Mattie MitchellNewfoundland's Greatest Frontiersman
An adventure story from award-winning author Gary Collins: Newfoundland’s Favourite Storyteller!
“There is a feeling that comes to one who goes unafraid into the wilderness. For the very few who experience it comes a sense of belonging; of being a fragile part of the mysterious whole; of profound peace; of wanting never to leave,” says Gary Collins in describing the inspiration that overtook him when he penned the final pages in this, the biography of Mattie Mitchell, a hunter, trapper, and guide of Mi’kmaq descent whose daring feats became known worldwide, but which history books somehow forgot.
In researching the life and times of Mattie Mitchell, critically acclaimed author Gary Collins (author of the award-winning What Colour is the Ocean?) gleaned much insight on his subject from the diary and other personal papers of Marie Sparkes, granddaughter to the remarkable Mi’kmaq woodsman. Now, for the first time, Mattie Mitchell’s legendary deeds are revealed in full, comprehensive detail.
In 1998, the government of Newfoundland and Labrador recognized Mattie Mitchell’s contribution to the growth and prosperity of the province by opening its Mattie Mitchell Prospectors Resource Room. In 2001, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada recognized Mattie Mitchell as a person of national historic significance. In 2005, a plaque in Mattie Mitchell’s honour was placed in Gros Morne National Park.
Canadian Aboriginal Books for Schools 2012–2013 Selection
In the early days of the next trapping season, Mattie set out for the bear den. The sky looked like a storm was brewing. He hoped he had timed it right. The going was much harder than it had been in the spring. He walked in a straight line as much as the terrain allowed. Twice he had to veer away from...Read More
In the early days of the next trapping season, Mattie set out for the bear den. The sky looked like a storm was brewing. He hoped he had timed it right. The going was much harder than it had been in the spring. He walked in a straight line as much as the terrain allowed. Twice he had to veer away from his course to get around small ponds that had not frozen solidly enough for safe travel. By late evening he reached the talus slope below the cave where the bear had sheltered from the freezing cold of the winter past.
Mattie wondered if his long walk had been in vain. Maybe the bear had not returned here this year. If it had, it would be days before the animal decided to enter the den. But a heavy snowstorm this time of year would decide for the bear, and the sky looked ready to snow. Mattie had seen the big bears foraging for food even in mid-January. However, when a big snow came and made food hard to find, even this early in the season, they always “denned up.”
Mattie was prepared to wait. He wanted to catch the bear near its den. During his walk he had crushed the green needles of the white spruce into his hands and smeared their pungent scent all over his clothing several times. It was his proven method of approaching game undetected.
He would have to be extremely wary. Black bears had poor eyesight, but their sense of hearing and their incredible sense of smell more than compensated for that. They could detect and identify the wind-borne scent of food miles away. They especially hated the smell of humans, and when they gained it they made every effort to avoid its source.
The full carcass of an adult black bear would keep Mattie in fat for frying and tallow for light, as well as a ready supply of delicious meat for most of the winter. The animal’s fur, which would now be at its prime, was another bonus. For now, though, Mattie wanted bear meat. He loved the taste of it.
Mattie knew the bear would disappear inside its den for the winter after the first big snow. He knew of white trappers who shot the bears, males and nursing females alike, while they slept inside their caves. But Mattie Mitchell always called it the coward’s way of hunting, and he was no coward.
He decided not to climb the scree slope. To do so quietly would be difficult, and if the bear was in the area, an unusual sound would alert it and make it that much more vigilant. Mattie knew no one had been here since he had left several months ago. He hoped the bear was feeling safe and, with a full belly, lethargic.
Downwind and off to the side of the talus was a brushy copse which he hoped would conceal him on his way up to the ledge. When he approached it he found it did indeed provide some cover. This was a much easier way up over the ridge.
But the bear had thought so, too. Twisting its way through the gnarled brush and tangled trees was its well-used trail. It wasn’t easy going for a man of Mattie’s height. The bear, walking on all fours, had fashioned a trail fairly close to the ground. Besides, Mattie considered, he would surely leave his man scent, no matter how hard he tried to disguise it. He decided to abandon this course of action.
It was hard, slow going, but he made his stealthy way up through the ravine parallel to the bear lead. The low scrub spruce and thorny bushes struggled for growth beneath short, twisted, naked yellow birches. Here in the relative shelter of the cliff there was no more than a skim of snow.
The floor of the steep ravine was strewn with rocks of all sizes, with only a sparse layer of wet, clinging soil. This was a snarly, tangled place to get through quietly, but he finally reached the edge of the boulder train above, where no trees grew.
At first he thought he had been mistaken as he peered carefully out of his cover. When he had been here last there had been at least seven feet of snow on the ground. The place looked different now, as he knew it would. But then he smelled the heady bear smell, and with his nose directing him, he saw the den’s opening.
The hole between the tumbled grey boulders looked bigger than it had in the winter. The bear had dragged a pile of debris and spread it all around the entry. Birch trees the thickness of Mattie’s forearm had been broken and chewed off and dragged to the site. Green fir saplings as well as fir boughs torn from low-hanging trees, last year’s dried boughs with brown needles clinging to them weakly, clumps of yellow-green moss and fallen leaves, mud, and a few rocks littered the area. All was in readiness for the bear to crawl inside, pull the debris over the opening, and rest up for the coming winter.
This was a cleverly chosen place for the animal to hibernate. The small space between the opening and the gathered refuse was angled toward the den. The beast would merely have to reach out, and with one easy pull the debris would tumble toward the “doorway.” The falling snow would not only disguise its winter resting place, but seal the bear from the outside world for months.
All of this Mattie could see from his hidden vantage point. He had seen many such places before, but he had never witnessed such a large pile or such large items comprising such a collection before. This was no ordinary bear! He was sure of it.
He had not been too late. He was right about that. The bear had not yet crawled into its den.
But Mattie would find out that he was wrong about that.
All was quiet. Not a sound, save for the swish of wind searching through the green trees and the rustle of leaves fluttering down through bare branches. Somewhere in the valley below him a raven croaked a few times and then was silent. Then the wind suddenly breezed up and it started to snow. He checked his old Martin Henry rifle. It was loaded with one long, brass-coated bullet. He considered pulling the hammer to full cock. This bear would not give him much time. Still, the old rifle had seen better days. The cock-spring had weakened over the years and, when fully cocked, could not be depended on to “stand cock.” He pulled the hammer to “half dog,” put an extra bullet in the palm of his left hand, and, holding the big gun in his right hand, settled down to wait.
The evening wore on and still the bear did not show. The wind increased out of the northeast, the noise of its steady brewing now a constant torment. The snow started to accumulate. Mattie suddenly realized that he had made a big mistake in his hurry to get here. He had forgotten to bring his snowshoes! If this was going to be a major winter storm, the walk back to his camp would not be any easy one. But, in his usual calm way, he resigned himself to the task at hand.
Mattie kept looking at the entrance and the bear trail only a few feet from where he waited downwind. He expected the bear to come ambling along at any moment. The falling snow was the wet, plastering kind. He was getting cold and he wanted to stand and warm himself. But for now he dared not move.
When the dark time was near, he decided to stand. Heavy snow was falling. The snowflakes came tumbling out of the sky like swarms of white moths. Mattie would leave and find a place to spend the night and return in the morning. If he discovered the bear had entered the den during the night, he would rouse it out and shoot it. It was a simple enough plan.
He stepped quietly from his cover and brushed away some of the snow from his clothing. His shoulders and knees were getting wet. His step was soundless in the wet snow. Walking over to the hoard of debris, he crept over it and bent over, peering down into the cave. Like the last time he had been here, he couldn’t see much of anything.
His curiosity got the better of him. Laying down his gun and facing the cave entrance, he wormed his long body inside. The musky bear smell was almost overpowering. But another of his senses warned him too late—the unmistakable feeling of sudden warmth. The bear was inside! And following that realization, into Mattie’s view came a wide, brown, snuffling nose cradled between a set of long and sharp, dirty-white claws.
The bear spat a deep, gruff warning from between its teeth as it coughed Mattie’s hated man-smell out of its sensitive, flaring nostrils. The whites of its eyes rolled in disbelief at what it saw. Mattie knew he was in deep trouble. He squirmed backwards like a crab caught on a hot beach at low tide. His coat caught and rolled up over his back. His hat came off.
He pushed clear of the narrow opening and thrust himself to a standing position, gun in hand, when the bear came roaring out of the hole and lunged at him. From waist high Mattie pointed the gun at the black mass and pulled the trigger.
His finger stalled on the cold, unresisting steel. Mattie realized in disbelief that the gun was not at full cock.
"[Gary Collins] weaves the various threads of the story into a marvellous yarn – all the more marvellous because it is true." Northeast Avalon Times