A near disaster that you survive is called a learning experience. Well, on this hunt did I ever learn! My outfitter–I’ll call him Sam–is no longer in business, so there’s no harm in telling this story, since it can’t cost him his license. It begins with my arrival at the airport in Prince George, B.C., where I was going on a moose hunt. Sam met me there, and I liked him immediately.
Unfortunately, he informed me that the forecast was a little too good for our purposes. For the next couple of days we would be hunting in beautiful, shirt-sleeve weather when what we really needed was a hard freeze to put the bull moose into a lovin’ mood so we could use calls. We came across plenty of moose, wolf and black bear sign, however, so I was encouraged. In one spot we found a huge grizzly track on top of our own tracks in the mud.
When our conversation turned to bears, Sam explained that a person was more likely to survive a grizzly mauling than a black bear attack. In his experience, a person mauled by a grizzly was usually bitten and battered but then left to die and ripen before being eaten; a black bear would kill outright and feed immediately.
Into the Wild
Sam decided that we would improve our chances by heading way back into some boggy country on our three-wheelers the following morning. To draw in the moose we hoped to find there Sam had crafted a variety of calls from string, rosin, old oatmeal boxes, metal cans and bits of wood.
After the hour-long ride to the backcountry, we hunted on well-used game trails, moving through aspens and conifers and past several streams, bogs and good clearings. We saw lots of fresh sign. Sam had spent his life in the bush and his short, stubby body was surprisingly flexible as he moved silently between the trees. I had trouble keeping up with him. I found that at his pace I couldn’t look at anything other than the ground at my feet. I told Sam the way I liked to hunt was to move slowly, taking cautious steps while trying to keep quiet.
To accommodate my preference we made a plan. Sam would head back to camp to explore another area while I would wait where I was for an hour or so, let the woods settle down and then hunt my way back to the three-wheeler slowly and methodically. That would take the rest of the day, and because the trail was obvious, I couldn’t get lost. I looked forward to hunting alone at my own speed.
I had been hunting without a round in the chamber of my rifle in deference to the guide whose footsteps I was following. Now, however, I chambered a cartridge, set the safety and finally felt like I was really hunting. The hour passed and I started back slowly. I hadn’t gone far when I heard a commotion in some aspens just ahead. I realized the wind wasn’t to my best advantage, so I moved cautiously and silently off the trail and downwind of the noise. The sounds had become increasingly raucous; as I got closer I thought I heard some grunts. I could see the aspen tops moving and I thought for sure a big bull was working over the trees with his antlers.
I spotted a big, old windfall and maneuvered into a good position. I envisioned myself setting up behind the windfall, using the log as a rifle rest and securing one fine bull moose. One aspen, about 30 yards distant, was waving. The grunts and heavy moaning had my adrenaline flowing. I carefully readied my rifle and raised my head for a peek.
Two good-sized black bear cubs were playing in the trees. One was up the tree and the other was on the ground, not more than 20 yards from me. “Cute,” I thought, then: “Oh no–where’s the sow?”
My mind raced and I heard movement behind me. I turned my head and saw her standing on her hind legs looking right at me. I was directly between the sow and her cubs. No doubt she was also getting a good noseful of my scent, since I had so skillfully maneuvered downwind of the cubs while she, in turn, had probably heard me and moved downwind of me. The hunter had become the hunted.
I waited for a moment, dumbfounded. Then she charged. I jumped to my feet, waved my arms and hollered. The bear stopped and milled around. I fully expected her to run, as have other black bears I’ve encountered. She might have, except my hollering scared the heck out of the cubs. They started caterwauling and scampered up a tree. The sow bounced forward a couple of times, snorting. I shouldered my rifle. She stopped about 30 feet from me and again stood up on her hind legs, sniffing at the air. Then she dropped to mill around some more. I started to ease myself toward the trail. She continued to blow and snort and hold her ground. Without turning my back to her I slowly moved away. I really didn’t want to be forced to shoot a sow with cubs.
I moved off slowly and had put about 30 yards between the sow and myself when she came at me again, crow-hopping and this time snapping her teeth. I took off my hat and threw it in her direction and made ready to fire. She grabbed the hat, shook it and ripped it apart. Then she ambled off in a direction parallel to mine. The cubs were still in the tree and raising a ruckus. I was feeling more comfortable with the distance between the sow and myself. I thought it would give me time to aim and shoot should she charge.
I was wrong.
She was on me in the blink of an eye. Bears may seem slow as they lumber, moving both legs on each side of their bodies at the same time, sort of rolling along. But not this time! To me, the sow looked like a fur rug in flight, shaking all over, teeth snapping.
I remember trying to shoulder my gun, but it was too late. With the gun held low in my hands, she hit me. The rifle roared, its barrel buried in her chest. The recoil and the force of her blow knocked me backwards. As I fell, I dropped the rifle and the bear was on top of me. I remember seeing the side of the bear’s head against mine, feeling the coarse hair on my face and hands. I have never had anything hit me as hard as that bear. Then there was blackness–for how long I’ll never know.
As I regained my senses, it was like when you turn on a television, only slower. I was looking through a dark tunnel that went to black and white and then to color and finally sound. I recalled stories of bears eviscerating their victims and I thought I better not move in case the sow was near. I tried to remember where my rifle was. Then the pain hit my head, neck and back. Booming pain. Mentally I searched my body for damage. Only my head seemed injured. It felt like it was exploding. My mouth was so dry it felt like sand.
Raspy breathing and a low rumble came from the direction of my feet. I dared not move. The bear was close; I could hear her and feel her through the ground. Ever so slowly, I felt my body for wounds. Raising my head, I looked for the bear and saw my rifle beside me. I grabbed it. The sow stood about 20 yards away on all fours, broadside to me with her head down. I worked a fresh round into the chamber and sat up. She looked up at me, her head dangling. “Great,” I thought, “I can’t see through the scope.”
I reached up and touched my eye and face, expecting to feel an awful wound, but there was none. I closed my left eye and all I could see was a blur of light with my right. Clumsily, I switched sides and shouldered the old .270 on my off side. When I was a kid my dad and I had contests shooting left-handed, or cross-fire, as he called it. Now I was counting on that training to save my life. I focused on the bear through the scope as she started to turn and face me. When the crosshair centered on her shoulder, I sloppily pulled the trigger. She toppled over.
Chambering another round, I sat there and waited. The shakes were almost uncontrollable. My muscles, head, neck and back were clenched. How long had I been out? I was cold and shivering. My head throbbed.
I tried to shoot again but couldn’t. I had to wait for the shakes to stop. The sow showed no signs of life. I thought about a fire but it really wasn’t cold and I doubt I could have struck a match. I got up and headed back toward camp, head pounding, neck stiffening. I had banged my skull on a root at the base of a big pine when I had gone down under the bear. The three-wheeler was hard to ride in my condition, but it got me back to camp, which was empty. After taking a couple of aspirin I collapsed in my bunk, falling into a deep sleep.
A Secret Kept
I awoke to noise in the camp. It was Sam and his wife. I told them about my bear encounter, and as I spoke I discovered my right eye was better. Sam was concerned I’d tell the story and put his outfitter’s license in jeopardy because he’d left me to hunt alone. (In B.C. an outfitter is supposed to remain with his hunter at all times.) I promised not to say a word.
That evening we went to collect the hide and meat from the bear (thankfully, I had previously purchased a bear tag). Any doubt that might have existed in Sam’s mind about the veracity of my story was dispelled by the first shot’s entry wound. It was not the usual small hole. Instead, it was massive, and the hair on her hide was burnt from the muzzle blast. The bullet entered her chest left of center and exited right-center out her back, missing her spine by less than an inch. With that wound she had to have been rearing on top of me just as I shot. The two cubs had run off, hopefully to survive.
Years have passed since the incident, but those moments live like yesterday in my memory. I survived this hunt, but I learned how easy it is to fall into an unexpected and deadly trap.