More Bear Encounters

I wrote previously about grizzly bears in Alberta, Canada. In this post I have a couple more stories about bears – this time in New Brunswick,Canada and also in Siberia, Russian Federation…

The black bear can be found in almost every province and territory in Canada. And as evidenced by my discovery of a bear trap in the woods when I was a young teenager, we knew there were bears lurking around our farmhouse in New Brunswick.

Ivan Shishkin Morning in a Pine Forest 1878

Morning in a Pine Forest by Ivan Shishkin 1878, oil on canvas. This is one of a few rare images of bears from the 19th century that is beautiful. Its so depressing to look online for pictures of bears and mainly find images of bear hunting, zoos, circuses and bear baiting… what a despicable history we’ve made for ourselves.

In fact one of my friends in Junior High had a locally famous mother who once shot a bear.

black bear wikipedia

Black bear, image

So considering that we lived in a remote place surrounded by lake and forest, its surprising that we personally never saw any bears. On occasion we would come across a large, odd looking scat and surmise it was a bear’s – but we never found any other direct evidence.

A neighbor of ours did, however. She and her husband had a cattle farm in Jolicure, and they worked a number of fields in the area.

One summer they planted corn in a field situated along the road to our house, about a mile in from the crossroads. As far as I remember, it was the only time they planted that crop there. By the end of the summer in the early fall, the corn was very high and thick.

One day the wife went out to find her husband in the field – she had his lunch to deliver. So she parked her truck on the road bordering the field and went out into the corn rows.

Cornfield_pennYan wikimedia commons

Commercial corn grows densely in a field, and can be anywhere from 5 feet to 12 feet tall, so you can see how hard it is to see anything inside a cornfield. (photograph by Jlantzy from Wikipedia Commons). Ever see the movie Signs by M Night Shyamalan with Mel Gibson and Joachim Phoenix? If you have, you know why I ask… if not, you should go watch it…

Ahead of her she heard rustling and saw stalks moving. Thinking it was her husband she pushed through the stalks, calling to him, when all of a sudden she came face to face with a black bear. She screamed, and turned, and ran back to her truck.

black_bear head shot

Black bear (Ursus americanus)

The bear, just as startled and terrified, fled in the opposite direction. Her husband, meanwhile, was fine – he heard the whole commotion but never saw either of them.

Soon after that epic moment, they harvested the corn, and all the stalks were cut down and the bear was never seen again.

Back then (in the 1970s), I spent many hours walking through game trails in the woods alone with my dog, and though I saw scats and prints I never encountered any large or dangerous animals. But because I knew that the farmer’s wife had come face to face with a bear just a mile from my house, I was always noisy in the woods and on the road (singing out loud and whistling) just to let “everyone” know where I was at all times.

My paternal grandfather Harry Safran wasn’t so lucky.

In 1907 he was exiled to Siberia (a long and exciting tale for a future post) where he lived in a cabin in the woods with several other political prisoners.

siberia map

One day he was out in the forest foraging for nuts or firewood, and found himself face to face with a big bear – the bear reared up on its hind legs in front of him and roared… and my grandfather spit in its eye…


Siberian Brown Bear also known as a Grizzly Bear

… at least that’s what he tried to do, because he’d been told to do that just in case he ran into a bear. The idea was that the air in Siberia was so cold that your spit would freeze as soon as it left your mouth, forming a sharp sherd of ice that would blind the bear on impact.

Well, my grandfather never found out if spitting at a bear would save his life. When he came to, he found himself lying on the ground and the bear was gone… and he was alive. Whether spitting in the bear’s eye saved him, or fainting and looking dead did, my grandfather lived to tell the tale.

Casey Anderson and Brutus

This photo should be called “Living in Harmony”: Casey Anderson with his 800 lb buddy Brutus at the Anderson family Thanksgiving dinner… I’m not recommending wild animals as house pets, but this picture was too good to pass up.

Its a wonder that the bear literature in Canada doesn’t include that piece of advice. Perhaps I should tell Parks Canada and suggest they tell tourists and hikers to practice spitting shards of ice before heading out into the woods.

I just hope I never have to find out for myself.

Many thanks to my Aunt Rhoda for details about my grandfather’s Siberian bear encounter and spitting ice.

(Also, a couple of posts back I mentioned I was going to write about a Memento Mori painted by Bernard Safran in the 1960s – I intend to soon – I’m still trying to get a good photograph of the painting before I publish it. Until then I have some other posts to share.)


The Red House 1973

Red House and Barns 1972

This is how the house looked in the spring of 1972. You can see that the roof needs repair and that there is a wonky power pole. Inside there were only a few walls and only a few doors and a jar of peanut butter with a knife in it on the kitchen floor.
Maybe you can understand why a kid of 12 years used to suburban life might find this a bit distressing.

My parents purchased the above isolated farm house in the spring of 1972 for a measly $8,000.00 after a scouting trip to see real estate for sale in the area. They only purchased the house and the half acre that it sat on – a local farmer owned the fields surrounding the house and the outbuildings; we had access from the road via the lane.

We didn’t move into the Red House until January 1973. The house had been abandoned for quite a few years so in the intervening months, while we were getting our papers ready to move to Canada, my uncle Lorne took over making the house liveable. He had new power lines run in and a party line telephone hooked up. He hired some local guys to put a new roof on (one of whom was Teddy who teased me mercilessly on the school bus and even set fire to my hair once with his lighter).

He also had a new oil burning furnace installed and an oil burning kitchen stove with a hot water heater attached (both of which never worked – more on that later). A very basic bathroom was jerry-rigged downstairs – it had a sink, a toilet and a small tub (it was too small to lie down in, and anyway, could not be filled due to lack of hot water) and some fake tile pressed board put in around watery areas. Only a couple of rooms had doors – so my uncle made some out of 6″ x half inch boards nailed together – they kind of fit. The roof of the house had numerous lightning rods on it – and we eventually found out why during our first big storm – it being situated on top of a bare hill with a few big trees on either side.

Old abandoned farmhouse showing plaster and lathe

This is not a picture from our house – but it looks enough like our house did for you to get the picture. You can see the lathing and old plaster with animal hair and the wrecked everything.

There were four rooms upstairs in the main part of the house. Only one of these had complete walls while the other three had broken and rotting plaster and old wallpaper and exposed lathing.

To say that the wind blew through the house is not an exaggeration – even after fixing the walls the wind still moved the curtains in the windows in and out on a good breezy day. And it was cold. Maybe the house had a new furnace but it couldn’t keep up with that cold outside and those airy walls.

Antique oak flooring

The floors upstairs had big thick boards like this, and were a mess with paint and wear – we tried to clean them up and then stained them dark and waxed them a bit.

The flooring in the house was original and consisted of very thick old boards upstairs (probably oak) – they were about 2 inches thick and about 12″ wide. And down the middle of the upstairs hall was a mend about 2 feet wide – all the other flooring met up with this seam. It apparently hearkened from the time that the house had been moved across the lake in the winter with draft horses or oxen – and when they pulled it up the hill the flooring split in the middle upstairs. That was the story anyway – and it made sense – it wasn’t very elegant and it did look like a repair job.

Moving House with Oxen

In 1845, Elizabeth Prince Peabody described a house moving she witnessed in Danvers, Massachusetts. “The building came along slowly, drawn by yokes of oxen. Every yoke had a driver beside it with goads, hurrying them with a ‘Hush-whoa’. It seemed as though there were 20 or 40 yoke of oxen.”

Moving House with Horses

Moving House with Horses

As soon as we moved in in January, the first order of the day was to fix the upstairs walls. First we had to remove the old plaster; then put up insulation; then dry board; then patch and tape the drywall; and finally paint. This included dry walling the ceilings too, not just the walls, and none of us had any experience doing any of this.

Removing the old plaster was dirty but very interesting. It was original to the house and consisted of plaster and what looked like cow hair (but I’ve read now that horse hair or hog hair is more common) – usually a reddish brown color. Underneath the plaster we found old pages from books and newspapers – none of them could be recovered but scraps showed the house dated from the mid 1860’s. We also found old boots, and bits of fabric and clothes that people had stuffed into the gap between the plaster and the lathing strips. None of this was saved much to my regret now.

The lathing strips were often just rough wood cut into as evenly made strips as possible – many still had bark on them. The nails from the shingles outside were distinctly poking through.

Drywall finishing how to

Its So Easy to Drywall! NOT…
Our dry walling team consisted of my parents who were reasonably strong and us two teenage girls with measly arms – that’s it. And we didn’t have safety gear like masks for the dust or hardhats or work boots – its amazing we did this ourselves without some medical crisis.

If anyone has ever done dry walling you know how heavy and awkward those boards are – and here we were trying to install these boards up on the walls and ceilings – it was back breaking work trying to hold the boards up while my father screwed them into place.

Even worse was the endless sanding that was necessary – we did a really bad job on the plastering and taping and sanding to be honest and left big lumps and screw heads visible – but at least there were walls afterwards. No one was complaining about quality.

Shrew SGaspensis

There are several zillion type of shrews apparently in North America – this one looks a lot like my little roommates and is actually located in New Brunswick.
Credit: painting by Nancy Halliday from Kays and Wilson’s Mammals of North America, © Princeton University Press (2002)

At night the house came alive with creaking like an old boat. There were various critters living there too- in the walls and in the attic were bats and mice and other things. We had a regular crew of shrews – animals so small but fierce that our big old killer tabby cat left them alone. I once woke up to find a shrew sitting on my pillow next to my face.

And so we had a lot of scratching in the walls, and “someone” was up in the attic above my room rolling moth balls back and forth all night.

I was kept home in the beginning for a couple of months to help with all the work and probably to help me get used to the new life we were leading. It wasn’t til early spring before the road went liquid that I started school. But that’s another story.

Kidnapping our Cat to go to The Great White North

Tiger Cat by Bernard Safran 1966 oil on masonite 18" x 24"

My beloved cat Babby painted by my father in 1966. He sold this painting when I was a kid and it turned up at auction in Florida in 2007 and my husband won it for me for Christmas.
Tiger Cat by Bernard Safran, 1966, oil on masonite 18″ x 24″

When my parents decided in 1972 that we were going to move to Canada I was heartbroken about leaving Babby  – the independent, and sometimes feral tabby cat that visited our home everyday in Bronxville, NY.

I first saw Babby when I was just a tot. A neighbor, Mrs. McLelland, called my mother to tell her to bring me over to see a litter of kittens that her cat had just had. The kittens were all piled up together in a cardboard box in the kitchen behind the warm stove. Babby was one of those kittens.

He soon moved into a house across the street from us with the Jantz family – they had a dog, and two kids that I played with. One time when I was over at their house and the kids and I were playing in the backyard, the dog and the cat somehow opened the fridge and dragged out a turkey carcass – we found them both happily gnawing away at it on the floor.

Babby quickly decided that visiting my family was part of his daily rounds. Though he obviously enjoyed our company, garden, and house, he was a fierce cat and not very cuddly. I got scratched and clawed a lot over the years, but I just loved him more and more.

It didn’t take long for Babby to find life at the Jantz house too hectic. He soon preferred the home of a Russian artist living up the street. He may have changed houses, but he continued to visit us everyday. In the summer he would often sit under my mother’s lounge chair in the backyard. In the winter he would climb our back screen door til he could peer in at us at the kitchen table. That was the only way we ever saw his spotted tummy for those first few years.

Rojankovsky, Animal Tales, Golden Book 1967

a cat that resembles Babby by the artist Feodor Rojankovsky

He eventually moved from the first Russian artist’s house to another Russian artist’s house a street over. (my Dad was technically the third Russian artist Babby lived with)

Feodor Rojankovsky was a famous children’s book illustrator and he painted tabby cats into a lot of his illustrations. Perhaps when Babby showed up at his door he liked the look of the cat.

We learned that the Rojankovskys were leaving Babby to starve when they went away for vacations. People used to think (and still do it seems) that cats can manage on their own. Poor Babby was suffering and had to resort to eating scraps of garbage, birds and mice, and whatever he could beg. One neighbor, Mr. Varley, shot pebbles and marbles at the cat with a slingshot because he was eating birds – I really resented that and never liked the man much because of it.

My father forbade us from feeding Babby at my house. He seemed okay with the cat coming inside and hanging around – he would even pet him sometimes – but no food ever. I know though, that during those times when Babby was starving, my mother did sneak things to him by our backdoor- tuna, chicken and other scraps.

Girl Scout Betty with Babby

Girl Scout Betty with Babby

Over the years Babby spent many happy hours with us – I’d come home from school and he’d be sleeping on my bed. Sometimes he’d come in in the evening and watch TV with us in my room – things like Star Trek or the Ed Sullivan Show. I remember one night the cat went absolutely freakishly wild and zoomed around my bed coverlet upside down with all four feet hanging on and his eyes like giant shiny saucers.

When we were facing the reality of moving far away and leaving Babby in New York, my mother and sister and I plotted to take him with us. My mother sent my sister and I to Manhattan one day late in the year to go to the Canadian Embassy and find out if we could bring a cat into the country. This was the only time I’d ever gone into the city with just my sister and though she was 5 years older than me (and in 1972 she was then 17 and I was 12) it felt like a daring adventure.

Somehow we ended up at the wrong address and we traveled up the elevator to discover that the building was being gutted and there was no embassy there. It was very scary and eerie stepping off the elevator – there weren’t any walls – just sheets of dirty plastic blowing around stripped girders and the debris of the wrecked building.

Destroyed Building NYC, by Bernard Safran

This is what it looked like when we stepped off the elevator, but imagine the wind blowing through sheets of dirty plastic hanging down. This picture isn’t of that particular building – but it is a destroyed building in New York City taken around the same time.
Photograph: Bernard Safran

Had we stepped too far we could have fallen down stories to the street below. It was shocking. We quickly got back on the empty elevator and went down to the safety of the street.

We persevered that day because this was for our beloved pussy cat. We somehow found our way to the proper address and the appropriate person to answer our question. The Canadian embassy staff were delighted by us girls showing up and were so nice to us – and we happily found out that we could bring a cat into Canada without quarantine.

Igloo on Atlin Lake BC, photo by Juergen Weiss

Okay so this is what I knew about Canada when we moved there: Canada had a lot of snow and ice and igloos….
Igloo on Atlin Lake BC, photo by Juergen Weiss

We returned home triumphant and my mother then tactfully asked my father if we could bring Babby with us to the great white north.

Going to Church

This is very much like the ONLY picture of Canada in my grade school social studies book that went along with a couple of paragraphs of text that included such useful information like Canada grew potatoes and had trees.
So the sum of my knowledge was that I knew there were white people who went to white churches and there were igloos in Canada…. and they had trees and potatoes.

My father relented – seeing how distraught we were and that’s how we became cat-kidnappers. When the time came for us to leave, my mother had a makeshift crate for Babby and we smuggled him into the back seat of the car between me and my sister.

So that’s how and why Babby left New York to live the rest of his long life in true bliss in the Canadian wilds with the one family that truly loved him.

Babby lived to be twenty years old.

Let’s Fast Forward to 1972

In the fall of 1972 I entered grade 7 at Burrough’s Junior High in Yonkers, NY. Let’s just say I didn’t adjust to the change…

Betty Safran with hand made model of Parthenon 1972

This is me in 1972 just a few months before entering junior high. I’m shyly posing with my to-scale handmade model of the Parthenon. You can see that I was what they’d call today a geeky kid – thoughtful, sensitive – not a tough nut.

At the time that Burroughs was built about 4 years earlier it was meant to be a revolution in education – take the sheltered middle class kids and mix them with the rough tough kids and things will even out. However the experiment didn’t go well – at least not while my sister or I were there… gangs of kids controlled the halls with violence (I only went to the washroom once at Burrough’s – it was too scary to be alone in the halls and bathrooms) and tormented kids on the buses.

Burroughs Junior High, Yonkers, New York

This is my old alma mater Burroughs Junior High in Yonkers, NY. Isn’t it an attractive prison-like depressing institution?

And one day a mobile race riot came (they were going around in buses) and our school was then surrounded by riot police decked out with all their gear and vans… it was a fun place.

Not only did I develop a strong bladder, but I also started having intense stomach pains that lasted for several years after that…

Betty Safran and Babby

This is sweet me with Babby the neighborhood Tabby.

Things in Manhattan were really devolving too – check out the movie American Gangster by Ridley Scott if you want an atmospheric tour of what it felt like in the city in the 70s.

And in our neighborhood a Mafioso boss broke building codes and built a house across the street from our house and trucks came and went at all hours as did big men (think the Sopranos). We heard from a neighbor soon after we left Bronxville that the guy’s pretty little wife was killed by a car bomb.

And there was a new presence of drugs in the schools and on our quiet streets – I went out to school one day and found a whole pile of used needles on the slope of our yard near the sidewalk….

My parents had been talking about moving somewhere remote and away from New York  for a few years. Real estate catalogues from Ireland, Australia and the rural US, were lying around the house. Even though I hated my new junior high – I didn’t want to leave my home, my Nanny who lived next door, or my beloved Babby, our visiting tabby.

In the spring of1972 my parents decided to go up to Eastern Canada and visit my mother’s eldest sister Joanne and her husband Lorne, and look for some cheap rural real estate that we could move to.

Willy Rayworth house Jolicure

This is how my sister first saw the red house on the hill – from a canoe on Long Lake.

After looking at several remote houses on a windy and open marsh, and a couple of Victorian charmers in small towns, they quickly decided on a red farmhouse about 3 or 4 miles from my aunt’s farmhouse in Jolicure, New Brunswick. This was the house that my sister fell in love with about a year earlier when she was up there visiting.

Locally it was known as the Willy Rayworth House. It had been famous for its spring water and for the dancing parties that had been held in the large kitchen in its heyday. The house when we saw it had been abandoned for some years and looked pretty in a shabby, run-down kind of way.

I guess I didn’t realize at the time that we were going to move to this house forever more. So it came as a shock when it became a reality. I remember lying under the Christmas tree in 1972 looking up at the flashing lights and weeping because I didn’t want to leave, and my father yelling at me to stop – we were moving and that was final.

And we weren’t allowed to tell anyone where we were going…