The old mill and Bishop's Falls

At The Gateway Of The Catskills - Part 2

by Ernest Ingersoll from May 1877 Harper's New Monthly Magazine


Every one in the Falls builds a pen of logs and baits it for bears. Enos alone traps Bruin. When I saw him last September he had three bear traps set, and was about to set another over on the highest ridge of White Rock MT. These traps are little houses, about eight feet long, three feet wide, and four feet wide, made of logs as heavy as two men can lift. One end is left open, into which a thick and heavy door of slabs is fitted, so as to slide up and down in a groove. The whole is roofed over with logs, and pinned and braced so as to resist the most violent efforts of the imprisoned brute.

In baiting, the door is lifted an poised on the end of a stick balanced over a cross-piece, to the further end of which the bit hangs. The bear must go quite into the pen to get at the bait - usually a sheep's or calf's head - and the moment he tugs at it he dislodges the door, which falls behind him, leaving Mr. Bruin "in quod".

The ordinary heavy spring trap is also used, but disliked on account of the danger of the hunter himself getting caught, the success depending on the animal stumbling into it. This trap consists of two semicircular pieces of iron with serrated edges, so fastened together at their ends that when pried apart they lie flat on the ground, with an iron plate between them big enough to hold the foot of a bear.

The contrivance resembles a shark's jaws, wide open, and, chained to a tree, is hidden in the leaves, with the bait just beyond, so that the bear must walk over the trap. Of he tries to do so, he is tolerably sure to step on the hidden plate, and pressing a trigger, releases the horrid jaws, which fly together and hold his foot in clasp from which it is impossible to get free. The chain prevents his limping away, and there he must stay and suffer till the hunter, with his merciful rifle, comes to his deliverance. Sometimes, to get free, the bear will gnaw off his leg at the first joint, and leave his foot in the trap. Enos met with one such case in his own experience, and having thrown the foot one side, another bear found it and ate it.

Whichever trap is used, it is set near a "wallow" - by which is meant a wet place where bears come to roll in the mud and drink from the springs. They are very fond of this amusement, being naturally playful, have paths more or less well worn leading towards such wallows, and go there again and again with their families to gambol on the soft banks.

A well constituted Catskill Ursus americanus has almost as good a time as any animal I know of. He has a magnificent country to roam through, there are not too many other bears to divide the spoils with, the climate is not too hot in midsummer, and in midwinter he can curl up in some snug retreat, suck his paws, and sleep till vernal mildness calls him forth to new wanderings. He is not bothered with many visitors - barring the hunter and his hounds. If I could not be a butterfly, I should like to be a bear. It amounts in the end chiefly to a choice between being caught in a trap and perforated by a rifle-ball, or captured in a silken net and bayoneted with a pin.

The bear is born in February (usually with a single twin brother or sister), in some cave or hollow under the roots of a tree, where his mother has "holed up" in a state of partial hibernation when the first heavy snow came, and the cold froze up the spring-holes. The old bears go into these caves excessively fat, and seem so when they come out but their long fast and the nursing of the young soon reduce them, so that they often have a hard rub to keep alive if the spring is slow and their diet of roots and bulbs is held tightly locked by late frosts

At such times they frequently become very bold, making repeated attacks on the farmer's sheep and calves. Enos Brown last spring had five sheep taken off in rapid succession. He therefore stopped his farm-work, applied himself to trapping, and soon five bear-skins graced his shanty's walls. His sheep were avenged. During the spring and early summer, the bears live by their wits - rather poorly - and are little hunted. They are shedding their hair, so the fur is not in good plight, their flesh is lean, and their young accompany them about the woods. The time to begin to hunt them is when the woodland berries start to ripen.


In the late autumn bears are also hunted with dogs, and although the sport is very exciting, it is the hardest imaginable work. The mountains are rugged and steep in the extreme, covered with forest which are choked with a dense undergrowth of huckleberries and briers, while fallen trees, rugged detached rocks, and deep swampy gullies obstruct the way. To work one's way through this tangle is not easy at best, and when one is hampered by a rifle, ammunition, and other "fixin's", and is trying to keep up with the excited dogs, the undertaking requires a man of steel. When a bear finds itself pursued, it takes off up the steepest, most inaccessible places, and over the very loftiest points in the whole region, keeps on from peak to peak across the worst ravines and through the densest jungles, fully aware that thus it will soonest exhaust its pursuer, and finally escapes, if at all, through its superior endurance. The hunter, knowing this, follows as best he can with one or two tough little dogs, mere whiffets, which dash up and nip the bear behind. When Bruin turns around in amazement and indignation, the little dog is not there, but returns the instant the bear starts on, and thus worries the bear into stopping and attempting to fight its minute and pertinacious tormentor until the hunter comes up and can shoot.

A large dog will attack the bear boldly, and hold on until he is hugged to death - the speedy and almost inevitable result of his incautious courage. A bear hunt of this kind is full of adventure and fascination for the sportsman, yet the chance of getting the bear in the end is a doubtful one. You are sure, however, of a sinew-testing chase and a nerve-testing struggle at the end. If an enraged bear is not a pleasant fellow to meet on his native hills, a wounded one is still less so, and the hunter must be self-possessed and agile to escape the formidable antagonist that has failed to fall at his best shot.

Enos Brown tells a story of an adventure of this kind he and his "woman" (Shokanites never say wife) has when a very large bear submitted to be shot in the head, straightened out with his head down hill, and have his throat cut, and then suddenly revived and made exceedingly lively and sanguinary work for the Brown family before consenting to yield up the ursine ghost. Sometimes, moreover, a bear is lost through a provoking accident, such as stupid dogs stopping to tree a porcupine, entirely losing track of the nobler game, to the vexation of the breathless hunter, who rushes up convinced from the dogs' racket that a whole den of bears await his conquest.


Part 1 - The Gateway of the Catskills


Do you have any information you'd like to share on this subject? Please email me!
The Catskill Archive website and all contents, unless otherwise specified,
are 1996-2010 Timothy J. Mallery