Lesson Learned the Hard Way
— by Mike Faulk
The moral to this story is: listen to your guide. My Canadian spring black bear hunt was booked with an outfitter in Minitonas, Manitoba – a small town a few hundred miles north of Winnipeg in the Swan River Valley north of the Duck Mountains.
The outpost called Northern Outfitters is run by John Eisner. I figured out the first evening why Eisner calls his organization "Northern Outfitters." That far north, it never gets fully dark in May. And, the long hours of daylight tend to modify traditional meal times.
Bear were plentiful. "Don't shoot the first bear you see. Learn to size them up", John preached. "They're all lean coming out of hibernation. So look for breadth in their skull and fullness of neck and limbs." A juvenile bear has many of the same characteristics of a human juvenile: gangly, awkward, and impulsive. "On the other hand," John relented, "if you want to stay in camp the rest of the week, play cards, and drink a bit, shoot the first bear you see."
Unlike a normal early morning departure, hunting within a fifty-mile radius of camp didn't start until well after noon and ended around 11pm. The day's last meal took place after midnight. Eisner suggested eating lunch before leaving the truck on the way into the hunting area.
We hunted from tree stands placed near the edge of openings in the dense Manitoba forest. A fifty gallon metal barrel was tethered to a substantial tree at each site. The barrel was filled with oats that had been soaked in grease from local restaurants pleased to dispose of accumulations from their grease pits. A half dozen one inch diameter holes had been drilled in the barrel. Hungry bears would slap the barrel around to free the soaked oats.
The process of getting to the bear's dining ground was a bit convoluted. Leaving in mid-afternoon, each hunter and his individual guide would take lunch, two rifles, and one of the outfitter's four-wheelers. The drive would take us past many mile-square sections before reaching the end of the road – a couple of miles from our ultimate destination. Doubling on the four-wheeler, we would ride to within a mile of the hunting venue. The guide would then escort the hunter part of the way to the site. How close depended on his read on whether or not you could find the stand. The guide then retreated to a distance within hearing range of a rifle shot.
Shortly after settling down in my designated tree stand, I observed a black blur in the very edge of my right peripheral vision. As my pulse and respirations quickened, my anticipation grew that the bear would emerge into a clear field of sight between me and the oat barrel. The 30-30 was loaded, properly gripped, and ready to be shouldered. Remember what John Steinbeck says about the best laid plans of mice and men: they go awry.
The bear did not come into clear sight. Instead, the bear took a path that kept it exactly in the edge of my vision. The black blur was coming toward my tree. And then, it disappeared! I could hear it directly below me. The noise coming from the bear sure sounded to me like salivation.
Then the noise changed to the sound of claws on tree bark. My heart-rate was steadily increasing. My palms were moist even that far north in May. My composure was waning but I did cock the hammer.
A twin-forked eight inch ash tree hadn't budged when I climbed it only an hour before. But when it rocked as if hit by gale force winds, the fork on which the tree stand was mounted swayed so vigorously that I could now see the four hundred pound black bear headed up the tree. His steam-like breath billowed. His nose was moist and twitching. He was a better climber than I was. Somehow, instinctively I imagine, maybe involuntarily, the muzzle of the rifle dropped downward toward the bear's head.
In that instant of abject fear, just before pulling the trigger, the image before me brought my situation into a different perspective. Maybe it wasn't my flesh and bones on the menu. There between my feet was the paper bag filled with sandwiches, crackers and fruits packed by John's wife. He was coming for my lunch – maybe!
It wasn't much more than an instant that I considered that alternate scenario. What if I'm wrong? "Shoot" my mind ordered.
That second of hesitation is all it took for the impending crisis to resolve itself. As the bear reached for the other branch of the ash tree, the gap between the two prongs was ever widening. He missed the outward branch and fell to the ground. It's a good thing he did. At that point, I was in no condition to shoot - let alone hit the bear. My legs were rubbery. My heart was trying to escape from my chest. Sweat had broken out across my forehead. Some would call my condition "buck fever." You may call it "fright". I choose to call it "disabling horror".
Just as suddenly as the bear's ascent had placed me in the throes of fear, his descent brought comic relief. Recovering from his fall, the bear stood on its hind legs doing a one hundred eight degree survey of the forest around us. I may simply be personifying the bear's actions, but I'm convinced he looked around to make sure there were no witnesses to his fall! He returned to all four legs and slinked out of the clearing without a taste of me or my lunch. I learned this lesson: don't take your lunch to the tree stand.