Black Bears: Please stop charging me!

Posted by on Sep 17, 2013 in Feature Articles | 0 comments

Washington's Mt. Adams, on my way to bear camp.

Washington’s Mt. Adams, on my way to bear camp.

 

Close encounter with black bear #3… in less than a year!

I don’t make this stuff up. Honestly. Yes, it happened again. When I was bear hunting on August 16, 2013 near Mt. Adams in Washington state, I had yet another very close, hair-raising and heart-pounding encounter with a black bear(If you’d like a refresher as to the last two encounters, full stories can be found in the “Feature Articles” tab on my Home Page).

The Yin and Yang of life and of hunting is ever interesting. In the last bear-charging story, April 2013, there was full clarity of my senses that there was a bear running at me. I heard it first and confirmed in plain sight what was happening. But most likely, it was for all intents and purposes, accidental. I believe the bear didn’t know exactly what I was when it began its charge. In my most recent encounter, however, the charge was vicious and completely intentional, but I never even saw the bear. Yin and Yang.

There were a fair amount of huckleberries everywhere this year, but a lack of bear to be found browsing them. So on the second day of hunting the bruin with my 30.06, I decided to discover new territory adjacent to familiar territory I more often hunt. My buddy, Rich, dropped me off a few miles from camp and up the mountain perhaps a thousand feet. I was simply going to explore my way down the mountain and back to camp. The trek started out annoying, traipsing through some thick underbrush near a semi-open stand of younger trees toward the top of the hill. Then it became worse.

Most often, as you meander through the woods in one direction, you will cross game trails, especially noted in elk areas where they obviously leave heavier trails. And sometimes the game trails lead to major animal highways in the forest and the going gets easier. In this case, no animal in their right mind would have a reason to be where I was. Practically, no animal. I wound up, instead, in a huge plot of nothing but vine maples and a sporadic fir tree every 30 yards or so.

Oregon's Mt. Hood, as seen from the location of my last bear harvest.

Oregon’s Mt. Hood, as seen from the location of my last bear harvest.

 

Vine maples are the bane of a bowhunter’s existence. These wonderful little trees usually grow about 20 degrees from the ground instead of up. They sprawl along the ground, with their entanglement of branches and leaves, and grab everything that tries to go through. Now imagine an almost impassible mass of tangled trees a solid 20 acres in size, with only the occasional clearing that ranges from 10 feet to 30 yards across. These clearings were connected with virtual tunnels; light, ambiguous game trails at best.

Oh to be shaped like a bear when traversing from one clearing to another. Nose to the ground, it’s bulldozer strength, full-time 4-clawed-paws drive, all of itself, its shape, its hair, flowing backwards up and away, gliding through the smallest opening with ease.

I, on the other aerodynamically-challenged hand, prefer to stand upright when I travel, had a backpack on, and was carrying a rifle with a nice Leopold scope that I really didn’t care to scratch. I had to stoop and bend and reach for the woody vine entanglements at their lowest point on the trail/tunnel, sometimes sagging only inches above the ground. I’d swing the mess over my head and behind as I ducked through. Always the rifle would lead; always pointing ahead for that unexpected surprise.

I reached one particular opening exhausted and tore up. With my back to the tunnel I just exited, I took a moment to air out my hat, and suck some water from the tube on my shoulder. Then I heard the sound; the grunt that could have been a bear.

I’m usually an optimistic person, and even in that jungle, I had hopes that the difficult going just wouldn’t last much longer. I was sure that every tunnel would get shorter and every clearing larger. So I decided to cautiously investigate this thing that sounded like a bear. I crept through another smallish tunnel, gun barrel first, on my way to the next clearing. But the disappointing opening in the brush was small, perhaps only 20 feet before the next wall of entangled vine maples began. The wind was in my favor as the afternoon thermals climbed the sunny face of the mountain, but the lack of being able to see anything past a couple feet in that mess unnerved me a bit. I was prepared to back out.

Suddenly a scratching sound came from ahead, like a cat on a post. Then from above the entangled floor of this mountain side, scurried a fairly large bear cub up one of the sparse fir trees, maybe 25 yards in front of me. Just as quickly as my hunter brain assessed whether or not I should shoot, a realization came over me that this little guy didn’t make that big noise I heard earlier.

And in that instant of realization, the grunting started, and then the smacking of her lips, and the mashing of her teeth, and the clawing of the ground, and the running at me, once again. Pounding earth, breaking branches, cadenced gallop getting louder.

Vine Maples offering a small opening over a mountain stream.

Vine Maples offering a small opening over a mountain stream.

I sank to my right knee and while balancing the gun and finding the far side of the clearing in my scope, which luckily I had dialed down all the way to 3.5 power, I flipped the safety off. My heart pounded as I anticipated the bear bursting into vision, into the clearing that I shared only a few yards away. I knew I would kill whatever broke through, but I was also very cognizant of the fact that there was a good chance I was going to be mauled in some fashion. For a bear to live 20 or 30 seconds after being shot in the heart is not unheard of. The problem—a rather big problem—was that I would be less than 2 seconds away from the protective, running bear by the time I would see it.

More crashing and branch-breaking, then thumping and galloping and mashing; my heart beating faster. Then she stopped. Everything was silent. She must have been two little clearings away when she started, crashed through one, and stopped just on the other side of the one wall of maples that separated us, at which I was looking through my scope. A bluff charge? Did the brushy entanglement I was cursing just save me, deterring the bear just enough to make her change her mind?

I immediately backed out of that clearing as quickly as possible, never taking my eyes or the front of the barrel off of where mama was. I backed into another clearing and out again down a trail. I momentarily froze at the next clearing and heard nothing. I would repeat this for what seemed like a hundred yards. I hustled once I broke into the big, more open timber, feeling safer for now having the advantage of sight, looking behind me often, hearing and seeing no predator. Eventually, I made my way out of the woods, onto a dirt road, and back to camp.

A few hours later, lounging by the campfire with a splash of whiskey in a tin cup, I was still awestruck with the experience. How many stories have I read of bear attacks and false charges? As a young boy, I’d walk through the bear and cougar-free hardwood timbers of the Iowa farm on which I grew up and only daydream about the encounters I’d read about in my brother’s outdoor magazines. Now my dreams were coming true. Yes, the experiences are without a doubt horrifying on some level, and yes, I’d be happy if I were never to get that close to another wild bear, but I am so very grateful for them at the same time. Thus the nature of the hunting experience. Sometimes it’s getting charged by a pissed-off mother bear; sometimes it’s sipping whiskey in a tin cup by a warm fire. Yin and yang.

 

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