small dust covered window behind the men where Brett's Cherokee was visible in the fading light.

"Been to some rough places with that baby," said Brett as he snubbed out his cigarette. "Name's Brett. This here's my partner Pat. That's Phil and Miles over there. Hey! wake up guys!" Brett glanced around the room. "Didn't expect to find a tavern out here. Nice place."

A man behind Brett laughed. "It's a dump!" Several others agreed loudly. "But Paquette, he's always close by. Sometimes it's a trailer, sometimes even a tent, and sometimes a dump like this. But his beer is cold, and his brandy comes in a bottle, not a jar!"

Phil turned and looked at the men laughing. He glanced at Paquette, saw him smiling, bringing out deep wrinkles in his rough leathery face.

Paquette resumed his conversation. "Your canoe seems to have met quite a few rocks. You guys must get out on some rough water."

"I've done some rough rivers, that's fer sure." Brett took out another cigarette as he finished speaking. He seemed to forget his partners as he lit up and launched into a recital of the trips he led to wild rivers in the southern part of the province. Phil listened with half an ear, resting his chin on his hand again. Brett droned on, telling the story about the strainer that almost killed him. It was a good story, but it happened to Gene Fredrickson, not to Brett Pearson. Gene mentioned it two years ago at the canoe show in Madison. Then there was the story about the night paddle where Brett went through Flambeau falls. That happened to John Mies during a canoe race. Brett got careless when he drank, and sometimes forgot that his companions knew the truth about his stories. He actually didn't care if they knew or didn't know. "People are stupid, and they like a good story, so it might as well be about me." That's what he said when Phil caught him at it last fall. Phil looked around the room. The loggers seemed to be lapping it up, looking keenly at Brett at he spoke. Maybe Brett was right, maybe people were stupid. Phil considered himself pretty sharp, and was sure that he could tell a tall tale from something that really happened. Brett, however, was on a roll and Phil knew that any attempt to divert the conversation would put him in a foul mood.

After about ten minutes, Phil glanced around the room again, peering into the dim light. The woman in the corner, her face barely discernible in the candlelight, seemed oblivious to all but her stitching. The men at the tables seemed to watch Brett carefully as he recited his deeds, as though they were sizing him up, measuring his words, deciding what type of man he was. They had known boastful men before, some that could actually do the things they bragged about. Perhaps this was such a man, perhaps not. Paquette stood by, his head tilted up, mouth half open, his right hand on the bar. The hand was pushing down, easing the load on the leg with the stiff ankle, easing a pain that did not show at all on the old, weathered face. He stood smiling, gaping and nodding as Brett rattled on.

Presently, Brett seemed to finish, and Paquette reached down and produced four more bottles.

"You'll have a less exciting trip on the Salumo," he remarked. "That's a long carry just before Rosenberry, but other than that you should have no trouble."

"We're not doing the Salumo." There was a note of irritation in Brett's voice, as though Paquette had offered milk to a drinking man. "We're running the Sharprock to Cache, then taking the Whitefish to Ta-va-se."

"You're taking the Sharprock?" Paquette took a step back. Now Phil saw pain flash for a moment as the bad leg came down, saw Paquette’s jaw tighten momentarily until the other leg took the weight.

"It's been run before," said Brett. "In fact I talked with one of our club members.  He ran it early in June, about ten years ago. The water's high now, we should be fine."

Paquette said nothing. He nodded uncertainly, then turned away. Brett took a pull on his beer. The issue seemed to be settled, but one of the canoeists watched Paquette carefully.

"Is there something wrong?" Phil spoke quietly, his voice breaking the silence that descended on the group of logging men.

"No, no nothing's wrong..." Paquette did not turn as he spoke.

"Have you heard something? Was there some trouble? Maybe at the rapids.."

"We can handle the rapids at the bend." Brett was annoyed now. "Old Somers went through. The rapids will be no problem."

Paquette did not turn.

Phil turned around on his stool to look at the men behind him. Some were stone-faced, others quickly looked away. The silence of the men was getting uncomfortable. He saw a flash of lightning light up the dirty window near the door. From the corner of the room there still came the faint humming, some other primitive melody. There was something odd in the melody and the rhythm, something ancient, or foreign, almost hypnotic. The song sounded old, very old. Perhaps the beer was starting to affect him... he felt as though he wasn't quite where he was just a few moments ago. He turned his head slightly and looked at the woman in the dark corner. He imagined this woman's ancestors had always worn the furs of wild animals, that her grandmother sat just so, sewing and humming a melody that was passed on and on through the generations, just as the song of the loon is passed on and on through the wilderness night... Now the low rumble of thunder swept over the land, then echoed back into the sky. Phil turned around quickly.

"Mr. Paquette, if there's some reason we shouldn't go down the Sharprock, I wish you'd tell us. It would be the devil of a trip up current if we can't get through."

Paquette turned slowly and sighed. "You'll probably be fine." His eyes weren't looking at the men as he spoke, but past them. "There's been some talk in Neepa. There's probably nothing to it."

Phil looked at Paquette. Paquette did not speak.

"Hrrumph" One of the men in the room cleared his throat, but he did not speak.

They know something, thought Phil, they all know something, but they're not talking.

"Mister Paquette, do you know something?"

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Copyright 2000 by James Hegyi-