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Ed Orazem: The Man Who Feeds the Bears

Ely Echo, Aug. 26, 1985, by Nick Wognum

There have been a lot of problems with bears in and around Ely this year, tipping over garbage cans and getting into gardens, but south of town, on Armstrong Lake the bears just aren’t interested in causing problems. The main reason is that the bears are being served at an outdoor restaurant, owned and operated by Ed Orazem.

This may seem hard to believe, since the connotation of a bear usually doesn’t bring pleasant thoughts to the average person. Stories this summer have ranged from campers having their food packs ripped apart to bears taking a stroll right through Ely. Ed Orazem saw the same thing happen back in 1968, except that he decided to do something about it. It seems that a hungry bear had started digging in his neighbor’s garbage cans, and the neighbor was pretty fed up with the bear and decided to do something about it. Ed asked the neighbor if he could have a little time to cure the bear of his bad habits, and he set out to keep the bear from getting so hungry by keeping him fed.

That is when Ed’s Outdoor Restaurant began. There was a picnic table a ways away from his house, and Ed would take food scraps and fish innards, set them on the table and watch as the big black bear would come and feed at night. “And then, a little at a time,” Ed said with a big smile on his wrinkled face, “I would get closer and closer. He started to trust me and at the same time he quit going to the garbage cans.”

That was many years ago, but Orazem has plenty of tales to tell about the bears he has fed over the years, and every story ends with rolling laughter from the face that has seen many years pass by. How old is Ed? “Too many,” he says; “I just seen another birthday…if the next one comes as fast I’ll grow to be an oldman -like an old hickory stick.” And the laughter comes through again as he begins fixing an evening meal for his outdoor guests. “Deedee and Bobo I call them, been feeding them since they were twin cubs in ’82. They’re close to four years old now.”

He starts another story about when they were cubs and they would come with the mama bear. “You see, during the first year the cubs eat first, but the mama would be there watching me. When they came back the second year, the mother ate first and the cubs waited. It seemed that the cubs were on their own after the first year.”

Ed has learned plenty about the bears’ habits, and he’d rather talk about that than the cancer that had him in the hospital for 5 1/2 months a year and a half ago and for another 13-week stint this last winter. Ed has a feel for animals, talking to them as he fills up the bird feeders near his trailer home or as he strings up suet on the trees for the little animals to eat A family of chipmunks has moved into his woodpile and as the younger ones scutter about picking up the fallen birdseed, an older chipmunk gnaws the fat intended for the bears.

Then it’s back inside to wait for his customers. Their small table is reserved and the food is warming in the frying pan. Cooking on the stove are pieces of suet in bacon grease, and to top it off, Ed will make this one a real feast. ”I’m not selfish, I’ll put an egg in there…one less for breakfast…that’s O.K. I like to share, just like with people.”

This may sound like an expensive hobby, but Ed contradicts that. He gets meat scraps from the grocery stores in town and picks up the stale food from the bakery, “for dessert.” Not for himself, of course, but for his furry guests.

When the egg is done (sunny-side up), Ed takes the hot food outside and sets it on the small wooden table that sits ten feet away from his window and covers it with another metal frying pan. But this is not done quietly. Ed bangs the pans together, whistling as a person would whistle for his dog, and he calls out, “Deedee, come on, time to eat!” This may sound a little out of the ordinary, and Ed would be the first to admit to that. “I bellow out to my friends,” he says with a grin. “My neighbors must be wondering, but I think: they feed the bears, too.”

As he continues to tell stories about his experiences with bears, he keeps a watchful eye out the window, waiting for his friends to come. Ed lives alone, and he lights up when he hears Deedee coming through the woods for her dinner.

“You can’t teach them what hours to eat. They don’t care if it’s now (about six o’clock p.m.) or midnight, but a lot of the time you can’t teach people that, either. And they don’t say, ‘Hey, Ed, I’m here!’ They just take their time in coming.” Orazem sits back and retells another incident when he had been watching a ballgame on TV and fell asleep. He had put the suet in the entryway, and was awakened by a bear peeking into his living room after prying the screen door open. “Whoa, did he give me a scare, but as soon as I moved, that bear was out the door and running. I must have scared him, too.”

Through the side window, we see a big black object slowly making its way toward the trailer. It looks almost as if the bear is hopping; Ed explains why: “That’s Deedee. She got her right front leg caught in a trap, it’s broken right here (he points to an area on his arm just above his wrist). She was gone for three weeks last year when that happened so now she kind of walks with a limp.”

Bobo didn’t come that night but Ed said that he had been shot twice when he was a cub. Bobo has a white stripe underneath his neck, and the bullet had cut into the white part. Now it looks as if the stripe had been cut in half and not put back together straight.

Orazem is against anybody shooting a bear if it’s just rummaging in someone’s garbage. He has been asked many times if he has ever shot a bear, and his answer is always the same: “I say I hunt them with that there (pointing), yeah, I shot him with a camera.” Then he pulls out the close to a hundred pictures he has taken over the years. His favorite is of Deedee with her nose right up to the lens of the camera; the picture came out with Deedee appearing to have a foot-long snout.

After a while, Deedee figures it’s safe to come in, so she limps over to the seven foot high dead birch tree that Ed uses as a feeding post, putting nails up near the top and tying bits of meat onto them. Deedee reaches up the tree, takes the piece of meat and ambles back off into the woods to eat and druther over the situation. With a bit of enticing from Orazem, she limps around to the side of the trailer only to find an eager stranger (the reporter) in her dining room. As soon as his smell hit her nose she was off and limping back to the safety of the trees.

We decided to wait a while, since, as Ed reasoned, her hunger would probably get the best ofher. After a few more tries, the still wary full grown bear came up to the lawn chair where Ed was sitting with the frying pan full of grub. I stood still, and then moved slowly to take a picture. Deedee saw the movement and again backed off in fear. With some more coaxing from Ed, however, she came back and accepted the fact that she and Ed would not be dining alone tonight.

Ed has trained Deedee since she was a cub, and the respect they have for each other is obvious. He made no effort to pet the bear, saying, “It’s not that touching the fur is something you want to do; it’s how close you can get to them, that shows how much they trust you.”

The trust runs deep in Deedee. Ed pulled the food back and told her to sit, and sure enough, she did. After rewarding her with a cookie, he had her stand on her hind legs and held another cookie as high as he could reach. Deedee took the prize gingerly as Ed laughed at her antics. “The way their posture is, it’s just like a monkey or a human being.”

Orazem has a hollow log near the small table that he feeds the bears on. He says his favorite pose of her is when she leans on the log with one paw as if she is sitting in a bar waiting for a drink. The only drink she got from Ed the Chef that night was some powdered milk poured into a bowl with some stale powdered donuts added.

After she had finished dessert, we went back inside. “You know,” he said, looking at Deedee through the kitchen window, “living out in the sticks isn’t so bad. People ask me why I feed bears. I guess if there was something interesting on TV instead of all those soap operas it’d be different, but I do it for myself…how many people have the opportunity to do what I do?”

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