GEORGE’S TALES OF THE WOODS
LION HUNTING IN THE SIERRA NEVADA
Her name was Vendla. Vendla Kivi Ajo. Try saying it: Ven-d-la Kee-vee-ah-ho. The Vendla has a little lift to it, and the Kivi Aho rolls off the tongue. Vendla Kivi Ajo! What a pleasure to speak it. It’s not just a name, it’s a picture. We all have words we like to pronounce and this is one for me, for it also brings back memories and events I would probably have forgotten, and faces I still can imagine. Another I have is “cronartium ribicola”: white pine blister rust. It is a disease that travels between the wild gooseberry and the pines. I like to say it for it makes me sound knowledgeable, but, in truth, it is the only thing I remember from the Forestry class I took at Cal. But I do remember the delicious red fat prickly gooseberries, and someday I’ll write a story about them. Another word I like to say is “Nawaliwily”. I pronounce it nye-willy-willy. Fun, isn’t it? This is a very small seaport on the island of Kauai, north of Lihue, that large ships can enter and depart only at high tide, and, at the time I was there in 1944, as you drove along the adjacent highway you could not see the water, but you could reach out and nearly touch a massive ship that appeared to be sitting on dry land.
Oh, yes, Vendla: she is the girl who led me to lion hunting
Our favorite picnic spot near the logging camps was the road crossing of Silver Creek. It was our favorite, because it was the only water area nearby that was usable. Most of the streams in the area were in a deep ravine or canyon, fast flowing over a rocky bed, and sheltered by tall trees and brush. This creek, which eventually flowed into the South Fork of the American River, wandered through a flat, somewhat level area, sandy on each side and scattered tall Pines around. Our site was just upstream from the ford crossing, and though the water was only 2 to 3 feet deep, it was ideal for cooling off prior to lying on sand in the sun, with a beer or a soft drink, and talking and singing with friends
This particular Sunday might have highlighted a special celebration, for it seemed there were more of us there this time. From Georgetowncame Freddy with a girl. Freddy, a husky young man in his late 20’s, had been a “cat skinner” (tractor driver) for several years in the camps. He had now become a California State Highway Patrolman, and I suspect, cut a fine figure in his uniform.
His guest was Vendla, a pretty, black haired young girl of Finnish parentage, just graduated from high school. It seems she and I found something in common, for the two of us wandered down stream, discussing the problems of the world, and what fortunes the future held for us. She invited me to visit her in Georgetown the next Sunday to have dinner with her parents, and we strolled back to the partying group. Our reception was of a “what have you two been up to?” nature, except for Freddy, who was seriously, and properly, offended and embarrassed, but Vendla and I offered no apologies.
The next Sunday’s dinner was delightful, as were her parents. Both small sinewy persons, her father was the manager of the gold mine nearby, and had I not been invited for that day, the family would have gone to Rocklin, a small town a short way west of Auburn for a sauna. Rocklin had a large population of Finns, who enjoyed their masochistic practice of sweating over hot rocks, then jumping into icy water. I’m glad they didn’t suggest I join them some time. They might even have added switches on my back for further cleansing.
That afternoon Vendla took me for a ride in their family car on one of the back roads. Vendla had just finished high school and was ready to sow her wild oats, to become a woman of the world, to be emancipated. We parked for a while and did a little necking. My attempts at petting were rebuffed, but to express her new freedom she told a joke using the “F” word. I was not shocked, but somewhat surprised, for I would not have said that word before women, such were the mores of that period. And as I parted that evening for the camp, we arranged to go to the “barn” dance outside Georgetown the next Saturday night.
The following Saturday, ready for some fun, I appeared at her house around seven, but found to my disappointment, that she was ill. She was lying on a cot on their screened-in front porch, in no mood or condition for dancing and insisted I go alone to the dance. Some of us from camp had been to these Saturday night dances before, but no others had come down this evening. Nevertheless, I found partners to dance with, and before the 12:00 o’clock ritual of passing the hat to get the band to play another hour, I made friends with another lone lad.
I’ll call him John for I have no recollection of his real name, but when he told me of his summer job with Jay Bruce, the Lion Hunter, it took me back 10 years to a matinee at the Varsity theater inPalo Alto where Jay Bruce appeared on stage, prior to a lion movie. Californiahad two official State Lion Hunters, one for Southern California, and one forNorthern California. When a lion, or you could call them pumas or cougars, posed a problem for domestic animals or humans, the hunter was called to action, tracking with dogs, to dispose of the cat. John told me he and Jay were camped in a deserted house along the road I would be taking back to camp. I don’t know how he got to the dance, but he asked if I would drop him off on my way home. When we arrived at this shack, set back away from the road, he suggested I spend the night with them. Since my family in camp had expected me to stay all night in Georgetown, I accepted. We silently entered the dark and bare cabin, but nevertheless awakened Jay, who, after being introduced to me, asked “well, did you get any tonight?”. With our negative replies, I was given a dirty stinking sleeping bag, which not even a dog would use, but I growled softly and immediately went to sleep.
The next morning Jay prepared us a hearty breakfast with his camping equipment, took us out back, where his dogs were tethered, and into his pick-up truck where we took off on a dusty narrow road into the back-country, that is, even more back than the country we were in already. The dogs were left behind and surprisingly quiet, probably very content to spend the Sabbath in rest.
First, the three of us rode in the cab, Jay calling out the name of the animal tracks he could see through the windshield, tracks I could not even see, let alone identify. Then he rode on a front fender, where he got a better look, and after a while, signaled us to stop. John and I got out and he showed us the tracks of a large cat, which, he said, he would pursue tomorrow with his dogs. We traveled a bit farther on this road for he wanted to check a steel trap he had set. There, in the trap, one leg crushed, I saw the ugliest bird in the world – the turkey buzzard. It was not only ugly, but difficult to kill, for it took him some time, pounding its head with a large stick. Kill it, he must, for, being injured; it would not have survived if released.
We drove back to his bivouac, said our goodbyes and I returned to camp. I heard, sometime later, that he had bagged a lion in that area; a lion I helped him find.
Now, I hear you say!
“You call that lion hunting? You didn’t even get scared. You didn’t shoot a lion, you didn’t see a lion, and you didn’t even hear a lion. You just saw some footprints!”
My reply; “That was as close as I want to get to a lion in the wild”.
But you; you got to meet a lovely maiden, see our picnic spot, meet Jay Bruce, and, if you had been there, petted his dogs. I never saw Vendla again. The next summer I checked in on the Kivi Ajos in Georgetown. Vendla had gone to Alaska, I think married. Mr. Kivi Ajo had died of lung disease, and Mrs. Kivi Ajo was deliberating her future. I enjoyed seeing her several years later, serving as postmistress and clerk at Balderston’s store, a few miles northeast of Georgetown.
And thus, the closing of another chapter in my life, and Tales of the Woods
George W. Parker