The people to whom I was born had lived here before fiercer tribes from the East chased them onto the Great Plains. From time to time they, too, must have stopped to take in the view. Framed in oak, it would have rivaled the photographic landscapes sold in the hopeful little gift shops that crop up in every dying small town in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. This one was a panoramic shot of a stand of tall virgin white pine that crowned a rocky escarpment submarining upward from a deep green sea of pine and hemlock, birch and aspen. Just below the escarpment, a lily pond sparkled in the freshening sun. At dawn a light rain had misted the forest, raising the loamy aroma of damp woods. It was a still, cloudless morning in August, the loveliest time of the year.

Blood stained the foreground. Deep claw marks raked the victim’s grizzled chest and bearded face, twisted in the rictus of sudden and painful death. His right arm jutted rigidly from the torn sleeping bag in the tatters of his tent, the shoulder deeply punctured, shreds of muscle and sinew dangling from the bone. Under the ruined ripstop nylon, blood puddled in a grisly pudding. Dozens of bear tracks—some of them streaked with crimson, bits of tissue clinging to grooves dug by claws—crisscrossed the moist ground around the campsite.

I looked up and sighed, trying to make sense of what I saw. From the bow of the escarpment jutted a lone wolf pine a hundred feet tall, its windward side limbless from decades of tacking into winter storms howling off Lake Superior. In the second-growth forests of westernmost Upper Michigan, wolf pines—aged, once-lordly white pines that had escaped the logger’s ax because they were just out of easy reach—are symbols of flinty endurance to the people who hang on in this rugged wilderness country where livings are hard to make. The Finns who settled here a century ago called that quality “sisu”—perseverance, fortitude, steadfastness. That morning I didn’t know I was going to need it in the weeks to come.

Far from the well-trod hiking paths, Big Trees is a favorite retreat of veteran woodsmen who know the most remote crannies of Porcupine County. I’d been there once myself, as the companion of a local hunter. The place lay a rugged three-hour trek through clouds of mosquitoes and biting flies along a rocky, barely visible footpath—little more than a deer trail—branching southwest from an axle-snapping old loggers’ track. The latter led into the Ottawa National Forest from a narrow paved road serving as the southern boundary of Wolverine Mountain Wilderness State Park, largest of its kind in all Michigan.

Still sweating from the hike, I stepped back from the tent, squashed a mosquito, and hitched up my gun belt, from which hung a .357 Combat Magnum in a tooled leather holster. No yuppie 9mm Berettas for me, I had vowed when I took the job with the sheriff’s department. In the woods, I had reasoned, a man wants a heavy slug carrying lots of foot-pounds of energy. Large animals, especially charging ones, are harder to stop than gangbangers carrying Glocks. Aren’t they?

It was not long until I discovered people don’t need firearms of any kind in the woods, not unless they’re hunting, either for game or for a dangerous felon. The people who live here walk in the forest all the time without weapons, except maybe a four-inch Buck knife, the woodsman’s favorite tool, far handier than a cell phone is to a stockbroker. They feel comfortable in their surroundings, and they know the woods intimately. If one should encounter a large animal, both parties to the meeting usually take their respective leaves with as much dignity and alacrity as they can muster. And felons? They’re in short supply here in the north woods. There’s little to kill for, and less to steal. People here don’t have a lot of cash.

In the seven years I’d been a Porcupine County deputy, I hadn’t had to draw my weapon except to dispatch an injured deer or wounded dog after a highway encounter. But I hung on to the heavy, old-fashioned .357 anyway, out of either fondness or sheer stubbornness, maybe, or just to be different. Nobody else in the sheriff’s department carries a revolver.

Normally a deputy wouldn’t be called in for ordinary bear incidents in either the park or the national forest—local rangers and conservation officers take care of matters—but this was a human death, the first bear-related fatality in the county in more than a decade. And the bloodied victim was no hapless tourist but a wealthy eminence of Porcupine County and one of its most celebrated woodsmen.

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