(Illustration by Lynn Johnston)

(Illustration by Lynn Johnston)

Guitarist in the North: Talk to the Animals II

Paul Lucas

Special to the News

Editor’s Note: This column is an excerpt from Paul Lucas’ new book, A Guitar Player on the Yukon Border. Lucas has lived in Atlin since 1979 and his book focuses on the work, the people, and the adventures of the North. This chapter is the third in a 10-part series to run in the Yukon News every Wednesday this summer.

SKAGWAY, Summer 1987

A bear sits, as they are fond of saying, wherever he cares to. And he eats whatever he wants. Black bears are omnivores, and they can often be seen chowing down on whatever is available on the fringes of civilization.

The fringe, in this case, is a clearing a couple of miles outside Skagway, Alaska. The hero in our tale has found a cup with a treat in the bottom – a dollop of vanilla ice cream with a delicious butterscotch swirl. He’s just finished jamming his snout into the cup and now he can’t get it out. Large mammals at play – hilarious stuff! Particularly if they don’t feel threatened and the observer has the right vantage point.

Then again, if the bear in question is sitting in the passenger seat of your car, some serious questions come up.

*

It was a hot, still morning in the cottonwood, alder and spruce forest bordering the Skagway river. Hot enough to leave the windows down while I played the early show at Tent City – and a far cry from the 8 am temperature on the pass that I had come across just an hour or so before.

The epic journey from Atlin to Skagway is not for the faint of heart. Following the shores of the Southern Lakes, the path climbs the White Pass then the plummets to the ocean.

Only the hardiest of adventurers attempt the trek, and even then, only when they carry the elixir required for sustenance on such journeys – the butterscotch swirl ice cream issued from the magic fountain in the land of Carcross, Yukon. If such a traveler imbibes of the confection, he will be rejuvenated, rejoicing with a hearty smacking of the lips and clapping of the hands. And if he desires, he can also grab a coffee to go.

And that’s exactly what I did that morning, little knowing that after I parked the car, there was enough of the swirl left in the dixie cup to attract Ursus Americanus – the bear in question – a bear we will, for the purposes of this story, call Bertie.

Evidently young Bertie understood the power of the elixir, because he was driven to consume it at all costs. After all, even though the windows of my two door hatchback are large, it must have taken extraordinary will to force that bulk through the opening, swivel himself around inside of what must have felt like a sardine can, and locate the ice cream cup.

*

I was a man on a mission that morning. I hadn’t eaten breakfast, and I’d been dreaming of bacon and eggs at the Sweet Tooth Cafe for most of the last set. Finally free, I raced towards the car, yanked off my mandolin, and backed into the driver’s seat, slamming the door behind me.

Suddenly, there we were – sitting shoulder to shoulder – me and Bertie – him with that dixie cup stuck on his nose, and me with that universal ‘oh shit’ look on my face.

He glanced at me sheepishly.

‘What? … So I stuck my nose in the cup, and now I can’t get it off … it can happen to anybody’ …

I wasn’t about to argue; besides, it was fast occurring to him that he was trapped in a tin can with one of those gun toting homo sapiens. Sheepishness suddenly turned to fear and anger. He hissed, turned in his seat, and attempted to swat me with a big paw, but there simply wasn’t enough room to move.

The rest was a blur. The next thing I knew, I was standing thirty feet back from the car with a vague memory of hitting young Bertie on the nose with the door as he tried to follow me.

Now he was well and truly mad. But more than anything, he wanted to get out of that metal prison. So with great difficulty, he turned himself around and squeezed back through the window he had entered. Then, fur all willy-nilly, he stalked slowly off into the bush with as much dignity as he could muster, making the point as he retreated, that he was leaving only because he cared to – every few steps, stopping and turning to stare back at me with a look that could only be translated as, ‘You bastard!’

*

If a bear manages to get inside a vehicle or a cabin he will, more often than not, tear it up. That being said, Bertie seemed to have acquired some manners in his youth, because he left the interior of that little car virtually untouched – no torn upholstery, no scratched paint, no gifts on the front seat – nothing. There was one thing though.

Earlier on, I’d dropped a wide brimmed cowboy hat on the floorboards of the car, right below where Bert was dining. He must have been enjoying that ice cream, because both the brim and top were filled with drool.

Removal wasn’t easy. The hat had to be carefully lifted out over the sill, through the door, and its gooey contents poured in the weeds. The thing was ruined – an ignominious death for such a fine piece of headgear. And the car stunk for days.

*

Fortunately, the whole business left me with no ill effects other than the odd habit of peering through the back window of a car before jumping in – even in the city – just to make sure there isn’t a wild animal sitting in the passenger seat. My friends just shake their heads and shrug.

“He’s just bushed,” they say.

Maybe so.