Clark's Trading Post
Lincoln, New Hampshire
If you crave a furry flashback to your parents' or grandparents' vacation time, a living reminder of an age that is otherwise all red-shifted and creaky, you won't do much better than Clark's Trading Post.
The Clarks have been running a business in New Hampshire's White Mountains since 1928, when Ed Clark opened his Eskimo Sled Dog Ranch. Two years later he added local animals, New Hampshire black bears, to attract tourists. Ed and his sons eventually realized the bears could be trained to perform simple tricks -- smarter than parrots, more dangerous than any dozing croc. In 1949 the Clark's bear show began and hasn't stopped since.
Generations two through four of Clarks now run the place. It is still a family business; all nine of Ed Clark's grandkids live within a mile of the attraction. W. Murray Clark is the current patriarch, and although he no longer conducts the bear shows he is still an imposing presence. "We convert a lot of people," he tells us, referring to those who question the ethics of training bears to shoot hoops.
The bear pits of Tennessee and North Carolina have their charm, but it is here at Clark's Trading Post that American bear entertainment reaches its apex -- literally, bears climb poles in front of Clark's to serve as living billboards for the attraction.
Maureen and Murray Clark (generation three) are now the bear trainers, teaching them to drink out of "bear cans" (milk mixed with honey), shoot "bearsketball," balance on a big drum, swing on a big swing, etc. Current bear stars include Ursula, Onyx, and Victoria, cuddly and fun-loving in a structured performance -- like the Lion King or Shamu the Killer Whale, youngsters will want to take 'em home.
But "Make no mistake," W. Murray scowls. "there's nothing funny about bears," he says. "Every member of my family has been injured." Despite the hazards, we observe a genuine affection between the Clarks and the bears, and that's good, because one bad-attitude bear might mean one less Clark.
Throughout the performances, the bears are encouraged with treats of vanilla ice cream.
Why vanilla? we ask.
"It melts slower."
Stars of the past are not forgotten at Clark's Trading Post. They are immortalized on impressive marble tombstones just outside the performance ring; Sapphire, Pearl, and Rufus, "oldest black bear on record" -- 38 years, 7 months -- are buried right here, not just tossed into a dumpster behind the Peppermint Saloon or the Olde-timey photo parlor. Bears and Clarks, together forever.
Clark's has expanded its operation over the decades into a full-blown tourist destination, complete with a full-size perimeter-hugging railroad and steam engine. "Wolfman," an angry, one-eyed, bearskin-clad Neanderthal, chases down the train in his Mad Max Wastelandmobile to harasses the kids and digicam dads. He is paid by Clark's to do nothing else.
Wolfman's star has risen since we met one of his predecessors in the early '90s; today he is a local celebrity, hosting "Wolfman Weekend" at Clark's, with a Wolfman Dunk and a one-eyed pie-eating contest. He rarely steps out of character, even after tourist season ends, and must personally approve every substitute Wolfman when he goes on vacation.
There are other minor treasures at Clark's -- a "Main Street" of quaint shops hawking souvenirs and snacks, but also exhibits like the one on Clark's history, photos of the old Eskimo Dog Ranch, early postcards, family trees and bear lineage. Another room presents packaging and memorabilia relating to the brackish medicinal pop soda Moxie. Avery's Garage contains the world's only surviving original Moxie Car, a modified 1929 LaSalle, driven and ridden with pride by Ben Clark, who took the wheel when his dad passed on.
And we probably don't have to remind you to look for the stuffed two-headed calf (born in 1944. "It lived for 3 minutes.") and the eight-footed calf in the Clark Museum. The performing bears alone make this a worthy and, as far as we know, unique attraction.
Ed Clark, man of vision; Clarks, tireless show family -- we salute you!
Update: Onyx the bear died unexpectedly of liver cancer and two baby bears are being trained (they are part of the bear show but don't do much more than run around the cage). The new attraction is the 30-ft. high "Old Man of the Mountain" climbing wall, with the familiar profile on top. A sign in front points out that Clark's ordered it before the geological oddity collapsed in May 2003.
W. Murray Clark passed away in late 2009, just after Clark's celebrated its 50th anniversary. But the shows are still going strong, and two new bear cubs have arrived to begin training by the Clark's practiced (and vanilla-smeared) hands.