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Five women and the bears


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Donna and Linda from Lincoln invited Karen, who is from Floweree, and me to pick huckleberries. I had important business in Malta Saturday morning, so I took the long route, but that is another story. I met Karen at her house at the end of the gravel road down in Floweree. Karen's husband Don loaded our gear into her SUV. Neither Karen nor I had ever picked huckleberries, so we had no idea what to expect. Rookies that we were, we thought picking huckleberries would be like shucking corn.

We each brought along a cooler and buckets and miscellaneous containers.

We also packed sturdy shoes, hats, jeans and long-sleeved shirts. I brought my bear bells.

Rumor has it that the bears in Lincoln outnumber humans 2 to 1. In fact, city officials worry that some enterprising genius will register the bears to vote. This is not a bad idea except they fear the bears might vote a straight Democratic ticket.

Bears. They are everywhere. We women took a walk in the twi-night. We saw neighbors taking in their bird feeders and dog dishes. Others carted garbage to a shed, securing the door with a bullet-proof padlock. A couple of families sat around their patio barbeque pits, protected by ICBMs. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks currently are monitoring 13 grizzly sows in the vicinity.

I would not want these huge hairy beasts hanging out in my backyard. Yet in Lincoln, there are people, evidently ignorant, who feed the bears. Yep, you heard me. They are like tourists in Jellystone who want to get a picture of their favorite grandchild, grinning, snug in Yogi's arms — just before Yogi changes the name of the grandchild from Joey to Lunch.

Later that evening, we gathered at Linda and Gary's for huckleberry margaritas, ostensibly to inspire us for the next day's picking. Mmmm, mmmm, good! Keep in mind this drink could be habit forming, creating an obsessive need to pick huckleberries to make more margaritas, which would strip the mountains of an important sustenance for the bears, necessitating the requirement for Fish, Wildlife and Parks to build bear pet feeders, which would lead to a direct reduction of the population of both dogs and grandchildren.

But I digress.

Sunday morning Ginny and Ken joined us while we prepared for our trip up the mountain. Karen, Linda, Donna and I are former classmates — Harlem High '63. We declared Ginny an honorary member on the spot. We loaded gear, sandwiches and buckets. I wore my bear bells. Christmas bells, actually.

Five bells strung together on a decorative rope secured to the belt loop of my jeans. They clang and jangle nicely.

Donna remembered she had a string of miniature cow bells, so she followed suit. Oh, you should have heard the men hoot. They hitched their belts up, fondled their massive pistols. They teased us that our bells would call in the bears. They would then protect us and be heroes. Oooh, we felt safe.

We drove, lurched, bounced and heaved up the side of Sauerkraut Mountain, not too far from where Bigfoot was spotted in July of 2004.

("Oh, look, there's Bigfoot. Hand me another beer.") Lincoln is a known sanctuary for a diversity of wildlife, both animal and human.

Now our education began. Keeping close to the men with guns, we women gave obeisance to the gentle and rare mountain huckleberry. Bent over at the waist, we searched each calf-high plant for the occasional berry. After an hour of harvest, we each had a treasured cupful. One would have thought we were panning for gold. At a cup an hour, well, you do the math. Yet every hour of picking did not yield a full cup of purple-some fruit. Alert for bears, we kept track of one another. We jangled our bells, shouting frequently, "Where's Linda?" "Over here." "Where's Duane?" "Up here." We were careful not to stray too far from the men with the artillery.

By noon we had grown complacent enough amid the bruin-infested wilderness to have a tailgate snack of sandwiches and cookies. We picked for another couple hours before calling it a day. With sly grins, one by one, Ken and Ginny, Linda and Gary, Duane and Donna, all dumped their berries into Karen's and my picking pails. I almost cried. Through our friends' generosity, Karen and I each brought home enough berries to make a batch of huckleberry jelly. Thanks to our pistol-packing guards, we had survived the perils of Griz, Bigfoot and shades of the Unibomber.

Those who scrabble around the mountainsides picking huckleberries to supplement their income have my admiration and respect. We arrived back in Lincoln tired, thirsty, hungry, sweaty, dirty and sore. Next year I'll pay the price and buy my huckleberries at the S.A.T.U.R.D.A.Y. Market. I will visit my friends in Lincoln well after the huckleberries have been harvested.

(Sondra Ashton graduated from Harlem High in 1963 and left for good. She finds, after recently returning, things now look a bit different.

Join her in a discussion of her column at http://montanatumbleweed.blogspot.com.)


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