The Modoc Spirit Bear



This is an Indian story, sort of. It was told to me by my Dad & my Grandpa, who was a principle character of the story. Grandpa died in 1961 when he was 101 yrs old. The story had 2 endings, one where he took the shot & one where he didn't, I don't know if Grandpa could decide if it was a practical joke, or the real thing. If it was a joke, he wouldn't want to admit to being fooled so he'd say he didn't take the shot. But the fact that he went 200 miles up to the snowy Modoc lava beds looking for a spirit bear in the first place, might argue that he did take the shot. Another possibility is that he had one version for believers and one for everyone else.

Here's the story:

Bear Hunting 1882
WS Cornelius, Red Bluff CA, 1882

Grandpa was born in Illinois a year after the civil war started, he rode the railroad out to California in 1882 when he was 20 and got a job driving jerk-line mule teams pulling freight wagons from Marysville and Willows up to the gold mines. On the way back, he would stop and shoot game to sell back down in the Sacramento valley, because he'd usually have an empty wagon on the return trip, and something like 50 cents to a dollar for a deer was fair money at the time. There's one place on the Feather River where the deer migrate down from the mountains when the snow starts. Grandpa said he'd sit in a chair on the edge of a clearing when the fall migration would start, and the cold air coming down the hill would carry his scent away. An ice cave nearby there was a natural refrigerator, and he'd shoot the fattest yearling deer to store in the cave, till he got a full wagon load. Market hunting wasn't like trophy hunting because the big older bucks with a lot of points are usually tough as rubber, and nobody will buy them. Trophy hunting is for the idle rich. The Ice Cave is a national park now, but last I heard, they don't let people go in because there's a lot of pathogenic organisms, like salmonella, living on the blood that soaked into the ice, and people could get sick. Also, skunks & small predators like to go in & gnaw on the ice when food is scarce, and then mark their territory, so it smells like a refrigerator that hasn't been cleaned for a thousand years, and nobody in their right mind would want to go in there anyway.

In winter Grandpa worked as a goose herder on Doctor Glenn's Ranch (now known as Glenn county). Glenn county sets in the middle of the Sacramento Valley where ducks and geese migrate in by the thousands from Alaska to spend the winter. His job there was to keep wild geese from trampling winter wheat. He got paid a dollar a day for herding plus room and board, and he could shoot as many ducks and geese as he could sell on the side. it was better money than deer hunting because he didn't have to camp in the cold, and many people preferred goose to venison so the price per pound was better. Yearling Geese would sell for 25 cents apiece. Grandpa had a 10 gauge shotgun with an extended magazine that held 10 shots, one cartridge cost 5 cents and could kill 8 or 10 geese, (if they were sitting). White Fronted Geese were the best sellers because young ones were tender and easily identified by speckled brown feathers. When he cleaned them, he'd leave the breast feathers attached to indicate quality. The more brown feathers on their front, the higher the price. The local name for them was Specks, some other kinds were Honkers, Cacklers, Snows, Whistlers, Redheads, Greenheads, Sprigs, Spoonies, Canvasbacks, Mudhens, Crooknecks, Swans, Snipes, Curlews, & probably 50 more, but Specks were the best money because you could tell how tough or tender they'd be cooked.

So Grandpa earned a name as a marksman & market hunter, and became an elite in a society of hunters which were associated mainly by rumor, but occasionally by proximity. One of these in proximity was an Indian named Yankee Jim. I don't know much about Yankee Jim, except that he was also a hunter, some said a drunk & a rascal too. My aunts would look around uneasily when they mentioned his name. Like they expected him to stumble out of the nearest empty doorway to scandalize everyone. But that was years later, and I doubt that Yankee Jim drank because Grandpa disapproved of alcohol, especially with in conjunction with guns, and wouldn't have much to do with people who did. Meanwhile Grandpa had married my Grandma Cassie Evans, who was 16, and became president of the Perkins County Farmers Union (Nebraska). He shipped 6 carloads of pigs out to California (by rail) where the price of pork had skyrocketed during WW 1. He sold them in Sacramento for a "barrel of money". So in 1923, he was married w/ 5 kids, had a farm in Orland CA, & hunted on the side. My dad was 14 and everyone plucked ducks and geese every winter, but not for sale.

Because the writing was on the wall for hunters when, in 1918, it became illegal to sell wild game to market. After that, one of the few remaining scams for career advancement as a hunter, was to be a Trophy Hunters Guide for somebody famous like Teddy Roosevelt, or William Hurst. Grandpa & his cronies sent out invitations & ads, but no one was interested because there were no unique animals to be hunted in N. California, that couldn't be found bigger & better someplace else, even Grizzly bears, once common, had big competition in Alaska. So, while brainstorming one day, Yankee Jim suggested that the rarest animal known to be hunted in Modoc country was part of a rite of passage among his people. Rarer than the White Medicine Deer of the Maidu, whose skin could be traded for 10 horses. Rarer and more dangerous than the Sasquach (a.k.a. "Bigfoot"), was a certain individual: The Giant Spirit Bear of the Modoc country.

To put this in historical context: The "real" Yankee Jim was a locally legendary horse thief who was put out of business by a Sheriffs posse from Placerville around 1848, (about 75 years earlier) when such activities were a capitol offense. Furthermore, there had been an ongoing misunderstanding between the Calif. tribes and the new waves of migrants from everywhere else. You don't hear much about it nowadays, but between 1860 and 1865 the state offered a $50 bounty on Calif. indians, which Indians naturally resented. There had been wars of all kinds, the most recent, at that time, was as currant as Viet Nam is to 2005, between the US Govt. & the Modoc Nation. The Modocs lost and blended into neighboring tribes for camouflage, so for Yankee Jim to make that offer at a time when Modocs had few good words for the government, indicated that Jim trusted his friends. So Granpa got the details:

The Modoc spirit bear stood 15 feet tall on his hind legs, his hind footprint was 20 inches long, and he was faster than thought. If you turned your back on him, or even blinked, you were as good as dead. His claws were 10 inches long and he could cut a man in half with a flick of his wrist. Some had hunted him all their lives and never turned a sign. But in springtime when the snow melts, he had been seen in a certain alpine meadow, near Mt. Lassen, eating grass to clean his gut after hibernation. That's probably the only time he could be stalked anywhere. Hunting this bear isn't like hunting anything else in the world. If you're lucky, you'll get one shot, if you miss you may still have a chance if you can stare him in the eyes till the sun hits him, and not blink. If you blink, you're dead. But if you get him, you still won't have a trophy, because he's a ghost, but people will know, because you'll then have his power.

Grandpa was 62, probably having some kind of midlife crisis, and this was the ultimate challenge for a hunter. So in march, he packed up his gear and set off in his Ford for Mt. Lassen which was still steaming from the eruption in 1911 (the mountain, not the Ford). The plan was to hike in, without horses, set up camp in an adjoining valley, sneak over the ridge before dawn, and wait for light in a certain rock pile on the downwind side of the meadow. He wasn't supposed to go into the meadow because his scent would linger and the bear would never show. The approach had to be made in the dark when there was no moon because the bear was believed to lay up during the day and watch the meadow from somewhere in the mountains above. Only coming out to forage in the meadow between the twilight & dawn. If the bear didn't show up, Grandpa would keep returning to the rockpile every morning till the snow melted, even if it took weeks. Grandpa was said to be the best shot in the Sacramento Valley at that time & maybe since. He was quiet and in position when the sky began to lighten and the grass was showing through the snow. His gun barrel lay across a log, and pointed over the meadow.

So the stars slowly faded, the dim light revealed a huge black shape against the white mountain, standing still on its' hind legs in the meadow, sniffing the air, looking directly at the rock pile.

This is where the stories diverge, so I'm going with the one I think is correct.

He aimed just below the ears and took the shot. The gun kicked and the echo rolled away, but the bear never moved. So Grandpa didn't move either. With his hair standing on end, and staring eye to eye with the spirit bear, he waited for dawn. Here the stories converge again: As the sky lightened, he watched the bear turn more & more into a big burnt tree trunk that looked just like a huge bear on its' hind legs. He walked up to the tree and counted a dozen bullet holes in the trunk, many of them were kills, a few were musket balls. From any other angle but the rock pile it looked less like a bear and more like a tree struck by lightning.

So he had breakfast, packed up his stuff & hiked out. When he got home, he told people he didn't get one. I never gave the story much thought, I suspected "Yankee Jim & the bear" were fiction, till I found this deer tag tacked to the back of a set of antlers among some things my Dad picked up when they cleaned out the house in Orland. If Grandpa thought it was a prank, apparently he didn't hold a grudge against Yankee Jim because they still hunted together afterwards. I imagine he sees Yankee Jim again, Yankee Jim says "Did you get him?" Grandpa laughs and says "Of course".

The problem with this story is that Indians don't need deer tags. Another explanation for the name on the tag might be from a place called the Yankee Jim Ranch in Lassen or Modoc counties, that would make sense too. But I still like the story though & I'm sticking with it.

Deer Tag 1950

Orland House
This is Grandpa at his place in Orland in 1950 when he was 89.
The kid is my brother Jim,
I was 4.

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