Outdoor Life Ultimate Adventure Contest Winner: The Taste of Fear

A hunter is trapped in his stand after nightfall when an angry bear refuses to let him come down.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

"That's funny," I told myself.

"I don't taste anything." I could've sworn I'd heard that fear puts a distinct taste in your mouth. I couldn't remember whether it was a metallic taste or maybe a dry, dusty taste. One thing was certain, fear was in my mouth. With 400 pounds of highly agitated black bear less than 20 yards away, there was no doubt I was scared. I just couldn't taste anything. I guess my mouth was kind of dry, but that happens a lot after spending several hours in a tree stand.

Despite inactive taste buds, my other senses were in overdrive. My sight was sharp; I could easily make out the tiniest of details. My sense of smell was awesome; I could smell the strawberry Twizzlers 20 yards away in the bait bucket. My sense of hearing was exceptional; I could tell exactly where the snarling bear was even though I couldn't see her.

The whole adventure started out rather innocently. I showed up in bear camp early and got checked in sooner than expected, so Glenn Oblander, owner of Camps Ronoda in Lac Remigny, Quebec, asked if I wanted to go sit in a tree and watch the bait. Naturally, I said yes, since I had just driven 13 hours from Ohio to hunt bears. I've been hunting out of Glenn's bear camp for close to 20 years and knew the area fairly well, so Glenn was comfortable turning me loose.

I showed up at the bait around 5:00 p.m. and quickly got comfortable in the permanent tree stand. I read a book for a while, took a nap and generally eased my mind and body into the fact that I was going to sit in a tree for the next week. Around 7:00 I heard a strange croaking sound. I'd sat in a tree for many hours in Quebec and couldn't remember hearing anything like it. The sound started on my right and moved directly behind me over the next hour. I decided it must be some kind of tree frog on a spring pilgrimage for a girlfriend.

I continued unwinding and just enjoyed the woods. No phones, no traffic, nothing. I glanced at to hunt bears. I've been hunting out of Glenn's bear camp for close to 20 years and know the area fairly well, so Glenn was comfortable turning me loose.

I showed up at the bait around 5 p.m. and quickly got comfortable in the permanent tree stand. I read a book for a while, took a nap and generally eased my mind and body into the fact that I was going to sit in a tree for the next week. Around 7 p.m. I heard a strange croaking sound. I'd sat in a tree for many hours in Quebec and couldn't remember hearing anything like it. The sound started on my right and moved directly behind me over the next hour. I decided it must be some kind of tree frog on a spring pilgrimage for a girlfriend.

I continued to unwind and just enjoyed the solitude of the woods. No phones, no traffic, nothing. I glanced at my watch and it read exactly 9 o'clock. I thought I better be extra quiet and keep still because my favorite time in the woods was beginning. I like to call it the witching hour, that last hour of light when the day-loving creatures head to bed and the night creatures start to move around.

[pagebreak] Three's Company
After checking the time, I took a quick glance at the bait and looked away before realizing there was a big shadow to the left of the bait where one hadn't been before. Sure enough, a black bear was at the edge of the small clearing, standing there, sniffing the air. After making sure the coast was clear, the bear walked over to the bait. I couldn't believe my eyes. I was looking at the absolute biggest black bear I had ever seen. It was huge! It was a dream come true! I had taken bears before and had been hunting for several years for a truly outstanding bear, and here one was standing broadside at 20 yards. I didn't have to think twice about this bear. It was a shooter. I picked up my favorite black bear gun, a Remington 600 in 350 Remington Magnum.

I eased the rifle into position and saw anotr bear start into the clearing. Holy cow-not only do I get to shoot a huge bear, I get to take my pick of two different ones. I was the luckiest hunter in the world. Then it happened. The second bear broke up into three separate baby bears. Words cannot describe the letdown. In one minute I went from being totally elated about having years of hunting for a huge bear pay off to knowing that my trophy wasn't a reality.

Well, it was the first day in bear camp, so I figured I might as well make the best of it. I eased the rifle back down and started to enjoy Mama Bear and her three little cubs. I kept thinking how lucky I was to be able to watch a black with her cubs in the wild. No fences, no chains, no concrete, no bars, no windows. I wasn't at the zoo, it was just me and the bear family in the middle of Mother Nature's finest.

I watched the bears eat the bait I'd put in the 5-gallon bucket. Mama Bear stood on her back legs and looked down into the bucket before knocking it to the ground for the little ones. (It was a painful reminder of the bear's size; I'd hung the bucket high on a nail.) The cubs were sniffing around when one of them made that strange croaking noise. What the heck? I never knew bears sounded like tree frogs. Anyhow, I got a big kick out of watching the little bears eat the Twizzlers. Pretty comical, I thought. I'll have to remember to bring Twizzlers for bear bait just for the entertainment value.

I glanced at my watch: 9:25, time to break up this little party. I packed my gear, picked up my rifle and stood up. I was surprised Mama Bear didn't see or hear me. I mean, it wasn't like I was trying to be quiet or move slowly and I was only 20 yards away. Shouldn't a wild animal have sensed me? I decided to help her out a bit. "Hey!" I yelled. Instant quiet. Graveyard quiet. Hear-a-pin-drop quiet. Well, that didn't work the way I thought it should. I tried something different. "Hey!" and a size-13 boot stomp on the tree stand. That worked.

[pagebreak] Stirring Up Trouble
So much happened in the next three seconds that I remember thinking how weird it was that I could process so many different actions at once in such a short time. Mama Bear gave one big huff. This sent the little bears up three different trees and started them bawling. Then, faster than I can describe it, Mama Bear covered 15 of those 20 oh-so-short yards. Teeth snapping, roaring loud, so loud it made me cringe. Cute, big, bumbling Mama Bear had instantly transformed into the most ferocious creature I'd ever seen. Huge gnashing teeth, slobber, spit, roaring-all less that 5 yards from the bottom of the tree I was sitting in. I transformed just as quickly. One second I'm relaxed, watching nature's splendor, disappointed that I'm not going to have a huge bearskin rug but feeling confident that my big bad "Hey" would scare four bears into the next county. The next second I'm so terrified I can't move. Yeah, I know: I used to think that if I was ever charged by a bear I would just shoot it, too. I know better now. If Mama Bear had wanted to thrash me, she could have. Pretty ego-deflating, pretty humbling, pretty weird what goes through your mind at times.

Then Mama Bear backed off. Relief, hope and breathing all came back to me at once. I could move. I raised my pathetic little rifle and took the safety off and realized I had just escaped being shredded by 5 very short yards. The noise kept up: the babies bawling, Mama Bear snapping her teeth and roaring and spitting. She was back past the 20-yard mark again, so I felt a wee bit more comfortable.

Okay, I had to relax, breathe and think. What's my next move? I know! I'll shoot my rifle into the ground and scare that bear. I'll show her! Note to future hunters: Don't try to scare an angry Mama Bear with a rifle shot. It makes said bear really, really mad and uses up one of your three bullets.

One shot into the dirt and all hell broke loose. The babies doubled their bawling, and Mama Bear thought I shot one of her cubs and went ballistic. She charged that tree so fast I didn't even have the bolt back on my rifle to reload before she was at that 5-yard mark. Everything intensified. She was gnashing her teeth, which made me think of what the inside of a garbage disposal unit would look like. She was roaring, spitting, slobbering so bad her face was soaked. Then she started slapping the ground. She slapped the ground so hard I could feel it. I swear it shook the tree. Then she backed off, this time into the woods where I couldn't see her.

Relief, breathe, relax again. Bear: 2. Joe: 0. Next thought: Maybe I could be really quiet and she would go away. With no better ideas I tried it. That's when I started thinking about what fear tasted like. I even got my canteen and had a sip of water. Then I wondered about silly things, like what would happen if Mama Bear got me. Would they find me tonight or wait until tomorrow? Tonight. Is my life insurance paid? Yes. Will my wife, family and friends miss me? Yes. Like I said, silly things.

[pagebreak] Decision Time
The time was 9:45, dark in 10 minutes, can't-see-hand-in-front-of-face dark in 15 minutes. Time to make a move. I gathered the gear, picked up my rifle and took the safety off-dangerous for sure but I was already in danger, so what the heck. Okay, go. My foot no sooner hit the top step than that bear charged across the clearing so fast I barely had time to put my foot back on the stand. Damn, I was scared and stuck. It was going to be pitch dark in a few minutes and I couldn't even get out of the tree.

All right, I'll have to shoot her, I decided. I still had two rounds for the rifle and I was still breathing. No choice, I had to put her down. Regret, remorse, guilt; all those feelings passed through my head since I knew I was giving those three little bears a death sentence. Well, sorry. I don't want to die either. I want to see my family and friends again. I even want to go to work again.

I had to put her down. All right, where is she? Oops, another note to hunters: You have to be able to see a bear to shoot a bear, and I couldn't see her. Well, I had two shells left, so maybe I could try a shot in the dark...literally. The way my luck was going I'd either wound her and make her even madder or, worse yet, miss and have her think I'm shooting at her babies again.

I needed another backup plan. It was 9:50. I wouldn't be able to see at all in five minutes. I was going down, I was getting out of the tree. My mind was made up. I was climbing out of this stupid tree, I was going to take a mauling and I was going to kill that bear. One good shot and hope she dies before I do. I felt good. I felt alive. As a matter of fact, I'd never felt more alive. I felt like ao the dirt and all hell broke loose. The babies doubled their bawling, and Mama Bear thought I shot one of her cubs and went ballistic. She charged that tree so fast I didn't even have the bolt back on my rifle to reload before she was at that 5-yard mark. Everything intensified. She was gnashing her teeth, which made me think of what the inside of a garbage disposal unit would look like. She was roaring, spitting, slobbering so bad her face was soaked. Then she started slapping the ground. She slapped the ground so hard I could feel it. I swear it shook the tree. Then she backed off, this time into the woods where I couldn't see her.

Relief, breathe, relax again. Bear: 2. Joe: 0. Next thought: Maybe I could be really quiet and she would go away. With no better ideas I tried it. That's when I started thinking about what fear tasted like. I even got my canteen and had a sip of water. Then I wondered about silly things, like what would happen if Mama Bear got me. Would they find me tonight or wait until tomorrow? Tonight. Is my life insurance paid? Yes. Will my wife, family and friends miss me? Yes. Like I said, silly things.

[pagebreak] Decision Time
The time was 9:45, dark in 10 minutes, can't-see-hand-in-front-of-face dark in 15 minutes. Time to make a move. I gathered the gear, picked up my rifle and took the safety off-dangerous for sure but I was already in danger, so what the heck. Okay, go. My foot no sooner hit the top step than that bear charged across the clearing so fast I barely had time to put my foot back on the stand. Damn, I was scared and stuck. It was going to be pitch dark in a few minutes and I couldn't even get out of the tree.

All right, I'll have to shoot her, I decided. I still had two rounds for the rifle and I was still breathing. No choice, I had to put her down. Regret, remorse, guilt; all those feelings passed through my head since I knew I was giving those three little bears a death sentence. Well, sorry. I don't want to die either. I want to see my family and friends again. I even want to go to work again.

I had to put her down. All right, where is she? Oops, another note to hunters: You have to be able to see a bear to shoot a bear, and I couldn't see her. Well, I had two shells left, so maybe I could try a shot in the dark...literally. The way my luck was going I'd either wound her and make her even madder or, worse yet, miss and have her think I'm shooting at her babies again.

I needed another backup plan. It was 9:50. I wouldn't be able to see at all in five minutes. I was going down, I was getting out of the tree. My mind was made up. I was climbing out of this stupid tree, I was going to take a mauling and I was going to kill that bear. One good shot and hope she dies before I do. I felt good. I felt alive. As a matter of fact, I'd never felt more alive. I felt like a