It was a cold February weekend. Not a single fly fisherman was on the water, and if by some violation of physics and deductive reasoning they were, they certainly were not catching any fish. I know this because most of my regulars were in my shop, toiling away the frigid hours glancing at the tackle and supplies and telling the tallest tales only fishermen could believe. I’ve always believed that fly fishermen, above all other categories of men, are the most likely to be novelists because of their innate abilities to stretch the truth to the factual threshold. It was clearly obvious that the majority of my patrons were in my shop solely to escape their wives, who most likely wanted their husbands to shovel the driveways and fix those driers that were always on the fritz.

It should be no surprise then that TheWulff’s Den was in its usual, boisterous form.

“Have I ever told you boys about my bear?” asked Hank, the retired sheriff who had as much of a passion for beer and pretzels as he did enforcing law and fishing a streamer. This guy wasn’t from Texas, but a bystander certainly would’ve suspected it with Hank’s “go big or don’t go” attitude. His voice boomed like a fog horn and his jowls and gut bounced like fresh gelatin.

“Bear, my rear-end, Sheriff,” replied Rev. Jack. “You prob’ly saw yourself in the mirror after a long bout of not shaving.”

“No, I swears!”

“Oh, that’s a crock,” replied Jack and another gentleman, Buck. Buck was a part-time professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

“No, he even had a name…”

Jack interrupted, “What? Yogi?”

“No, no …”

“Winnie the Pooh?”

“Wouldja shut up already and let me tell my story, ya ragin’ bible thumper?”

Laughter exploded from their circular table in the corner.

“Alright, you grumpy old man. Tell us your story.”

Hank replied, “Maybe I won’t now seein’ as you’re not interested or nothin’.”

“Oh, just tell us the damn story already.”

“Alright, alright.” Hank adjusted the waistband of his synthetic jeans and began. “So I was fishin’ the canyon ‘bout twelve years ago near the end of November. Considering the weather in the past weeks, the morning was pretty nice – windier than the dickens with occasional snow flurries. Naturally, I’m bundled up ‘bout as much Sandy Claus on Christmas Eve and still shivering all over. I was fishin’ that area just downstream of the two tunnels – you know, where the huge rock wall and the big pool?”

“Great hatches in the summer there,” Buck replied. “Big brutes.”

“Right. So’s I’m standing there in knee deep water huddled behind that huge boulder just tryin’ to get outa the wind. Well wouldn’t ya know it, I hear branches cracking and I sees trees shakin’ like a darn freighter is plowing down the slope, and outa the thicket in a cloud of white powder is this little black bear.”

“Noooo,” Buck replied. “You’re kidding.”

“Serious as a heart attack, Buck.”

“Well what’d you do?” another gentleman, Robert asked.

“Well I watched him for a while, ya know? At first, he just jumped around in the snow drifts along the river. I wasn’t sure what he was trying to do until he climbed onto a small boulder that was halfway pokin’ out the water. Well, he clambered up top that rock, perched his self on his furry behind, and slowly crept his front paws down the face of the rock.” Hank shuffled his hands up and down his gut as if he was rubbing himself after a hearty meal. “I ‘spose he was trying to catch a drink of water. And boy did he! His little behind started slidin’ forward and his front paws clawed at that rock for dear life. But his strugglin’ wasn’t good ‘nough, no sir. He slid, slid, slid, then BAM! tumbled head over teakettle right into that darn water!”

The men laughed heartily, Hank the hardest of all of them.

“What happened to him?” Buck asked.

“Well the little rascal must’ve crapped his self ‘cause he was slappin’ and flounderin’ in that water. Luckily for him, he landed in that slow pool there and was able to swim back to the bank in good ‘nough shape. When he climbed out the water, he shook his self off real good, gazed about to make sure no one had saw him lookin’ like a big ofe – I had of course, but he didn’t pay no mind to me.”

“Of course he didn’t,” Rev. Jack added. “You probably looked more like the boulder than the boulder did.”

“I’ll have you know, Reverend, that I was quite a specimen in my time. I’ve gotten this way outa choice.” Hank pointed to his protruding midsection as if it were a badge of honor.

Jack laughed hard before replying, “Boy Hank, I’d hate to see the other choices you’ve made down the road.”

The men laughed once again. All the while, I was stifling laughter as I prepared coffees for some other gentlemen.

Hank continued, “Can I finish my darn story already? Alright, so the little bugger scampered back up the hill, scared half outa his wits mind you. Well I didn’t think much of it until a few weeks later. I went to patrol the canyon road for a bit, and wouldn’t you know it, I saw that little rascal again!”

“What was he doing this time?” Robert asked.

Hank laughed so hard tears were streaming out of his eyes. Every time he opened his mouth to continue his story, further laughter erupted out of his mighty jowls. Finally, after several minutes, Hank regained his composure enough to continue.

“He was wearin’ a darn trashcan for a sombrero!”

“What!?” Jack asked.

“How’d he do that?”

“Well, as much as I can tell, he was getting his self some grub when he fell too far and got trapped in there. His little ‘ole back legs were kickin’ a mile a minute, but all it was doin’ was makin’ ‘im roll all about the parking lot like a darn Coke can in the breeze. He ended up running into the side of the outhouse and back into the fence again.” Hank stopped to wipe his eyes free of the tears that were steadily seeping out of them.

“What’d you do, Mr. Lawman?” The reverend asked.

“HA HA! Well I couldn’t jus’ let ‘im struggle in there like a darn rodeo clown, could I? So’s I go over there, grab the trash can by the butt and yank on it as hard as I can. That little rascal popped outa that can like a champagne cork! Tubbled halfway ‘cross the lot he did. He was scared outa his mind again and took off towards the woods. But he stopped before he got there. He turned around and looked at me for I dunno how long.”

Buck laughed as he said, “Sizing you up, I’m sure.”

“Not much to size up,” Jack quickly added.

“No, no, not at all! He wasn’t really sizin’ me up as much as .. well … smilin’ at me.”

“Smiling?” The others asked simultaneously.

Hank continued, “Yes, smilin’. I know it sounds crazy, but I swears he was. After a few moments of that, he stumbled off clumsily into the forest making as huge a ruckus as he always done.”

“You never did tell us his name,” Robert added.

“Well of course I’d name ‘im Cork.”

“Cork?” They all asked quizzically.

“Yes, Cork. Cork the Black Bear.”

Hank smiled and the other four laughed uproariously at him.

“Cork the Black Bear…” Jack said ruminatively. “Well, I’ve heard worse.”

“Definitely heard worse.”

“So, Sheriff,” Jack began, “What ever happened of ‘ole Cork the Black Bear.”

Hank sipped his coffee and continued, “You see, that’s the problem with you boys – you never let a man finish his stories. Hell, this story hasn’t even begun really.”

“Well we’re all ears now, Hank.”

“Alright, alright. Well, me and Cork had made it a habit to unexpectedly run into one another on occasion. Lot’a times I was fishin’ the canyon when I’d see ‘im stubblin’ down the mountain side playin’ by his self. But then he started showin’ up closer and closer to me, almost as if it wasn’t no coincidence at all. Almost as if he was lookin’ for me, to visit me or something. Shoot, by the end of that next spring, Cork would lay on the bank just where I was fishin’ as if he were my ‘ole ‘coon hound. I’d see people drivin’ or walkin’ nearby, starin’ at me ‘cause I got this black bear – now considerably larger ‘cause you know them bears grow so quick. I’d just turn and wave to ‘em with a big smile on my face. They must’a thought I was a loon-tic or somethin’.”

“I know I do,” Rev. Jack added smartly.

“He was great ‘ole pal alright, that Cork. He knew my favorite spots too ‘cause it’d take no time at all for his big behind to come stumblin’ down the hillside when I got there. Occasionally, I’d toss ‘im a fingerling for his comp’ny. But I don’t think he was there to beg or nothin’. He just liked me I think.” Hank smiled.

Jack said, “Alright, so big doofus meets other big doofus and the two live happily ever after, I suppose?”

“Not quite, I’m ‘fraid,” Hank replied solemnly. “That winter, I was patrollin’ the canyon. I heard a buck shot go off up the way so I sped up the road to sees what was the matter – mind you, there’s no huntin’ allowed in them parts. Well when I turned the corner, I saw three hunters in the camo and orange vests and hats, standing in a circle in the parking lot.”
            “What were they standing around?” Robert asked.

“Somethin’ big was all I could see. I pulled up behind them and rolled down my window to ask them what they was doin’, but before I could ask, I saw one of the hunters was my ice fishin’ buddy, Sal. Sal says to me, ‘Sorry, Hank, he came outa them bushes and I had to shoot ‘im.’ He pointed his rifle at what they was standin’ round, and it was a huge black bear – least thousand pounds I’d say.”
            “It wasn’t Cork, was it?” Robert and Buck asked.

“I’ll git to that, hold your horses. So I says to Sal, ‘No trouble at all. I’ll radio someone to come an’ take ‘er away.’”

“Her?” they asked confusedly.

“Yeah, it was Cork’s mama they’d shot.”

“What’d you do?”

“Well, Animal Control showed up ‘bout an hour later and took her body away. After that, I didn’t see Cork no more for the longest time. I went to all our fishin’ spots every week, but I saw no sign or trace of ‘im. I wasn’t too worried ‘cause it was winter and bears hibernate durin’ that time. But then the frost thawed and spring came and still no Cork. I guess I just kinda figured that Cork went on his way to other parts. But he didn’t…”

“What happened to him?”

“You didn’t find him dead to you?”

“He didn’t hurt anyone did he?”

Hank shook his head and smiled, “I finally saw ‘im at the end of that summer, same spot where I first met ‘im actually. Technically I didn’t see ‘im first, I saw another little cub that was struttin’ along the river bank lookin’ for some food and a drink. I watched that little guy for a few minutes before I heard the trees shakin’ and branches crackin’ and all kinds of ruckus stirrin’ up on the top of that ridge. Stones started rollin’ down the hill and into the river, broken twigs came next. I thought a gosh darn earthquake was strikin’ or somethin’. It wasn’t no quake though, I shoulda known. Outa the darn forest came stubblin’ my buddy Cork, three times the size with two little ones rollin’ in his wake.”

“Ha ha, he went and had himself a family, huh?” asked Robert.

“Darn right he did. Three gorgeous cubs and a big mama to support ‘im.” Hank chuckled ruminatively and sipped his coffee.

“You still see much of Cork?” Buck asked.

“Oh no, Cork’s long dead. Hunter’s you know? Darn trigger-happy rascals jus’ got the best of ‘ole Cork, you know? I still go back to that spot by the rock wall though; sometimes I see Cork’s grandkids and their kids down by the water, sometimes I don’t. It’s always nice to see them though. Never as friendly as Cork was or nothin’, but still a blast to watch.”

And that’s the story about Hank’s black bear, Cork.

I’ve fished that very same spot to which Hank was referring, and I’ve not once seen a sign of any black bear there. At first, I was under the assumption that Hank was just a little crazy, but after a while, I’ve come to believe that some men are born with that extra connection with the wilderness. Hank is certainly one of those men.