You know you’re Up North when a bear stands by a cross-walk on the main street in town and everyone thinks it’s just dandy. There is such a bear in Elk Rapids. Parents plop their children on its back and take pictures. Kids lean against it. The Village grooms its coat. As bears go, it is a very docile bruin.
Do not be alarmed. Those people are not constructing a cage for The Bear. They are constructing a jail for miscreants who show up for Harbor Days without their Harbor Days Button.
The Bear has a name—Whistle Up the Bay-rr—but everyone just calls it The Bear, much as everyone calls Chicago’s Cloud Gate The Bean. The Bear was installed on River Street in 2005 and grows more beloved each year, like a teddy bear that has been dragged up and down the stairs and out to the sandbox more times than you can count.
It was painted by Eastport artist Betty Beeby, who covered it with scenes and characters from Whistle Up the Bay. Written by Nancy Stone and illustrated by Betty, the book was based on the true story of the three Guyer boys, one of whom grew up to be Grace Guyer Hooper’s father. Grace was a storycatcher, an eccentric, and a role model for the hordes of local historians who follow her footsteps along the sandy two-tracks of Antrim County.
From any angle, The Bear is splendid in its blue and green coat. Lake Michigan splashes across its back, the Bay and the Chain-o-Lakes flow down its side. A schooner from the lumbering era moves away from the dock up in Old Antrim City.
Tall pine trees grow up its paws. It walks through drifts of Michigan wildflowers. (Next time you get to town look very closely to see if you can find the tiny log cabin where the Guyer boys grew up.)
It’s an engaging bear, and children are very fond of it – especially children who were in Char Smith’s fifth grade over the years. All of those children read the book in class, took field trips to Old Antrim City (and its cemetery on the hill) and met Mrs. Beeby Herself. In 2010 they visited her studio in Eastport and acted out a scene from the book just for her. (I found that post, and it’s right here.)
But, but . . . I know. Why was Betty Beeby painting fanciful scenes on a bear??? I will tell you. For awhile there was quite a vogue for public art projects involving large fiberglass animal forms decorated in creative ways. It started in Switzerland, but by 1999 there were Cows on Parade in Chicago. People loved the cows. The American Red Cross of Northern Lower Michigan, recognizing a cheerful trend when it saw one, organized fund raisers Around Here based on other fiberglass critters: The Great Northern Fish-In of 2003, and The Great Northern Hunt for Bearable Art of 2005.
So that’s the whole story of The Bear on River Street. Pretty much. To be continued. As soon as I get out on bail.