Don’t Poke the Bear

The first child born on Drummond Island to the Bailey family, Alda Anne grew up in the 1880’s with a pack of brothers in the lumber camps. Drummond then was covered in trees; massive columns so tall they obscured the sun. As the old giant cedars fell to the saw blades, the deer arrived, drawn to the new tender growth now creeping up from the warm earth.

But long before the deer showed up, the bears were already deeply instilled there, rooting through the generations of fallen limbs and trunks for bugs and grubs, tearing apart the bones of the old forest and sending it back into the mossy ground.

By the time she was 17 years old, Alda was hunting with her father, bringing home game to feed the family. That year, she shot her first black bear. From that point on, Alda Bailey became one of the most avid bear hunters in the history of Drummond Island. She eventually married Louis Cloudman, but scorned the typical duties of a housewife. Leaving Louis to bake pies and sweep the kitchen, Alda would stuff a frying pan, a blanket and other supplies into a backpack and disappear into the woods.  In those days she was likely the only female hunting and fishing guide in the state of Michigan.

Alda lived to be 97 years old and over her long career, she killed more than 80 bears. Enshrined forever in island lore, Alda is commemorated as something of a folk hero similar to Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill, with her Annie Oakley appearance and deadeye marksmanship. One of these stories involves a local character, Herman Adams, who lived not far from Alda’s homestead with Louis.

Adams lived in a shack with chickens and other animals, growing tomatoes by his fence and spitting tobacco down his shirt front. One autumn, he trapped a bear, and decided he wanted to bring it home alive. He enlisted Alda’s help in the endeavor.

In what amounts to a pretty horrible story of animal cruelty, the two pioneers walked this bear out of the woods by getting a rope around his neck, which Adams used as one would put a leash on a dog. Alda handled the trap line, still attached to the bear’s hind foot. Together, they walked this bear between them. Alda thought it would be pretty funny to put some slack in the chain and let the bear catch up to Adams. It wasn’t long before Adams realized the bear was nipping at his heels, and was taking longer strides and eventually practically running to stay ahead.

“By the Judas, Aldie get a hold of that rope; he almost got a nip of me, that time!”

My dad, Alda’s nephew, loved telling that story and he swore that it was true.

In all my years spent in the woods on Drummond, in all times of day and night, I have seen black bears only a handful of times. But their signs are everywhere, from the shredded bark of a dying tree to the round, clawed imprint in fresh mud. I know the bears are watching as I walk the trails with my dogs or ride my horses. We give each other a wide berth, and this is why it is safe to walk in the woods on Drummond Island.

My ancestors lived their whole lives in bear country. Bears were a source of meat, fur, and grease for tallow. They were not targets to shoot for sport, and certainly not pets. Black bears are shy and mild-mannered, except when cornered, or hungry, or protecting cubs. An angry black bear delivers a sledgehammer wallop and can kill you as quick as a walk in front of a Mack truck.

The pioneers knew this. The idea of people feeding bears, petting them, or posing for selfies would have had folks like Alda Bailey rolling their eyes or even bent over in gales of laughter.

After all, the bears were here first. By the Judas, show some respect.


Alda Bailey, photo courtesy of Lynn Cloudman Van Alstine


About Nancy J. Bailey

Artist, author, bad karaoke singer. Woodsy ragamuffin. Mom of a horse named Clifford who plays fetch and paints with watercolors. He visits libraries and schools with me, to promote literacy and making the world a better place. Yes, he is house trained, no, he doesn't live in my house! I have written three books about Clifford. But my newest book, THE NORTH SIDE OF DOWN, is co-written by my awesome sister Amanda, who has Down syndrome. Her unexpected one-liner wisecracks can always make me laugh. If you make me laugh, you've made my day!
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