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January 12, 2006

How I Was Almost Killed By a Bear: a cautionary culinary tale, photo of mounted polar bear


W hen I was younger and wilder, I lived in a big old farmhouse out in the Mad River bottomland affectionately known as The Bottoms House. My roommates were a motley crew, and since we had a large living room with several comfy couches we had a fair number of short-term visitors. The term couch-surfer had not yet been coined, but that's what they were.

As I said, I was wilder then, but not totally wild: I was a college student and I had a part-time job to earn my way through school, working for the university food services in various capacities -- dishwasher, line cook, cashier, clean-up man -- you name it, I did it. College cafeterias produce a fair amount of leftovers and I would often stock the Bottoms House fridge with cottage cheese containers filled with foodstuffs and marked "up for grabs." I'm guessing that's why Myron saved that steak for me.

Myron was a couch-surfer from somewhere in the Midwest. He'd been bouncing around the country, not working much, but had some skills. He knew how to use a knife. He also had a few scars and stories that went with them that indicated that his skill with a blade sometimes proved detrimental.

Another occasional visitor was a genial ex-con with a Southern drawl who called himself Coyote, not that you would ever take him for an ex-con if you didn't know him. He had a gold claim near Denny that he swore he won in a poker game, although that might have been one of his tall tales. I don't recall him ever talking of any actual mining, but there was a cozy cabin by the river.

At some point Coyote was seriously bothered by one of the bears in the neighborhood; the animal kept raiding his garbage, and since he often left the cabin unattended while carousing on the coast, he decided he'd better do something. Owning a gun was likely a violation of his parole, but he had one, and he shot that bear -- "right through the heart," to hear him tell it. Of course, just shooting the beast was illegal: He had no tag, nor was it the right time of year. Myron and his knife were enlisted to help dispose of the evidence. In payment he received the bear skin and a portion of the meat.

I was off at work when Myron fixed bear roast with carrots and onions for everyone at the house, and since the meal was completely devoured, he made sure to leave a bear steak wrapped in butcher's paper with my name on it in the fridge.

When I got up the next morning, I found the red juicy steak, which looked pretty much like a piece of beef, and cooked myself a breakfast of steak and eggs, searing the meat rare the way I like my beef. Big mistake. Not that I knew it at the time.

After two or three weeks went by, I came down with what I thought was the flu. My muscles all ached and I started running a fever. A former girlfriend came to see me, felt my forehead, said I was burning up, then came back with a thermometer that showed my temperature was running above 103.

She bundled me off to the Mad River Hospital emergency room, where the intake doc, Dr. Tuck, asked me just the right question: "Did you eat anything unusual recently?" But all I could think of was a full can of pineapple rings I had a few days earlier, and some sort of rum drink that made use of the sweet liquid they were packed in. Blame it on the fever: I'd forgotten about the bear.

They put me in a bed, and Dee, a nurse I knew from school, helped me fill out MediCal forms since I couldn't really afford a hospital stay. A doctor ran a battery of tests and was confused by the results: I had the earmarks of an infection of some sort, but my white blood cell count was not elevated the way it should have been for an infection. My case remained a mystery as I lay in bed with a fever that continued to rise, above 104 and heading for 105, with nurses coming around every few hours to draw more blood.

You may have heard about fever dreams -- believe me they can be scary. At times I didn't know if I was awake or asleep. In my delirium, the Bear came to me. Not the bear that Coyote shot, a bear from my past. Growing up in the Bay Area, the son of an ex-San Franciscan, I spent many an afternoon in Golden Gate Park visiting the De Young Museum, the Steinhart Aquarium and the attached Natural History Museum. I don't know that he's still there, but the entrance to the Natural History Museum was graced with a huge polar bear, stuffed in a frightening pose: upright, jaws wide open as if he were about to attack. That was the bear that haunted my dreams, and he gave me the clue to understand my illness.

I told Dee about my dream and, after some research, she explained to my doctor that I was probably suffering from trichinosis, aka trichinellosis, basically an infestation of the roundworm, Trichinella spiralis, which can follow from one omnivore eating another.

According to the Center for Disease Control, "When a human or animal eats meat that contains infective Trichinella cysts, the acid in the stomach dissolves the hard covering of the cyst and releases the worms. The worms pass into the small intestine and become mature. After mating, adult females lay eggs. Eggs develop into immature worms, travel through the arteries, and are transported to muscles. Within the muscles, the worms curl into a ball and encyst (become enclosed in a capsule)" and wait for the cycle to repeat.

In short, parasitic worms had sex inside me, and their babies were settling in for a long nap in my body. No one else who ate the bear had trouble because Myron knew to cook his roast well-done -- the worms die at 170.

The doctor didn't buy Dee's diagnosis, even after I told him about my dream. He had never seen a case of trichinosis and assumed it had gone the way of other forgotten diseases. Once my fever went down to a safe level I was discharged -- undiagnosed.

In the past trichinosis was more common, primarily from undercooked pork, in part because pigs were often fed raw meat, a practice now banned by federal legislation. The CDC recommends freezing homegrown pork for 20 days to kill the parasites. Other problem meats include horse, dog, fox, wolf, coyote, seal, walrus and wild feline, such as mountain lion, bobcat or feral kitty. But, the CDC warns, all wild game must be cooked thoroughly, and "freezing wild game meats, unlike freezing pork products, even for long periods of time, may not effectively kill all worms."

At a follow-up appointment a week later I showed the doctor some unexplained blue marks that appeared under my fingernails after I left the hospital. He consulted some book, and then agreed, "Yes, you have trichinosis." Of course, by that time the worms had run their course and were waiting patiently for some unsuspecting victim who might eat my flesh. He prescribed a foul tasting medicine after telling me how lucky I was: About 10 percent of cases as severe as mine result in death when the worms stop the victim's heart.

An afterword regarding the other characters in the drama: Myron left town not long after the bear incident, never to be seen again. Dee died a few years ago as the indirect result of an auto accident: The wreck didn't kill her, but the drugs she took to ease her back pain did. Coyote fell in love with the ex-wife of a biker. The biker, a seriously mean dude, came after her and her child when Coyote was having lunch with his new family at Tomaso's in Old Town. Coyote, a true Southern gentleman, interceded and was shot dead, right through the heart, in front of the restaurant.


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