“The Bear” – a short story by Charles Brandt
~The Brandt Series~
Introduction – by Bruce
Since time immemorial, the forests and rivers of the pacific west coast bio-region of North America (sometimes known as Cascadia) has held a relationship between the salmon, the bears and the First Nations Peoples.
Today (as always), this interconnectedness extends to all that Is.
North Vancouver Island – photo by bruce witzel
In 2018 the hermit-priest-ecologist Fr. Charles Brandt said this in an interview:
“I’m a fisherman, and I used to do fishing, catch and release, and I’ve given that up now, because I realized that once that hook gets into that mouth, they feel some pain, and the Buddhists want all pain to cease, all suffering…. The big thing with the Buddhists is their respect for life; that all life is precious, and that’s really influenced me.”
Much earlier (in the 1990’s) Charles wrote “The Bear”, an allegorical narrative as a signpost to this. In its most basic form, it’s a good fish and bear story….
Charles Brandt photo
I had never had a bear watch me fish before, although I have watched bears fish. It happened one morning on the Campbell River in mid July. I was in pursuit of summer-run steelhead, the run that had been introduced from the Tsitika River. These fish had been moving into the river since June and perhaps as early as May. For the past several weeks I had been coming into the river in the early morning. Each visit had been an event of outstanding proportions. It was not unusual to beach and release three or four steelhead in a two hour period. The experience never palled. There was always the excitement and anticipation of the first strike which jolted the creative forces and spontaneities of my inner being. The Campbell is the poor man’s Dean, yet rich beyond all telling.
This morning there was a difference in the air. I waded out comfortably across the bar to the Main Islands Pool to the riffle at its head to the point where the bar drops off somewhat sharply toward the main pool. I had the sense that I was being observed. There were some fishery technicians working on a side channel on the west side of the Lower Islands Pool to provide additional spawning area for chinook. There was that activity.
Many of us, I recall, were concerned that their work might alter the steelhead lies in the main river. But I sensed something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. It wasn’t the sense of bonding I always felt when wading the bar, the bonding with the other fishers of the river, mergansers, goldeneyes, herons and kingfishers as well as the trees along the bank and the other aquatic life in the river itself, but something else. This other life I always sensed was part of the sacred community of the natural world, not a collection of objects, but a community of subjects to be communed with, not primarily to be used or exploited. And the river is always a symbol of the journey that the universe is making, from its primordial flaring forth to the present terminal phase of the cenozoic.
This “Something Else” was the sense that I was being watched, yet I was the solitary fisherman on the river. When I arrived at the edge of the bar at the head of the pool, I played out line for the first cast. My favorite rod, a Goldenwest ten footer with a matching sink tip line, felt good in my hand. My fly was a No. 6 orange practitioner.
Father Charles Brandt steelhead fishing – likely about the early 1970’s
Moving slowly along the edge of the bar, covering as far as possible all of the water, eventually I arrived at a spot directly opposite the two dead sitka spruce on the opposite bank. This was the spot that Van Egan had identified for me, as a most likely spot for a strike, especially when your line is hanging directly downstream some seventy feet.
When the fly is hanging there, usually for a second or two, almost invariably a fish will take. And this morning take it did with a startling force and power that left me shaking with excitement. The fish made a powerful run toward the tail of the Pool where it surfaced in a great gleam of metallic light. Then back to the centre of the pool. She repeated the run, this time almost leaving the pool. I moved rapidly after her and noted that most of my backing was gone, hoping that she would not get into the fast water that emptied into the Lower Islands Pool.
When I finally began to gain some control of this amazing creature, now with most of my backing returned to the reel, for some reason I glanced over my right shoulder in the direction of the far bank. There it was! Sitting motionless in the midst of the salmon berry bushes and sword fern was a massive black animal, which had to be a black bear. It was peering directly at me, or at the fish on the end of my line. Unlike most black bear that I had encountered along the Oyster or Tsolum Rivers, which usually ambled away from me at a rather fast gait at my approach this critter sat motionless, apparently content just to observe. It had the appearance of a weathered totem, not unlike the ones that I had observed in the Gitsan country.
Last summer (l992) while fishing the Skeena below Terrace and the Bulkley at Barrets Station, I explored and photographed the Gitsan totems at Hazleton, Kispiox, Kitwanga and Kitwancool. One of the totem crests that figures prominently is that of the Bear.
Totems of Namgis First Nations ar Alert Bay – photo by Charles Brandt, 2005
I have always had a deep interest in the mythologies of the Northwest Coast indigenous peoples. They speak of a primordial age before the world became as it is now. A time when finite divisions between humans, animals and spirits had not yet been created, a time when humans could become animals by putting on skins, and animals could become human by taking them off. Everything was interconnected; water, earth, sky and land by beings who could pass through and among them. All was infused and penetrated by the Great Spirit. The totem carvings keep these mythologies alive.
Kispiox Totems – photo by Charles Brandt, 2005
Usually when fishing the Main Islands Pool I am able to bring a fish up onto the bar, somewhat downstream of the mid section of the Pool. There in the shallower water I am able to tail and release it in some fifteen or twenty minutes. But today she would not allow me to coax her onto the bar. She insisted with more than ordinary power that she wanted to remain in the Pool.
Some forty-five minutes after the strike, when she as well as I was beginning to tire, she allowed herself to be drawn onto the bar. I again looked in the direction of “The Bear”. It remained, unmoving. A bit apprehensive now of its presence, I decided to move the fish farther downstream so as to keep my distance from the bear when I would finally be able to beach this remarkable fish.
Finally, the fish was lying on her side in the shallow water against the berm that separates the Lower Islands Pool from the side channel. I knelt down to release the practitioner from the corner of her jaw. Just before I made the release I again glanced upstream to check on the bear. It was gone! Then I heard movement behind me, something crunching toward me across the gravel. Somewhat terrified, I quickly glanced around. There, towering over me was a large figure clothed completely in black. But it was not a bear, it was George Reid, Head of Fisheries, Ministry of Environment. It was his staff that had produced this marvellous fishery in the Campbell and the cutthroat fishery in the Oyster.
“Do you know how long you played that fish”, he asked. I replied that I couldn’t remember playing one that long. “I timed you” he said. “It took you fifty-two minutes”. Then, the scales fell away. I realized that the “Black Bear” I had seen observing me from the bank was none other than George Reid in black cords and sweat shirt.
With the hook removed, the fish drifted slowly downstream for a couple of seconds, caught its balance and the with lighting speed returned to the deep waters of the Pool.
Coho salmon alongside a cuthroat (not a steelhead) – Charles Brandt photo
As I left the river to make the trek back to the car, George was just ahead of me. I could hear him trudging up the steep trail. A mysterious hush descended on the forest as we climbed the steep bank to the parking lot. I still had several questions for George concerning his work with cutthroat in the Oyster.
When I arrived at the parking lot seconds behind him only my car was there. The spot where George usually parked was empty. And yet I had heard no car leave the lot. George was nowhere in sight. He had disappeared almost as suddenly as he had appeared along the river.
As I drove back to my hermitage on the Oyster River, the thought flashed through my mind that perhaps… just perhaps, I had really seen a bear along the banks of the Campbell. The mythologies of our own First Peoples came to mind: their belief that in a primordial age the divisions between humans, animals and spirits had not yet been created and beings could transform themselves from one form into another.
by Father Charles Alfred Edwin Brandt (Yde) 1993
Charles Brandt died in 2020 at the age of 97. His spirit of contemplation and action lives on:
(see hermitage brochure, below)
~ Peace ~