Column: Dangerous encounters — macro and micro


I’ve been sheltering domestic animals, strays, abused, orphaned and feral for nearly 50 years whenever my lifestyle could accommodate them. I now care for seven dogs and 12 cats. There is compatibility and a lot of love in my home. Learning to get along is what it’s all about. I live alone in near pristine wilderness on a small lake.

I grew up in a hunting, fishing, trapping family, but long ago, after witnessing so much death in the military and experiencing my own close calls (see my March 7 birthday column in The Gazette), I cannot think of ending any life save in the course of my personal survival. Nevertheless, I respect the rights of sportsmen, as sanctioned by state(s) and our culture, but reject violence whether it be directed to our own or other of the creator’s species. Whatever the rational may be, it seems we just like to kill things for pleasure even when there is no compelling need to do so.

It may come across as contradictory, but if there is anything I’ve learned — sometimes the hard way — is with animals one must constantly anticipate the unexpected, no matter how diligent, innocent and well-meaning one’s plans and preparations might be.

That was driven home to me once again in the last several weeks when I experienced a classic bear-dog-human encounter at my residence in the Wisconsin north woods. I write now after two emergency room visits to the Grantsburg E.R. and am now coping with a whole regimen of medication including rabies vaccination protocol for fear the bear may have been rabid. (My dogs, recovering from the encounter, were already rabies vaccinated, per licensing requirements). Nevertheless, an incident such as this sets off alarms when reported by the hospital to state, federal and local authorities, thus coping with the bureaucracies has been a factor in dealing with the situation.

This was just a chance encounter. Mid-afternoon, on one of the few milder early March days we’ve had, I opened the kennel to take two of my older dogs for a walk up the driveway to check the mail. When I opened the door, there was a medium-sized black bear. He or she had apparently awakened from hibernation earlier than instinctively normal because of our extended winter. The bear, dogs and I were totally taken by surprise, and the bear, responding to a perceived threat, immediately grabbed my old Weimaraner by the head and began throwing him around.

I had no choice but to get into a wrestling match of sorts in the confined, open alcove leading to the kennel area. I was able to get Sammy’s head out of the bear’s mouth, but got my forearms, hands and right leg torn up by bites and claws in the process. The bear got Sammy’s hind quarters again, but I was able to get both dogs back into the kennel area and slam the door on the bear. When I cracked it open, the bear was gone.

Trained in military first aid, I got my profuse bleeding under control after checking the dogs’ wounds and getting them back in their kennels. The rest of the story unfolded at the vet clinic in Centuria and the Grantsburg Hospital E.R. over the past month.

I’ve prevailed upon the authorities not to harm the bear. I don’t believe it is a threat to the community. We have bears benignly roaming the area without problems through the warmer months of the year. I’m willing to assume that my wrestling foe in the long black coat got up from the den hungry, ticked off and looking for a free meal at my recently replenished bird feeding stations.

We were all caught off guard. My vet and E.R. bill is going to look like the national debt. As this is written, Sammy is resting under my desk, and I’m one aching old man. Both dogs involved, apparently spooked, refuse to go back to the lower level kennel area. Stuff happens!

The Stillwater readers of my monthly columns sometimes claim, because I’m not a resident, that I don’t know what’s going on there. Critics underestimate my community history as I transition this commentary to the issue of what I refer to as the Lily Lake petri dish.

I grew up in Stillwater on the north hill in the 40s and 50s. One of our favorite pastimes was to bike over to Lily Lake to swim, build crude rafts, catch frogs and turtles and fish. The lake was mostly spring-fed, and the water cold and almost as crystal clear as Square Lake further north in Washington County. Except for the bathing beach on the south side of Lily, there was very little development around the lake. Healthy shoreline vegetation, huge lily pads and aquatic wildlife thrived.

In the early 50s, all of that began to change. Residential development sprouted, mostly very expensive homes, and paved streets were constructed around the lake. My father was a mechanical contractor, and when not in school, I worked for him digging ditches for new home sewer and plumbing installations, especially on the northern side of the lake.

I don’t recall that the city had yet extended municipal sewer lines to that area, so most of the homes had septic systems or versions of early drain fields. To my memory, there were very few environmental constraints to these waste disposal systems. Surface water runoff from the streets and underground seepage from the residential sewer systems would eventually filter into Lily Lake. Because these installations were common at the time, I was not aware of the potential environment consequences of what was a wealthy building boom, considered great for the city.

Another memory I have was the stench that came from the shallow wetland below the old hospital on the east side of Greeley Street. Dad did plumbing work for the hospital, and I helped him. My father said effluent, God-knows-what was draining into the marshland from the antiquated old hospital and seeping under Greeley Street into Lily Lake.

I left Stillwater for military service in 1953 and didn’t return to the area until the late 60s. My head was into other issues beyond my early plumbing work for Dad, but I never forgot the experience and what I had witnessed in my home town.

My now deceased brother, Dave, and I were avid SCUBA divers, and in the 60s and 70s we occasionally would go to Lily or Square Lake, especially in the winter to dive under the ice for a bit of adventure. It was then that we noticed the increasing murkiness of the Lily Lake water. It had almost a soup quality, totally unlike anything experienced in the 40s and 50s when we swam there. We stopped going to Lily when my brother nearly failed to find his way back to the entry hole cut into the ice for underwater access. We stopped going to Lily Lake for a diving expeditions — no visibility, dangerous and no fun.

As a Lumberjack Days race enthusiast, I ran my 35, if you count early events — Crazy Days, Play Days, etc. My nostalgic practice following a race would be to drive to Lily Lake and take a plunge for old-time’s sake and to cool off.

Each year I did that, right up to my last race in 2009, I noted the visibility and quality of the water in Lily Lake had dramatically deteriorated. It had an odd odor, and I thought at the time that the melting Zamboni hockey rink shavings and chemicals from the arena adjacent to the lake were probably contributing causes. When I got home, I called the city parks and recreation commission and the waste management/sewer and water department, leaving messages expressing my thoughts and concerns. The calls were not returned.

The history of what followed is a matter of public record and ongoing litigation: the tragic death of children, Annie Bahneman in 2010 and of Jack Erenberg in 2012 due to an amoeba infection after swimming in Lily Lake.

I have a mildly damaged immune system from exposure to defoliants and toxic chemical agents while in military service. Much as I dislike abandoning my race ritual, I won’t go near Lily Lake again unless the city of Stillwater takes responsibility for its contamination and cleans it up. Further, I would advise anyone else who has these concerns to stay away given the official gross negligence. The city has squandered a precious community asset with the destruction of Lily Lake.

Ayers is a Stillwater native who began writing for the Gazette while still in high school in 1952. Now 79 and semi-retired, he writes from his wilderness home near Frederic, Wis. His hardcover, non-fiction book, “Zenith Secret,” released in November by Rosedog Books, is available online.