There is no amount of preparation, education, or anticipation that can completely ready a person for a moment like this. We hunters dream about it, we study it, and we fantasize about it until we think we know how we will handle it. But really? We don’t. In the end we are a shuddering weak-kneed mass of adrenaline-filled jello saying a prayer that our steel will and resolve will overcome our quaking flesh. This was my 7th season bear hunting my land. And here I was, at full draw, the moment of truth, on the largest black bear I had ever seen up close and personal in my life. Earlier that day I had gone to a place on my land I call the Secret Meadow, to pray that I would get a bear, and here it was happening.
Now when I say bear hunting, I don’t mean I throw a few donuts on a stump, toss a stand in a tree and show up for opener. No, this is a year round process that is expensive in terms of time invested, money spent and of grueling physical labor. You have to have a die hard personality and surreal tenacity for it. That would be me. I am just not a quitter. I’ve been that way since I was three years old, according to my mom, who says I ignored all obstacles to reach an objective and got many bumps and bruises in the process. I still get the bumps and bruises. Some people never grow up I guess.
Bear hunting is one of the ultimate challenges in life for me because of the complexity of the hunt and the intelligence of the prey. I have often said that the thrill of the kill is greatly overrated. Indeed, the thrill of pursuit and the thrill of restraint are far more exciting. The pursuit of bear is darn near a science. The restraint element of bear hunting is waiting for the right moment and not taking the shot right away or at all if it isn’t absolutely perfect. I very much enjoy doing things that challenge me physically, emotionally, and mentally. Bear hunting hits all three of those hot buttons for me. Bears are the smartest, most clever animals I hunt. They often have me patterned before I have them patterned. Their hearing and smell and instincts are incredibly acute. Mess up, and they can be driven nocturnal or clean out of the county in a heartbeat. We have to understand their biology, their behaviors and their thinking. We have to find the right tree for a stand, in the right direction for sun and prevailing winds and bait location, with the correct set up since I’m a left handed shooter, with the bait logs positioned the right way so the animal will present itself broadside or quartering away, with the right quantities and the right bait foods and then we pray for the right weather. The right weather is not too hot so the bear will come out before it’s dark and not too windy at dusk so they aren’t spooked. Last, is the hunt. You have to have the right camo, be scent-free, dress to stay cool or warm and bug free, and be practiced enough with your equipment to be able to instinctively draw your bow back in the throws of adrenalin after sitting dead still for five or more hours. These are just some of the variables and the likelihood of them all aligning on the same hunt, does not happen very often. Or, all the variables are in your favor, but no bears arrive.
That was why I made the trip to the Secret Meadow. I asked God for a favor. Bring me a bear and let me harvest it humanely and retrieve it quickly. I didn’t care if it was big or small. I had personal reasons for this request and I felt God’s will would manifest in those personal reasons if I harvested a bear opening weekend.
The evening hunt was like dozens of others where I did everything right but never got a shot. One thing I have learned from experience is that hunters tend to get exasperated in the last few critical minutes of legal shooting time, because of weariness, impatience and what I call “premature closure”. We assume nothing is going to happen so we get careless, and we make noise or move and we find ourselves busted at the magic hour when we should have been doing everything right. My urge was to begin putting my gear away in the last half hour of legal light, but I suppressed that urge. Instead, I poised my bow upright in my lap, ready for a shot with the least amount of movement. My legs ached from holding perfectly still, but I willed myself to stuff the urge to wiggle. As I sat there, a number of telltale signs all happened at once. I did not move a muscle.
First, the chipmunks and squirrels at the bait sprayed in all directions to escape, but did so in silence where they usually would protest loudly. This was a sign that a predator was near. Second, I heard squirrels in treetops in the distance start to chatter. Third, the skunks that were at the bait made a hasty exit. My heart started to race and a chill went up my neck as I tried to control my breathing.
Suddenly and silently, there it was. The bear came from my left, looked around many times, circled the bait and then started pawing at one of the hundred pound logs on the bait crib to my right. I cranked myself around and started to go to full draw. The bear caught my movement and looked directly at me. I froze, averting my eyes so it could not see the whites of my eyes. I held there and my muscles were screaming since I had sat still for so long and now was flexing them so hard. The bear warily backed off, went around the back side of the bait, looked at me twice more, and came back in on my left side. Oh, thank you God ! The bait was 11 yards from my stand and my stand was 12 feet up the tree. Being that close, I had to be very conscious to move only when the bear was not looking or when it was making noise with the logs. Again, the bear began flipping logs away like they were tinker toys, and I cranked around again and went to full draw.
I had practiced this shot in camp hours before and was hitting the bullseye every time at twenty yards. But now I was shaking so hard, I wasn’t sure I could even make an ethical shot. I tightened up every muscle in my body to control the shaking, taking deep breaths as I held at full draw. I was waiting for the bear to extend its front leg forward, thus exposing its vitals that usually would be covered with the shoulder and leg bones. I traced my site pin up the front leg and held it slightly back of the shoulder and waited. The front leg finally went forward, I exhaled, didn’t breathe, and my auto pilot kicked in as I let the arrow fly. The bear yipped and turned, and ran back up its trail away from me. I listened; praying to hear a death moan, but none came. Instead I heard it run, stop at what I thought was 80 yards or so, and I heard a muffled growl and exhalation. This was not what I had hoped to hear.
Four years prior, I had a similar shot and had a malfunction of my bow. I missed the mark, but searched for that bear for two solid days as due diligence. Not making a good shot then was an experience indelibly etched in my mind. I was humbled. I had nearly contemplated quitting archery over that incident, until I was told by my archery shop that I had a bent idler wheel and axle so my bow was shooting all over the place. Needless to say, I got new equipment. I had an instant replay of this experience going on in my head right now. Did I nick this big bear, or was it dead in the distance? My gut said the shot was good. Being one woman alone and hunting in such a remote location, I would have been a fool to go looking for a three hundred pound bear in the pitch dark, even with my .357 revolver on me. So I sat and I waited and I listened.
After 15 minutes of silence, I climbed down my tree, left the woods, and went back to my cabin. I changed clothes, hopped in my truck and drove to where I would get cell phone reception to call my friend Deb Luzinski and her husband Mark, to help track the animal. They arrived within 20 minutes. Deb is a real bloodhound, and we followed a textbook blood trail, thru thick brush and then shoulder high swamp grass where the bear obviously bedded. Its trail was like a wormhole thru the grass. As we went thru the grass, I saw the huge crumpled figure of black up ahead of us and knew my bear was dead. My immediate and spontaneous reaction was to drop to my knees right there in the swamp grass with my arms extended in the air, and I started to cry aloud and thank God for the success. Deb and Mark weren’t quite sure at first what I was doing, and didn’t know that I had seen the bear, but I quickly told them. I stood up and said this was God’s bear, pure and simple.
Seeing the size of the animal, I went back to phone for help from my neighbors, Randy and David Larsen who run a nearby bear camp with 25 hunters. It took four men to get the bear out of the woods. I hired their bear camp skinner to dress out the animal because I would have been up all night with the task and might have lost the hide and meat due to the heat. The animal weighed in at 340 pounds and I was blessed with a perfect heart-lung shot. The noise I heard the bear make was its last breathe two minutes after the shot. I was pleased.
The next night, Deb hunted my bait since there were multiple bears hitting it. She had hunted the same area years before and harvested her first bear there so things had come full circle.
Archery hunting is often a solo activity, but when the big one comes, we need teamwork. I thank God for my good friends and good neighbors. I could not have taken care of my bear business without them.
© October 2006