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Even though most of you probably already know this, for the sake of the few who don’t, let me explain just a little bit about the “tundra”. There are two types of “tundra”, Alpine and Arctic, and Canada has both types of these areas. I would like to say that one or the other is a pleasant place to live, but if I were to do so, I would be lying.
Consider this; the very word “tundra” is derived from the Finnish word “tunturi” which by way of translation equals “treeless plain”. You should remember that point in particular. That way, you’ll be better able to catch the drift of the story I’ll be relating to you after I finish filling in the necessary background.
Now aside from being virtually treeless, there are a few other things to consider that should help explain why the tundra has such a reputation for being inhospitable. A growing season of 50-60 days a year would be bad enough in a congenial climate, but when you add in an average summer temperature of 3-12 degrees Centigrade (37-54 degrees Fahrenheit) you can easily see why no farmer in his right mind wants anything to do with the area. And once those 50-60 days are used up — well, how does an average winter temperature of -34 degrees Centigrade (-30 degrees Fahrenheit) sound. You can believe me when I say that the only bikinis you’ll find on the tundra are in Hudson Bay or Victoria Secrets catalogs.
So what does all this have to do with tall tales you ask? Simple: my father spent a good portion of his younger years working as a trapper, and yes, you guessed it; his trap line was on the tundra. What the tundra does have in spite of its inclement weather is a wide variety of animal life ranging all the way from rabbits to polar bears.
Anyway, it was one of those years that my father decided to take me with him for the trapping season. He was out checking the line and I was at the cabin trying my 10-year-old best to boil a few traps in a particularly foul-smelling concoction of beaver guts and sundry muskrat parts. This is done to remove any and all human scent from the traps, since no wild animal will get near a trap that smells like a human. For that matter, no reasonably sane (non-rabid) animal will get near a steel trap that smells like a steel trap. Thus, the boiling and the foul-smelling concoctions.
Now I was having quite the time of it since I was trying not to inhale any of the putrid fumes while I was stirring the mixture, and I had held my breath so long the room was starting to spin. I probably would have woofed my cookies and passed out right there if my dad hadn’t burst into the cabin just then, looking something like the hounds of hell were nipping at his heels. I remember asking him what was wrong at least ten times while he apparently tried with great difficulty to catch his breath.
When he finally got his breathing under control, he immediately went to the cupboard, grabbed a glass and a bottle, and poured himself a drink that was stiff enough to be called rigid. One quick gulp and he was looking at the empty glass like maybe he might fill it up once more. I guess he decided against it, because he put the glass on the drain board and came over to sit at the table.
Since he was looking a lot more composed then, I asked him once again, “Are you all right Dad?”
“I am now,” he said.
“What happened?” I asked.
“A bear,” he said as his eyes grew wide, “I was checking the line, and suddenly there was a great big polar bear coming right at me. Hell, I never saw him, or even heard anything till he was almost on top of me!”
Now my eyes were wide, and my voice was shaking as I asked him, “What did you do? What happened?”
“I ran,” he said, “and then I realized I was on the tundra and there was no place to run to.”
Again I asked him, and now my voice was so high-pitched, every animal for miles must have gotten a headache, “What did you do? What happened?”
“Well as I was running,” he told me, “I was looking all around, and that’s when I saw it.”
I was almost screaming by then, “Saw what? What did you see?”
My dad’s voice got kind of quiet then, almost like he was in church. He said to me in what was almost a whisper, “A tree.”
For a moment after that, my dad didn’t say anything, and neither did I. It was like we were trying to assimilate this impossible piece of information. A tree — on the tundra. It’s not unheard of by any means, but in the area of my father’s trap line, well it was pretty rare. In this case it was also pretty important. A tree could be climbed by a human, but not by a bear.
“Did you run to the tree?” I asked him.
“You bet I did,” he said, but it didn’t look good, I’ll tell you that much.”
“Why didn’t it look good, what do you mean,” I asked him.
“Well as I was getting closer to the tree, and the bear was closing in on me, I realized that tree only had one branch, and the trunk was too wide for me to shimmy up. That one branch looked like it was 30 or 40 feet above the ground, and I realized I might not be able to reach it no matter how hard I jumped. And as I already said, the bear was getting awful close.”
By now I was completely beside myself, sitting so much on the edge of my seat that I actually slid off the chair at least twice. So then I asked him yet again, “What did you do? What happened?”
“Well, I’ll tell you,” he said, “as I got really close to that tree I could see for sure that the branch was at least 35 feet in the air, and if it hadn’t been for the fact that I could now almost feel that bear’s breath on my neck, I would have given up right there and just said forget it. But then I thought of you back here in the cabin and I just said to myself, No! I won’t give up without trying. So I made my feet go even faster and as I reached that tree I jumped harder than I have ever jumped in my entire life! It was so close that as I jumped the polar bear swung his paw and actually raked my bottom right through my coveralls.”
“And you caught the branch!” I yelled, throwing my hands up in the air.
“No,” he said, “I missed it completely.”
For a moment, I felt like all the wind had been knocked right out of me and my voice was completely perplexed as I cocked my head to one side and very quietly asked my father one last time, “Then what happened?”
I will never forget the smile on that man’s face when he said to me, “I caught it on the way down.”