Broken Arrow, Broken Dream: The Vanishing Bear

Posted by on Feb 20, 2013 in Feature Articles | 0 comments

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I had a feeling from the beginning of July, 2012, that the upcoming hunting season was going to be special. But by the end of the bear opener, which only resulted in the discovery of a virtually fruitless huckleberry crop, I was convinced this intuition had to be referring to the elk bowhunting season just two weeks away.  For me, elk camp is one of those big occasions I look forward to, in part because in certain areas of Washington’s public forestlands, you can purchase a multi-game license that allows you to harvest a black bear, a cougar, and a black-tail deer; all while hunting elk.

I guided a good friend of mine, Caleb Hancock, for the first four days of the season and didn’t see an animal. It was unseasonably hot, and it had been bone-dry for over a month. The ground and every twig, leaf, and needle strewn about it cracked in a cacophony that sounded somewhat like “RUN, ELK; RUN!”

My buddy left on the 4th night, and I planned on hunting the next morning solo. But plans changed as a cold front moved in, and according to the weather app on my phone, the temperature was supposed to drop by at least 15 degrees. My wonderful wife agreed that one more day in the woods would be the best for me!

But to no avail. I saw the first deer of this trip and I noticed fresh elk sign, so I knew the animals were starting to come to life. But with work lingering that could not be put off any longer, I had to pack up camp and return to civilization empty-handed.

I’m convinced there is something abnormal about the true hunter’s brain. It seems there are justifications and stipulations and negotiations that take place around hunting that don’t happen with any other aspect of life. Dreaming of the woods, I returned to work the next day looking for an angle; for any possible way to return. So I managed to cram 12 productive hours in, and cleared my schedule for a quick two-day hunt just three and a half hours away.

Mt. Adams, Cascade Range, Washington

Mt. Adams, Cascade Range, Washington

After another near-sleepless night in the back of my pick-up, trying to conjure up elk not only in my dreams, but in the woods as well, I hit the cool forest with the sound of a perfect bugle about a quarter-mile behind me.  Another hunter. I heard nothing in response.

Other than a nice doe walking by while I ate my breakfast, the forest was quiet. It was starting to warm again, so I stopped often to glass and cool down. Then unexpected business back home resulted in an impromptu appointment set for early the next day, so I decided on a route that would be my final exodus from those particular woods this season.

At just after 4pm, on September 11, 2012, I began the 90-minute walk back to my truck. It was a relatively quiet trail, and I had a nice breeze in my face. Following the creek to my right, at the bottom of a deep canyon, I approached a smaller feeder creek directly ahead of me. Suddenly I noticed a doe come out of a thicket near the bottom of the canyon to my right, and enter the small creek bed ahead of me, about 25 feet lower and out of my line of sight. A fawn followed, and something else after it. I prepared myself for that slim chance of a mature buck taking up the rear, hoping to see it materialize at the same spot, 40 yards away. I clipped my release and my heart raced. It was another doe.

Then with my release still attached to my bow, directly across the small creek from me, sauntered a black bear. It was heading to the bottom where the deer were out of sight. Like an explosion, all three deer burst and bounded past me. The bear seemed relatively uninterested and continued to claw apart a rotten log, grunting and groaning with each bladed tug. After a few seconds it continued down its trail in my direction; the very same trail I was on.

While at the bottom of the feeder creek, I lost sight of it. The trail that we were on parallels the feeder creek for a short way to my left, and then takes a 90 degree turn before heading down to the bottom. Kneeling behind a log, only suspecting where the bear would first appear, I was ready.

I saw its big block head first, through a thick entanglement of old huckleberries and vine maples, as it continued to walk up the trail I was on. After the brush, a 30-inch diameter tree concealed me as I drew my bow. The bear kept walking. His head passed the tree, then his body passed the tree, ready to take a left at the end of the log I was kneeling behind, which would have put us face to face at a mere 30 feet. But instead, when his body was clear and broadside, the bear sensed something wasn’t right, and stopped in his tracks, turned his head and looked at me. I had my highest pin on him in a fraction of a second, knowing I may not have much time before this could get ugly. I released, and the hit to his chest was seemingly instantaneous.

The bear wildly somersaulted and spun, then stumbled quickly back on the path. But instead of going directly down into the small creek bed, it veered at the brim of the creek and stopped directly in front of me; staring me down one more time. Instantly, my eyes were drawn to the exit wound; a big gash with a broken arrow protruding from it. With every pant, blood sprayed from the hole in the side of the bear. From 25 feet away, I watched the red, bubbly liquid saturate his thick, black, hair. In those three or four seconds, the stain grew to the size of a dinner plate.


By the time I realized the bear was going to pause in front of me, I had laid down my bow and grabbed the Ruger from my front pocket. The clip was locked and loaded, but the gun wasn’t chambered. I held my left hand on the top slide, ready to chamber and fire within a second. If I had to.

If I had to. Most hunters have experienced big game animals after being fatally shot and losing large amounts of blood. A standing animal will often sway on its feet, and then merely fall over or stumble for a few more yards. That’s exactly what the bear did. It started leaning to the side, then caught himself and stumbled over the edge to the bottom of the creek, where I was sure I would find him. I was elated! How once-in-a-lifetime excited was I! I thought the experience a year earlier with a cougar would take the cake, but that had happened so fast; more of a reaction than a planned ambush. This was on my “hunting bucket list,” representing the last quarry in successfully bow-hunting all 4 big game animals on the same mountain. I was on top of the world.

I walked to the edge of the bank and was amazed to see the bear on its feet, crossing the bottom of the big canyon creek before it slowly stumble up the other side. I picked it up in my binoculars at about 75 yards away through the trees, and could see that a third of the side of the bear was now completely covered in blood. It couldn’t go much further. I heard crashing again, after I lost sight of it through the tall mix of Pacific Northwest evergreens.

There was nearly a pint of blood on the ground where the bear had stood in front of me. The foliage was painted and the ground splattered with bright bubbly blood for as far down the bear’s path as I could see. But instead of going after it, for nearly an hour I looked for the front half of my arrow—which obviously had broken off during the initial somersault after the shot—to no avail. I wanted to give the bear time, just in case it somehow walked farther than I would have hoped. Pushing any wounded animal is never a good idea; pushing a wounded bear is simply a bad idea.

I started at the bottom of the canyon, where drops and splashes of blood on the ground, logs, leaves and needles made a constant trail to follow. The leaves hanging over the right side of the blood path, nearly waste-high to me (I’m 5’10’’), were also painted with the now drying and deepening red. About a hundred and fifty yards up the other side of the canyon, the blood splotches suddenly became larger and more frequent. Within a few yards, around the next tree and over a small log in the path, was a pool of blood with the back half of my arrow laying in it. I put it in my quiver, amazed at the length of this journey, and kept walking.

Most of the path that led to the arrow was uphill to the right, happily in the direction of camp. But once the arrow was released from the bear, the path began leading across the mountain to the left, around the main ridge and towards some relatively unfamiliar territory. After a few more yards of heavy bleeding, the blood trail began to lighten up. I followed it for another hundred yards or so. Looking ahead as far as I could through the thick forest, no large, black furry pile of bear was to be seen. I saw only forest, and scratched my head in disbelief.

My heart began to sink as I soon had to search for every tiny drop of red. Finally, after two hours, the blood trail came to an end. No bear. The pit in my stomach evolved into a twisted knot. I went down several seemingly obvious paths and found nothing. I circled the immediate area, and found nothing; no blood, no bear. I searched for another hour and a half before Mother Nature decided to close the curtains.

In Memoreum: The broken arrow with a single black hair.

In Memoriam: The broken arrow with a single black hair.

I returned to the mountains in search of the bear on two separate occasions after that first evening, carefully marking, measuring, looking under logs, and following trails. But it was never meant to be. The opportunity to kill a mature bear on the ground on public land with a bow—no guide, no bait—is a blessing, and I thank powers greater than myself for the experience. It represents for me perhaps the single most exciting event of my life; an accomplishment that most likely will never be duplicated. To lose the very animal that caused all this joy… hurt in ways which quite frankly, surprised me. The pride that accompanied this beautiful check-mark on my hunting to-do list has been tarnished with the patina of incompleteness.

Admittedly, self-pity and wouldas, couldas, shouldas still haunt me at times. The only thing I have to show for this experience is half of a bloody arrow, with a single black hair dried onto it, and a notched tag placed neatly behind the glass of a shadow box I constructed. But I know that the most important, most rewarding, most meaningful aspect of this experience can never be found in what there is to show. No delicious bear steak, no grinning photo, and no life-size mount will ever convey the essence of this or any hunt. Most hunters know this essence lies somewhere in the soul, where every story has a happy ending, and every blood trail ends in a trophy.


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