It's bear season so I'm once again packing a gun everywhere I go and seeing bears behind every tree--thankfully, so far they always turn out to be figments of my imagination. Sort of like the bear mentioned in the "Grizzly Country" section of Bjorn Dihle's book, NEVER CRY HALIBUT.
Brown bears bring out no shortage of strangeness in people. For the last six years, I've guided folks and a few film crews who wanted to look at or film brown bears....[One] summer I was offered the chance to become a Hollywood star.
"Hi, sport," a reality television producer said over the phone. "Are you interested in being part of a team that tries to track down the biggest brown bear in the world? Some say it's not even a bear! They say it's, like, fourteen feet tall!"
"Where's this 'bear' supposed to live?" I asked, beginning to shake with excitement. Maybe a brown bear had successfully mated with a tiger, creating a "tigear" or "beager," and I was about to be offered a ticket to the Kamchatka Peninsula.
"On the island of Angoon," the producer said.
"You mean the village of Angoon on Admiralty Island?" I said.
"What? Yeah. The village of Angoon," he said.
"Who gave you this exciting information?" I asked.
"The Langat People."
"I never heard of the Langat people. Do you mean Tlingit?" I asked. The conversation grew increasingly strained. The producer said something about isolated DNA and there being some sort of super bear near Angoon....
My life dream is to be cast as the villain in a James Bond movie, but I was tired of all the nonsense being perpetuated about bears. It's like when Allen Hasselborg, the bear man of Admiralty Island, said about so many people's apparent need to dress up bear stories--the truth is plenty interesting already. Still, a small part of me died when I declined to be on the show.
End of Excerpt.
In the book, Bjorn tells stories not just of his close encounters with bears, some of them frightening enough for me to sleep with a light on all night after reading them, but he also describes some of the strange people he's met deep in bear country. Before I read his book I was, it turns out, considerably naive about the varied reactions people can have to meeting their first brown bear.
One of the funniest parts of the entire book is where Bjorn details his interactions with various TV producers and clients he guides into the wilderness. If you want to know what not to do in the wilderness, this section is a great primer.
At any rate, I wanted to put a reminder out there that Bjorn's book of Alaskan hunting and fishing tales is currently available both in Kindle and print formats. Here's a link to Amazon's page for NEVER CRY HALIBUT:
Now I better strap on my gun, pocket my pepper spray, take my handheld VHF with me, and head into the woods and over to the beach with the good Internet signal to post this. Here's hoping I don't meet any bears or reality TV producers in the process....
Note: All Photos except the top one courtesy of Bjorn Dihle.
It's funny now, but as a kid I didn't think anything of it that my dad's best friend, when he was logging on SE Alaska's vast Prince of Wales Island in the Seventies and Eighties, was called Pitch. All of my dad's stories, when he crossed the strait to be with us out in the wilderness on the weekends, featured things Pitch had said and done that week. Pitch was a giant in my mind.
He was the shovel operator to my dad's scaler/bucker and we kids heard with awe the stories of Pitch picking up tiny coins with his giant grappling tongs. My dad would shake his head in wonder, not only at how smoothly and fluidly Pitch operated the shovel, but also at how it was even possible that he could see the coin to be able to pick it up from his seat back there in the cab.
Pitch operated a "Triple 6," the 666 Koehring on an 866 undercarriage. Because of the three sixes, whenever anything went wrong, as it inevitably would at some point, Pitch and my dad would assert "Satan has it in for us today!" The shovel, a modified excavator, weighed 70 tons and could easily pick up, with Pitch at the controls, an 8 foot in diameter, 40 foot long spruce log.
My dad had such trust in Pitch's precision and situational awareness that he'd buck the logs off with his chainsaw while they were in the clutches of the shovel's grapples. This was impressive because he'd had logs dropped on him by another shovel operator. (By chance he'd fallen into a hole in the ground just before the load dropped on him so he wasn't hurt.) There was no one who could match Pitch's skill--he manipulated the huge machine with its load of heavy logs with complete ease and control. This particular model was considered "slow," but as my dad said, "It was never 'slow' with Pitch at the controls."
Pitch and my dad worked together at Winter Harbor on Prince of Wales and though their crew was small, only five men, they managed to out-log the other much larger crew by a lot. My dad gives the credit to Pitch. He said that once the logs were sorted Pitch had the trucks lined up and could fill and dispatch them so quickly that no other team on the island could keep up. If there was an Olympics for shovel operators, Pitch would have taken Gold home every time.
When I saw Pitch as a kid, I was impressed by how he and my dad complemented each other--they were a lot alike in a lot of ways, but different enough that they could get a kick out of the other guy's perspective. They'd shared a lot of extraordinary life experiences, both being Vietnam vets who became loggers in remote Alaska and who built their own homes themselves. They worked together in Thorne Bay, on Prince of Wales Island, when it was the largest logging camp in the world.
One of my favorite memories of Pitch was when my mom, my sister and me, and two other kids from our bush school, crossed the strait to attend the prom in Thorne Bay. Pitch and his first wife Dale and their three daughters Cheri Dee, Kimery, and Kristi, were kind enough to open their home to us. Before he knew it, this rough and ready logger found his kitchen turned into a beauty salon.
I remember perching carefully on a chair in the living room, trying not to disturb my finery and hairdo, while Pitch entertained us with deliberately hair-raising logging tales. There was a twinkle in his eyes and a rich appreciation for the incongruity of the teens decked out in full prom regalia, the hairspray hanging heavily in the air, politely listening to his stories while my mom finished beautifying the other girls in the next room.
He was good at telling stories. Boom man Tim Lindseth recalls: "Every machine in the sort yard and on the pond had a CB radio and often there would be kind of a topic for the day as chatter, besides the important work stuff. So work stuff could be happening and a story or some ad lib comment going on all through the day.... Pitch made the comment (on the CB) that the Gov. was keeping tabs on who was sitting on a pile of money [through the strips inside $50.00 and $100.00 bills]. To that, every one yakked about this, off and on for an hour and the general consensus was that it must be some sort of tracking device! Pitch chimed in, if you bit the edge off the bill you can pull that strip right out. Now came all of our comments one by one what happens to the strip when the government finds out? Pitch says, he puts it in the cat's food...let 'em track that."
Pitch had a soft spot for cats and kittens. My dad tells the story of how Pitch invented a game that his cat's kittens adored, a little something he called "Cat Darts." He marked out a huge bull's eye on the living room curtains and would toss one of the kittens at the bull's eye. They would stick with their tiny claws to the fabric for a moment or so, then drop down and scamper back, crawling up his leg to have another turn, in the way kids the world over say: "Do it again, Daddy, do it again." He'd tire before the kittens did.
Chris Lewis, who worked as scaler/bucker with Pitch after my dad, told me this funny story about Pitch's soft heart for baby animals: "In the spring every year the area does would bring their fawns into the sort yard and hide them in and around the log decks, etc. Pitch always made sure that at least one skid had logs laid out so the does could hide the fawns against where the skid and the logs intersected and every morning while his shovel was warming up he would check to see if any fawns were hiding along his skids. Well, one morning as I was gassing up and getting my saw ready I noticed Pitch about halfway down a skid looking down at the ground...obviously looking at a fawn, when all of a sudden the little fawn got up and went right between Pitch's legs and tried to start nursing!! Well you can imagine the look on Pitch's face!! I'll never forget it. Of course Pitch just stood there trying to convince the little thing he wasn't its mama. Big tuff logger Pitch. Yeah, I believe he had a very kind heart."
He did have a kind heart. And he liked to share tips that made a person's life or chores easier. My dad was splitting firewood recently and he said, "Pitch taught me to do this better." He said he was chopping wood in the sort yard for the burn barrel one day, driving the ax into the center of a round the way he learned as a kid, when Pitch, who was watching him from the cab of the shovel, said, "There's an easier way to do that." He suggested my dad chop from the outside of the round inward. Sure enough, the tough rounds split far more easily that way and my dad uses the technique to this day.
Wherever Pitch went he was always willing to give of his time and his experience, and many people over many years have reason to be grateful.
After a long illness, lovingly tended by his wife Kathryn, Gerald Pitcher died on April 4, 2018. Pitch was a big guy in the ways that mattered: a man with a big heart, and with an enormous personality, and no one who ever met him will forget him.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)