By Dawn Natelle
Be aware that I am notorious for gaps of many weeks between the parts of my stories. This one was sitting for months, before I decided to post it. I will produce at least one other chapter this week, and post it before next weekend. After that ... well, it will depend on whether you guys can encourage me to continue.
The main character in the story is not a person, but a river. There is also a few human characters running around ... otherwise the story might soon become boring. We also have animals in the story, but sorry Furries, none of them are anthropomorphized. Our main human is a young student about to enter high school.
"Are we there yet," 14-year-old Ricky Waters moaned for at least the fiftieth time this morning. But finally the answer wasn't "No, not yet," but "almost" as his father slowed to pull down a side road toward the mountains. "Gelenamikwak Nature Preserve" was printed on a sign by the entry way.
The place had been a provincial park when Ricky's dad was a boy, and he had come camping here every summer during the 1980s. He had decided that, with Ricky going into high school next year, this might be the only chance to let his family enjoy what had then been St. Mary's River Provincial Park. They hadn't come earlier because the Park had been taken over in a First Nations land claims protest, and until seven years ago the band had not allowed camping. Now they were developing it back into a First Nations-owned business venture, providing employment to band members and others.
Mark and Paul, in the back seat, looked up from their Game Boys at the sign, and then went back to the game. Mark was Ricky’s ten-year-old brother, and Paul was his best friend. His parents had told each of their boys that they could invite a friend to the week-long trip. Mark had picked Paul, his best friend. Ricky’s best friend was Lisa Stromen, and he was told that she did not qualify. So in protest he decided not to invite anyone. Not that there were any boys that he considered friends in his school in the city. So he was doomed to spend a week bored out in the wilderness, with no television, no computers, no Internet, and no cell phone coverage.
So this morning they got up at 4 a.m., and Dad started driving north from Toronto. It was nearly noon now, and they were deep in the Canadian Shield, miles from civilization. Ricky had slept for several hours in the early dark, and only woke up when his parents switched driving positions as the sun rose. He was dismayed to find they weren’t even half way there, and had been moaning pretty much the rest of the way, unable to get back to sleep.
“Oh look, there is a covered bridge,” Mom squealed. She was back in the shotgun position. “So cute.”
It was kinda cute, but Ricky had learned long ago that calling things cute was not considered manly. So he just mumbled. Then, as they rode over the bridge, he felt a strange sensation. It was like when you go over a too-steep hill, too-fast, but not. “Whoa, did you feel that,” he said.
“Feel what,” Mom asked.
“Feel that … I dunno, it was like a funny feeling in my stomach as we went over that bridge.”
“No,” Dad said. “My eyes kinda went funny going into the dark, and then back out into the sun.”
“No, I got that too,” Ricky said. “This was different. Must have just been me.”
They drove on another mile or two off the highway until they came to the park office. Dad went in and did the paperwork, and probably paid too. It was for nine days … Ricky had no idea how much that would cost. His Dad had a week off, but Mom had two weeks off from her job as a bank financial advisor, so they decided that at the end of the week they would decide if they would stay for a second week. Dad wanted that, but he only had one week off before he had to get back to his job as a construction manager. While in the office Dad also bought a couple bundles of firewood, and dumped it in the back of the mini-van, on top of all the other stuff packed there.
He handed Mom a map with the campsite circled, and she directed him through the maze of roads and trails until they got to 483 Moose Drive, the empty site. It was a ways in … the sites near the office had power, water, and sometime sewage outlets, and most had expensive-looking trailers parked on them. At the back it was campers only, or only tents, which is all we had. That is how Dad did it in the old days, so that was how we were going to do it. Sheesh.
As soon as the van stopped, Mark and Paul shot out of the van and started running off. Mom yelled that they had to unpack, but that didn’t do anything, so guess who had to unpack. And help Dad with the tents. Ricky suggested that they leave the boys’ tent for them to put up, but in the end they set up all three tents. The big one was for Mom and Dad, and cooking and eating in if it rained. There were two smaller pup tents for Ricky and the boys. Ricky managed to cop the best spot on the site, away from the big tent. Mark’s tent was right next to his parents.
Once the big tent was up, Dad set up the propane grill. Not one of the big ones like you have in your backyard, but a little green thing that folded out. Mom used it to boil water for coffee, which Dad was crying for. Guess who had to walk five sites down towards the road to get water. Ricky was not very big for his age, and definitely not muscular, so carting back the heavy water was a chore. Wasn’t this supposed to be a vacation? He knew this was going to be his chore … the little boys would get out of it even though the two of them could probably carry as much as he could.
It was two when they had everything set up. Mom had made sandwiches from stuff she had packed in the coolers, and the wild boys finally came back. Their explorations were not a total waste … they told where the washrooms were, with attached communal showers, oh joy. They had also found a trail to the river, which alarmed Mom. She immediately told them they weren’t to go back there alone. Dad just sighed something about ‘boys being boys’, which led to Mom glaring at him.
They ate the sandwiches with gusto. It was the first food since they had eaten sandwiches Mom made the night before. That was pretty early in out trip, and Dad had refused to stop for lunch so he could “make good time” so they ate in the car. Not that there were many places to stop.
They were way out of the city by the time the sun came up, and for the last few hours had only passed dinky little towns with only a few houses. The family only stopped when for gas, and everybody had to take bathroom breaks at the same time. Most of the places had little restaurants attached. Not MacDonald’s or Burger King, but little sit-down places with ladies in orange dresses to take your order. There was usually a store attached, and where Mom got snacks for us to nibble on in the car.
Dad bragged that the sandwiches tasted better because of the outdoors, but Ricky just figured it was because everyone was so hungry for real food.
Even after the late lunch there was a ton of work to do. More water to get, and Dad had to show the boys how to build a proper fire, which was kinda cool. You build a tiny little one with splinters, and then add bigger and bigger bits until you can put the full size chunks of wood on the fire. The little boys were given the chore of finding firewood. Dad said the park rangers said you can only use dead wood, or the stuff they sell at the gate. No cutting live trees. After an hour the boys had gathered like, five sticks, so Ricky went out and found about twice as much in 15 minutes, which got him kudos from Dad, which was nice. Ricky was not often complimented by his father.
It was nearly six when they had everything set up. The fire was built, but not lit. Mom decided that they would take a walk as a family around the park to get an idea where everything was. The boys took off like banshees, while Ricky walked in front of his parents, who held hands as they walked. Yuck.
They found the washrooms, which had real toilets … Dad had told stories of having outhouses in the old days. There was one for women, which Mom said was acceptable, and one for men. Same with the showers attached to each building. The men’s’ shower was just a big room with about 6 shower positions, and no walls between, which Mom said the ladies had. Ricky wondered if it would be possible to go the entire week without showering. He was a bit shy about his scrawny body, which still hadn’t reacted to any hints of puberty.
At the end of Moose Drive they came across a big lot with a lot of tents on it, and a small cabin. The cabin had a sign reading “Ranger” and the tent area had one that said “Junior Rangers”. There were a lot of people Ricky’s age in the smaller tents, both boys and girls. Some of the girls were pretty cute, he decided, not that he would ever get up the nerve to talk to them. Mom did notice the kids were his age, and suggested that he might make friends here. Ricky just rolled his eyes … not in a million years. He couldn’t make friends, except for Lisa, back home with kids he knew for years … and here he was going to do it in a few days. Not.
They were getting hungry when they got back to the camp, so Dad had Ricky light the fire. It took a few tries, and they finally had to use a newspaper under the kindling, which Dad said was cheating, but it did get the fire going. Soon they had a good fire, and Dad said that all they had to do was wait for it to get embers going before roasting the wieners. The problem was, everyone was hungry. So they got the cook sticks out, stuck the wieners on, and then put them into the fire. Or tried to. The heat coming off the fire was too much, so you had to hold your stick in for as long as you could manage it, then pull back and cool off your hand.
Ricky was less than impressed at this method of cooking. For one thing, if you left the wiener in for too long, it turned black. Ricky was not going to eat a burnt wiener. That went onto a plate for Dad, who didn’t care, or at least he pretended not to. His second try was better, and Ricky managed to get one cooked that was fine on one side, and just started to darken on the other. He decided to eat it. He had to agree with Dad ... they did taste better than boiled wieners, even if the stove was a more civilized place to make food.
Ricky only ate one hotdog. The younger boys and Mom had two each, and Dad ate three … one he cooked and two burnt ones. Mark didn’t mind black wieners, but Paul was like Ricky and had burnt his first attempt too. Ricky filled up on his Mom’s potato salad, and especially her Deviled Eggs, which were his favourite.
Everyone was full, and then Mom brought out marshmallows. These were big ones, not the little ones you put in cocoa. You could stick one on the end of the cooking stick, and poke it in the fire. You had to be careful, because they could catch fire. Mark turned out to like them that way, and ate the ones that Paul and Ricky burned. After a few plain ones, Mom brought out some more stuff. You got two graham crackers and put Nutella on them. Then, when you got your marshmallow hot you squeezed it between the crackers and had a gooey snack that Mom called Smores. Even if the marshmallow had caught fire it was still pretty good in a Smore.
After that, Dad told some silly ghost stories, even though it was still light. Then the younger boys were sent to their sleeping bags. Ricky was allowed to stay up later, but he went to his tent a half hour later. He was tired, after everything in the day, plus Mom had crawled onto Dad’s lap and Ricky certainly didn’t want to stick around for that. He fell asleep quickly.
It had been light when Ricky fell asleep, and it was light when he woke up. Dad had said that in the North the summer nights were very short.
Soon he realized that the sun was not up, but it was still light enough to see clearly. He crawled out of the sleeping bag and pulled on his jeans and sneakers, and a clean t-shirt. Crawling out of the tent, he discovered that no one else in the camp seemed to be awake. The sun was almost visible in the sky to the east. He could hear Dad snoring gently in the big tent. Ricky was hungry, but found a couple slices of bread in the cooler. He took those and started walking away from the campsite.
It was kinda magical. The birds were singing like crazy, and as he walked down the road he saw animals. Chipmunks first, then rabbits. He started trying to not make any noise at all with his shoes, and found that he saw more and more animals. He nibbled on the bread for a bit. As he was finishing the first piece, a Blue Jay swooped down and landed on the road about five feet in front of him. It squawked twice. “You want some bread,” Ricky asked, and tore off a crust and tossed in a few inches from the bird. It grabbed the bread and flew off. Suddenly there were dozens of birds. Orioles and cardinals, finches and sparrows, all clamouring for bread. Ricky tore the second slice of bread up into little pieces and shared it out to the birds circling around him. When it was all gone, he put out his hands “That’s all there is. I know you guys are hungry, but now I am too.” Actually the one slice he had eaten had taken the edge off his hunger, and he was contented to share the other. And the birds seemed happy too, singing as they circled about him.
Ricky stopped dead. He clearly heard the voice, but there didn’t seem to be anyone around.
There is was again. He wondered if he should head back to the camp, but when the voice spoke a third time he started towards it. A couple minutes later he came to the river. There was a beaver at the other side. It turned and looked at him, and then went back to gnawing on the stump he was working on. Ricky, a city boy, didn’t know that this was highly unusual for a beaver. Most would slap their tails and go into the water at the approach of a predator. Clearly this one did not see Ricky as a predator.
The voice was close now. It seemed to come from the river itself. It seemed to want him to get into the river.
Ricky sat down and took off his shoes and socks, then stuck his feet into the water. It was icy cold, and he quickly stepped back.
“No way, it is too cold.”
Ricky put his feet back in, and found the chill was gone. The water was nearly warm.
“Okay, okay. Give me a second.” Ricky took off his jeans, shorts and shirt, and then walked into the river completely naked. For a second it was freezing cold, and then it seemed to warm up.
Ricky waded out towards the middle of the river. Soon he was up to his neck. “I’m not coming any further,” he told the voice. Instead he just stood in the middle of the river, watching the beaver. A few minutes later, another beaver swam by, pushing a branch. Ricky was able to reach out and touch it, and did. The animal didn’t flinch, and Ricky was amazed at how soft the fur was. As he stood in the water, with even his chin below the surface, more and more wildlife appeared.
A bull moose with a massive rack came and stood next to Ricky’s discarded clothes. “Don’t poop on them, don’t poop on them,” Ricky whispered, but the huge animal merely sniffed his jeans, and then walked to the edge of the water, splaying his spindly long front legs and drinking deeply from the river. Ricky stood in the water a long time, watching different animals come drink. Once the beaver on shore stopped and looked, sniffing in the air. A second later it jumped into the water and swam deep, slapping its tail loudly as it did. Seconds later five full grown wolves appeared at the water’s edge and looked around. They stared at Ricky for a moment, and then ignored him. A moment later five pups appeared, as cute as any puppy the boy had ever seen: their parents, not so much. They were two to three times the size of German Shepherds and had huge teeth. “What big teeth you have, Grandma,” Ricky giggled to himself. Soon they had drank their fill and moved off, and slowly the other animals came back.
Ricky heard a gasp behind him and turned to see a girl standing on the shore a few feet from him jeans. “Are you okay?” she said. It was one of the pretty girls from the Junior Rangers.
“Yeah. I’m just chillin’” he said, then mentally cursed himself for such a lame line.
“Isn’t it cold,” she asked.
“No. I’ve been in here” he looked at the sun, which was now low in the sky “for a couple hours, I guess.”
“Hang on, I’m coming in,” she said, kicking off her shoes and socks. She was wearing shorts that showed off her pretty legs, and waded into the water, and then rushed back out with a shriek that caused birds to fly off from the trees.
“That’s cold,” she said. “Freezing. The water comes from the mountains up north. It is always icy cold. How do you do it?”
“I dunno. It was cold for me too when I first got in. Now it feels fine.”
She tried again, and managed to get a few steps into the water before jumping back out. “It is still freezing to me. You must be an ice man or something. Are you human?”
“Yes, I’m just a normal boy.”
“A boy … I wasn’t sure. I can’t even tell how long your hair is, as deep as you are. Do you wanna come out and talk?”
“Uhm, I really can’t,” Ricky said, looking at his clothes sitting on the bank. She looked at them then giggled. “Of course not. I’ll turn around and promise not to peek.”
She turned her back to him, and after a second Ricky decided to try to wade out. He slowly walked towards her and she didn’t turn as he pulled his shorts on, then his pants. “There,” he said as he pulled the t-shirt on.
“You are a boy,” she said with a smile as he pulled on his t-shirt. “I wondered if you were some kind of fairy or something.”
“Well, I’ve been called that before,” he said sadly.
She got embarrassed when she saw the double meaning, and apologized. “Well, I like you. I’m Gina, what’s your name?”
“River.” It was the voice again.
“Did you hear that?” Ricky said.
“River. There was a voice that said ‘River’. It called me here this morning.”
“I come here in the morning a lot,” she said as they started putting their shoes back on. “Sometimes you can see animals come to drink.”
“Yeah, I saw a lot this morning. Wolves, beaver, deer, a moose.”
“No way! I’ve never seen a moose here.”
“It was right here. Look, I think that is its track.” He pointed to hoof marks a few feet away.
“You are right. That is a moose. And you saw her?”
“Him, I think. Only the males have horns, right?”
“Yes. Oh wow. I have only seen one from maybe a mile away, and you were right next to it?”
“Well, I was out in the river. But I did get close enough to touch a beaver swimming by with a big stick.”
“Okay, now you are bullshitting me. You can’t touch a wild beaver. If you were close enough to touch, it would have taken a chunk out of your arm.”
“Well I did. “Freeze!” he ordered suddenly. “Turn around very slowly. Look.” There were three deer standing in the clearing on the bank: a doe and two fauns.
“Wow,” she whispered. “I’ve never been this close to one before. Usually I see them on the other side of the river.”
Ricky put out his hand, and the doe slowly and hesitantly walked closer. Gina gasped, and the deer froze and seemed about to dart away.
Then Ricky made a noise he had never made before, something between a humming and singing. The deer started moving closer until it was inches away from his hand. He reached out and stroked the deer’s back, continuing his song. Tentatively Gina reached out and slowly stroked the doe, and it seemed to like it.
A minute later they were cuddling the fawns, with Momma looking proudly on. “This one is female,” Gina said, “Yours is male. See the difference in the pattern of their markings.” The doe nudged Gina.
“I think we need to let them drink,” Ricky said. They let the fawns loose, and the doe led them to the water.
“That was incredible,” Gina said, tightly hugging Ricky. “You have to bring me back here. Where did you learn to make that noise.”
“I don’t know,” Ricky admitted. “That is the first time I ever did it. It seemed to calm them down, though, didn’t it.”
“It sure did. Look, I have to get to work. What are you doing today?”
“I dunno. We just got in. I think I am free. Why?”
“Why don’t you come out with us? Gail is my partner in the JRs. Wayne is our leader. He’s a good guy, and will let you come, I think.”
“What are the Junior Rangers?”
“They started them when they reopened the camp a couple years ago. They pick 12 students going into high school in town, and we work out here for the whole summer. It was something to patch up relations with the town after the troubles from the closing of the old park. They only pay us $20 a week, and only in park store credit, but it is a great experience. Each year four get called back the next year as Rangers, and you get a real pay for that. I don’t think you would get any money, but if you want to hang with us, I think you can.”
“I’d have to ask my parents,” Ricky said.
“And I’ll have to check with Wayne, our leader. Come by our tents before nine if you want to hang out.”
“Sure.” They were at the entrance to Moose Drive, so Ricky headed towards his campsite while Gina went towards the Ranger station.
Ricky got into camp to the smell of breakfast cooking on the grill. Mom had bacon, eggs and sausage cooking, and Ricky and Dad each took large platefuls.
“Where you been, son?” Dad asked.
“Down by the river,” Ricky said. He decided not to mention getting into it. “If you get up early enough you can see the animals coming to drink. I saw deer, moose, beaver, and wolves. And a girl.”
“What, a girl drinking at the river?”
Ricky laughed. “No, one of the junior rangers came down to see the animals. We saw three deer. A momma and two babies.”
“Fawns,” Dad said.
“Yes. Anyway, the girl, Gina, said I might be able to go out with the junior rangers today. Can I?”
“A girl?” Mom said from where she was making a second helping of breakfast for the boys who were starting to move about in their tent. “I don’t know if I like you running around with a girl.”
“Mom,” Ricky whined. “It won’t be just us. There are 12 junior rangers, and they work in pairs or bigger groups. Gina’s partner is Gail.”
“Well, okay. When do you go?”
“What time is it?”
“Ten to nine.”
“I gotta go,” Ricky said, dropping his plate and dashing off to the ranger station.
Gina saw him some running down the road. She was standing next to a taller, thin girl who was pretty, although not to Gina’s standard. Gina waved him over.
“Gail, this is River. River, this is Gail.” Ricky was confused about the introduction and realized he had never actually told Gina his name. He was about to correct her when she grabbed his arm and dragged him over to a husky native man.
“Wayne, this is River. I was telling you about him. His folks say he can come along. Right, River?”
“Yeah, but ...”
“Come on then,” she said, pulling him back to a pickup truck. “We are planting pine seedlings today. It is pretty hard work, but it will help reforest some of the area that was cut down by loggers before the First Nations took back the land. Gail and I are one team, and you can join with us. Leean and Hailey are another team, and Mike and Bob here. The other guys will be in the other truck. Guys: this is River.”
Ricky just gave up on the name. He could be River for the next week. It would be too confusing to straighten it out now.
Minutes later the two pickups took off with three in each cab, and four in the back, five in Ricky’s truck. The two trucks split up at a crossroad, and every couple minutes another two people hopped out with a field of several acres that they needed to seed by the end of the day.
Gina and Gail had done seeding before, and they showed Ricky how to do it: walking in a roughly straight line, and then stopping every 20 paces and using a special tool to make a cut in the soil and then drop a four inch seedling into the slot, tamping it down with a boot. Each of them had two big bags of seedlings. They would walk away from the road for one bag, and then come back on the other. By the time they were back at the road, the truck drivers would have returned with more bags of seedlings.
The work was hard. The sun got higher into the sky and it got hotter. Mosquitoes usually are the worst part of the job, but today there didn’t seem to be any. Time went faster because the three were able to chat, with Ricky telling the girls about life in Toronto, while they explained the simpler life in the North. The three were on their third set of seedlings, the last ones before lunch break and were at the end of the first bag of that set, ready to turn around when Ricky heard a roar in the distance.
“Bear,” Gina said.
“Where,” Gail asked.
“Over there,” Ricky finally said as he spotted the bear, pacing by a tree in an agitated state. “Something’s wrong.” He started walking towards the bear.
“Stop, River,” Gina said. “Never go near a bear. Especially one that is upset.”
“Look, there is a cub.” You could hardly see the fluff of black against a tree. “It looks like it is stuck to that tree somehow.” Ricky said.
“Gail, can you run off and get Wayne?” Gina asked. Gail had been telling us that she was a competitive cross-country runner earlier. “River and I will watch from here.”
“Okay. Don’t get any closer.” Gail turned and started running towards the road at a good pace.
“Help.” It was the river’s voice. Ricky paused a second, and then started towards the bears.
“River, stop,” Gina screamed. “You can’t go near a bear in distress, especially about her cubs.”
“You stay here,” Ricky said. “I have to help.”
Gina hesitated, but Ricky continued to walk towards the bear. She followed slowly, walking about half as fast as his rapid pace. When he was about 100 yards away, and she was 250, the bear turned and looked at them, rearing up on her rear feet and roaring threateningly.
This stopped even Ricky for a second, until he heard the River voice again. “Sing.”
Ricky started the humming-song he had first used on the deer, and the bear seemed to settle down. He started walking again, right towards the bear. She dropped to all fours, and stopped growling, and soon he was close enough that she could sniff him. After that, she looked at her cub, and Ricky ruffled the hair on the back of her head and headed towards the little bear. Gina, who had stopped about 50 yards away, just stared in amazement.
Ricky got to the cub and discovered that it was an old fence post that had been nailed to the tree. The top had gotten loose, but it was still tightly fixed at the bottom. The cub must have been playing around it, and had gotten a paw wedged in between the tree and the metal post. Her paw was bent at an unnatural angle.
Ricky lifted the cub up as high as he could, and then was able to get the cub paw free. He set the cub down next to its mother, who poked her snout at the cub lovingly. Ricky looked at the fence support and heard the River say “Wrong.”
Ricky grabbed the fence post and pulled. At first it didn’t move, but then Ricky felt power flowing into his body from the earth and finally he felt the nails holding the fence loosen and he pulled the metal bar free from the tree.
He tossed the steel post and it landed a few feet away from Gina. Ricky was amazed ... he had tossed the bar nearly 40 yards. “Can you take that?” he asked Gina. It is ‘wrong’ out here.
“S ... sure,” Gina said hesitatingly. “Is the cub okay?”
“No. I think the paw is broken.”
“Oh, no. A wild animal won’t survive that.”
“Come.” It was the river voice again.
“I know,” Ricky said. “The river will cure him.” He reached down and picked the cub up. The mother looked on, and then trotted after Ricky as he walked towards Gina. She froze.
“Don’t worry. She knows we are helping. As long as I keep singing, she won’t hurt us.” Ricky had been singing, except when speaking, the entire time. He passed Gina, and the big bear followed, so close that she could touch it. She did so, and the bear looked at her for a second, making a deep purring sound and then it hurried off after Ricky. Gina was nearly paralyzed with fear and awe, but broke free and started following the big bear, hurrying to catch up to ‘River’. There is an old northern joke that says that one doesn’t have to outrun a bear, you just have to outrun the other person with you. She didn’t want to be behind the bear, no matter how docile it seemed now.
It took about 20 minutes to get back to the road where they saw the truck already parked. Wayne and Gail were standing on the road, mouths wide open, and the two teens, and the two bears slowly walked towards them. As they got closer, Wayne went to the cab of the truck and came back with a gun.
“Don’t shoot,” Gina yelled, running towards them now. “We are helping them.”
“Put down the tailgate,” Ricky yelled. “We need to take them to the river.” Gina dropped the steel rod she was carrying in the back, and then let down the tailgate.
“You girls … into the cab. NOW!” Wayne ordered as he moved to put the truck between the bear and himself. There was real fear in his voice, tinged with wonder. Meanwhile Ricky awkwardly got up onto the tailgate, and then swung himself into the truck without jarring his precious load. The mother bear stopped at the tailgate, hesitating for several seconds. Then she rose up on her hind legs and put her front legs onto the truck bed. A second later she had nestled into position, watching Ricky and her cub as they sat in the front of the bed, on the passenger side.
Inside, Gail was watching out the window at her new friend, holding the cute, but clearly damaged bear cub. Gina told Wayne to hurry and take them to the River, about a half mile away. He finally snapped out of his amazed semi-trance, and put the truck into gear.
A minute or so later they were at the river. It was a different place from where Ricky had visited at dawn, but it was the same river. All through the trip over he heard the River saying “Come” and it started to sound like a song, mixed in with the one that he was singing to pacify the bear.
Ricky realized that his song was like a painkiller to the cub, dulling the massive pain that it would feel otherwise. When he stopped singing to talk, he could feel the pain rising in the animal, so he spoke as little as he could.
At the river there was no question about stripping. He managed to kick off his shoes between the gravel of the road and the bank of the river but he just waded in. The cold only hit for a second, and then he could feel the warmth of the river. He walked out towards the middle and soon was chest high in the water. He held the cub so its mouth was out of the water, and he felt the warmth building within him feed into the damaged paw of the cub.
Meanwhile, momma bear was pacing along the bank of the river, watching her cub intently, but willing to do nothing as long as Ricky’s song continued. For a moment the three in the truck sat in the cab, but then Gina popped open her door and went over to the big bear. Wayne yelled at her to come back, but she ignored him. She rubbed the bear’s fur, and the beast purred again and stopped pacing, while never stopping her intense stare of her cub in the river.
Finally Gail and then Wayne came out. Gail went to the bear, and also started to rub its fur. The petting by the girls seemed to calm the beast. Wayne stayed closer to the truck, holding his gun.
For nearly an hour nothing seemed to happen, although Ricky knew that the River was curing the broken paw of the cub. The River spoke to him, and told him that it could cure things at different times. It cryptically claimed that it was curing him, but didn’t explain how. Ricky didn’t realize what needed curing in him. Finally he felt an end to the river’s power feeding through him into the cub, and he walked out of the water, holding the dripping cub. He placed the cub down on the ground, and it tentatively, and then surely gambolled over towards its mother. In a few minutes, the cub was rolling on the ground, playing with the two excited girls as its mother watched calmly.
“Put the gun away, and come over here,” Ricky told Wayne. “She wants to meet you.”
“The bear is my spirit animal,” Wayne said in almost a whisper. He reached out and stroked the fur of the bear, and it turned and nuzzled his face, finally licking his chin.
They stood and played with the bears for 15 minutes or so, while Ricky’s clothes dried a bit in the warm noon sun. Wayne just stood with his hand on the back of the mother, while the two girls and the cub played together.
“She is glad that the girls are playing with her little one,” Wayne intoned. “She had twins but one was born deformed, and she had to kill it. She mourns it to this day, and feels its loss. This cub, Wawansoh, has no playmates, so Hamsora, the mother, is glad that she can play today with these girls. She says that now they have to go hunt. She wishes to thank River.
With that the bear walked up to Ricky and reared up onto its hind legs, placing a forepaw on each shoulder. It then licked his face as it had Wayne’s. It then dropped back down, and ambled 20 yards away. The cub looked over at its mother, and then back at the girls sitting on the grass, and clearly was torn. Hamsora roared out a command, and little Wawansoh ambled off after her, looking back at his new playmates sorrowfully.
“That. Was. Amazing,” Gina said.
“So cool. Thanks River,” Gail added.
“Come on, we need to get back to camp. Lunch hour will be over,” Wayne said. “Can you girls sit in the back? I need to talk to River.”
Ricky got into the cab with the First Nations man. “I need to thank you for today,” he said. “My spirit animal has been the bear since my manhood ceremony eight years ago. But until today I never really was connected to one. I was actually able to talk to Hamsora? She told me much in a short time, and I hope to see her again.”
“She might not be so docile when I am not singing,” Ricky warned.
“She told me she now is kin to us, and will come when I call her. She taught me a song too. I would sing it for you now, but she is too close and would hear it and come.”
“What do you mean she is kin to us?”
“We are brothers now,” Wayne announced. “I will change my true name to Wayne Bearspeaker, and you will be River Bearspeaker among the people. You may be the first of the people to have yellow hair, though,” he said, tousling Ricky’s blonde locks. “The important thing is that you and I are now brothers, since Hamsora has kissed us both. I will need to convince the elders that you are now one of the people. I will do that this afternoon. Tomorrow is Sunday, and the junior rangers get the day off. Most of them head home to see their parents. I will see if some of the elders can see you then, if you have the time.”
“Sure, I think so. It will be cool to meet some real Indians.”
“First Nations Peoples, or just the people,” Wayne corrected. “We don’t like the term Indians. We are not from India.”
“No problem.” With that the truck pulled into camp where the other juniors had finished eating and were starting to worry about the four of them. Wayne stood and made an announcement. “I will leave the story about what delayed us to the girls, and River, to tell. I just want to announce that I am giving everyone the afternoon off. We can finish the seedlings on Monday. There are some things that I need to do.”
With that, he strode off, leaving the camp in a joyous uproar. Some kids immediately headed to the office so they could call home on the landline and let parents know that they could be picked up for the weekend early. Most clustered around Gail and Gina who were excitedly telling the story about the bears. Ricky stood to the side, adding points here and there.
It was two hours before things calmed down, and Gina and Gail realized that the three of them hadn’t eaten. The kitchen was closed, so Ricky suggest that they wander down to his campsite and see if Mom could feed them.
Mrs. Waters was relaxing in an easy chair, snoozing peacefully when he heard three girls approaching. She opened her eyes to see the three approaching: a stunning brunette, a tall, slender redhead, and a pretty blonde. Then she focussed again, and realized that the blonde was not a girl at all, but her son. When had his hair gotten so long? It was well over his ears.
“Hi Mom,” Ricky said. “This is Gina, and Gail, my work team from the junior rangers. I wondered if you could feed us. We had some adventures this morning, and missed out on lunch, and they closed everything early down there.”
As she made some sandwiches for the three, the girls gleefully explained what those adventures were, talking nearly non-stop. It wasn’t until she was able to get a sandwich into each mouth that she got a chance to speak.
“This all sounds amazing, but who is this River who was doing all this,” she asked innocently.
Ricky nearly choked on his sandwich. Finally, he explained the name confusion and that he was River.
“Oh my gosh. I am sorry River … I mean Ricky,” Gina apologized.
“Don’t … I kinda like the name River,” Ricky said. “I’d like to keep that name. Anyway, Wayne said it was going to be my First Nations name. Is it okay if some elders come by tomorrow, Mom? Wayne seems to think they will want to meet me.”
“I guess so. Your dad is down by the river fishing. You can ask him. If he catches anything, we can treat your new friends to dinner too.”
“Cool, let’s go find him,” Ricky said to the girls, and they ran off giggling. From the back it looked like three girls again to Mrs. Waters. She stared as she watched them out of sight, and then cleared up the mess from the late lunch.
At the river bank where Ricky had greeted the dawn there was no sign of Mr. Waters. But Ricky put his hand into the water, and the river told him where to find his father.
“He is down this way a bit,” Ricky said, leading the girls.
“How did you do … never mind,” Gina said as they followed him down river.
“Any luck Dad,” Ricky said as they got closer to him. He and two other older men were fishing and gossiping.
“Ricky? What happened to your hair? You are starting to look like a girl,” Dad said.
“Yeah, I’ll have to get a cut when we get back. It is really growing fast up here. Any fish?”
“No, a wasted day,” Mr Waters said. “We were all talking about going back soon.”
“Can I try?”
“You? You always hated fishing. You would never want to bait the hooks, or take the hooks out of the fish.”
“I’m not going to use bait,” Ricky said. “A new friend taught me a different way to fish, and I want to try it. The only rule is, you have to clean the fish I catch.” Ricky sat down taking off his shoes and socks and rolling up his jeans.
“No fish in this river,” one of Mr. Water’s companions said, a bit upset that the boy was wading into the fishing area.
“Not anymore,” the other said, as Ricky waded into the water, with his dad’s wicker creel on his hip. Both the other men started to pack up their gear.
Ricky, meanwhile, was knee deep in the gravel shoals at this bend in the river. He called the trout out from where they were lazing in the warm sun, and soon there were several dozen swimming around his legs, although they couldn’t be seen from shore.
Ricky looked at the fish, and the river told him which ones to avoid, too small or too old. He saw one big one and put his hands into the water. The fish swam between his hands, and Ricky snatched at it, cleanly grabbing it and popping it into the creel.
“He caught one,” he heard Gina sing out in delight as she danced on the bank. “He caught one.”
“Well I’ll be damned,” one of the men said. “I’ve never seen that done like that. Who taught you how to do that?”
“A bear friend of mine,” Ricky said as he plucked another large fish from the water. He was able to get a fish every 20 to 30 seconds, and soon had a full creel. He waded back to shore and put the fresh fish out on the grass. None were flopping … as he pulled them from the river, it had killed them so they didn’t suffer the trauma of death on the shore.
“The limit is six,” Mr. Waters said, counting the 10 fish. “Do you fellows want the extra?”
“Sure thing,” they both said, each taking two of the four smaller fish and putting them into their own creels.
The group walked back to the campsite, with the other men branching off to their own sites. Ricky, Dad, and the two girls were soon at the Waters site. Gail was a bit shy in front of Ricky’s father, but Gina was extremely outgoing, and was soon telling Mr. Waters about all their adventures from the day. Back at the camp she helped Mr. Waters clean the fish. Gail and Ricky helped set up for the meal, while Mrs Waters drove down to the park store to buy some supplies, and get ice. Even with the two girls for company, they wouldn’t be able to eat all six fish.
When she got back, the fish were cleaned and were waiting until a fire was ready to grill them. She had gotten a dozen cobs of corn from the store as well, so Ricky and the girls husked the corn, they made some Smores as they waited for the fire to die down to embers, and this soon lured Mark and Paul back to the site. Eventually the fire was down to coals, and three large cleaned fish were placed on a huge cast iron fry pan that Mr. Waters had found at a yard sale a few months ago. The pan had brought back his memories of the camp, and led to this entire trip. Corn was dropped into a pot of water boiling on the grill, and soon there was a delicious feast.
Ricky liked corn on the cob, but had never been much of a fish eater. But the smells coming from the fry pan had wakened a new yearning in him, and he found that the fresh fried fish was the tastiest thing he ever had eaten. The corn just topped off a wonderful meal.
The seven of them filled up on the 12 corn and three fish, and there was still some fish left over when a strange car pulled into the lot. It was Gail’s parents, who were taking Gail and Gina back into town. Each took a small taste of fish, and became friends-for-life with Mr. Waters after they savoured the tasty dish. For a minute the girls were hesitant to leave their new friend, and an invitation was made for Ricky to come to town with them, until Gina remembered that Wayne had something planned for Sunday with the Waters. The girls left, promising to see Ricky on Monday morning.
“Well, this has been an interesting start to the vacation,” Mom noted. “Those girls seem to be really nice.”
“Ricky’s got a girlfriend. Ricky’s got a girlfriend,” Mark chanted.
“More like two girlfriends,” Dad teased. “Although Gail seems to be several inches taller than you, son. The other is a real looker, though.”
“Dale,” Mom shouted. “She is 14. You do not notice when 14-years-olds are attractive. Understand!”
“Yes ma’am,” a chastised Dad replied.
“They are friends, not girlfriends,” Ricky protested. At the same time, he did think that Gina was the cutest girl he had ever met. Lisa, his friend back in Toronto was more than a little chubby, but Gina looked like a movie star or something.
The next morning Ricky was awake even earlier than the prior day. He silently walked down to the river in the dawn twilight. Again he stripped naked, and walked into the river. This time there wasn’t even a bit of chill: the water seemed warm as soon as he waded in. Again he walked out into the river and then watched the morning show of all the animals as they watered in the morning. The beavers were hard at work on the far shore, and he studied how they gnawed the wood down on the birch trees until they finally snapped and fell. His friend the moose returned, and a short time later a female moose appeared with a gangly young moose, which still seemed to be taller than he was. Several deer appeared at different times: Ricky felt he recognized the ones he and Gina had petted the day before.
“It is time,” the river finally told him, and he waded back to the riverbank. It only seemed to take a minute or two for the water to drip dry off of him, and he was able to get dressed again. Before leaving he reached into the warm river water and gently caressed it. “I will be back,” he said, and he felt a new warmth flood into him through his hand.
It was a bit after 9 when he got to the camp, and found breakfast was almost over. His Mom was guarding several strips of bacon from his bother and father, and cracked in two eggs as she saw him walking back. She handed him a plate as he sat down at the picnic table.
“A little,” Ricky said. “The river seems to nourish me. It also seems to make me not need very much sleep.”
Mom stared at him. “Ricky, your hair is at least two inches longer than it was yesterday. An inch I can see, but that is a good four inches in two days. What is happening?”
Ricky reached up and felt his blonde locks. They now were down to his shoulders at the sides, and longer at the back. “I dunno. Do you think the river is doing it? It says it is curing me.”
“Curing you? You mean like it cured the bear cub? But there is nothing wrong with you,” she said. “Is there?
The conversation ended when Wayne drove up in his pickup truck. Ricky finished his plate and took it over to the wash basin Mom had set up for doing dishes. Then he walked over to shake Wayne’s hand.
“Mom, Dad. Meet Wayne Beartalker. He is a member of the local First Nations People, and runs the Junior Ranger program here at the camp.”
After the Walkers greeted Wayne he spoke: “I have a couple things to mention. Did River mention that some elders were hoping to meet with you today?”
“He did,” Dad said. “And we would be greatly honoured to meet them.”
“Good. I suspect they are already on their way. I came a bit early. I got a phone call last night from the mother of Darrel Rekker, one of my junior rangers. She heard stories about JRs petting bears, and decided that the program was altogether too risky for her son, and pulled him from the program. Not much loss there. Darrel did more whining than actual work, and won’t be missed. But it leaves me with an opening on the team, and I’d like to offer it to River.”
“Oh Mom, Dad, please say yes,” Ricky went into full scale grovel mode.
“But we are only here for a week,” Dad said. “Or two,” Mom added.
“There are eight weeks left in the program,” Wayne said, “and we want a commitment for all of it. River would be well looked after. He would camp in the JR camp during the week, and would be able to stay there on Sundays, if he doesn’t get invited to the home of one of the other JRs.”
“Oh please,” River whined. “Gail’s parents already invited me to their house. I am old enough to look after myself.”
“You are definitely NOT old enough to look after yourself,” Mom said. “However, I think that if Mr Beartalker is willing to put up with you I think this would be a good experience for you. Dale?”
“Fine by me,” Dad said. “Do we need to sign those?” He pointed to several pages of paper Wayne was holding.
“Yes. Permission slips, contact information, that kind of thing.” He said as Dad and he walked over to the picnic table, with Mom following behind.
Mom turned around after giving Dad all the information about contact and medical histories to find Ricky at the wash stand, cleaning the last of the morning dishes. He was struggling over the big fry pad, scouring off the bacon bits egg remains.
“Honey, you don’t need to do that,” she said. “I was going to do it.”
“You need a vacation too,” Ricky said. “Plus I am super excited that you are letting me be a JR. I’ll even make lunch for us. If you show me how,” he added.
“No need for a lunch,” Wayne announced. “The elders will bring food for a feast.”
“Will some fish add to the pot,” Dad asked, opening the cooler to show the remaining three trout.
“Nice,” Wayne said. “You don’t often get trout like that this time of the year.”
“Those are the smaller three,” Dad boasted, telling Wayne the story of Ricky’s fishing expedition.
Soon more vehicles started to appear, mostly pickup trucks. First Nations people appeared, elders and younger, although none younger than Wayne. Dishes were brought out and placed on the picnic table, and when shown the fish, one man, somewhat older than Dad went off into the bush and started to slice twigs from willow trees. He came back, and handed a thick handful of willow wands to several of the women, who started weaving them together. Another man started making a fire in the pit, using a different technique from how Dad had done it yesterday.
Another older man lit some grass on fire, and started walking around the campsite, brushing the smoke from the grass out into different parts of the camp while two other men followed, banging on flat drums that looked a lot, to Ricky, like garbage can lids.
“He is cleansing the site,” Wayne explained to the family members. “That is sacred sweetgrass, and it will make the site ready for the rites to follow for the rest of the day.
Ricky moved away from his family and started to follow the drummers. He started singing the river’s song as they moved around the camp. In about 10 minutes the man with the grass stopped, throwing the rest of the burning grass into the fire. The drummers make several final beats, and then stopped. Ricky continued to sing, however. There were now several deer at the edge of the campsite, as well as squirrels and chipmunks. Birds were adding their song to his, including a red cardinal sitting on his shoulder.
He looked around and saw that everyone in the camp was staring at him, including the cleanser man and the drummers, who hadn’t realized who was singing the song behind them. Ricky faltered for a beat, and then continued, knowing that the animals would flee if he stopped. An ancient First Nations woman limped up to him.
“Sing on, River, sing on,” she said, taking his two hands in hers. Ricky felt warmth flowing from his hands into the woman. “I have not heard this song since I was a little girl, many winters ago. It is the Song of the River, and only can be sung by someone who is blessed by the River, and by the land. We came to this gathering to see if this woman should be allowed to join the people, and now it is clear to me that we should beg her to allow us to join her.”
With that the elderly woman dropped to her knees, “Mother River, will you allow me to join your tribe?”
The cleanser man, and the second drummer dropped to their knees and asked the same question. Seconds later everyone on the site, outside of Ricky’s family, dropped and said the same thing.
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