Mukwa Ininni, The Bear Man

by Hartwell Bowsfield

Manitoba Pageant, Autumn 1964, Volume 10, Number 1

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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In 1952, the Public Archives of Manitoba added to its collection the Papers of Dr. David A. Stewart. In this material was found a series of animal stories by a wanderer and trapper - Alvin B. Carleton. The papers revealed also the strange way in which these stories came to be written and this man's story of courage and perseverance.

Carleton was born in a log house in Wisconsin in 1862. His boyhood days were spent in the woods where he found his greatest pleasure was in trapping mink and muskrat. At the age of nine he killed his first bear with a gun he borrowed when his father wasn't looking. When he was ten he travelled 2600 miles with his father on horseback and stagecoach through Minnesota, Dakota, and Montana. In 1876, the two travelled from Wisconsin up to the head of the Lakes, over to Winnipeg, and down to St. Paul.

Though this was Carleton's first visit to Winnipeg, it was not his last. Twenty-five years later—after many miles of restless wandering and searching—he returned to a booming city to work for the Canadian Pacific Railway. Those years were spent in a series of exciting adventures, mishaps, and disappointment. He fired a wood-burning engine for the Omaha Railroad, he set out for California, he shipped on a schooner for a trip to Chile and around South America, he caught yellow fever in New Orleans.

But the desire to see the world and share in its great events was never as strong as the call of the woods and time after time Carleton would leave his work and return to his gun and his traps. By 1884, Wisconsin was too civilized and too settled for him. He set out for northern Minnesota and by 1899 had wandered up to Winnipeg to find employment with the railway.

But again he left his job to return to the woods. He went trapping, he hunted bears, he prospected for gold—and found nothing. He returned to Winnipeg, this time as the foreman of a railway yard crew. One morning while going to work he saw the tracks of several dogs in the snow. This was more than he could stand. Once again he responded to the call of the wild, left the railway—this time for the last time—bought an outfit of traps and blankets and next day started for Rainy Lake.

There in 1906 occurred an accident that turned Carleton into a writer. One morning while crossing a small lake on snowshoes he broke through the ice and spent six hours in the cold water before being rescued by Indians. As a result of this accident he spent the rest of his life in the Winnipeg General Hospital and it was there that Dr. Stewart got him to tell his stories.

Carleton's many years of hunting and trapping had taught him to know that all animals were not as wild as many writers had made them out to be and he made fun of those writers who had never been out of their back yards yet wrote tall tales about their escapes from the wild animals they had known.

Photo: Carleton on the right, in hospital.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

One of his stories he called, "Wild Animals I Have Not Known." In it, and with a sense of humour, he says, "I read in a magazine not long ago an exciting and touching adventure which is interesting only because of its absolute impossibility. It told the story of a trapper who had wandered into the woods—without a nurse—having also very absent-mindedly left his rifle at camp—probably on the piano. During the course of the day he was attacked by a large pack of rude and ravenous wolves. He defended himself with his hunting axe as best he could but was finally over-powered, torn to pieces, and devoured—nothing being left of him as a souvenir but a vest pocket and a handful of nicely polished bones."

While in hospital Carleton wrote many stories—true tales of his own adventures, and stories of his imagination—about Quequesha, a husky, about Mah-en-gin, the wolf, and Koo-koo-koosh, the owl. He became known to his friends who read these stories as Mukwa Ininnithe Bear Man—and one famous Winnipeg minister and writer—known to us as Ralph Connor—tried to get the stories published.

He sent one of the stories to a New York publisher. The publisher thought that it was first class but since so many animals stories were on the market was afraid it would not sell.

So the stories were left. Only one ever appeared in print. But our story does not end there for the strangest part is yet to come. As a result of his accident Carleton suffered a progressive paralysis throughout his body. First he lost the use of his arms and a fellow patient wrote the stories down as Carleton dictated. Then he lost the use of his voice. How was he to tell his stories now? How could the rich experiences of his mind ever be put on paper? Not even the loss of his voice, however, could stop Mukwa Ininni—the Bear Man. A stick was bandaged to his foot and with this as a pointer Carleton slowly tapped out his stories by pointing to the letters of the alphabet on a board at the bottom of his bed.

It was in this way that Alvin B. Carleton who loved to wander in the land of the lake, and the river, and the pine, was forced to lie down like a wounded wolf - but was able to tell us of the life he loved and the wild animals he had known. *

* See the article by Alvin B. Carleton in this issue of Manitoba Pageant.

Page revised: 3 September 2020