Second Winter: Bear Rescue
Part V in a Series — Final Episode
by Andrew Brand
By mid-January, 6 feet of pristine white smothered the forests of Northern Minnesota. Wind gusts swirled powdered snow upward atop cushions of frozen air, like a recently shaken snowglobe. Snowdrifts, like earthbound clouds, formed lopsided sculptures; some reaching nearly halfway up the trees. The majestic pines bowed under the weight of their snowy blanket.
A blanket deep as a mother’s love, Virgil Odoco thought. His gloved hands unconsciously grabbed the straps of the green canvas backpack he wore.
In the waning hours before sunrise, Virgil stood at the edge of the forest, his sights set on a bump in the snow across a small clearing. Under the mound of white, he knew, was an abandoned bear den. Wearing snowshoes, he hiked passed it reverently and continued deeper into the forest.
* * *
Virgil supposed his journey to Minnesota Bear Rescue— a shelter for injured bears and abandoned cubs— started 11 years ago, after killing his brother and two parents in an automobile accident. The ensuing 10-year depression eventually led him to the woods of Northern Minnesota, where he lived off the land. But in a more immediate sense, his journey to the Bear Rescue shelter began only three months ago. On a chilly October night, Virgil saved a lost Boy Scout, was attacked by two wolves, and then was saved by a mother bear he had befriended months before. And as if more crises were needed, he was accidentally shot by the Boy Scout’s troop leader who, much to Virgil’s horror, also shot and killed the mother bear.
Virgil spent three and a half weeks in Itasca County Hospital, paid for by the Boy Scouts of America. As his bullet wound, dislocated elbow, and wolf bites healed, Virgil continually pleaded with the doctors to allow him to go back to the forests and save the two cubs of the slain mother bear. Eventually, the Boy Scouts helped Virgil secure a meeting with Wallace Grunstein, head of Minnesota Bear Rescue.
On the day of his hospital release, Virgil returned to the Northern woods with Grunstein. They drove up in a green Jeep Cherokee with a black bear painted on each door; the letters MBR were printed in yellow under the silhouette of the bears. Grunstein parked on a small dirt path. They hiked a mile into the forest before coming upon the den. The two men walked side-by-side in the crisp November air. Fallen leaves dusted with snow crunched under their footfalls. For Virgil, being back in this wilderness felt like coming home.
“If this was the mother’s den,” Grunstein said when they reached it, “the cubs will likely still be here.”
His hardened face was kind and pragmatic. It reminded Virgil of George Washington’s face on Mount Rushmore. They walked up to the den, which was dugout near the base of a fallen oak tree. A large rock covered most of the opening. Grunstein shifted the rock to get a better look into the den. He shined in a flashlight. It was empty.
Virgil’s heart sank, as he assumed the worst, which was confirmed just 10 yards away. A mangled lump of black fur lay frozen to the ground. Virgil sobbed as he knelt next to the carcass of the young bear cub.
Grunstein stepped over to Virgil. “If the wolves hadn’t gotten this yearling cub, it just might have made it through the winter. I’ve seen smaller cubs survive. But with that den empty, I suspect the wolves got your second cub, too. Not much more we can do, Virgil. I’m sorry.”
They searched the area for an hour, but found no signs of the second cub.
While driving back to the headquarters of Minnesota Bear Rescue, Grunstein said, “Virgil, I can see you loved those bears. That’s important,” he paused. “Not sure if you have a place to stay, but there’s an empty apartment attached to the bear shelter. It’s small, but you can stay a few days. If things work out, maybe we’ll keep you on. We’re looking for help at MBR.”
Virgil decided to take him up on the offer, but not without some misgivings. As the jeep drove away from his wilderness home, he felt the claustrophobia of expectations and responsibility closing in.
Virgil did stay on at MBR. He worked as an intern, and after a month, was even given a modest salary. But it was still a job, not his home.
At Christmas, Grunstein came to Virgil with a gift. He brought the pelt of the mother bear that the Boy Scout’s troop leader had killed. He said he knew it was bittersweet, but thought if anybody should have the bearskin, it was Virgil.
Virgil said thank you then hid the skin under his bed. Seeing the pelt reminded him that the mother bear and her cubs were dead, largely because of him.
Then on a cold January night, Virgil woke with a start from a vivid dream. He had been snug inside his old forest shelter and heard a scratching sound then the wail of the cold wind outside. The words of the ghostly Chippewa Chief rang through his head. “Two more, you must save.”
Virgil had forgotten about the Chippewa Chief whom he had seen in a vision three months ago. The chief appeared when he was shot, right before losing consciousness.
He got out of bed and got dressed, and without forethought, grabbed the keys of the jeep. He was headed north, back to his home.
* * *
Wearing snowshoes that were in the jeep, Virgil trekked reverently past the abandoned bear den. A parka, gloves, and snow pants kept him warm. He brought his green backpack and carried a shovel, which he also found in the jeep.
After hiking deeper into the forest for an hour, he was back at his old shelter. Buried under 6 feet of snow, Virgil still found it easily. Even in these predawn hours, he recognized the patterns of trees and buried landmarks. He also recognized a familiar lightness this place brought to his heart. A feeling that, until now, he did not realize was happiness.
Virgil stood on the snow, atop where he knew his dug-out shelter was located— the shelter where he spent so many nights while living in this forest.
With the shovel he dug into the snow, down to the thatched branches that covered the opening to his small underground shelter. He crouched down and lifted the branches. Virgil felt a powerful urge to scoot down into the small shelter and fall asleep. Instead he just shone the flashlight into the hole and peered in. There, snuggled into the tattered remains of his old hunting suit, the bear cub— his bear cub— was hibernating.
The relief of seeing that young bear alive called forth great tears of joy. The Chippewa Chief told him there were two more he must save. He failed one cub, but not this one. It was alive because it found Virgil’s shelter.
He unzipped the backpack and pulled out the pelt of the mother bear. He stuffed the bearskin into the hole pushing it next to the hibernating cub. The cub did not move except for its slow somnolent breathing.
Virgil replaced the branches and covered up the den with snow. He hiked away with a lightness that he was still not used to. As Virgil made the journey back to the Bear Rescue jeep, he realized the Chippewa Chief had been right after all. There were two more to save. The yearling cub. And himself.
Virgil Odoco drove back to Minnesota Bear Rescue with a tired smile. It may take some time to get used to, he thought, but the Bear Rescue was his new home.
This is the final part to a 5 part story.
If you missed part I - "Winter: The Deer: go here
If you missed part II - "Spring: The Wolf" go here
If you missed part III - "Summer: The Bear" go here
If you missed part IV - "Autumn: The Boy" go here
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