Bear hunt

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABear hunt

Remembering Dave Wade: A tribute delivered at his Celebration of Life Service, August 26, 2014

Dave Wade was the best and closest friend I have had in my life. His friendship was so precious to me, and his passing was so hard for me, that I struggled with what I was going to say today at this Celebration of Life gathering.

Then, while driving the 400 miles to be here today, I had an epiphany. The message of what to say came to me, clear as a bell: The Muppet Movie.

Now, I say with some confidence that this is the first time the word “Muppet” has ever been used as a descriptor of Dave Wade. And if memories and stories of Dave go on for another 100 years, I am confident this will be the only time the word “Muppet” is used in connection with him. Dave was not very Muppet-like.

But there is a song in The Muppet Movie, titled I’m Going to Go Back There Some Day, that includes the lyrics, “There’s not a word yet/ For old friends who’ve just met.”

That was exactly how I felt the day I met Dave, and that feeling of immediate friendship with him was one of the greatest things that happened to me in this lifetime. Our heart-to-heart relationship remained strong and unwavering through all the years since that first day we met, 39 years ago in August 1975.

I was in my first week as editor of The Creighton News and went to interview Dave for a pre-season write-up about the high school football season. When I walked onto the football practice field, no one had to tell me who was the head coach. Dave was the iconic image of a high school football coach: big, burly, rugged, square-jawed, rippling with muscles, full of energy, red-headed Irish, and needing a shave. I expected the worst, but in the course of the interview I discovered he was also intelligent, well-spoken, thoughtful, analytical, witty, well-read, and most important, welcoming.

Over the course of our friendship I learned he had lots of other attributes – some beneficial, some detrimental, and all fascinating and exciting. I didn’t know how I could tell you about my relationship with Dave in a short talk at this gathering, so I decided to share a story about the first real hunting trip that we made together, a bear hunt in Canada.

This was Dave’s second bear hunt in the English River area of Ontario, but it was my first and I was a little nervous, in part because it was also my first hunt under Dave’s leadership. We left Creighton the last day of the school year in May, as soon as Dave could get checked out of his school room and get his gear laid out on the front porch of his house. When I drove up in my Chevy pickup, Dave was waiting for me, dressed in a leather jerkin over a muslin shirt, a big, floppy, black felt hat, and on his feet he had a pair of well-worn moccasins. Thank God he was wearing blue jeans, or I would have been sure I’d been catapulted through a time warp into the 18th century.

His gear also had an 18th century look: buffalo hide gun sleeve, three or four crudely made wooden boxes with brass hardware, canvas tarp for a tent, buffalo robe for a sleeping bag. We stashed it all, with my more modern gear, in the box of my pickup, which had a homemade wood-and-canvas topper. We hoisted Dave’s 200-pound, beat-up fiberglass canoe on top, and lashed it in place with some frayed rope and a lot of duct tape. Then we were off.

It is a long, long drive from Nebraska to Ontario, probably 800 miles in those days, and when we reached the border crossing at International Falls, Minnesota, it must have been 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning, pitch dark. We had been on the road 12 hours, surviving on coffee, Dave’s stock of homemade venison jerky and my stock of Hostess fruit pies. We probably looked a little ragged.

Dave and I became quite dapper and debonair in our senior years, but on this bear hunt 38 years ago we had a different appearance. I had collar-length blond hair and a red beard. Dave, with his red hair in wild tufts sticking out in all directions, sporting two-day’s growth of red beard, and dressed in his colonial era hunter’s outfit, must have looked like an 18th century Irish secret agent gone rogue to infiltrate Canada and subvert the British government. I suspect we were also both a bit red-eyed and bad-smelling after 12 hours in the cab of a pickup.

Although U.S.-Canada border crossings were pretty relaxed and informal in those days, our appearance probably unnerved the Canadian border guard, a husky young women in her twenties, when she stepped from the booth to fill out our visitor visas. It was at 4 a.m., raining lightly, and my pickup had a small hole in the muffler. Well, maybe a large hole in the muffler.

I rolled down my window to speak with her.

“Would you please turn off your engine, sir?”

I turned off my engine.

“Why are you entering Canada?”

“We’re going bear hunting.”

“What is your point of destination?”

“A camp on the English River near Ear Falls.”

“How many days will you be in Canada?”

“Five days.”

“And you will be hunting?”

“Yes.”

“Do you have a firearm in the vehicle?”

“Yes, a .30-06 rifle.”

“May I see that rifle, please?”

I got out of the truck, lowered the tailgate, pulled out my gun case, opened it, and she inspected my bolt-action rifle. She wrote the rifle’s serial number on an official-looking form and had me sign it.

“Do you have any other weapons, sir?”

“No.”

She turned to Dave.

“Do you have a firearm in this vehicle, sir?”

“Yes, I do.” Dave found his buffalo-hide gun sleeve, untied its flap, and pulled out a muzzle-loading .58 caliber percussion-cap rifle. Dave made his own muzzle-loader rifles, and in those early days of his guncraft his creations were not graceful. This one looked like a length of steel pipe nailed to a two-by-four. The border guard inspected it with some consternation.

“This is your rifle?”

“Yes, it’s a muzzle-loader.”

“I see. What is its serial number?”

“It doesn’t have a serial number.”

“No serial number? Where did you get this rifle, sir?”

“Made it myself.”

“Hmmmm….” She wrote a brief description of the rifle on her form and had Dave sign it.

“Do you have any other weapons in this vehicle, sir?”

“No. Oh, wait.” Dave climbed into the box of the pickup, maneuvered one of his battered wooden boxes onto the tailgate, opened it, and took out a tomahawk. A huge tomahawk. Its handle was wrapped in deer hide, and hanging on rawhide thongs from the razor-sharp head were a turkey feather, a piece of elk antler, and a bear’s tooth – good luck totems for the hunt ahead. He held it up to show it to her and said, “Would this be considered a weapon?”

The border guard slowly took a few steps backward, waved her arm north toward the wilds of Canada, and said, “Why don’t you two go on through now, eh?”

We climbed back into the pickup and were on our way. I kept looking in the rearview mirrors, expecting to see the flashing red lights of a Royal Canadian Mounted Police truck chasing us down to pull us over and arrest us. Dave seemed unconcerned and was looking out the passenger side window, hoping to see the first light of sunrise.

Three or four miles down the road, Dave turned to me and said, “That border guard – did it seem to you that she was acting a little weird?”

Right then I became aware of two things. First, every hunt that I went on with Dave would very likely be a new adventure, and had great potential to be a misadventure. Second, I was going to go on hunts with Dave whenever I could.

Over the coming years on those hunts, Dave would get me almost drowned twice, half frozen to death four times, nearly struck by lightning, brained in a hail storm, tipped out of a canoe, and stampeded by buffalo. We got our pickup trucks stuck in muddy fields, ditches, bogs, sand roads, snow banks, and flooded creeks dozens of times.

Damn, we had fun.

I have several years ahead, I hope, to call up memories of Dave, especially those times I played faithful companion Chingachgook to his Hawkeye, Tonto to his Lone Ranger, and Dr. Watson to his Sherlock Holmes. Those were some of the greatest experiences of my life, even considering the times that were almost the end of my life.

But I’m going to miss sitting around sharing those memories with him, hearing that big booming laugh of his as he recounts how he got me into and out of predicaments.

I was so fortunate, so very fortunate, to call Dave my friend.

 

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About Jerry Johnson

Curmudgeon. Bird hunter and dog trainer; indifferent wing shot. Retired journalist and college public relations director. Novelist and short story writer. Freeholder: 50-acre farm with 130-year-old log house. Husband, father, grandfather. Retired teacher, coach, mentor. Vicious editor. Blogger.
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