Sunday, August 1, 2010

Sunny at Priest Lake - part 2

Mr. Jenny has been wanting to write creative stories for some time. He says he is "taking over" the Sunday spot on my blog and so we shall begin a new weekly feature here - Sundays with Steve. There will be a button and a tab eventually but for now just visit each Sunday to enjoy his words.

One of the joys of our summer vacations at Priest Lake was riding in the backseat of Dad’s pale-yellow Jeepster. It was a convertible, where the rag top lowered to store fully behind the back seat. The kids and the dog could all lean out of the sides of the car for a full view of everything passing by.

It was a 1948 Willys Jeepster, the last of the great phaeton autos of the 1920s and 30s. It ran with a flathead-4 engine that developed 56 horsepower (I like to say the Jeepster’s horsepower number about equals its top speed, when going downhill). It was a rear-drive, not the four-wheel drive you might expect from any other Jeep ever built. The car had a tube AM radio (these were the days before FM radio). It had no computer chips and no air conditioning. There was a police-like spotlight on the driver’s side and a heater that sort of worked, depending on how cold it was outside. Clear-plastic side curtains covered the windows instead of roll-down glass, and the tires were adorned with thick side-striped white walls. The Jeepster was a rugged post-World War II “urban drive”, manufactured by the same company that made hundreds of thousands of Jeeps for the war effort.

The Jeepster was Willy’s attempt to compete in the post-war market with a sophisticated, yet sporty in-city vehicle that would appeal to the returning service men seeking comfort after all the hell of the war years. For the most part, Willys failed. It manufactured just 13,000 Jeepsters over two years before discontinuing the line (it manufactured them in 1948 and 1949, the 1950 Jeepsters were left-overs). The car just couldn’t compete with roll-up glass windows and heaters and air conditioning that equipped the other vehicles rolling into the market.

But Willys succeeded in one important personal way for my family…my father bought one in the early 1950’s. And so did I, 50 years later.

One of the adventures we always looked forward to at Priest Lake was taking the Jeepster out for a drive on the roads that surrounded the southern half of the lake. At night there was often a great treat waiting for us at the end of the road. Even that one night in particular when we thought, when we knew, that we were all going to die.

You remember Priest Lake from my last story. If not, you can read it here. The family vacationed there for a week each summer for 7 or 8 years in the 1950s, and I returned on occasion into the late 1970s.

Located near the Canadian border, Priest Lake and the surrounding Selkirk Mountains is prime bear country extending through Northern Idaho and the Rockies of Montana, then north through Canada and into Alaska.

Over the decades, bear have both proliferated and suffered at the hands of man. In this remote area of North Idaho, black and brown bear are in abundance, but it is the grizzly that has slowly disappeared over the decades, primarily at the hands of hunters, ranchers, and others.

Back in the 1950s, before the EPA and environmental awareness, governments in many rural areas did not regulate the disposal of garbage.

In the rural areas, most residents were left to their own devices for disposal of their garbage. Burning – using an old 55-gallon drum that was turned into a burn barrel – was common. An alternative was taking your refuse out to the country dump and doing just that – leaving it dumped on the ground.

Just up the road from the Priest Lake vacation spot was the area’s garbage dump. This dump had been established for use by the resorts and private residences. Several very small communities, including Nordman and Coolin, added their trash to the dump as well although I suspect their “contribution” was minimal with their combined population of perhaps 30 residents.

Go up the road from Hill’s Resort, out to the state highway (there is only one in that region), north two or three miles, then turn right on the dirt road leading down to the Linger Longer Lodge. The county dump was about a mile before you came to the lake, situated there on the left about 1/8th mile in.

The dump is gone today of course, but back then it was popular not just for dumping residential garbage, but for the entertainment it offered almost every night. We loved visiting the dump at night; it was one of the highlights of the summer vacation. Except for that one particular night.

The Linger Longer Lodge was a modern two-story building situated on the western lakeshore. At the time, it was the most modern accommodation on the lake. It was surrounded by a large expanse of green grass that stretching down to the lake. There a small beach invited swimmers and a dock invited boaters to stop for a bite to eat and something to quench their thirst.

The Linger Longer Lodge boasted that it had the longest bar in the State of Idaho. Did it? I don’t know, but I do remember coins embedded under the bar top that provided hours of fascination, or perhaps more realistically maybe minutes of fascination for us brothers. The adults enjoyed their liquid refreshment at the state’s longest bar, lingering a little longer, perhaps.

Hamburgers were served to us on the patio over-looking that gorgeous lake, with tall cold Cokes fizzling over ice. To our complete delight, the Cokes were served with a maraschino cherry stuck on top in the ice. That cherry, topping the tall, frosty glass made us feel somehow more grown up, even though I was probably no more than five or six years old at the time.

Sunny the dog, of course, visited the Linger Longer Lodge with us, too. We wouldn’t dream to going anywhere around the lake, either by car, by Jeepster, or by boat, without our shared best friend, the mongrel mutt Sunny.

“Mister Matlock, you need to be really careful tonight,” said the manager of the Linger Longer Lodge to my father late one afternoon as we were having burgers and Cokes on the patio. “We have reports of a grizzly bear in the area. If you are going to stop by the dump tonight… well, personally, with that mess of kids and the misses you have there, I wouldn’t.”

Mrs. Pickle, the barkeep, brought fresh Cokes. (“Nice to meet you, I’ve been pickled a few times myself”, said family friend John Skelton when meeting Mrs. Pickle earlier that year. That is where Mrs. Jenny’s eventual “sigh” originated, I think.)

“You listen to him now, you hear?” Mrs. Pickle cautioned, “Those grizzly bear are big and mean, and would no more think of eating one of those kids than spitting on you. You better be real careful. I wouldn’t go up there myself, you can get hurt, and you can get real sorry you did. There’s going to be trouble up there, I tell you!”


Sunny barked in agreement, even though he was wagging his tail with excitement.

“Ah, just another bear,” said my father, the World War II Army major. “We stop up there all the time, the kids love seeing the bears and so do we.”

“But,” he promised, “We’ll be careful.”

Before we move on with this little story, I want to tell you that the Linger Longer Lodge restaurant and bar was out of business within a few years. The land and building were sold to the Catholic Church and turned into a retreat for its priests and nuns. I’m sure that over the next few decades, they enjoyed the longest bar in the State of Idaho.

Now, back to the bears.

The bears, you see, loved the county dump. It was the source of easy food for them. It was certainly much easier than foraging for the abundance of huckleberries, blackberries, and wild strawberries through-out the woods. The garbage was uncovered, just sitting in piles out in the open.

We would see dozens of black and brown bears there on some nights. None of them were particularly concerned about the few cars that would drive into the dump to watch them eat. They would look up at the at the car lights coming in, and then return to their nightly buffet.

The Jeepster was not only a convertible that allowed us kids and Sunny to lean out the sides for a better view, but it had a large spot light attached just forward of the driver’s door, that allowed Dad to shine a light on any of the bears for better viewing.

Because of the grizzly bear warning, we brothers were especially excited to get to the dump that night. It was just turning dark when we got there and bears, being mostly nocturnal animals, were just coming out to feed. I don’t think there were more than one or two other cars parked there to enjoy the show.

Several bears walked by the parked Jeepster, sniffed at us, sniffed at Sunny, and kept-on ambling to the tempting pile of dinner, just a few feet away.

The bears made no noise when coming to the dump. You didn’t hear them, you just saw them, and sometime heard them sniffing in the piles of garbage. Sometimes, you heard them eating, crunching on bones or tearing open a container. It was quiet at the dump; both the bears and spectators were silent. This was serious entertainment for us, and serious eating for the bears.

The dump smelled like, well, like a garbage dump. It stunk. It didn’t stink like Sunny did following his encounter with the Priest Lake skunk. It smelled like the rotting food that filled it, and that drew the bears to the smorgasbord.

Four or five bears had slowly made their way past the Jeepster and there were around eight bears sharing dinner in the dump when we heard the first rumbling of the grizzly.

“ROAR!” What was that sound from behind us, in the road leading into the dump? Uh-oh. A shiver ran down my arm and spine. “GROWL!” Holy Moley, what was that? “BARK,” answered Sunny. Uh-oh, I knew what that sound was.

“Sunny, be quiet! Shut up!” said my Father the World War II hero, sounding slightly panicked. “John! John! It’s the grizzly Mrs. Pickle told us about,” said my Mother, “We have to get out of here! Now!”

“ROAR! GROWL!” The sound is something I will never forget, more than 50-years later. It was loud, it was scary, and we were all shaking in our collective boots.

“ROAR! GROWL!” Oh my. “John, do something, do something, hurry!” screamed my Mother, sounding downright scared at this point.

“What do you suggest?” my Father, the perpetual smart-ass retorted (he couldn’t help himself).

The bear had us trapped. It was standing 10 feet behind the open-roofed Jeepster, which was blocked from moving forward by the piles of garage.

I noticed that the eight or so bears in the dump had disappeared. One minute they were there in their fat, dumb, happy, eating bliss… and the next minute they were gone. Man, they were just flat gone. I quickly realized that there was a message in that. I remember thinking that maybe these bears really were not so dumb after all. Oh- oh.



We three brothers were not being particularly calm, either. Worry and fright covered our faces. David, the youngest brother, started to cry. Gordon, the oldest brother, was trying to stare down that grizzly, just like Daniel Boone did on TV, but I noticed he was shaking. I’m the middle brother, and I was a bit concerned. OK, I was scared s****, oh, err, scared poopless I should say.

“ROAR! GROWL! GET OUT OF MY DUMP YOU PEOPLE! IF YOU DON’T GO, I’M GOING TO MAKE A MEAL OF YOU!” That’s what it sounded like that old grizzly bear was saying. Uh-oh. This is trouble, man.

Sunny never shut up. He barked and barked and barked. He wasn’t afraid.

“John, do something, do something, do something, right now,” cried my Mother. “Get us out of here!”

But there was nothing to do, we were trapped, we just hoped the bear would go away, that it would take over the dump and eat garbage until dawn. We just didn’t want him trying to snack on us!

I really didn’t want to become dinner for that grizzly bear. I don’t think my brothers wanted to, either.

And I remembered what Mrs. Pickle said, “You are going to find trouble up there tonight, mark my words.”

“GULP.” I was definitely marking her words right about then.

But Sunny wasn’t afraid. He knew just what to do. This dog, perhaps not the smartest dog in the kennel, was not frightened by a grizzly. He was totally unimpressed that the grizzly might stand on its back legs to maybe 10 or 12 feet tall before it ate us all for dinner.

Sunny jumped over the side of the Jeepster, hitting the ground barking. And barking, and barking. And then his bark turned into a “ROAR!” “ROAR,” Sunny thundered, "This is my Jeepster and my people and if you want them for dinner you’ll have to go through me."

Sunny stood about two and a half feet tall and from nose to tail maybe three feet long.

He was no longer a mongrel pup from the city dog pound. On this particular night, he was fearless.

He charged the bear, barking and growling with great ferocity. “Oh- oh” said my Father, “Kids, don’t look, but Sunny is about to become a bear dinner.”

Oh, we couldn’t bear the sight of the impending slaughter but neither could we turn away.

And it was fortunate that we did not avert our gaze, for if we had we would have missed Sunny attacking that bear’s throat, right under its jaw. I don’t have a clue how he got so close without being thrown by the bear. But there he was, latched on to the thick brown fur for dear life. Sunny never gave up; he just kept chewing and chewing. He was growling deep in his throat. The bear howled in pain. Sunny kept chewing. The bear tried to knock Sunny off with its giant clawed paws. Sunny held on, and kept chewing. The bear kept howling, but could not get to Sunny, who was positioned too closely under the beast’s great jaw. Sunny just held on for dear life, growling and chewing and latched onto the soft, vulnerable skin of the bear’s massive throat.

Sunny kept chewing and the bear kept howling and trying to knock Sunny away. The bear’s cries grew louder and louder, it was obviously in pain. We could see blood appear in the thick fur of the throat area now, but whose was it? Sunny’s or the bear’s? We couldn’t tell. Sunny kept growling and chewing, and the bear kept howling and swinging around valiantly trying to throw the dog off.

Finally the bear threw Sunny, and the dog went flying a good 25 feet and landed on his back in a pile of garbage. The bear roared at the dog. The dog jumped to his feet and roared at the bear.

Then it was over.

The bear turned and ran. Sunny stood there, continuing to roar for a moment.

Sunny pranced back to the Jeepster. I swear he was smiling. My Mother opened the passenger door, and the dog jumped into the back seat with my brothers and me.

“Well,” Sunny appeared to be saying, “How about them apples? I kept you humans from becoming bear dinner, and I’m tired. Feed me. Now.”

My younger brother stopped crying. My older brother finally closed his mouth and started babbling. My mother took a deep breath and attempted to regain her composure. My father put that old Jeepster into gear and tore out of the garbage dump with as much speed as that 56 horsepower motor could go.

Sunny lost a bit of skin here and there and had some claw marks on his back that bled a little bit. Overall, the pup seemed none the worse for wear. I’m not sure my parents were none the worse for wear, though, because they seemed uncharacteristically quiet during the ride back to the cabin and for the rest of the night. And I don’t really remember, but I suspect us boys might have begged to keep the light on in our room that night.

Afterwards, my brothers quickly reinvented what had happened. They told heroic stories for years about how they had each, in a moment of personal courage and valor, fought off a mad grizzly bear and saved the rest of the family on that momentous night.

But I’m here today to set the record straight and tell you what really happened.

It was me. I was the courageous boy who almost single-handedly saved my entire family from dismemberment and death.

I stared down that grizzly with a spine of steel. Yes, it was me, the sort-of-klutzy middle son who showed true heroism on that fateful night.

With just a little help from my best friend, Sunny, of course.


People Who Know Me Would Say: said...

I don't know which part I liked better: when you made the bear talk, or when the bear was sitting in the roadster.

Great tale!

Jeanie said...

I liked that I could smell the dump and hear the grizzy and I like a good male psyche that has to make a good story even better.

Linda Medrano said...

Wow! Husband and wife storytellers! I'm impressed! Lovely and funny story! Thank goodness for Sunny!

Keetha Broyles said...

PERHAPS, Mr. Steve, you need to consider starting your OWN blog expressly for the purpose of story telling.

I can see it now:

"Story Time With Mr. Steve"


"Stevie's Stories"


"Steve Writes"

or some such - - - - think of it! Why "stoop" to being a guest blogger when you can do it all????

Susan Anderson said...

Another great story. I'll bet your grandkids are hitting you up for new ones all the time!


Brenda said...

The adventures of Steve and Sunny! A fun read and a nice break from the work I need to catch up on after having the grands visit. Have a good week, look forward to next weeks story.

Pat Tillett said...

That was such a great story!
Talk about memories!
Also, a cool looking vehicle...

The Quintessential Magpie said...

I loved this story! Yea for Sunny! My hero!


Sheila :-)

ImagiMeri said...

Hi Steve,

I'm so glad you were there to save your family, how heroic you were, how brave.......oooooh. Too bad Sunny can't corroborate your story. Thank you for the entertainment.


Dee said...

cool :)

Vicki/Jake said...

Ah Steve, what memories you brought back today...of dumps and burn barrels and fighting off grizzly's!

Well ok, the first two were spot on. What I want to hear now is Sunny's side of the story......

Nail biting, eye opening and so, so real :)

Loving these Sunday posts...

Terra said...

Oh this is a fabulous story! I actually posted about "our" bears this morning - so I was giggling through your whole story! I have seen the smallest of dogs scare off bears up here in the Rockies and believe me it is a site to see! I know they can be awful mean, awful dangerous but aren't they fascinating?

Jess Herbig said...

You keep telling stories closer and closer to my hometown! I was born in Sandpoint, but grew up in Clark Fork, on the Montana Border. We went to Priest Lake all the time! And I know the Linger Longer, I also know all the bays, the backroads, and the Hills! I almost got married at their resort....but being a broke college student, I found a cheaper option closer to Coeur d' Alene. Good memories!

Unknown said...

holy crap....

Unknown said...

holy crap....

Pondside said...

When we lived in northern Alberta an evening at the dump was de rigeur for guests and new arrivals in town. We never (thank heavens!) saw a grizzly, just lots of little brown and black bears. I'm sure, if we had seen one, that I'd have responded with your particular sort of bravery!

aimee said...

ok now i can breath! i think i held my breath the whole time.

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