Hunting Bear: The Downside of DIY

Posted by on Jan 25, 2013 in Feature Articles | 0 comments

Gifford Pinchot National Forest

Gifford Pinchot National Forest

Every fall, one cannot help but find stories of elk camps, deer camps and duck camps in the shiny pages of hunting magazines all over the country. And for good reason. Sharing the excitement is part of the excitement itself. How does that old adage go? Sorrow shared is half the sorrow; joy shared is twice the joy. Never is that sentiment more in-your-face than in hunting camps everywhere. Our first organized bear camp, in the mountains of Washington in August of 2010, was no exception. Our party consisted of three guys. Two of us shot our bear on that trip. I did not.

Like most good friends and hunting companions, when we left camp after that long weekend, I was genuinely happy for my comrades. But just because I was happy for them didn’t mean I wasn’t disappointed. I am always disappointed when I am not successful…at anything. But I usually don’t flog myself or stop eating out of self-contempt; I just do what any other obsessed hunter would do: try again.

Try again would equate to arriving at elk camp three days early to search for a bruin, since that year, we hunted bear on the same mountain we hunted elk. And since my hunting buddies were eating bear steaks while I was eating salad, it also meant I was hunting alone until they arrived for elk opener. Now I admit, from an outsider’s point of view, it may not seem like the safest thing in the world to be alone in the mountainous wilderness hunting bear. But I was hunting with a rifle that season, and after only carrying a bow into the woods for the previous 4 years, I felt invincible with the fire pole.

It’s about a 3 ½ hour drive to camp from my house south of Seattle. With enough provisions to last a couple weeks, I arrived at the abandoned logging road where we normally set up, at 2:30 in the afternoon. It was a hot day in that first week of September, and even at 4000 feet, I vividly remember how good it felt to be donning shorts and a t-shirt while I organized storage containers and stacked firewood.

Jim with his bruin: bear camp 2010.

Jim with his bruin: bear camp 2010.

Then I heard it. Some weird, shrieky, shrilly, animal sound. At first I thought nothing of it, since the forest there was home to a plethora of birds like the Clark’s Nutcracker that could easily make a sound… kind of like the sound I heard. Nature is a magnificent thing. If you take a moment to really listen, so many members of the animal kingdom can make virtually the same noise. Was it a shrill mew of a young elk? Was it a call of a little furry pica? A bird? A young bear cub whining for its mother? Yep. That had to be it!

I grabbed the 30-06 that was leaning against my truck and headed down the old road. I heard it again, coming from ahead of me and to my left, in a large, 40-acre patch of huckleberries dotted with a mix of mature evergreens. Bears love huckleberries. In fact, they love them so much, that they will feed almost exclusively on the big blue fruit in order to fatten themselves up for the long winter ahead.

Then I saw it. A flash of reddish, buckskin-ish something, moving rapidly through the thick underbrush near the far side of the berry patch. “Blonde bear!” I decided, and hurried my pace down the road and in the same general direction of the animal. I stopped, looked, listened. Nothing. Then the sound again, farther ahead of me. I saw the flash of the tan-ish animal once again, paralleling the road I was on. It was closer now, and heading toward a bend in the road where the patch bottle-necked. I took a knee in the old gravel, and flipped the safety off.

More blonde fur; this time behind a thicket only yards away from the road ahead of me. I raised my rifle and readied myself for the bruin. Then in an instant, the blondeness leaped from behind the bush and onto the road on which I was kneeling.

No matter how many times a hunter learns the lesson of expecting the unexpected, the unexpected will still always be…unexpected. There on the road, a mere 45 yards ahead of me, stood a big, yellow mountain lion. Its head was low and scanning. Its 5-foot long tail resembled my house cat’s when it is fixated on a bird that is perched outside the window—back and forth in a slow, sweeping motion. For the first time, I felt that perhaps I was the hunted.

I raised my rifle. As steadily as the moment would allow, I centered my crosshairs on the chest of the cat, and pulled the trigger.  What I didn’t know in the heat of the moment, was that my scope was still dialed up to 10-power; too high for a shot that close. Dust and rocks exploded from under the animal, and it vanished into the woods seemingly in a single bound.

Bear paws and claws

A friendly handshake

I was far more excited about the fact that I actually saw a mountain lion, than I was disappointed that I missed. I have friends and acquaintances and even forest rangers that I have talked to that have spent their lives in the mountains, but have never laid eyes on the illusive animal. I felt blessed to have had the experience, and no matter what was to come of elk camp, I was on cloud nine. That being said, I kept my guns just a bit closer, and paid just a bit more attention to my surroundings for the remainder of camp preparation. My aloneness was now staring me in the face for the rest of the afternoon.

After 6, the shadows grew longer and the temperature began sinking. I grabbed my rifle and headed down the mountain to a large, open canyon where I saw a big black bear the last hour of the last day of bear camp. I walked up the trail to the ledge that overlooked the meadow on the canyon floor, and took a seat on a log sitting near the edge. From that vantage point, the far side of the canyon was 225 yards away. I scanned the area with my naked eye and saw nothing. I raised my binoculars to get a better look, when I noticed that one of the old, burnt-out stumps began to move.

Bear! The breeze was in my favor, and the animal had no idea I was there. I slowly positioned myself behind the log, and waited for the bruin to offer me a good shot. After several minutes, it turned to the side and continued feeding on huckleberries as it slightly quartered away from me. I flipped the safety off for the second time that day; this time making sure the scope was dialed to where I needed it to be. The animal was exactly 200 yards away. After several seconds, I steadied the crosshairs on the bear’s shoulder, exhaled with deliberation, and squeezed the trigger.

The canyon roared, and roared again as the echo of the shot filled the big bowl. The bear somersaulted backwards down a slight incline, and lay motionless long enough for me to flick my safety back on and lower my gun. By the time I got the binoculars to my face, the bear was moving to the edge of the clearing. In an instant, I went from taking my time to frantically chambering another round. I shot, and was quite sure I missed. I hurriedly cycled the gun and shot again at the moving bear, hitting it this time. It tumbled one more time, but still slowly made its way in the direction of the tree line, now only 5 yards away. I chambered another round, and pulled the trigger one last time. Down the bruin went; for good.

By the time I made my way down the slippery rock slide to the bear, daylight was starting to fade. With first-hand knowledge of cougars in the area, gutting the big bruin next to the thick tree line by the light of my head lamp was exhilarating to say the least. It was a good hour hike back to camp from there, and that was without packing the meat or hide. So instead of venturing into the blackness with a hundred pounds of fresh, bloody meat strapped to my back, I decided to wait until morning. Not wanting to offer the wild cats a free meal overnight, I took off my sweaty, smelly shirts and draped them over the bear for the night.

The glass of whiskey around the campfire that evening tasted as sweet and as rewarding as it possibly could. What a day! My first mountain lion sighting and my first bear harvested, all within a half mile and 4 hours of each other. But in my celebration of the surreal events that took place that afternoon, I couldn’t help but feel something was missing. As much as I adore solitude in the wilderness, there certainly is something to be said about enjoying these special times with special friends.

I admit I would be hard-pressed to say that I would have been twice as happy to have hunting buddies with me in camp that night, but I was nonetheless reminded of that old adage: joy shared is twice the joy.

At least I didn’t have to share my whiskey.

My first black bear

My first black bear

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