On Great Northern
Above tree line, dream bears become real and lie waiting.
Gray’s Sporting Journal | May 1998
Evrette Adams parted the branches of a fir tree, and the mountain rose into view. Below its serrated north ridge, three snow fields lay cracking to the ground under a noonday sun, their great slabs of white abloom with spring algae. From Evrette’s distance the snow appeared tinted with rouge, and the sandstone cliffs were green.
Evrette had killed an elk beneath this same fir tree the previous autumn, and as he and Ox Nordheim prepared to pack out the hindquarters, Ox had stretched his neck toward the mid-October sky and hardened his jaw at the clouds: “Not going to get it all, Mr. Adams.” The boy drew his knife blade through a rag, pulling crimson from steel. Ten minutes later the sky turned gray as a wool cloak and pushed them out of the high country ahead of eight feet of early snow. Now, in the earliest days of spring, the lower elevations had been melted off less than a week, and there was scant sign of his kill. The coyotes had left only trimmings for the magpies, and a squadron of mountain black flies was already investigating the tufts of hide and hair that lay dampened into the tamarack needles.
Evrette’s bear had come, too. He knew this because of the dent in the dirt, a shallow divot not yet weathered flat by spring runoff, and as he held back a fir branch he pictured the animal grinding its head and neck into the tattered carcass, then dragging the shoulder to its cache somewhere higher in the basin. The bear would bury it, piss all around it and even now was probably wallowing in composting flesh. Or it might be scavenging the avalanche runouts overhead, looking for muleys crushed by snow and timber shivers, soon to resurface as blue thawing forms in the ice pack.
Briefly, Evrette wondered if something that lives its whole life in the mountains can sense when the mountain is trying to kill it. But as he headed up the ridge he concluded that deer and elk are only dumb animals after all and that to be buried in snow is as good a way to go as by the bullet, by the fang, or by the years.
EVRETTE ADAMS FELT as though he’d eaten a piece of scrap iron or a handful of tacks, though when, he could not remember. During the past few weeks the stinging in his belly had grown more tolerable, a pain eased by familiarity and its own constant presence. It was more his growing weakness he could not fathom, and when he let another fir branch swish behind him and then toward and away again, he thought, Of course. The mountains that had kept him young all these years should now make him feel old. Of course. It couldn’t be something as tangible and nonnegotiable as the midnight stroke that had finally gotten Tiny. For Evrette the process had to be slow, uncertain, an instinct.
His wife had been called Tiny because from the day she was born—no bigger than a double handful of the black Nebraska sod that housed the death moans of her laboring mother—she had been a frail and gentle thing, thin and airboned as a child, mild through early wifehood, given to wearing bonnets when she got past 60. Evrette sometimes teased her that she looked as though she had just crossed the prairie to set up homesteading, but he let her wear the ruffly hats anyway because he had always been certain, more or less, that he loved her.
They had met in 1935 at a logging camp up in the Forty Lakes ranger district, where Evrette first noticed her washing stew pots in the slanted light of a canvas mess tent. She was flat bosomed and hipless in khakis that fit like old drapery, staring meekly at the mountain of metal hulls in the washbasin, wondering where to start.
They married the following summer, and Tiny proved to understand neither risk, change, nor curiosity, functioning instead on the simple premises of domestic continuity and goodwill toward all; existing in their same white clapboard house on Third Street for 46 years; raising each of their four children with the same dispassionate tolerance of a hired nanny. “When in doubt, be kind” was the creed she lived by, and since she was always befuddled by something, she had always been very nice to everyone, including Evrette. She should have lived a long time, too, the way toy poodles outlive Great Danes. But Tiny Adams passed away in the sleeping silence of two winters back, and Evrette had since mourned her passing no less than the moon in half-crescent frowns upon its isolation among the heavens.
Now a full moon hung pale in the open sky above the summit, urging Evrette upward. He wore on his back a small canvas pack sagging for want of supplies. He had only a bottle of fire fuel, four biscuits wrapped in wax paper, a thawing hunk of elk roast, a tin cup for dipping snowmelt, extra wool socks, tobacco, and a bedroll wrapped in bailing twine. Evrette carried a rifle over his shoulder, the butt cupped in his right hand, and he climbed with his left thumb tucked under his pack strap.
He was striking for a jagged spur that traveled perpendicularly off the summit ridge. It would lead him above timberline and into the snow fields, and when he first picked up the cadence of lift coming through the timber, Evrette paused to scan the few breaks of blue sky between the ground and the trees. He peered through the overspreading canopy toward the far sound of the chopper blades. The searchers were fairly close. And worse, Evrette knew the pilot would be Don Draper.
“Goat-poaching bastard,” he said.
Draper was an ex-Marine helicopter pilot from Chicago who had moved to the valley after Vietnam. He wore a pencil-thin mustache, a felt cowboy hat, and polyester bell-bottoms with side-zip boots. He smoked Tiparillo cigars and walked with a hitch in his stride that everyone said was from being shot up through the cockpit during the war. But Evrette always said he doubted Draper was ever wounded in Vietnam, even though he knew he probably had been. After the war, Draper had come to the valley to fly helitac into forest fires. With that, and by thumping a few tourists down at Dinkey’s pool hall, he had pounded out a reputation around town as a rough guy. Once in a while he helped the valley search-and-rescue team pluck dead or disoriented Easterners from the shallow edge of the wilderness or lifted the bodies of ill-fated hunters, mountaineers, and assorted misanthropes from deep within its heart. But ever since he’d gotten his commercial permit from the government—the consequence of a kickback to the park superintendent, Evrette believed—he mostly flew tourists and the occasional goat poacher from Texas or New York over the national park. He kept his chopper padded in front of a 20-dollar-a-night motel he owned near the park’s west entrance, behind a blue plywood sign conspicuous from the road. It said “Draper Tours,” with a little picture of a helicopter hovering above a toothy peak.
Once, just after Draper got his outfit in the air, Evrette and Mo Nordheim and his boy Ox had scrambled up Mount Jackson from the south side of the Divide—a 4,000-foot grunt. Ox, 14 at the time, had worked the first large scree field with such youthful fury that Mo and Evrette had to curl beneath a small promontory to wait out the barrage of falling sandstone. Halfway to the summit Evrette slipped on an August snow patch and had to lay hard across on his ice ax, digging in, gasping at the edge of a 3,000-foot void between the ridge and the river. A nervous, grueling scramble.
Still, it had been a clear and sunny day when Evrette Adams, at age 60, stood for the fourth and final time atop the third highest peak in the park. A falcon circled the summit above them, and below, in a shallow field at the edge of the eastern cirque, a family of goats stood out like cotton blooms on a meadow of wild daisy, lupine, and columbine. Evrette could see the faint peaks of the Selkirks to the west, Canada to the north and the broad, gentle face of Great Northern to the south. Looking east, he could see beyond the notches of the great escarpment to the suddenly flat plains and the endless, sky-absorbing ground of antelope and prairie dogs.
They were tearing a ham sandwich three ways atop the barren peak, passing around a canteen of snowmelt when they heard the faint whupwhup-whupwhup ascending over Blackfeet Glacier. Draper rose through the astringent thin air and circled the dry peak twice. On his final pass, he leveled the machine within 75 yards of the climbers, nearly blowing them off the rocks. In the passenger berths, behind the glass bubble, a man in a light blue tennis warm-up suit sat with his two young sons. They waved excitedly, and Evrette could see that the boys were lapping at ice-cream cones. Ox stood and threw his piece of ham sandwich at the machine. Then all three started heaving flat tablets of sandstone, which split apart in midair and planed off at wild angles. Draper banked and dropped toward the meadow, scattering the goats. Separated from its herd, the largest billy panicked at the cusp of a thousand-foot couloir and tumbled like a bundle of wet linen into the talus below.
Evrette went to Superintendent Mathersby, and Draper was indicted, but the case was dropped after rangers could provide no evidence of a dead goat. Evrette proposed that a bear had gotten it. Draper countered that the climbers were arrogant elitists who wanted his permit revoked. He kept his license, and for many years Evrette Adams had thought of burying a round in Draper’s tail rotor, vengeance played out in the maddening sound of blades unwinding toward earth, then smoke rising in oily black billows behind some distant ridge. However, as Evrette picked his way toward timberline, he knew immediately that it was Don Draper who was hunting him.
The chopper echoed above a small ice pack buried deep in the South Fork drainage. Evrette had abandoned his pickup some 10 miles farther up the same watershed, but he knew one of the search party must have talked to the fisherman who had given him a lift back up the road. Draper was too close not to have some bearing on him, and if he flew any closer he was going to drive the bear a half-dozen drainages over, far more than Evrette could ever regain. Three small alpine basins relieved the snow fields above him, and he was sure that if he could make the base of the main ridge, which formed the back wall of all three canyons, he could find the animal in one of them. But he needed another day, as slow as he was moving.
The climbing was painful on the dome-shaped hill that swelled up about a mile from where he had ducked off the gravel road. The hill rose gently from a meadow just beyond the elk carcass, eventually following a single direction toward the summit. Sunlight prickling through the far timber marked the open going, but for now, a jungle of alder, mountain ash, and deadfallen larch made progress difficult. His belly was burning, and each time he lifted his right leg over a fallen tree trunk, an acid pain shot beneath his kneecap. At least he wasn’t bleeding again, he told himself, although several knuckles and the sides of his hands were nicked and full of splinters. Everette sucked on the cuts and enjoyed the steely taste of his own split flesh.
He stopped to rest on the trunk of a blown-over tamarack, uprooted by a recent blizzard. He sensed the magic slowly evaporating from the tangle of woody cables and black earth, an alpine humus far richer than the silvery town dust to which he had finally committed his poor Tiny—laid to rest down by the beaver willows in the two-acre cemetery south of the Naimee River. He had never cared much for the cemetery itself, but he had always loved the willows. In autumn the supple stalks gilded the edge of the graveyard, emanating their own light as though plumes of gold had shot up from the grassy riverbank.
What had entirely surprised him, however, was the difficulty of digging grave plots in the cemetery. Driving by on the road, he had always envisioned a bed of loam so eager for the spade that it might swallow you up if you stood too long in one place. Instead, when he had gone out to watch Edgar Tvedt do the digging, he suddenly realized why Edgar always walked about town as though with a yoke clasped around his neck. Edgar could take the first foot of silt away with the city backhoe, but after that it was strictly shovel and pry-bar work to get through the regulation depth of glacial till, a hundred-foot layer of head-size cobbles licked smooth by ice tongues that had once crept out of Canada. Edgar would ram the bar in once, jostle loose a big pink cobble and toss it out like a putting shot.
Whatever the method, Evrette considered Christian burial nonsense; yet this had been the only one of Tiny’s preferences over which he’d had absolutely no influence. In later years she spoke incessantly of their interment, as though a solid covering of public ground could absolve her of 61 years of devotion to a town with only one Presbyterian minister, to whom, as an absentee Catholic, she could not assent. Her life had been long and saintly but ultimately unsanctioned. Indeed, on the eve of her passing she had spoken of having the children buried beside them both someday, all of them knitting away eternity on the willow-lined riverbank.
“What’s the use?” Everette had asked, staring at the heat flushing off the wood stove. “We got no people here. Kids are all gone and ain’t coming back. Ever. And I say fine to them.”
Evrette was for the disintegrating fires of cremation.
“All of us, someday. Next to one another,” she’d say.
“Not a one of’em turned out,” he’d say.
“Down by the river.”
“Damned to rights if I don’t just light you up on a big ole slash pile when you go, Tiny, then crawl on one myself.”
But on the point of a formal burial, Tiny Adams’ last wish had remained as big as her life had been small. Evrette buried her in the silvery town dirt, down by the river willows, and about six months later began to dream about the bear.
After Tiny died, Evrette dreamed of nothing at all for some time, and then one night the bear ambled out of blackness and lit the entire landscape of his sleep with hillsides covered in snow, with lonesome herds of elk grazing on lilies in the far canyons. Then the bear crawled back into the dimming thickets of alder and devil’s club to guard its cache, or to find sleep itself. He dreamed this for a month straight.
But the dreams were not about anything, Evrette told himself, just the pleasant images of his country stretching beyond all boundaries, filled from one horizon to the other with cold blue rivers running off snow-covered peaks that broke the sky—and the bear, meandering the ridgeline with his nose to the wind, occasionally clacking his jaws together while panting and rolling on a deer carcass or stripping huckleberries from an uprooted bush. In Evrette’s dreaming the foothills were ablaze with the purple shrubs of autumn, cottonwoods and yellow larch, and salmon lay stacked like cordwood in the side streams.
Then the dreams turned violent, churning with the brand of horror that contains anticipation and eventually obsession. He dreamed of the photographer from a New York wildlife magazine who was treed by a sow with cubs. The man had a loaded .357 with him, but the only thing he shot was a fine picture of the sow reaching up to grab him by the foot. Then he dreamed of the poor kid from Wisconsin who got ripped out of his tent one night over in the eastside campground: an everlasting scream among the sobbing Winnebago drivers, then nothing but some smacking and grunting in the bushes. And he had actually wished Tom Cole good luck the day Tom went fishing for cutthroats up at Spivey Lake and bedded down by the water not far from where he had slit the offal from his catch. Some park rangers followed the drag marks into a thicket. They started to pull Tom out of a shallow cache of goat and deer flesh, but all they pulled out were Tom’s legs.
Then he started to see the bear by day.
One morning Evrette was pushing an empty cart down the frozen-dinner aisle at the Safeway, not really wanting to see a bear or even to buy groceries, just wanting to get out of the house. And then at the far end of one aisle he saw a hulking brown rump lunge out of sight behind the coffee tins.
He was on the sidewalk one afternoon, walking past the window of Biggie’s tire store, when he stopped to stare at his own glassy image transposed upon the stacks of mag wheels and snow tires. As though caught in film negative, Evrette saw his bear striding the opposite sidewalk behind him, shoulders hunched, dished face low to the ground. Evrette turned around, and the old silvertip disappeared into the haze of an August-bothered street.
The bear cut his hair one day. Rather, Bill Lewis was standing by his side in the barbershop, prodding a conversation about the most remote thing in the world from bears—Evrette’s daughter’s former reputation as a poker shark—when the jabbing pain behind his ear was no longer Bill Lewis’ scissors gouging him for the thousandth time but a five-inch claw trying to open his head.
And so it went: the form and scent of animal appearing and disappearing all during the summer, into the fall and throughout that winter.
AS EVRETTE RESTED on the overblown tamarack, he cocked an ear toward the chopper. Draper sounded less than a mile away, flying slow, deliberate passes from one side of the drainage to the other. Evrette stumbled the final hundred yards to the timberline, swung down his pack and shooed the horseflies from his forehead. Retrieving a bandanna from his back pocket, he dried himself behind the ears and on the back of his neck and shoved one hand into the dry center of his bedroll, all the way to the elbow. He pulled out tobacco and papers, licked his thumb and slipped out a piece of smoking vellum, thin as Bible paper. Evrette creased it lengthwise, wet the fold with the tip of his tongue and tore along the seam. He discarded the ungummed half and filled the other half with leaf, rolled it up and twisted the ends. Evrette smoked, and as he smoked he dragged his gear a few feet back into the trees to watch Draper fly the last half-hour of daylight.
Ahead, the main wall of Great Northern rose sheer and straight above the back of a two-acre glacial lake. The pond was overflowing with snowmelt, and the surface had just begun to break with the raindrop dimpling of rising trout. A yellow curtain of sunlight rose from the rim of the lake to the summit far above him, and in another moment, the light changed from yellow to orange, then to the thin, plasmic pink of alpenglow. Evrette could no longer see the chopper, and the distant whupping of the blades faded clean.
He thought about making a fire but decided against it so as not to alert anyone searching on foot or to frighten the game. He found a level spot in the beargrass, stomped around until the blades were mashed flat and soft, dumped out his bedroll, removed his boots and changed his socks, pulling back on the soiled pair over the fresh pair, then laid his boots at the head of his little nest. He rolled and smoked another cigarette by rising moonlight, then lay there listening to the mountain thaw. Every few minutes he heard the rumble of sandstone splitting off the main face and echoing into the talus pile at the head of the lake. The shards fell regularly, beginning with a slow click… click… click… that sped quickly toward a thunderous crashing of stone, then sudden silence. Not even crickets. Just the breeze.
Occasionally a loon warbled on the lake, and as he closed his eyes Evrette heard a raven beating the air, rustling the coarse needles in the tip of a nearby spruce. He opened his eyes and could see a black bird formed against the moon. The raven clung sideways to the topmost twig, where it swayed calmly and did not appear to notice him. In the full moonlight, Evrette could make out snow sprinkles—not real snow but a dusting of crystals blowing off the ice pack at some distant elevation and settling all around him. He could not feel the snow on his skin, but he could see the tiny particles glinting white in the moonlight. When he looked up at the tree again, the raven was staring down at him, cocking its head to and fro with limited interest.
Evrette felt his eyelids crease with sleep. He laid them shut and drew his knees toward his belly. The pain was not so bad in this position, though when he brought his knees up too tight he felt the wetness in the seam of his trousers and the slow stiffening of blood on his thigh. He felt his right ear hole with his index finger, felt that it, too, was damp. He wiped his finger on his breast pocket, folded his hands between his knees and began to shiver toward sleep.
Evrette Adams awoke sensing footsteps along the forest floor, a gliding movement broken into sections by the trees, slipping in and out of view behind the long straight moon shadows cast down the hillside. With each pass the gray form lumbered closer, paralyzing him, crushing twigs and tipping small stones into flight before finally stepping from behind a wind-twisted spruce. The long, thick limbs trembled with each stride, the neck alerted to twice its normal length, jaws flinching in musculature.
For a moment Evrette thought he saw Ox standing there with a rucksack slung over one shoulder—Ox staring at him and nodding his head, O.K. For a moment Evrette wished Ox were his son. He even thought he could hear the young man breathing, and he held himself perfectly still while Ox kicked around the campsite, as though looking for a place to lie down himself. Then he heard only some shuffling back and forth through the grass, occasionally a deep sigh. The moon glided up and down through the night, and there were no more visions of man or animal as the day formed in lessening shades of darkness.
Evrette opened his eyes when he heard the chopper. At first, in his halfsleep, he thought it could have been the methodical beating of a raven’s wings, but Evrette decided it was too early for birds to be flying, though not too early for men. He lifted his head off his boots and squinted into the forest—lives below moonlight reborn as the shadows of dawn, shadows protecting the gray form moving away from him through the trees. He felt along the ground for his rifle.
Evrette could not sit up for the pain in his belly. He wanted a cigarette, too, but instead took up the palm-burnished stock of his rifle. He saw himself roll onto his side and point the short, thick barrel into the edge woods. The stench of fermented flesh wafted along the ground, rising up from the canyon bottom already yellow in daylight. The manic devouring of breath drew closer, and the cold mountain air shocked his temples as the frosted gunstock shot icicles through his palm.
Draper flew out of the sun rising over Great Northern Mountain. He was a half-mile distant, deliberately crisscrossing back and forth above the valley. At the end of each course, the chopper dipped and banked and blew the spruce tips asunder. Everette wished for a cannon but could only drop his rifle to the ground, plugging the barrel with dirt and moss. In one poor motion he scooted the butt end away from him, and the rifle came to rest with its barrel pointing at his forehead. He closed his eyes, drew the wool blanket about his throat and let himself shiver as the moist panting breeze overcame his face. Maw unto maw, the stench filled the back of his throat. A final footfall crushed the wind from his chest and brought to his ears the sound of his own ribs cracking and the scissors vying for his brain, as Evrette Adams smiled one last time and thought, Of course. ✦