On October 10, 1910, "Higgy," a cute and cuddly Kodiak bear cub from Alaska who for a few months has been a popular pet at the Olga Inn on Orcas Island in San Juan County, slips his collar and disappears into the woods. Originally given to noted author Ella Rhoads Higginson (1862?-1940) of Bellingham by an Alaskan admirer, the cub was a present from Higginson to her friend May Rice, owner of the Olga Inn. For almost three years after his escape from the inn, the bear is only occasionally spotted, but his fondness for the fruit of the island's orchards is all too evident. Hunting expeditions set out but fail to find their quarry. Rumors abound of the strength and size of the growing bear, no longer considered charming but, instead, a varmint and monster who is said to carry whole cows and sheep away in its powerful teeth. Finally, in June 1913, the bear, now more than 1,100 pounds, is spotted raiding still another property and is brought down by islander Sam Lightheart (1885-?) with five blasts from his 22-caliber rifle.
Mrs. Higginson's Alaska Adventures
Ella Rhoads Higginson was already a nationally renowned author when she took her first trip to Alaska. Her hundreds of romantic poems and stories were popular features in many magazines of the day and in 1902 she had published her only novel, Mariella of Out-West. Ella Rhoads was born in Kansas and moved with her family to Oregon as a child. In 1888 she and her husband, Russell Higginson, moved to Sehome (later Bellingham). She would go on to become, in 1931, the state's first poet laureate (an honorary title, as an official position was not created until 2007).
Higginson enjoyed traveling and in 1904 made an extensive cruise on the steamship Santa Ana along the Alaskan coast. The Alaska Prospector reported her upcoming visit to readers who were already aware of her work as the newspaper had, for months, carried advertisements for her novel. Before her second announced visit the following year, the paper noted that as a "celebrity in the literary world she should receive every consideration and assistance with her plans and trip" (Alaska Prospector, May 25, 1905), and "as a writer Mrs. Higginson stands very high and is fully competent to do [Alaska] justice" (Alaska Prospector, June 29, 1905). Later, in an interview with the Bellingham Herald, Higginson spoke of what an enormous impression Alaska had made on her, saying that she could "hardly think of a future that does not include Alaska ... I hope to go again and again until I have learned enough to write an intelligent story of it" (Coyney). Higginson ultimately made four trips to Alaska, including overland adventures to distant inland sites and cruises along the coast to Kodiak and other islands with numerous stops along the way. In 1908 she published Alaska: The Great Country, more than 600 pages detailing her experiences as well as the history and geography, Native peoples, legends, and myths of the area. The territory's residents were grateful that the wide-ranging story so comprehensively and lyrically introduced Alaska to so many Americans.
The book's content wasn't entirely laudatory, however. Among the experiences and observations she included was a description of a recently captured bear, chained to a stout support on a steamer near Juneau, who was standing "with his nose stretched out toward the glacier, his nostrils quivering and a look of almost human longing and rebellion in his small eyes. The feeling of pain and pity with which a humane person always beholds a chained wild animal is accented in these wide and noble spaces ... where the very watchword of the silence seems to be freedom" (Higginson, Alaska ..., 110-11). It is not recorded how she felt when, two years later in 1910, she was presented with a leashed and collared, very young and lively bear cub as a gift from an Alaskan admirer.
A Kodiak Bear Comes to Orcas
The circumstances in which the bear cub was captured are unknown, but as early as 1908 Alaska law prohibited the export of game animals from the territory except for specified purposes, and private ownership as a pet was not officially sanctioned. Higginson was probably very surprised, therefore, to receive the bear cub in Bellingham where she was living in a gracious home in a quiet neighborhood not remotely suited to accommodate a wild animal that would soon grow to enormous size and ferocious personality with an appetite to match. The Kodiak bear (Ursus arctos middendorffi) is the largest member of the brown bear family, taller and bulkier than the grizzly. Although just a charming 50-pound cub when he arrived in Bellingham, the bear was likely to grow quickly to as much as 1,500 pounds and stand 5 feet high at the shoulder on four feet and up to 10 feet tall when on hind legs. Kodiaks' diet can be more than 80 percent vegetarian, but the bears prefer salmon and will eat whatever is available, including carrion. The cub could not be a backyard pet for long, and what to do with it was a pressing question in need of a swift answer.
Higginson had found that Orcas Island, largest of the San Juan Islands and closest to Bellingham, was an excellent place for a respite from routine, either for a weekend or for a longer stay, and one of her favorite places was the tiny village of Olga, surrounded by farms and orchards, on the southeast shore of East Sound, the long inlet in the middle of the island. She visited in spring 1910 and stayed, as she usually did, at the comfortable Olga Inn owned by Charles and May Rice, with whom she had become good friends. Charles and May had come to Olga from Bellingham, and many from Bellingham soon followed to visit or to purchase nearby properties for summer homes. The inn, originally a store and post office, had been acquired by the Rices in the early 1900s and converted to a boarding house with nine rooms for guests, some of whom stayed for weeks or even the entire summer. It was a popular community gathering place as well, with a large second-floor space used for dances and parties. Midsummer, especially the Fourth of July, was always a busy time at the inn with holiday visitors and celebrations, and this year it had an added attraction -- Higginson had decided that the solution to the problem of what to do with the bear cub, now affectionately known as "Higgy," was to send him to the inn as a present for May Rice.
Higgy in his crate arrived on the steamship Burton and became an immediate Olga favorite. Everyone was enchanted with the appealing youngster who entertained area residents and visitors alike. The San Juan Islander (SJI), one of the county's two newspapers, reported that the plan was for Higgy to be kept at the inn for a year, after which he would be set free and "a grand bear hunt" (SJI, July 8, 1910) would be held, headed by E. C. Sterne of Bellingham as master of the hunt. It was noted that by the time "he gets his growth, [the bear] will be big enough to eat up all the cows with bells on that roam the streets in the vicinity of the hotel" (SJI, July 8, 1910). Higgy's time at the Olga Inn came to an unexpectedly premature end, however, just a few months later on October 10, when he managed to slip out of his collar unnoticed, and then it was just steps to the concealing woods and freedom. May Rice asked the Islander to publish her request that anyone seeing the bear notify her so that she could retrieve him.
Higgy on the Loose
For more than a year Higgy made the area between Olga and Doe Bay, a few miles northeast, his home territory, raiding orchards and farm gardens and growing quickly. He was only rarely spotted, but his visits were evidenced by downed and decimated crabapple, pear, and apple trees, and garden debris left behind. He seemed particularly partial to the pears and other fruit at the property owned by A. B. Norris. Nearly a year after the escape, I. D. Van Sant, who was renting from Norris, glimpsed the much-grown bear but, being without his rifle at the time, was limited to observing that Higgy now had "a grey face and an ornery disposition and [was] likely to put up a good fight if cornered" ("Big Kadiak [sic] Bear ..."). Occasional hunting parties went out in search of the bear, but without success. It was thought that he would be more easily tracked in the snow during the winter (not all brown bears hibernate all winter), but that proved futile too, although the hunters could report that the bear was now probably 800 pounds or more based on the size of his footprints. Rice no longer claimed ownership of the bear, but she announced that when he was killed she would like to have the pelt if it wasn't too riddled with bullet holes or bowie-knife tears.
As more time passed, rumors began to circulate and the stories of the bear's menace grew dramatically with every telling. He was said to not just knock down a tree for its fruit but to stand on his hind legs, pull an entire apple tree up out of the earth with one front paw and then pick it clean with the other paw. A man from Doe Bay said that he'd seen the bear carry a sheep across a deep crevasse in the rocky hills and had found carcasses partly eaten. Another report was that a trap had been set but was not big enough to secure him "so the bear is wearing it ... for a jewelry ornament" ("The Bear ..."). Higgy was said to be sneaky too; one report said he came up behind a man at a nearby lake, snatched the man's 20-pound trout catch and swallowed it in one mouthful.
Despite the increasingly fantastic claims, Olga-area residents didn't exhibit great alarm that a potentially savage animal was wandering in their community. Tourists continued to visit, the inn and village were busy, farmers and orchardists tended their crops, and frequent social gatherings were held. In the autumn of 1911, a party of men from Bellingham brought a dog pack for a hunt, but they too went home without even seeing their prey. The Bellingham hunters were seemingly a bit bemused that "thus far no attempt has been made by the Orcas ranchers to run bruin to earth" (SJI, September 29, 1911).
Life in Olga flowed on with Higgy intermittently making his now-considerable presence known, especially when the fruit crops were at their peak. In May 1913 it was suggested in the Islander that not enough capital was being made of the bear to increase interest in Olga as a tourist destination. "What has become of the Olga Bear? Aren't Olgaites going to do any advertising this summer? That bear story attracted considerable attention to Olga for a while. Why not get together and start a new advertising scheme for the coming season?" (SJI, May 23, 1913).
But Higgy's days were numbered. Just a month later the bear was spotted once again at the Norris place. Sam Lightheart, a local resident, was determined to end the destruction of the island's crops and potential threat to livestock and humans. As soon as he heard of the sighting, he seized his 22-caliber rifle and headed out. When he arrived, he found the bear, "snout red with strawberry flesh" (Szilagyi), savoring the ripe fruit of the garden. It took five shots to bring the great animal down, and Orcas Island's only grand bear hunt was suddenly over. It was estimated that at the time of his demise the bear weighed considerably more than 1,100 pounds, and the story of Higgy's brief adventurous life on Orcas quickly became, and has continued to be, a colorful addition to island lore.