By Joel Riotto
Huge clouds of smoke billowed skyward, blacking out the sun, as a monster wildfire burnt its way across the boreal forest of Northern Alberta, forcing over 80,000 residents of Fort McMurray to flee their homes. This would become the largest wildfire evacuation in Alberta’s history and probably the costliest disaster in Canadian history. For the next few days I watched the news for updates. The graphic videos taken by Canadian news reporters showed the massive exodus as the fire destroyed thousands of homes and forced the evacuation of several cities, including Fort McMurray. I watched the Royal Canadian Mounted Police escort hundreds of vehicles south, along Highway 63, the only route into and out of Fort McMurray. I recalled the many times I had driven up and down that same road going into, and returning from, a wilderness bear camp. The glowing embers raining down on the hoods of automobiles in the evacuation convoy was surreal and eerily beautiful. The Canadian newspaper, “The Guardian” reported that the fire began on May 3, 2016 and that by May 16th, it had spread across 930 square miles of Canadian bush and was heading towards Saskatchewan.
Several times a day either my wife Noreen, or I, would call out, “Honey, you have to see this!” as new, and startling, images of the event reached American news channels. Thus began a ten-day period of constant e-mails with my outfitter, Jason Lambley, and other bowhunters, who I knew were scheduled to fly into one of Jason’s wilderness bear camps in the Athabasca wilderness, south of Fort McMurray.
Although disappointing, Jason’s decision to cancel his Alberta hunts did not come as a surprise to anyone. Later we would learn that the provincial government put a ban on all wilderness activities. My first hunt with Jason was in 2009 when Steff Stefvonovich, a bowhunting friend from New York, invited me to share a camp at Jason’s fly-in Athabasca River camp in Alberta. On that trip, both Steff and I harvested two Pope and Young bears, both over 300 pounds. I have hunted with Jason several times since and have always enjoyed a wonderful wilderness bow hunting experience. Jason keeps his hunting operation small so he and his guides can deliver very personal and professional service to his hunters. Therefore it is not uncommon for him to be booked two years in advance.
Once Jason made the decision to cancel our Alberta hunt on the House River, my hunting partner for this trip, Ray Otto, from New York, contacted Jason to see if he had any openings, or last minute cancellations, in any of his Manitoba hunts. As luck would have it, Jason was planning on flying into one of his inactive wilderness camps on the Berens River, after the season ended, in order to rebuild it. This camp had not been hunted for several years and needed updating to make it operational. Now that he was free from his obligations in Alberta, he had time to fly into this camp and start fixing it up with the hope of getting it up and running in time for our planned hunt time slot. Our travel plans were quickly changed and equipment selection and packing completed. We knew in advance that we would be helping with Jason’s effort while in camp, a choice we made freely.
My flight from Newark, NJ, through Toronto, to Winnipeg was uneventful and Jason’s wife, Wendy, met me at the airport. The two-hour drive north to their home base passed quickly. Wendy and I got caught up, as it had been a few years since we last saw each other. The next day Jason, Ray Otto, and I loaded up and drove to the floatplane base for the forty-four mile flight into the bush camp. We quickly unpacked, set up camp as best we could, checked the baits and flipped a coin for stand choices. Soon we were each on a stand and set up for the evening hunt. I drew the “Rice Creek Stand” which was a great set up for me. Being left handed occasionally creates a minor problem for me with stand placement, but that would not be the case at this location. At 5 PM, a large black boar came into the bait, fed for a while and left. Less than an hour later, a small cinnamon did the same. Little did I know that these two bears would be constant visitors at this bait site. They would show up multiple times each day. I passed up many shot opportunities at the black, as I was really hoping for a giant black or a color phase bear, different from those I’ve already harvested. I was quite calm as I watched him feed in front of me. With each passing day I began to realize that I was underestimating the size of the black boar. That, coupled with the fact that Ray had not yet seen a bear from his stand, and that the cameras at the other bait sites showed only small bears, encouraged me to give second thought to the bear I had been seeing.
These events reminded me of 2012, the only other time that Ray and I had hunted together, at one of Jason’s remote camps in Alberta, south west of Fort McMurray. That camp was accessible only by Argos. The trip into that particular camp was quite difficult. Due to the abundance of swamps and bogs that had to be crossed, Jason stored one of his Argos on the very same North-South route 63 that was the current evacuation route for thousands of Fort McMurray residents. On that trip I saw a good sized black boar the first afternoon and he would become a frequent visitor at that bait, showing up several times daily, from the mid-afternoon to early evening. Ray had not seen a bear in the first three days of that hunt. On the fourth day, knowing that I wasn’t going to shoot that bear, I offered Ray my stand. He gladly accepted and a few hours later harvested the 300-pound, 18 ½ inch boar.
So here we were, on what was a replacement hunt, with similar circumstances. After much discussion, and encouragement, from Jason and Ray, I decided that, if given another opportunity, I would harvest the big black. Now that I had made this decision a whole new level of emotion swept over me. When that bear walked into the bait site my pulse and my breathing quickened and the all too familiar sensation of a pure adrenaline rush coursed through me. It was a whole new ball game. I forced myself to calm down and pick a spot. I shot. The loud clang of steel meeting steel startled me and sent the boar running. The arrow had ricocheted off the steel barrel and buried into the tree it was chained to! My initial reaction was that my arrow had passed through the bear and hit the barrel. I quickly learned the truth …I had missed. I slumped down into the seat, completely bewildered. What just happened? I asked myself. How could I have missed? As I calmed down I realized that the dreaded culprit TARGET PANIC was back. I just sat there, bow in hand, feeling awful and very disappointed, my mood spiraling downward.
My thoughts went back to Fort McMurray, and the people I had seen on TV, fleeing for their lives, and what they must have been thinking and feeling. This stark contrast of life in different places at the same time overwhelmed me. I realized, once again, how truly blessed I was to be able to experience nature, at its finest, in pursuit of these magnificent creatures.
My thought process was abruptly interrupted by the sound of footsteps crushing dry leaves. He was coming back! Perhaps the bear thought the clanging of the arrow against the barrel was just another loud noise on a windy day deep in the Boreal forest. Cautiously the bruin approached the barrel, frequently raising his nose to scent-check the wind. However, great stand placement on Jason’s part rendered the bear’s nose useless. I forced myself into a motionless state, hardly blinking and breathing in long soft breaths. Eventually satisfied, the boar settled in at the bait. I mustered all the concentration I could and picked a spot, anchored solidly, and released. The 600-grain shaft flew silently, propelled by my Dale Dye Recurve, and passed through the bear in a flash. He sprang forward running away from me and, just as he was to be swallowed up by the dense forest, he stumbled and rolled out of sight. Moments later his death moan echoed through the falling darkness. I collapsed into my tree stand. I was totally exhausted: sweat and satisfaction on my face. No shouts of, “I smoked him” no high fives, just a silent moment between God, a hunter, his prey and the forest.
Shortly thereafter I heard Jason’s outboard motor winding its way up Rice Creek to the bait site. I climbed down from my tree stand, retrieved my blood soaked arrow and went to the bait barrel to retrieve my first arrow. As Jason approached, he saw me digging the arrow out of the tree with my pocketknife. A silent glance between hunter and guide brought a smile to each of our faces. I simply shrugged my shoulders in a universal gesture.
When Jason got alongside me I broke into a senseless stream of babble about what had just transpired. Jason urged me to calm down and, as any good guide should, began asking me questions about shot placement, the direction the bear took, and if I heard the death moan. He then instructed me to stay put and he began to follow the short blood trail to the bear. He called me into the bush, and after some backslapping, we dragged the bear, a few feet at a time, out to the boat.
During the skinning process the next morning, we determined that the arrow had entered the bear’s ribcage on his left side and exited on the right side behind the shoulder, completely passing through the body, it then entered the right leg before exiting and hitting in the ground. Later that day Ray would take my stand and would enjoy several encounters with the cinnamon bear as well as another black that had moved into the bait. Unfortunately for Ray, we ran out of time, had to break camp and prepare for the flight back to base camp. Once there, the first order of business was to salt my bear hide again and lay it out to dry. That task completed, I parked myself in front of the lodge television set to catch up on news about fire. The Canadian TV stations gave excellent coverage of the fire and we continued to learn about the magnitude of the destruction. Shortly after returning home I contacted Jason about a return trip to his Athabasca wilderness camp. It would be 2019 before his schedule would allow me to return. I immediately booked two one-week hunts, back to back. After all, I’m not getting any younger and at 76 years old I don’t know how many more wilderness hunts I have left in these old bones. Can’t wait!!