By Mark G. Damm
Bear Hunting Magazine
Sept/Oct 2007 Issue
May 11th, 2007 will be a day I remember for the rest of my life. I was planning on hunting the last Friday of southern Alberta’s spring black bear season, getting out for another try at a particular black bear.
It had been a miserable bear season to date, and in fact I had not seen any bears. I had been plagued by Murphy, always too much snow, rain or wind, usually all three. But, it had been sunny and dry all week. I had a good feeling, joking with my wife all week that Friday was going to be the day that I got “THE” bear.
I had been pursuing a bear I had named “Ol’ Volkswagen” for the past five years on Crown (public) lands and two of my favorite ranches in the rolling foothills along the eastern slopes of the Canadian Rockies, but I had never been able to get a clean shot at him. He was a very smart old bear.
I arrived that morning and hiked until I had reached the spine of the ridge from where I was going to spot, there was just a slight westerly breeze. I prefer to be in my spotting location before first light, but I was running late and the sun was already bathing the green Alberta foothills in bright light. I would be spotting the hillsides and valleys to the west, so I stayed to the east of the ridge’s spine to avoid being sky-lined by any bears to the west. I lowered my pack, eased out of the trees and there he was, Ol’ Volkswagen, stretched out and sleeping in the sun next to a pond 700 yards down a draw below the ridge. I retreated to the cover of the trees, and set up my 85mm Zeiss Diascope to have a closer look. It was definitely Ol’ Volkswagen, his head looked like a giant black pumpkin.
Given the lack of bears thus far in the season, I was surprised to see my old nemesis. Last fall I had spotted him in a berry patch no more than 100 yards from the pond, but after stalking to the edge I realized that the bushes were much taller than they appeared from above, and I could not see him. At that moment he let out a growl, charging from behind me so close I could feel the rush of air. I spun in the direction of the noise, but all I saw was a huge black rear end going over the edge of the draw. I ran the 20 yards to where the bear had vanished, trying to regain my senses, but when I peered into the draw he had disappeared like a black ghost into the draw’s thick, dark brush.
After that encounter, and getting the cleaning bill back for my pants, I was even more determined to get Ol’ Volkswagen. I patiently waited all winter for the opportunity to once again match wits with this wily old boar.
The bear woke up and meandered into the pond. The wind began to strengthen, blowing into my face and away from the bear, which meant that I could stalk from downwind and hopefully get into a good shooting position slightly above him.
It was now or never, so taking my Winchester Model 70 in .338 Win. Mag., my Leica binoculars and a few extra rounds of Federal Premium ammo, I retreated to the east side of the ridge, running along its edge, and then quietly slipped back over the spine, descending west towards the bear under the cover of some scattered scrub brush and trees. After about a hundred yards, I cautiously glassed and saw that the bear was still in the pond, so I continued through the brush until I was at the upper edge of the draw that fed directly down to the pond.
I continued my descent by entering the brushy draw, which was littered with both fresh and old scat. Clearly Ol’ Volkswagen was frequenting the dark, wet and swampy draw. He could have been there on many past occasions, right under my nose, and I would never have seen him from my spotting spot. He was definitely a smart old bear.
The wind suddenly shifted, increasing and blowing directly from over my left shoulder, carrying my scent directly down the draw to him. I had to quickly get out of the draw to avoid being winded by the bear, still in the pond, but who now seemed agitated. I edged my way out of the draw, realizing that I would be totally visible to him, so I would have to crawl across a hillside for about 50 yards to a patch of brush located directly above the bear, hoping that the wind would carry my scent to the north and away from the him.
I belly-crawled through the long grass and thorns, not daring to lift my head for fear Ol’ Volkswagen would see me, pushing my gun along until I reached the first patch of brush. It felt like an eternity had passed. Had the bear detected my scent? I was rattled, thinking about our last encounter, but I wanted this bear so badly that I shook it off and focused on the task at hand.
I peered around the edge of the brush, he had left the pond and was browsing on some fresh grass shoots at the pond’s edge. He was facing the opposite direction, so I was able to move closer, silently but quickly moving from one patch of brush to the next. At 275 yards he lifted his large head and started walking away, not presenting any shot but the Texas Heart Shot, which I was not prepared to take.
I moved 25 yards closer and dropped to one knee, fully exposed to the bear if he looked back, and put the crosshairs of the Leupold Vari-X III on the bear’s hide. Time suddenly slowed and I became acutely aware of every detail of the hunt. The bear lumbering along, belly rubbing the ground, swaying from side to side, with the swagger of a big old boar. He was the boss around here, and he knew it.
I felt the warmth of the sun on my neck, the breeze swirling around me, the grass swaying in the wind, the aromas of spring. My heart rate calmed down and my breathing was slow and steady as I quietly flicked the safety off.
I thought to myself, quarter away, just quarter away, expose your heart and lungs and this will all be over. And then it happened, Ol’ Volkswagen turned ever so slightly to his left and began walking along the natural curvature of the pond’s bank. The crosshairs settled in right on the bear’s boiler room as I subconsciously squeezed the trigger.
I did not feel the recoil of the .338 Win. Mag. as I watched the bullet hit. The bear went down hard, and I thought that it was over. But, before I knew it, he stumbled back up. I instinctively chambered another round, firing once again, hitting him hard a second time. The bear went down, but stumbled as he did, tumbling down the bank and into the pond!
Geoff Pringle and Trent Schmalz recovered the author bruin from the depths of the pond. A story they will tell for years.
This can not be happening. As I watched the bear tumble into the pond, I scrambled to my feet and scurried down the hill, keeping my eyes on the pond and what I could now see of the bear, only a patch of black on the surface of the water. No more than 20 seconds passed as I got closer to the pond and watched the patch of black fur descend into the depths of the pond.
When I saw the patch of fur on the water it appeared to be at the pond’s edge and I thought to myself, no problem, it will be a little more work in getting the bear out of the water. I presumed that I would be able to walk up to the pond and there he would be, lying in the shallow water near the bank.
I later determined that I had shot him from exactly 250 yards. I reached the pond and found blood sign where the bear had been walking when hit with the first shot, and more blood where he tumbled down the bank and into the pond following the second shot. However, there was one problem. The bear was no where to be seen. I could not believe it!
After hunting this bear hard for five seasons and now, after two good solid shots, and a clean kill, what were the chances of him tumbling into a pond, and absolutely vanishing? Had I imagined the whole event? I kept looking at the drops of blood and told myself that it did happen.
I stripped down, grabbed a couple of long branches and waded into the pond where the bear had tumbled in. I probed the icy and muddy water, but I could not locate the bear.
I clearly was not going to recover this bear without some help. I began the hike back up the hill to my spotting area when I had a revelation. The only way to recover Ol’ Volkswagen would be to dive for him. He was a big bear, and it was going to require somebody with the right gear to locate and recover him. It was going to take a commercial scuba diver. We were going fishin’ for bear!
Once back where I left my gear, I quickly packed and called my buddy in Calgary, Chad Smith, and relayed the story to him. Chad could not believe it, as he was familiar with this bear, and knew how hard I had hunting him over the years.
He immediately began calling several Calgary dive shops, eventually locating a commercial diving company, Northern Underwater Systems, which had some divers completing a job. They could be out to help me that afternoon. It was a logistical stroke of luck. I figured that the recovery window was quite limited before the fur on Ol’ Volkswagen would be ruined. Everything was falling into place, and I was confident that the divers would be able to locate the bear. I received a call a few minutes later. The divers had completed their job early, and they were on their way to meet me. Things were starting to look better all the time.
I met the divers, Geoff Pringle and Trent Schmalz, who were intrigued about the possibility of recovering my trophy black bear. Fortunately, we were able to drive across range lands right to the edge of the pond, with all of the divers’ gear, including a large lifting strap. The divers prepared their gear, got suited up and went into the pond. Soon they located Ol’ Volkswagen and were able to move him into shallow water. The pond’s bottom was quite steep, and the bear must have slipped down into the deeper water very quickly after I saw him disappear from the surface.
The divers secured a lifting strap around the bear’s haunches. Throughout the process, the bear’s head was down in the water making it difficult for me to see the actual size of his skull. After quite some time, the divers got the bear to the edge of the pond, where the three of us now struggled to get him onto the shoreline. This was when we first saw how large he was. This big old bruin had a giant head with worn down teeth, including his canines.
The author and the big bruin he had been hunting for years. Determination and a few dollars let him bring his trophy home.
After several attempts struggling with the bear, we winched, rolled, pushed, dragged and eventually got him to the top of the bank. That is when it finally set in. I had finally harvested this magnificent bear, after five years of chasing him about. He was amazing, albeit totally waterlogged. After all, Ol’ Volkswagen had been in the water for about five hours before the divers recovered him.
I could not wipe the smile from my face. I thought that we could load the bear into the truck and I could take him to my taxidermists in Cochrane. But after 20 minutes of struggling, getting the bear up onto his haunches and then placing his front paws and head on the truck’s tailgate, we could not get the bear off the ground. He would have to be skinned right there.
Using a couple of scuba tanks along his sides to stabilize him during the skinning, the divers helped while I skinned the bear, being ever so careful not to nick the hide. Given the size of the bear, I never could have completed the skinning myself. With a girth of over six-feet, he had an estimated live weight of 550 to 580 pounds. The hide squared over seven feet! After two hours the three of us finally loaded the hide and head into the truck, which together weighed over 125 pounds.
The taxidermist green scored the skull at over 20 inches. Ol’ Volkswagen was one of the largest black bear shot in southern Alberta. Virtually every Boone & Crockett black bear from Alberta has been taken in northern Alberta. Our southern bears just do not get that big. Ol’ Volkswagen was definitely an exception.
After drying out, the bear had a beautiful hide, with nice long fur, and nice long claws. He will make a beautiful rug, and a skull mount, along with the one perfectly mushroomed Trophy Bonded Bear Claw bullet that I recovered from against the hide on his right side.
Whatever the final skull measurement turns out to be, Ol’ Volkswagen is truly a once-in-a-lifetime trophy, with a once-in-a-lifetime story to match.