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pierre girard

Passing of the Best

Rating: 2 votes, 5.00 average.

My Uncle John is dying. My father went to see him today. I looked at my work schedule and took off tomorrow – today there just wasn't anyone to cover. I just spoke to my father on the phone, and he said Uncle John might not be around tomorrow. I hope he is, but I'm dreading the visit.

The Uncle John of my childhood memories was always a hale and hardy soul. It will be hard to see him Bluff and gruff at times, he was a hard worker, and a perfectionist. "Any job worth doing, is worth doing right." I heard it a million times. Yet, get him in the woods, and he was the best of companions. The cares of being in the workaday world fell away, and his sweet nature shown through. We nephews were very young when we began going on these trips. Of all the uncles, he was the one who would spend the extra time teaching you how to tie a knot, build a fire, or stalk game. Once, when I was shivering and shaking, in a cold wet canoe, he took off his socks and put them over my shoes, to help keep me warm.

Uncle John was in the Navy, during WWII. He never spoke about it. He started working at a greenhouse when he was in high school, and returned after the war and worked there until he retired, becoming part-owner. He could grow anything.

Uncle John had no sons, only daughters. It may be that our fishing and camping trips were a chance for him to enjoy, in his nephews, the sons he never had. It was always Uncle John who came to our kid's tent, after we'd bedded down, and scratched on the outside of the tent and growled like a bear. As the years went by, we got over our fright, yet somehow anticipated his coming.

One year, we went up the Ash River Trail to Kabetogama. The women were along for once, and we stayed at a normal campground – an unusual experience for us. It was someone's birthday, and we had a cake along. As it got dark, and we sat around the fire, Uncle John, who had a notorious sweet tooth, was guarding the cake, telling all of the kids we had to wait. As he sat at the picnic table, he realized someone had sat down beside him and was eating the cake. Somewhat upset, as he reached for a head full of hair, he said, "I thought I told you kids…!" That was all he said.

A young black bear, probably about 250 pounds, had sat beside him and was eating the cake. Uncle John had the bear by the ear, but not for long. With a terrible yell, Uncle John jumped up, surprised out of his wits. This scared the bear, who also gave a loud "HUHH!" and jumped up, becoming entangled in the table. The most surprising thing was – Uncle John had the presence of mind to grab the cake before it fell to the ground. He sure liked cake.

We were out blueberry picking, when Uncle John, bent over, was working his way around a particularly nice high bush blueberry plant, when he ran headfirst into a bear - who was also bent down and working his way around the bush. They each gave a howl and ran in opposite directions.

Another time, we went across Clearwater West and into otter and Grey Trout by canoe. We dragged the canoes across sluices from the logging days and set up on the far side of Grey Trout. We caught fish until we could hardly lift our rods. Back at camp, we cooked a big meal, then sat around the fire, joking and singing. It was the best of times.

As the night grew dark, we nephews were told "Sack time!" and off to our tent we went. We'd had a great day, and we talked and laughed in our bed rolls for quite a while, good natured threats from the men ignored.
We finally settled down. The men were in their tent, and someone was snoring (probably my father – he could sleep anywhere). We started to hear some rattling around the campsite, and we said to each other, in anticipation, "Here comes Uncle John, pretending to be a bear." Sure enough, the slight noises soon worked their way over to the rear of our tent. The scratching began above my head and I said, "Uncle John, we know it's youUUUUU!" My statement ended with a howl as the bear, for it was a bear, sliced through the tent fabric, and the bear entered the tent. We kids were screaming and hollering, and running over each other trying to get out of the tent. The bear, alarmed by all the noise he'd caused, was attempting to get out as well. My youngest brother, Tommy, quite young at the time, kept getting up and being knocked over by one of us. Finally, we were all out except Tommy, who kept wailing, even after the bear left. Thus began the "Night of the Burning Bear Massacre."

The bears, for there were several of them, kept us up all night. We took turns watching the fire and keeping the bears away from our food. I sat up on a log with Uncle John for two hours, both of us getting sleepier and sleepier, as we talked about bear stories, the woods, and family legends. When we were in quite a somnambulant state, a large stack of coolers, and other kitchen gear, began to make its way across the campsite just at the edge of vision in the flickering light of the campfire. We watched it for what seemed like several minutes, though it was likely seconds, before Uncle John shook off the cobwebs and yelling, "A Bear!" jumped up and grabbed the pile of coolers out of the bear's grasp. Being a black bear, in the night, we hadn't seen him, just the white coolers.

It was a wild night. There are many stories associated with it, but just now I remember the quiet time we spent talking, Uncle John and I, as we sat on the log and fed the fire.



  1. MagiKelly's Avatar
    This reminds me of John who was a member here. Always an active man who stalked, bow hunted as well as canoeing and horse riding. As John got progressively worse with motor neuron disease it was heartbreaking to visit him. All I could think of was how this active man was struck down and wasting away when the were people fit and healthy who hardly moved from their sofas.

    It at least sounds as if your Uncle John has had a full life. While his illness now is sad it is at least not a tragedy. I hope you get the chance for at least one last visit. While it may be hard for you I am sure it will bring him pleasure.
  2. pierre girard's Avatar
    We had a visit. Mostly spoke with my aunt. John was in and out of consciousness. He died 9:30 PM, February 10, 2012. RIP, Uncle John.
  3. RayGoodwin's Avatar
    Thank you for posting this. It both moved me and had me chuckling.

    My kind regards