Be careful North Vancouver residents – a family in town is keeping a giant bear in their backyard and it’s not going away anytime soon.
If you’re passing by the 700 block of East 17th Street, you may just see the beast peeking over the top of the fence, and if you ask homeowners Chris Robinson and Cathleen Nichols nicely you might be able to come in and have a look. And don’t worry too much about your safety – this bear’s bark is definitely worse than its bite.
How a giant carved bear came to this backyard is a bit of a sad story with a happy ending. Robinson and Nichols bought the house in 1988 and have always loved their backyard, including a cedar that was pushing 100 years old and 100 feet tall. For the two nature lovers – Nichols is a zoologist – it was paradise.
“It provided a really good environment and ecosystem for a lot of bird life,” says Robinson. “We had all the nut hatches and the woodpeckers and stuff like that. We even had pileated woodpeckers come along periodically.”
Trouble started when their neighbour sold his home and a new owner came in and axed four large conifers, leaving Robinson and Nichols’ trees, particularly the huge cedar and another nearby fir, exposed to big gusts coming down a green space behind their home. They noticed that without its friends nearby, the cedar showed a pronounced lean that was aimed directly at another neighbour’s house.
“Our neighbours were worried because here it was pointing at them,” says Robinson. Upon consulting an arborist, the decision was clear – the cedar and the fir both needed to come down.
“When the decision was made we were really devastated by the whole thing,” says Robinson. The arborist sensed their pain and hatched a plan that would help soften the blow, putting Robinson and Nichols in touch with Nick Hall, one of the performers in Grouse Mountain’s summertime lumberjack show who works with Burley Boys Tree Service in the winter.
Hall also dabbles in chainsaw art, a hobby he picked up as a way to turn scrap wood into extra cash while on the road with travelling lumberjack shows. The plan was to chop the cedar and fir down but leave the lower portion of the trunk so that Hall could bring it back to life as a carving.
“(The arborist) knew right away how emotional we were about it, and so he said maybe this is a way of making something special out of what’s going on,” says Robinson. “We thought it was a really cool idea.”
The lumberjack and homeowners went back and forth on a few designs before landing on a bear, accompanied by a hidden fox, for the large cedar and an eagle for the smaller fir. Then, for four days, Hall went to work.
“It was amazing,” Robinson says of watching his trees become animals, adding that the carving process created quite a stir. “We know that some of the neighbours were, if not watching, certainly hearing it from a distance.”
Hall was happy to have the chance to turn the stumps into something creative, but admits that it was a tricky cut given the stakes.
“There was a little bit of pressure because it was a replacement for a tree that they loved,” he says. “It had to be good. It was in their yard, it was permanent. It’s not like they could say ‘no, we don’t want to buy this one after all.’”
Any doubts that the homeowners had were quickly erased as they watched the lumberjack work.
“The whole evolution of it, it was magical to watch,” says Nichols. “When he does it, you just know that it’s a piece of him going into the artwork. It’s so obvious when he’s working and feeling the wood, cutting it with a chainsaw. That was just absolutely amazing, to watch him create this.”
The pressure may have been high, but Hall says he was in his element working with the chopped trees. An artist at heart, he’d dabbled in painting and sketching in his younger days but had never found the perfect outlet for his creativity until he fired up the chainsaw.
“That artistic side came back to me and started to flourish,” he says, adding that he enjoys adding artistic flair to an occupation that comes with a rugged, dangerous reputation. “I love that about it. I get to be the lumberjack manly man but I also get to do my sketches and my drawing and a little bit of art as well.”
When the chainsaw finally fell silent, Robinson and Nichols wanted to shout for joy.
“He’s very gifted,” says Nichols.
“We love the results, and it means a lot to us that he did it,” adds Robinson. “Anybody that ever sees it, words like ‘magical’ come up quite regularly.”
And many people have seen it – the backyard has become a high traffic area since the tree turned into a bear. “We’ve met neighbours that we haven’t met for 20 or 30 years,” says Robinson, adding that he’s thrilled that they were able to turn a negative situation into something new and beautiful.
“It is a dramatic change. We certainly miss the trees, but we’re also happy that we have these carvings,” he says. “We’ve been creating a new ecosystem, a new style of garden with these carvings as the centrepiece.”
That praise is exactly what Hall wanted to hear when he put the chainsaw down and pulled out his earplugs.
“The most important thing is that they were happy,” he says. “I love chainsaw carving and I love making art myself, so if someone else appreciates it, it’s really special. I put a little extra into it because I knew they were really going to love it.”