Bear with me

Grizzly bears fishing for salmon, Brooks Falls, Katmai NP, Alaska


According to my cardiologist, swimming is an excellent form of exercise. He claims it puts very little stress on the system in exchange for a great amount of cardio. I don’t always follow my doctor’s orders, but as I like to swim, and happen to live very near to a beautiful swimming hole in the Chattahoochee River, I go swimming often. Also, I am well over 80, a little weak in the knees, and jogging is totally out of the question.

On my trips to the river, I am usually accompanied by the lovely Lea, my wife, and the lively Chester and Jean Jacques, our two French poodles — 65-lb., solid dogs. Provided the water is close to 80 degrees, Lea may dip a toe or two, and I can vaguely remember seeing her up to her knees in the water, but that is where she draws the line. The dogs love the river and can be depended on following me wherever I choose to swim. In fact they like to use me as a sort of life raft when they get tired of swimming upstream. To escape their sharp claws from raking my back, I have no choice but to outswim them and as a result get even more cardio than my doctor prescribes.

There is something different in the air on a day in June of last year when the four of us again visit the same, familiar swimming hole in the Chattahoochee River. I cannot pinpoint it, but it makes me feel uneasy. It seems to affect the dogs also. They are jittery, bark incessantly, and Jean Jacques, who is the younger of the two, even tries to pick a fight with Chester. Lea announces that she is not getting in the water, but as that is not unusual, it does not unnerve me particularly.

I scan the little beach and the water for snakes, but there are none to be seen. They are pretty common along that stretch of the river, and often enough you see one swimming with its head, like a submarine’s periscope, just above the surface. Because of these critters I have made it a habit to regularly glance across the water ahead of me while I’m swimming. You don’t want to bump headlong into a water moccasin or such. Not that it is likely to happen as they are just as scared of us as we are of them — I think.

On this beautiful afternoon in June I soon shake off my feelings of unease and enter the dark, swirling depths of the mysterious Chattahoochee. The cool water refreshes me and as I swim vigorously upstream, I now and then scan the waters ahead of me. No snakes to be seen anywhere, but hey, what is that?

Two big black dogs are swimming across the river some 100 feet ahead of me. Not my dogs as they are always behind me, and only one of my rascals is black. Where are they anyway? Not behind me, not in the water at all, but barking, high up on the bank of the river, safely out of reach from the menacing, big black animals that now change course and are coming my way.

I see my wife, also high on the bank, wildly gesticulating and shouting something about bears, black bears in the water.

Time to get some serious cardio and swim to safety in a hurry. If only I could walk on water. As the pair of bear cubs get closer to me, probably hoping to use me as a living life raft, my brave French poodles go into action and actually jump into the river in defense of their bread (cookie) winner. The bear cubs change their minds and head back for the other shore, where their 300-lb., mom is anxiously waiting for them.

Back on shore, I wave at her and we all, peacefully, decide to stay on our own side of the river.
Some of my neighbors still swim there. Can you believe that? I am not that reckless and recently built a swimming pool in my backyard.

Herman Thorbeckem, who has lived with his wife in Northeast Georgia for about 10 years, has published a number of books, mainly for children. He is also a regular contributor to a Dutch language monthly “de Krant,” published in Canada. He is a member of a small writers club in the Clarkesville area.