Lloyd Vollmer has always been an outdoor enthusiast and a bit of a storyteller.
Indeed, longtime readers of the Free Press will recognize Vollmer as this publication’s outdoor scribe through most of the 1960s when he regaled readers with outdoor tales, frequently involving his family of 11 children.
Now 82, he’s still enjoying the great outdoors. And he’s still putting stories to paper.
Which was why he packed up his car June 30 with camping gear, hitched up a trailer loaded with an ATV and made a solo trip last week 600 miles north of Mankato to Ignace, Ontario, and from there, nearly 40 miles further on an old tote road to Lard Lake.
“We’ve been going up there for almost 40 years,” Vollmer said. “It’s an abandoned logging camp and over the years, we’ve stayed in one of the old cabins we fixed up a little.”
Vollmer was making the trip alone so he could work uninterrupted for two weeks on a children’s book for his 35 grandkids.
“You take somebody along and they want to go fishing,” he said. “I didn’t want the distractions.”
After firing up the chainsaw 10 times to clear the old road clogged with deadfalls, he rolled into the deserted camp late in the afternoon on July 1.
Dealing with bears in the area was nothing unusual, and Vollmer wasn’t particularly surprised to find the door on the old cabin torn off the hinges.
“It looked and smelled like a bear had hibernated in the cabin and had cubs under my old bunk,” he said.
Some perfunctory tidying and a good dose of insect spray made the abode at least tolerable.
The next morning, Vollmer set up a screen tent near the lake and concentrated on writing. At mid-morning, he headed back to the cabin on the four-wheeler for lunch and a nap.
“I came around the corner and there was this big black bear with a loaf of bread in his mouth,” Vollmer said.
Normally, any bears he has encountered over the years would scare easily but this one only reluctantly ambled into the woods, even after Vollmer lit and tossed a firecracker.
The bear had trashed the cabin, scattering pans, water bottles and other items around, but it had not managed to get into the coolers.
Assuming that the bear had been attracted by the food, Vollmer decided the best course of action would be to transfer the coolers and remaining provisions into his car overnight.
While transferring coolers and boxes into the car, he noticed the bear had returned and was watching from about 30 yards away. He lit several firecrackers and the bear took a couple of steps toward the woods but then turned around to stare at him.
“I was just putting a box into the car when I heard a sound,” Vollmer said. The bear had crept to just a few feet away.
“I dived into the car but the coolers were in the way and I couldn’t quite get in all the way. He swatted my left leg ... if he had gotten a claw into me, he probably would have jerked me out ... he was madder than hell.”
Vollmer managed to get completely into the car and closed the door.
“He was so big he didn’t have to look up to see in the window. He was the biggest bear I have ever seen.”
Trapped in his car, Vollmer began having difficulty breathing. Eight years ago, he suffered a severe heart attack and needed to be revived four times on an emergency flight to Rochester, so he feared the worst.
Vollmer ingested a couple of nitroglycerin pills. Then a few minutes later, one arm went completely numb, then the other so he was unable to drive.
With the bear outside his window, he could only wait. Vollmer wrote a note to his kids in the event things didn’t work out. Afternoon turned to twilight and twilight to darkness.
By 3:30 a.m., as is the case in northern climes during the summer, it already was growing light. Vollmer looked outside the car. The bear had vanished. More important, he had regained feeling in his arms.
He honked the horn, played the radio loud, threw a few more firecrackers as insurance.
When it was clear the bear was gone, while looking over his shoulder, Vollmer quickly loaded up the remaining gear and headed home.
Save for a growing bruise on his left leg, he was feeling better so rather than stop in Ignace where past experiences with the Canadian health system had proved difficult, he continued to drive, figuring he would stop in Duluth to seek medical attention.
However, by the time he reached Duluth he felt strong enough to continue all the way back to Mankato.
Arriving Sunday afternoon, at his daughter’s insistence, he went to the hospital to be checked out. After a three-day stay as a precaution and concerns of blood clots from the bruise, he was able to go back home.
“They didn’t think I was having a heart attack,” Vollmer said.
Instead, they speculate the breathing difficulty and numb arms were the result of a severe anxiety attack, understandable given the circumstances.
In any case, Vollmer says his days of trekking into Canada, accompanied or not, are over.
“I told the kids that I won’t be going back — that this definitely was my last trip,” he said.
As for the unusually aggressive behavior of the bear?
“I never saw any cubs so the only thing I can figure out is that it figured I was an obstacle to the food it wanted,” he said.
The grandchildren’s book remains to be completed. Coincidentally, before his close encounter with the bear, he had arrived at a title: Nanook, the Wilderness Bear.
John Cross is a Free Press staff writer. Contact him at 344-6376 or by e-mail at email@example.com.