Bear the Boat Cat: 8.2.06 — 9.4.18

Posted by on November 13, 2018 in Hooked Favorites | 15 comments

In the spring lead­ing up to the 2006 salmon sea­son, Joel and I had already endured two sum­mers as a cou­ple sep­a­rat­ed by our boats. As he pre­pared for his sec­ond sea­son run­ning the Ner­ka, I debat­ed my options: would I con­tin­ue crew­ing for my broth­er, or jump ship to work along­side my sweet­heart? My broth­er joked that I’d pick who­ev­er was the first to get a boat cat. He wasn’t wrong. Joel vol­un­teered, and my deci­sion was made. The promised boat cat was slow to mate­ri­al­ize. Oth­er things took pri­or­i­ty, as hold­ing the implod­ing boat togeth­er con­sumed every ounce of Joel’s focus. Months before we actu­al­ly met Bear, she’d appeared in our fam­i­ly as a nego­ti­a­tion tac­tic.

There’s a pic­ture in my wal­let of Joel, tak­en mid­way through that sea­son. He sat at the Nerka’s table, star­ing down at a use­less scram­ble of engine parts. A friend had helped take the ail­ing refrig­er­a­tion sys­tem apart. Then he’d gone fish­ing, leav­ing Joel alone to reassem­ble the chaos. His expres­sion was one of utter despair.

It was the look of a man who need­ed the com­fort of a cat. I was sure of it.

The Sit­ka Ani­mal Shel­ter staff brushed aside my con­cern about find­ing a cat that would be suit­ed to boat life. “The only way to know how a cat will be on the boat is to take a cat and try it out, and if it doesn’t work, bring it back and try a dif­fer­ent one.” There were only two to choose from. The tuxedo’ed male ignored me, while the big-boned tab­by pressed her face against the bars. The staff saw their oppor­tu­ni­ty. “This is a nice cat. She’s about two years old, been with us a cou­ple months, since some­one dropped her off one night.”

I dragged Joel away from the boat the next day. As if she knew he was the one she need­ed to con­vince, she bar­reled out of the ken­nel and leapt into his lap. Rub­bing the white patch on her throat with engine-scabbed hands, his face soft­ened for the first time in days.

The big-boned tab­by came home with us. She became Bear the Boat Cat, the Nerka’s Chief Morale Offi­cer. We became a fam­i­ly.



I start­ed writ­ing drafts of Bear’s eulo­gy thir­teen months before she died. Often, she was curled with­in reach as I wrote: back­bone a frag­ile aba­cus, run­ny-eyed, tired, old. Every time I sched­uled an appoint­ment to put her down, Joel can­celed it, grant­i­ng her one stay of exe­cu­tion after anoth­er. We watched the end com­ing so long before it final­ly did.

In the ear­ly years, boat life seemed to suit Bear’s fear­less nature. An indoor-only cat on land, she ruled the fourth fin­ger of Sitka’s New Thom­sen Har­bor. Swag­ger­ing up the weath­ered planks, she vault­ed neigh­bor­ing boats’ bul­warks, ris­ing on her hind legs to peer into unfa­mil­iar cab­ins. (Regal as she was, she was par­tial to yachts.) She tore after any dogs trot­ting past and pre­tend­ed to ignore the taunt­ing crows. Super­vis­ing my pre-sea­son boat main­te­nance, she left per­fect paw prints in fresh­ly-var­nished rails.

She ran away from home once. Joel and I had both been crew­ing on a friend’s boat, gone on a three-day black cod trip. We’d left her with plen­ty of food and water, but when we got back, Bear had had enough. She slipped out the door and didn’t appear when I walked the docks shak­ing the bag of food, call­ing her home. It was a cold night aboard the Ner­ka, cab­in door left ajar. The next morn­ing, I’d start­ed writ­ing Lost Cat posters, tears smudg­ing the text, when a fel­low fish­er­man stopped by to tell us she was with his bud­dy. We retrieved her from a wood­en troller that hadn’t been fish­ing in years, deck buried beneath Key­stone Light emp­ties. The cap­tain seemed sor­ry to hand her over. “That’s a real nice cat. She hopped right up into my bunk and spent the night with me.”



Away from the dock, Bear pre­ferred to stay in the cab­in. She curled up on the day bunk, rolling on her back to soak up any sun­beams. (“Otter Cat!” we exclaimed, stroking her exposed bel­ly.) She hopped into the pilot seat when it suit­ed her, often sit­ting with Joel as he drove out of the anchor­age in the morn­ing, watch­ing the sun rise, front legs stretched in an exten­der over his knee. She was sit­ting with him the first time she saw whales. As the enor­mous black backs broke the sur­face, she stared out the win­dow, then turned wide eyes to her dad. Did you SEE that?


Breach­ing whales became back­ground noise, unwor­thy of her atten­tion. But Joel and I nev­er tired of scan­ning the shore for griz­zlies, inevitably turn­ing the binoc­u­lars inward to cheer, “Found one! There’s a Bear Cat!” Like any kid embar­rassed by their dorky par­ents, we could almost see her green eyes roll.

Those green eyes… Bear was hands-down the most pho­to­genic mem­ber of our fam­i­ly. She was a fiend for Tillam­ook ched­dar, Haa­gen Daaz crème brulee, and fire­weed fresh­ly cut from the har­bor park­ing lot. She devoured treats few peo­ple are priv­i­leged to enjoy – Lituya Bay prawns, wild Alaskan ivory king salmon sashi­mi – and played with her toys only when she thought she was alone, howl­ing like a ban­shee around the stuffed beaver clamped between her jaws. She was a resilient trav­el­er, endur­ing long flights and car rides with no more than a sin­gle meow of protest. She missed only one fish­ing sea­son over twelve years. When Joel blew out his knee in the spring of 2013, they sat out the sea­son togeth­er. She was a kinder, gen­tler Bear that sum­mer. She was his best friend.



Unin­ter­est­ed as Bear was in the dai­ly oper­a­tions on deck, she’d saunter to the bow after the anchor dropped. Instead of gaz­ing at the Ton­gass coast­line, she sat out­side the win­dows and stared inward, track­ing her humans’ every move. “What’s on TV tonight, Bear Cat?” we teased. “Any­thing good?” When she’d had enough, there she was at the cab­in door, demand­ing to be let back in with her dis­tinc­tive voice. Mrrrr-mraow!


We almost lost her once. It was July 2016, anchored in Saint John the Bap­tist Bay. Raft­ed with our fish­ing part­ner, it was a late night at the end of a long coho trip, but the shared com­pa­ny reju­ve­nat­ed us. I nursed a cup of tea while Joel and Greg sipped whiskey, cel­e­brat­ing our full fish holds with a shared Toblerone. I first thought the dis­tant howl­ing was Bear play­ing – did she take one of her toys out­side? – but there was no mis­tak­ing the sound of splash­ing water. Greg’s cool head saved her. While I jabbed the dip net at the dark water, he grabbed a flash­light. Joel inter­vened with the net, scoop­ing her up just as she was about to give up on us, turn­ing to swim for shore. I wrapped her in a tow­el and held her, limp and shiv­er­ing, over the stove. She was back to her ornery self the next day.

And there’s no deny­ing Bear the Boat Cat was ornery. Our friend Mikey summed her up, “I like Bear because she’s a cat, but if she was a human, I wouldn’t want to be her friend.” We issued warn­ings to new vis­i­tors, advis­ing them how exact­ly to pet her to avoid being bit­ten. Most lis­tened. Those few ass­holes who inten­tion­al­ly crossed her bound­aries? They got what they deserved, in every drop of blood they shed. She was utter­ly her own crea­ture, unmoved by oth­ers’ wants or wish­es. It was one of the things we loved about her.



She stopped play­ing last win­ter. Her toys lay where we left them, untouched. The nights were silent. She’d always respond­ed to Joel’s whis­tle, charg­ing full-force to bound into our laps when­ev­er he pursed his lips in a pygmy owl call. Always, until she didn’t. In the final year, she answered his calls with emp­ty eyes, too weary to move.

If there was a sin­gle shin­ing moment of Bear’s life, it was in 2008. I was back on my brother’s boat, crew­ing for hal­ibut before the salmon sea­son. Bear came with me. We’d been longlin­ing off­shore when the weath­er came up. It was a six-hour run to the near­est anchor­age, and we fell into our bunks as soon as the anchor was set, too exhaust­ed by the ass-kick­ing to be both­ered by the after­noon sun stream­ing through the open cab­in win­dows. I star­tled awake when Bear, nap­ping with me, launched off my chest and leapt across the cab­in. She tried to twist away as I pried her jaws open. Out burst a barn swal­low, a blue blur zip­ping from cat’s mouth to win­dow. Bear glow­ered and hunched toward the floor. I forced her mouth open once more – and out flew a sec­ond swal­low. A lit­tle more dazed than the first, maybe, but it too made a break for the win­dow and safe­ly back to shore. Bear gave me the cold shoul­der for the rest of that hal­ibut trip, furi­ous that I’d thwart­ed her once-in-a-life­time two birds, one bite glo­ry.

This last sum­mer, we were fifty miles off­shore when a way­ward tree swal­low flew into the Nerka’s cab­in. It lit on the table, chirp­ing loud relief at find­ing sanc­tu­ary. Bear was sleep­ing less than a foot away. She didn’t budge. Joel and I exchanged a heavy look, silent under­stand­ing that our old girl was a shell of the cat she’d once been.


Boat life hadn’t always been fun for her. Like us, she had to regain her sea legs at the start of every sea­son. (There’s noth­ing more pathet­ic than a sea­sick cat, lying limp and hope­less on the floor, drool­ing ropes of foam from her muz­zle.) It got hard­er as she aged. She start­ed fad­ing in 2015, hyper­thy­roidism burn­ing away her bulk. Radi­a­tion treat­ment bought her anoth­er eigh­teen months. Then her kid­neys start­ed to go, reduc­ing her to con­stant, des­per­ate thirst. She spent the major­i­ty of her last sea­son in a cat bed at the set­tee, cor­ralled in a card­board box lined with a heavy garbage bag to guard against acci­dents. The rare times she’d step out­side, it was only to watch the deck hoses gush­ing sea water before her, or to stare out the scup­pers at the infi­nite, undrink­able blue. When the fish­ing slowed, I car­ried her down to her lit­ter box. When the weath­er came up, I stead­ied her as she strug­gled to keep her bal­ance, the bow slam­ming against the waves. We bore help­less wit­ness to her decline, won­der­ing if Bear might have enjoyed a longer life, bet­ter gold­en years, if she hadn’t been a boat cat.

We let Bear the Boat Cat go on Sep­tem­ber 4, 2018. She didn’t fight the dri­ve to the vet, but nes­tled in Joel’s lap and pressed her face into his arms. She didn’t try to jump from the exam table. She didn’t flinch when the nee­dle slid into her leg. We flinched for her. We told her we’d nev­er for­get her, we’d always love her, it was an hon­or to share these twelve amaz­ing years with her. We told her she was the best cat two neu­rot­ic mon­keys could ever ask for. We told her good­bye.


After good­bye, there’s only thank you:

Thanks to her orig­i­nal humans, who anony­mous­ly sur­ren­dered the big-boned tab­by one night in the spring of 2006, leav­ing her in the Sit­ka Ani­mal Shelter’s out­door ken­nel. Thanks to the Shel­ter staff and vol­un­teers for keep­ing her safe until we met her sev­er­al months lat­er. Thanks to Dr. Burgess Baud­er for car­ing for her over the years, includ­ing a stormy night meet­ing to sign a health cer­tifi­cate allow­ing her to trav­el south the next day. Thanks to the Seat­tle Cat Clin­ic for treat­ing her hyper­thy­roidism, buy­ing her a few bonus years. Thanks to Aunt Ash­ley, Daryl, and the many, many peo­ple who cared for her over the years. Thanks to all her friends – boat kids, land peo­ple, Fish­er­Po­ets, a lit­er­ary agent in New York City and a blog­ger in Cal­i­for­nia, strangers who approached us to ask if we were Bear’s par­ents. Friends who knew her in per­son and friends who knew by her online pres­ence, all rec­og­niz­ing what a spe­cial being she was. Thanks to Dr. Vic­to­ria Vos­burg and her staff for giv­ing her such a peace­ful, respect­ful end. Most of all: Thanks, Bear Cat. You were the absolute best, exact­ly the way you were.


  1. Thank you Tele. My two bud­dies left a few months apart this last year. You summed up my feel­ings. I am glad Bear found love and a home with you.

    • Great sto­ry, great writ­ing, Tele. Your essays just keep get­ting bet­ter. I only hope to do as well We can’t have a cat any­more because my son is aller­gic to their fur we final­ly found out. And we do miss them.

  2. What a won­der­ful account­ing of a loved one’s life. She will be missed and remem­bered for a long time. So sor­ry for your loss. Great pho­tos to remem­ber her by…

    Mom and Pops

  3. Hav­ing a hard time typ­ing through tears.…what a gift to be able to write so beau­ti­ful­ly of a love lost, but deeply cher­ished. Thank you for the effort it took to write such a love­ly eulo­gy. I hope one day some­one is as kind to my old bones. And here’s to Bear, when you get to Cat Heav­en, say hel­lo to my girls Newt and Shush. They are won­der­ful cud­dlers, and always in search of a new friend.

  4. My deep­est sym­pa­thies to both of you, It is so won­der­ful when a cat comes into your life and so very dif­fi­cult when it’s time for them to leave. Lots of love and hugs to you.

  5. Thanks for the mem­o­ries. When peo­ple and ani­mals come into our lives, we don’t know what impact they will have on our lives until they are gone. You have my con­do­lences.

  6. With an aging cat as a mem­ber of our fam­i­ly, this real­ly plucked a chord in me I’ve been try­ing to keep silent.

    For a lucky por­tion of us, cats tran­scend the “pet” moniker and become sig­nif­i­cant fig­ures in our lives. Lucky for Bear the Boat Cat, you and Joel were in that por­tion.

    With us hav­ing two indoor cats (due to a wel­come coy­ote pop­u­la­tion) I’ve always been plagued with guilt over not let­ting them have their own adven­tures. I’ve always heard “out­door cats live short­er, yet hap­pi­er lives.” It sounds like Bear was in a new col­umn; get­ting to be free, hav­ing the wind in her fur, “smelling all the smells” as we say about our cats, and eat­ing like a Queen. You should both feel proud at pro­vid­ing such adven­ture, love, and empa­thy for her.

    This was a won­der­ful good­bye to a sig­nif­i­cant part of your fam­i­ly. It made me feel like I had been there on the Ner­ka myself at one point, gaz­ing out of the win­dow with a smile as I caught a glimpse of her liv­ing her unique life.

  7. So much love to you both. I’m so hap­py Bear had such a won­der­ful life with lov­ing par­ents. I’m equal­ly as sor­ry for the loss you feel now.

  8. Beau­ti­ful, love and hugs

  9. I am sor­ry for your loss.…and grate­ful for the shared mem­o­ries.

  10. Thanks Tele..

  11. This just strikes every deep res­o­nant­i­ng chord in me .what a beau­ti­ful way of cap­tur­ing Bear the Boat Cats best life ever.

  12. Wow. Such pow­er­ful writ­ing. I’ve missed it.
    And what a fab­u­lous trib­ute to a spe­cial being. Thank you.

  13. Dear Tele, Beth and I just read, with tears stream­ing down our faces by the end, your farewell to Bear the Boat Cat. 10 days after his pass­ing we said good­bye to Nel­son Man­dela von Bot­tle­brush , our 17 year old tab­by. From a 5 week old fer­al kit­ty, all teeth and claws, to a lov­ing, gen­tle, often howl­ing old man­cat who spent every avail­able lap minute on mine, his 17 years passed, it seems, in a heart­beat. In his ear­ly years he too was very onery and lived up to his fer­al ori­gins by bit­ing many hands who tired. despite warn­ings, to approach him unin­vit­ed. Thank you for shar­ing your love for him with us.

  14. Dar­ling Tele and Joel. So very sor­ry for your loss. The only prob­lem with lov­ing our ani­mal friends is know­ing we will prob­a­bly out­live them. Beau­ti­ful piece about an extra­or­di­nary cat and her lov­ing blessed “par­ents.” So very sor­ry. Love, Aunt Lynn