|A sleeping bear, courtesy of LaggedOnUser|
Over the last week, I have been reading Alf Evers’ magisterial history, The Catskills: From Wilderness to Woodstock. His well-written book is filled with surprises, reading it is like coming around a corner on a hike and finding something surprising.
A surprise that a hiker or angler does not wish to have is to come around a corner meet a bear. Evers, who died in 2004, has a chapter on bears near the halfway point in his book. Some of the stories concern unexpected people/bear encounters in the woods; did you know that poorly sung hymns can be useful when meeting a bear?
But the most amazing thing in this chapter is the real story of Ground Hog Day.
In popular culture, February Second is celebrated as Ground Hog Day. Depending on whether the ground hog sees a shadow, winter will drag on or end mercifully soon.
According to Evers, however, the ground hog is a late arrival to this tradition.
In the Catskills, Evers writes, February second was celebrated “until well into the twentiethĵ century . . . as “Bear’s Day.” He goes on to quote an account of this holiday from the Reverend Charles Rockwell’s 1867 book, The Catskill Mountains.
On February second, Rockwell wrote, “bears wake from winter sleep, come forth from their dens, take a knowing observation of the weather for a few minutes and then retire to their nests . . . “ “It is further claimed,” he wrote, “that if the sky is clear . . . and the weather is cold . . . they sleep quietly on until the first of April, thinking the cold weather will continue thus long. . . if the weather is mild and cloudy, they look for an early spring.”
When I mentioned Bear’s Day to several friends, they all had a similar reaction. “If it’s Bear’s Day,” one wag said, “you can’t reach into the den and pull the bear out can you? Ha Ha Ha.”
Reverend Rockwell had an answer to this one. It was possible to learn what the bear saw from seeing tracks entering and leaving the bears den. It was also based on observing tame bears that Colonel Lawrence kept at his tavern in Kiskatom.
Why do we celebrate February second with an allegedly cute and rolly poly rodent? Evers suggests bears became scarce in the nineteenth century as Catskill wilderness was rolled back by farms and loggers and hunters killed them.
Ground hogs typically must live in sunny meadows and fields. The farmer and hunter set up the conditions for the bear to fade away and for the ground hog to capture the holiday.
If we went back to Bear’s Day, ground hogs - - and people - - might be happier. A bear’s large size commands respect and emphatically tells people to keep a distance.
By contrast, ground hogs can be unpredictable; in New York City, the Staten Island Zoo celebrates the day with a ground hog named Staten Island Chuck. In 2009, Chuck bit former Mayor Bloomberg. In 2014, Mayor De Blasio dropped Chuck’s stand-in, Staten Island Charlotte. In 2015, Jimmy the ground hog bit Mayor Jonathan Freund on the ear at the Sun Prairie, Wisconsin celebration.