O NE day, in a long tramp through the heavy forest that borders the Little Southwest River, I came upon a dim old road that had been bushed the previous winter and, having nothing better to do, followed it to see whither it would lead me. Other feet than mine had recently gone on the same errand, for every soft spot in the earth, every moldering log and patch of swamp moss and muddy place beside the brook, had deep footprints and claw marks to tell me that Mooween the bear had gone back and forth many times over the same trail. Then I knew what I would find at the other end of it, and was not at all surprised when it led me to the open yard of a big lumber camp beside the river.
There is always a fascination in such places, where men have lived their simple lives in the heart of the woods, shut out from all the rest of the world during the long winter; so I began to prowl quietly about the shanties to see what I could find. The door of the low stable swung invitingly open, but it was a dark, musty, ill-smelling place now, though cozy enough in winter, and only the porcupines had invaded it. I left it after a glance and came round to the men's shanty.
The door of this was firmly locked; but a big hole had been torn in the roof by bears, and I crawled in by that entrance. Mooween had been here many times ahead of me. Every corner of the big room, the bunks and the cupboards and even the stove, had been ransacked from one end to the other; and the strong, doggy smell of a bear was everywhere, showing how recently he had searched the place. Here in a corner a large tin box had been wrenched open, and flour was scattered over the floor and deacon-seat, as if a whirlwind had struck the place. Mooween was playful evidently; or perhaps he was mad that the stuff for which he had taken so much trouble was too dry to eat. The white print of one paw was drawn everywhere on the floor and walls. This was the paw of a little bear, who had undoubtedly come late, and had to be content with what the others had left.
All over the log floor some cask or vessel had been rolled about before the flour was spilled, and I knew instantly that I was on the track of the first bear that entered, the big fellow that had torn the hole in the roof and had then nosed all over the camp without disturbing anything until he found what he wanted. As the thing was rolled about under his paw the contents had been spilled liberally, and Mooween had followed it about, lapping up what he found on the floor and leaving not a single drop to tell the story; but from the flies that gathered in clusters in every sunny spot I knew that the stuff must have been sweet—molasses probably—and that Mooween, after he had eaten it all, had carried away the pail or jug to lick it clean, as bears almost invariably do when they sack a lumber camp.
Other bears had followed him into the camp and found poor pickings. One had thumped open a half barrel of pork and sampled the salty contents, and then had nosed a pile of old moccasins inquisitively. A dozen axes and peaveys had been pulled out of a barrel and thrown on the floor, to see if perchance they had hidden anything good to eat. Every pot and pan in the big cupboard had been taken out and given a lap or two to find out what they had cooked last; and one bear had stood up on his hind legs and swept off the contents of a high shelf with a sweep of his paw. Altogether it was of little use for any other bear to search the place. The camp seemed to be waiting silently for the lumbermen to come back in the fall and set things to rights.
I crawled back through the hole in the roof and began to search the big yard carefully. If Mooween had carried anything outside, it would be found not far away; and there is a keen interest, for me at least, in finding anything that the Wood Folk have touched or handled. The alder stick that the beaver cut yesterday, or the little mud pie that his paws have patted smooth; the knot that the young coons have used as a plaything in their den to beguile the hours when their mother was away; the tree against which two or three bears have measured and scratched their height; the log where the grouse drums; the discarded horn of a moose; the track of an unknown beast; the old den of a lucivee,—in all these things, and a thousand more, there is I know not what fascination that draws me a mile out of my course just to stand for a moment where wild little feet have surely passed and to read the silent records they have left behind them.
In front of the camp door was a huge pile of chips where the lumbermen had chopped their wood during the long winter. I walked up on this, wondering at its huge size and making a great clatter as the chips slipped from under me. Suddenly there was a terrifying rumble at my feet. A bear burst out of the chip pile, as if he had been blown up by an explosion, and plunged away head-long into the silent woods.
This was startling enough on a quiet day. I had been looking for something that Mooween had left, not for Mooween himself. I stood stock still where I was on the chip pile, staring after the bear, wondering first where he came from and then wondering what would have happened had he been inside the shanty when I came in through the roof. Then I came down and found the queerest den that ever I have stumbled upon in the woods.
On the north side of the mound a tunnel a couple of feet long had been dug by the bear, and the heart of the chip pile had been thrown out to make a little cave, just big enough for Mooween to lie down in. I poked my head into it, and to my astonishment found it to be a regular ice house, with snow and ice packed in solidly among the chips. I tried the pile in other places and found the same conditions everywhere. A foot or two beneath the surface the ice remained as perfectly preserved as if it were January instead of midsummer. Here were shade and coolness such as no sun could disturb, and in a moment it came to me how the queer thing had come about.
All winter long the lumbermen had chopped their fire-wood on the same spot, using axes only, and making an enormous amount of chips and rubbish. When heavy snows fell, instead of clearing it away, they simply cut more wood on top of it, tramping the snow beneath into a solid mass and covering it over with fresh chips. So the pile grew,—first a layer of chips, then a thick blanket of snow, then more chips and snow again,—growing bigger and bigger until in April the lumbermen locked their shanty and went out on the spring drive of logs.
When the spring sun melted the snow in the woods the big pile remained, settling slowly as the days warmed. At midday the top layer of snow would melt and trickle down through the chips; by night it would freeze hard, gradually changing the snow within to soft ice. When all the snow in the woods was gone, that in the chip pile remained, kept from melting by the thick wooden blankets that covered it; and the longest summer would hardly be sufficient to melt it down to the bottom layer, which represented the first fall of snow in the previous autumn.
When I found the spot it was early July. The sun was blistering hot overhead, and the flies and mosquitoes were out in myriads; but in Mooween's den two or three layers of ice were as yet unmelted. The hole was as cold as a refrigerator, and not a fly of any kind would stay there for a single second.
At the inner end of the den something glimmered as my eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, and I reached in my hand and pulled the thing out. It was a stone jug, and I knew instantly what had held the molasses that had been spilled on the camp floor. Mooween had probably pulled the cork and rolled the jug about, lapping up the contents as they came out. When he could get no more he had taken the jug under his arm as he climbed through the hole in the roof, and kept it now in his cool den to lick it all over again for any stray drops of molasses that he might have overlooked. Perhaps also he found comfort in putting his tongue or his nose into the nozzle-mouth to smell the sweetness that he could no longer reach.
I have found one or two strange winter dens of Mooween, and have followed his trail uncounted miles through the snow when he had been driven out of one hibernaculum and was seeking another in the remote fastnesses, making an unending trail with the evident intention of tiring out any hunter who should attempt to follow him. I have found his bathing pools repeatedly, and watched him in midsummer when he sought out cool retreats—a muddy eddy in a trout brook under the alders, a mossy hollow under the north side of a great sheer ledge—to escape the flies and heat. But none of them compare with this lumberman's ice house which his wits had appropriated, and which, from many signs about the place, he was accustomed to use daily for his nap when the sun was hottest; and none of his many queer traits ever appealed to me quite so strongly as the humorous cunning which prompted him to take the jug with him into his den. It was safe there, whether Mooween were at home or not, for no bear will ever enter another's den unless the owner first show him in; and while other bears were in the hot camp, trying to find a satisfactory bite of salt pork and dry flour, Mooween was lying snug in his ice house licking the molasses jug that represented his own particular share of the plunder.